Monday, June 15, 2009

Teams Win Championships, Players Don't

As a Lakers fan that bleeds purple and gold for the team and Kobe, this one is sweet. Sweeter than the 3-peat. Sweeter than listening and hearing and watching highlights from the 80's. Sweeter than watching Horry drain a step-up three with the red lights blaring. Sweeter than Kobe-to-Shaq in 2000. Sweeter than 15-1 in 2001.

The Minneapolis championships are irrelevant to me just like the Russell championships should be to Celtics fans. The league was too small then to compare to today's competition and grueling playoff process (the chances of winning today are so much smaller just based on the luck and probability you need). Those are too long ago to be considered in my historical mindframe, and that's fine with me. The Lakers have enough history in the last 3 decades (9 championships) to last me a lifetime as a Lakers fan (although I hope it doesn't have to).

Putting all that aside, I want to take a closer look at what it means to win an NBA championship.

Really. What does it mean? Analysts would have you believe that one man can and does win one on his own. History would have you believe that legacies live and die with championships.

All of that is fun and probably the best rubric we have for ranking and comparing greatness where in all honesty the margins are so tiny, but it is still very flawed.

TEAMS win championships. Players don't. Sure, I'm glad that Kobe won his 4th, his 1st without Shaq, and his 1st Finals MVP. But do you think all of that happens without Ariza hitting nearly 50% from 3's in the playoffs? Does it happen without Lamar owning the boards in the Finals? Does it happen without the Pau trade/gift from Memphis? Does it happen without Fisher's 3's in Game 4? Without Ariza's steals in the Denver series? Without Pau's toughness maturation? No. Sure, Kobe elevated his game and got his teammates involved, but he already hit that maturation point last year. It just didn't happen for him. His teammates didn't step up as much and he didn't excel individually as much.

Sometimes stars can win without playing well, and sometimes they win only BECAUSE they play well. Either way, hundreds of other things have to go right for a great player to be fortunate enough to win a championship. Things like other players, who they happen to face, the bounce of the ball, and so much more.

Jordan had Pippen. Shaq had Kobe. Magic had Kareem. Duncan had Robinson/Parker/Ginobili. Don't forget Horry, Fisher, Fox, Kukoc, Kerr, Longley. Rodman, Byron, Cooper, Elliot, and so many others. You take LeBron's 2009 Playoff performance and put the Gasol of now on his team, and he makes it to the NBA Finals.

It's no coincidence that veterans like Fisher talk about how getting to this level is such a fortunate event. It doesn't happen for everyone. In fact it doesn't happen for most.

Greats like Barkley, Miller, and Ewing never had the help to get one. Or maybe they just weren't good enough. They might have been able to squeeze one if they were as good as MJ, but definitely not more than that without more help. We leave them out of the discussion of the greatest players ever, and out of the top 10, because they don't have championships.

Does that seem fair?

Coincidence defines so much. It has become "natural" for sports fans to assign greatness to individual singular talents, because we think that one player should and can "will" the team to victory. One man can't control the actions of others, even someone as powerful as the President of the United States. What makes us think that MJ or Kobe or Shaq or Miller or Barkley or Duncan are any different?

Sure some players can push and motivate and steer harder and better than others, but SO MUCH is left up to coincidence, chance, and luck.

I hate that it takes a championship without Shaq for Kobe to get the monkey off his back. While I'm not complaining, so much has to go right for Kobe to get it. He doesn't get it without Gasol. Greats need help. Some get lucky, some don't.

It frustrates me that the media assigns so much of the credit to Kobe. With this performance last year, the Lakers don't win the championship against Boston. So hypothetically, Kobe could do nothing different, but in one situation goes home with 2 trophies and the world's acclaim, in another he goes home with enemy confetti falling on his head and tears falling from his eyes.

At the end of the day eras are different, competition is different, stats are different, but a ring stays constant so we like to use it as a barometer in numbers in professional sports.

But defining individual players by team performances doesn't make any sense to me. Ranking teams against each other using championships makes sense. Lakers in '01 or the 72-10 Bulls?

For players we should use their individual statistics and performance, both tangible and intangible aspects. We can also add some of how much they improve and push their teammates to the mix, but the buck should stop there. Using TEAM championships to bolster or bring down an individual player seems too archaic for a day and age so advanced.

A revolution in statistics that I believe has started and will soon move into full gear will help in that aspect. But then again the game shouldn't be reduced to Hollinger-blindlike numbers. How can we strike a balance?

The model we have now is one that places too much importance on the binary- championship or not? If so, then how many? In what time span? I think we can transition to one that balances individual performance with individual acclaim, and team performance to team acclaim.

Otherwise, greats that never win will be left in an unfair whirlwind of dust, and others will ride ahead on the shoulders of role players that delivered time and time again for their legacies.

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