The NFL playoffs are a sky diving expedition where only one participant has a parachute, a carnival of crash. The Major League Baseball playoffs are a slow-moving (even with a pitch clock) yet pulse-tingling thriller, where the heroes and villains are unknown until the last act. The NHL's Stanley Cup Playoffs are BRICE CHERRY a high-speed car race where the drivers tag out in shifts and everyone is wearing skates.
The NBA playoffs, meanwhile, are a legacy-building exercise.
More so than any other sport, professional basketball attaches a narrative to its players based on how they (and their teams) perform in the postseason. It can be next-to-impossible to shake that narrative or to outrun it. At least not until the playoffs roll around the next season, and perhaps not even then.
An NBA player's legacy is defined by his playoff production. This is truer in the NBA than in any other sport. Sure, we know that quarterbacks like Fran Tarkenton, Dan Marino or Warren Moon never won a Super Bowl. You're probably also aware that baseball greats Ted Williams, Ken Griffey Jr. and Barry Bonds came up short in their quest to win a World Series ring.
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But whether accurately or not, those sports are viewed as far more teammate-dependent than basketball. In hockey and football, 22 total players take the rink or the field at a time. In baseball, one side positions itself with nine players in the field. In basketball, by contrast, a team puts a mere five guys on the court. One player's impact (or lack thereof) becomes far more apparent. You can't hide on an NBA court.
If you like an NBA player, he'd better be able to put a ring on it. (Forgive me, Beyonce.) When splitting hairs in GOAT arguments, championships matter most of all. The greats are measured by the number of titles won.
In the wake of the Philadelphia 76ers' Game 7 blowout loss to the Boston Celtics on Sunday, NBA fans and media roasted Joel Embiid and James Harden. There is no fading quietly into the night in the NBA playoffs. Embiid mentioned to reporters after the game that "James and I can't do it alone." That comment landed with about as much punch as the fourth-quarter fadeaway Embiid attempted that the Celtics' Al Horford stuffed back into the 2023 MVP's face. Embiid and Harden combined for only 24 points on 8-of-29 shooting from the floor in Game 7. Yecch.
It doesn't even matter that, on a certain level, Embiid was right. NBA titles are not won by one or two superstars alone. It takes a sound front office plan, it demands savvy coaching, it requires unexpected contributions from unheralded role players. And, yeah, it takes a little luck, too. The injury bug is malaria to championship hopes.
We want our NBA superstars to rise to the moment. When they don't, we kick out that pedestal they're perched upon and we bury them under it. This is the burden a superstar must bear.
Even coaches can't escape the legacy measurement chart. Just minutes the final buzzer signaled Philly's season-ending loss, internet memes surfaced noting that Sixers coach Doc Rivers had now lost 10 Game 7s in his career. (He also has a championship in his former life as Celtics coach, but legacies are ever evolving.)
The greater an NBA player aspires to be, the more closely we examine his playoff results. GOATs don't climb to the top of the mountain without at least three titles, and likely even more. It's just the way it is. This understood code is played out for great laughs in a scene in the 2011 comedy film "Bad Teacher." In the scene, Jason Segel's character, a middle school gym teacher named Russell, is having the classic LeBron vs. MJ argument with one of his students, Shawn.
RUSSELL:You're out of your mind! There's no way that LeBron will ever be Jordan! Nobody will ever be Jordan, OK?
SHAWN:OK, LeBron's a better rebounder and passer!
RUSSELL:Will you let me finish? Can you let me finish? Call me when LeBron has six championships.
SHAWN:That's your only argument?
RUSSELL (demonstratively):That's the only argument I need, Shawn!
By the way, I agree with the gym teacher about MJ and LeBron, in the sense that LeBron will never catch Jordan. But, for me, it goes beyond sheer number of titles. If that were the only measuring stick, Bill Russell — who won 11 titles over a 13-season span with the Celtics — would tower over everyone. All I need to confirm that Jordan was the best I've ever seen is my eyes, because (stick with me) I saw him. He did things nobody has ever done and nobody yet has ever matched. (He also simultaneously sought to dig his fingers around an opponent's throat and squeeze the life out of them. Jordan was the most competitive mamma-jam ma who ever lived.)
The modern-day LeBron apologists have it all wrong. I've never completely understood why ranking James behind Jordan is viewed as the slight to end all slights. Personally, I have ascended LeBron to No. 2 on my own all time list in recent years, not exactly a bad place to be. Number two basketball player in history? How exactly, pray tell, is that an insult? But I digress.
The problem with the "championship or bust" idea of the NBA legacy-building exercise is that it allows little room for nuance. We tend to paint players in very black-or-white, this-or that strokes based on their title tally. With apologies to the gym teacher, it shouldn't be the "only argument we need."
But we can't help it. We look at the NBA's ring less as somehow broken. Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, John Stockton, Karl Malone, Harden and Chris Paul — all rank among any reasonable list of the best players at their positions in history. But they collectively own zero championships, so their chances of even cracking the top 10 of any all-time player ranking is a longer shot than one of Steph Curry's half-court flings.
Speaking of Steph, a columnist from the Orlando Sentinel, Mike Bianchi, recently laid out a strong case for him as the greatest player of his generation over that guy from Laker Land. Part of Bianchi's reasoning pointed to the fact that Curry transformed the game of basketball by ushering in the 3-point Revolution. The writer also reminded that Curry won his four NBA titles with the same franchise whereas LeBron has four rings with three different teams, the Heat, Cavs and Lakers. But, again, that's the kind of nuance that is often lost in these debates.
As the conference finals commence and then morph into the NBA Finals in June, understand that these guys aren't just playing for a trophy or a paycheck. They're playing for their very reputations.
To that end, can Denver's two-time MVP Nikola Jokic capture his first ring and, consequently, move up the legacy leaderboard? In NBA history, only eight MVPs have never won a ring. Besides Jokic, that jewelry-free list includes Barkley, Harden, Malone Steve Nash, Allen Iverson, Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook.
How much more can Jimmy Butler of the Heat bolster his all-time credentials with a championship? As of today, Jimmy Buckets is the MVP of the 2023 playoffs, without a doubt. The fact that the phrase "Playoff Jimmy" has become an actual talking point works wonders in Butler's favor.
If LeBron and the mostly moribund Lakers somehow claim eight more wins, that would only give his GOAT argument all the more ammunition. As the No. 7 seed in the West, the Lakers would become the lowest-seeded team to ever win it all, surpassing the sixth-seeded Houston Rockets of 1995. Furthermore, a second championship for Anthony Davis would put him in a whole new NBA stratosphere, considering AD would suddenly have more rings than eyebrows.
Or if it's the Celtics who close out June with a championship coronation, that completely transforms Jayson Tatum's career. Tatum is only 25, but he would have one ring and two Finals appearances to his credit, with a lot more basketball left to play. Almost immediately, he would thrust himself into the conversation about the great Celtic leaders in history, alongside Russell, Bob Cousy, John Havlicek, Larry Bird, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett.
Such are the stakes for the NBA's all-stars. With every playoff win, they grow tougher. With every playoff loss, they become softer.
The legacy police are watching.