What does a championship ring mean?
That’s the question we’re left asking after the Golden State Warriors waltzed through the 2017 NBA Playoffs on their way to a title.
As fans and media members, we’ve placed such an emphasis on rings that we lose context of everything else. Kevin Durant was an incredible player last year in Oklahoma City. Probably as good a player as he was this year in Golden State. But to many, winning a ring this year validated him. The conversation often doesn’t begin until the ring enters the picture. It’s the reason why Tim Duncan is widely considered to be better than Karl Malone, despite both being NBA MVP twice, and The Mailman averaging six more points per game over his career while having a higher win share (234.6 versus 206.4). It’s the reason LeBron James left Cleveland the first time. Until he won a title, there were many who would not take him seriously as a superstar. And even today, with three championships, people point to James’ Finals record in attempt to tear him down. We’ve created a culture where anything short of a title is not only worthless, but often a point of criticism.
It was because of this environment Durant made his decision to join the Warriors. It was the only decision he could make. Durant absolutely took the easy way out of winning a ring. He joined a 73-win team that was the likely title favorite without him. By choosing Golden State, Durant won a championship with a decision in July instead of his play in June, even if his play in June was other-worldly. But this isn’t a reflection of Durant, it’s a reflection of us. We created the environment where Durant’s worth was being judged completely on the number of titles he had won. Under those rules, what other choice did he have?
And, much like when the overall sentiment for LeBron James softened with his first title in Miami, we’re seeing a similar reaction to Durant’s achievement.
Kevin Durant got his Finals revenge.https://t.co/6u9P9PXEuy
— SB Nation NBA (@SBNationNBA) June 13, 2017
KD's criticism will fade over the years. He was still the best player on the team he went to. That'll be the first thing we remember.
— Larry Beyince (@DragonflyJonez) June 13, 2017
— The Vertical (@TheVertical) June 13, 2017
Kevin Durant won his title and now he’s taken seriously by the larger sports media world. That’s how this works. With another ring or two, he will enter conversations of being one of the top ten players of all time. That doesn’t that happen if he spends the next four seasons in Oklahoma City without a ring.
The question becomes, what does a title mean if there was no challenge in winning it? We speak of rings as the end-all be-all because…they are. They are literally the result of beating everyone else in your sport. It’s the entire point of playing. But we think of rings as having overcome something—of reaching a level of play that is incredible, of defeating opposing teams with the same goal. Durant certainly defeated everyone in his path, but did he create a path that changes the context of that victory?
To be clear, this isn’t Durant-specific phenomenon. This is absolutely what LeBron was attempting to do when he left Cleveland for Miami. He said as much in the pep rally, “Not one, not two…” If we’re being honest, it’s what he was attempting to do again when he returned to Cleveland. He wanted to win in his hometown, but his hometown also presented the best opportunity to win. Players understand their entire resume begins and ends with championships. And they know how to put themselves in situations to win those championships.
What is interesting with Durant’s decision is our dedication to the RINGZ culture. James decision to take his talents to South Beach was vilified at first, but when it became clear there would still be a struggle, his eventual championships were met with fanfare. With Durant, there was no such struggle. He joined a 73-win team that were title favorites without him. This isn’t to diminish Durant’s play this season and especially in the Finals. He didn’t ride coat tails. He was dominant. But what are the odds Golden State wins the title if he weren’t there? The odds are at worst 50/50. Durant played great, but much like his ring, he converted an opportunity in front of him as much as he forced his will. Based on the early reaction, people truly do want to see greatness and dominance more than struggle.
It’s also hard to draw the line on where Durant’s dominance was a force of will or a product of the incredible looks he is granted by playing on a loaded team like Golden State. He wasn’t asked to carry a huge load on either end, instead he was able to take the opportunities as they arose. He was assisted on 65 percent of his made field goals, more than double the rate of Kyrie Irving, LeBron James, or Stephen Curry.
Before this Warriors team, I believed the reason a championship carries so much weight is the implied struggle to win it. If that struggle taken away, then what does the championship mean? Does this championship for Durant feel like he overcame a struggle and lifted his game to a new level? Or does it feel like he checked an arbitrary box that we all created and forced on him? When we decided that rings would be the only standard to measure players, did we understand that decisions like those made by LeBron and Durant would be the new standard? It appears that we largely don’t care about the context. We are bound and determined to judge players solely on championships, and players are going to react by doing whatever it takes to win a championship.
As much as we want to judge Durant based on his decision, we as NBA consumers decided our currency would be championships, and we shouldn’t feel ripped off that he cashed in.