What Do NBA Championships Mean In The Warriors Era?

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 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.

This also is not trying to diminish Durant’s decision. He seems extremely happy with his decision. He is obviously free to make any choice he wants, and he made the choice that made sense for him. But the NBA is an entertainment league, and it’s also OK to discuss what is happening in that sense. As fans, we have to react to Durant’s decision. He is not forced to listen to our opinion when making it. If we react negatively, that is not Durant’s problem; it’s a problem for the league that exists solely based on our fandom.

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.

  • mgbode

    it’s a problem for the league that exists solely based on our fandom.

    Love the article and agree w/ most points throughout. I disagree w/ the above statement. Part of it is our fandom, but another big component is the AAU culture that these stars grew up in. There, it is expected and demanded that the best players all cluster up on a couple teams and beat everyone’s brains in. So, when they continue to do it at Kentucky or w/ Golden State, then we shouldn’t act surprised.

  • Steve

    I’m not sure how much to pin on AAU. Lebron and his buddies teamed up for HS, and not just guys like Jabrill Peppers switch schools to find better teams. I think theres just as much to “win it all or nothing” going on there too.

    Also a key point at AAU and HS is that the level of coaching and exposure to get a shot at the next level vary greatly. The kid in podunk small town X may not get to show off his skills as much as the kid from big city Y. Mike Trout went 22nd because people were skeptical of his competition in a northern league.

  • humboldt

    “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. ”

    I don’t understand why this spurious reasoning has become so prevalent of late. Logically speaking, Lebron’s “best opportunity to win” would’ve been to join the best team in the league that year, the San Antonio Spurs. That would be analogous to what Durant did.

    There’s no denying there part of Lebron’s decision was informed by Cleveland presenting some attractive building blocks, but to reduce his decision to a cold, win-now calculus is deeply unfair to someone who clearly returned to build something bigger and far-reaching back in northeast Ohio. We aren’t really this cynical, right?

  • mgbode

    I think we are agreeing. There is a culture of win it all or nothing in AAU as well as a group all the stars together and blow everyone out thing going on. LeBron indeed was part of it in his youth. Exposure is part of what drives those decisions too, yes.

  • mgbode

    Spurs w/ LeBron instead of Aldridge? Oh boy.

  • CBiscuit

    Yeah, that reasoning is very flawed. There were many better/more developed options to competing for a title. Choosing CLE wasn’t the easiest.

    While we’re trying to be fair to Durant, who is a great player, the fact is he choose the easiest. Is it his right? Sure. Did he still technically do the deed? Yeah. But the fact of the matter is that he chose to visit a brothel, so we reserve the right to remind people he took the easy way.

  • chrisdottcomm

    “It’s the reason why Tim Duncan is widely considered to be better than Karl Malone”


  • Steve

    The Spurs couldn’t have cleared out the cap space to sign Lebron without some serious roster rearranging. It would likely have required letting Parker and Duncan go. That would no longer have looked like the best situation for Lebron, though maybe Lebron, Leonard, and the Spurs tendency to pump out great draft picks may actually have been.

  • I loved Nom’s piece, but I also agree with this. Now that the Cavaliers have been to three straight NBA Finals with one ring, it’s hard to remember just how shocking it was that the Cavaliers made the Finals that first year. I honestly don’t think LeBron thought they’d make it that far in year 1.

  • Steve

    The Cavs were -115 to win the East going into that season. Not just favorites, but odds on.

    They were the favorites to win it all at +400 the moment Lebron signed. That moved down to +275 by the time the season started.

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  • Harv

    “It was because of this environment Durant made his decision to join the Warriors.”

    Jeff, you start with this unproven premise and then shake your fist at the evil we have supposedly wrought. Winning may already, intrinsically, be the most important thing to an uber competitive athlete like Durant, regardless of what some idiot ESPN or Twitter shouter shouts for ratings or attention. Alternatively, if sports fans now do so overvalue winning a championship in a team sport when ranking an individual athlete on that team, maybe this attitude has been initiated and nurtured by the athletes themselves.

    I do get the basic point. After last year’s parade, Mo Williams, who contributed close to nil, was crowing “I’m a champion.” And on my drive out of downtown that evening, trying to inch my car through a mass of revelers in the Warehouse District, a drunk guy leaned right into my window and scared the crap out of me when he yelled “You’re a CHAMPION!” Well, shucks, I just tried to do whatever coach asked me to do and not let my teammates down..

  • jeff loggens

    In the larger context of things, Durant’s ring will be ignored. We all know he did nothing to earn it except barely raise a finger. Lebron would have beat those warriors without the 2nd best player in the world playing on the best team in the NBA. Durant’s move was childish and likely destroyed his career with fans for a lifetime. I remember when he made his ‘decision’ in the summer, and how disappointed I was with the possibilities of what it would mean. If he wanted to move teams, choose someone who is competitive but has talent, can be good but isn’t. He chose to align himself with greatness because he doesn’t know how to produce that for himself.

    When you think of the Warriors, it’s hard not to help but think of HOW lucky GS was to pick up both Clay and Steph in the draft. Draymond is another fine piece, he is probably heading for the HOF. Iguodala was the last excellent piece to cement the team. They built pieces over years, Steph is drastically unlikeable with his mouthguard baby bs, but it was hard not to respect the work.

    No work went into their finals win in 2017, it was false. They galloped on a golden steed, after having taken down candy kingdom, and then for fun the author added a modern Blitzkreig to their assault against medieval armies. That’s not fun, it doesn’t even make sense.

    Only a broken human being like Durant would join competition that made a joke out of him the year before. I don’t know what’s wrong with him, or his competitive spirit, but I feel really sorry for him. He was a part of a team that meant something to a community, his importance was greater than the whole. I understand feeling dissed by Westbrook, but joining the people who fed you a sh#t sandwich is not the way to do it.

    It would be like Lebron joining Mamba’s Lakers after losing to them in the finals, or the Celtics, or the Spurs. Lebron would not be as well known or beloved for forging his own path. Durant stuck with a team that didn’t know what is was doing as long as he had to, just like Carmelo. But Carmelo joined the Knicks. Durant joined what was by then a dominant bully.

    I can’t point out how deep the human failure is for Durant to want to join a team that basically tells him what to do. You have to have so little respect for yourself, the very idea is phenomenally sad.

    Nobody cares or likes this Golden State team anymore. It’s a sincere hope they lose a couple of key pieces so that the NBA finals matters again. Even Tom Brady plays with smart, athletic players and a roster that changes every year. The Penguins were put together with players the rest of the NHL gave up on. Messi doesn’t go join Ronaldo because he’s a sad loser. Magic didn’t go join the Celtics after one bad finals.

    I think the big question is, is Durant the world’s 2nd best player? I wouldn’t rank him in the top 100 since he doesn’t even believe in himself.