Wednesday, October 24, 2012

2012-13 NBA Season Preview: Six Players On A Ring-Quest


With the start of the 2012-13 NBA regular season just a week away, You Only Blog Once is previewing the season with a series of "countdown" posts. Yesterday: Seven Storylines to watch for this season. Today: Six Players on a ring-quest. Tomorrow: Five... well, you get the picture. It's not that complicated.

I don't believe that an NBA championship is the sole measure of a player's success. A player can have an outstanding career without winning a title (just look at Karl Malone and Charles Barkley). But over the last few years, the idea that a player who doesn't have a ring is lesser than one who does has really taken hold among NBA fans -- with most of the diminishing centered around LeBron James.

Now that LeBron has his championship, the focus will turn toward other players who are championship-less. Some of these guys are vets looking to cap off a career with one last trinket. Others are stars for whom a ring would be "career validating" (as much as such a thing can possibly be true). So here are six players on a such quest for a ring this season. Why six? Maybe because that's how many rings Michael Jordan has, and it's really his fault we're having this argument in the first place. Also, it's the only argument I need, Shawn!

Boris Diaw, San Antonio Spurs

OK, this one might not be as obvious as some of the other guys, but I needed six guys to fit with the "countdown" theme of these previews and I only wanted to pick guys from legit contenders (and only one guy per team). Also, Diaw is entering his 10th year in the NBA. Every player on the Spurs with more experience than Diaw has at least one championship.

Diaw is part of the vaunted Class of '03, though he was selected later in the draft, so he doesn't get lumped in with the LeBron/Melo/Wade/Bosh star crew. Still, that draft has produced a lot of champions, and Diaw would certainly love to join that group. (Oh, and we're not done with with this draft class.)

Because of his decline with the Bobcats, people can forget how good Diaw can be when he's dedicated. He was a key piece of a legitimate championship contender in Phoenix, and looked surprisingly spry in his run with San Antonio after being waived by Charlotte last season. I don't expect "prime Diaw" this season, but if the Spurs are going to be a serious threat to the Lakers and Thunder, Diaw will have to be a big reason why.

Rashard Lewis, Miami Heat

Lewis fits the traditional definition of a "ring chaser" (and I don't mean that in a derogetory sense at all). He's a veteran (entering his 15th season) who has tasted success in the past (went to the Finals with the Magic in '09) and took a big paycut (making the minimum with Miami this year) to join a championship contender (the Heat are defending champs).

For the past couple seasons, Lewis has been bad. Not "worse than he was in his prime", just straight up bad. It's entirely possible that he could continue to be bad and ride Miami's coattails to a championship ring, but I'm certain that's not how Lewis wants to do it. And the Heat will be better if they can get a Lewis who's not bad. Much like the Spurs and Diaw, the Heat don't need prime Lewis. They don't need the guy who made a league-leading 220 three-pointers in 2008-09. But they need something better than the 23.9% Lewis shot from downtown last season. And if they get it, Lewis could finally get that ring he missed out on in 2009.

Grant Hill, Los Angeles Clippers

If you'd told me in 1999 that Grant Hill would still be playing in 2012 and wouldn't have a championship ring, I would've said you're insane. If you'd told me in 2004 that Grant Hill would still be playing in 2012 period, I also would've said you're insane.

Hill is entering his 18th year in the league, and has probably had one of the strangest careers of anyone who's played that long. In his Detroit years, he was in the conversation for best non-MJ player in the league. He was a first or second team All-NBA selection for five consecutive seasons. But none of his Pistons teams were ever really considered "contenders". They simply didn't have the talent around Hill to compete in the competitive East of the '90s.

Then Hill went to Orlando, teaming up with Tracy McGrady, and that team should've been a contender in the East -- a team anchored by two legitimate superstars in a declining conference. But Hill got hurt and those Magic teams never contended either. By the time he was healthy enough to play more than a handful of games, McGrady was in Houston and a young Dwight Howard wasn't quite ready to contribute.

Hill left Orlando for Phoenix in 2007, just missing both of those teams prime contention years (arriving AFTER the best years for the SSOL Suns and leaving Orlando just before the best years of the Dwight era). Now he's in Los Angeles, still plugging away at age 40. His third game of the season will be the 1,000th of his career, a milestone only 103 players have reached, few of whom have had as much talent with as little playoff success as Hill.

I'm not sure the Clippers -- stuck in a conference with the loaded Lakers, tremendous Thunder and slept-upon Spurs -- are truly contenders this year, but I'd love to see them surprise and see Grant Hill somehow end his career with a championship ring.

Steve Nash, Los Angeles Lakers

Across the hall from Hill, there's Steve Nash, in quite a similar situation ring-wise. The 16-year vet is one of two players to win the NBA MVP award and never even play in the Finals in his career (the other is Derrick Rose, who has plenty of time to get off that short list). For the last couple of seasons, Nash was toiling away on a Phoenix squad that was so far from contention that a "Free Steve Nash" campaign started up among NBA fans.

I don't think those fans had any inkling that freeing Steve Nash would lead to him teaming up with Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol in Los Angeles, then seeing Dwight Howard join the festivities a month later.

Nash has a three-year contract, so this isn't quite a "must-win" season for him, but it certainly has the feel of such. This team is the most loaded he's ever played on, at least at the top. And on top of he and Howard having the motivation of getting their first ring, Kobe Bryant is pushing hard for his sixth, knowing every season that goes by without winning a title makes it that much harder for him to match -- and eventually surpass -- Michael Jordan's total.

There's a huge portion of the NBA fanbase that has wanted to see Nash win a championship. I can't help but wonder if those fans are less excited about seeing him do it in Lakers' purple and gold.

Carmelo Anthony, New York Knicks

I told you we weren't done with the draft class of 2003. You want to feel old? Well, here's a fun fact: this draft class is entering its 10th season in the NBA. Carmelo Anthony has played 646 games in his NBA career, which is more than two full seasons more than Hall of Famer Bill Walton played in his. Of course, Walton won two championships, one as the centerpiece of the '77 Blazers, the other as the 6th man for the '86 Celtics. Carmelo has no rings as of yet.

Because they came into the league the same year -- and were the best high school players in back-to-back years the year before that -- Carmelo and LeBron have always been linked. Early in their careers, Carmelo was actually seen as the more successful player from a team perspective. He had that college championship on his resume, he got his Nuggets into the playoffs two seasons before LeBron's Cavs and did so in the more competitive Western Conference.

But the LeBron comparison has never been fair to Carmelo. They're two vastly different players, even though superfically they're both scoring small forwards who are also incredibly efficient playing at the 4. Carmelo isn't blessed with LeBron's athletic gifts -- few are -- and Carmelo, early in his career, was never burdened with the pressure of being the savior of his hometown.

That changed when Carmelo forced the trade that brought him from Denver to New York, his psuedo-hometown (Anthony was born in New York, though he moved to Baltimore when he was 8 and developed his game in Baltimore, not New York). For better or worse, Anthony was anointed the superstar who'd end the Knicks' title drought. But Anthony isn't the kind of player who can single-handedly change a team's fortunes, like a LeBron or a Kobe or... well, we'll get to that. He's a five-time All-NBA selection, but four of those were third-team honors with one second-team pick thrown in the mix. His clutch ability -- he has one of the best late game shooting percentages of any of the league's high scorers -- has made him at times seem on the level of franchise-carrying superstar, but he's really just a step below that.

That's nothing to be ashamed of, and it's not even meant as a knock on 'Melo. There are few players who you can look at and say "he should be winning championships" regardless of the pieces around him. LeBron was one of those guys. Carmelo isn't. But because of that link with LeBron -- and the other players picked in the top 5 in 2003, all of whom have won titles (yes, Darko Milicic has a ring) -- his career is going to be looked at by some as incomplete without one.

Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder

Kevin Durant is only 24 years old. He's entering his sixth year in the league. He'll have plenty of time to win a ring. Right?

Right?

Let me get this out of the way upfront: YES.

Kevin Durant has PLENTY of time to win a ring. And he shouldn't be criticized if he doesn't win one this year. Or next year. Or even the year after that.

But that won't stop people from doing so. The "when is LeBron going to win" questions really started up in earnest when he didn't win in his sixth season. LeBron's situation was certainly exacerbated by his pending free agency in Cleveland, but there was also that sense that he'd gotten close early in his career (though that 2007 team had no business being in the Finals) and why hadn't he broken through yet.

One thing that actually works in Durant's favor from a pressure perspective is that people widely believe that LeBron is better, so he doesn't get slammed with that "he's the best player in the league, he should be able to win by sheer willpower" like LeBron did. The formation of the superteam Lakers also helps him from a perception perspective -- though it hurts him from a practical perspective since it does make it harder for his Thunder to win.

The reality is this: if the Thunder lock up James Harden, either before the season or by matching an offer sheet next summer, then people are going to look at the Thunder's window as open for years to come and aren't going to hammer KD with this "why hasn't he won" question. But what if the Lakers and Heat trade titles for the next couple years, the Thunder's core caps them out from adding pieces and suddenly Durant is entering his 10th year without a ring?

You know what, even if that happens, asking "when will Kevin Durant win a ring" will be stupid? Because Kevin Durant is awesome, whether he wins a title or not. And he will win a title.

Right?

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