NBA Players With Most to Gain From Winning a Title: Top 10

Yesterday morning on First Things First, Nick Wright compiled a list of the top 10 NBA players with the most to gain from winning a Championship this season. In reverse order, and with a brief summary of his reasoning:

10. LeBron: Nick considers him the GOAT already, says you can’t get any higher than that.

9. KD: Would validate decision to leave Warriors mid-dynasty and go to Brooklyn, chance to join exclusive club and win Finals MVP for multiple franchises. Depends on whether KD or Harden is Finals MVP, however.

8. Kawhi: Chance to redeem himself after embarrassing playoff exit last year; could join LeBron as only player to win Finals MVP for three teams. Goes down as the player who brought the Clippers relevance and validation.

7. Embiid: Validates all the hype; could become face of the league.

6. Jokic: Would become 11th player in league history to win regular season MVP and Finals MVP.

5. Dame: Validates decision to stay in Portland while everyone else was forming super teams.

4. CP3: Capstone to a top-5 all-time point guard career. One of the few things he’s missing other than regular season MVP.

3. Harden: Has won virtually every regular season award, only thing holding him back is postseason success. Would move into potentially the top 15 all-time with a ring.

2. Luka: Arguably the greatest start to a career ever. LeBron got his team to the Finals at age 22 but lost, if Luka wins a title at age 22 while not having a true superstar teammate, it would be the start of a career that could ultimately end with GOAT status.

1. Giannis: He’s already won MVP and DPOTY, if he wins a ring all questions about him are answered. He’s only 26 right now, too. Would be an incredibly difficult road: reigning Eastern Conference Champs Miami Heat, Brooklyn Nets Superteam, Embiid’s 76ers, LeBron-AD Lakers. Validates his decision to stay in Milwaukee rather than bolt for a super team.

I like the list, but I have some disagreements.

For one, just because Nick has LeBron as the GOAT doesn’t mean other people see it that way. I think LeBron should be way higher on the list. If he gets a 5th ring, it brings him to within one of MJ. Now, I don’t think people will give LeBron credit in the GOAT debate even if he gets like 8-9 rings, because most people have just settled in on MJ as the permanent GOAT and refuse to ever change their minds, but that’s an argument for another day. The bottom line, though, is that it will be harder and harder to deny LeBron’s case if he gets a 5th ring–especially if he beats the Brooklyn Nets in the process.

Plus, any season that ends with LeBron’s team not winning the championship, he’s mercilessly destroyed by the sports media. He’s essentially not allowed to lose in the playoffs. His legacy takes a hit every time he doesn’t win a championship. It’s “He doesn’t have the killer instinct,” “he’ll never be the GOAT,” “MJ would’ve won,” etc etc. LeBron’s reputation is on the line every time he takes the floor in the postseason.

As for KD, would another ring with a Super Team really impact his legacy? A lot of people don’t even “count” the first two rings he won in Golden State, so why would they count any rings he wins in Brooklyn? For a lot of people, myself included, KD’s legacy was basically set in stone after he left the Thunder team he had within one win of an NBA Finals in 2016 and joined the 73-win team that beat him in the Western Conference Finals and which made it all the way to the last few minutes of Game 7 of the NBA Finals. It was the weakest move in NBA history by a superstar. If the Nets hadn’t gotten Harden and KD led them to a title, then I’d say he would gain a ton as far as legacy goes. But he’s again on team that features another MVP, plus another guy, Kyrie, who was instrumental in winning a ring on another team prior to joining up with KD. The only way KD bolsters his legacy at this point is if he wins a ring without a superteam. Until then, every ring he wins is hollow.

I agree with Nick’s take on Kawhi. I think he has a ton to gain if he wins a ring and a Finals MVP with the Clippers. In my mind, it legitimizes him as a true superstar in this league. I might be one of the only people who has never bought into the Kawhi hype. I mean, people were calling this guy the best player in the league before the infamous collapse in the bubble last year. It was getting out of hand. Kawhi won a Finals MVP averaging 17 points per game and as the “little brother” to the Duncan-Parker-Ginobili Spurs in 2014. Then he won Finals MVP for the Raptors in 2019, a series the Raptors only won because Kevin Durant tore his achilles and Klay Thompson tore his ACL late in the third quarter of Game 6–while the Warriors were up 3 and Klay was absolutely on fire and looked like he was on course to will the Warriors to victory. That’s why I’ve never bought the hype with Kawhi. If he wins one with the Clippers–taking that joke organization to the top of the mountain–then he validates all the hype and praise he’s gotten the past few years.

Joel Embiid has a lot to gain from winning a ring. It might be enough to vault him into the top-5 discussion. It will also mean Big Men Are Back in the NBA, too. But while he’s 27 years old, he’s only played 5 NBA seasons, so it’s way too early to start talking about his legacy in this league. I don’t know if we can assess his place in the history of the league just yet–even if he wins a ring. When I think about players who have the most to gain from winning a ring, I think about guys who have been in the league a long time–guys who could maybe flip the script and rewrite their legacies with a championship. If Embiid wins a ring right now, it dramatically boosts the trajectory of his career and means he’s well on his way to one day being discussed as one of the greatest big men in the history of the NBA. If Embiid wins a ring this season, it means we can now start talking about him in the same breath as guys like Shaq and Hakeem instead of Ewing and Orlando Dwight Howard.

Even though he’s the presumptive MVP of the league this season, people still look at Nikola Jokic and go, “I can’t believe this guy is so good.” He just doesn’t look good, y’know? I know most of us don’t think the Nuggets have much of a chance to win the title this year, but if Jokic somehow pulls it off (and he was absolutely incredible last night in the win over Portland) then it’s largely the same conversation we’d have if Embiid wins a ring: pushing the top-5 of the league and announcing the Return of the Big Man in the NBA. But also like Embiid, Jokic hasn’t been in the league that long; he’s only in year 6. He’s barely 26 years old. Winning a ring right now would put Jokic on a career trajectory to becoming an all-time great. It’s basically the same argument as with Embiid; he goes from being a young guy with loads of talent and potential to seeing that potential realized, and then the conversation shifts from “This guy could be great one day” to “Just how great is he in the grand scheme of things?” The NBA has a very storied history with big men; you can’t even get into the conversation until you win at least one ring. Only then can you be mentioned alongside the Shaqs, the Hakeems, the Kareems, the Wilts, the Duncans and the Moses Malones.

Dame has a ton to gain from winning a ring. If he does somehow make the NBA Finals, he’ll turn 31 just as things are getting heavy. So he’s not exactly “old” in NBA terms, but he’s definitely past the halfway point of his career. He’s never been seriously considered for regular season MVP, and, as incredible as he is, he’s never mentioned in the top-10 players debate. If you look at his career numbers, he’s a 37.5% three point shooter, but over the past two years, it’s more like 40%. He’s not quite on Steph & Klay’s level when it comes to three point efficiency, but when all is said and done, Dame should and will go down as one of the 4-5 best shooters ever. Over his past 5 seasons he’s averaged 27.6ppg. If he leads his team to a Championship somehow (and that’s a tall order; last night he had 42 & 10 and his team still lost by 19), he will get the recognition he deserves as one of the game’s most lethal shooters ever. A lot of people probably didn’t watch the Blazers-Nuggets game last night because it was on so late, but Dame was unconscious in the first half, dropping 32 points including 22 in the second quarter alone. When he gets hot, he’s basically unstoppable, hitting threes from literally any distance inside the half-court line. With a ring, I don’t think he gets on Steph Curry’s level, but Steph Curry has also never won a Finals MVP. Dame deserves a ring, but he’s just never quite had that Championship-level supporting cast. You have to wonder if maybe he, rather than Curry, was on the Warriors, just how many rings would he have by now?

But the thing with Dame is, I don’t think anyone really knocks him for not winning rings. Pepole know his team doesn’t play good enough defense to compete for a championship. Dame only has upside in winning a championship; there’s really no downside to not winning one. Nobody expects him to lead that team to a Championship–and rightly so.

I’m a LeBron fan so I’m pulling for the Lakers, but if the Lakers do lose this series against the Suns, then I will probably be pulling for CP3 the Suns. CP3 probably should have gotten a ring in 2018 when the Rockets were up 3-2 on the Warriors, but he hurt his hamstring and the Warriors came back to win in 7 after the Rockets shot a combined 22-83 from three in games 6 & 7 including an unfathomable 7-44 in game 7 (Harden himself was 6-25 from three over both games). When the Rockets imploded in 2019, and Harden and CP3 had their falling-out, Harden escaped virtually all the blame, and people said CP3 was washed, abrasive, impossible to play with, etc. But most of all, it was washed. People figured CP3 was done. He was traded to the Thunder for Russell Westbrook and basically left for dead, and somehow led the Thunder to the playoffs. This year he’s taken the Phoenix Suns, who haven’t made the playoffs since 2010, to the second-best record in the NBA. Chris Paul has won everywhere he’s gone–New Orleans (post-Katrina when they were playing most of their games in Oklahoma City), the LA Clippers, Houston, OKC and now Phoenix. He should’ve been a Laker back in 2011 with Kobe and Dwight Howard but the NBA outrageously vetoed the trade.

Chris Paul has had a ton of bad breaks in his NBA career, and yet he’s still managed to build a resume to probably be included as one of the 5 best point guards to ever live despite never making it to the NBA Finals. If he wins a ring, it brings everything together for him. It’s the ultimate validation for his long, storied career. He will finally get the recognition he deserves as one of the best players of all time, because right now, as great as he’s been, he’s kind of an after-thought due to the fact that he’s missing that ring. If he wins a ring and takes out his old buddy LeBron in the process, it’s the crown jewel in an already sterling resume. He’s in the Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas, Oscar Robertson “greatest point guards of all time” club.

I would add a player to the list that Nick didn’t include, however: Russell Westbrook. Yes, his team is the 8th seed in the East and nobody gives them much of a chance against Philly. But if Russell Westbrook somehow led the Wizards to an NBA title and won Finals MVP in the process, could you imagine how much it would shift his narrative? He’s one of the most criticized superstars in the league, and people aren’t even really wrong for it, either. A lot of the time he seems more concerned with getting triple doubles than winning; he’s a horribly inefficient shooter and it feels like he’s the only one that doesn’t realize it. People called him the “problem” when KD left Oklahoma City, then praised KD for winning rings with the most talented NBA team ever assembled and said it was proof that Russ was trash and holding KD back. He partnered up with his old buddy James Harden last season in Houston but couldn’t tolerate Harden’s lack of work ethic and constant tardiness to film sessions and team flights. And it’s somehow James Harden that lands on Nets Super Team, getting all the love and glory, while Westbrook has to slog through the season with the lowly Wizards.

Russ has gotten the short end of the stick consistently since that fateful July 4 in 2016 when KD made his famous “My Next Chapter” announcement. I’m not saying Russ hasn’t brought a lot of this on himself, because he has. He’s prickly and hard to play with. But if he were to somehow win a ring–and before Harden, at that–then Russell Westbrook’s legacy is completely transformed. He goes from a guy you can’t win a title with to a guy nobody can doubt anymore. People have written off basically everything he’s done for the past 5 years by saying, “Yeah, but he’ll never win a title.” The difference between a guy who’s considered a “stat-padder” and a guy who’s considered an all-time great is championships. If Russ gets one, it validates his entire play style, and he moves into the discussion of top-5 all-time point guards.

The running theme here is validation. Which guys can validate themselves with a ring? When LeBron won his first ring in Miami, the biggest thing it did for him was validate his decision to leave Cleveland, and validate his hype as “the Chosen One,” “The King,” the “next Jordan,” etc. He went from an insanely talented young player who couldn’t get over the hump to an all-time NBA great. Suddenly, nobody was talking about how he walked out on his hometown and formed a super team in Miami with his buddies; they were talking about how he finally got that elusive ring and was now on his way to all-time greatness.

LeBron had (and has) been the best player in the NBA since the 2007 playoffs just based on pure ability and efficiency metrics, but he wasn’t widely recognized as such until he started winning rings. People still doubted him even after he made the Finals at age 22 and won back-to-back MVPs in 2009-2010. He was viewed kind of the way Giannis is viewed today, maybe a bit more revered. Now he’s a living legend, a coach on the floor, and the smartest player in the league.

After he won a ring, young players were star-struck seeing him in person. You started to see quotes from them like, “I’ve idolized this guy since I was 10, now here I am on the same court as him. It doesn’t even feel real.” He became a living legend. Your leadership credentials go through the roof because guys look at you and think, “That guy’s done it before. I want to learn from him.”

Look at the difference now between LeBron and Melo, and how each guy is viewed. LeBron is a living legend, while Melo is basically some old dude who used to ball out back in the day. I don’t mean to disrespect Melo, but he just doesn’t get anywhere near the level of respect that LeBron does, and it’s because Melo never got a ring. The ring changes everything.

That’s what winning Championships does for your reputation among your peers: you become one of the unquestioned top dogs in the league, not just a great player today, but an all-time great.

Until you win a ring, you’re on the outside looking in. You’re not a part of the Club. One time a while back, Shaq, Kenny and Magic (back when he was on Inside the NBA) literally made a Champions’ Club and didn’t let Charles Barkley in.

Until you win a ring, you’re just a guy putting up big numbers. The kids might buy your jerseys and you might get tons of play on SportsCenter, but you do not gain the respect of the past legends of the game until you join the Champions’ Club. You have to earn your way into their club. They’ve all won rings; they know how hard it is to win a ring, and until you go through that and emerge victorious on the other side, they will never respect you or view you as one of their own. Guys with rings don’t have as much respect for guys without rings.

What a ring does for a player is provide validation and recognition. You’re a part of the club now, and nobody can ever take that away from you.

But for some players, it’s more than just validation of your accomplishments: it’s a validation of your play-style. When you lead your team to a championship and play the game your way, it provides a different type of validation. Take Russell Westbrook: the book on him currently is that yeah, he puts up crazy numbers, but you can’t win a championship that way. “He’s too selfish, he’s too preoccupied with stats,” etc. Well, if he wins a ring, watch how the “selfish” label turns into “ultra-competitive.” Watch how the “stat-padder” label turns into “one of the most complete basketball players ever.”

If Russ somehow does win a Championship, it validates his entire play-style. It validates his approach to the game, his mentality, his personality. Imagine if MJ never won any rings: he would basically be considered a borderline sociopathic asshole who punched his teammates and mentally abused all the other players in the league. But when he won rings, that stuff became just more evidence of how committed he was to excellence and how badly he wanted to win.

And that’s what winning a ring does: it validates your entire approach to the game. It validates you as a basketball player. It says to the basketball world, “You can no longer ignore me or write me off or question my methods; I’m a champion.”

So my list is as follows:

  1. Giannis: This guy has won back-to-back MVPs but has no ring to show for it. The reason he’s not considered the best player in the league is because he’s never been to the Finals. Winning a ring would put him in the discussion for best player in the league and set his career on a possible top-10 all-time trajectory. If he misses out on a ring this year, though, then the questions get louder and louder. The “he’s not the real deal” talk will continue. When you win an MVP award, the clock starts ticking for you to either win a Championship or be written off as a Guy Who Couldn’t Win The Big One. Giannis is still young, but the clock is ticking.
  2. CP3: A ring would be the capstone to validate his entire career and cement him as one of the greatest point guards to ever play the game. We all know Chris Paul is historically great, but he doesn’t have the ring to show for it. He will never truly get the recognition he deserves, even after the career he’s had, unless he wins a ring. I just feel so bad for the guy now that he’s hurt, though. It looks like he won’t be able to be himself the rest of this series, and it’s a shame because this was a golden opportunity for him to maybe finally get that ring. It just sucks that he’s always getting hurt in the playoffs.
  3. Russell Westbrook: Nobody would shut-up more critics and naysayers by winning a ring than Russ. This man’s approach to the game is maligned left and right, but if he wins a ring, nobody can ever say shit about him again.
  4. LeBron: I disagree with Nick Wright. LeBron winning a 5th ring would be huge for his legacy. At that point only the most die-hard LeBron haters could deny his case for being the GOAT.
  5. James Harden: Look, if James Harden wasn’t on a super team with another league MVP and Kyrie Irving, I might even put him at #1 on this list. Winning a ring with a super team just doesn’t mean as much, though. He was *this close* to winning a ring in 2018, but he and the Rockets collapsed in games 6 & 7 to the Warriors. Harden definitely improves his legacy with a Finals win–and especially so with a Finals MVP if he wins it over KD–but there will always be that, “Yeah, but he had to join a super team to finally get that ring.”
  6. Kawhi: Pretty much what I said about him above. For his first ring, Kawhi was good, but he wasn’t dominant the way most other Finals MVPs are. For his second ring and second Finals MVP, he benefitted from the Warriors’ top players suffering devastating injuries. The point is, there are still questions and legitimate doubts about his true greatness. Winning a Championship with the Clippers would put an end to all those questions and doubts. But first he’s got to dig his team out of an 0-2 hole to Luka’s Mavericks.
  7. Paul George: this is a surprise addition to the list, but after Russell Westbrook, the one guy who would shut the most haters up by winning a ring is Paul George. This man is the butt of almost every joke on NBA Twitter come playoff time. Pandemic-P, PG-13%, Way-off P, Backboard-P, “That’s a bad shot”–we’ve heard it all. If Paul George wants people to stop ridiculing him and start taking him seriously as one of the best players in the league, he needs to win a ring. Simple as that.
  8. Luka: I think, personally, in order for a guy to have a lot to gain from winning a chip, he also has to have a lot to lose for not winning one. Luka is only 22. If he doesn’t win a ring this year, nobody’s going to question him or criticize him. Hell, most people expected him to lose to the Clippers in the first round. He’s not expected to win a ring–yet. So because he doesn’t have a lot on the line, I can’t say he has more to gain than the older guys that do have a lot on the line this year. Still, that said, if Luka wins a ring this early in his career, he will be well on his way to being one of the very best players of all-time. It will set his career on a trajectory higher than all but maybe a dozen or so guys in the history of this league–maybe even top-5 all-time.
  9. Joel Embiid: Pretty similar to Luka, although I think it would be premature to talk about putting Embiid in the top 10 all-time conversation if he gets a ring. He’s not quite there yet the way Luka is because Luka is a superior passer. But if Embiid wins a ring, he instantly enters the discussion for top 5-6 big men in NBA history.
  10. Jokic: Basically the same thing as Embiid. Jokic is a way better passer than Embiid and probably in Luka’s tier, but he’s not as physically dominant as Embiid. Jokic and Embiid are pretty similar when it comes to skill level, so I think they’d both benefit about the same from winning a ring. The main difference is that Embiid has way more at stake this season because his team is the #1 seed in the East, while Jokic’s team is the #3 seed in the West and he’s missing Jamal Murray so nobody really expects Denver to win a title. So people aren’t going to bash Jokic if the Nuggets don’t win.

I didn’t include Dame on this list because, as I wrote earlier, he doesn’t really get a lot of criticism for not winning rings. People don’t include him in that super-elite tier of players who are expected to compete for Championships every season, and we know his team just isn’t quite championship-caliber. Sure, Dame’s legacy would get an enormous boost if he were to lead Portland to a title, but he’s not really losing much in terms of legacy if he doesn’t.

I also didn’t include KD on my list because he plays on a super team and he already has two Finals MVPs that he got playing for a super team. What’s a third super team ring going to do for him, really? It’s not going to change anyone’s mind about him. It’s not like people who downplay KD’s accomplishments in Golden State are going to give him major props for winning a chip with the Brooklyn super team. Until KD wins a ring without a super team, his legacy is pretty much static. And I don’t think he really has a ton to lose, either. He’s the one on that team with the Finals MVP awards. If the Nets don’t win the title this year, people will blame Harden (“playoff choker”) and Kyrie (“not fully committed to basketball,” “complete headcase,” etc). It’ll be like, “Well we know it wasn’t KD’s fault because KD is a proven winner while Harden isn’t and Kyrie hasn’t won a damn thing without LeBron.”

But the bottom line is, if you roll your eyes whenever you hear “Kevin Durant, two-time Finals MVP,” I have a hard time believing you’ll suddenly start respecting his accomplishments if he wins another ring with this unbelievably stacked Nets team. So I don’t really think KD has a ton to gain this year. He definitely has a lot to lose, though. If the Nets fail to win a Championship, he, Harden and Kyrie will all be mocked to no end. But as I said just a bit ago, most of the blame won’t fall on KD because he’s won before. The burden of proof is not on him–it’s mainly on James Harden, the only one of those big three who doesn’t have a ring.

So that’s my list. Those are the guys I think would both be validated the most for winning a championship, and who have the most to lose for not winning one.

Octavian

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