Despite all the advances statheads have made in how we measure NBA greatness, many fans still regard championship rings as the ultimate arbiter of a star player’s legacy. And although some scoff at such a simplistic measure, basketball is deterministic enough that the top players do generally tend to accumulate more than their share of championships. There are always anomalies — nobody thinks Robert Horry (seven rings) was better than Charles Barkley (zero) — but for the most part, ring-counting isn’t a total diversion along the path to understanding a legend’s place in the pantheon of the game. Sometimes it can even (gasp!) offer insight.
The trouble is, the players began to realize how they were being judged. They saw how long a shadow Michael Jordan’s six titles cast over subsequent generations of would-be GOATs. They also saw what happened to Barkley’s and Karl Malone’s legacies after never winning a ring. “I don’t want to be 31 with bad knees and no championship,” LeBron James reportedly told friends before signing with the Miami Heat in the spectacle that was The Decision (Part 1) in 2010. He knew that, for all his individual accolades, history wouldn’t be kind if a player of his talent didn’t rack up titles. And in an era of players who increasingly control their own destinies, James took considerable steps to ensure a championship future.
In economics, there’s an adage about what happens when people know they’re being evaluated on specific criteria; it’s called Goodhart’s Law. As professor Marilyn Strathern would phrase it: “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.” In other words, when you focus on the measurements others are using to judge you, you start altering your behavior to optimize for those measurements — and the measurements begin to lose their meaning.
When that happens, there are often unintended consequences. (Such as the famous parable of a Soviet nail factory responding to production targets by making thousands of tiny, useless nails.) And when it comes to ring-chasing, NBA stars have started to run seriously afoul of Goodhart’s Law. They’ve made championships the target — and, in the process, have fundamentally changed the meaning of those championships for a player’s legacy.
Moving to a contending team in pursuit of a championship used to be a last resort for a veteran star, such as when 32-year-old Clyde Drexler was dealt to the Houston Rockets in 1995, or when Kevin Garnett went to the Boston Celtics at age 31 in 2007. Each had requested a trade to a contender, but only after exhausting attempts to win with his original franchise. James flipped that paradigm on its head when, at the tender age of 25, he left Cleveland to play next to Hall of Fame talents Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami. That move gave prime-age Kevin Durant a precedent for joining the record-setting Warriors in 2016, and it paved the way for DeMarcus Cousins to sign with Golden State this summer on an absurdly cheap contract.1
Durant’s decision ended up working out (and we’re assuming Cousins’s will, too). But there are other, more dismal ring-vulturing moments, such as when the Brooklyn Nets tried to recreate the 2008 Celtics in 2013, or when Steve Nash and Dwight Howard joined Kobe Bryant on the Lakers in 2012. Either way, in recent years, good players jumping from team to team in search of rings went from a rarity to the norm. In the 2010s, the top 10 players who switched teams between seasons2 have been much younger and better than their counterparts from previous decades:
Modern team-hoppers are younger and better
Average age for the top 10 players, by wins created,* who changed teams between seasons in each decade, 1980-2018
|Decade||Avg. Age||Avg. Wins Created||Top 3|
|1980s||28.5||34.0||M. Malone (’82) • A. Dantley (’86) • A. Gilmore (’82)|
|1990s||28.5||39.4||C. Barkley (’92) • S. O’Neal (’96) • C. Barkley (’96)|
|2000s||30.3||43.1||K. Garnett (’07) • T. McGrady (’04) • S. O’Neal (’04)|
|2010s||26.7||48.4||L. James (’10) • L. James (’14) • C. Paul (’11)|
It’s not the players’ fault that they’ve been presented with the opportunity to pursue championships on stacked megateams. Unlike baseball, maximum contracts cap the amount of money any team, good or bad, can offer a superstar. Because of this, the decisions of NBA stars often turn on non-monetary concerns — such as the desirability of a team’s city and, yes, how much of a chance new teammates would give them to contend for titles. Add in the occasional shock to the NBA’s financial system, like the massive salary-cap spike that allowed the Warriors to sign Durant, and the league hasn’t exactly set up the right conditions to discourage its stars from trying to pad their championship tallies.3
At the same time, it isn’t completely clear whether ring-chasing will bring modern players the boost in historical prestige they’re seeking. Although James’s legacy as an all-time great is written in stone, his disappointing NBA Finals record — particularly without the help of Wade and Bosh, as he was 1-4 in Finals appearances as a Cavalier — may hurt his pursuit of Jordan as GOAT. Durant’s two titles with the Warriors have been met with grudging respect by most hoopheads, but they’ve also launched a thousand RealGM and Reddit threads debating how much his superteam-aided rings are “really worth” relative to those of other stars. And who knows how little credit observers will give Cousins if he helps Golden State win a third straight title? In an effort to please the ring-counters, this generation of championship-seekers may have only angered them further by irrevocably changing the historical meaning of championships in every player’s record.4
But winning is fun, and lifting trophies is even more fun. And it’s possible that, once the moment for heated online debate has passed, all that’s left is the championship count on Basketball-Reference.com. Fans who witnessed the state of the league at the time may go through their own calculations, boosting the value of some rings and devaluing others, but every title counts the same there. And if that sounds offensive, maybe that means it’s time for measures other than rings to gain weight when assessing the careers of the game’s greatest stars.