Ahead of the tipoff for Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Thursday night, let us take a deep dive into what this championship series will mean for the legacies of so many of the Boston Celtics and Golden State Warriors.
Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
Before he has played a minute of the NBA Finals this season, Curry has been the subject of much debate about whether he belongs on the list of 10 greatest players in basketball history, as if the list is defined.
On The Bill Russell Scale — our attempt to objectively rank players based on a broad range of career accolades — Curry would climb to only 25th on the all-time list with a fourth championship and his first Finals MVP award. However, such a performance would put him in line to crack the all-time top 10 before his career is over, even if he fails to win another title or log another top-five MVP finish in years to come.
Subjectively, it would feel wrong to rank Curry anywhere lower than Kevin Durant if he wins another ring without his ex-teammate, considering Durant will be watching from home following a first-round sweep.
Should Curry win a fourth championship, only 10 players would have more as a top-two player on title teams: Russell, Bob Cousy, John Havlicek, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, George Mikan, Magic Johnson, Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant. You could call that your top-10 list, because there are no rules, but I think we can all agree that Curry — the greatest shooter ever — is a better player than Cousy. Havlicek and Pippen never won an MVP award, so I think we can safely slot Curry ahead of them.
Are you prepared to declare Curry better than Bryant at the end of this series? That is the level of player you must remove from your top-10 list in order to anoint Curry. We have also not mentioned four-time champions LeBron James and Shaquille O'Neal, three-timer Larry Bird and several more legends — namely Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Julius Erving, Moses Malone and Hakeem Olajuwon.
That last grouping is where Curry should settle if he scores another ring, somewhere between Bryant and Durant. You can lock Kobe into your top 10, along with Jordan, LeBron, Kareem, Russell, Bird, Magic and Duncan, before you start debating Wilt's desire to win, Shaq's fitness, Dr. J's ABA career or whatever other nitpick you might have with an all-timer. That leaves room to slide Curry into your top 10 if he wins again, because four rings, a pair of regular-season MVPs, including the only unanimous one, a Finals MVP (thanks, Andre Iguodala) and the greatest shooter ever is a solid argument against everyone else.
Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
There has also been plenty of discussion about whether Tatum ranks among the five best players in the league right now. His All-NBA first team selection indicates he is in the conversation, but a championship this season ends any debate. If you are the best player on the reigning champs, your card is stamped.
The bigger question, then, would be to where Tatum could ascend by the end of his career.
Here is the list of players who have won a championship as the clear-cut best player on the team before turning 25 years old: Mikan, Russell, Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton, Bird, Magic and Duncan. You can add Dwyane Wade if you like. With the exception of Walton, whose foot injuries derailed a repeat title campaign and a legendary career, the fewest number of championships anybody in that group won is Bird's three.
Once you get there, you are in step with Curry, somewhere on the list of 20 greatest players ever. That is on the table for Tatum if he wins this season. There is no guarantee he gets there, you can climb the all-time ladder only one rung at a time, and history will tell you it is more likely than not that he reaches rarified air.
Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors
A fourth championship certifies their Hall of Fame careers. If there is any debate left about whether Thompson's injuries or Green's statistics should prevent their enshrinement, it will end with another ring.
Thompson is one of the greatest shooters ever, and Green is among the best defenders ever. Their spots may already be reserved in Springfield. They are Kevin McHale and Robert Parish to Curry's Bird, and with another championship, they could be Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili to Curry's Duncan. Or better. At the very least, they will cement their position among the greatest trios in NBA history, if they are not already.
Al Horford, Boston Celtics
Horford is a Hall of Famer if he wins a championship, and I'm not sure he is if the Celtics fall short of a title. He was a first-ballot Hall of Very Good inductee before reaching these Finals. Five All-Star selections, four Eastern Conference finals appearances, one All-NBA honor and one All-Defensive bid had him knocking on the door of the Hall, where Chris Webber stood for eight years before they let him in. Had Webber led the Sacramento Kings to a title in 2002, or the officials not held him back, he would have been in long ago.
Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics
The list of 25-year-olds to win a championship as his team's second-best player is not long, either. It includes Pippen, Joe Dumars, James Worthy, Dennis Johnson and Walt Frazier — all Hall of Famers and multi-time champions. That is the company Brown could keep. The list also includes Bryant and Wade.
Brown would join Milwaukee Bucks wing Khris Middleton on the list of players who should be in the All-Star Game every season if they sustain their current level of play, because we no longer have to wonder if they can be a No. 2 option on a title team. We would know, and that should count for something when a coach sorts out his All-Star reserves and has to decide between Brown and someone less tested like Zach LaVine.
Pippen was left off the Eastern Conference All-Stars the first season he won alongside Jordan, and then made six straight appearances before his body began to fail him. Dumars and Worthy followed similar career arcs. A championship made them perennial All-Stars, and they built Hall of Fame résumés from it.
Andrew Wiggins, Golden State Warriors
Wiggins was not a bust in the way Kwame Brown or Anthony Bennett were, but he was on the list of former No. 1 overall picks whose careers were wildly disappointing — until this season. His 2022 All-Star selection, as surprising as it was, covered up some of the stink that followed him from the Minnesota Timberwolves, but we still considered him closer to an Andrea Bargnani than an Anthony Davis among top overall draft picks.
A title means Wiggins never has to apologize again for being picked ahead of Joel Embiid, no matter what happens for the remainder of their careers. Ask Andrew Bogut what winning a ring with the Warriors did for his career. It changed everything about how we perceived him as a player, and he could retire knowing the expectations that come with being a top overall pick were ultimately met, no matter the path he took there.
Marcus Smart, Boston Celtics
Nobody can ever say the Celtics need a true point guard again if they win a title with Smart at the helm of their offense. Nobody can ever say he flops too much or attempts too many ill-advised shots. Nobody can ever say anything to Smart that does not first begin with Defensive Player of the Year and NBA champion.
There are not many players like Smart in the history of the league. Draymond Green, Dennis Rodman and Ron Artest come to mind, each maniacal competitors whose defensive identity dwarfed his offensive ability. All three are champions whose careers are remembered more fondly than former Defensive Players of the Year Marcus Camby or Alvin Robertson. You are Ben Wallace rather than Mark Eaton when you win a ring.
Joe Johnson, Triplets (Big3)
Almost four years after his last NBA game, nearly two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, during the height of the NBA's Omicron outbreak, Johnson signed a 10-day contract with the Celtics on Dec. 22. He played two minutes of garbage time in a game, attempting — and converting — one last isolation jump shot.
For that, he could receive a ring from the Celtics, should they win. Not that he would or should accept it.
The two points brought Johnson's career total to 20,407. Every eligible player with so many points is in the Hall of Fame. Larry Foust is the only player with more All-Star selections than Johnson's seven to not make the Hall of Fame. Johnson will teeter on the edge of induction, and it would be kind of hilarious if a 2022 NBA championship ring tipped the scales in the two-time Big3 MVP's favor, if only because he still will have never played a playoff game past the second round. This would give hope to the possibility that Charles Barkley could sign a 10-day contract next season, play two garbage minutes and finally get himself a ring.
Enes Freedom, free agent
Freedom's quest for human rights in China is a noble one. What complicates his cause is his insistence that the NBA has banned him for this stance — and not because he is a 30-year-old immobile big who is of little to no use outside of the restricted area. It is much harder to make the case that you are being blackballed when, upon being traded, your former team immediately turns its season around and wins a championship.
Gary Payton II, Golden State Warriors
Payton and his father, who won a title with the Miami Heat in 2006, could become the fifth father-son duo to win NBA championships. They would join Payton's Golden State teammate, Klay Thompson, and his father Mychal; Matt Guokas Jr. and his father Matt Sr.; Rick and Brent Barry; and Bill and Luke Walton.
Danny Ainge, Utah Jazz
Ainge largely built this Celtics team before handing his role as president of basketball operations to Brad Stevens last summer. He drafted Smart (2014), Brown (2016), Tatum (2017), Robert Williams III (2018), Grant Williams (2019) and Payton Pritchard (2020) with first-round picks. Even two of the three rotational players who Stevens acquired this season — Horford and Daniel Theis — originally signed in Boston under Ainge. Derrick White is the only player on the Celtics who was not introduced to the team by the former executive.
Ainge may be CEO of the Jazz now, but he would be the architect of two championship teams with no common thread but him if Boston wins this season, and that — along with his playing, coaching and broadcasting careers — is Hall of Fame worthy for "significant contributions to the game of basketball."
Andre Iguodala, Golden State Warriors
Iguodala could join Cedric Maxwell as the only other player to win a Finals MVP and not make the Hall of Fame. He is a one-time All-Star and two-time All-Defensive selection. That is nowhere near the production expected from an inductee, and who knows if winning a championship as a spare part will change anyone's opinion, but four titles does have a better ring to it than three when you look down his list of accolades. That did not get Horace Grant any closer to the Hall. Then again, he never took a Finals MVP from Jordan.
Steve Kerr, Golden State Warriors
Kerr already has more championships in his coaching career than anyone but Phil Jackson (11), Red Auerbach (9), John Kundla (5), Pat Riley (5) and Gregg Popovich (5). Kundla won five titles in his first six seasons with the Minneapolis Lakers from 1948-54. It took Riley 22 seasons and Popovich 18 to get their fifth rings. Kerr would have four in eight years with another win, and at age 56 still has youth on his side.
Add Kerr's five championships as a player, and he will have nine rings between his playing and head-coaching careers with another victory this year — more than all but a handful of people in NBA history:
Phil Jackson: 13 (11 as a head coach and two as a player)
Bill Russell: 11 (all as a player and the last two as a player/coach)
Sam Jones: 10 (all as a player)
K.C. Jones: 10 (eight as a player and two as a head coach, plus two more as an assistant)
Tommy Heinsohn: 10 (eight as a player and two as a head coach)
Red Auerbach: 9 (all as a head coach, plus seven more as a lead executive)
If you want to add rings won as the head of basketball operations, in addition to Auerbach's 16 rings, Riley won two titles as a player, five as a head coach and two more as the top executive, plus one more as an assistant, for a total of nine rings. That is the list of people who have won as much in the NBA as Kerr could with a championship this season, unless you start including assistant coaches and lower-level executives.
Ime Udoka, Boston Celtics
Udoka could become the seventh head coach to win a title in his first season on the job, joining Nick Nurse, Tyronn Lue, Kerr, Riley, Paul Westhead and Eddie Gottlieb. Should he beat Brooklyn, Milwaukee, Miami and Golden State in consecutive rounds, you could easily make the case that he is the best coach in the NBA right now. People said as much about Nurse when his Toronto Raptors beat the Warriors in the 2019 Finals.
Nobody spent more NBA seasons than Udoka's nine as an assistant before being made a head coach. It obviously should not have taken so long, just like it should not have taken one of the greatest first-year coaching performances in history to garner more attention to longtime assistant coaches who are Black.
Udoka played three seasons for Popovich and coached another seven as an assistant on his staff — experience that had led to the hiring of a handful of head coaches before him — but the 44-year-old was sitting on the benches for the 76ers and Nets the past two seasons, when he was probably a better option than either of their head coaches. The Cleveland Cavaliers passed on Udoka to hire John Beilein in 2019.
That so many teams failed to identify Udoka as the kind of coach who could turn a .500 team into a championship contender is a failure of the NBA — one that might have convinced the Los Angeles Lakers to give Darvin Ham their head coaching job last week after he spent the last 11 seasons as an assistant. Should Udoka win a title, it will only accentuate that failure and hopefully create more opportunities.
– – – – – – –