Chasing Rings (written November 11, 2012)

Posted: 17th November 2012 by Jeff Plattner in NBA

Bill Russell has eleven. Michael Jordan won six. Magic Johnson has five, as does Kobe Bryant. Tim Duncan has four and Larry Bird three. But for some stars, an NBA championship ring can be as elusive as a snake in tall grass. The six men listed above have many things in common, but a rather rare commonality between all men is that they won three or more rings with one team. Since the NBA’s inception in 1946, only players from the Boston Celtics, Chicago Bulls, Los Angeles/Minneapolis Lakers, and San Antonio Spurs have won three or more rings, while doing so with the same team. Furthermore, in this 66-year span, 43 championships have been won by these four franchises, with Boston (17) and the Lakers (16) leading the way. With titles so difficult to obtain, players now more than ever have began “chasing rings.”

During his time in the league, Michael Jordan prevented many NBA greats from winning a championship ring. In the NBA Finals, Jordan knocked off five of his 1992 Olympic teammates, en route to his six rings. In 1993 Jordan and the Bulls defeated Charles Barkley’s Phoenix Suns and in back-to-back years (’97 and ’98) Karl Malone and John Stockton’s Utah Jazz fell to the Bulls in the Finals. But before all of this, in 1992, just six weeks prior to the start of the Barcelona games, Chicago defeated Clyde Drexler’s Portland Trailblazers; Jordan’s second ring. The loss was Drexler’s second NBA Finals defeat in three years. The Finals loss was followed by two straight first round exits by Drexler and the Trailblazers and suddenly, entering his twelfth year in the league, “Clyde the Glide” saw his window of opportunity closing. At the 1995 trade deadline, Portland honored Drexler’s request to be traded to a contender and shipped him back home to the defending champion Houston Rockets. Four months later, Drexler, reunited with college teammate Hakeem Olajuwon, had successfully tracked down his first NBA championship ring.

2003 was a huge year in free agency for the Los Angeles Lakers. With two strokes of the pen, the Lakers had acquired over 55,000 career points, nearly 19,000 career rebounds, and almost 13,000 career assists. In his nineteenth season, as a last ditch effort at winning a ring, 39-year-old Karl Malone signed as a free agent with the Lakers. A week before his 35th birthday, Gary Payton did the same. In their prime, Payton and Malone both saw Michael Jordan spurn their greatest opportunities for a ring. With time running out, Malone and Payton figured there was no better way to taste what an NBA championship felt like than to join Shaq, Kobe, and a Lakers team that was just one year removed from a three-peat. After finishing second in the Western Conference, the Lakers easily advanced to the Finals, needing no more than six games in any series. However, with the Detroit Pistons waiting in the wings, the Lakers would meet their match in the Finals. Behind the brilliant play of Chauncey Billups and Richard Hamilton, the Pistons would dominate the series and send the Lakers home in just five games. Malone would go on to retire having never won a ring, while Payton bounced around the league for three more years, just long enough to latch onto Dwayne Wade and the Miami Heat in 2006. Reunited with Shaquille O’Neal, Payton would win his first championship in his sixteenth NBA season. Hungry for a ring himself, thirteen years into his career, Alonzo Mourning joined Payton and that Heat team, also earning his first ring.

In recent years, many other players have successfully chased down rings of their own; Glenn Robinson (San Antonio Spurs in 2005), Michael Finley (Spurs in 2007), Peja Stojakovic (Dallas Mavericks in 2011), and most recently Juwan Howard and Mike Miller (Miami Heat in 2012) to name a few. However, others have fallen short in their quest for a ring.

Where can 2013’s ring chasers be found? Look no further than the two teams many picked to meet in the NBA Finals, the Miami Heat and the Los Angeles Lakers. With a 2008 championship ring on his finger, Ray Allen turned his back on his Boston Celtics teammates, taking far less money to join LeBron, Dwayne Wade, and the Heat. In his seventeenth season, Allen seeks his second title. Following Allen to Miami was fourteen-year veteran Rashard Lewis, who is looking to be fitted for his first championship ring. Lewis and Allen will spread the floor out even more for LeBron and Wade, making it that much more difficult for opponents to defend the Heat. While Allen and Lewis signed with the Heat as free agents, out west the Lakers were wheeling and dealing to obtain two ring-deprived stars. Sixteen seasons and no rings were enough for Steve Nash to decide it was now or never and that joining forces with Kobe Bryant was his best shot at a title. Not long after Nash landed in L.A., Dwight Howard finally managed to pout his way all the way across the country and in a trade that once seemed improbable, Howard landed in L.A. with Kobe and the newly acquired Nash. While Allen already has the one ring and Howard figures to have many years ahead, Nash and Lewis are hungrier than ever before. Will their dreams be answered in 2013 or as their careers wind down, will their chase for a ring be all for not?