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When Michael Jordan won his first NBA Championship with the Chicago Bulls, he was 28 and defined his career. As much as that, however, he defined an entire era in the NBA. Because while Jordan and the Bulls went on to win five more titles, a plethora of other great players went on to search for other ways to define themselves.
Jordan’s prime coincided with the prime years of many other superstars, such as Karl Malone, Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley, John Stockton, Dominique Wilikns and others. By the time Jordan was done, only a scant few got to taste NBA glory – Hakeem Olajuwan and Clyde Drexler (who won two titles when Jordan went to play baseball) and David Robinson (who, along with Tim Duncan, won a title once Jordan’s prime was over.) For nearly a full decade, the NBA Championship Trophy was held by few.
When Lebron James and the Miami Heat won the NBA title this week, James was 27 and defined his own career. Gone were the taunts of “choker.” In what can only be described as a Jordanesque performance, James took apart a marvelously talented Oklahoma City squad, dominating on all levels and playing with a ferocity rarely seen in any sport. After a career that has seen him win three MVP trophies, James finally added the word “Champion” to his resume.
Much like Jordan’s first title, James’ first ushers in a new age in the NBA. When Jordan’s Bulls won in 1991, it meant that legends like Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Isiah Thomas were done winning titles. It also meant that stars like Barkley and Ewing would never win a title.
Of course, even after James’ performance, it still doesn’t demand he be compared to Jordan on even ground. After all, Jordan won six NBA titles. James still has a long way to go to reach that standard, and it’s very likely he never will.
The last two years in the NBA, however, has introduced us to Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose. On the young side of 25, and showing signs of being future Hall of Famers, it’s very hard to imagine those two players going through their careers without winning an NBA championship ring. For James to win more championships, the road seemingly will always go through those two, and their substantial potential for detours.
What does that mean for the rest of the NBA? It means another shutout. Kobe Bryant is done winning championships. As is Dirk Nowitzki. As is Paul Pierce. Of those who have never tasted NBA glory, Dwight Howard is the new Patrick Ewing, and Steve Nash the new John Stockton. And players such as Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Rajon Rondo, Blake Griffin and others may light up the stat sheets and highlight reels, but they will likely never see their names in lights.
While it’s difficult to see Durant or Rose get shut out of Finals victories, one should not bet against James at this stage. A few years ago, Tiger Woods (who shares a birthday with James) shocked everyone by making a substantial run at Jack Nicklaus’ record for golf majors. While that run has been stalled, it continues. Now it is James’ turn to go head-to-head with a legend. Legends are made to be challenged.
Five more titles is difficult to visualize, but James should not be counted out. In 2012, he became the man he was always supposed to be. The 2011 loss to the Dallas Mavericks forced a sea change in James’ focus. While he still played with joy and maintained a jovial image, the maturing he went through was obvious to all. And his play was truly brilliant, even by his own lofty standards.
None of this means that James-led teams will sweep NBA titles for the next several years. But with James, Durant and Rose around, it means that many a great basketball player will now go through their NBA careers without a ring.
Crossposted at William K. Wolfrum Chronicles