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There Are No Legacies On the Line In These NBA Finals, and That’s a Good Thing

The saddest part of this gripping, somehow-better-every-game NBA Finals is that old chestnut: Someone has to lose. Bucks fans have gone more than 50 years without a title, and Suns fans have never celebrated one; it is downright cruel that one of those fanbases is going to fall just short. For all the lamenting of the marquee basketball names and franchises who were eliminated before the NBA Finals, the rarity of teams like Milwaukee and Phoenix getting this close to the brass ring in the first place has been a little bit lost. As good as these teams are, neither will be the favorite in their conference next year. It’ll be Brooklyn in the East and the Lakers in the West—if not quite the usual teams (the Nets have never won an NBA title either), certainly the usual stars gravitating to the big cities. So, for both Milwaukee and Phoenix, if not now … when?

This urgency extends to both of the teams’ superstars. Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo and Phoenix’s Chris Paul are transcendent NBA figures: A two-time MVP who is physically unlike anyone else who has ever played and a veteran point guard who is one of the top 11 players in NBA history by Win Shares (ahead of Shaq, Dr. J., Kobe, Hakeem, Magic, Larry, and the Logo). Giannis has a team specifically constructed around him that is aging rapidly; Paul is an injury-prone 36 year old who has conjured up a specific magic with this team that will be nearly impossible to duplicate, particularly in the perpetually loaded Western Conference. Neither player is ever going to have a better chance to win a title than they have right now. And one of them won’t.

Superstars Who Never Got a Ring are a signature sports plotline. Legends like Dan Marino, Barry Bonds and Charles Barkley were dogged their entire career by the inability to win that elusive championship. Marino and Barkley in particular never really escaped the stigma; even though Marino retired as the greatest passer in league history, his lack of titles led every single career obituary, and the topic came up during every Barkley media appearance for a decade after he left the league. When they were active, it was the single driving force of their career, the dominating narrative: Can they win the big one?

So perhaps it is a sign of progress that this series is not being framed in this manner for either Giannis or Paul. Giannis is young, sure, but he has also won the MVP twice and plays for a team that had the best record in the NBA two of the last three years while falling short in the playoffs. (If Giannis were to win a third MVP without a title, he’d be the only three-time-or-more winner not to do so. Only two other two-time MVPs, Karl Malone and Steve Nash, never won one.) And Paul has played for several title contenders, from the Clippers to the Rockets to now these Suns, without so much as making the Finals before this season. Going by Win Shares, there are only two players in the history of the league, Malone and his vaccine-denialist teammate John Stockton, who had better careers than Paul without winning a title. In years past, this might be all we talked about in this series: The hero/goat narrative has always demanded someone emerging triumphant, and someone else choking away their one great shot.

But if anything, this series has enhanced the reputations of both players, even though Paul has struggled the last couple of games. Giannis’ recovery from the knee injury he suffered in Game 4 against the Hawks seems supernatural, as does Paul’s continued defiance of time. There is no Marino-esque title death watch. You can even tell this from the discussions of Paul’s impending free agency. He’s probably going to stay with the Suns, even though they will have a harder path next year, but more to the point, it’s obvious that his decision will be about money and personal comfort, not the undignified, mercenary lunge of joining a favorite to chase a title. Paul could take a cut-rate, vastly below-market salary to go join his buddy LeBron James and Anthony Davis in Los Angeles and have one more shot at a ring. But there’s zero talk of him doing that, and there shouldn’t be.

In other words, Paul doesn’t need to make a bunch of sportswriters writing the Legacy Narrative happy. He can do whatever the hell he wants. It’s a refreshing change. These are just two legendary players further burnishing their reputations, and providing an all-timer of a show. No matter what happens, honestly, everybody wins.


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