Big Nokh is Burning: The championship fallacy

Golden State Warriors' Stephen Curry celebrates after scoring against the Houston Rockets during the first half in Game 1 of a first-round NBA basketball playoff series Saturday, April 16, 2016, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

If you’re a sports fan, chances are that you adhere to the Championship Fallacy: where rings are the ultimate defining aspect of a person’s legacy. I briefly mentioned this last week when I tried to break down Kobe Bryant’s career. One of the points I brought up was that the Lakers’ five championships inflated how his fans perceive his greatness. Of course, I was bound to get my fair share of critique.

My colleague Sten Spinella, who does great work for The Daily Campus news section, asked me why championships didn’t matter. He said that they were the most defining factor in comparing superstars to their peers, adding that he felt there was an arbitrary distinction between ignoring team accolades and prioritizing individual numbers like Real Plus Minus and Player Efficiency Rating.

I find it interesting that so many sports fans attribute team success to an individual. That said, chances are that if you’re reading this column, you probably heavily disagree with me or are calling me an unathletic nerd vicariously living through television. That’s fair, but at least acknowledge the following things before resorting to the #RINGZ method.

Statistics aren’t perfect, and aren’t absolute

Individual numbers obviously don’t tell the whole story - and I’d be the first person to admit that! I’ve written many times about why box score numbers can be deceptive and why even advanced metrics are sometimes at odds with each other. If you want to see how a hackneyed use of numbers can ruin a sports column, just read any of my colleague Eddie Leonard’s work (love you Eddie), filled to the brim with baseline box score statistics and gross sports cliches.

But here’s the thing with statistics: there’s so many of them out there that allow for multiple layers of perspective. For example, something like PER, which relies heavily on box score statistics and shot usage, may overvalue a player like Jahlil Okafor and undervalue someone like Draymond Green. On the other hand, the +/- influenced RPM might put a role player like Nikola Jokic above Kevin Durant. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think Jokic is a better talent than a guy who could reasonably be remembered as the best scorer ever.

The abundance of statistics out there in most sports allows for still imperfect, but generally precise and nuanced views of what players actually contribute. Math may be detailed, but the concepts in statistics are as simple as counting what’s going on and prioritizing what you actually see in a game.

If you measure the effectiveness of a scorer by only points per game, obviously your conclusion will be shallow. But at least there’s several alternatives to what you can look at. With rings, there aren’t half-rings or quarter-rings. Using them as some kind of deciding factor between two athletes is both lazily simplistic and insulting the difficulty of their craft.

Moreover, why are rings the only measure of success? Wouldn’t it sound exceptionally random and stupid if someone argued that a player was better than a contemporary because they “made it to the second round of the playoffs” over their peer?

Sports fans wrongly prioritize an outcome ahead of the process

I almost cringed while writing “the process,” since disgraced former 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie practically turned that phrase into a meme during his disaster of a tenure. Yet he’s right in communicating that understanding how events happen is just as, if not more important than knowing when they happen.

Here’s a good analogy to follow: one of two guys gets hired by his uncle to work in a vice president position at an established company. After several years of being employed, he finally gets promoted to the top position and helps the company in its flourishing growth.

Now assume that his best friend joins a startup on the brink of failure and immediately becomes president, but he saves the otherwise miserable company from impending bankruptcy. You can certainly say that the first guy was more successful, but it doesn’t mean he was a better leader than the other person - even if the other guy would have rather had that useful head start to his career.

This may not be a perfect analogy, but think about how it applies to sports and how we view “chokers” vs. champions. If Kevin Garnett never got traded to the Celtics, would it be fair that he be remembered less fondly because Sam Cassell was his best supporting teammate instead of Paul Pierce?

Before Boston’s title run in 2008, the common perception around Garnett was that he was a team player that didn’t have the killer drive needed to win a championship. Can you imagine how stupid that retrospectively sounds: that someone you could argue as the best pick-and-roll defender of all time lacked a killer drive because his franchise was managed by Kevin McHale instead of R.C. Buford?

Moreover, if the Mavericks don’t win an NBA title in 2011, does that somehow invalidate the rest of Dirk Nowitzki’s career despite him having some of the greatest playoff performances of all time? Or do we have to pretend like Steve Nash wasn’t the best offensive point guard of the last decade because Amare Stoudemire couldn’t defend a traffic cone on the pick and roll or stay healthy?

The criteria for rings is often inconsistent

Tom Brady is better than Peyton Manning because he has more Super Bowl victories, but somehow Terry Bradshaw isn’t. Michael Jordan is the best NBA player of all time because of his six championship rings, but Bill Russell’s 11 suddenly don’t matter. Nor do Robert Horry’s seven. How many times have we heard this kind of thing?

You could try to argue that using Horry - and others like him - is unfair because he’s not a franchise player. However, are we really going to pretend that all franchise players have the same kind of responsibility?

I mentioned Garnett, Nowitzki and Nash before, but the possible examples aren’t exclusive to the NBA. No one is going to seriously argue that Lionel Messi is somehow a worse soccer player because he’s never won a World Cup. Similarly, imagine how dumb it would be for someone to argue Joe Flacco over Philip Rivers as an all-time quarterback because of the Ravens winning a Super Bowl.

Moreover, think about how silly this distinction is for being seemingly limited to franchise players. Would anyone apply this kind of standard toward secondary or supporting players? Is anyone going to say Marshawn Lynch was a better running back than Barry Sanders because Lynch won a Super Bowl with the Seahawks and didn’t spend all of his career with the Detroit Lions, probably the worst-ran football franchise ever?

Either way, this isn’t the important part.

Rings give us a feeling of relatability with athletes

People don’t like to admit this, but rings offer a shorthand, inaccurate, but easily understood way for sports fans to feel like there’s something to simple to understand about success. If you look at life through that lens, it’s easy to see why.

This kind of mentality promotes the idea that if you want to win, you have to work hard, have a winning attitude and maybe innately be a winner. Those guys who won MVP awards, but didn’t get the championship ring? They’re just like you in their constant drive for something they may never win.

Life doesn’t work that way though, for you, me and even the athletes we cover. It’s important that we celebrate the winners, but understand the underlying process that led them to their success or failures, even if some of it can be credited to other people. Respect for a player’s legacy and the factors outside of their control don’t have to be exclusive.

Not that I’m at all comparable to athletes who make millions putting their bodies on the line for their work, but I wouldn’t be anywhere near the sports geek and armchair analyst that I am today were it not for my dad: the most important man in my life and my biggest inspiration.

I also wouldn’t be motivated to write for The Daily Campus were it not for the constant support (even if sometimes sarcastic) I got from all of my colleagues in the sports department. This includes section editor Matt Zampini, Elan DeCarlo, Dan Madigan, managing editor Matt Zabierek and several others for my “hot takes.” Hell, I’m pretty psyched at the hilarious hate comments I’ve gotten for my opinions.

The same gratitude goes to all of my readers out there, whether it was just my colleagues at The Daily Campus, my other friends or even if you’re just a student reading this for the first time. Follow me on Twitter (@DC_Anokh) if you’d like to talk or even just shoot me a message on Facebook. I promise I’m not scary.

Through all my cynicism and dry sense of humor, thank you for allowing me to share my love for professional sports. 


Anokh Palakurthi is associate life editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at anokh.palakurthi@uconn.edu. He tweets @DC_Anokh.