San Antonio Spurs: Does a title define the legacy for players and coaches?

MIAMI, FL - JUNE 11 : San Antonio Spurs team practice following Game Three of the 2014 NBA Finals on June 11, 2014. The San Antonio Spurs won the third game of the National Basketball Association Finals series against the defending champions Miami Heat, on the latters home court on Tuesday night, taking a 2-1 lead. (Photo by Hasan Huseyin Kosger/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
MIAMI, FL - JUNE 11 : San Antonio Spurs team practice following Game Three of the 2014 NBA Finals on June 11, 2014. The San Antonio Spurs won the third game of the National Basketball Association Finals series against the defending champions Miami Heat, on the latters home court on Tuesday night, taking a 2-1 lead. (Photo by Hasan Huseyin Kosger/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images) /

Championships filled up the San Antonio Spurs’ history since the 1998-99 season. Houston Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni had an interesting take on a title’s impact, however, for his best players.

1999, 2003, 2005, 2007 and 2014 — those were the seasons the San Antonio Spurs won a championship. It created their legacy as one of the NBA’s top franchises of the 2000’s and had Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili — all players in their respective primes — at the forefront. Duncan led this trio with five titles, while Parker and Ginobili each have three.

One can say these titles were not only accomplishments on a laundry list, but achievements that defined these players, given where they stood in the NBA for most of this millennium. This remains the case with players like LeBron James and Kevin Durant, who still sit under the microscope despite winning a championship (in LeBron’s case, multiple).

Houston Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni recent spoke on if a title will define James Harden and Chris Paul — two players who made numerous playoff appearances but never won gold. According to Ohm Youngmisuk of, D’Antoni does not think failing to win a championship takes anything away from what these players amassed this season:

“I read something the other day [that said] sure James Harden should be the MVP, sure Chris Paul and James have been great, sure they set a franchise record [for wins by] about six games’ worth, but they’ll ultimately be judged by if they win a championship or not,” he said. “Really? It doesn’t diminish what these guys have done.”

Sure, D’Antoni might not think this, but his Rockets have the NBA’s best record for the 2017-18 season (65-16 with one game remaining). They could beat out the next-best record, the Toronto Raptors, by seven games. So NBA fans do not exactly think it was proper for the coach, who has never made it past the conference finals, to say this:

I like Mike D'Antoni, but him saying the #Rockets don't need to win the #NBA championship for the season to be successful is the kind of mentality that has kept him from winning the championship. #ChampionshipOrBust

— Matt George (@LucaToniKukoc) April 11, 2018

Mike D'antoni just sealed a "no championship" season for the @HoustonRockets Only a coach who never won anything would say "not winning a championship d oesnt diminish their season" smh sorry Houston

— 3rd Coolest Monkey In The Jungle (@Basic_As_Grav) April 11, 2018

You're wrong, MIKE D'ANTONI. The playoffs WILL define your season. #Rockets

— Rip Nottmeyer (@riptalkinsports) April 11, 2018

There’s potential pressure on the Rockets to succeed and make the leap into the NBA Finals, especially for Paul’s legacy at 32 (almost 33) years old and Harden’s resume that’s Hall of Fame-esque. Along with D’Antoni’s postseason history, to use regular-season success as an excuse for a possible playoff blunder, it will pose questions of why he would say this.

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NBA fans remember teams that found success with title wins. The Los Angeles Lakers teams of the 1970’s, 1980’s, early 2000’s and 2009-10 all featured Hall of Fame players that had success defined on championships. Look at Kobe Bryant after Shaquille O’Neal was traded in the 2004 offseason. Questions surrounded Bryant for five years, on if he could win without O’Neal presence. It took until 2008 to reach the NBA Finals and 2009 to win it all, to silence those doubts, as Frank Isola of the Daily News noted nine years ago:

“It means nothing,” Bryant said Wednesday on the eve of Game 1 about winning a title in the post-Shaq era. “To me it’s about winning another one, just because I want to win another one. People think Shaq would have won a championship without me on that team, they’re crazy, you know what I’m saying? We needed Robert HorryDerek FisherRon Harper and everybody else, as well. I’m not worried about (my legacy) at all.”

It was not long ago that LeBron James faced skeptics each postseason. His first seven seasons with the Cleveland Cavaliers did not result in a championship, which raised questions on his title-winning abilities. Those increased after the 2011 NBA Finals loss with the Miami Heat, the team he joined in 2010 to finally win a ring. He did so in the 2011-12 season (against an Oklahoma City Thunder team that had Harden) and followed in 2012-13.

Even after making seven consecutive NBA Finals, there are still questions on James’ legacy since he may not win as many titles as Michael Jordan. Even if he wins a fourth in June, it’s still two fewer than the Chicago Bulls legend.

What about players who never won a title? Charles Barkley, despite his success with the Philadelphia 76ers, Phoenix Suns and Houston Rockets, still gets mentioned in the conversation of players who never achieved the ultimate NBA milestone. Maybe, all these mentions relate to his prominent role on Inside the NBA, but there’s still something left to be desired with his career. Steven Ruiz of USA Today even thinks so.

Barkley is most known for his rebounding, but he was an efficient scorer and an underrated passer. Over a ten year span from 1986 to 1996, Barkley averaged 24.7 points, 11.8 rebounds and 4.2 assists, while shooting 54.1% from the field. He’s also one of only four players on this list to win an MVP award.

John Stockton and Karl Malone, one of the NBA’s greatest pairings, also fall onto this list. These two reached the 1997 and 1998 NBA Finals together, only to fall to Jordan’s Bulls. Malone reached it in 2004, but fell again. Both deserved spots in the Hall of Fame and had outstanding careers, but if they reached the title pantheon of the Association, wouldn’t we think greater of their legacies?

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This even goes beyond players. Head coaches get defined on title wins, as well. Arguably, the only coach that received a “pass” was the Jazz’s Jerry Sloan, due to the historic run he took Utah on in the 1990’s and into the 2000’s. That included the aforementioned NBA Finals appearances with Stockton and Malone. If he pulled off just one title, though, would fans include him with some of the game’s elite and not just the highest of the upper-tier?

What about George Karl? He was a head coach from 1984-2016 and never won a title, missing the playoffs just five times and making the 1997 finals with the Seattle SuperSonics. The all-time wins list for NBA head coaches places him at No. 6, but how often is he mentioned as one of the greatest ever?,, and are among the websites that do not even consider Karl to be in the top 10. What if he won just one championship? Does this sentiment change on his legacy, instead of being the coach that lasted for a while but feuded with players? 

From the Spurs angle, what if Gregg Popovich never led any of his teams to titles? Would we talk about him like Sloan — a coach that lasted for a long time and had great players but failed to win it all? As the greatest leader in San Antonio history, sure, but not on the level of the Phil Jacksons or Red Auerbach’s of the world.

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So, yes, there should be a drive for D’Antoni to win a title, if his and the players he coaches’ legacies mean anything to him. Regular-season success can only bring someone so far, even if it is a trip to the Hall of Fame. It’s about where these NBA figures are viewed in history, and a championship skews it one way or the other. These Rockets may look great in the regular season, but will be far more memorable with a title than without. Otherwise, it’s just the latest footnote in league history.