The 2013-14 Clippers are perhaps the most talented team that Chris Paul had ever been a part of. First and foremost, there is Paul himself, the best point guard in the league. Then there is Blake Griffin, who finished third in MVP voting. DeAndre Jordan leads the NBA in rebounds and is top five in blocks. Jamal Crawford is the 6th Man of the Year. JJ Reddick, Matt Barnes, Darren Collison and more have helped combine to make this one of the deepest teams in the league. And at the helm is the mastermind Doc Rivers, a man as respected for his motivational and leadership ability as his X and Os. The fit was perfect.
Except that the result, for Chris Paul, was very much the same as it has been year after year. As the clock expired in Los Angeles on May 15 and the Clippers found themselves on the losing end of a 104-98 score-line to the Thunder, Paul watched another season end prematurely.
For all his individual accolades and talent, Paul has never been past the Second Round of the playoffs in his nine-year NBA career. A mixture of bad teams, bad fortune, and the loaded West have kept the league’s best point guard from the NBA’s Promised Land. And as he inches closer to the 30s and his body continues to break down, we wonder if Paul will ever be able to get there.
The man is currently on a dubious list that I like to call the ‘Elgin Baylor All Stars’, named after the former Laker great. Baylor, in my eyes, is the greatest of the NBA’s Lords Without Rings - superstars who retired with a championship missing from their trophy cabinet. Baylor played in 11 NBA All Star games, made 10 All NBA first-team appearances and averaged 27.4 points and 13.5 rebounds in his career. Yet, his Lakers never won a title despite making eight Finals appearances. It was only in the season that he retired (1971-72) to injuries that his team finally broke free to win a championship.
At any given moment in the NBA, there is one player holding on to that Elgin Baylor Championship Belt – the player with the greatest legacy without a championship. Currently – or until the day he announces his retirement – 40-year-old Steve Nash is the title-holder of that belt. Nash has won two MVP awards, been an All Star eight times, and was in seven various All NBA Teams. He is a five-time assist leader and four-time member of the 40-90-50 shooting club, and will retire as one of the greatest point guards in NBA history. But Nash has never it made past the NBA Conference Finals in his career, and with the way things are tilted right now, it seems likely that the Canadian will retire ring-less.
Sometimes, talent isn’t enough to get a great player through to the next level, to join the Champions’ club. Luck, circumstance and timing can play a huge part. Sometimes, the player can be stuck in teams that are never good enough to defeat more balanced opponents. Sometimes, the teams can be hit with untimely injuries or be broken apart due to financial constraints. Sometimes, the difference between victory and defeat can be the bounce of a ball or the whistle of a referee in the opponent’s direction.
Not winning a title doesn’t discount the efforts of legends like Baylor, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, John Stockton, or Allen Iverson, but it does leave a blemish on all their careers. Basketball is a team game, and the ultimate goal of every team in the world’s greatest basketball competition – the NBA – is to be the best.
No one has suffered the blemish as cruelly as Baylor, not only because of his exceptional talents, but also because of how close he got to filling in that last, most important blank space in his career’s resume. In that (slightly depressing) vein, here are the three ‘Elgin Baylor All Stars’, the current most talented players in the league without an NBA title. These players are at or near the peak of their powers, are the masters of their own championship destinies, and have been in the league long enough for their fan-bases to start getting restless.
Because titles aren’t guaranteed even for the superstars from Day One, I will only count players who have completed at least seven full seasons in the NBA, which means that a certain NBA MVP from Oklahoma City is only off the hook for a few more weeks unless his team can end the 2014 season as the last ones standing. I have also left out Steve Nash, because he simply isn’t good enough to be the master of his own destiny any more.
At the end of his 10th NBA season, Dwight Howard can boast of three Defensive Player of the Year trophies, a Finals appearance, eight All Star trips, and seven All NBA nods. And yet, Howard continues to face criticism for not having that it factor which turns great players into champions.
Howard’s talents – especially on the defensive end – have made him one of the top Centers in the league for over half a decade. He enjoyed his best years in Orlando and even took the underrated Magic to the 2009 Finals. He suffered a lost year with the Lakers before finding a place for himself in the Rockets, with whom he lost in the First Round this year.
On the road ahead, Howard’s Rockets have the pieces to regroup and upgrade to becoming a contender, but Howard’s back injuries have meant that he himself seems half a step slower than he was in his Orlando days.
Another year, another disappointing finish for Paul. Those individual accolades – the All Star games, the All NBA nods, the assists and steals rankings – must be starting to become a burden for CP3 the longer he goes without the ultimate glory.
Paul is known as being a consummate winner, hungry for the title, and an ideal teammate to raise any squad to the next level. But he faced disappointing playoffs losses with an underdog team in New Orleans, and the disappointment has carried on with him in LA as the Clippers have lost in the First or Second round in each of his first three seasons with the squad.
With the shadow of the Sterling fiasco hanging over the team, Paul’s future and the team’s future seem uncertain. If the core of the Clippers sticks around and Griffin gets better, we can expect Paul to be back in the hunt again next season. Just don’t think that things are going to get any easier: any title in the West will mean going through Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook for the foreseeable future.
In some circles, you would be told that there is no player blessed with greater scoring talents in the league than Carmelo Anthony. In many of those circles, you would also be reminded that there are few players who have made less of their talents than Anthony.
Through 11 years in the NBA, Carmelo has made the All Star and All NBA rounds and led the league in scoring, but he has still never been past the Conference Finals stage in his career. That trip was back in 2009 with the Nuggets. Less than two years later, Anthony joined the New York Knicks, but moving to an easier Conference hasn’t made success any easier for him.
Currently, the team sits outside the playoffs with no easy paths to improvement in the foreseeable future. The question hovers over Anthony now, who has to decide if he wants to stick with this team or move to brighter shores and join a real contender. But even if he does so, there are some circles where you would be told that – because of his style of play and mentality – he may never truly have enough to convert even a contender into a champion.
Howard, Paul and Anthony could potentially be a diet-version of Malone, Stockton, and Barkley of our time by the time their careers are over: fantastic, MVP-caliber players, who could never fulfill their championship promise.
But who knows how the stroke of luck will fall, maybe even in their favour? A superstar like Gary Payton lost in two NBA finals with two different teams before playing a bit part in Miami’s title-winning side in 2006. Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen all seemed to be stuck in similar situations to where Paul, Howard, and Melo are right now, until they joined forces in Boston to win a title in 2008, and then Allen jumped ship to Miami to win another one in 2013. After years of trial and turmoil, Dirk Nowitzki finally put the icing on the top of his Hall of Fame career with a title for the Mavericks in 2011.
The future for Paul, Howard, and Anthony isn’t as bleak as it is for someone in their twilight, like Nash. The former three are all under 30 (Anthony turns 30 next week) and – if health permits – they should all be able to enjoy 4-5 years more as All Stars and then, a few more years as role players.
If luck, circumstance and timing work in their favour, then they still have enough time to play their cards right and join the Champions’ club. If not, then their ideal NBA story might forever remain incomplete.