Monday night, the Golden State Warriors beat the Cleveland Cavaliers, 129-120, to win their second NBA title in the past three years, fulfilling the destiny many assumed was imminent when Kevin Durant signed with the team last July 4. There are some who believe that this is bad for the NBA. This superteam is so obviously better than everyone else that LeBron James -- maybe the best NBA player of all time -- just had five of the best games of his life and his team still got smashed.
And then there are some who believe this is good for the NBA. The league has always had dynasties and the Warriors are fun to watch and full of memorable personalities that we'll be talking about for the next 30 years. This has always struck me as a bit of Concern Trolling. Why are we so worried about the health and well-being of a billion-dollar sports league? Do not worry about the NBA. If you like basketball, there will always be lots of basketball for you to watch, played at the highest level and for the highest stakes, on your television or on your mobile device. The NBA doesn't require, or particularly notice, your fretting. One suspects it will find a way to survive a multiple-championship team with charismatic superstars who play the game in an aesthetically pleasing fashion.
The other major takeaway revolves around Durant, widely considered one of the 25 greatest NBA players of all time and undoubtedly the best active player never to have won a championship. (He was in the top-five ever in that category before Monday, along with Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, Elgin Baylor and either Patrick Ewing or John Stockton, take your pick.) Regardless of your thoughts about how Durant went about getting his ring -- and I'd argue the "way he went about it" was "being one of the best basketball players who ever lived" -- he has one, now and forever. Cross him off that list.
So: Who else is on that list? Now that Durant has his ring, who are the best professional athletes in the four major North American professional team sports (MLB, NFL, NBA, NHL) that are still chasing a championship?
A few notes before we begin the list:
- The list is cumulative rather than current. That's to say, Aaron Judge might be the best hitter in baseball this very second, but he's a rookie, so obviously he can't be on this list. Mike Trout and Bryce Harper haven't won titles, but neither is 26 years old yet. To be high on this list, you have to have been around a while, to have had many opportunities and fallen short.
- Baseball players, by definition, are going to be a little lower on this list because it's simply harder to win a championship in baseball than in other sports. Ted Williams never won a title; Barry Bonds never won a title; Ty Cobb never won a title. There are few equivalents -- Dan Marino, maybe? -- in other sports of players reaching that level of dominance without it eventually paying off in a title.
- Think of this list as sort of a Greatest Player Alive ranking, to be updated as the years go along. Baseball is Willie Mays. NBA is Michael Jordan. NHL is Wayne Gretzky. NFL is … Tom Brady, maybe? It's a dynamic document.
Here are the 10 greatest active professional sports careers without a championship, now that Kevin Durant finally got his. All of these are no-brainer future Hall of Famers. Let me know who I missed at firstname.lastname@example.org.
10. Philip Rivers, San Diego Chargers. Does this seem too high? I dunno. According to Pro Football Reference's Approximate Value -- as close as football analysts get to the equivalent of WAR in baseball -- Rivers is one of the 30 best NFL players of all time. (And he is behind only three active players: Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Julius Peppers, who is in our honorable mentions.) The Chargers had a few real shots at it a few years ago, but he seems about as far away from a title right now as you or I.
9. Larry Fitzgerald, Arizona Cardinals. His touchdown in Super Bowl XLIII remains one of the greatest Super Bowl-ending plays that did not, in fact, end a Super Bowl. Fitzgerald probably missed his best chance a couple of years ago, but he's going to give it one more shot with Carson Palmer this season.
8. Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers. This is probably too high for a guy who is only 29 years old, but he's the greatest pitcher of our time and one of the best pitchers ever to step on a mound. He has also reached the playoffs a ton of times but has never broken through to the World Series itself. His team is a perpetual contender. He's got to make it there sometime, right?
7. Vince Carter, Memphis Grizzlies. Carter has never even made the Finals, on all sorts of different teams, some of which he was the star of and some of which he was a role player on. He's now 40, but he still played in 73 games last year. If there's anyone who deserves a spot on the end of the Warriors' bench to chase a ring before he retires, it's Vince. (Cleveland might work too.)
6. Ichiro Suzuki, Miami Marlins. For what it's worth, Ichiro did win a Japan Series title in 1996.
5. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder. Any realistic hopes of winning a title went away with Durant, not that Westbrook doesn't play like his heart is beating out of his chest anyway. He's going to be 29 in November, so the clock is ticking a little faster than you might think.
4. Adrian Beltre, Texas Rangers. He came this close to a championship in 2011 -- he hit .300 with two homers in that World Series -- but is further away now than he has been in some time. He's signed through 2018, so he'll get another shot at it next year, not that it matters: He's probably going to play at an All-Star level until he's 50.
3. Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals. His Caps fell short yet again this year in what might have been their best shot yet. Now his name is being tossed around in trade rumors.
2. Adrian Peterson, New Orleans Saints. He is the best running back of his generation. As much fun as it might be to see him on New Orleans, this doesn't put him much closer to a Super Bowl than Rivers.
1. Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers. Now that Durant has his ring, Paul is the guy who Needs A Ring To Validate His Career more than anyone else. As it happens, he's about to become a free agent. Choose your next move wisely, CP3.
Just missing the list: Carmelo Anthony, Carlos Beltran, James Harden, Jarome Iginla, Henrik Lundqvist, Carson Palmer, Julius Peppers, Matt Ryan, Joe Thornton, J.J. Watt
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