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Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Padding the Stats: More Than Championship Rings

June 28, 2023

While the idea behind this column is for me to write about whatever crosses my mind, I typically try to tie the topic in to Nebraska athletics as much as possible. This week won’t be any different, but we’re going to take a winding path to get there. Stick with me.

Anybody who follows me on Twitter can probably tell I’m a big NBA fan, and one of the most prevalent topics among NBA media members and fans over the last month or so has been the future of Damian Lillard.

The Portland Trail Blazers’ star point guard turns 33 next month. Despite arguably a career-best season for Lillard, the Blazers still finished 13th in the Western Conference, missing the playoffs for a second straight season. Portland got lucky in the lottery and landed the third pick, a year after the Blazers took a high-upside swing on 19-year-old Shaedon Sharpe with the seventh overall pick.

Leading up to last week’s draft, one of the dominant storylines was what Portland would do with the third pick — use it in a trade to land ready-made help for Lillard or keep it and use the pick on a talented young prospect to add to the team’s core for the future. 

Blazers brass chose the latter, drafting Scoot Henderson, a dynamic 19-year-old point guard who spent the last two years in the NBA G League playing for the Ignite program.

Since Portland didn’t cash in all their chips at the draft to make a big trade, the next step would be for Lillard to demand a trade himself, right? That’s the narrative many of the talking head shows seemed to be spinning, and it’s one many basketball fans are in turn regurgitating.

Somewhere along the line over the past several years, in the NBA more than any other sport or league, anything short of a championship has become a failure. The almighty ring is the only thing that matters and the only true symbol of accomplishment.

The impact of so-called “Rings Culture” is that many people talking about the NBA — fans, writers, podcasters, TV analysts and so on — talk about the league in black and white terms: teams should either be contending for a title or blowing it up to start a rebuild so they might be able to do so at some point in the future. If your team likely tops out as a first or, at best, a second-round playoff exit, you’re better off not even making the playoffs so you can start acquiring the assets to build your next playoff team, one you hope will have a higher ceiling.

This belief in turn is applied to the league’s best players — both those up-and-coming stars still on rookie contracts and established veterans in or approaching the end of their prime. If your team doesn’t have a shot at a title, everybody else seems to want your star to go somewhere else, as if winning a ring is the only form of validation for a well-regarded professional athlete. And if your team is lucky and skilled enough to land a young star, you better start moving toward contention early or the whispers about that star asking out start to get louder and louder. I experienced that first hand as a Phoenix Suns fan with Devin Booker.

That mindset is not healthy for the NBA as a whole. Every year, there is going to be a small handful of teams in a league of 30 with a realistic shot at winning a title. If you only had five or six teams that were truly trying to win while everybody else tried to sell off their stars and tank for draft positioning, the NBA would be pretty boring to watch, especially with 82 regular season games, the play-in tournament and four best-of-seven playoff series.

There are 30 franchises which equals 30 fan bases across the country and all over the world. There are enough star players to go around, and those fan bases outside of the contender group deserve the chance to watch good basketball with a star player they admire and identify with leading the way too.

Blowing a team up and starting over again is also much easier to suggest when you’re a media member covering the league as a whole or a fan of another team. You don’t have season tickets to watch the team win 20 to 30 games over the next few years. You don’t have to worry about getting butts in seats to watch a lousy product, all in the hopes that you’ll land a star or two similar to or better than the one you just traded away plus an even better supporting cast. You have no skin in the game.

It doesn’t have to be “ring or bust.” Playoff runs that don’t ultimately produce a championship can create lasting memories (says this fan who fell in love with the Phoenix Suns in the Seven Seconds or Less era and is still waiting to see my first title).

A fan I discussed this topic with on Twitter Tuesday summed up my thoughts well.

Some stars do eventually end up asking to be traded to a better situation, and almost inevitably they get their wish. It’s a player’s league, after all. But that isn’t and shouldn’t be viewed as the only acceptable path.

The situation in Brooklyn changed dramatically from when Kevin Durant signed with the Nets to last year, and there’s nothing wrong with him expressing the desire to play somewhere else. There’s also nothing wrong with Lillard to this point showing no interest in leaving Portland even though the Blazers have almost no shot at winning a title within the next couple of years, no matter how much talking heads or other fans want to chase him out of town.

Players are people too, and we all have our own individual values and motivations. Lillard is as beloved in Portland as any player in the league is in any city. He’s played his entire career there and Portland has become his home as much his hometown of Oakland, California, or his college town of Ogden, Utah. The Blazers may have missed the playoffs the last two years, but Lillard’s own injuries played a big part in that and it’s not like the Blazers are completely bereft of talent or prospects to field a competitive team in the near future. 

As of now, while Lillard does want to win — like any high-level competitor does — it appears he values trying to do so in Portland more than forcing a trade to another franchise that might fast-track his path toward a title. That’s his prerogative.

And here, 1,100 words later, we finally reach the Nebraska portion of this column (I promised it was coming). Cornhusker fans just witnessed — and benefitted from — a superstar making a difficult choice for reasons other than winning.

I am, of course, talking about Jordy Bahl.

Unlike Lillard, Bahl did choose to leave her previous team, though I’d say the reasons she left are comparable to the reasons Lillard wants to stay. Bahl is leaving as easy a path to a title as you’ll find in college volleyball with powerhouse Oklahoma to return home and play for the Cornhuskers, a team that made the NCAA Tournament last year but certainly isn’t coming off three straight national championships like the Sooners.

Bahl has been very open and honest about her motivations, from her initial transfer announcement (before she had publicly committed to Nebraska) to her introductory press conference last week. She loves her home state and the people in it, and she wants to help grow the game of softball in that same community. 

Ticket demand for softball tickets next season has skyrocketed and Bahl has already made multiple public appearances since becoming a Husker, the latest of which was at the Hail Varsity Club on Tuesday.

The Omaha Stormchasers are hosting Bahl for an autograph signing at Warner Park on Friday, as well as a busy first couple of weeks back in Nebraska continue for the Papillion-La Vista graduate.

Whether it’s Damian Lillard in the NBA or Jordy Bahl in college softball, it’s always worth remembering that the superstars we watch perform on television are real human beings with lives and dreams away from the field of competition.

It doesn’t always have to be about the rings.

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