Sports | February 28, 2023 11:06 am

Charles Barkley Says It’s Okay If Damian Lillard Never Wins a Ring — and He’s Right

Where’s the fun in a foregone conclusion of a championship?

Damian Lillard drives to the hoop between two defenders.
Will Lillard be an all-time great, even without a championship?
Alika Jenner / Contributor, Getty Images

Charles Barkley, one of the NBA’s all-time great stars, who alongside icons like Karl Malone and Patrick Ewing infamously never won a championship, says he simply has to live with that fact and is proud he never joined a “super team,” à la Lebron James and Kevin Durant. In his mind, taking that route to a title is “like cheating.”

“I would never join a super team because I know it won’t mean as much” to win a Larry O’Brien Trophy, Barkley told Steven A. Smith on Monday during ESPN’s morning talk show, First Take. “The one that Dirk Nowitzki got is worth two or three in my opinion because he never left Dallas. He said, ‘Hey, I’ll do the best I can. Hopefully, they get me some help.’”

He added that NBA players today “give in to peer pressure a lot more than guys in my generation.”

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While it’s unclear if there was ever collusion among multiple NBA superstars of the ’80s and ’90s who, via free agency, would depart franchises that drafted them and meld their powers together in a different location with intentions of dominating the rest of the league, Barkley took the opportunity to criticize those who’ve done so in recent history in light of Damian Lillard’s 71-point outing this past weekend. Lillard, who was drafted by the Portland Trail Blazers, said in 2021 that he would “never” join a super team because, to him, a championship with one would be inauthentic. 

“That’s just not something I can do,” he told hosts of the Million $ Worth of Game podcast. “I’d rather go out there and put my best foot forward and lose before I do that.” Lillard backed that sentiment up last year when he signed a two-year extension to stay with the Blazers. 

Seemingly doing his best impression of a journalist, Smith cross-examined Barkley, asking Barkley “with respect” about his time with the Phoenix Suns and the Houston Rockets — two teams that some would call super teams given their respective bevy of All-Star, veteran players. Barkley, who was drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers, pointed out that he was traded in both of those circumstances. 

“I didn’t force my way out of either place,” Barkley said. “I was very frustrated in Philly because I was hearing trade rumors for three years [and] I never wanted to leave Phoenix. I thought the Suns did me dirty in that situation.”

He went on to say that even if he had won an NBA championship alongside Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon — who, together, won their own title just two seasons prior to the acquisition of Barkley in 1996 — “it wouldn’t have been the same feeling” as if he had won a ring as the undisputed leader of a roster. “The stress that goes with being the leader of a team, it’s a big deal,” Barkley said. “Role players, they don’t get no blame.”

In that podcast interview two years ago, Lillard did admit that he’d help recruit a star player to join him in Portland as a free agent. He also said that if the Blazers ever traded him to a franchise that then formed a super team, he would have to accept such a move because it would be out of his control. 

Why are these super teams being formed anyway? Lillard thinks it partly has to do with media pressure. When there are discussions about the greatest players ever, questions about their championship pedigree is always mentioned. Lillard even invoked Barkley’s name, saying he’s always been taunted by the press for not winning a title.

“I’m glad he does not give into the peer pressure,” Barkley said of Lillard on Monday. “It’s alright to be a great player and have loyalty toward your city and want to stay in the same place…It’s alright to do your best [and come up short].”

Given the unmitigated disaster that has been the Brooklyn Nets super team of the past few seasons, maybe the NBA will see fewer such squads take to the hardwood in the future. It’s awfully difficult to build a roster of individual stars and get them to play a cohesive version of their sport that generates wins. We’ve not only seen this in basketball, but also baseball and hockey, and we’re witnessing it right now in Premier League soccer with Chelsea F.C. (It’s hard to come up with NFL teams that are one-to-one comparisons, considering the strict salary cap financial structure of the league and the relative enormity of the rosters.)

Besides, it’s way more fun for die hard fans — any franchise’s true revenue base — to watch teams build from the ground up, attach themselves to home-grown talent and win a title after a period of toil. The payoff is that much sweeter. Otherwise, a championship feels like a foregone conclusion.

Throwing around gobs of money in a fit to get what you want — let’s leave that to the Big Tech bros.