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Great moments in desperate late-career title grabs

The NBA Finals may be over by the time you read this, in which case please don't spoil it for me. The only reason I bring it up is that I want to talk about Tracy McGrady, the seven-time All-Star and two-time scoring champion whose legacy may rest on the outcome of this series, even as he plays virtually no role in it.

For the decade in which Tracy McGrady was relevant (a period during which he flunked out of the first round of the playoffs seven times before getting injured and watching his team finally advance without his help), he occupied the classic role of the superstar who "can't get it done when it counts" - a necessary antithesis to the ultimate victor, who subsequently receives favorable comparisons for his "killer instinct" and his "will to win" and other mostly fictional traits. In Tracy McGrady's era, the victor was Kobe Bryant. No one really doubts that if McGrady had been the starting shooting guard on the Lakers in 2001 instead of Bryant they would have finished the postseason with the Larry O'Brien Trophy anyway - yet, somehow, in the NBA narrative, that McGrady didn't get to touch that particular trophy and was instead trapped on an Orlando team whose second-best player was Darrell Armstrong is the most significant fact of his career.

Unless, maybe, he wins with the Spurs.

In basketball fandom, our ultimate absorption of the media-concocted notion that an NBA player's career is pointless if he hasn't won a championship is perhaps signaled above all by the stock we put into the Desperate Late-Career Title Grab. DLCTGs are generally undertaken by spinster-like former All-Stars who realize that if they don't get a ring before it's too late then their entire lives have been failures. Since none of us really want to acknowledge that all professional basketball careers are probably equally worthless, we willingly buy into the magic of the NBA Championship, which, as we've been told, bestows meaningfulness on all those who attain it. For this reason, fading superstars who squandered earlier opportunities to lead their own teams to glory are frequently willing to sign on for a final go-around with an established contender.

The fun thing about DLCTGs is that, although their entire existence is a concession to the importance of winning a title, they simultaneously prove the idiocy of our championship obsession: by finally winning at his least-great moment, the former superstar shows that the main reason that some guys end up with rings and others don't is that only some guys are fortunate enough to find themselves in the right circumstances. Maybe we all know it's dumb, but which of us wouldn't have liked to see our favorite unlucky NBA geriatric cheering on some LeBron-type as he brought the ultimate reward to, say, Reggie Miller or Chris Webber, so long unjustly denied?

This may be the golden age for DLCTGs. For players, there's more media pressure than ever not to be the next Barkley, and less "franchise loyalty" (whatever that is) than ever. This season, Steve Nash and Antawn Jamison both made DLCTGs with the Lakers and flopped spectacularly, like Karl Malone before them. Meanwhile, Rashard Lewis, who just six years ago signed a contract worth $118 million, is invisibly pursuing his first title with the Heat.

Most DLCTGs, I think, turn out to be unsuccessful: Mike Bibby and Zydrunas Ilgauskas both joined the Heat one year too early (just like Pete Maravich with the Celtics in 1980), and Vince Carter joined the Mavericks one year too late. In his final season, Darryl Dawkins was tragically waived by the Pistons in February of 1989.

There have been enough successful DLCTGs, however, to inspire me to create a top-ten list of the greatest instances of the phenomenon. For a player to qualify, he had to have won a championship with a franchise that was not the franchise with which he experienced his best years; he had to have contributed in a minimal (at best) role; he had to have never won a championship before; and he had to have retired soon after. I prefer guys who deliberately signed with successful teams over guys who were traded to them incidentally, but I included the latter if a "last chance" quality nevertheless had emerged.

In ascending order of DLCTG-greatness: Isaiah Rider (Lakers, 2001); P.J. Brown (Celtics, 2008); Steve Smith (Spurs, 2003); Elden Campbell (Pistons, 2004); Kevin Willis (Spurs, 2003);  Gary Payton (Heat, 2006); Spencer Haywood (Lakers, 1980); Glenn Robinson (Spurs, 2005); Juwan Howard (Heat, 2012); Mitch Richmond (Lakers, 2002).

When the Heat triumphed last year, it was fun to see a Fab Fiver finally win something after so many close calls  - Jalen Rose's DLCTG with the Suns in '06-'07 hadn't worked out. Mitch Richmond, though, was the ultimate feel-good DLCTGer: a perennial All-Star stuck forever on mediocre teams, he came to Los Angeles for a ring in his final season - the only person you didn't have to hate on a celebrating Lakers team.

If McGrady wins with the Spurs, however, he'll top the list for sure. The ability gap between his prime years and his championship year is by far the largest. Fresh off a stint in China (where his CBA team finished in last place), with not a single '12-'13 NBA regular-season game under his belt, he's beyond irrelevant, having reluctantly slipped into that Scalabrine-esque "pitiable fan favorite" role.

Still, the weird idea that this might somehow bolster his Hall of Fame candidacy is floating around out there. I think the sense that some of us have is that, if McGrady wins now, it'll prove that he was supposed to win all along - that he was, during his peak, actually a winner, not a loser as we all believed. It'll retroactively cast his prime in a new light.

See? The NBA Championship is magic after all. It knows who deserves it. It just works in mysterious ways.