One of the great tragedies of the modern NBA is the legacy of Charles Barkley.
Barkley, now one of the stars of TNT’s Inside the NBA, has become an afterthought in the discussion of the game’s best. Thanks to his greatness on television and our short memories, Barkley’s career is often thrown to the wayside because of one simple reason: he never won a championship.
NBA legacies are a funny thing, we base an incredible amount on how we remember individuals on their team’s success. Instead of context, fans, media members and the general population throw around the count of rings in debates about players like team’s throw away merchandise during commercial breaks to fans.
Sure, it’s nice getting one of those shirts but, aren’t those shirts probably the cheapest ones they have? I’m not saying rings don’t matter because they really do, what I’m saying is, context matters.
If we continue the analogy of team’s giving away merch, there’s a difference between the million-dollar half-court shot and when they hand you a towel when you enter the arena. Both came from the team and mean something however; they are far from equal.
All I ask for is in debates and moments in remembering a player, context is explained. There is no player in league history hurt more by the lack of context in understanding his career than Charles Barkley.
Every time Shaquille O’Neal jokes that Chuck doesn’t have a title, O’Neal proves the ridiculousness in how Barkley is remembered by the common NBA fan.
No all-time great has been given less and faced a more difficult road. During his entire prime, Barkley played one season with another All-NBA level player.
In an era where Jordan had Pippen and Malone had Stockton, Barkley didn’t have anyone close. Shaq for example won titles with Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade by his side while Barkley got one season of Kevin Johnson as an All-NBA member, how is that fair?
That’s the thing though, sports and life aren’t fair. The reason we see players like Kevin Durant and LeBron James leave situations they love for one’s with more support and a greater chance at a title is simple: no one wants to be Charles Barkley.
As Barkley puts it, he’s a member of the “Shit List”, the best in their sport to have never won a title. Dan Marino, Barry Sanders, Malone, Barkley and a host of other All-Timers are faced with a brutal reality that although they are remembered as great, they have an irreplaceable hole in their resumes.
Barkley is in a particularly unenviable place as the guy on TV who gets routinely ripped for what he didn’t do instead of being celebrated for what he did. When a guy like Draymond Green says he was better than Barkley and people agree, you know there is a fundamental issue with how we remember players.
So, that’s the point of making a list like this isn’t it? To establish a place to remember these players. To Green and everyone else who has every disrespected Sir Charles, the rest of this column is dedicated to you.
For his six-year prime, Barkley averaged 25 points, 12 rebounds and 4 assists on super-efficient shooting. In the history of basketball, only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Wilt Chamberlain have had a single season that matched Barkley’s prime.
Charles Barkley: Per Game (1987-88 to 1992-93)
Furthermore, Barkley is top 13 all-time in player efficiency rating (PER), true shooting percentage, win shares per 48, box plus/minus, offensive box plus/minus and value over replacement (VAR) in the regular season. Based on those numbers alone, Barkley should be remembered as one of the 25 best players in basketball history.
But I’m nowhere near done.
In the playoffs, Barkley sits top 20 all-time in PER (ninth), win shares per 48 (13th), box plus minus (12th), offensive box plus minus (ninth), and VORP (19th). The only number he sees a major drop in from regular season to post season is true shooting percentage where he sits 29th. The doesn’t sound great on the surface until you see he’s ahead of the LeBron James, Michael Jordan, Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki and a host of other players seen as better than him.
Simply put, Barkley is one of the most underrated players in basketball history. His prime saw peaks very few have even touched, and his playoff performances were nothing to scoff at.
In his only final’s appearance after the 1992-93 season that saw him win league MVP in his first year in Phoenix, Barkley averaged 27 points, 13 rebounds and six assists in the loss to the Bulls. This series is among other reasons why Barkly is ahead of Malone on my list. In six games against the Bulls with a worse team, Barkley was dominant in a series that was arguably MJ’s best of his career.
It’s hard to fault Barkley for losing a series where Michael Jordan averaged 41 points a game.
Barkley’s career is a series of what ifs. What if he was drafted two years earlier and won a title with the 1983 76ers? What if Julius Erving was five years younger when Barkley entered the league and he had an actual running mate in Philadelphia? What if instead of the Suns, Barkley was traded to the Lakers like the Sixers originally agreed upon?
Every era in sports has those guys who never won the ultimate prize and you’re always left wondering why.
For Barkley, he played in an Eastern Conference that featured the Bad Boy Pistons and then MJ’s Bulls so that was tough. Then he goes to the west and faces Payton and Kemp’s Sonics, Hakeem’s Rockets, Robinson’s Spurs and the Malone’s Jazz just in his own conference. Each of those teams were better built, with better coaches and executives, is that Barkley’s fault?
In sports, the end goal is a championship. As Herm Edwards famously said, “You play to win the game” and Barkley never played a season where he won his final game.
It’s a complicated legacy to rank among other all-timers. His peak was as high as anyone, but the lack of a championship is undeniable.
This is the plight of Charles Barkley, the 23rd greatest player of all-time.
One thing is certain of Barkley, he was and always will be, much more than a broadcaster. Don’t let Shaq or anyone else fool you, the Round Mound of Rebound is one of the best players in NBA history.