NBA Finals: The legacies on the line in Game 6 for the four leading Finals MVP candidates

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·8-min read
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The NBA championship and the legacies of the four favorites to win Finals MVP are on the line Tuesday night in Milwaukee, where the Bucks, holding a 3-2 series lead, host the Phoenix Suns in Game 6 at 9 p.m. ET on ABC

Those Finals MVP odds, by the way, courtesy of BetMGM: Giannis Antetokounmpo (-350), Chris Paul (+600), Devin Booker (+600) and Khris Middleton (+2500). What better time than the first of Milwaukee's close-out opportunities to consider how two trophies named for Larry O'Brien and Bill Russell — both of which will be on hand in Fiserv Forum on Tuesday — might solidify their careers in a historical sense.

Giannis Antetokounmpo would climb the NBA's all-time player rankings with a championship and Finals MVP. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Giannis Antetokounmpo would climb the NBA's all-time player rankings with a championship and Finals MVP. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

The list of two-time MVPs with a championship to his name is 11 long with legends of the game: LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Tim Duncan, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Moses Malone, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell and Bob Pettit. Antetokounmpo can join them on Tuesday.

Only two players have won multiple MVPs and failed to win a title: Steve Nash and Karl Malone. Fair or not, that fact came to define their Hall of Fame careers, and they are still forced to answer for it to this day.

"It was a lot of disappointment not to win a championship in my career," Nash said at his 2015 retirement news conference. He faced questions about that heartbreak upon becoming coach of the Brooklyn Nets.

"I accept the responsibility for not winning one," Malone said on last year's "Last Dance" documentary, as if it is a burden he carries with him every day. Rings do not define a player's greatness, but they sure do help.

Heck, only two other retired players have earned a single MVP and fallen short of the ultimate NBA goal: Allen Iverson and Charles Barkley. They join Nash and Malone on a tier below the all-timers, and there is no doubt we would reconsider their ranking on the list of greatest players in league history if each had a ring.

Russell Westbrook and James Harden still bear the weight of their playoff failures. For Antetokounmpo to relieve even a modicum of postseason pressure so early in his career would be a gift that continues to give for however long he can maintain the prime of his career on a contender. Not again instead is just again.

A championship this season would raise the ceiling for where we imagine Antetokounmpo might rank when his career is through. Oscar Robertson, Jerry West and Julius Erving are candidates for the top-15 players of all time with a single ring to their names. That is the company he could eventually keep. The only way to crack the list of 10 greatest players ever is to win multiple titles, and you cannot get the second without the first.

Chris Paul, Phoenix Suns

Ask Paul how much a ring would mean to his legacy. "At the end of the day, I always say, 'Nobody cares about your story, unless you win it,'" the 36-year-old star told ESPN's Rachel Nichols over the weekend.

The title of Best Point Guard Not Named Magic Johnson is up for debate. Johnson was a 6-foot-9 anomaly who could play all five positions and started at center to seal the 1980 Finals, so there is no consensus on the greatest traditional point guard in basketball history. Can Paul really be the Point God without winning?

John Stockton should have the best argument, except for the absence of a ring. He is an 11-time All-NBA selection and five-time All-Defensive honoree. He has 20% more assists and steals than anyone else in league history, and his shooting splits for a 19-year career were 52/38/83 (60.8 true shooting percentage). But few people outside Utah would argue that Stockton is the one true Point God, because he never won.

Legends like Robertson, Curry, Isiah Thomas and even Jason Kidd, who won a title as a 37-year-old role player on the 2011 Dallas Mavericks, can always hold their championship rings over Stockton and Nash.

Robertson at 6-5 in 1960 also pushed the boundaries of what we expect from a typical floor general, but he has a great case for the crown. He made First or Second Team All-NBA his first 11 seasons — the first five of which he averaged a triple-double — and was the second-best player on Milwaukee's 1971 title team.  

Paul has compiled a résumé that rivals them all. He has made 10 appearances on an All-NBA roster and seven on the All-Defensive teams. He has a chance to catch Kidd for second in career assists and steals before he is finished. And he could win Finals MVP with monster outings in Games 6 and 7 of these Finals, something only Thomas and Johnson have accomplished among the all-time great point guards. 

A ring might not settle the debate, but it would at least legitimize his claim to that Point God nickname. A loss in Game 6 would mean four straight in the Finals and another playoff collapse in a career full of them — one more feather for the argument against Paul as the greatest traditional point guard in NBA history.

Devin Booker's standing in the league would only grow with wins in Games 6 and 7. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Devin Booker's standing in the league would only grow with wins in Games 6 and 7. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns

Only eight players have ever won Finals MVP by age 24: Kawhi Leonard, Tony Parker, Dwyane Wade, Duncan, Magic, Abdul-Jabbar, Dennis Johnson and Bill Walton. All eight are Hall of Famers, with the exception of Parker, who will presumably join them in the Class of 2023. Booker can become the ninth.

Booker was already building a case for induction, averaging 26 points per game over the past four seasons and twice making the All-Star Game in a loaded Western Conference. It would take a complete collapse of his career not to make the Hall if he were to win Finals MVP — maybe even if Paul wins in a Suns victory.

Not only would a title raise Booker's status historically, but it would strengthen his case as the alpha of the NBA's next generation. Fellow under-25 stars Luka Doncic, Jayson Tatum, Trae Young and Donovan Mitchell have not even made a Finals. Wins in Games 6 and 7 would give Booker cache his peers do not yet have, and that can carry some weight whenever the Suns have cap space to spend in free agency.

A Finals loss would not be so devastating for Booker, who still has plenty of time to chase a championship, no matter how often Paul might tell him these opportunities come once. It could, however, mean the difference in an argument about whether Booker is the best player on a title team or merely the second-best player on a team lucky to be in the Finals — a wild swing in the amount of gravitas he would hold in league circles.

Khris Middleton, Milwaukee Bucks

Middleton is a two-time All-Star, and in retrospect, it is a travesty that he was not named to this year's team over Eastern Conference selections Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic. A title would almost certainly mean he will never again be passed over by coaches for a reserve spot when his production warrants consideration.

And even one more All-Star Game selection, along with a ring, could make his Hall of Fame case. 

Only four two-time All-Stars are in the Hall: Walton, who won two NCAA championships, an MVP and a championship before injuries derailed his career; Dennis Rodman, a two-time Defensive Player of the Year and five-time champion; Joe Fulks, whose first four seasons came before the All-Star Game's 1951 debut; and Zelmo Beaty, who left the NBA in his prime to become a three-time ABA All-Star and ABA champion.

Middleton is not on their level. He is a whole lot closer to three-time All-Star and Hall of Famer Jamaal Wilkes. Their career numbers are strikingly similar, but Middleton would need a second ring to approach the three Wilkes won as a secondary and tertiary option on the Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Lakers.

Four All-Star selections and one championship were enough to propel Ben Wallace, Maurice Cheeks, Bobby Jones, Spencer Haywood, Billy Cunningham, Earl Monroe and Bob Davies to Springfield bronze.

That is the lane Middleton would be skating with a win on Tuesday.

A Finals MVP would only accelerate Middleton's future Hall consideration, although that feels far-fetched on a team led by Antetokounmpo, even for a guy averaging a 25-7-5 on 45/37/86 shooting splits in the series.

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Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach

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