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Mitch Richmond and the NBA's heroic losers

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Richmond had a career replete with losing seasons and a dearth of playoff action. That doesn't matter. There's no denying his greatness. This is what we can learn from Richmond's Hall of Fame career.

Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

Mitch Richmond never won much at the NBA level. His career win-loss record stands at 432-544, or a win percentage of .442. Compared to his top shooting guard peers Reggie Miller and Clyde Drexler (no one was truly Michael Jordan's peer), Miller's career win percentage was .552 and Drexler's was .612.

Rock Richmond played in 23 playoff games. Miller had 144 playoff games. Drexler played in 145. Richmond does have a championship ring, earned with the 2002 Lakers. But in that playoff run, he played exactly twice. Each appearance was in garbage time, including his solitary minute of Finals action. He earned four minutes of playoff action and retired after the season.

Despite of all of that, Mitch Richmond enters the Basketball Hall of Fame on Friday, and he deserves it every bit as much as Reggie and Clyde.

If you want a lesson in how basketball is a team sport, in how good players can exist on bad teams, in how winning is a function of collective quality over individual greatness, look at Richmond. There's an argument that for a six-year stretch from 1993 through 1998 Richmond was the league's second-best shooting guard behind MJ. (And remember: Jordan wasn't in the league in '94 and entered late in '95.)

Over those half-dozen seasons, Richmond made six All-Star teams and averaged 23.5 points per game (the sixth highest average in the league). Only six players took more threes than him over that span, and only Glen Rice and Miller shot them better among that group. Richmond, taking five threes per game with a laughable supporting cast around him, shot better than 40 percent in that stretch, and 38 percent for his career.

He could do other things, too. He was big and physical for a two-guard, getting to the line with some regularity, playing solid defense and helping on the glass. He was also a memorable passer. In four of those peak six seasons, he averaged at least four assists per game. He was, in a sense, the Platonic ideal of a shooting guard: an elite scorer who brought the other attributes necessary to be an overall credit to a team.

Unfortunately, his team stunk. In Richmond's seven seasons in Sacramento, which include that six-year run of glory, the Kings went 221-353, a winning percentage of .385, the 10th worst in the NBA. Losing teams didn't get featured too often on NBA on NBC. The Kings made the playoffs once during Richmond's stay.

Richmond was an All-Star Game staple and one of the 1996 Olympic stars in Atlanta, but in the days before League Pass and Twitter, even a great player could produce huge numbers in relative obscurity. If not for Richmond's famous pre-Kings tenure in Golden State as a member of Run TMC, he may have been even more anonymous through the mid-90s.

Mitch Richmond

Getty Images

The arguments we hear now about Kevin Love, about Kyrie Irving, about DeMarcus Cousins -- the arguments about numbers not mattering if you don't win? It's malarkey. Mitch Richmond is proof. Individual greatness is not enough in the NBA, and hasn't been for decades. (Ask Wilt.)

We can't fault stars for the failings of their general managers or teammates. Doing so prevents us from better understanding basketball, putting players in proper context and from appreciating the game in the fullest, most inclusive way. Winning NBA games and NBA championships is not a matter of will. It's a matter of team excellence.

So few stars make teams great just by virtue of their solitary presence; you can probably count that club on one hand going back 20 years. Individual stars matter much more in 5-man basketball than 9-man baseball and 22-man football and 11-man soccer, certainly. But they are not the only thing that matters. Richmond's career is proof.

Winning NBA games and NBA championships is not a matter of will. It's a matter of team excellence.

And his enshrinement is certainly encouraging. Everyone wants to win -- Rock absolutely wanted to win -- but perhaps if we more regularly acknowledge as a fandom and as a media corps that team success is a product of team quality and not a star's will, guts, heart or brain neurons, we wouldn't have guys like Kevin Love itching to bolt losing squads at first chance. If we hold players like Richmond up as heroes despite the losses, maybe our unfortunate stars wouldn't race to team up with other marquee names. Maybe there'd be enough stars to go around so no one had to watch the 2009 Kings or the 2012 Bobcats or the 2014 Sixers.

Richmond's enshrinement is a celebration of Richmond's excellence, yes, but it's also a celebration for the heroic losers strung throughout NBA lore. Great teams win championships. But the greatest players gets their accolades in Springfield.


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