Houston Rockets v Golden State Warriors

Chris Paul is just latest example of star player needing big move to reach big goals

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Rockets guard Chris Paul with James Harden (Getty Images)

Sports fans are fickle beings. We demand championships, but we also demand complete and utter loyalty from our superstars.

Don't win a ring? Failure. Leave for greener pastures to pursue a ring? Traitor. But when a championship is out of reach, are players supposed to give up the chance at a title in order to remain loyal to a franchise?

As the conference finals arrive, there are three NBA stars that at one point in their careers left teams to pursue championships - LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Chris Paul. All three decided that it was time to move on after spending several years of their careers with one franchise.

The success of that trio brings up an interesting conversation: Is it loyalty or a championship that fans find to be most important?

In the heat of the moment, the answer would seem to be loyalty. There have been jersey burnings, media members calling the departures "cowardly" and even an angry letter to the fans from a spurned owner.

But as we watch how far James, Durant and Paul have come following their big decisions, it is hard to ignore that the initial anger and vitriol thrown at them has given way to respect and admiration.

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Sure Not Now

For the first time in his career, Paul is playing in a conference finals. CP3 is a sure-fire Hall of Famer and will fall somewhere in the top five on the list of all-time great point guards. But he has long had to deal with the whispers that he does not have what it takes to take a team to a title. The early playoff exits in Los Angeles gave way to the not-so-quiet discussions that Paul lacked the "clutch gene" and was overrated compared to the legends at his position.

In 2013, the Clippers won the first two games in their series against the Grizzlies, only to roll over in the next four. In 2014 against the Thunder, Paul committed two horrific turnovers to send the Clippers home, throwing away what may have been LA's best chance to reach a conference finals series. And who can forget 2015, when the Clippers surrendered a 19-point fourth quarter lead and a 3-1 series advantage to the Rockets in the second round?

Just last year, Paul was bounced in the first round of the playoffs by the Jazz. The Clippers team that had been oh-so-close to breaking through had once again fallen short of expectations - and Paul took plenty of the blame.

Paul's departure from Los Angeles was slightly different from some of the other cases we have seen in the past. He helped the Clippers on the way out by agreeing to a trade to Houston as opposed to signing with the Rockets in free agency. He was commended for the move, but there were still rumblings from fans who felt betrayed.

Paul is now being appreciated for his basketball genius, as he has helped lead the Rockets to 65 wins and the Western Conference's No. 1 seed. (Shocker: Playing alongside an annual MVP candidate in James Harden can add a few wins.) Would he be spoken of in the same rarified air if he stayed in Los Angeles and missed the conference finals yet again?

James had the same issue in Cleveland. When he went on national television with "The Decision" and told the world he was prepared to take his talents to South Beach, the response was overwhelming. It was widely viewed as a betrayal of the organization and city that had helped raise James.

However, what we did not realize at the time was that James had to make that move in order to fulfill the legacy he wanted to leave on the game. Now, James is viewed on the same level (or at least extremely close to) Michael Jordan. But would we feel the same way if he did not have three championships rings and three NBA Finals MVPs?

If James decided to stay in Cleveland the first time, it is hard to believe that he would have found the same success as he did in Miami. And he would certainly not be in the same universe as Jordan. An objective look at his situation leads to the obvious conclusion - James made the right choice.

The same can be said for Durant. When KD decided to join forces with the emerging Warriors dynasty, he got an initial asterisk placed next to his name. No matter how many championships he would eventually win, he would always be remembered as the player who chose the easy way out with a 73-9 team waiting to slot him in the starting lineup. But as we get further away from his decision to leave Oklahoma City, it is becoming clear he also selected the best option.

For the past two seasons, we have watched Russell Westbrook try and will his Thunder team to a championship by doing it all himself. He was even teamed with a star in Paul George and one of the NBA's top centers in Steven Adams.

Nothing changed. That's two first-round exits in a row for Westbrook since Durant departed despite the roster turnover.

Durant realized that he was never going to win a championship while he was paired with Westbrook. Their time together, while incredibly entertaining, had run its course. He knew the next step in his career was winning a ring, and Golden State was the best place to do just that. (Not to mention the on-court improvement and off-court possibilities in the Bay Area.)

And does the narrative of Durant being a traitor to the Thunder organization still exist? Not really. Sure, there have been jokes about Durant's social media habits, but the overall story is focused on how great Durant has become and how many rings he may win in his prime.

So, what do we expect out of our athletes? If the narrative is "he never won a ring," then why would players not do everything they possibly can in order to achieve that goal?

Those that do not win championships will be subjected to the same fate as Charles Barkley, facing constant ridicule from former players with championships - looking at you Shaq.

As the years pass and the pain of abandonment subsides, we as sports fans begin to realize what we cherish most in our athletes - winning.

So the next time your favorite player decides he has to leave the team you desperately love, take a step back from your anger and disappointment. Remember that championships are everything, and players are treating them that way.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA or its clubs.

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