Skip to main content

Why NBA 'World Champs' Debate Has Evolved Since 2010

"World Champions" has been a term used to describe the NBA Finals winners for years, but is the term used appropriately, and how has that sentiment changed over time?
  • Author:
  • Publish date:

If one thing is certain this offseason, United States track and field star Noah Lyles might be public enemy No. 1 in today's NBA. 

After winning three gold medals last week in Budapest during the Track and Field World Championships, Lyles got a chance to — in a way — stand on top of the world. In fact, Lyles is one of few who can say he's done so multiple times. And he'll tell you that. 


"You know the thing that hurts me the most is that I have to watch the NBA Finals and they have 'world champion' on their head," Lyles said. "World champion of what? The United States?

Added Lyles: "Don’t get me wrong. I love the U.S., at times – but that ain’t the world. That is not the world. We are the world. We have almost every country out here fighting, thriving, putting on their flag to show that they are represented. There ain't no flags in the NBA."

Budapest, Hungary; Noah Lyles (USA) poses for photographs after winning the mens 200m race during the 2023 World Athletics Championships at National Athletics Centre. 

Budapest, Hungary; Noah Lyles (USA) poses for photographs after winning the mens 200m race during the 2023 World Athletics Championships at National Athletics Centre. 

About as you'd expect, Lyles' comments weren't exactly received well by social media — or NBA players, for that matter. Phoenix Suns forward Kevin Durant was among the first to respond to the 26-year-old via Instagram, simply writing: "Somebody help this brother."

Many other prominent stars in the American-based league shared in Durant's message, calling out Lyles in different ways across the internet, but there were others among the masses on social media who agreed with Lyles' take. 

So, now a debate begins. Are NBA Champions also World Champions? 

Simply put, the answer depends. Who are you asking, what time period are you asking — believe it or not, you wouldn't have to go back far to find a completely different set of responses to Lyles' interview — and on what basis are you asking? 

Yes, there is a level of pride that comes with playing in the NBA. Players can be as humble as they want, but they wouldn't ever undermine the competition of the association or how difficult it is to be among the best talents in all of basketball. 

They also wouldn't argue if you were to bring out stats from true world competitions. 

Team USA has taken home a gold medal in Olympic basketball in every available tourney since 2004, when Argentina and Italy edged it out of a top-2 finish. Before that, the United States' team had won three gold medals in a row dating back to 1992.

The best basketball talent in the world naturally wants to play for the best basketball league in the world, and to this point, that's been the NBA in the United States. Solely based on principle, however, that still doesn't qualify the league to consider its champion "World Champs" to some, including San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich.

"It doesn't make sense for an NBA team to call themselves World Champions," Popovich said in 2010. "I don't remember anybody playing anybody outside [the United States'] borders to get that tag."

Granted, Popovich's quote is from 13 years ago. At the time, none of either Luka Doncic, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic, Rudy Gobert, Joel Embiid or even Nikola Vucevic — some of the NBA's current top foreign talent — were present in the NBA. 

It wasn't until a few years after that the influx of European and foreign talent become more normalized and arguably expected. Yes, players like Dallas Mavericks star Dirk Nowitzki, Lakers legend Pau Gasol and even Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker were playing in the NBA, but to Popovich's point, they were seen as exceptions. The NBA was still an American league that "hadn't seen" the talent level from across the world.

If Lyles had made his comments back in 2010, players not only might have agreed with him, but it wouldn't have been out of the question for them to have backed him up with their own platforms. After all, the NBA is a pride thing, right? 

The Spurs have long-been ahead of the European talent curve, riding players like Ginobili, Parker and even Tim Duncan — who's Virgin Islands roots also place him in the foreign talent category — but Popovich's take then certainly suggests that even he saw his roster as an abnormality. 

That's changed now. And not just for the Spurs, but everywhere around the league. 

San Antonio's rookie Victor Wembanyama is the latest foreign addition for the Spurs specially, and his impact is set to change the trajectory of the franchise if all goes well. His decision to play in the NBA after Metropolitans 92 also speaks levels to the state of the NBA, however. 

If he considered playing for San Antonio the next step of his young career, there has to be something about the NBA that makes it the top basketball destination across the globe. Then again, it's always been that way. 

As foreign talent continues to pile in, the argument for coining NBA Finals winners "World Champions" only continues to grow stronger. And unfortunately for Noah Lyles, that means he's only going to continue to be outnumbered.