The Portland Trail Blazers’ 2017-18 season provided Exhibit A to the assertion, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” The Blazers won 49 games and earned a 3rd seed in the NBA playoffs. They also struggled through much of the season and got swept out of that high seed by the New Orleans Pelicans, who didn’t make it past the second round themselves. Does that qualify as a good year or a bad one?
This issue lies at the heart of today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag question. Take a look.
I enjoy our team and I don’t understand why you and everybody else has to be so critical and pessimistic. They make mistakes sure, but can’t we just sit back and enjoy it for what it is? I’m with them rain or shine and it’s Portland so it’s going to be a lot of rain, but so what? I wish we would all just chill and forget the championship or bust mentality. Why does it have to be that way? Just enjoy the team no matter what!
Subjective vs. Objective
I don’t think anybody would argue against you enjoying the team in any state: rebuilding, championship-worthy, or somewhere in the middle. It’s possible for people to enjoy almost anything. Sacramento Kings fans exist, right? The metric is subjective. Nobody gets to tell another person how to interpret their own experience.
That cuts both ways, though. People don’t get to say you’re wrong because you enjoy the Blazers at 49 wins just as much as you’d enjoy them at 32 or 57. You also don’t get to tell others they’re wrong if they don’t.
Winning as the Metric
Having said that, subjective criteria are not the only measures of our common experience. If that were so, everyone would be perfectly happy rolling out a ball and watching elite athletes play for the enjoyment of the game, without keeping score or declaring a winner. In some venues, that’s great. The score is the least important part of your average playground scrimmage, and those are plenty enjoyable. If you tried to justify that in a professional sports league, though, you’d have a massive rebellion on your hands. Even the most subjective, enjoyment-oriented among us would find it hard to drag ourselves to the arena or television set if neither scores nor records mattered. (I imagine the athletes would have a hard time playing under those conditions too.)
Keeping score and tracking wins are inherent to professional sports and are intrinsic to the enjoyment of the game. Winning and losing provide the common, black-and-white, objective criteria by which success is judged...not the only criteria, but the predominant ones. Winning and losing have to matter in order for the league to have validity. If not, why not just let the refs cheat for a different team every year and turn the NBA into the WWE with a ball?
Executives, coaches, and players have multiple reasons for participating in the game. If winning is not among those—probably first, even—their motivation deserves to be questioned. Even a grizzled veteran in his final season—signing with a team that has no chance of winning a title, playing only for nostalgia and emotion—had better play to win. If he spends his court time waving to the crowd and saying, “I’m sure enjoying this!” instead of running the floor, he can’t play anymore.
What Happens When You Don’t
Winning and losing are not equal probabilities. Losing has more gravity. It’s the default result. If you do nothing to affect the game positively, the opponent will beat you. Even when you play to the best of your abilities, you’re going to lose a decent chunk of the time. Few teams and players reach such heights that losing ceases to be a credible threat. The Golden State Warriors and whatever team LeBron James plays for qualify in our era, but even they have to face each other eventually. For the vast majority of the league, the threat of losing is a constant specter. Whomever does not fight against that specter with every bit of skill and will at their disposal will eventually succumb to it. Make anything else the focus of your franchise and you will end up losing to a team that didn’t.
For this reason, it’s pernicious to hear things like, “25 other teams did this less-than-ideal thing, so it’s not that bad”. 25 other teams are also going to lose. It amounts to defining yourself by something besides winning, which quickly turns into justifying losing. Once that becomes embedded in a franchise’s culture, it’s awfully hard to get rid of.
Place 99% of us as prominent members of the 10th most successful company in the world, pay us eight-figure salaries, and most of us will be good with that. We’d rather be the most successful company, of course, but having a beach home and freedom to do whatever we wish for the rest of our days aren’t bad consolation prizes. After all, we worked hard for our position and, compared to most everybody else on the planet, we succeeded wildly. This isn’t a lazy or bad way to think. It’s human nature.
In a league where almost every team can beat another on a given night, human nature isn’t enough. Winning franchises refuse to be just human. Somebody in the organization becomes the gadfly, prodding the team out of its comfort zone and into another mode where winning comes first, always. Everything flows from winning, nothing else can replace winning. That’s how you maximize potential.
NBA Championships are the ultimate expression of winning. As such, they matter. Not every team has a realistic chance of winning one in a given season, but any team that says championships are no longer a goal cannot be viewed as playing in the same league—or at least in the same way—as the 29 other franchises.
Whether or not a team actually wins a title depends on more than mindset, but if the winning mindset is absent, the team won’t just lose out on championships, but on opportunities for growth and progress. For that reason, “Championship or Bust” isn’t an optional viewpoint. It’s the heart of the matter, even for franchises that will probably end up short of the goal. Fans, analysts, and observers are free to place other priorities higher than winning. We can cite enjoyment or entertainment or anything we please. The second a team does so, the gravity of losing is going to pull them to the ground. Ultimately that will end up less satisfying for them, and for most everyone around them.
Keep those Mailbag questions coming to firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @davedeckard!