NBA fans and analysts often advance that only one thing matters for an NBA team: winning a championship. If a team isn’t one of the few that have a legitimate shot at winning the title, then they are better off tanking or planning for the future. There’s no value in being “pretty good” or just making the playoffs; it has to be championship or bust.
This philosophy is misguided. Yes, winning a title should be the goal of every organization. But only one team can do that each year. (With the Golden State Warriors super team in the league the past few seasons the NBA champion has seemed inevitable.) Winning matters, but there is more than just rings (something Damian Lillard recently expressed). Sports are also about moments, and game 5 of the Portland Trail Blazers’ series against the Oklahoma Thunder delivered one of my favorite sports moments of all time.
The Portland Trail Blazers have been a “pretty good” team for the past few seasons. They have made the playoffs six seasons in a row, managing to rebuild on the fly by refocused around the scoring of guards Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum after LaMarcus Aldridge left. They’ve finished third in a very competitive Western Conference the past two seasons, and even managed to win the Northwest Division last season.
But that accomplishment was marred by an embarrassing first round sweep at the hands of the New Orleans Pelicans. No one talked about Portland’s 2017-18 season as a success. Instead, there were calls for GM Neil Olshey to blow things up. Clearly the Blazers weren’t good enough to win a title, so what was the point of keeping the team together?
Instead, the team stuck together and played more consistently. They looked like real contenders to, if not win the NBA title, at least make the Western Conference Finals. However, a devastating injury to center Jusuf Nurkic seemed to derail all hope. On the night Portland officially clinched yet another playoff spot, they lost one of the central pieces to both their offense and defense. What should have been a celebration turned into what felt like a funeral. Another “pretty good” season for a team that would likely end in yet another first round playoff exit.
I don’t need to recount all the events of the Blazers’ series against the Thunder. The series is a testament to why you should keep a “pretty good” team together. You never know when a team or a player will deliver one of those moments. It’s why we watch sports—why we follow our favorite team. We want the moment Damian Lillard provided on Tuesday night.
The Blazers are probably not going to win the NBA title this year. They may not even get past the Denver Nuggets or the San Antonio Spurs in the next round. If they don’t perform well in the next series, that may color how we view the 2018-19 season. But it won’t take away the joy of seeing Lillard win another series with an incredible three pointer. We will always remember the nervous anticipation as Lillard dribbled the final 10 seconds out, waiting to see how he would attack Paul George, holding our breath as the ball floated through the air for two full seconds, and the euphoria we all felt when that final shot hit the net.
We look back fondly on Lillard’s series winning shot against the Houston Rockets with 0.9 seconds left. Portland didn’t win the title that year. They lost the next series in five relatively uninspiring games to the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs. But most Blazer fans probably don’t remember much about that series. Instead, we remember the 0.9 moment.
I’m not saying I don’t want to see the Blazers be NBA Champions. I do, and if they manage to it will likely be more emotional than Tuesday night’s game. I’ll be rooting hard for them to win their next series and, hopefully, the series after that. Another series win, however, is not likely to include as memorable a moment as Lillard’s series winning shot from Tuesday night. Moments like that are rarer, and in some ways more precious, than championships. Damian Lillard has given us two.