First or Last: The Win Is All That Matters

17 02 2009

"Kerr, for the win!"

“If you ain’t first, you’re last.”

It’s a funny Will Ferrell quote from Talladega Nights.

The line is also a succinct assertion about our society and, specifically, our society’s relationship with sports.

You can find this attitude everywhere: from the after-school park district basketball court to the Staples Center.

Playing to win all the marbles is not a mentality, it’s a framework in which all sports actions are judged.

When Dave (nbaroundtable) shared his thoughts on the recent Vlade Radmanovic-for-Adam Morrison trade, I was struck by the home run-or-nothing sentiment.

…the Bobcats just keep cutting off their options and with each solid role player that they acquire they also remove themselves from the running for a high lottery pick (they win more games).

His argument is certainly very logical and I agree with it to an extent.  But permeating that thought is this value statement: NBA champions or bust.

Suns GM Steve Kerr’s actions over the last couple years are indicative of this core value.  Kerr brought in Shaquille O’Neal, forced Mike D’Antoni out because an offensive-minded coach doesn’t win championships and has now replaced Terry Porter because, I guess, a defense-oriented coach can’t win a championship.

Robert Sarver, the Suns owner, is obviously complicit in all of Kerr’s actions but the sentiment is still “win or else,” regardless of who is driving it.

I hear the same call-to-action from Chicago Bulls fans around town.  “We have Derrick Rose!  Let’s just start over!”  Everyone I talk to thinks they should literally trade away the entire roster and “rebuild” around Derrick Rose.

I’ve lived in Chicago since 1998 and the Bulls have won 312 regular season games.  They’ve lost 529 out of 841.  That’s a .37 winning percentage.  I’m sure there are junior college kids next door that have a higher BAC.  As much as I would love a seventh trophy, I wouldn’t mind seeing them at least field a competitive (ie. non-lottery) team for more than three consecutive years.

So if you don’t win everything, what constitutes success?

Consider that the NBA has 30 teams in the league.  Only one of them will “succeed” each season.  Twenty-nine other teams will effectively be “worthless” to the vast majority of their stakeholders.

Think about the San Antonio Spurs and how successful they have been this decade.  Not only have they won several NBA championships, the Spurs own one of the top win-loss records in the four major American sports.  The organization is a blue-print for success.  Their success is so heralded that a few business meetings I’ve gone to have referenced their winning culture — and I work in the healthcare industry, far from the hardwood.

Now, keep the Spurs’ winning percentage and their culture but extract their four championships since 1999.  Would a typical sports fan consider these theoretical Spurs a “successful franchise?”

My guess is a resounding no.

I’m not against “reach for the stars.”  The NBA championship should still be the primary goal.  But should we place the value of a team solely on whether they get a ring at the end of every season?  Is “first or last” the lesson we want to impart in our sports?

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4 responses

18 02 2009
Ryan

I understand where you’re coming from. There’s something so pure and refreshing about a franchise making its way up the ranks through the years and then actually winning it all at some point. Many franchises panic and try to hit it out of the park right away. Others are patient and realize it’s going to take well planned acquisitions/subtractions to get it done. This win it all or bust crud is idiotic, Rome wasn’t built in a day.

18 02 2009
K-man

Ryan:

Yes, a build-up is definitely refreshing. [Insert sexual innuendo here].

As I’ve learned more, I’ve really been married to the thought that sports attitudes are a reflection of our national values.

I’ve also been intrigued by how political sport is: Dwight Eisenhower once said, “The true mission of American sports is to prepare young men for war.”

I thought about that quote alongside the “win or bust” mentality and suddenly, actions around me become so much clearer.

18 02 2009
Dave

I think the key to a successful franchise is hope, of being able to contend for a title or for the team to someday compete for a title.

The teams I find infuriating are the one’s who lock themselves into a 35-45 win range (Charlotte) and have no hope of advancing past the first round. This isn’t a problem it’s part of the path forward, but if it’s a ceiling, and you’re content with that, that’s a major problem for me.

That journey, the possibilities and dreams, that’s the fun part for me. It doesn’t really matter where in the journey the team is at (20 win team like Oklahoma City or the 55 win team like Houston), as long as there’s a legit possibility of contending for a title someday in the foreseeable future.

Take Phoenix for example, they didn’t win a title, but they had several long playoff runs and a legit chance at the crown. In my book that was a very successful team and joyful time for the fans of that club. Many folks would differ on that though since they didn’t win a ring, but I don’t like that line of thinking, you miss out on too much if that’s all you can see or enjoy.

18 02 2009
K-man

Dave:

The journey is definitely what makes things worthwhile. I’m not saying that everyone should be satisfied with a first-round playoff exit. The goal, as I said above, should still be the NBA championship. But the value of a team shouldn’t be based on whether they win four games in June.

Maybe fan’s are just deluded by the fact that there are only 30 teams in the NBA. It seems like a championship is just beyond their reach. I think the Boston Celtics of last year propogates the myth of “a quick, easy championship run.”

The mindset of collegiate basketball fans are definitely more grounded to me. Davidson, Illinois or Cincinnati know they don’t have a legitimate shot at a national championship. This realization seems forces them to value the team through realistic expectations.

On the other hand, collegiate football fans’ calls for a playoff system tell me that they want a chance to “win everything,” however slim it is, regardless of how incredibly difficult it would be for a football team to go through a single-elimination tourney after playing a dozen or so games.

So, yes, I agree that hope is very important to a sports fan or franchise. Hope gets people through tough times and makes them strive to improve. But hope can also cloud judgment without the benefit of objective analysis and performance measures.

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