The Measure of Success
The NBA regular season is a grueling war of attrition. Often, it is not about who is playing the best so much as who can play the healthiest the longest in order to feel good about themselves heading into the playoffs. This year, we saw marquee players falling left and right, a tradition that never seems to end. Two teams that weren’t affected by that are the same two squads that have met in the NBA Finals the past two years and are expected to do the same once again.
Not so coincidentally, these are also the only two playoff teams that had a defined standard of success for this season. Simply put, it was title or bust for both the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors. Nothing else mattered back in October, and nothing matters now except for hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy once again in the anticipated rubber match that should see three MVPs on the court at the same time.
Ultimately, that’s what it always comes down to: rings and trophies. That’s what separates the legends from the rest of the pack. It’s how we choose to differentiate between Hall of Famers when ranking them (and lawd, do we love to rank them). Rings — it’s the simplest way to shut down someone who disagrees with your view on one of your favorite players. Or rather, it shuts them down as far as your concerned anyways.
Why will Michael Jordan likely be considered the GOAT no matter who comes along over the next 50 years? 6 rings, no losses.
What’s the one knock on Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, John Stockton, and Reggie Miller? No rings.
In fact, it is this obsession with championships by the players, the fans, and the media that has led to some unthinkable changes to how players approach the game now. The issue of rest has become a focal point in recent years, as fans and TV executives alike have voiced their displeasure about the best players not participating in marquee games. Why are players resting now? Because the science shows that’s the best way to keep them healthy for a playoff run. Why does that matter? Because healthier teams tend to win titles more often. And the titles are what REALLY matter.
It’s not just rest, though. The concept of super teams isn’t new. The Celtics and Lakers have fielded super teams of their own several times over since the inception of the NBA. Jordan’s Bulls were a super team of sorts, as well. When LeBron James announced his Decision in the summer of 2010, it wasn’t just about a major free agent leaving his hometown for another team. No, it signaled that the players were ready to have their own say about who was going to be the frontrunner for a title. LeBron didn’t just join Dwyane Wade (who already had one ring), but also Chris Bosh, another player beleaguered by playoff failures. The Heatles went to 4 straight NBA Finals, winning 2, thereby proving they had made the absolute correct decision in thumbing their noses at the conventional method of grinding away to try and overcome opponents that were on roughly equal footing.
This same mindset is what led to Kevin Durant deciding that, rather than giving it one more shot with Oklahoma City to try and dethrone a stacked Golden State Warriors team, he could simply join them and potentially coast to another NBA Finals appearance that had evaded him since 2012. Does this mean that KD isn’t a real competitor? Not in the least. However, it does mean that he doesn’t want his name mentioned with the Malones, Barkleys, and Millers of NBA lore. He doesn’t want to be included in that group whose accomplishments are listed, only to be followed by “but…he didn’t win a ring.” It’s hard to fault him for that, given the amount of importance that everyone puts on championships now.
Twenty-nine teams are going home with an L. Eat your basketball and like it. That's all I'm really trying to say.
— MeTweet (@MeTweetGrizz) April 26, 2017
Only one team gets to lift that trophy at the conclusion of every season. What measures success for everyone else then? For the Spurs, it’s about rebuilding on the fly in the wake of the retirement of one legend (Tim Duncan) and the expected departure of two more (Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili). They’re the only other team with legitimate title aspirations, but falling short of a ticker tape parade isn’t failure for them. Not this year, anyways.
The Houston Rockets came out of nowhere (for many) this season. For them, having already advanced to the second round should be success enough, given the expectations placed upon them in October. The same can be said for the Utah Jazz. Only the Clippers are in danger of having failed, coming up empty once again in the wake of injury and a distinct lack of mental toughness.
What of the Memphis Grizzlies, then? Has their season been a success? A failure? An indictment of a roster in need of being blown up? An encouraging sign of growth and promise for the future? All of that is open to interpretation, depending on your expectations and natural level of positivity/negativity. If you put the standard at “Championship or Bust” as a Grizzlies fan or media member…well, you’re going to have a lot of depression, angst, and self-loathing to work through.
A season should be about more than that. It should be about the memorable moments, like Andrew Harrison’s block on Patty Mills, followed by Marc Gasol’s game-winner in Game 4. It’s Mike Conley announcing (once again) that he’s better than anyone gives him credit for in his continued steady rise as one of the best point guards in the league. It’s Vince Carter proving that he’s better at age 40 than many guys half his age. It’s ZBo and TA still doing ZBo and TA things, albeit somewhat more rarely than in the past. It’s Wayne Selden destroying a rim and bringing the crowd to its feet. It’s Troy Daniels going full-on SANDBAR and catching fire from the perimeter. It’s beating the Warriors, Spurs, Cavs, and Rockets in a regular season plagued by inconsistency. It’s Marc and Mike walking off the court with their arms around one another, best friends and brothers celebrating a hard-fought playoff victory.
So yes, this season is a success. It might not end in a championship, but it’s one more step towards one. You just gotta believe, Memphis.