In school you’re taught to see both sides of an argument. In the end you may advocate for a certain position, but there’s great value in seeing the “other side” and acknowledging another’s point of view. Parents teach their children to empathize with others. Spouses try to see things through their partner’s eyes. People say to walk a mile in each other’s shoes.
But in sports, this practice is virtually unheard of. Recency bias is so strong in sports that it seems the only way to get real objectivity is if you give a player or an event some time.
For example, I was not a fan of Kobe Bryant, to say the least. During his playing days, I called him an inefficient ball-hog. I criticized him for his broken relationship with Shaquille O’Neal. I was judgmental of his three-peat and elated at his downfall to the Detroit Pistons. Even on his last day as a professional basketball player, I scoffed at 60 points on 50 shots.
It’s been less than a year since Bryant has retired. And you know what? I remember all those things, but I don’t really feel that strongly about them anymore. Looking at his stats, I’m still not impressed by his efficiency, but I respect his killer instinct. I don’t agree with how he treated some of his teammates, but I like how he’s taken players under his wing. I joke how he won his championships with the help of others — like O’Neal, Pau Gasol, Tim Donaghy and the 2002 New Jersey Nets — but I sincerely consider him a legit five-time champion and one of the best to play the game.
Like every other year, this NBA post-season has been full of criticism from fans and network talking heads alike. It’s been going in all directions and touching every team. Paul George doesn’t have what it takes to win it all. Russell Westbrook doesn’t play with his head. James Harden choked. John Wall choked.
For the Golden State Warriors, the complaints are plentiful and paradoxical. The two main ones? The Warriors are so good they made basketball boring and the Warriors suck and can only beat teams by injuring them. The current mob-desired result of these two proclamations? If the Warriors win the title in 2017, it must come with an asterisk.
But will it?
The boredom factor
There are not one, but two teams that have yet to lose a playoff game: the Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
With these teams sweeping their way through their respective conferences, cries of boredom have echoed from coast-to-coast. Shaquille O’Neal and Charles Barkley dubbed this “the worst playoffs ever” and Stephen A. Smith has been barking all season about how Kevin Durant has ruined basketball by single-handedly dismantling one of the Warriors’ Western Conference Rivals, the Oklahoma City Thunder.
You’ve got to commend the stamina of a person that can complain about Durant coming to the Warriors for almost a year straight.
To be honest, it’s unclear what people are wishing for when they complain of boredom. That other teams were better? That the Warriors were worse? In the end, Durant’s move seems to invite the thought that winning a ring with Golden State just doesn’t count.
But read up on the realities of parity in league history and you’ll see that super teams are not a recent creation. We have Bill Russell’s Celtics, the Showtime Lakers, Michael Jordan’s Bulls, Bryant and O’Neal’s Lakers, the Tim Duncan Era Spurs, and the Big Three Heat, to name a few. Sure, all of these teams have had battles, but they’ve also all coasted through match-ups, leaving slain corpses of inferior competition on the wayside. Even some of their championships came by way of a sweep.
But let’s be honest, through the lens of time, most people don’t care that much about how they got there. They care that they won.
The injury factor
Then there are injuries.
While it only happened a few days ago, the video of Kawhi Leonard coming down on Zaza Pachulia’s foot has been examined to death. Pundits, current and retired players, fans, and coaches have all weighed in on whether Pachulia’s move was dirty. Despite all the talk, somehow Leonard’s ankle still remains sprained.
Accompanying Leonard’s injury was an outcry that it would invalidate a championship if the Warriors were to win it all. This is not new territory as this was a common complaint during the last few years. And I get it, Leonard is a special talent and the San Antonio Spurs were one of the few teams that could compete against the Warriors.
But the reaction is as if no team in history has played against an injured opponent in the playoffs except the Warriors.
Tragedy plus time
So what’s the solution? Do we wipe off all the “easy” and “boring” Finals victories off the board? Do we discount champions who ever faced an injured team?
The reality is, until reigns collapse and people retire, fans can’t see through the fog of war clearly enough to properly appreciate the accomplishments of teams and players they don’t root for. James was criticized relentlessly for taking his talents to South Beach and there were mobs, which I’m sure included Warriors fans, declaring that any titles he won with the Miami Heat would come with a huge asterisk. Even just a few years removed from his two Heat titles, that vitriol has died down significantly.
If history is any indication, these tiny wars — waged on the twitter battlefield — are not enough to erase the legacy of a championship. Perhaps it’s naive of me to think this, but chances are that years from now, only Warriors fans and Cavaliers fans — and maybe Thunder fans — will really care about the nitty-gritty details of the season.
If you want to debate whether Bryant and James have reached or eclipsed Jordan’s status, then by all means, talk about James’ statistical dominance and Finals losses and Bryant’s volume shooting and competitive fire. If you’re arguing about the greatest season of all time, talk about blowing a 3-1 lead and winning 73 games. But these nerdy, and ultimately meaningless, discussions are no more than a source of entertainment. Debating sports is (supposed to be) fun; that’s why a video of Smith and Kellerman screaming at each other gets viewers.
Whether Golden State, Cleveland, Boston or San Antonio comes out on top this season, people can cry all they want, but time remembers championships, not sports talk radio or internet comments.
Personally, there’s nothing that a network anchor, a blogger, a friend, or a random fan can say that can diminish the joy and fun I’ve had these past few years. Being a sports fan is a wild ride and I, for one, am going to savor every joyful and heartbreaking minute of it. Kudos to those who can join me in enjoying basketball for what it is, a game.
Just kidding, ball is life. Go Warriors.