What good is a series without a trilogy? For the third time, The Sports Fan Journal heads on the NBA journey. For the first two years, we had a level of surety as to where our destination would be. The first year, we were correct. The second, we were correct in location, but not in victor, as the Toronto Raptors won the title last year. Now, the NBA springs anew and for the first time in a while, we’re not totally sure where our destination lies. This allows for a current kind of exploration. Let’s continue with our next installment after a week of games.
This may sound odd on the surface, but one of the best things about life is that there are varying levels of skill and ability in every aspect. No matter what you do, somebody or something is better at it, and somebody is worse at it. The reason why that’s a great thing in life is because it is a necessity to test one’s own abilities as they progress and develop.
To put it simply: Through comparison and contrast, something or somebody has to be very good ,and something or somebody has to be not as good in whatever realm of life we’re discussing. There are All-Star players and journeyman players. There are championship contenders and bottom-feeders. Part of the balance of life is that spectrum of ability that we recognize, even if the particular rankings are debated ad nauseam.
Last week, we talked about matchups and how no team is truly invincible. In fighting games, there are no truly insurmountable matchups based on character selection, no matter how difficult it is to win. The same is more true in the NBA — no team is invulnerable. The other side of that is some teams do come closer to invincibility than others, and other teams are a long way from that.
Seeing someone better at something inspires a desire to catch them. Competitive fire burns hotter when the work is put in to be as good as possible and is now facing off with a standard of greatness. The dynastic Warriors of the previous decade usually got most teams’ best shots because they were so dominant. Sure, a lot of good teams got leveled. But losing builds character in a way winning validates disciplined effort.
As it stands, the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers are at the top of their respective conferences by substantial margins in the standings. The gap between them and the rest of the NBA is near a level that approaches unfairness. Neither team is as good as the previously mentioned Warriors of yesteryear, but they are soundly better than the rest of the current Association.
No team, especially the other playoff teams, chasing the Bucks and Lakers should view them as anything more than the standards of excellence. They are to be caught through effort, development and improvement. As much as some people yearn for a previous era of NBA basketball, one of the ideas forged from decades ago is a life lesson that applies to today. There was an element of grinding to dethrone the best teams. Of course, there are other factors such as a boom in free agency that the current Association enjoys. But on a season-by-season basis, the other 28 teams can apply that burning desire to overcome the best. If the Bucks defeated a possible playoff opponent by 25 in December, that opponent should work to close the gap so that the next game isn’t so lopsided. Continue to tinker and develop until success is had.
The key component of turning defeat into eventual success is a healthy understanding of one’s own role in the losses. Starting with, “Why?” is easy. But finding the proper blend of accountability and grace is the challenge. “They’re just better” is a simple answer to defeat. “How can one reach that level?” is a tougher question to find resolution to. It’s difficult to overcome greatness because it’s supposed to be — just as it should be difficult to reach said level of greatness. But with the right changes and constituencies, goals can be reached.
If one needs an example, last year’s Toronto Raptors are it. Tortured by the purgatory of, “good but not good enough,” the team made changes big and small until a championship formula was created. And even with the loss of last year’s Finals MVP, the Raptors are right back in Eastern Conference contention. That’s not by accident. That’s not because of “the East is weaker” narrative. That is a product of growth and earned success by being victims of another’s excellence for years.
It’s OK to have dominance to aim at. It’s necessary. Better teams, players and people come from that discomfort of knowing one is outclassed. That’s where and when success is earned. The Lakers and Bucks are atop the NBA right now. But I hope the other teams are constantly tinkering, looking for the right concoction that can lead to eventual victory over them.
Eighteen weeks in, and the Journey continues. Happy NBA, folks.