On May 28, the Golden State Warriors’ season looked to be on the verge of coming to an end. The consensus favorites to win the NBA Championship—they had won 73 games, the most in NBA history, beating the record of the 1996 Chicago Bulls—the Warriors were now losing the Western Conference Finals three games to one, on the road against Oklahoma City, down five points at the half. A win would keep their championship hopes alive; a loss would bring the season to an end. “Either way,” I wrote on Facebook—I’m a Warriors fan—“this has been an incredible season and nothing can detract from that.”
It’s exactly what a loyal fan is supposed to write, but I knew it was a lie; the only honest statement would have been, “…nothing can detract from that, except the Warriors not winning the championship.” Like everyone else, I knew perfectly well that to set the record for wins in a season and then fail to win the championship would completely change the tenor of the Warriors’ season: from a historically great team, the greatest team in NBA history, to a historic disappointment, a historic underachievement. No one would ever bring up their dominance of the league without adding that, when it really mattered, they had blown it.
And yesterday, that’s exactly what happened. After making that comeback against the Thunder, after leading the Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers three games to one, the Warriors withered in the face of an unprecedented performance by LeBron James, scored no points in the last four-plus minutes of Game 7, and finished the season as runners-up. And, as I had known would happen, the reassessments of the Warriors’ greatness began immediately:
The Warriors’ loss completes a remarkable trend: in the four major American sports leagues, none of the record-holders for most wins in a season won the league championship that year. In baseball, the 2001 Seattle Mariners; in hockey, the 1996 Detroit Red Wings; in football, the undefeated (until the Super Bowl) 2007 New England Patriots; and now, the 2016 Golden State Warriors.
Why do we do it this way? After a team has outperformed all the others, why do we make it pass through a playoff gauntlet against those same vanquished teams in order to be crowned champions? The actual facts of the answer are pretty prosaic: in the early days of baseball and football in the United States, you had multiple leagues competing to be the preeminent professional league in that sport. When a minor league came to rival the main one—the American League reaching parity with the National League in baseball—or a larger league absorbed a smaller one—the NFL merging with the American Football League—it made sense to simply have a playoff between the winners of the formerly independent leagues, who wouldn’t have faced each other during the regular season. And today, with thirty teams in each league, the entertainment and financial incentives to make the championship open to more teams via a playoff makes the idea of moving away from that system a non-starter.
Still, it’s worth noting that this is not the case all over the world. The top-flight European soccer leagues handle their league championships straightforwardly: whatever team is at the top of the table at the end of the year is the champion, period. The leagues do have knockout tournaments, like England’s League Cup and Association Cup, but these include all the teams in the league, the highest and the lowest, and are independent of the league championship. Sometimes the championship is high drama—in 1989, Arsenal won the English championship over Liverpool on a last-minute goal in the last game of the season—and sometimes it’s settled weeks before the end of the season. But it’s always definitive: if you win the most games, you’re the winner.
I can’t lie: as a Warriors fan, I find that cold rationality pretty attractive right now. The Warriors this season won 73 games; the Cavaliers won 57, in what is widely thought to be the inferior conference. Why should four points in one game—an in-and-out three-pointer here, a missed free throw there—cancel out the 16-win difference between them?
It doesn’t make sense. But of course, if sense is what you’re after, you shouldn’t be following sports in the first place, and if what sports fans wanted most of all was the unambiguous knowledge of who’s the best, track and field would be the most popular sport in America. The possibility of a lesser team beating a greater one in the playoffs has given us some of the greatest stories in sports: the “Miracle Mets” beating the powerhouse Orioles in 1969; David Tyree’s catch to help stun the undefeated Patriots in Super Bowl XLII; and—I’ll grudgingly admit—LeBron’s superhuman block of Andre Iguodala in Game 7 on Sunday. Uncertainty is bad for settling the quantitative question of superiority, but it’s great for storytelling. The victory of scrappy, hard-luck Cleveland, a city with an unpromising economic outlook and no championships in over fifty years, over the Bay Area, a tech boomtown with money to burn and major sports championships in each of the last two years, wouldn’t be possible without the equalizer of the playoffs.
The reason the playoffs aren’t going anywhere is that they’re so lucrative, but the reason we fans love them so much is that they’re democratic. By pure happenstance, the major American sports leagues—pure hypocrites when it comes to the question of American values—have managed to embody one of the most central and elusive tenets of the American Dream: the idea that the underdog has a real shot. What the playoffs offer to fans is possibility—often desperate, sometimes absurd, but real nonetheless.