Why don’t we give the championship to the team with the most wins?

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.

Once and For All, is Baseball Boring?

Sports of all sorts interest me, and I can be a bandwagon fan of any Bay Area sports team: the Warriors currently, the 49ers a couple years ago, Cal football from 2004-2008. I’m watching Cal-Hawaii in March Madness as I type this. But baseball is the only sport I’m in for rain or shine (well, they don’t play in the rain, but you get me). It’s the only sport I’ve followed in some capacity every year since 1993, the year Barry Bonds joined the Giants and they won 103 games. It’s the only sport I’ve ever had a fantasy team in (two at once for a few seasons). Thinking about it, it’s the only sport I’ve spent any money on, like, ever, unless you count beers while watching basketball or soccer in bars, or provisions purchased for the odd Super Bowl party. (I’m even the sports blogger who doesn’t have ESPN, since, following only one sport closely and outside of my chosen team’s blackout radius, I can get by with an MLB.tv subscription.) My sports library is a bunch of baseball books (Bill James, Roger Angell, Moneyball) and one non-baseball book (Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby, although I owned The Blind Side for a while before selling it). This blog is just an outlet for my thinking about sports, and I’ve thought far, far more about baseball than any other sport.

But a lot of the time, the more you think about something, the more you fail to think about it, because you fall into patterns of thought that become invisible to you, and you start to accept or reject premises according to those patterns of thought rather than according to your reasoning. So in honor of the resumption of baseball, I’d like to consider a complaint that is ubiquitous among those who don’t like baseball and reflexively rejected by those who do: the complaint that baseball is boring.

Continue reading

“You Hate to See That”: On Not Rooting for Injuries

So back in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, Kyrie Irving—the Cavaliers’ other good player—went down with a knee injury at the very end of the game. As it happened, he was unable to return for the rest of the series, but after the game it wasn’t clear how serious it was, and everyone expressed hope that he might be able to return. Steve Kerr, the coach of the Warriors, anticipated some skepticism regarding this sentiment: “You probably don’t believe me, but I mean that.” To which Deadspin’s Barry Petchesky responded, “I definitely don’t believe him, because the LeBron and Mozgov Show [i.e., the only effective players on the team other than Irving] probably isn’t enough to hang with the Warriors.” In other words, this was a godsend for Golden State, so it was a bit rich to think that Kerr didn’t appreciate that.

For what it’s worth, I did and do believe Kerr was telling the truth. Kerr’s a former player himself, so I think he can appreciate the physical and emotional anguish of that injury better than we can as fans. More than that, since the Warriors were favored in the series anyway, it’s not hard to imagine that the idea of beating a full-strength opponent for the championship was more satisfying than the idea of steamrolling an injured squad.

At the same time, Petchesky’s cynical response is understandable, because the “I hope he’s okay” quote from a player or coach from the other side is kind of a cliche at this point. And not just the people on the field: the announcers and fans will generally come out with a “You hate to see that” whenever an opposing player is hurt. I can only speak from my own experience, but if that experience is at all representative, the “You hate to see that” response is almost rote.

So why do we put so much emphasis on not wanting opposing players to be injured? Continue reading

The Kinship of Sports Bars

Sorry for the long hiatus! I’ve been busy with work, and when not busy with work I’ve been distracted by, well, sports. The Giants have been lurching from can’t-get-enough win streaks to can’t-look-away loss binges, and the Warriors, of course, are in the NBA Finals. I do have something in the works about the FIFA scandal, but before I get to that heaviness, I have to write about my experience watching Game 1 of the Finals last night at a San Francisco-themed sports bar here in LA.

Continue reading

Watching while Ignorant

I’m writing this after Game 4 of the Warriors-Grizzlies playoff series, but I don’t know who won. I watched the first half in our hotel bar, then came upstairs at halftime to help our toddler sleep, with the hope of making it back without missing too much of the third quarter. Well, it took longer than I expected, and a while ago, while she was still awake, I heard my phone ding, which I know is a notification that the game is over. But I’m keeping myself suspended in ignorance, because I was already planning a blog post about my ignorance when it comes to basketball scoring and this just enriches that topic. Continue reading