Every time some flavor of the month blowhard talk radio host spews a few minutes of nonsense about participation trophies in youth sports, it invokes conversations about what sports are really meant for. Is winning all that matters, or are there other lessons to impart as well? In other words, are we giving kids a fun, active, social outlet that can help them learn rules and fair play, or are we getting started early on instilling the cutthroat approach they’ll need to make it in this supposed dog-eat-dog world?
Like most debates in our country these days, these become polarized quickly – you’re either on one side or the other, with no in-between. But for those who foolishly assume a moderate viewpoint is still acceptable, it begs the question: Why can’t the answer be some of both? Why can’t kids learn responsibility and camaraderie while simultaneously honing competitive instincts for a future that indeed will likely become competitive at some point?
Now take the concept, and apply it to a similar group: The NBA’s incessant “ringz” crowd.
Raised by Michael Jordan and fostered into adulthood by Kobe Bryant, many NBA circles’ collective obsession with a title-or-bust mentality has only grown stronger in recent years. On its face, it makes sense: The primary goal of all 30 NBA teams is to win the championship every year.
As the practical applications of that singular outlook have been stretched further and further with each year, though, they start to look a little asinine. Tanking was at first just a whisper, then a thing, then a problem, and now an epidemic. Former players are often pretty hardheaded with “back in my day” proclamations, but you can understand their confusion in waking up to a league where suddenly, being dead last was easily preferred over finishing in the middle of the pack. That’s a whole other kind of participation trophy.
Within this postseason, the noise is slightly different. The Warriors and Cavs have stormed through their respective conferences, and hopes of a competitive clash between the two have been all but extinguished. And with the Dubs sporting a collection of in-their-prime talent the league has never seen on one roster, concerns regarding the entertainment level the NBA will be capable of providing over the next half-decade are reaching a fever pitch.
Once again, we see two sides of a polarizing argument: Those who remind us coldly that the league has been this way for nearly its entire history, with very few teams realistically capable of winning each year and relatively little parity compared to other team sports; on the other side, those who see this as an entirely different, more serious problem that can’t be compared to the LeBron/Wade HEAT, the Garnett/Pierce/Allen Celtics or any other ostensible Super Team.
And once again, the answer is in the middle. Parity has indeed long been a very different thing in the NBA than in leagues like the NFL or NHL; it’s an accepted part of being an NBA fan, really. That latter party is also absolutely right: This is not the same thing as the mid-2010s HEAT or any other manufactured behemoth, and attempting to end the conversation there is reductive and ignorant of pretty simple context. Great teams can occupy different levels of greatness, believe it or not.
What both sides miss as they shout into the abyss, however, is this: There’s more to basketball than rings.
As these Warriors lead the charge that’s got everyone so worked up, it’s ironic that they’re also easily the best, freshest example of the flaw in the “title or nothing” mentality. Ringz Nation is the very reason Golden State’s 73-win regular season last year – one of the most grueling, demanding and remarkable long-term feats accomplished in league history – has been reduced to nothing but a punch line to capture their failure. This whole narrative might never have existed if one Kyrie Irving shot fell a couple inches to the left and rimmed out; shouldn’t that fact call its entire legitimacy into question?
It should, and the same should apply to a nearly endless list of sports accomplishments through history. Given the situation the franchise was in before it began, how could anyone look at the Grit-N-Grind era in Memphis and view it as anything but a success? How many people do you know who consider Jerry Sloan, author of over 1,000 NBA wins and on many folks’ pantheon of NBA coaches, a failure based on his inability to grab a ring?
Even people who weren’t alive while it happened know about the Miracle on Ice at the 1980 Olympics, but fewer know that the United States’ miraculous upset over the Soviets was actually in a strangely formatted semifinal, not the final. Would dethroning the greatest power international ice hockey had ever seen – and doing it under the looming shadow of the Cold War, no less – have been that much less impressive if the US had lost the final to Finland two days later? Of course not! A group of journeymen and college players went head to head with the best hockey team of their era, at the biggest tournament in the world, and beat them.
Apart from the logic of it all, think of the way rings obsession naturally deforms fandom. Look at a guy like J.R. Smith, who has in many ways transformed his image while playing a vital role in Cleveland’s success – but you’d think the guy pulled a Joakim Noah based on the way some Cavs fans have treated him just for a few bad games against maybe the best team of all time. Doesn’t it suck that fans are being reduced to this?
Also remember that from a practical standpoint, the 29 teams that don’t get a chip each year are here for much more than participation trophies. League ratings and income peak during the Finals, sure, but there’d be no league to speak of without 82 games per team and the rest of the postseason first. Are realistic fans of the Orlando Magic – a group that never had even a shred of hope for a ring this year – just supposed to hibernate each season until they’re finally a contender?
Through this lens, even the most pessimistic assessment of the league’s intrigue factor over the next few years is still enormously positive. We get to watch up-and-coming stars like Karl-Anthony Towns, Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz come into their own; we get to see if young crews like the 76ers, Wolves, Suns and the ever-popular Lakers can take that next step. Can young, asset-heavy contenders in Boston and Utah find a way to disrupt the Cavs or Warriors, or do veteran groups like the Spurs and Rockets have some tricks left in their bags?
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with putting the championship ahead of every single one of these elements, possibly by a wide margin – in fact, it’s probably weird not to. Fans have a right to be disappointed at a potential lack of title intrigue on the horizon, even relative to the normal low-parity NBA.
But the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive. When you start thinking of the NBA’s participation trophies as context-heavy representations of tangible accomplishments rather than some strange mark of failure, you’re on the right track.
PODCAST: Lonzo’s Shot, How To Cut Luol Deng and More
Basketball Insiders publisher Steve Kyler and Senior NBA writer and salary cap guru Eric Pincus talk about Lonzo Ball and the unreasonable expectations some have had about his rookie campaign, what the Lakers could do with Luol Deng, teams that have cap exceptions and could likely use them, which teams are for real and more.
Johnson Is Leading By Example In Philadelphia
Amir Johnson may not be a star player, but his impact on the locker room is a constant in Philadelphia.
After every home win, the Philadelphia 76ers have a miniature liberty bell in their locker room that gets rung by a selected player, usually the who had the biggest impact on the game.
On Monday night, Amir Johnson got to the ring the bell after the Sixers beat the Utah Jazz 107-86 to secure their ninth win of the season. Johnson turned in his best performance since joining Philadelphia this offseason, with eight points, 13 rebounds and four blocks in 21 minutes of playing time as Joel Embiid’s substitute.
Up until about 45 minutes before the 7 p.m. tipoff, Embiid’s status was unclear due to knee soreness. Johnson would’ve been tasked with the starting role had his teammate been unable to perform. Instead, he fulfilled his backup role to perfection, which has been the status quo for Johnson so far this season.
When the Sixers signed Johnson to a one-year $11 million deal in July, it was for the purpose of shaping a young roster with some veteran leadership. Management wanted to ensure there would be a professional in the locker room to help navigate the likes of Embiid and Ben Simmons through a full NBA season, with hopes of making it to the playoffs.
“When we looked to build our roster and sort of identify people we started talking about Amir Johnson,” Brett Brown said. “And Bryan was way more familiar with Amir — this is to Bryan’s credit — than I was, because of his Toronto background. And I started digging in and calling his teammates. I’ve been in the league for a long time, so you follow him, and you speak to people like Evan Turner. You know, tell me about Amir when you were in Boston and so on.”
While Brown was doing his research on Johnson, he came across an impressive level of continuity when it came to how others viewed the center.
“It’s amazing to a man how consistent the reviews were,” Brown said of Johnson. “People skills, work his butt off, could handle swinging a towel or coming in and making a difference. He’s a good person and he’s a pro. To be able to bring him in the game and now worry about is he happy, is he fresh, is he in shape, does he need 10 shots? It isn’t ever on my mind with Amir.”
The Sixers’ head coach seems honest in his assessment, and Johnson’s fluctuating level of productivity and use reflects that. Prior to his big night against Utah, Johnson logged a combined 21 minutes over the team’s previous four games — including two DNP’s, both coming against the Golden State Warriors.
Still, just barely over a month into this new season, the Sixers are trying to iron out the kinks in their lineup. With injuries to Richaun Holmes, Markelle Fultz, Jerryd Bayless and Justin Anderson over the course of the season so far, finding a set group of guys and defining their roles has been a tricky situation to maneuver.
Last season, Johnson started 77 games for the Boston Celtics during their campaign that ran all the way to the Eastern Conference finals. His one start in 14 games this season, with a cut in minutes per game, is a far cry from the level of use Johnson experienced just one year ago. But coming into this season, that was known. Johnson’s role would be to help guide his junior counterparts and chip in where he could.
So far, the deal is paying dividends on both ends.
“It’s huge for us,” Simmons said. “Having a guy come off the bench and play a role like that. As a vet, he’s one of the leaders. He comes in, plays hard, doesn’t ask for more minutes or anything like that. He’s a great player.”
In a game that featured the absence of Jazz star center Rudy Gobert, Johnson was able to make his presence more prevalent during his reserve minutes. Along with his four blocks, Johnson had a game-high 15 contested two-point shots. As a team, Utah shot just 35.3 percent from the field.
Backing up a superstar in the making in Embiid, Johnson has limited time to let it be known that he’s still around. That situation is magnified on nights that Holmes is seeing extended run as well. But in his 13th season in the league, Johnson knows a thing or two about finding ways to be effective and efficient.
“Finding my way on the floor, knowing the amount of time I have, just finding ways I can help my teammates,” Johnson said. “I watch a lot of film. Just for me to find open spots, set screens, and the biggest part that I can help this team out, is just play defense and grabbing rebounds.”
On the nights where Johnson doesn’t get his number called — a la games against the Warriors and other small-ball teams — the veteran just continues to do what he was brought in to do in the first place, lead by example.
“Just sticking to my routine,” Johnson said. “Being mentally prepared, getting my teammates ready, just being a professional, doing all kind of things to prepare for a game.”
After being around the come up in Boston, Johnson knows there are bigger things at stake for the Sixers than a few minutes here and there on the court. To him, winning is the only thing that matters.
“When you don’t play and you win, man it’s like and that’s all that matters,” Johnson said. “We’re here to try and do one goal, and that’s win games and make the playoffs, and go from there on.”
Whether he’s on the bench waving a towel, or on the court making a play, Johnson will continue to lead a young group of talented players by example, hopefully culminating in a trip to the playoffs.
“He is a legitimate pro, on and off the court,” Brown said. “He’s a wonderful teammate.”
NBA PM: Marcus Morris’ Return Bolsters The Celtics
With the Boston Celtics riding high with a league-best 16-game win streak, the return of forward Marcus Morris has provided a lift.
Boston Celtics GM Danny Ainge made a huge personnel gamble this summer that changed four starters from a roster that reached the Eastern Conference Finals. One of the less-heralded among the new starters — forward Marcus Morris, who arrived from the Pistons in a surprise trade for starting shooting guard Avery Bradley — has proven to be a key component in Boston’s early success.
After missing the first eight games of the season due to lingering knee soreness, Morris has scored in double figures in six of nine appearances. Following Saturday’s win over the Hawks in Atlanta — the 15th of the current 16-game win streak — Celtics coach Brad Stevens said Morris’ contributions have been vital, even as Stevens continues to monitor his minutes.
“We need Marcus quite a bit,” said Stevens. “We’re still managing his minutes appropriately as he comes back. Hopefully, that continues to be more and more and more.”
Morris was plus-18 against the Hawks, 10 points better than any other starter, despite being the only starter with single-digit shot attempts. Stevens added that Morris’ offense has been a boost despite few plays being run for him.
“He brings us scoring, he brings us defense [and] he brings us toughness,” said Stevens. “I think we really need his scoring, like his ability to shoot the ball both off broken plays and off movement.”
Morris’ emergence as an offensive threat was noted in the offseason by an Eastern Conference forward in an anonymously-sourced piece on underrated players by HoopsHype’s Alex Kennedy.
“I think Marcus Morris is really underrated,” the forward told Kennedy. “He can play multiple positions and he went from being a role player to someone who scores the ball really well. When other players have made that leap, they got more attention. Take Chandler Parsons, for example. When Chandler made big strides, he got a ton of attention and a huge contract. Marcus hasn’t gotten the recognition or the payday that he deserves.”
While some questioned the wisdom of trading Bradley, a starter for a team that had a lot of success and remained on the rise, Celtics center Al Horford — the sole remaining starter from last season — said he was looking forward to playing with Morris once the trade was announced.
“He’s one of the guys that really excited me once we got him this offseason, just because of everything he’s going to be able to bring,” said Horford. “I don’t think he’s at his best yet. He’s doing okay. But he’s just going to keep getting better. So that’s a good thing for us.”
With the knee injury that lingered after the start of the season, Horford said the team is still getting accustomed to the diverse set of tools Morris brings to the court.
“Marcus is great,” said Horford. “Defensively, his presence is felt. On offense I think he’s finally starting to get into a rhythm. He’s getting more comfortable [and] we’re getting more comfortable with him. It’s a matter of time.”
While Stevens and Horford both feel that we haven’t seen Morris at his best, his return to action was timely as it bolstered the lineup during the current win streak. Horford, who was part of a 19-game win streak for the Hawks during the 2014-15 season, was asked how Boston is approaching its current prosperity. Horford said that, like his former Hawks team, the Celtics are avoiding the subject in the locker room.
“We’re not honestly really talking about it much,” said Horford. “That winning streak here was pretty special. We were playing at a high level. We didn’t talk about it here either and we’re taking that type of approach. We’re just playing and enjoying the game out there.”
With Boston carrying the current streak into a Wednesday visit to Miami, Ainge’s surprising trade for Marcus Morris is looking more and more prescient. If his best is yet to come, as his coach and teammates maintain, the recognition that has elluded Morris could be just around the corner.