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NBA Daily: How Beneficial are Moral Victories?

Moral victories are always fun to watch, but whether they really help a team depends on how they do in the long run, writes Matt John

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Moral victories are always fun for teams to have because they go beyond their seasons’ final result. While the season may not have ended the way they would have liked, the team played well despite low expectations and/or strenuous adversity. One team who had themselves a moral victory this season was the Indiana Pacers.

The Pacers should be proud of themselves. They not only exceeded the little expectations they had coming into the season, but they just went toe-to-toe with one of the best players of all time in a tight seven-game series. With all the drama surrounding the Paul George situation last summer, followed by the unrelenting flak general manager Kevin Pritchard received for the seemingly little he acquired for George, their performance this season was one of the NBA’s marquee feel-good stories.

Even if they didn’t get the ending they wanted, the Pacers made everyone happily eat their words. To put a cherry on top, the Pacers should have cap flexibility this summer, which, if they use wisely, can potentially add even more firepower to one of the NBA’s most balanced teams. All in all, the Pacers had one of the most notable moral victories the NBA has seen in the past couple of years.

With their moral victory, the Pacers have reason to be optimistic. Some of the NBA’s current best teams started their time as a contender with a moral victory before they became a juggernaut.

Take the Golden State Warriors. Back in 2013, Stephen Curry had his coming-out party, as he led the upstart Warriors to an upset over the third-seeded Denver Nuggets and made a competitive series with the San Antonio Spurs. The Warriors may have only gone to the second-round, but their unexpected run made for one phenomenal moral victory.

Look where they are now. Their style of play has completely changed the NBA for good, they lured a future Hall of Famer in his prime to come play for them, and they’ve won two of the last three championships. Best of all, it doesn’t look like they’ll be going away anytime soon. All of that started with a moral victory a mere five years ago.

Now, the likelihood of the Pacers ever getting to where the Warriors currently are is extremely unlikely. At the same time, nobody back in 2013 thought the Warriors would be what they are now. Considering everything that the Pacers have in their arsenal, it’s fair to say “never say never”. However, just because everything went their way this season does not mean the good times will continue. Moral victories are fun and all, but they can be fool’s gold too.

Just ask the Portland Trail Blazers. Two seasons ago, the Blazers were pretty much in the exact same boat as the Pacers. They lost their franchise big LaMarcus Aldridge among the several vital players they lost in the summer of 2015. Yet, the team still managed to win 44 games, get the fifth seed, and even win a playoff series. They may have been eliminated by the Warriors shortly afterward, but all talk about Portland in 2016 was largely positive.

Look where they are now. The Blazers have yet to win a playoff game since, they’ve been tip-toeing around the luxury tax since they unwisely over-spent more than anyone in the summer of 2016, and they are running low on options. To make things worse, the Blazers are coming off an embarrassing sweep and they are in a tricky situation with Jusuf Nurkic’s upcoming free agency. Suddenly, that moral victory they had a mere two seasons ago doesn’t hold much water now.

The Blazers and the Warriors took different paths after their moral victories, which really makes the aftermath of a moral victory up in the air in the long-term. Sometimes, teams get so many moral victories to the point where they may not want them anymore, like the Boston Celtics.

In 2015, the Celtics got crushed by the Cavaliers in the first round, but that season was a moral victory because they made the playoffs when nobody expected them to. In 2016, the Celtics got eliminated again in the first round, but that season was a moral victory because they made some noise despite being shorthanded on talent. In 2017, the Celtics got embarrassed again by the Cavaliers in the conference finals, but that season was a moral victory because they went as far as they could have realistically hoped for.

This season was supposed to be different. Adding Gordon Hayward and trading for Kyrie Irving signaled that the Celtics were going all in on a title run. Of course, that went up in smoke five minutes into the season, but the Celtics had their fourth consecutive moral victory because, despite season-ending injuries to both Irving and Hayward, they won 55 games which earned them the second seed. They’re probably not going to win the championship, but the Celtics should take pride in how they did with all their obstacles.

At the same time, the Celtics didn’t want another moral victory this season. This year was aimed at taking the eastern conference crown away from LeBron. Judging by the Cavs’ vulnerability and the Raptors continued struggles against inferior competition in the playoffs, the east was as wide open as could be this season. They may have had a fun season, but it still didn’t turn out the way they would have hoped. Still, the fact that they played this well should make them very hopeful going forward. Even if it wasn’t what they wanted, this season’s moral victory was more evidence that the Celtics should have a great future ahead of them.

Moral victories, in summary, are great to have because they are fun to watch and can lead to something special, but if they don’t lead to anything in the long run, then they are pretty much useless. The Pacers have a wonderful thing going for them right now, but whether they can capitalize on their unexpected run this season depends entirely on where they decide to go from here on out.

If they can build off this next season, then they should be a force to be reckoned with in the NBA for years to come, but if they don’t, then it won’t be long before their inspiring play this season will be forgotten among the NBA masses.

Matt John is a staff writer for Basketball Insiders. He is currently a Utah resident, but a Massachusetts native.

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