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Against Championships

(as a criterion for success)

NBA: White House Visit-Milwaukee Bucks NBA Champions Scott Taetsch-USA TODAY Sports

The Milwaukee Bucks’ 2021 NBA Championship was the greatest sporting moment in my life. It was incredible and joyous to watch, especially after decades of futility and helmed by the most likable superstar in the sport.

But sports are about more than just moments. For many of us, sports is an everyday experience. Moments of success, like championships, provide vital fuel to that experience, but they are also, and perhaps primarily, propelled by the hope of success. As fans, we follow out favorite teams because we hope that they can win.

But sometimes hope is in short supply. Growing up, the primary hope fueling my Bucks’ fandom was the hope that we would sneak into the playoffs and get clobbered by the Pistons. But the arrival of Giannis elevated that hope to something loftier: the hope that we might actually win a championship.

That hope came to fruition in 2021. But beyond that moment, the last five years were a great time to be a Bucks fan because we could legitimately harbor that hope. We fell short the other four years - it’s hard to win a championship, let alone several - but we were on the edge of our seats because we hoped we could win.

My argument against championships is that they are an inadequate criterion for success. They represent singular moments of glory that are typically the cart behind the horse of consistent success. Teams should attempt (and fans should support) consistent success over championships because it fosters the hope that gives life to fandom.

The most proximal case of prioritizing championships over consistent success has been in the dismissal of Coach Bud and the search for his replacement. I’m don’t want to spent too much time re-adjudicating the decision to fire him; you can read my thoughts on the matter (prior to the decision) here. But I need to start there because he was fired despite winning a championship, which at first glance appears to contradict my argument.

The decision to fire Bud was a knee-jerk reaction to losing to the Miami Heat, who were a bad team that was definitely not going to progress further in the playoffs. People specifically bristled at his late-game management of timeouts as the Heat came back from large fourth-quarter deficits, which they definitely did not continue to do later in the playoffs.

Sarcasm aside, Bud was fired because he was deemed unable to lead the Bucks to consistent success. However, consistent success was defined in terms of championships. The Bucks were the best regular season team (by a ridiculous margin) during his tenure, but only won one championship in five seasons. That wasn’t enough.

So who is enough? A long list of candidates that we hear at Brew Hoop have been dutifully tracking, who seem to be ranked by Bacon numbers but for proximity to championship teams instead of Mr. Bacon. Nick Nurse won a title with the Raptors. Frank Vogel won a title with the Lakers. As assistants, Adrian Griffin won a title with the Raptors and Kenny Atkinson won a title with the Warriors. (Hell, Charles Lee won a title here, but maybe that doesn’t count.) Chris Quinn works under Erik Spoelstra, who won two titles with the Heat. Mark Jackson coached the Warriors right before they became a dynasty. James Borrego has probably had conversations with people who are related to people who won championships. And so on.

To be sure, some of these coaches have also had consistent success, both in the regular season and the playoffs. But the overriding focus seems to have been how much magic dust from championships has been rubbed off on them. If the goal is consistent success, the focus should be consistent success.

The key word here is if. Why should we strive for consistent success? Shouldn’t we aim for championships? These goals are not mutually exclusive - consistent success begets championships in the long run - but consistent success if a better goal for several reasons.

The problem with championships as a criterion for success is that it is a binary and lofty goal. If you are the one team out of thirty who wins the championship, congrats! You’ve succeeded. If not, you failed. Evaluating success based on championships sets an incredibly high bar for success and paints any non-championship outcome as a failure. (National talking heads definitely don’t contribute to this narrative. Nope, not one bit.)

More importantly, though, these expectations have downstream consequences. You hemorrhage first-round picks for a single player who will get you closer to a championship. You stockpile octogenarians who will get you closer to a championship. You fail to develop talent that might help you win a championship in the second half of your superstar’s career because they won’t help you win a championship now. You have very little financial wiggle room because of all of the money you are spending on older players rather than younger players.

I understand that, in today’s NBA, having a superstar means that we are in win-now mode. I understand that, by virtue of being a small-market team, there is further pressure that said superstar, even if he is loyal to a fault, will inevitably end up in the supposedly greener pastures of New York and LA (again, paging the national talking heads here). I understand that we can’t attract superstars like large-market teams, in part because our superstar’s only superstar friend is also loyal.

But I also believe that the best way to ensure said superstar’s lifelong tenure is - would have been? - to aim for consistent success rather than the immediate gratification of winning a championship.

At the end of the day, championships matter. Teams hang championship banners in their rafters. For fans, they are the culmination of our hope in our teams.

But they are not everything. Sports are fundamentally about the hope of success, rather than moments of it; if a team won every time, it would get boring. That hope lies in consistent success, and focusing on championships over consistent success can extinguish that hope.

Ultimately, regardless of how this offseason pans out, I hope that the Bucks can continue their consistent success.