Fans need to appreciate the ride in title-or-bust era

It’s an era of championship-or-bust thinking in pro sports. But when only one team out of 30 gets to hoist the trophy, it sets fans up for misery far too often.

From the showers adjacent to the visitors’ locker room at the Verizon Center, you could hear various members of the Toronto Raptors vent in the way men vent when they know they are truly, utterly, inescapably toast and have only themselves to blame. The loud, sharp F-bombs bounced off the tiles and echoed out, plain to all within earshot. The sounds were the sounds of failure, or the realization of failure, and they landed with heavy thuds.

The Toronto Raptors had lost game three of their best-of-seven first-round series against the Washington Wizards, and their season was effectively over. No NBA team has ever come back from being down 3–0, and the Raptors didn’t break the mould—they were decimated in game four. “I’ll say it—it was embarrassing,” said Raptors forward Patrick Patterson. He went on to add “horrific” and “ugly.”

These being the times we’re in, Twitter was alive with fans imploring the team to fire head coach Dwane Casey and trade 2014–15 all-star point guard Kyle Lowry, and insisting that 2013–14 all-star DeMar DeRozan isn’t fit to lead a team deep into the playoffs. “Blow it up,” said some.

A year ago, roughly the same team had a slightly less successful regular season (48 wins compared with 49 this year, both franchise records) and were eliminated in the playoffs in the first round as the higher seed, albeit in a heartbreaking game seven instead of a meek four-game sweep. But a year ago, the Raptors were a team of the future. The future came and went, apparently.

Fan frustration makes sense given that it’s part of the same impulse that inspires people to stand outside in dodgy weather to watch a game on a giant TV when they have a perfectly good TV at home. But frustration at the Raptors’ plight might have been more understandable if the Raptors were at the tail end of years of playoff frustration, like, say, the Portland Trail Blazers, who have made the playoffs 30 times since winning their only NBA title in 1977 and have lost in the first round on 22 occasions. Or the Denver Nuggets, who made the playoffs every year from 2004 to 2013 and only once made it past the first round. Or the Houston Rockets, who have 10 playoff appearances in 18 years and eight first-round exits. Prior to the Wizards advancing to the second round in 2014, Washington had made it out of the first just once in 31 seasons.

It’s not just a basketball thing. In the NHL, the Nashville Predators have made it past the first round once in eight tries. The Dallas Stars have five playoff appearances in the past 12 years and have been bounced in the first round four times. Even the mighty Detroit Red Wings, the most consistent franchise in any of the four major sports, have failed to advance beyond the second round in 16 of the 24 straight seasons they’ve made the playoffs. Three of those early exits came in the first round while they were at the peak of their dynasty and in the midst of winning their four Stanley Cups.

All of which is to say, winning—and winning championships—is much harder than anyone really wants to acknowledge. A lot of pro sports is selling hope, and pointing out the long odds of winning a championship isn’t good for business. But given that only four teams among the 122 major North American sports franchises win the final game of the year each season, it makes for a lot of dashed dreams, year after year. Which takes the fun out of it far more often than it should, particularly in the era where a championship ring is the go-to tiebreaker in any sports argument.

Mario Chalmers won two titles playing point guard for the Miami Heat while John Stockton, who retired as the NBA career leader in assists and missed just 22 games in 19 seasons, won none. By the math of the day, only one point guard gets to call himself a champion.

In the Raptors’ case, after nearly two decades defined by long stretches of losing, one might think consecutive playoff appearances with a relatively young team -(only the Cleveland Cavaliers boasted two starters as young as Jonas Valanciunas, 22, and Terrence Ross, 23) would be something to celebrate. Instead, there are already concerns that with foundation pieces like the talented but limited Lowry and DeRozan—two of the loudest F-bombers in the Verizon Center showers—the Raptors have a low ceiling.

Sure, they can squeeze out a few more playoff appearances and maybe steal a round or two as the roster matures, but will they ever topple LeBron James, let alone survive against the class of the Western Conference?

For teams whose answer to that question is “no,” it has become increasingly routine to sacrifice multiple seasons to draft-driven rebuilding programs the way the Philadelphia 76ers and Minnesota Timberwolves have done. In hockey, the belief that championships are won with Hart Trophy–calibre centres and Norris Trophy–winning defencemen, which can only be acquired in the draft, inspired the tankiest season ever, with the Buffalo Sabres, Arizona Coyotes and Toronto Maple Leafs falling over themselves to be as bad as possible and draft one of Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel.

In baseball, where there is no salary cap, the rich teams can spend their way to contention. But with the price for established talent soaring ever higher, franchises like the Kansas City Royals and the Houston Astros have gone through years of self-imposed losing to load up on prospects who will eventually, hopefully, create a championship window that stays open until the home-grown talent gets too expensive to keep. The losing is tough, but everything short of a championship these days seems equally unacceptable.

It seems silly to suggest that professional sports have become “winner-take-all” to their detriment. If there’s one field in which applauding a championship-or-bust ethos makes sense, it’s where the best amuse the rest for money. But with so much playing and so little winning, maybe finding a way to appreciate the ride would help paying customers feel like the whole thing is a little more worthwhile.

This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.

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