“[I]f you want to call it a form of socialism, as some do, in terms of how sports leagues operate, I would say from an economic standpoint, we’re a single enterprise. We’re trying to create competition among teams. And that’s what makes our system.”
–Adam Silver, NBA Commissioner
“I have a competition in me. I want no one else to succeed. I hate most people.”
competition \ˌkäm-pə-ˈti-shən\ : the act or process of trying to get or win something (such as a prize or a higher level of success) that someone else is also trying to get or win
“YOU PLAY, TO WIN, THE GAME!”
Generally speaking, a professional basketball game is supposed to be a competition. Owners pay a management staff to hire coaches, scouts, trainers and most importantly players to compete against somebody else’s team. The goal is to win the game.
There are exceptions to this general rule. Sometimes, some things have greater priority than winning a game does. At the management level, teams sometimes trade away their best players in order to ensure a worse record and higher draft position. Philadelphia is the most notorious example of this “tanking” strategy. By intentionally fielding a worse lineup, Philly is not competing.
At the coaching level, Gregg Popovich will sometimes sit out his best veterans in order to rest them for the playoffs. In terms of a championship pursuit — his main goal — he is competing. But on that night, he is not. He would play his best players if he cared about winning that game.
Coaches fail to compete in other ways. Some might say that by “checking out” last season with an eye on retirement, Rick Adelman failed to compete. Or, for another recent Timberwolves example, Kurt Rambis talked about the slow process of teaching a young team and how he was asking his players to do things that they were not yet comfortable doing. However implicitly, Rambis was acknowledging that he was not competing to win. If he cared most about winning, he would’ve set more ball screens for Ramon Sessions and sat Jonny Flynn on the bench. But instead he was using games as practice laboratories. Losses ensued.
Lastly, sometimes the players themselves fail to compete. This can also take different forms. It can be excessive selfishness in on-court decisions. If a player is clearly putting his own stats over the greater good, he is not competing to win the game. It can be refusing to play through a reasonable amount of pain. Nobody is expected to be Kevin McHale, hobbling on a broken foot in the NBA Finals. But basketball creates soreness and every player responds differently to it. In the lens of competition, the ones that best balance injury prevention with playing as much and as hard as possible can be considered the most competitive. They are trying the hardest to win.
But the worst and ugliest deviation from competition is when the players simply don’t show up to play hard.
And that’s what we saw from the Timberwolves this weekend.