Nineteen games left in my first season covering an NBA team, I wonder if there is something of an inverse Anna Karenina principle at work in the league: All losing teams are alike; each winning team is successful in its own unique way.
When an NBA team is winning, it feels like alchemy. Players are falling back on old clichés in their responses, but the dead and dusty phrases feel imbued with a talismanic sort of quality. Here a koan about discipline and taking things one day at a time feels like a sort of insistence upon emotional balance; there a player shaking off the occasional loss feels like the purgation of doubt from the clean locker room. But when a team starts losing, clichés and bromides start to pile up in every corner, crowding in front of lockers and making it difficult to slither through the media swarm waiting on changing players.
After tonight’s loss to Memphis, I was in search of some glimmer of meaning as the team’s season starts to slip away. This Blazers team has been marked by a charming kind of stubbornness, a way of pursuing unconvincing or improbable wins with a patchwork roster as cynics or detractors or wise observers insisted that what they were doing was foolish or impossible. As that cynicism or wisdom begins to prove itself prescient, I was hoping to find some nugget that showed the Blazers grappling with an erosion of their sense of self, some frustration or desperation or perhaps a surprising dedication to principle. But I found the same things you find when a team is winning.
Terry Stotts started his post-game a little softer voiced than usual, a little redder in the eye. He was purposely obtuse a few times: a reporter asked what had happened to Nic Batum’s scoring, and Stotts said “I believe it’s down;” another reporter asked what effect that had on the team, Stotts said “we score less.” But this is garden-variety media cat-and-mouse, a losing coach deciding not to bite on a regular beat reporter question one night. This is a coach’s prerogative, and I think most indulge it every so often.
In the locker room, things were much the same. A little terse, sure, but a recognizable vibe. It’s silly to expect more. Before the season, I had a kind of private fantasy that I might decode the player interaction the way, say, an interviewer for The Paris Review draws an author out on his philosophy of perspective. Just the right question, and LaMarcus Aldridge might say “You’re exactly right to point that out, and as I age I have become less convinced of the whole notion of direct post-ups!” I’ve long since realized how stupid the idea is, but it’s hard not to try and dig deeper than the media scrum superficiality when the season seems at a natural inflection point.
It was in that spirit I approached Will Barton while reporters crowded around Damian Lillard’s locker. Will is one of the more effusive presences in the locker room, one of the most likely to engage journalists beyond the standard obligations. I asked him how, in his first season, he dealt with the idea of falling out of a playoff race. He gave me a blank kind of look. I clarified—you know, how do you keep urgency from settling into panic, or harness your intensity? I believe he said, quite literally, to take it one game at a time. It was an embarrassed sort of interaction; he looked past me, in a way that’s not typical for him, and I floundered to prod him into some of his usual easy familiarity. Nothing doing.
As is often the case, an indirect interaction with Damian Lillard was the most clarifying of the night. In the media scrum, he fended off a few invitations to sound an alarm about the standings. A reporter asked him whether the Blazers could learn from the Grizzlies, and he said an interesting thing: “I wouldn’t say learn from them, no.”
This is exactly right. The code of locker room communication is about refusing to admit that your methods are incorrect, that you have something to learn. You might incorporate certain lessons and use them as generic billboard material, but your approach is never wrong. You don’t learn from an opponent, because they don’t know anything you don’t. They just won.
And that’s why the idea of finding players reflecting on a season slipping away is almost a paradox. Because the difference between winning and losing is just the difference between winning and losing. The platitudes at hand don’t change, the mixed façade of humility and total confidence never wavers. There are always little things we can get better at, we’re never happy, whatever happens we’re a proud team, we’re just focused on the Knicks right now.
This whole thing, I realize, serves to make winning all the more miraculous. For a stretch, the whole game is validated; mundane discipline really does feel paramount, and it really does become crucial not to overextend one’s emotional energies worrying about the later parts of the schedule. The spectrum of acceptable communication in the NBA seems to preclude the possibility of organic excitement taking root, but somehow it does. Somehow all the same bare tropes that imprison a losing team are bolstering a winning one.
This is why I’m beginning to suspect that all losing teams are alike and all winning teams are unique. Losing teams, through whatever degree of dysfunction or simple mediocrity, are leaning on the same dull faith, and the message is the same in most any losing locker room, barring a major off-court catastrophe. But when lightning strikes and winning takes root, successful teams find ways to sustain the mirage, to keep the fire lit, and make their identity in how they hold fast.