“You tried your best and failed miserably. The lesson is: never try” – Homer.
That quote is not from the ancient Greek poet, but his namesake from The Simpsons, a man as real as the 2016 Golden State Warriors’ claim to be the greatest basketball team of all time. The Warriors tried their best and went all in, making it clear back in early April that they would go for the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls’ record of 72 wins. Steph Curry and friends beat the mark by one, and then set their sights on winning a second championship and the title of best ever.
Instead, playoff history will remember them as the first team to lose the Larry O’Brien Trophy after holding a 3-1 finals lead, dropping two closeout games at a home arena in which they were once unbeatable, and to a team from a city that was presumed to be incapable of winning anything. Never try.
By trying their best and failing miserably, the Warriors joined a prestigious club of great losers. Or at least semi-prestigious, depending on how you view being the best before being the best matters. With Golden State’s upset, the teams with the best regular-season records in the four major American professional sports leagues have all now failed to cap their dominance with postseason glory.
The 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings of the NHL went 62-13-7 with an absurd goal differential of 325-181 (1.75 per game). Yet they lost in six games in the conference finals to the Colorado Avalanche after struggling to even make it through the first two rounds. Injury was added to Detroit’s insult when Kris Draper’s face got smashed into the boards by Claude Lemieux in the series clincher.
Five years later, the Seattle Mariners, featuring a 27-year-old rookie named Ichiro Suzuki, set the major league record for regular season wins with 116. The Mariners won the American League West division by 14 games over the Oakland A’s, but barely slipped by Cleveland in the first round of the playoffs, and got dominated 4-1 by the Yankees in the ALCS, including a 12-3 loss in the clincher. “Doesn’t matter if you won 85 to get in the playoffs or 185 to get in the playoffs,” Mariners starter Aaron Sele said after being eliminated. “It’s how you finish.”
Few football fans will ever forget the finish to Super Bowl XLII, as David Tyree’s helmet catch helped Eli Manning and the New York Giants knock off a New England Patriots team that had blown through the regular season at 16-0. Before the game Tom Brady laughed at a Plaxico Burress prediction that the Patriots would only score 17 points – fun fact: they only scored 14 in the game – which is reminiscent of the Warriors’ overconfidence that caused Draymond Green to call LeBron a “bitch” and Klay Thompson to say that James “got his feelings hurt”. To slightly paraphrase and modernize Proverbs: “Cocky comments that go viral cometh before the fall.”
Even college basketball has a long history of regular season excellence being snuffed out in the NCAA Tournament. The last college team to finish as undefeated champions were Indiana Hoosiers of 1975-76, ancient history in college hoops. Two seasons ago, the Kentucky Wildcats entered the Final Four as heavy favorites at 38-0 after being so dominant that a regular debate on social media was if Kentucky could beat the Philadelphia 76ers. Granted, social media is rarely the best venue for rigorous intellectual discussion, but it turned out Kentucky couldn’t even beat Frank Kaminsky, Sam Dekker and the Wisconsin Badgers, going down 71-64 in the national semis. “I just feel like we wanted to win the national title, and we didn’t do it,” said then Wildcats freshman and now NBA draft prospect Tyler Ulis said. “So the season was a waste.”
It’s hard to argue otherwise. History honors individual achievements in the regular season, but in the postseason, it only cares about team accomplishments. Even the most casual American sports fan can tell you that Barry Bonds is the all-time home runs leader – or, if the asterisk-giving type, they may say Hank Aaron – but who is the all-time leader in postseason home runs? Not a clue. I know the Yankees have the most championships ever, but do they have the most regular season wins in baseball history, too? Possibly, but who cares enough to look?
Curry’s mind-melting performance from behind the three-point line this year will stand the test of time. He hit 402 times from deep. Next on the single-season list is Steph Curry from 2015 with 286. Then Klay Thompson from this year and Steph Curry from 2013. A non-Warrior doesn’t even show up on the list until No5 with Ray Allen at 269, more than 130 threes behind the show Curry put on from October to April. People will tell their kids about seeing Curry shoot in 2016. But Curry’s 2016 team? They will be forgotten – or at least only brought up in discussions like this about great regular season teams that fell short.
There are plenty of theories for why these teams start losing when it matters. Maybe they wore down chasing greatness in the regular season. Maybe they peaked too early or got complacent. Maybe their success put a target on their backs and gave opponents extra motivation. Maybe they had flaws that were easily exposed when opponents had time to diligently scout them. Maybe there’s a “curse”. Maybe God really does take an active role in the outcome of sporting events and finds it hilarious to crush these teams hopes and dreams at the very last moment. Mysterious ways and such. But all of them are guesses.
What we do know is that if the past great failures are any indication, the Warriors’ championship window is not closed. The Mariners followed up their 116-win season with back-to-back 93-win campaigns. The Red Wings won 24 fewer games in the 1996-97 regular season … but won the Stanley Cup. They won it again the next season, too, and two more times in the coming nine years. The Patriots lost their 2008 season to Tom Brady’s torn ACL, but have remained perennial Super Bowl contenders since, much to the chagrin of inflation fans.
The current sugar-coating that’s coming from the Bay Area aside, the Warriors’ season was a waste. And they’re unlikely to get anywhere near 73-9 again. Yet there’s no reason to think the team can’t be right back in the finals next year to win it. That would surely cause Golden State fans to quote Homer: “Woo-hoo!”
This article was written by DJ Gallo, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 22nd June 2016 11.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010