Entertainment Versus Success

11 mins read

Is it more important for a franchise playing in a professional sports league to be successful or entertaining? In general, winning and fun go together like James Harden and hipster beard oils. (Sidebar: I know he uses them! No beard naturally looks that good!) Look no further than the Golden State Warriors, who are one of the most successful – and exciting – teams in NBA history. But every once in a while, teams can achieve success but effect boredom in their fans.

The Atlanta Hawks won an average of 47 games per year over the course of 2008-9 to 2015-16 (including a lockout shortened 2011-12). They achieved great success, never missing the playoffs, and even making it to the Conference Finals in 2014-15. Their achievements earned them the title (now overused, but clever back in the day) of ‘Spurs-East’.

However, the Hawks never found the popular acclaim that accompanies dominance of that level. Al Horford, their best player for over a decade, never cracked the top-25 in jersey sales. Even in 2014-15, when the Hawks won 60 games and sent four players to the all-star team, the Hawks didn’t crack the top 10 in merchandise sales. During the same stretch, the highest the Hawks finished in ticket sales was 18th in the league in 2010, only selling 88% of seats available in their games.

Franchise malaise can set in, especially in a market in which a sport has never been a traditional powerhouse. The Hawks eventually had to drop their aspirations to contend like an obsolete iPhone, and they are currently the franchise embodiment of your broke-ass, thirty-year-old son: living in the basement. Was this because of their inability to succeed at the highest level (ie, win a championship), or their inability to properly entertain their fans?

This brings us to the Raptors, who have for a few years been described as existing on the proverbial treadmill. The Raptors have surely been successful – far more than ever before in franchise history – but have they been entertaining?

This is more difficult to know. While the Raptors were third in the league in 2016-17 in ticket sales, fans complained frequently and loudly about the aesthetically displeasing style of Raptors basketball. The Raptors had an excellent regular season offense last year, which even at one point was more efficient than the Warriors’. They accomplished this by limiting turnovers, making their midrange jumpers and 3s, getting to the free throw line, and crashing the offensive glass. While this offense crapped out in the playoffs (again), it also made for boring viewing experiences even while it was working. Even though I loved every second at the time, this really isn’t that exciting in hind-sight:

It also turns out that teams with long wing defenders like Otto Porter Jr., Khris Middleton, or even J.R. Smith can lock that shit down in the playoffs. Let alone one team with Andre Iguodala, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, and Draymond Green, as we saw in the last few minutes of the Golden State game.

And so the Raptors have sought to reinvent their offense. They have completely changed their shot profile. Here’s a table, per Ben Falk of Cleaning the Glass, comparing this year’s shot attempts to last year’s:

Year % at Rim (League Rank) % in Short Mid (League Rank) % in Long Mid (League Rank) % in All Mid (League Rank) % in Corner 3 (League Rank) % in non-Corner 3 (League Rank) % in all 3 (League Rank)
17-18 37.9 (3) 15.8 (22) 12.6 (25) 28.4 (28) 8.5 (6) 25.5 (13) 33.7 (7)
16-17 32.7 (26) 20.5 (3) 20.4 (11) 41.0 (5) 7.6 (8) 18.8 (24) 26.4 (20)

It is important to note that the above chart describes the Raptors’ shot attempts, not their percentages of makes or misses. The takeaway is that the Raptors have changed how they play. They take far fewer midrange shots and have replaced those possessions with more 3s of all varieties and more shots at the rim. These are higher percentage shots, unless Van Vleet is taking your shots at the rim or Delon Wright your 3s, but I digress. In general, the new shot profile is good and conducive to winning, but it is equally more exciting basketball to watch.

With known commodity veterans like Cory Joseph, Patrick Patterson, and P.J. Tucker out the door, the Raptors have relied on talented but inexperienced youth. This has been the plan for a long time, and it has introduced a litany of variables where once there was stability. Will the Raptors win regular season games and be able to rest their stars more? Can the team have an elite defense without a single elite defender? Will the Raps bench continue to son fools now that it is completely different from past years? There are more things for fans to watch than just waiting for the inevitable playoffs collapse! The wild variation between the Portland and Denver games proved just how different this new team can look from night to night.

The kids are good and effective and winning and all that, but most of all they’re fun! They play happy and weird, and they’ve been empowered more this year than ever before. This is partially due to injury, but the bench mob of Delon Wright, Fred Van Vleet, CJ Miles, OG Anunoby, and Jakob Poeltl leads any Raptors lineup in minutes played. Last year they were tethered to at least one of Kyle Lowry or DeMar DeRozan, but this year they’ve been mostly free to sink or swim on their own. Thus far: net rating of +13.8.

This is fun and attractive basketball:

The rapid side-to-side movement happened far too little in years past, and the Raptors seem to have focused more of their efforts on entertainment. This focus has paid off for some teams in the past. After all, the 2013-14 Golden State Warriors had Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and Andre Iguodala playing on their team. Mark Jackson kept a lid on the team, who only played with a pace of 96.2 possessions per 48 minutes. In 2014-15, Steve Kerr let the team play with more fun: more possessions, more 3s, and as it turned out, more winning.

The difference, of course, is that the Raptors do not have a player the caliber of Steph Curry (or now Kevin Durant). While they are playing with more energy and appeal, the Raptors will certainly not win the NBA championship in 2017-18. They might even have difficulty matching the 51 wins of last year, let alone the 56 wins of 2015-16.

In the spirit of honesty, the Raptors have probably neither changed their floor nor ceiling all that much. That is hard to do when you run back mostly the same roster, and your stars are already in their prime. They will probably be the favourites in one (maybe two, depending on seeding) playoff series and get beaten by a better team than themselves. Best case scenario, their offense is more versatile come playoff time and much more difficult to stop. This seems likely, considering how easy it has been to stop the Raptors’ offense in playoffs past. Heck, maybe they beat LeBron James this year! Doubt it. Even then, the Warriors will liquefy whomever they play in the finals.

And so what is the value of entertainment? It may be best explained the same way that Justice Potter Stewart explained hard-core pornography: I know it when I see it. And in seeing the Raptors play a new style of basketball – and wondering nightly whether it will work, and for how long – I can safely say that the Raptors’ new focus on entertainment has improved what was already the greatest stretch in Raptors’ history.

After all, why are we fans in the first place? We all know who would win the NBA championship last year, but we watched in record numbers anyway. This year is no different. Being a fan is fun because of the little things, like watching Jakob Poeltl develop into a world-beater before your very eyes. The Raptors may not be more likely to win a championship this year, but they sure are more fun. I, for one, am content with that, sucker that I am.

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