The Memphis Grizzlies are in dire straits. They’ve already been granted three injury hardship exceptions and when Mario Chalmers — a feelgood story this year for Memphis — went down with a season-ending Achilles rupture, they had little choice but to waive him in order to get enough healthy bodies on the roster to play a game. Yet in spite of injuries to Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, Zach Randolph and just about every other able body on the roster, the Grizzlies are sitting in fifth place in the Western Conference. Such is the weirdness of expectations and experience.
On paper, a Wolves team starting Ricky Rubio, Zach LaVine, Andrew Wiggins, Gorgui Dieng and Karl-Anthony Towns (a lineup with an 11.8 net rating over the last five games and 109 minutes they’ve played) should demolish the motley crew Memphis could field: Ryan Hollins, JaMychal Green, Matt Barnes, Tony Allen and a guy named Briante Weber. And at first, they were, jumping out to a 42-25 lead by the end of the first quarter. But the Grizzlies kept hanging around, outscoring Minnesota in the second and fourth quarters, even though the Wolves kept them at arm’s length.
Look at the box score and it looks decent for Minnesota: Six players in double figures including 28 from LaVine on 11-for-19 shooting (6-for-10 on 3-pointers), a +20 for Dieng, a +10 for Tyus Jones, double-doubles for Rubio and Towns and 10 3-pointers for the team overall — a veritable bounty when you’re talking about the Wolves. But this was definitely a case of Memphis playing worse than Minnesota. The Grizzlies shot 44% overall and just 20% from the arc, and although Lance Stephenson had himself a game — especially in the first half where he scored 17 points — he was the only player with a positive plus-minus at +11. Second best was the aforementioned Weber at 0.
It makes it so tempting to call this a “bad win,” the flipside of a loss you might call a “moral victory.” In either of these cases, it’s a matter of perspective. Most forward-thinking people likely subscribe to “process over results”; when we have time and space to consider things, we know that simply judging on outcomes means ignoring granular stuff that can be controlled or worked on in favor of attributing success or failure to big picture things like luck. Chase the outcome and you’re likely to never understand how you got there.
But looking at things that way can also lead to things like calling games “bad wins,” or totally ignoring your own ethos and wondering out loud why the hell Sam Mitchell didn’t put LaVine in at shooting guard sooner when maybe his recent success is due at least in part to the process that got him to this point. The second is only natural: in the face of the unknowability of the entire process, sometimes we can only focus on the results.
The much-hated “moral victory,” though, is a product of the same process-based thinking as the “bad win.” Moral victories are derided for being Panglossian — pie-eyed optimism papering over fundamental problems with a team, a way to make you feel better about something that’s still basically a pile of crap. The bad win is a way to make you feel bad about something that should feel good, and so it also carries a whiff of condescension. “Oh, your team won? They really SHOULDN’T have, you know.”
It all gets hopelessly tangled up: pessimism, optimism, faith, science, process, results. I’m reminded of a road trip I took with my college roommate and his younger brother after my freshman year. After three days with two other male teenagers, I could no longer tell when we were being sarcastic and when we weren’t.
“You want to stop at that diner for dinner?”
“Yeah, great idea.”
“Do you actually think it’s a great idea, or are you giving me shit?”
“I’m totally not giving you shit.”
So, no: the Wolves didn’t DESERVE to win based on how they played. And some nights they’ll DESERVE to win and won’t. Sometimes it’s possible to get so wrapped up in process that we can forget the results. Sometimes a win is a win is a win.