What is success? (NBA edition)

I saw a tweet this week that spawned a thought. The thought is more a philosophical question that can be applied to literally any situation in life, but we'll mostly stick to sports. What is success?

The tweet came from a Mavericks fan to my former colleague Chuck Cooperstein, the Mavs play by play man. The pessimistic fan asked "what's the point of making the playoff? They're going to lose in the first round."

Allow me to answer: you make the playoffs. 

On the surface, this seems like quite the logical thing than anybody with even a minute understanding of sports should be able to figure out, but defining success in sports is far from simple. For some teams success means winning a lot. For some teams it's winning some. For some teams it's not winning at all. It's complicated. It's nuanced. And at this time of the year, it's particularly in focus for the NBA.

For the Mavericks, making the playoffs is a remarkable success. Dallas thought they had made a key addition in DeAndre Jordan last summer before the Clippers center changed his mind and decided to return to Los Angeles. That left the Mavericks with newly signed Wes Matthews coming off an achilles injury, Chandler Parsons coming off knee surgery and Dirk Nowitzki somehow still being a very good player despite being 482 years old in NBA years. Instead of being a legitimate threat to get to the 2nd round of the playoffs, the Mavs were stuck being good enough to have no shot at keeping their draft pick, which had to fall in the top 7 to not be sent to Boston to complete the Rajon Rondo trade.

Since being bad didn't have any benefit, why not see how good you can be? Despite battling injuries all year, they made the playoffs again. That should be celebrated. That's an accomplishment. That's success.

For the Warriors, making the playoffs is nothing special. Their goals are different. They're only goal is a championship. That was until they got off to the best start in NBA history and all of a sudden, the record for most wins in regular season history was on the table.

Success is a moving target, in life and in sports. When someone reaches a goal, they set a new one. When circumstances change, goals change. Rarely do plans actually work out exactly as someone lays them out. For the Warriors, the goal didn't change. They just added a new one.

The NBA's regular season is long. It starts in October and ends in April. Sometime in November or December, everyone realized the Warriors had a chance at 73 regular season wins because they hadn't lost yet and the wins were starting to stack up. At that point their season became a really long family vacation. You can't wait to leave, but by the end, even if you know you'll look back fondly, it's just time to go home.

That's where the Warriors are now. They're clearly exhausted, scraping together wins against teams they literally beat by 50 earlier in the season. They've also lost twice at home, something they didn't do all year until last weekend. The goal of championship is still at the top of their list, but along the way they'd love to get to 73. They've got two more wins to go. If they don't get it, it's nearly impossible to say that the regular season hasn't been successful. They've already assured themselves one of the two winningest regular seasons in the history of the sport. Of course that's successful, even if they don't reach their goal of breaking the record.

For the Warriors, success depends on their first goal. They must win another championship. Falling short of that is a failure by anyone's standard based on what Golden State has accomplished and what they're capable of. The funny thing about success being a moving target, is it often moves back to where it started. While the focus is on the regular season record, the determination of success hasn't moved one bit for Steph Curry and co.

That concept of moving goals and moving success brings us to the other end of the NBA spectrum: the 76ers. Sam Hinkie resigned from his front office position this week as Philadelphia continued to bring in other people around him. Hinkie wrote in his resignation letter that the changing dynamic didn't leave him in a position that he felt he could make the best decisions for the team.

Hinkie's plan to rebuild the 76ers was much maligned, but it was also misunderstood. The biggest misunderstanding was his definition of success.

Winning in the NBA actually isn't that hard. Winning championships is nearly impossible. The margin between a good team like the Mavericks and a championship team like the Warriors is massive. Hinkie wanted to build a championship team.

In order to do that, he gutted the roster and maximized his means of acquiring a star player (which you need at least one of, if not two to win a title) via the draft. In the meantime, he didn't care about how his team did. He knew he needed that player.

Upon his resignation (which wasn't forced by ownership directly, although the moves they made around him were the reasons he resigned), many analysts brought up teams like Orlando and Denver to say "you don't have to be so extreme to rebuild" as the Sixers have been the last three years.

Orlando and Denver have acquired some nice pieces. None of those pieces are the championship piece that Hinkie wanted. Sure, they've got better rosters and if they can either pick a winner later in the draft, get lucky and win the lottery or acquire a superstar player via trade or free agency, the superior roster helps them be in a position to win faster. With Orlando, this is even feasible as they've been a free agent destination in the past. With Denver? They better hope for the luck option.

Meanwhile the Sixers have the highest odds ever at the number one pick and might wind up with two picks in the top 5 this season. Every plan involving a lottery and talent evaluation also involves substantial luck. Why not give yourself the maximum chances to get lucky?

That's not to say Hinkie was perfect and didn't make some mistakes. He could've potentially had better players already with better scouting. He underestimated the human side of player development in having no veteran presence in his locker room. However his long-term plan often came under attack for the wrong reasons.

People failed to understand his definition of success. He didn't want to his team to be good. He wanted them to be great. He knew that would take time. He ran out of time.

Success is a funny thing. It can be defined by a person for themselves. It can be defined by others. It can be defined by precedent and history. It can be defined by smashing precedent and making history. It can be clearly defined. It can be misunderstood. All of those things are no more easily found than in pro sports at a season's end.