The Burden of High Expectations

Title: The Burden of High Expectations
Date: January 28, 2009
Original Source: Hoops Addict
Synopsis: After a few months off from writing due to, among other things, a waning interest and a new job, I got back into the fold at Hoops Addict. This article posited that being a fan of a team that failed to meet high expectations is tougher than being a fan of a team that has no expectations whatsoever.

As with most anything in life, success in sports is measured on the basis of initial expectations just as much as absolute success. The Tampa Bay Devil Rays were far better than anyone expected, the New York Yankees missed the playoffs despite having an extremely high payroll, and the Arizona Cardinals shocked the world making it to the Super Bowl. None of these events are that extraordinary – baseball generally has a good deal of turnover in playoff teams, and football`s short season provides fair odds that a `mediocre` team is really a Championship calibre one.

So why the big deal? Why are underdog stories so captivating, and falls from grace so gratifying? Disney-esque fantasy aside, it is largely because the sports world is shaped primarily by our expectations. It is our expectations, and not necessarily actual wins and losses, which provide a frame of reference when evaluating teams and players. This NBA season is a perfect caricature of that truth.

As the halfway point has just passed us by, numerous articles have popped up examining the pleasant surprises and bitter disappointments of 2008-09 thus far. Injuries have riddled some of the West’s better teams, the Magic have joined the NBA’s elite, and a handful of former superstars have fallen by the wayside. There are many more examples, but the point is clear – good or bad, overachieve or underachieve, the basketball world is in constant evaluation based on expectations.

And sure, this is probably all pretty logical. But at what point do expectations start to interfere with one’s enjoyment of the game? Obviously, an injury to your favorite player or a struggling favorite team is going to sour you to some degree, but how low can a team undershoot your expectations? As a Toronto Raptor fan, I know far too well how a season ripe with optimism can be darkened with a few untimely injuries and losing streaks. No, the Raptors aren’t the worst team in the NBA this year, not even close, but they are performing significantly below expectations.

Raptors fans have been on the flip side of this before. When the team won the Atlantic Division two years ago, next to nobody saw it coming – a team expected to struggle for a playoff berth meshed well and won a franchise record 47 games. After a slight step backwards last season, the addition of Jermaine O’Neal and continued improvement of Chris Bosh, Jose Calderon, and Andrea Bargnani had Raptor Nation calling for 50 wins and home court advantage in the first round.

One coaching change, two bad months of Bargnani, and a few on-and-off injuries to Calderon and O’Neal later, and Raptor Nation is a dismal place with little optimism left. In recent weeks, the Raptors had dropped seven straight by an average of 7 points per night. John Hollinger’s playoff odds have the Raptors at just a 27.5% chance of getting in. The improvement of Bargnani has been a bright spot, the return of Jose Calderon has some thinking big, and the many rumoured Jermaine O’Neal trades have kept the fan base interested enough to still hope. Still, at 17-28 looking up from 13th in the Eastern Conference, the initial goal of a top-4 seed now seems laughable. Instead, a playoff berth would be considered a success, though the team is unlikely to have a fighting chance against the likes of Cleveland, Boston, or Orlando.

In reality, looking at the history of this franchise, this shouldn’t be that tough a season for Raptor fans. The team missed the playoffs in 8 of their 13 seasons, and steps backwards have been commonplace. Furthermore, the Jermaine O’Neal trade still doesn’t look that bad, and the team’s core is fairly young. And when Bryan Colangelo is at the helm, blind faith isn’t an unflattering term.

But coming into the season expecting to hear your team being mentioned with the likes of Orlando, Detroit, Utah, and Houston (second tier but dangerous teams), only to hear them discussed with Indiana, Chicago, Washington, and Golden State (the league’s group of misfit would-be contenders) can take its toll. The Wizards have the injury excuse, as does Golden State (among other issues), and other bad teams like Sacramento, Oklahoma City, and Memphis can look to bright young players and cap room as a reason to be hopeful. Teams with initially low expectations like Minnesota and New York can enjoy their small tastes of success and look forward to adding another lottery pick to their core. But other than maybe Chicago, no team has undershot expectations quite like the Raptors.

Now, with the playoffs a question mark and the future of Chris Bosh a proverbial pink elephant in every room, Raptor Nation is quietly beginning to scramble and look for answers. Would an O’Neal for Marion swap turn things around? Can The Architect (Colangelo) make some savvy moves in the offseason? If expectations are met next year, will that be enough to keep CB4 in red and black?

At this point Raptor fans probably don’t know what to expect. And while that may make future seasons more enjoyable from a ‘they’re better than we thought’ point of view, I’d still prefer to have high expectations go unmet than have no expectations at all.

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