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Shifting expectations, close losses, and how we define success

Kimani Okearah

[Editor’s note: This post contains language not often included in front page articles on Sactown Royalty. If you’re offended by bad language you should proceed no further. You’ve been warned.]

Success, supposedly, is harder than failure. At least that’s the cliché. I have no firsthand experience, unless one counts consuming a 4-pack of 10% Moonraker tall cans in one sitting a success. Whereas failure is a warm blanket of the status quo the logic goes that success breeds enhanced expectations, enhanced expectations breed real responsibilities, and suddenly half the country is pissed at you for making Luke Skywalker drink green tit milk.

This is a uniquely American problem. Maybe it’s not. But it’s mandated every article like this include that sentence and I’ve never been to Portugal. This is the country of endless opportunity, of invention and reinvention, of any idiot becoming Andrew Carnegie or Guy Fieri or Logan Paul. America largely exists on the duality that money doesn’t buy happiness, and that the most effective way of figuring that out is to have a shit ton of money and pretend to be unhappy. Money, of course, doesn’t buy happiness, so much as it validates ambition and effort. And as such it becomes the most explicit signifier of professional success. Consequently not being defined by either professional success or failure, personally, or at least being able to contextualize those as part of who you are without them becoming exclusively who you are, is a difficult dichotomy to maintain when so much of our interaction societally is transactional.

The Kings are in the midst of a season where whatever pre-existing, pre-season expectations (or lack thereof) there were were fulfilled sometime around Thanksgiving. This was supposed to be our official bottoming out as fan-base and franchise. No Luka, no 2019 Lottery pick, Jeff Van Gundy joking a 20 win season would be generous, the Kings topping ESPN’s fan misery index. I had zero expectations for this season besides, at best, the kids getting run and looking occasionally competent and Vlade probably getting fired. Pretty much to a person this was the overall attitude going into this season. Even Will’s now semi-prophetic “What if Vlade is right?” article was written tongue pretty firmly planted in cheek. And fuck us, right? It worked. Or is working. So much so we’ve been forced to create new expectations on the fly. Enhanced expectations. Such is the consequence of success.

The Kings haven’t looked great the last couple weeks. Now had future me told me during the summer I’d be defining “not great” as being at .500, 4-6 in their last 10 games, and that most recent loss coming to a top-seeded Denver Nuggets team, all while our lottery pick has been rehabbing the last month, past me would have told future me to fuck off for being so selfish and, also, to do something better with my ability to time travel. But future me, who is current me, knows that this, in fact, is something close to a playoff team, and that that Denver loss was frustrating because this wasn’t a plucky, supposed to be shitty, team overachieving to a better team playing down to their competition, it was something much closer to two peers. And when we see flashes of that, as we have consistently all season, it’s hard not to get carried away with our expectations. Largely because, are we really getting carried away? Is it wrong to begrudge this team for not playing at something resembling a playoff level when they’ve shown the ability to do that throughout the season? Whether or not it’s what we thought them capable of in September? Is it unreasonable to take personally snatching defeat from the jaws of a victory over aforementioned peer?

I imagine that’s some of the current frustration with Willie. That as this team evolves in real time his inability to evolve beyond serviceable feels like the roster’s most glaring non-small forward related weakness.

For the sake of our collective sanity I’m not sure what the answer is to what our expectations should be, what success this season should be defined as. I mean it’s personal, subjective, there’s no right or wrong answer. But success in the NBA is defined seemingly by playoffs or the lottery bottoming out that leads long term to the playoffs. An ahead of schedule team pushing, against all odds, to .500 in a pornographically deep Western Conference doesn’t have the same sex appeal, no matter how many times I try to use pornographic as an adjective. And it won’t be as fun as the first few months of the year, even if it’s no less an accomplishment, because expectations evolved.

The Kings have been so successful this season that by said season’s end they could end up feeling a bit like a failure, only serving to underscore just how successful the season has been. At once makes perfect sense and no sense. Welcome to America.