This is not a story about the Indiana Pacers, but allow me to set the scene.
For much of the 2000s, the Indiana Pacers were a force. They were full of hard-nosed guys and talented guys that combined to compete annually for the Eastern Conference Crown against teams like the Pistons. Jermaine O’Neal got most of the publicity as the best player, and Reggie was still there, but it was guys like Jamaal Tinsley, Stephen Jackson, and Ron Artest that gave the Pacers that hard-nosed mentality. They were not the most likable guys, but they won, and they did it their way.
One night in Auburn Hills, things were going to plan. The Pacers had beaten the Pistons down that night and had demoralized them. The result was Ben Wallace shoving Ron Artest followed by the most well-known part of the story. The fire sale of “low-character” players ensued. So did losing. Guys like Mike Dunleavy, Troy Murphy and most of the other players on the roster were brought in for talent, but with a premium on being high-character. Now whether there is some racism here about white guys being higher character is not part of this discussion, though it is certainly worth a look elsewhere. More likely is that the front office felt this team would appeal to the fans more. Either way, it is beside the point. The Pacers descended into mediocrity, finishing 9th in the East several times without any real chances at moving up. The good guys on the team were not getting it done.
Fast forward to this year’s draft. The Pacers changed course and instead of making the “safe” pick like Tyler Hansbrough, the Pacers most notably went with big-upside-guy Paul George and Lance Stephenson, the talented scorer out of Cincinnati. They both played fairly well in Summer League, but especially Stephenson. It looked like the Pacers had finally taken some risks and they were going to pay off. Stephenson had some off-the-court issues, but if he produced on the floor and stayed out of trouble he would be worth it.
This week, Stephenson was arrested in Brooklyn for pushing his girlfriend down the stairs. The “low-character” tag was sticking, but if he goes out and puts up great numbers and helps the team win, I think, sadly, that no one will care about his issues.
So we reach the question we are here to discuss. Would you rather have a team full of assholes that wins or a team full of great guys who lose? It is a simple question with an answer as elusive as Gale Sayers in the open field. This is a question that can be applied throughout sports, but the Pacers just seemed to display it well. These are clearly not the only types of teams there are, but it is simply an exercise in contrasting the two poles. So where does the answer lie? Both are flawed, but which is better for the franchise?
The edge here obviously goes to the Bad Guys here. I mean, it is right in their title. They win and the Good Guys do not, so that is pretty cut and dried. However, the picture gets cloudier when you look long term. The flaw behind the Bad Guys success is that if they hit a rough patch, no one is willing to give them a break because they are not liked. The players are forced to realize that the fans are rooting for the success, not them individually and no player with character issues likes that. It is a flaw, but not one that can undo the clear fact that one team wins
If you win the Championship, all is forgiven by the fans. However, anything short of that and the fans will not be satisfied with guys who don’t seem to care even though they win games. You could see it start to happen in Indiana with the Pacers before the Malice at the Palace sped the process up. The people liked to see the team win, but yearned for someone to throw their support behind, and it was becoming increasingly hard to do when hearing about Jamaal Tinsley’s strip club escapades, Stephen Jackson’s wild west parking lots, and Ron Artest’s general insanity. The fans appreciated the winning, but since they did not have a title, it was not enough. The Bad Guys fell short.
However, the Good Guys do not do much better. When the Bad Guy Pacers were bad guys, people still went to the games and kept money and enthusiasm flowing into the franchise. The Good Guy Pacers lose AND do not put seats in the seats. However, the fans no longer had to hear about all the scandals and on that alone, so it seems the edge goes to the Good Guys here.
Think of it a little like bandwagon fans vs. real fans. Bandwagon fans are fiscally important to every franchise, but will be gone the second the team starts to lose, just like the Bad Guys. After all, bandwagoning starts with winning, and in our little scenario, that is the territory of the Bad Guys. The real fans will never leave, but will also not bring in all the extra cash provided by winning. The edge goes to having the bandwagon fans available, even though we all know they are sniveling suck-ups. Yeah, I said it.
Basically, the fans say they like the Good Guys here, but they always seem to go for the Bad Guys. Score one for them.
Again, the Bad Guys seem to coem out on top here. They might not be the most likable guys, but they can certainly market winning. The Good Guys can support the local scene and be great people, but that does not change the progress on teh court. It is noble work that does not pay off in quite the ways teams would like. The Bad Guys put people in the seats, rack up the advertising involved with winning and take advantage of far more endorsements. The Good Guys do the more meaningful work, but it does not help them in the Money category.
It feels like a blowout, so let’s throw the Good Guys a bone here. They are always the guys labeled “that one missing piece” and the team guys that help things run smoothly. The Bad Guys are the guys the fans groan about when the front office brings them in to complete the team and the Good Guys are the guys that fans salivate about and players look forward to playing with. Ron Artest was one of those rare exceptions where the missing piece was not a high-character guy, but that can be attributed to the structure provided by Kobe and Phil Jackson. The intangibles swing in favor of the Good Guys.
By my count, that is Bad Guys 3, Good Guys 1, and that 1 is in a less important area than the 3. However, those scores only really make a difference in a vacuum where nothing ever goes sour or things do not happen off the court. I have to admit that the Bad Guys are better for a franchise by every measure so far and if it were just about the things above, I would sacrifice the appeal of the Good Guys to win.
However, here’s the catch. Every franchise that relied on the Bad Guys has fallen hard. The U seems to show this most perfectly. They were a well-oiled football machine that did everything we talked about above to help the franchise. They built a decent program into a machine like few had ever seen. Then, they fell. The program went from the pinnacle to the doldrums, and it was not just on the field. The community was somewhat ashamed of the antics of the players in hindsight, and they realized that nothing they had gotten used to was sustainable because there was not enough character in the locker room. All these programs that depend on the Bad Guys too heavily come crashing down and leave them almost worse off than when they started. In theory a team full of low-character guys could bring in high-character guys to help balance it out, but it seems like franchises do not do that. It is almost like once they choose the low-character guys they have to go all the way with it. They inevitably do, and they inevitably fall. So while the Bad Guys seem to have the advantage, they are not a solution in the long term at all. The Good Guys are certainly frustrating, but they will not lead to a complete collapse.
It really comes down to the question of if you think it is more likely to find Good Guys who can win or Bad Guys who can keep it under control. So which way do we lean between those two flawed groups? You tell us.