T.J. Warren and the “Loser’s Mentality”

In the earliest days of my writing career, I covered boxing, specifically as a beat writer reporting on ESPN’s old Friday Night Fights series between 2011 and 2013 (and again during the 2015 season.)

On that show, which featured up-and-coming fighters getting TV exposure on their way to a title shot, there were plenty of guys who built up gaudy records on the club circuit but could never translate that into success at even the “mid-major” (to put it in college basketball terms) level.

Those guys, once they’d lost a few close decisions or been knocked out once or twice, eventually “learned how to lose”, as ESPN’s Teddy Atlas often put it. They would get into a position where they’d have an opponent at a disadvantage and they just didn’t have that “eye of the tiger” to finish him off.

So they’d let the other guy hang around, he’d have the confidence the physically greater fighter on that night had, and the other guy would end up clawing his way to a win on the judges’ scorecards after winning the last four rounds of a 10-round fight.

Regular readers of this site may have noticed that I’ve brought this up before, specifically referring to Kemba Walker‘s astounding ability to choke in the clutch, one reason his Hornets teams struggled despite a point differential that suggested they were a fringe playoff team. The effect was especially pronounced in the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons, where Charlotte went 36-46 in back-to-back years despite outscoring their opponents in aggregate.

Walker was on the 2012 Bobcats, the worst NBA team by winning percentage of all-time.

Monday in Detroit, the Indiana Pacers had a 94-90 lead late in the fourth quarter but gave up the last six points of the game, all while this happened in the last ten seconds with the team down just one point.

That is what I mean by a loser’s mentality. T.J. Warren just gave away a game by acting like he was still on the garbage fire Phoenix Suns and somewhere in the back of his mind, maybe without his even realizing it, giving up.

Sure, Detroit played great defense to trap Warren in the corner, and of course any Pacers fan knows that Nate McMillan‘s atrocious “strategy” late in games probably had something to do with it (a story for another day), but the difference between the mentality of someone like Warren and someone like Victor Oladipo is night and day.

This is going to be a problem for the Pacers this season. One of their acquisitions, Malcolm Brogdon, learned how to win in Milwaukee and has acted like a winner so far in Indiana, exceeding expectations even given a small 3-game sample size.

But two of their other acquisitions, Warren and Jeremy Lamb, came from that “standing there while the ref raises the other guy’s hand” boxing-like environment of being on bad teams and learning how to lose, in Warren’s case learning how to outright tank.

Warren played with terrible teammates. And yes, Suns fans, Devin Booker is a terrible teammate, a counting stat hound who doesn’t make anyone around him better, one reason the Suns are hot garbage year in and year out.

And that notion got burned into him. He’s just not comfortable enough late in games to even know how to look for his teammates, even though guys like Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis and Brogdon are guys who have playoff experience and know how to win regular-season basketball games.

Meanwhile, just look at the way the Pacers play with no soul this year, as winners like Thaddeus Young and Bojan Bogdanovic are on other teams—Young in particular is such a great leader that he’s going to have an effect in Chicago (just how much of an effect is a question, since the Bulls have started 1-3 and have losses to Charlotte and the Knicks already, but Rome wasn’t built in a day.)

Who’s going to be the guy who teaches Warren to play like a winner? Is it Brogdon, who got elected team captain? He’s still new and learning the system.

Is it Turner or Sabonis? They’re busy trying to learn new roles in the offense so they can share the floor.

How about Oladipo? Maybe in the locker room, but until Vic’s back on the floor from his injury, he can’t lead in the moment during crunch time.

And don’t say it’s the coach. Maybe if this were the San Antonio Spurs. Not with Nate McMillan and the Pacers.

I don’t want to write Warren off, but having a guy with a loser’s mentality in crunch time is a great way to go from a 48-win team that seemed to win every close gut-it-out game (the 2017-18 squad) to a 36-win team that can’t beat anyone in those games (like the Hornets teams Lamb was on alongside Walker.)

We gotta get that first win eventually. But this was supposed to be the kind of easy schedule that let the Pacers start 7-3 or 8-2 in the first ten games, not 0-3 and one of only three teams in the league (the Kings and Pelicans are the other two) without at least one win.

Oh well…at least continuing to lose makes it easier to fire the coach. So keep chucking up those gut-punch-your-own-fans shots, T.J. It could be worse.