sportstapas
A little dishing on sports

Oct
02

Eight months ago I sagely predicted not only that the Saints would defeat the Colts in the Super Bowl, but also that the Colts would build a big early lead and the Colts offense would make a big mistake that would clinch the game for the Saints. Wait, wait, don’t curse me for being an arrogant bastard; this is part of my therapy.  You see, since I’ve been writing my opinionated screeds, that’s pretty much the only thing I’ve predicted correctly and it’s starting to get me down.

whiffed on my 2010 Cleveland Cavaliers NBA Champs prediction, while simultaneously overestimating how good Antawn Jamison was and how much Shaq had left in the tank; I made the case for why Jason Bay would be a better Met than George Foster; and I ridiculed Frank Isola for arguing that Kobe Bryant was still by far the best player in the NBA last year .  Actually, I’ll stick with that one.

The point is, I’m starting to get a little gun shy in making predictions, which is particularly maddening with the MLB postseason about to start, the NFL in Week 4 and the NBA and NHL seasons about to start.  I am going to have to man up and soldier on.  Maybe I can find a way to put my lack of prognosticating ability to some good use.

Oooh, I know:

The New York Yankees are absolutely going to win the 2010 World Series.

Aug
11

Dear Mr. Anthony:

First, let me wish you heartfelt congratulations on your recent nuptials.  I have to admit that given that I was both in New York City that weekend and without other plans, I am a little disappointed not to have been invited.  I don’t want to dwell on that, though.  I’m sure you had some difficult decisions to make regarding the guest list.

Anyway, that’s not why I’m writing.  I write because you have been in the news a lot in recent weeks as someone the Knicks are likely targeting as a free agent next year.  You are no doubt aware that when Eddy Curry’s anvil of a contract comes off the team books at the end of the 2010-11 season, the Knicks will have the cap space to sign another maximum salary free agent.  Rumors are swirling that the reason you have not yet signed the huge money extension Denver has offered you is because you intend to take your talents to Manhattan next year. 

The complicating factor in all of this, of course, is the looming unrest between NBA owners and the players, which is likely to lead to some type of work stoppage next year and undoubtedly drastic changes in the labor agreement.  Those changes may make it impossible for any team to sign you to a contract with remotely close to the value of the $65 million extension you currently have on the table.  I firmly believe that you are well aware of the risks in not signing with Denver, but that you: a) want to play in New York and; b) know that even in the worst case scenario – let’s say player salaries contract 40% and you can only make $39 million in your next contract – you will be able to make up most of the lost salary income in increased endorsements and notoriety.  Sure, this was the argument many made about LeBron James, but it held less validity for him because he was already the most famous player in the league.  For you, this makes more sense because while you are obviously well known and respected in the sports community, you are much less well known to casual fans.  A pairing of you and A’mare Stoudamire in NYC would create a winning team, and with Mike D’Antoni’s style it would also be an exciting team.  You would be everywhere!

Of course, you know all of this.  So let me get to the point.  I need to ask for a favor.  We’ll call it payback for the wedding snub. 

I’m sure you’ve been following the idiocy and incompetence in upper management levels of the Knick organization.  Unbelievably, the worst professional sports owner of his time, James Dolan, has rehired Isiah Thomas, the worst team executive, probably of all time, to be a consultant to the Knicks.  Now I would not hold it against you for an instant if you had second thoughts about coming to NYC to be a member of the supporting cast of Dumb and Dumber.  The thing is, Dolan finally got it right.  He hired a competent executive, Donnie Walsh, to run the Knicks and Donnie turned things around.  His strategy was: not to do egregiously stupid things.  It’s worked, for the most part – we’ll ignore the Jordan Hill draft pick for the purposes of this letter.  The Knicks are on their way up.  We can be a contender if you come to town, and once we’re contending, we’ll be inoculated from the stupidity of Dolan.  He seems to believe that somehow Isiah Thomas has some mystical ability to communicate with the stars of this generation.  Isiah’s been gassing the guy’s head up for years and now those two are like Andy and Red.  We need you to demonstrate in the clearest way possible that: a) you are interested in playing in New York and; b) not only won’t you come here because of Isiah, but you won’t come at all if Isiah is part of the decision-making team of the franchise.  Look, there are ways to do this tactfully.  Call me up, we’ll talk it through.  This is our only hope.  Mr. Anthony, you can save the Knick franchise.  You’ll be more popular here than Walt Frazier if you pull this off.  I need your help.

Are you in?

Sincerely yours,

Mac

Aug
07

There are four kinds of bad sports team owners.

1.  The Skinflints – These are the owners who refuse to spend enough money to field competitive teams.  Pirates fans, Royals fans, Clippers fans, you know what I mean.  Why there isn’t a rule that requires these deadbeats to sell their interests, I will never understand.  If you’re going to represent a city and wear that city’s name on your uniforms, and gouge that city for tax dollars to build your new stadiums with your fancy luxury boxes, you have a civic responsibility to compete for championships.  No one is saying you need to be fiscally reckless, but if you don’t have the money to compete, sell it and buy a Subway franchise.  You damn skinflints!

2.  The Narcissists – These are the owners who make everything about them.  I won’t mention any names, but chances are, if you would recognize the owner on the street, he – and it’s always a he now that Marge Schott is gone – fits into this category.  Ask yourself a question.  Do these owners ever win, regardless of how much they spend?  I thought not.  Hire smart people in your sport to run the team and get out of the damn way.  Why is that so hard?

3.  The Boneheads – The Wilpons are a good example of this.  How on earth can a team in the largest market; a team with its own sports network; a team with a brand new stadium, fail to have any success.  The New York Mets are the most fascinating franchise in sports – and no, that’s not a good thing.  Baseball is a rigged game.  Big market teams have the money.  The teams with money get the good players.  Good players lead to wins.  Wins, in turn, generally lead to championships.  The Mets have money.  So why is it that in the 24 years since the beloved 1986 Mets won the World Series, the Mets have only managed 4 postseason appearances, 1 World Series appearance and zero championships.  In addition to New York, which as we know also has the ultra successful Yankees, what are the largest markets?  Los Angeles?  Both the Dodgers and Angels have won titles since the Mets have and are perennially successful franchises.  Chicago?  The White Sox have won a World Series and have also had a number of successful years while the Cubs have only failed to win the championship so they can continue to be considered cute.  Boston?  The Red Sox are the second most successful franchise of the last decade.  What the hell are the Mets doing?!

And then there’s James Dolan.

I probably don’t need to chronicle the errors Dolan and his minions have made since terminating the only competent executive the Knicks had over a 30 year period, Dave Checketts.  Some of my favorites, though, include hiring Scott Layden, the man whose sophisticated player evaluations led to the Knicks giving $91 million in contracts to Shandon Anderson and Howard Eisley.  Yes, to play basketball.  Dolan then replaced Layden, whose most recent position, as far as I know, is as manager of the 7-Eleven that just opened on 14th Street, with legendary player and destroyer of franchises – and in some cases leagues – Isiah Thomas.  Everything Isiah Thomas has touched in basketball has turned to defeat.  He ran the Raptors into the ground, bankrupted the CBA, turned a championship contending Indiana Pacer team into a .500 squad, and he was just getting warmed up.  If Isiah’s life-long goal was to author the most spectacular management failure in the history of professional sports, well, he made quite a compelling case for success in his five years with the Knicks.

Claiming a mandate based on his opinion that New York fans would not wait for a winner, Thomas trafficked in mediocrity like a Phil Collins cover band, stocking up on underachieving, overpaid players who were destined to fail along with the man who acquired them.  But Isiah wasn’t satisfied merely putting out an inferior product.  No, Isiah insisted on embarrassing the franchise in its corporate offices and taking one of the proudest names in sports for a joyride through the muck.  Thomas was on the losing end of an $11.6 million judgment obtained by a former Madison Square Garden executive who brought sexual harassment charges against the randy buffoon.  Then, to add injury to insult, Isiah overdosed on prescription pills in what some surmised was a failed (what else?) suicide attempt and then persisted in blaming his daughter for the incident despite all evidence to the contrary.

Through all this, Dolan, a man who is said to insist that employees patronize his band’s shows or feel his wrath – what, you think that’s wrong? – stood by Isiah.  He didn’t simply stand by him.  By all accounts he reveres the biggest failure in Knick history – next to himself.  And who could doubt that assessment now that Dolan has announced that  he is bringing Isiah back as a part-time consultant.  Dolan, of course, ever the master manipulator, made the announcement “jointly” with team president, Donnie Walsh, who was only brought into the fold after the commissioner’s office intervened  and insisted that Dolan replace Thomas with someone who wasn’t, well, a moron.  Who would possibly catch on that Dolan, by implicating Walsh in this travesty, was trying to attain cover for what he knew would not be well received by Knick fans?

Let me break it down for you right now, Mr. Dolan.  You are the worst excuse for an owner any sports fan could hope for.  I am embarrassed that you are in any way affiliated with the team I love and have rooted for nearly 40 years.  You have abdicated your vital role as custodian of the local treasure that has been our overmatched, overwhelmed but always beloved Knicks.  I will not rest until you are no longer permitted to take a dump on the hopes of Knick fans that our team might contend for a title in our lifetimes.  If I have to shout from every rooftop in Manhattan; if I have to start a thousand websites; if I have to e-mail David Stern every day for the next 50 years, I will take any and every lawful action necessary to save my team from you.  If you have to ruin a New York team, go buy the Yankees!

Better yet, just go bye.

Aug
05

If you are a regular reader of this blog (hey Rach), you’ve probably noticed that I haven’t written much recently.  I’m not one to make excuses, but I do have four good reasons for my “W” Like summer schedule (oh, come on, Republican friends, you know 43 loved him some brush clearing).

1.       I just started a new job and I’ve been focusing on getting up to speed

2.      I got hooked on Friday Night Lights and watched 50 episodes in about 9 days.

3.      I switched from desktop to laptop and for me writing is about routine, so I’m trying to establish a new routine.

4.      It’s too damn hot to write and it’s making me cranky.

My crankiness is why you keep me around, though, isn’t it?  You go over to the Half-Empty Glass and read their complaints about Hostess cakes and laws and stuff, and you need a little more crankiness and so you come to read my complaints about other stuff.

And I’ve got some doozies today.  You see, I was reading this book called Stumbling on Wins in Basketball, which purports to be a Moneyball type look at roundball, but frankly might as well be called The Great Big Basketball Book of D’uh.  Wow, Chris Paul is good?  Are you sure you don’t want to crunch some more numbers before you jump to any silly conclusions.

Ok, I’m not being totally fair.  No, wait, I am.  Let’s put it this way: there’s a chapter in the book defending Isiah Thomas’s rapid and complete desecration of the New York Knicks.  So now you see why I’m a bit cranky, huh?  One thing that I found interesting in the book, if plainly obvious, was the conclusion the authors reached that coaches don’t matter.  Well, except for Phil Jackson.  Now, I’m skeptical of any analysis that concludes that Isiah had a more positive impact on his team than, you know, competent coaches.  You see, apparently some coaches do matter in the first year, but the effect recedes over time.  And apparently, Isiah was one of the coaches on the plus side.  I am not making this up.  The study finds, though, that with the exception of Phil Jackson, coaches have virtually no long term impact on team success.  The presumption is that the coach you hire has some threshold level of qualification for the job.  So Kate Gosselin would probably be unable match the success of say, Flip Saunders.  Although, who really knows.  But once you reach that threshold level, there is very little difference in the relative contribution coaches make to the success of their teams.

That got me to thinking about things that really tick me off and so I present to you, volume one of things in sports that really tick me off.

1.      How is it that if you listen to game announcers then every coach in professional sports is doing such a great job?

Pick your favorite televised sport or sports.  When was the last time you heard an announcer – play-by-play or color; national or local, make any of the following statements:

“Wow, this doesn’t even look a professionally coached [or managed] team.  They are just woefully unprepared.”

“With an effort like this it’s just stunning that Coach X continues to be gainfully employed.”

Yikes, look at the domination.  It is abundantly clear that Coach X is just coaching the pants off of Coach Y.”

“Team A has hired Coach X.  X has been around the block; this will be his 11th professional team and he’s never really had any success to speak of.”

I could go on and on, but you get the idea.  When will Mike Breen, Mark Jackson or Jeff Van Gundy say any of the above?  It’s gotten to the point where it’s embarrassing listening to commentary.  They criticize players mercilessly for mistakes, both mental and physical, but guys who lead teams to mediocrity year after year after year, get off scot-free.

2.      How long does a batter have to wait to call time for an umpire to deny it?

We’ve reached the point where I’m convinced that the following scenario is inevitable:

Batter stands in as pitcher goes into windup

Pitcher throws perfect strike

Miraculously, umpire recognizes pitch as such and calls strike on the batter

Batter turns to umpire and says, “I wasn’t ready.”

Umpire responds, “No pitch.  Time.”

It’s coming.  Believe me, it’s coming.

3.      Brett Favre coverage

Ok, we get it.  Brett Favre is a drama queen who retires every summer.  You know what, Ed Werder, get your sorry butt out of Hattiesburg, leave the man alone and cover a real story like how it took seven Redskins to carry Albert Haynesworth to his car.  I don’t understand this.  The media constantly complains about what Brett Favre does at the same time that they breathlessly cover everything Brett Favre does.  Geez.

4.       TV cameras not showing fans who run on the field

I get it.  Why give some jerk 15 seconds of fame?  You know how you deter fans from running onto the field?  Make it a reality show.

Drunk idiot and his teenage son, oh wait, no one goes to Kansas City Royals games anymore.  Correction: drunk idiot runs onto the field and security waits patiently with cameras covering the idiots every move.  When the idiot tires himself out, or tries to get back into the stands, security springs into action, beating him within an inch of his life and carrying the carcass off the field.  But it doesn’t end there.  Doctors are on call to patch the guy up, maybe transport him by ambulance to the hospital.  Then when he’s ready to leave the hospital, police take idiot into “custody.”  Anything goes as they’re subduing “drunk” idiot.  Charlie, get one of your summer associates on this one — can’t you just print on the ticket that one assumes this risk once spectator enters the playing field?  They beat the crap out of the guy as they take him to jail.  Then when he’s good and beaten, taken to a holding cell and then arraigned, we have camera crews follow him as the case makes its way through the court system.  You have someone annoying like the guy from Cheaters asking questions like, “Do you think you made a mistake running onto the field?” and “Is your eyeball supposed to hang off your face like that?”

Can you tell I’m a little cranky?

Jul
25

Random Fantasy Note #1

Let’s say you own a car that you expect based on past experience with similar automobiles will probably last around 9 years or 250,000 miles.  It was a beautiful car when you bought and it aged well – it looks about the same today, 7 years and 300,000 miles later as it looked when you bought it.  Let’s say that in the last year and a half, your car just hasn’t responded the way it used to.  It takes a little longer to get started, it doesn’t rev quite the same and you’ve noticed a couple of dings that didn’t exist before.   Would you expect that car to last a 10th year?

So…did you hear the Jets signed LaDainian Tomlinson?

Jul
11

In 1997, two young and gifted actors, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, starred in a film they had written called Good Will Hunting.  The men were in their 20’s and while they weren’t exactly waiting tables to get by, neither had attained the level of success they believed their talent warranted.  So they took the bull by the horns and wrote a script so well received, it earned them an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.  If you’ve seen the movie, you will probably agree that it was what Robert McKee might call a relatively simple, complex story, well told.  Matt Damon was brilliant in the title role and has gone on to A-list success in Hollywood.  Ben Affleck, in a smaller and less demanding role, was excellent, and had one scene in particular that was revelatory of what he could bring to the table as an actor.

Ben Affleck was perfect in his role in Good Will Hunting and the role was perfect for him.  He was also quite good in supporting roles in films like Shakespeare in Love and Dogma.  The problem is, when you look like Ben Affleck does, and you showcase talent as Ben Affleck did in Good Will Hunting, you get pegged as a leading man.  Talent is a necessary but not sufficient component of success for leading men in Hollywood.  What is needed beyond talent is indefinable but plainly obvious to any fan of film when s/he sees it onscreen.  Ben Affleck has the talent, but whatever that thing is that one needs to be a great leading man, well, he just doesn’t possess.  It was missing in Pearl Harbor; it was missing in The Sum of All Fears; it was missing in Daredevil.  Ben Affleck was born to be a character actor.  Let’s be clear – this is not a criticism of Ben Affleck.  Some of our greatest actors – Christopher Walken, Walter Brennan, John Cazale, Eli Wallach – were and are character actors.  It wasn’t clear then, but is very clear now, Ben Affleck was born to play characters like that of Chuckie Sullivan in Good Will Hunting.  The problem in Hollywood is that when one is blessed with the great looks of a Ben Affleck, once you’ve shown talent, you are pegged as Will Hunting.  It’s sort of unfair, but to whom much is given…

What does this have to do with sports?  Well, LeBron James just signed with the Miami Heat to be Chuckie Sullivan to Dwyane Wade’s Will Hunting.  At some point, I will write about how disappointing this is to me as a fan of basketball.  At some point, I will write about how I have been wrong in my assessments of LeBron James.

Just know, that at this moment in his NBA career, despite being endowed with more basketball talent than anyone I have ever seen, LeBron James decided that whatever that indefinable thing is that makes a great NBA player a Jordan, a Russell, a Bird, a Magic Johnson, rather than a Gervin, a Wilkins, a Robinson (and there’s no shame in being any of those guys) is something that he does not possess.  I’m not mad at him for reaching that conclusion – and I’m also not saying it’s an incorrect assessment – in fact, I suppose by definition it must be correct.  All I’m saying is that NBA basketball is just a little worse today than it was before Thursday’s announcement.

Jun
19

My attorney has been vehement in his opposition to my posting on this particular topic.  No, it’s not because what I have to say is particularly controversial.  Indeed, the writing has been on the wall now for the last year or two.  The problem is, my attorney, Charlie, owns Tom Brady in our keeper fantasy football league.  And well, what I have to say about Tom Brady is not something he wants to read.

You must understand that I was firmly on Team Brady in the Manning-Brady debate.  His individual statistics weren’t quite as impressive as Manning’s until his historic 2007 season, but he was a guy who I felt was the one I would want leading a crucial drive for my team, and that’s the essence of greatness at the QB position.  Of course, it was always what Brady did for his teams that was at the crux of most arguments about his greatness.  He led his team to three Super Bowl victories in 4 years, winning 2 game MVPs along the way.  His victories included a toppling of the mighty 2001 St. Louis Rams and close wins over a game Panthers team and a talented Eagles team, during which he was called upon to drive his team down the field for late scores to nail down the wins.  I will direct you to a previous post for a partial analysis of Brady vs. Manning in head-to-head playoff matchups. Suffice it to say, I feel strongly that Tom Brady was the best player in the NFL for the period covered by 2001-2007.

All that said, I think Brady’s football career is already on the downside, for reasons which may or may not include the linked photo:

Tom Brady caught Bieber Fever.

I’ve compared all NFL QBs who have won Super Bowls in the first 5 years of their careers.  The list:

Joe Namath (1969)

Roger Staubach (1972)

Terry Bradshaw (1975)

Joe Montana (1982)

Jim McMahon (1986)

Jeff Hostetler (1991)

Mark Rypien (1992)

Troy Aikman (1993, 1994)

Kurt Warner (2000)

Tom Brady (2002, 2004, 2005)

Ben Roethlisberger (2006, 2009)

Eli Manning (2008)

This is an interesting list, complete with superstars and future Hall of Famers, game managers, journeyman and everything in between.  As you can see, Aikman, Brady and Roethlisberger are the only QBs to win multiple SBs in their first five years.  Here’s another interesting stat: the total number of SBs won by this list of QBs after their 5th NFL season is 8.  This is as compared to the 16 they won in their first five seasons.  In fairness, Eli and Ben are probably at most halfway through their respective careers (unless Ben moves to Vegas, in which case all bets (no pun intended) are off).  But what I think we can take from this list is that QBs who are successful early in their careers are not likely to match that success later in their careers.

I know what you’re thinking.  Mac, you’re an idiot!  Tom Brady’s career is a lot more similar to Montana’s and Aikman’s than to Rypien’s and Hostetler’s.  And, Mac, you’re an idiot!

Fair points, all.  I did pick Cleveland to win the NBA championship, which proves I’m an idiot.  And that Tom Brady comparison is fair as well.  It is true that Staubach, Bradshaw, Aikman and Montana have all eight of the post 5th year championships referenced above, and it is also true that Brady is much closer in talent and career trajectory to those guys.  However, what if I told you that of the prodigies on this list, only one, Montana, the man I consider the best to play the QB position in my lifetime,

so much as played in a Super Bowl after his 10th season.  He lead the Niners to an historic drubbing of the Broncos in his 11th season, completing a quest for back-to-back titles, reaching the pinnacle of his career…and never played in the Super Bowl again.  That means seven of those eight post fifth season titles were won between career seasons six through 10.

By the way, Tom Brady is going into his 11th season.

Okay, so past history suggests the odds are against Brady reaching the summit again.  But that’s what elite athletes are all about, right?  Overcoming long odds is what they do.  Brady himself was the 199th pick of the 2000 draft.  Picking against him is crazy.  Why, as I’m typing this, he’s probably bench pressing boulders and throwing footballs through pay phone coin slots to prepare for the season, right?

Um, probably not.

Brady will hear a lot of questions about his commitment, now that he’s spending so much time in Los Angeles. Hs goal in the offseason used to be to win the prized parking spot given to the most dedicated player in the offseason program. Now his family goals take precedence, and because his older son (he shares custody), lives in Los Angeles, he feels he has to be in southern California more. He made it clear he’s not going to give short-shrift to either of his sons, and if he has to work on his own for a good part of the offseason, away from his teammates, so be it.

“It’s a balancing act,” he said. “I don’t want the next 10 years to go by and to say I wasn’t there for my sons. I wish I could be there [in Foxboro daily in the offseason] the way I was when I was 24, but life is different now. Things actually are much more simple than they’ve ever been. I used to spend every weekend running around with friends. Now I’ve got two great kids, and I love spending time with them. [Benjamin] is usually up at 6 in the morning, so that’s when the day starts now.”

Just for fun, let’s compare what Brady said in that last passage to what he said just a year prior, going into his 10th season, and rehabbing from an injury that ended his 9th season pretty much after the national anthem for the first game:

This week, when New England starts full-roster organized training activities (OTAs), Brady will step into the huddle with the entire offense for the first time since he tore his left anterior cruciate ligament and medial collateral ligament in the 2008 season opener. (Last week’s sessions were for rookies, free agents and select veterans returning from injury, with Brady and his top receivers working in seclusion.) The quarterback acts and sounds as if he wished the Buffalo game were tomorrow. In his first extended interview since he got hurt, Brady told SI that his recovery is on schedule, he’s running and cutting without pain or restricted movement, and he has no ill effects from two follow-up procedures to flush out a postop staph infection in the knee. In fact, calling the last eight months “the halftime of my career,” Brady said, “I want to play another 10 years.”

He was convincing when he said he was “as confident as anyone could be that I’ll be ready to play, back to playing normally, when the seasons starts. I’ve done everything I could to push myself, sometimes too hard. Right now, I’m doing everything. Literally everything. There’s nothing I can’t do.”

With his voice rising as he leaned forward in his chair, Brady said that playing 10 more seasons “is a big goal of mine, a very big goal. I want to play until I’m 41. And if I get to that point and still feel good, I’ll keep playing. I mean, what the hell else am I going to do? I don’t like anything else.

In fairness, Brady did mention being with his wife and son in the following paragraph, but still.

I should also point out that far from being critical of Brady for his perspective, I applaud the man.  I think he has his priorities in order.  I wish him and his Justin Bieber haircut well and nothing detracts from what he’s accomplished to this point in his career.  The fact of the matter is, we spend a lot of time thinking about the physical toll sports take on our favorite athletes.  We obsess over things like mindset, mental toughness and how committed our sports heroes are to the level of preparation that will take them to the top of their respective fields.  We worry, as these great players get older about how able they are to continue to do what they have always done.  Tom Brady is a perfect example of how important it is to think about how willing they are to do those things.

That’s not to say that Brady’s not going to work his tail off.  I have no doubt that he will and that he’ll be prepared.  But often times that extra something necessary for an athlete to raise himself up from merely elite to the best, is extracted from him or her at the expense of other things that make a life complete.  At some point, most people decide that it is no longer worth it.  Is that why Bradshaw and Staubach and Aikman and Montana stopped winning championships?  Who knows.  I do believe, though, that it is the reason Tom Brady will never win another Super Bowl.  And you know what?  I’m happy for him!

Jun
14

I know you are going to be surprised to read this, but I really didn’t see this Boston Celtics run to the brink of the NBA championship coming.  They were a .500 team for the last two-thirds of the regular season, Cleveland and the Lakers looked like the league’s dominant teams in a league where you can usually tell who the dominant teams are.  Kevin Garnett was inducted into the Law of 14 Hall of Fame in February. This run reminds me of two things all NBA fans know to be true:

  1. Never underestimate the heart of a champion.
  2. Rajon Rondo is a bad man!

What is particularly interesting about this Celtics team is the fact that they have had to beat the teams with, arguably, the four best players in the NBA in order to win the title.  And let’s get one thing straight at the outset – I am by no means counting the Lakers out of this series.  In fact, I would argue that they are more likely than not to still win.  Digression alert, digression alert, digression alert!!!!

Why, you ask?  Well, first, Boston has now won the last two games of this series.  What are the odds they can beat the Lakers three in a row?  Second, what are the odds Boston can win 2 out of 3 games in L.A., which is what would have to happen for Boston to win in 6.  What about Boston winning game 7?  Are you willing to bet that any team can go into L.A. and beat the Lakers in a game 7?  I’m not.

On the other hand, for those who believe Boston will win this series, it would have to be because their strategy, for not only this series, but for the whole playoffs, laid bare in game 5, turns out to be foolproof.

Back to those four superstars.  It appears in retrospect that Boston couldn’t have asked for a better scenario than to play four teams completely reliant on their superstars to win.  Boston’s strategy is to isolate that great player from the herd; get into his head that he has to do more for his team to win than he’s been doing, even as the best player on the team.  And then they pounce.  No superstar is good enough to beat a really good team committed to playing together.

Miami was an easy one because they lacked the talent to support D-Wade.  Cleveland was potentially the most challenging because its superstar’s game is entirely predicated on making his teammates better.  LeBron recognizes he can’t win alone and wouldn’t even try.  Once his teammates showed doubt, it was over.  Orlando’s superstar isn’t good enough offensively to dominate and centers are generally easier to swallow up anyway.  No offense, but Howard was never going to lead Orlando past Boston.

But Kobe and the Lakers present an entirely different challenge.  This is where the okey doke really comes in.  This is what we saw in game 5.  The Lakers are more than talented enough to win with a reasonably good Kobe, abetted by Gasol, Fisher, Odom and the rest of the supporting cast.  They are more talented than Boston, especially if Bynum gives them solid minutes.  Doc Rivers’s strategy for beating them had to be to dare Kobe to try and beat the Celtics on his own, rather than rely on a team approach and the Lakers’ superior talent.  That’s why Doc was quoted as saying that his team had to find a way eventually to win a game when Kobe just went off.  He was counting on Kobe having a game or games where he just went off and more than likely, when that happened, Kobe’s teammates would just be standing around watching him.  That’s what happened last night.  As great as Kobe was, his performance fit right into Doc’s grand plan.  In fairness to Kobe, since game 2, Kobe’s superstar sidekick, Pau Gasol, has looking pretty content to take home the silver and if Pau is playing well, then Kobe has no choice but to try and go off.

It’s a beautiful thing to watch, though, because it plays right into the strengths of the Boston defense.  They lock everything else up, make you rely on that one great player to score all your points and then in the 4th quarter they slow that guy down enough to win the game.

Do the Lakers understand this?  I think they do – especially Kobe and Phil.  But can Kobe help himself, even at this stage of his career.  I’m not so sure.

Stay tuned.

Jun
12

The combatants in the 2010 NBA Finals are doing the league proud.  The series is tied at 2-2, and has been very competitive.  Kobe Bryant has been the best player on the court, except when it’s been Derek Fisher or Lamar Odom or Rajon Rondo or Ray Allen or Glen Davis.  The ratings are pretty good, for an NBA Finals and the coaching has been solid.  So what’s the problem?  Well, if you’ve been watching, you know that the officiating has been horrific, even for the NBA, which is saying something.

NBA referees have been the worst thing about the NBA since the day George Karl bought his first suit and ditched the track outfits.  I’m not sure where to start.  How about here: over the last decade, the Dallas Mavericks have won roughly 6 out of every 10 of their playoff games.  That number drops to 1 out of 10 when Danny Crawford is one of their referees. Joe Crawford once ejected Tim Duncan from a game for laughing with teammates on the bench, continuing a long simmering feud with the player. And then there is Tim Donaghy.   Donaghy was convicted in 2008 of betting on games in which he officiated.  He has since gone on the record regarding abuses of authority by NBA officials, spotlighting individual biases, and generally confirming everything any observer of the NBA has long suspected.  Yes, it’s certainly true that Donaghy has a credibility issue, but then so does the league, doesn’t it?  Before you answer that, go watch the 2002 playoff series between the Kings and the Lakers,  a game on which Tim Donaghy allegedly wagered successfully after learning the identity of the officials.  If you haven’t seen it, check out Donaghy’s game-by-game analysis of the Finals.

I could offer a billion examples of poor NBA officiating over the years, but why bother?  If you watched game 3, you saw three instances where the NBA’s instant replay rule came into play in the final minutes.  In all three instances, the replay mandated a reversal of the official’s original call.  In one of those cases, replay showed an obvious missed foul call that could not be addressed by replay.  That’s 0 for 4 for officials, if you’re scoring from home.  NBA officiating is bad and the league’s integrity is at stake as long as the David Stern and his minions fail to address the problem.

But I’m not here just to bitch and moan.  It’s Saturday afternoon and I am in too good a mood for that.  I am here to be constructive.  A good jumping off point is Jack McCallum’s column just this week about how the NBA might go about improving officiating. Of course, we’ll just ignore the fact that the title of McCallum’s article suggests we blame the rules and not the refs.  I mean, if you didn’t have to call stupid things like fouls and violations, referees would be so much more effective.  Wait, stop, I’m in positive mode.  Ok, let’s look at Mr. McCallum’s suggestions:

  1. Make most block-charge situations a no-call – Wow, that’s really dumb, isn’t it?  If that’s the expectation, as a defender, wouldn’t you be incredibly aggressive about trying to take a charge?  That much contact is going to cause the offensive player to miss the shot most of the time, so even if you get a no-call, big win for the defense, plus now you are encouraging more and more violent contact.

Jack, work with me here, buddy, I’m trying to stay on the positive tip.

2. Enforce some kind of penalty for flopping – I actually like this in theory.  There’s not much I hate more than seeing “crafty” players like Derek Fisher act like they’ve been shot when they get a toe stepped on and then smile mischievously after the call goes their way.  The problem: I’m loathe to entrust more opportunity for judgment to the stripes, who I don’t trust anyway.

3. Reduce off-the-ball grabbing – We have a winner.  Forget reducing it, though.  Eliminate it.  Then it’s not a judgment call.

4. Give some of those slow-footed centers a break. – McCallum wants to let them bang the screeners.  Um, no.  Setting a pick is a skill and when done properly it should be rewarded and when done badly it should be punished.  It’s very simple.  A.  Run to a fixed point.  B.  Stand there.  Ok, it’s a simple skill, but it’s apparently really difficult for NBA big men.  Make them learn.

5. Enforce some kind of replay-challenge limit, as in the NFL – I can rock with that.

    6. And really, really think about taking commentator Jeff Van Gundy’s suggestion seriously about eliminating the six-foul rule – Not sure what I think of this one.  I guess it depends on what comes of the two suggestions I have.

    As I’ve already written, this is a dramatic problem and needs a radical solution, so I suggest:

    1. Better training and supervision of referees overseen by an independent body not affiliated with or beholden to the NBA.  This is a no-brainer, right?  The impartial arbiters of the games should not ever be worried about whether the league would prefer a Lakers-Celtics final or that David Stern really doesn’t want to have to hand the trophy to Mark Cuban.  This is a billion dollar business.  Let’s treat it like one.  Wait, scratch that last sentence.  Thanks, BP.
    2. Four officials.  The league went from two to three officials as athletes got bigger, stronger and faster.  It’s time to add another set of eyes.  You need one official just to navigate the thicket of bodies in the paint, make block-charge calls, watch the jockeying on the low-post and cut the clutching and grabbing and illegal picks and screens on the baseline.  It’s well past time this extra official was added.  But again, only do this when we can be more comfortable that the officials are properly trained and objective.

    Sheesh.  Now I think I’ll watch a tournament with no flopping whatsoever.  World Cup, baby!

    Jun
    01

    I feel like I’ve been posting exclusively on LeBron James for the longest period of time.  If only there was a way for me to verify that.  Anyway, while LeBron is deciding whether it really is better in the Bahamas, his West Coast rival, Kobe Bryant, the Black Mamba, is preparing to renew hostilities with the hated Boston Celtics.  I’ve been making the case Kobe’s playoff heroics and LeBron’s subpar 2010 performances notwithstanding, LeBron is still the best player in the NBA.  I stand by that.  It seems really simple to me, actually.  Kobe, great as he is, has spent most of his career playing with at least one elite teammate, and he’s taken full advantage of that.  During the one stretch when Kobe did not have a top 20 teammate, his teams were either summarily dismissed from the playoffs or failed to make them at all.  By contrast, LeBron has never played with a great teammate.  Shaq is obviously on the downside, as his Antawn Jamison, so Mo Williams is the best he’s ever played with and if that continues to be the case it would be a tragedy.  Even with that, LeBron has made the Finals and made another appearance in the conference finals.  Remarkable.  Beyond that, the array of skills LeBron has…

    I write today, though, not to extol the virtues of LeBron, but rather, to offer an appreciation for the 14 year career of Kobe Bean Bryant.  Three weeks ago, Kobe was hobbling around the court like he’d just stumbled out of Annie Wilkes’s house.  He looked tired and a bit old.  He wasn’t elevating; he was missing shots Kobe normally makes; he was laboring.   Then he got his knee drained.  Ruh-roh!

    Against Utah, and especially against Phoenix, Kobe offered virtuoso performances.  He is that rarest of players who plays as hard as you can imagine anyone playing all game and then when the stakes get higher, Kobe manages, somehow, to raise his effort and performance a notch.  He is currently playing the game of basketball at a remarkably high level, even for him.  It has become routine to watch Kobe take and make clutch shots under the most difficult of circumstances, but the shot he hit late in game 6 against Phoenix, over that perfect double team, was one for the ages.   When we talk about the great clutch performers in the last 30 years of the NBA, Kobe Bryant’s name justifiably stands next to the likes of Bird, Jordan and Miller.  His body of work in that regard stands with the very best.

    What I have long resisted is this idea that Kobe’s overall greatness as a player has reached the level of the game’s royalty.  Michael.  Magic.  Larry.  Kareem.  And while I would still I am no entirely sure Kobe has quite reached that rarefied air, I have to concede at this point, that it’s a worthy discussion.  At the very least, he’s eye to eye with Tim Duncan.

    Kobe had a very successful run as a second banana to Shaq between 1996 and 2004.  He won three titles, made the Finals on one other occasion.  He set himself up to be in consideration among the all-time greats.  Then he and Shaq killed the goose that laid the golden egg, resulting in Shaq’s departure, with many, including myself putting most of the blame on Kobe.  He feuded with Karl Malone, then there was Colorado, then he yelled to a fan (who happened to be taping him) that the Lakers needed to do more to get better, including trading Andrew Bynum.  He came across as the selfish, immature brat many of us always thought he was and we, at least I, dismissed him, especially when he couldn’t even get out of the first round of the playoffs, failing to make the playoffs at all on one occasion.

    Then he got Pau Gasol, the best big man in the game according to Jeff Van Gundy and Act Three had begun.  The Lakers raced to the 2008 Finals, looking unbeatable before imploding in the final two games, diminishing Kobe once again.  But the guy just won’t go away.  He won the title last year and is back in the Finals again this year – his 7th trip and now I can no longer deny that Kobe Bryant is one of the ten best players in NBA history.

    Here’s the list of players who have been the #1 or #2 guy on seven or more conference champions in the last 40 years:

    Kareem — 7

    Magic — 9

    Kobe – 7

    If Kobe’s Lakers win the championship this year, it will give him 5 titles, tying Magic and leaving only Kareem, Jordan and Pippen ahead of him among superstars over the last 40 years.  As it is, he’s tied with Shaq and Duncan with four rings.

    Whatever happens in his career from here on out, there is no denying that Kobe Bryant resides in the pantheon of great NBA players.  I can only quote Allen Iverson, who upon running into Kobe at a mall days after Bryant’s 81 point explosion said, “You a bad Mother Tucker.”

    Okay, I’m paraphrasing.

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