Monday, September 14, 2009

The Reformation of a Kobe Hater

I have never liked Kobe. And I have never been afraid to hide it.

It probably spawned out of the 2002 All-Star Game in Philadelphia, when Kobe said he wasn’t from Philly, then promptly dominated the game to win the MVP. I, like most of the crowd that day, booed Kobe.

From that day forward, for whatever reason, I couldn’t look at Kobe objectively. I blamed the break-up of the Lakers on him (ok, I was right on that one, Phil Jackson blamed him too). I thought he was selfish. I thought he made his teammates worse, not better. It didn’t matter what he did, I found the negative.

His 81 point game, I lamented the fact that he had 2 assists and 3 turnovers, that he had taken more than half of his teams shots, and allowed no one else get involved whatsoever in the offense. Not to mention to took advantage of an awful Toronto team

His historic scoring performance in Madison Square Garden this past season, he dropped 61 points, but all I saw were the three assists and zero rebounds. And then, when Lebron followed Kobe’s performance up with a near triple-double a few days later (but let’s be real, they should have kept the triple-double), I lauded the opportunity to lessen Kobe’s accomplishment.

Needless to say, I didn’t become a Facebook fan of Kobe.

But last Friday, I was caught watching all of the Basketball Hall of Fame pageantry. And while they inducted some great players (John Stockton, David Robinson), there was really only one guy getting inducted.

Frankly, how could you not get caught in watching all the Jordan moments. The great shots, the great games, the great dunks, the great quotes, there is nothing quite like filling your day with MJ.

But one thing that MJ said caught my ear. Speaking to the great Tex Winter (the triangle offense is not what it is without the contributions of Tex) after Tex says that there is no “I” in team, MJ basically says there is an “I” in win.

And I, in my Kobe hate naturally think of Kobe and wonder what I would say if Kobe had ever said something like that. I would have killed him. Then I realized that was instituting one thing I really hated: a double standard.

How could I love MJ for all his hyper-competitiveness, desire to win, which sometimes manifested itself in “selfishness”, yet hate Kobe for showing the same thing. The fact is, MJ made me realize that Kobe is the closest thing that we will ever see to him.

When you throw out the obvious differences between the two in their career arcs (Kobe never played baseball, MJ didn’t start his career by playing with the most dominate force in the league), and Kobe not having made the shot on Ehlo, shoving away Byron Russell, or playing with the flu, these two are basically the same.

Kobe, from a very young age, had an extreme desire to win, and like MJ, wanted to put the big shot up himself. Even though as a rookie he airballed two game winning shots against Utah, he never shied away from the big shot.

But, usually for Kobe, it doesn’t come down to the big shot, because he owns the fourth quarter, and there is where he develops his iconic moments. Though nothing quite compares to Jordan’s moments, Kobe has some big moments of his own, like his alley-oop to Shaq capping their 15 point comeback against Portland in 2000, the way he dominated the 4th quarter and overtime against Sacramento in Game 7 in 2002, his game-winner to win the Pacific division in 2004, his game winner in Game 2 of the finals in 2004, his fast-break 360 pass to Pau Gasol in Game 4 just to name a few.

But exactly how does Kobe remind me of MJ. It’s really all in your interpretation of selfishness. Re-watching some of MJ’s games over the last week, you have a different sense of what selfish is. There’s a certain point when the great player has to say “get on my back, try not to strain my neck, we’re going to win.”

Put it this way: when I’m playing ball, I can probably get hot early and do some good things early in the game. But then, I get tired, make bad decisions and start jacking up terrible shots from all points on the floor, you know doing my best Ron Artest impression, I look to whoever the best player is on my team and just hope they take over so we win and I can get a drink of water.

Kobe, post-Shaq has mastered this. He has found the balance of getting everyone else involved before the fourth quarter, where Kobe begins his surgical dismantling of his opponent (a perfect example is Game 3 against the Nuggets this year. He just ripped their hearts out). And we all know what MJ could do in the fourth quarter.

We all know about the skills. Offensively, Kobe’s repertoire mirrors MJ’s. They both have the fade-away jumper, tremendous footwork, and the ability to make good defense look like no defense at all. Defensively, both have that lockdown ability when needed, although both were a bit overrated because they didn’t have to do it night in and night out.

Now, don’t take this as me saying Kobe is the next Jordan because he’s not. Kobe’s pettiness with Shaq and the episodes where he refused to take shots to prove how much they need him to shoot didn’t exude leader. But then again, Jordan’s Atlantic City gambling runs after playoff loses didn’t exude leader either.

All this happens to be is my appreciation for Kobe being realized through reliving MJ. Their similarities are striking in their demeanor, play on the floor, cold-blooded mentality, and even their guarded personal personalities.

There will never be another Michael Jordan. There can’t be. The accomplishments are well-documented, the stories well-told, we all know what Michael Jordan did. But the closest thing we will ever see to him is Kobe. And I only have MJ to thank for letting me see this. Without completely reliving Jordan, I would have always seen Kobe as an amazing talent who never understood how to be a great teammate. But because Jordan’s legacy showed me that I was completely wrong, I understand that Kobe is probably a top 5 player of all-time, probably just behind Jordan and Magic, just ahead of Wilt. Who would have thought MJ would have reformed a Kobe hater?

Friday, August 21, 2009

NBA Offseason Review Part 6: The Rest of the League

This is part six of a six part series reviewing the NBA offseason, taking an individual look at all the title contenders (Lakers, Magic, Cavaliers, Celtics and Spurs) and then the rest of the league as a whole. The first five parts examined the contenders listed above. Today, we focus on the rest of the league.

Today, I tried something a little different. I was in no mood to write something that would probably exceed 5,000 words to go through the rest of the important stuff of the NBA off-season, so I decided to record an audio thing (because it's not quite a podcast, not quite a radio show) to express my thoughts through sound. I brought in a good friend, David Ofosu, to talk about it with me so you didn't have to hear just me talk for an hour. We touch on a lot of things in this, so go ahead and take a listen.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

NBA Offseason Review Part 5: Spurs Very Productive

This is part five of a six part series reviewing the NBA offseason, taking an individual look at all the title contenders (Lakers, Magic, Cavaliers, Celtics and Spurs) and then the rest of the league as a whole. The first four parts examined the Lakers, Magic, Cavaliers and Celtics. Today, we examine the San Antonio Spurs.

The Spurs apparently got the message after seeing how the last two championships were won. The Lakers and Celtics took advantage of the lowly Grizzlies and Timberwolves respectively (though nothing is as egregious as the Pau Gasol for Kwame Brown trade. That deserves its own stratosphere of idiocy, the NBA’s version of the Randy Moss to New England trade) and rode their acquisitions (Gasol and Kevin Garnett) to the titles. Well the Spurs, being the A+ organization they are did not want the rest of the league to pass them by, so they found a lowly team (the Milwaukee Bucks) and picked up one of the underrated players in the NBA, Richard Jefferson.

This move signified the last hurrah, a final chance for the Duncan-era in San Antonio. Duncan is getting up there in age, 33, and probably has 2 maybe 3 years left as a top notch player. The Spurs apparently weren’t content with being a 5-seed for the last years of Duncan, not willing to have the rest of the league pass them by. With Duncan, Tony Parker and an uncertain Man Ginobili, they didn’t have enough fire power to compete with the Lakers or the big 3 of the Eastern Conference.

That magically changed before the draft when they were able to steal Richard Jefferson for 3 guys who played meaningless minutes last season (Bruce Bowen, Fabricio Oberto and Kurt Thomas). Jefferson is a guy who can really change the direction of the franchise. Though you may not have realized, considering he was in utter irrelevance in Milwaukee, Jefferson is a complete basketball player from the small forward position. He’s got tremendous athleticism, can create off the dribble, can shoot from the midrange and long range and is one of the better defenders in the league. He adds a lot of versatility to the lineup. He can run and finish the break with Tony Parker. He can spot up in the corner and drain a triple off a Duncan double team. He can create at the basket when the inevitable Ginobili injury comes down. He could have a Pau Gasol type impact on the Spurs. When Gasol went to the Lakers, he rejuvenated both the teams and himself. The environment really allowed Gasol to flourish and he stepped his game up just by the fact of playing for a team with a legitimate chance. Going from a deadzone like Milwaukee to an organization like San Antonio instantly makes you happier, and happy cows make great milk. Then getting to play with a great player makes you better, just look at Todd Pinkston’s numbers when he played with Terrell Owens in 2004. Everything about this move screams positive.

However, the Spurs still do have a hole a center. Matt Bonner is conceivably the worst defender in the league, not to mention he’s an Eddy Curry quality rebounder. You can play Duncan at center with draft pick Dejuan Blair at power forward, but Duncan has always been better suited at power forward. They need to pick up a defensive oriented guy who can rebound and block shots just to complete their team. They have a solid bench with George Hill, Ime Udoka, Michael Finley and Roger Mason. They are ready to make a run.

With the Duncan era closing in the near future, the Spurs made the decision to make a final run at the title. Picking up Jefferson gives them four prime-time players. With a good bench and only one hole at the center position, the Spurs are primed for a title run.

Grade: A-

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

NBA Offseason Review Part 4: Celtics Don't Do Enough

This is part four of a six part series reviewing the NBA offseason, taking an individual look at all the title contenders (Lakers, Magic, Cavaliers, Celtics and Spurs) and then the rest of the league as a whole. The first three parts examined the Lakers, Magic and Cavaliers. Today, we examine 2008 NBA champions, the Boston Celtics.

Many people will tell you that if Kevin Garnett had been healthy, the Celtics may have repeated as NBA champions last year (though I doubt how they could have matched up with the Lakers considering the state of their bench). The main concern for the Celtics going into the offseason is making sure that KG is healthy and none of us have any way of knowing whether he is or not until the season starts. With that in mind, what they needed to do was try to retool their bench, especially behind Paul Pierce and Ray Allen (both of them were forced to play almost the entire game in the playoffs and by the end of the Orlando series looked like Donovan McNabb in the Tampa heat). Instead, they have a pretty quiet offseason (except for trying to trade Rajon Rondo) and the one substantial move they do make, Rasheed Wallace, is a well-documented nut case who has been known to quit on his team (he hasn’t showed up for Detroit in the last 3 seasons).

But first I want to address the inactivity to address a backup swingman. The only guy that they have behind Allen and Pierce is Tony Allen. Tony Allen has a basketball IQ comparable to a naked mole rat. Under no circumstances should he be trusted in any kind of important situation. And after that, it gets worse with JR Giddens and Bill Walker. I know, they suck. They have yet to find a replacement for James Posey who played such an integral in their championship run. He gave them such versatility with his ability to shoot and defend, and even allowed them to go small at the end of games in the Finals vs. the Lakers. Without a guy like that, it became impossible to match up with the different looks that Orlando threw at them last year. At the very least, you have to be able to bring something off the bench that won’t have down by 30 when your starters return. Especially given the wear and tear on both Pierce and Allen, they need to have moderately capable backups so they can take a breather at least a couple times a game. Boston could have easily used a guy like Anthony Parker, the free-agent pick up for the Cavs, who can score from the perimeter and isn’t the worse defender in the world. All of this coupled with the glaring hole at backup point guard (because Stephon Marbury had to go). They can’t play Eddie House at point guard, he can barely dribble. My favorite extraterrestrial Sam Cassel can’t play anymore. What are they going to do on that front? They have a lot of holes in their backcourt off the bench and made zero attempts to fill any of them.

Where they made their moves was in the front court, where they got Wallace in free agency and resigned Big Baby (but they let Leon Powe go in one of the classless moves that organizations make. Everyone likes to complain about the players when they hold out or demand some roster security from the organizations, pleading that the player be more committed to the team. How about the team be more committed to the players. Leon Powe played his heart out for the Celtics for his entire career, did everything right for them, but the second he gets hurt he is of no use to them. We all demand some loyalty from the players but how about some loyalty from the teams. I digress). I don’t have a problem with the Big Baby signing because the way he developed in the absence of KG and really made some big plays down the stretch, he’s the kind of guy you want to keep around. But bringing in a guy like Rasheed Wallace is the definition of a crap shoot. One night he could drop 30 and 12 boards, the next night he’ll shoot 14 3-pointers and get ejected in the second quarter. Bringing him off the bench limits some of that unpredictability but still, he’s not a guy you can completely count on when you need him. Especially considering the way guys like Big Baby and Kendrick Perkins played and developed in KG’s absence, it’s not necessarily a risk you needed to take. You already had a solid 3 big-man rotation with the return of KG, which is all you really need in the NBA. Sheed can’t be trusted anymore considering how things disintegrated in Detroit, even if he has an increased respect level for the Big 3 and Doc Rivers. The talent with Sheed is there, but considering his past history of quitting on teams and the Celtics not having a dire need for his services, I don’t see the risk matching the reward.

The Celtics off-season was a case study in ignoring needs and trying to fix something that didn’t need fixing. What they needed was competent bench to give Rondo, Allen and Pierce legit backups and also give Doc Rivers some versatility in lineup tinkering. Instead, they pick up Rasheed Wallace, which fills a need that wasn’t there and limits the different styles that they can play. The Celtics off-season was a case study in misattribution of needs and puts them farther away from a championship than they begun with.

Grade: D+

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

NBA Offseason Review Part 3: Cavs Small Money Moves More Effective Than Big Spending

This is part three of a six part series reviewing the NBA offseason, taking an individual look at all the title contenders (Lakers, Magic, Cavaliers, Celtics and Spurs) and then the rest of the league as a whole. The first two parts examined the counterparts in the NBA Finals, the Lakers and Magic. Today, the focus is on Eastern Conference finalist, the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The Cavs offseason was the toughest to judge from my standpoint. They had their moments of pure brainlessness (signing Anderson Varejao to a 6 year $50 million contract), why are you doing this 6 months after you should have (trading for Shaq when he was available at the trade deadline) and solid, under the radar moves that help to address some of the problems they had last season (Jamario Moon, Anthony Parker, Leon Powe). GM Danny Ferry has put a lot (of money) into this season, knowing it is the last chance to impress LeBron before the summer of 2010.

The Varejao move, though, does not accomplish that goal. Anderson Varejao, in the most robust of economies, would be worth $25-30 million over six years. In times like these, he’s not worth a dollar more than the $3 million a season Glen “Big Baby” Davis got from Boston. It’s moments like these when I wonder “Is the Billy King virus of bad talent evaluating then spending enormously on the same bad talent (Samuel Dalembert anyone)” spreading? And here I was thinking that the recession was the cure for this awful illness. Its moves like these that have me thinking Kevin Coble has a legit shot at an overinflated NBA contract. Exactly what is it about Varejao’s game that screams lock him up immediately so another contender doesn’t get him: his stunning appearance or his massive contributions on offense? I’m confused because Varejao has no low post game to speak of, his jump shot is nothing to write home about and he can’t defend elite players with any kind success, which can only lead me to assume that 14-year-old girls would jump into the Cuyahoga River if he were to ever leave. He does nothing exceptional, except get routinely beat on the pick and roll by Rashard Lewis. His contributions to the team are easily replaced (energy, above average rebounder) by just as average yet far cheaper alternatives (David Lee).

Where things started to get a little more interesting (and less dumbfounding) was with the move to acquire Shaq, which they could have done at the February trade deadline. It’s a move that purveyed part desperation, part basketball sense. One of the reasons the Cavs lost to Orlando (and there are many reasons but I don’t feel like going into it) is that Big Z and Varejao couldn’t guard Dwight Howard one-on-one, they were forced to do an awkward “half double-team, half stay with the guy who’s about to make this three in my face” thing that they never really stood a chance. As a result, Howard got going and the shooters got going. With Shaq, at least they can have some confidence that Howard won’t completely truck-stick through his defender, dunk with ferocity and take the shot clock with him the process. And offensively, he’s a major upgrade over Big Z and Varejao. He gives the Cavs a legit low post presence, a guy who can score with his back to the basket (this in stark contrast to Big Z floated out to the three point line far too often. That’s exactly what you envision from your 7’2” center). But he doesn’t help with the main reason that the Cavs lost, which was the pick and roll (because Shaq is historically awful defending the pick and roll). That’s why I get some hints of desperation. This move doesn’t make the most basketball sense in the world. Shaq isn’t that athletic anymore, there are still injury concerns, and at this point of his career is inconsistent. It seemed like management said “we have to make a move and Shaq is out there. Let’s just get him so we can say we did something.” It’s not like it’s a bad move but it wasn’t the smartest move.

Where the Cavs needed the most help was getting a swingman who could come off the bench (because, let’s be real, Wally Szczerbiak probably won’t win a sixth man award). They just needed some length and athleticism off their bench so they could play a variation of styles. The small moves they made after all their big spending was done, Jamario Moon and Anthony Parker, really accomplish that. Jamario Moon is an athletic, rangy small forward who defends really well (probably would have been better against Hedo Turkoglu than Delonte West), who can play 3 positions and isn’t a bad shooter from distance (37% with Miami last year). Anthony Parker gives them a true shooting guard (because shooting guards, generally, should be taller than 6’2”) with starting experience who can create for himself, unlike Daniel Gibson and can defend your average 2-guard. Now this gives Mike Brown some more versatility, especially in going small which is becoming a bigger factor in today’s NBA and defending the different elements that other teams can throw at them. And a guy to keep your eye on is Leon Powe. Though Powe probably won’t play until after the all-star break, he has been a key contributor on a championship team (Boston) and has a knack for scoring in the low post and is a good rebounder. He’s under the radar but he is an upgrade over Joe Smith.

The Cavs, after having the best record in the NBA last season, just needed some minor adjustments to their bench to come back stronger this year. The additions of Parker, Moon and Powe, when healthy, really added some versatility some versatility on the bench. The Shaq move also helps, though it is not major help. And Anderson Varejao being paid 50% more than he’s worth is bad no matter how you look at it. Overall, though it was a good offseason, even if it was way more expensive than it had to be.

Grade: B-

Monday, August 17, 2009

NBA Offseason Review Part 2: Orlando Spends Away Their Advantage

This is part two of a six part series reviewing the NBA offseason, taking an individual look at all the title contenders (Lakers, Magic, Cavaliers, Celtics and Spurs) and then the rest of the league as a whole. The first part took a look at the NBA champion Lakers. Today, the focus is on NBA runner-up, the Orlando Magic.

Orlando really traversed the line of brilliant and idiotic this offseason. One of their moves, their trade for Vince Carter, really screamed we are for real. It looked as if they wanted to win it immediately and they were willing to pay a good price (up and coming 2-guard Courtney Lee) for it. But then GM Otis Smith went into spend money with no reason mode, kind of like Joe Dumars tried to do this year (more on this later in the week), inking Marcin Gortat and Brandon Bass at inflated values, while letting Hedo Turkoglu walk away to Toronto.

Let’s start with the addition of Vince Carter. Vince Carter is not the same guy he was 4 years ago. That said, he still possesses top-flight athleticism and has a knack for putting the ball in the basket. An area where Orlando was exploited last year was that a lot of their guys are most effective as spot up jump shooters (Lee, Mickael Pietrus, Rashard Lewis on most nights) and they needed a guy like Turkoglu or Jameer Nelson (when healthy) to set them up in their preferred spots. A guy like Vince can create his own offense, especially when he’s got the mindset of getting to the basket and not falling in love with the jump shot. Defensively, he’s not the player that Courtney Lee was for Orlando, but it’s possible that with his height and length that they may not lose much on that front (after all, Paul Pierce became a very good defensive player with the Celtics once he stopped having to carry the weight of the offense on his back). Where they really lose in getting Carter and losing Turkoglu is the playmaking ability that Turkoglu brought. In today’s NBA, you cannot have enough guys who can make plays for themselves and others. Carter is not a guy who can create offense for other guys. He mostly creates offense for himself, which is not a problem if they kept Turkoglu, but they didn’t. That leaves them with only one playmaker (Nelson) which isn’t a formula for championships.

Now if they had kept Turkoglu, we would be having a different discussion. A starting five with Nelson, Carter, Turkoglu, Lewis and Dwight Howard with Pietrus off the bench would be the most potent offense in the league because with Carter, their offense would be less reliant on the jump shot. But instead of keeping Turkoglu at $50 million for five years, they combined for $52 million for Brandon Bass ($18 million over four years) and Marcin Gortat ($34 million over five years). Now, choosing to let go of Turkoglu is not necessarily a bad move in itself. At points in the playoffs, especially in the finals, he had a tendency to get lost in the shuffle or come up small in the big moment (like the 3 missed free throws at the tail end of the decisive game four of the finals). Especially with him getting up in age, if they didn’t want to make a five year commitment to a guy who is only going to get worse, that’s fine. Or, if they had made the decision that they just didn’t have the money within the budget to go another $50 million, given the current economic climate, that also would have been fine. But to go out and sign $52 million in backups, especially Gortat makes zero sense. Bringing in Brandon Bass to have another power forward was reasonable because they had traded Tony Battie in the Carter deal. Bass is a productive player who can rebound a little bit and score given some opportunities. An off-season that stops there is productive and keeps Orlando within the NBA’s elite with a legit chance at a championship. But then to go out and match Gortat’s offer sheet to play maybe 15 minutes a game is illogical. You already have Dwight Howard; your fifth highest paid player should not be his backup. If you’re going to run up that much payroll on guys who aren’t going to impact the game that much, you might as well sign Turkoglu and give yourself a solid two year window as a prohibitive favorite for the title.

Instead, they make themselves a worse basketball team than they were last year because now they will be forced to play more conventional. They no longer can illuminate the mismatches a guy like Lewis creates because he’s probably going to play small forward. They could start Pietrus at the 3 and destroy their firepower off the bench and considering today’s NBA (Jason Terry, Manu Ginobili when healthy, Lamar Odom) you got to have firepower off the bench. So their left losing their advantage that really won them the Eastern Conference (Cleveland’s inability to guard an athletic, jump shooting power forward) and didn’t get any better because of it. And they bloated their payroll.

Considering the position that the Magic left themselves in at the end of last season, they looked to be a scoring shooting guard away from being champions. But instead, they unwisely spent their money on low impact guys and let a potential championship get away in the process.

Grade: C-

Sunday, August 16, 2009

NBA Offseason Review Part 1: Lakers Show Uneven Direction

This is part one of a six part series reviewing the NBA offseason, taking an individual look at all the title contenders (Lakers, Magic, Spurs, Celtic and Cavaliers) and then the rest of the league as a whole. Because they won the championship, we start with the Los Angeles Lakers.

All the talk surrounding the Los Angeles Lakers following their championship season was whether they could keep two important cogs to their championship formula: free agents Trevor Ariza and Lamar Odom.

What was most surprising is not that they chose to only keep one, but who they chose to keep and who they got to replace the departing. They chose to keep Lamar Odom instead of Ariza (who departed to Houston) and replace Ariza with the colorful Ron Artest (departing Houston).

Here’s where the decision-making looks to be uneven. If you want to choose Lamar Odom over Ariza, I get it. The financials of today’s NBA, especially with the salary cap shrinking like David Ortiz’s power numbers, just make it really difficult to keep all your guys and take a huge luxury tax hit. On the court, though I have never been the biggest of Odom fans, his length and comparative athleticism paired with Pau Gasol on the frontline, not to forget the potential frontline of Odom, Gasol and Andrew Bynum is scary to say the least. It’s very difficult to defend, especially with the offensive polish Gasol and Odom both have. They can create their own shot and be playmakers for others. And though Odom is six years older than Ariza, he was always the barometer of whether the Lakers would win or not. His ability to dominate the glass at times, particularly at the offensive end and the three point shot he discovered at some point in the playoffs really helped to drive the Lakers to the title. And while he isn’t as athletic as Ariza, play as good defense or have the signature playoff moments that Ariza did (though I still and will always blame George Karl for this. How can you, in the Western Conference Finals, be beat by two of the simplest plays in basketball by not having an adequate inbounds play and having Kenyon Martin and Anthony Carter pass it in, especially when you have a good passer and true playmaker in Chauncey Billups. There was plenty of time on the clock, you didn’t need to pass it in and have Chauncey shoot it, so he could have easily passed it in and got it back and run a play. Absolutely bewildering but I digress.), his ability to play and defend multiple positions make his upside to the Lakers winning another championship in the near future more likely. When he’s on, his impact on the game is more than Ariza’s probably could be.

Where it gets confusing is why they would trade Trevor Ariza, who is on the upswing of his career for Ron Artest, who is on the downswing. Contrary to popular belief, Artest is not the defensive player he once was. He’s lost a lot of athleticism and cannot stay in front of anyone with any kind of quickness. He can body up bigger, slower guys like Paul Pierce but other than that, he will struggle. When the Rockets played the Lakers in the Western Semis last year, Shane Battier did the best job anyone has done on Kobe. Kobe was forced to take contested jumper after contested jumper and while he is Kobe, and going to make that more often than a Dwight Howard free-throw, it is all you can ask him to do. When Battier needed a break, Artest would take over and Kobe would go to the rim over and over and over again. Meanwhile, Ariza was defending dynamic scorers like Carmelo and if you watched game 5 and 6 of the Nuggets-Lakers series, you would see that he does that pretty well.

Offensively though is where the trade loses me. In the playoffs last year, Ariza developed into tremendous 3-point shooter, where he shot 47% from three. In the playoffs last year, Artest developed into the ultimate me-first guy, Houston’s version of Monta Ellis, becoming a virtual black hole on offense: if the ball touched his hand, it was never going to be seen again. He jacked up bad shot after bad shot, fading from three, turning it over, anything he could to be a detriment to his team. In game 7, 80% of the time he was the worst player on the floor, disrupting any kind of flow on offense, floating to the three-point line at every opportunity and refusing to get down low and post up Luke Walton (why did I just describe Rasheed Wallace circa 2007). Not only that, I don’t know how he’ll fit into a supplementary role. Kobe, Gasol, Odom and maybe Bynum are all guys who will get offense before him. That’s never happened to him. How will he react to almost never having plays run for him? Ariza was fine with this because he never needed to dominate the ball to be effective on offense. You could swing it to him off a Gasol double team and he could drain the angle three with lethal effectiveness. And with his athleticism, he could finish a fast break than Artest can at his stage of his career.

Then there’s that knucklehead factor that just can’t be ignored. Though I know Kobe and Phil Jackson is a strong pair, Artest just seems like a different breed of human. He may be a good teammate and good guy to be around, I don’t know because I’ve never been around, but it seems like time and again, he just does crazy stuff. Just all around, there’s a lot of risk and not a lot of reward for the same money that they could have gotten Ariza for.

Other than that, it was a pretty quiet offseason for the Lakers. They kept Shannon Brown, which is a good move. He’s athletic, has developed a nice jumper and defends well (now if they could only play him instead of Sasha Vujacic who has been mistake prone and ineffective since this). I would have liked to see them try to get a point guard of the future because even though Derek Fisher made the two biggest shots of the playoffs, there were many points in the playoffs where he didn’t look like he should be a starting point guard for much longer. They do have Jordan Farmar and I like him as a player but I don’t know if you can win a championship with him or not. But considering point guards weren’t out there to be had (you can’t win a championship with Ramon Sessions) there’s no need to bash them there.

With the moves that they made, the Lakers didn’t seem to have a real direction. While Odom keeps them in that top tier because the potential impact he can have on games, trading Ariza for Artest brings them back to the pack a little bit, especially considering some of the moves other teams made.

Grade: C+

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Eagles Make Right Decision on Two Fronts

It has been a long, turbulent road for Michael Vick’s NFL career. We last saw him in an NFL uniform New Year’s Eve 2006 in Philadelphia, playing (and losing) to the Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field. And while he didn’t have his best game ever that winter evening (8-14, 81 yards, 1 TD, 3 carries, 17 yards in the 24-17 loss) apparently, Andy Reid and the Eagles saw something that they liked.

With the announcement midway through the second quarter during Thursday's preseason opener that the Philadelphia Eagles had signed Michael Vick to a one year deal with an option for a second season, a long, ferocious circle had finally been completed. Michael Vick would finally be back to doing what he should be doing.

But before we can delve into the football implications, the mostly negative reaction by Philadelphia fans must be addressed. Flipping through the local news stations Thursday night and watching them get the average fan reaction as they walked out of Lincoln Financial Field, I can't say I was too surprised by the average fan reaction. One woman was near tears as she described her love for dogs and her utter disappointment in her Philadelphia Eagles that she might give up season tickets (unlikely considering it’s easier to get yellow cake uranium than Eagles season tickets). Another man was so angry about the signing, he would have been better suited yelling at his local congressman about health care reform (and let’s not forget the classy headline the Daily News had Friday).

That leaves us in the very rare situation where someone’s fame has completely worked against him. His public stature has put a face, his, on something faceless, something that was never at the forefront of many minds outside of those fervently involved with animal rights. Therefore, he has little chance of regaining a lot of peoples trust because they can’t forgive him, no matter what he does. He has created an undeniable link between Mike Vick and dog drowning and those are the moments that will stand out in a lot of fans minds. That is what has made it so difficult for Vick as opposed to other crimes. Murder doesn’t shock us this much. Drunk driving obviously doesn’t shock us as much considering we all do it at least once (I’m looking at you Bronson Arroyo). Individuals receiving insider tips to beat the stock market, bending the rules at the expense of the average American, we as a people barely blink an eye (cough Martha Stewart). So when Martha gets her daytime talk show back on and it’s like she was never in jail. I guess it’s the benefits of following Enron.

So Vick gets the distinguished honor of facing all of the negative fervor because he is the only guy you and I know who’s been involved in dogfighting. And that is not fair. Vick should not have his second chance rejected because of the novelty that is a dogfighting offender. No person deserves to have their entire life marginalized through a single period of time where they were not making their best decisions. He hasn’t been a guy who has time and again gotten into trouble with a girlfriend or hung out with “Pacman” Jones at the strip club. He’s not even like Christopher Columbus, who is celebrated with his own day by the way for "discovering" a land that already existed with inhabitants, despite the fact he forced labor and intentionally gave smallpox to those inhabitants of the New World. I just think we should be fair here.

That’s not saying that Vick should just be given free reign or anything remotely like that. Accountability needs to be a major aspect of this. He’s got a tremendous opportunity and if he continues to do the things that he has been going since May, namely listening to the Humane Society and Tony Dungy, he deserves the second chance. And I’m perfectly ok with the Eagles giving him one.

Now, to the football side of things, where it becomes, at least to me, more interesting than some second baseman’s wife not endorsing the signing.

First, Andy Reid said that they didn’t work out Vick which is interesting to me. I would think that you would work the guy out first but that’s neither here nor there. So just for a point of reference, let’s say he’s 70% of what he was in 2006. The amount of possibilities for things to do on offense could be mindboggling.

70% of 2006 Michael Vick is still faster, quicker, more agile that 97% of NFL players. Consider putting Vick and McNabb in the backfield at the same time and all the trick plays you could run. The kinds of things Kordell Stewart did as the original slash or Antwaan Randal-El did as the second slash in Pittsburgh are all things Vick can do, only better.

He can give you a little bit of slot receiver, maybe some tailback and the overused (but mandatory for anything concerning Vick) excuse of the Wildcat. But what would make me most excited would be McNabb in the shotgun, flanked with Vick and Brian Westbrook on each side with Desean Jackson lined up on the outside. Can you spell speed?

But even in my excitement there is cause for concern because he was in jail for almost two years (insert jail soap joke here) and since Reid hasn’t worked him out, I can’t say that Reid worked him out so he’s got to have something. It’s a real possibility that he comes back average and makes minimal to no impact considering he’s not going to take meaningful snaps at quarterback.

But, that’s ok. It’s the kind of calculated risk that won’t cost much if it fails but could make a magnificent impact if it succeeds. Considering what else this move is doing (someone’s getting a second chance at life), I’d call it a win-win.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Phillies Need to Focus on Hamels, Not Halladay

Lost in the hype and anticipation surrounding the Phillies interest in Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Roy Halladay, is what the Phillies already have. Beyond the suggestions that the Phillies should just step up and send a small army of prospects to Toronto for J.P. Ricciardi to pick and choose from, I think we have collectively lost sight of one guy.

Cole Hamels.

It’s not as if people have forgotten his name. The talk is centered on pairing Halladay and Hamels together to create this unstoppable playoff force that makes them the favorite to repeat as World Series champions this year and possibly in 2010.

Here’s where the memory appears to lapse about Cole Hamels. He’s already that unstoppable playoff force. He just needs to show it again.

Just months removed from winning every MVP award they give for postseason performance, Hamels showed that you really don’t need much of a bullpen or starting rotation behind him when he is on a roll. Hamels put the team on his back down in October and won his team a World Series championship.

The problem arises because he’s not pitching the way we all expected. We, or at least I, expected Hamels to be a perennial Cy Young candidate after his magical playoff performance last season (35 IP 4-0 1.80 ERA). Then the injury problems came at the beginning of the year and he got off to a slow start. His first few starts weren’t right and he didn’t look healthy. As a result, he’s been average for most, if not all season.

In step the trade rumors, mostly discussing Halladay because the Phillies need a starting pitcher, apparently. But they don’t need Halladay. They need Hamels.

The Phillies find themselves as legitimate contenders for the World Series, without Halladay and with Cole Hamels being as average as he has been. In such a weak National League (think the NBA’s Eastern Conference circa 2003), they are on a virtual collision course with the Dodgers for the pennant. There is no dominant team in the American League. Every contender has their flaws: Boston has suddenly lost their power, the Yankees and Dodgers have middle relief issues, and the Phillies and Angels have issues with starting pitching. Hamels by himself could be the extra boost to put the Phillies over the top.

Yes, Halladay is a great pitcher, maybe the best is baseball (though my money is on Dan Haren in Arizona). Yes, he would be a great addition for every franchise in the MLB (especially Washington, since they don’t want Stephen Strasburg). But the cost is just too great.

To open talks with the Blue Jays, it will probably take J.A. Happ and top prospect Kyle Drabek. This is just to begin the trade discussion. There has been some discussion that it could 4 or more top prospects to get Halladay. Is it worth sending a clown car full of prospects to Toronto for Halladay?

History says maybe, maybe not. These pitching blockbusters usually have mixed results. There are the St. Louis Cardinals and Montreal Expos (currently the Washington Nationals), who acquired big name pitchers Mark Mulder and Bartolo Colon, respectively. They were average or worse with their new teams. Then there are the guys that St. Louis and Montreal traded away. St. Louis traded away Dan Haren. Montreal traded away Grady Sizemore and Cliff Lee. Those guys are pretty good.

But then there is the CC Sabathia deal that happened last year. Sabathia basically took the Milwaukee Brewers to the playoffs singlehandedly after getting traded from the Indians, though the jury is still out on the prospects they dealt.

So, though I think that Halladay will be more like Sabathia than the injury plagued Mulder, it’s 50/50 with these kinds of deals, at best (especially considering Halladay and I have the same amount of postseason innings). The last thing I want to see is J.A. Happ doing his best Tom Glavine impression north of the border.

The focus, instead of looking to acquire talent, should be on getting the talent you have right. You need a dominant Cole Hamels to think you’re going to have any success doing anything in October, whether you have Halladay or not. Hamels is the key to all your success.

With the offense that the Phillies have and the good defense they play, the Phillies just need Hamels to recapture some of the magic he had last year. They won a World Series with mediocre pitching behind Hamels, so what is to stop them from doing it again this year?

We’ve seen a sporadic Cole Hamels all year. One night, he’s dominating the Dodgers: the next night he struggles against the anemic Braves offense.

It’s not that I’m against the Phillies going to get a frontline starting pitcher to add to the rotation. By all means, please do: at the right price, however. The Blue Jays want to own the totality of the Phillies farm system for that starter. The risk and price doesn’t quite match the potential reward or failure.

Instead, the Phillies should look towards Hamels. He holds the near-future of this team in his left arm. If he regains what he was the previous two seasons, the Phillies won’t need Halladay to embark on another World Series celebration.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Goodell Should Do Right Thing: Reinstate Vick

No one likes dogfighting. It’s not a neutral issue. It is universally hated (except by those involved in the dogfighting). It’s, more or less, a slap in the face to the core of American friendship.

So it’s perfectly natural that the purveyors of said dogfighting, guys like Michael Vick are completely vilified. The radical PETA fundamentalists protested at every Vick-related place possible. The more moderate Humane Society was disgusted. America, as a whole, wanted nothing to do with Michael Vick.

Vick’s actions represented nothing else but sheer stupidity. He lied to federal prosecutors, the Atlanta Falcons, and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. He’s blown all his money and is now in bankruptcy court answering to his creditors. Bad decision followed bad decision and it ended with 20 months in federal custody.

Well yesterday marked the day that Michael Vick left federal custody. Yesterday marked the day that Michael Vick got to restart his life.

But the major impediment to his life being restarted lies in the hands of Roger Goodell and the indefinite suspension he imposed in 2007, the stern disciplinarian with a heavy hand usually ruling against the players whether or not the justice system has dealt with the player. If the justice system has dealt with a player, like in Vick’s case, it’s a virtual no-brainer for Goodell. Brandon Marshall, Adam “Pac-Man” Jones, and Donte Stallworth have all felt the wrath of a Goodell suspension. Which begs the question: should Goodell reinstate Vick from his indefinite suspension?

Yes. If I remember correctly, the old adage goes: hate the sin, not the sinner.

Should we really punish Michael Vick again and again with another suspension after 20 months with the feds? Michael Vick is not “Pac-man.” He isn’t a repeat offender who consistently runs afoul of the law. So does he deserve the “Pac-man” treatment, a one-year suspension? Probably not, considering Vick’s offenses were limited to one event as far as we know: and Vick’s never led to the paralysis of a man.

But as many dog lovers will contest, his offenses were so appalling that there aren’t any applicable comparisons.

The fact of the matter is, while what he did was wrong and shouldn’t be allowed to happen ever again, it is not a career-ending or season-ending offense, considering the price he has already paid. Vick didn’t order the Trail of Tears. He’s not the Son of Sam copycat. Let’s put things into perspective. Vick did awful things, but it doesn’t crack the list of the most horrific.

In a society built on forgiveness, does Vick get his chance at redemption disregarded because of a couple of PETA protesters outside the NFL offices? I really don’t think that we should make decisions based on the thoughts of PETA. They got upset when President Obama killed a fly.

Michael Vick is a football player. He should be allowed to play football. He has served his time, paid his debt to society and is ready to reenter our world.

Just ask Tony Dungy, a man better than me and probably better than you. Just ask Humane Society President Wayne Pacelle. If it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for me.

The reality is that it is pointless to pile on the punishment after the person leaves prison. What good does it do anyone to continue to punish this man for his one crime? You’re not teaching him anymore of a lesson. You’re not making him feel more of this “remorse” that everyone wants to see. All you’re doing is stunting his development back into society.

He can only be taught a lesson by getting a chance to demonstrate what he has learned. He can only show remorse by being given a second chance and doing well with that second chance. Unnecessary punishment driven by ego and PETA makes sure no one wins.

Goodell should reinstate Vick before training camps open in a couple of weeks. Give teams the opportunity to sign him and get him in. Endorse the work he’s doing to stop dogfighting through the Humane Society. Give everyone a chance to be reintroduced to Vick on Sunday’s and allow the forgiving public to begin to accept him again. If you put yourself in his situation, you would want a second chance too. So give Vick the second chance that we would all want ourselves.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Uncertainty at Point Guard Creates Unenviable Postion for Sixers

This offseason has created two realities for the 76ers that they must come to grips with. First, they are not in a select group of “Haves” in the Eastern Conference (Boston, Orlando, and Cleveland) that have clearly distanced themselves from a group of mediocre teams that don’t really have a shot of advancing past the second round of the playoffs. Granted, they already couldn’t compete with those teams, but the additions of Rasheed Wallace, Vince Carter, and Shaquille O’Neal have more than solidified it. They are, frankly, years away from even thinking that the teams ahead of them may come back to their level so they can compete. Second, this team is going to have to make some serious decisions if they want to stay in the second tier of teams in the East (Chicago, Atlanta, Miami).

The outcome of that decision will be seen by what the Sixers do at point guard for the upcoming season. Andre Miller is an unrestricted free agent and would really prefer not to come back to the Sixers, which may or may not be a good thing depending on how you look at it. While many will point out that Elton Brand, who is coming back from shoulder surgery and will be ready for the start of the season, couldn’t play with Andre Iguodala and Sam Dalembert (though I really can’t blame him for the latter), the reality may be that he couldn’t play with Andre Miller. Consider that Andre Miller spends most of his time in the lane or on the block because that is generally where he generates offense. So in the 29 games the Sixers had Brand, Iguodala and Miller, they struggled because the paint became too crowded for any of them to thrive. The fit would work better if Miller could shoot a jump shot and spread the floor from 20 ft. or farther but that’s as likely as Megan Fox singing at my next birthday party.

This partly explains the reasonable success that the Sixers had after Brand was shut down for the season. The lane was clogged less, Miller's inability to shoot was masked and Iguodala was free to continue to take contested 23 foot jumpers (why they only had reasonable success). Without Brand, the floor opens up for Miller to do his work in the lane and create from 15 ft. in, allowing Iguodala more room to do work on offense as well. But with the Sixers investing $82 million in Brand, his ability to thrive with the other players on the floor needs to be a priority.

Which creates the little conundrum that the Sixers currently find themselves in. If they bring back Andre Miller, the offense becomes restricted to 15 ft., Brand and Iguodala struggle like they did last year and we kill Ed Stefanski for signing Brand. Or they don’t resign Miller, and considering the Chris Duhon for Andre Miller swap was nixed, Lou Williams would take over at point guard, which isn’t the most ideal situation. Lou Williams is best served to come off the bench, like he currently does. He’s a pure scorer from the point guard position and has never been asked to really set up an offense. To ask him to all of sudden become something he’s not, a pure point guard, is only asking him to fail, especially considering he lacks a crucial component to his game to play the position at its highest level, vision. An average passer with below average vision with an uncanny ability to get to the rim and score is probably best suited to score and lead the second unit that is pretty devoid of scoring.

If those don’t seem like good options, it’s because of their not. You can either bring back a guy who really won’t play very well with the highest paid player on the team or get worse and basically sacrifice a season by being lead by a point guard who really isn’t a point guard, all this while first-round pick Jrue Holliday tries to learn the game to eventually take over the post. Well that’s why Ed Stefanski gets paid.

Realistically, they may have to bring back Andre Miller and new coach Eddie Jordan will have to get creative on offense to create the necessary spacing, via Jason Kapono longrange shooting, to allow everyone to be successful. At this point, they can’t put their season in the hands of an unproven point guard and get worse. Already struggling in the attendance department, a season where they compete with the Bobcats, Pacers and Nets for 8th and 9th spots just isn’t ideal. What’s ideal is they get a point guard like Steve Blake from Portland, a proven guy in this league who can shoot and get a team into its offense efficiently, nothing great or spectacular, but proven and reliable. But unfortunately, what is best isn’t really feasible.

But they also can’t have Elton Brand and Andre Miller’s playing style clash for, presumably, 82 games next season. A repeat of the first 29 games from last season, over 82 games, wouldn’t amount to very much.

So no matter how you look at it, the Sixers are probably going to be a worse basketball team than they were last year. Brand, Miller and Iguodala can’t play winning basketball together and Lou Williams can’t seamlessly replace Miller and have the offense run at its best. And the ideas that Jrue Holliday is ready to come in and start just aren’t reasonable, considering he didn’t start at UCLA. He needs to slowly adjust to the NBA game, starting off getting few minutes and slowly work more into the rotation.

With the options staring Stefanski in the face, it’s moments like these that make me happy I’m not a general manager.

Friday, July 10, 2009

The Fall of Allen Iverson

It has, unfortunately, come to this for Allen Iverson. The same guy who crossed Michael Jordan, thee Michael Jordan, in his rookie season on the way to a Rookie of the Year Award, the same guy who won an MVP award and took a band of vagabonds (George Lynch, Tyrone Hill, Eric Snow, Aaron McKie, I would go on but it’s too embarrassing) to the NBA Finals, producing my favorite playoff memories of all-time (and even won more games [one] than anyone expected against the Lakers), the same guy who has four scoring titles. This same guy is now begging for a job from the Memphis Grizzlies or facing forced retirement. How did this happen? Why does no one want Iverson?

The answer seems simple but it will hurt me to say it. Allen Iverson is not a winner. Nothing about him allows him to become a part of a championship formula. My favorite player that I have ever seen is destined for an NBA cemetery.

But in the end, this is the only way that it could happen, and it has nothing to do with off-court issues or even practice. It’s Iverson’s pride, offensive style, and inability to play with great players that has doomed him. Iverson is one of the greatest scorers of his generation but can only score one way. He must have the ball in his hands, for about 16 seconds to create his scoring opportunities. He invented the volume shooter/scorer role. Without Iverson’s progressive style of play, Jamal Crawford wouldn’t have a job. But how does that help him play with Carmelo Anthony? It doesn’t, which is why they never won playoff series. He is the ultimate alpha-dog, a star who believes he’s a star and won’t take anything less. That’s why the chemistry with Carmelo was never quite there and in some ways, may have held back Carmelo’s development into one of the best players in the league (check how Anthony evolved at the end of this season without Iverson), or look at his reluctance to fit in with the Detroit Pistons, which was an unmitigated disaster.

The fact is the 2001 Sixers were the perfect fit for Iverson, the only team in which he could thrive. He can only play with defensive-minded/offensively-limited guys because his offense only works when he is the ONLY guy who can realistically put the ball in the basket. He has to be the center of attention, the lone offensive threat to be at his best, which is why the team can’t be at its best. The 2001 Sixers undoubtedly was the perfect gift for Iverson’s career. He was at the top of his game playing the best basketball of his career, in a terrible Eastern conference that allowed him to win the MVP and take a terrible team to the Finals. They allowed Iverson to thrive on offense (because Todd MacCulloch and and Jumaine Jones really weren’t lighting it up, let’s be real) while playing pretty good defense to scrape through the Eastern playoffs and Iverson got validated as a great player with a bad team around him. But building a team around Iverson became impossible because no matter who you brought in, they didn’t mesh with Iverson (Toni Kukoc, Chris Webber, Larry Hughes, Glen Robinson, Keith Van Horn, just to name a few). And it became easy to blame the secondary star for not being the right guy and Billy King eventually lost his job because of it because he never brought in the right guy. But who was or could have been the right guy. I couldn’t imagine what would happen if Kevin Garnett and Allen Iverson ever teamed, the guy I always wanted. As much as I don’t like the job Billy King did, trying to build a team around Iverson’s unique skills was far from easy. And after seeing Carmelo and Iverson not working and whatever that thing in Detroit was, I’m not sure that it would have worked with KG. It’s no wonder that a contender doesn’t have any interest.

Think about it: if you’re building a championship team, do you need Iverson taking shots away from your Kobe or LeBron or Big 3, especially considering he’s not a true point guard, bogging down the flow of your offense. Iverson is almost like a black hole for your offense, the ball enters his hands and he’s going to do something with it, for better or worse. He could come off the bench of the contender and remake his Sixers days, play the role of scoring guard as the top guys rest, playing with guys like Sasha Vujacic or Brian Scalabrine but he refuses to do that. Iverson has completely pigeonholed himself. Singular in his focus and skills, refusing to open up or change one little bit. The same qualities that made him the tough little guy in Philadelphia, who’s singular focus was on the game, no matter what injury he was dealing with at the time, singular skill, getting to the rim, no matter the obstacle in the lane or in front of him to provide everything that the Sixers needed, pure scoring. Now those qualities have left him in his current predicament. There aren’t any teams out there built like the Sixers were, perfect for his style of style of play where he can play the lead role like he demands. He refuses to play a secondary role to anyone which is why he can’t play for a contender. This is a future Hall-of-Famer with something still left in the tank being virtually ignored, most of it by his own doing.

Iverson is a great player. But his greatness is limited to unique situations and it is not conducive to winning a championship. Iverson has always been willing to sacrifice his body for a championship but when it calls for sacrifice of his ego, Iverson cannot go that far. A great player lost behind an array of over dribbling and volume shooting.