Monday, May 19, 2008

Help Wanted

Photo by David Liam Kyle/Contributor/Getty Images

The Boston Celtics got past the Cleveland Cavaliers. Barely. The triumvirate of Pierce, Garnett and Allen got a lot of help from Posey, Davis and Powe but credit for Boston’s game seven victory has to be given to players with names like Wallace, Ilgauskas and Szczerbiak. Honorable mention goes to Sasha Pavlovic for committing the dumbest fouls on the floor. When Danny Gibson negotiates a bigger contract he should give Pavlovic a percentage for making the case.

That was the big difference. Daniel Gibson has been the spot shooter who can help out on defense. A healthy Gibson kept the inconsistent Pavlovic on the bench through most of the season but when Gibson tore up his shoulder in game 6, Mike Brown had to put Sasha in the game. After James and Delonte West Pavlovic played more minutes than anybody else but delivered the least.

The thing is nobody expects anything out of Sasha. He’s a decent shooter who can pull the ball down and drive the lane once in a while but he gets lazy. He turns the ball over, makes bad decisions and lacks the heart to play any defense. This isn’t a surprise to the Cavs. The surprise came in the form of a magic act:

How do you make a giant disappear?

Put a #11 jersey on him.

Zydrunas Ilguaskas went 2 for 8 from the field scoring only 8 points. It seemed as though every time LeBron or Delonte West looked for the big guy he was somewhere out on the wing. The result was one of the biggest and most athletic players in the NBA pulling down only five rebounds. Z didn’t even come close to getting into foul trouble. With Paul Pierce taking the ball to the rack and Kevin Garnett finishing several pick and roll plays, Z failed to assert himself in the middle of the floor on either end.

The Cavaliers have been aware of Z’s penchant for getting lost in physical games which is why Ben Wallace seemed like a great acquisition. Big Ben let the ‘fro out for game seven but he left his game tied up. He seemed old and tired. Ben only blocked one shot and he tallied just four rebounds. More importantly he hurt the Cavs by refusing to take advantage of open looks at the basket. Nobody expects Wallace to split a double team and finish strong to the hole, but in 30 minutes he took one shot. LeBron zipped several nice passes to the human tree trunk only to have them kicked out to a cold shooter on the perimeter.

Wally Szczerbiak lost his shooting touch the minute his plane touched down in Cleveland and while he looked like he was getting into form in the first round, he went cold again in game 7. He was 0-3 from the floor and his lack of confidence compelled him to pass on open shots and drive the lane. The result was disastrous. Wally did play tough defense and he gave up good fouls to force the Celtics to the line when an easy bucket was imminent but Wally’s a hired gun and he was shooting blanks.

It’s not fair to say that LeBron didn’t have any help because Delonte West played hard for 45 minutes. He brought 15 points to the table and drilled a couple of threes to keep the game close. West also played tenaciously on defense. He’s not a pure defender because he lacks lateral mobility and explosion but he knows how to take away angles and stay between the ball and the basket. West also doesn’t shy away from contact and gives as good as he gets.

In fact, that’s the bright spot in this loss for the Cavs. West might be the point guard they’ve been looking for. He’s not exactly cut from the same cloth as a John Stockton or Steve Nash but he’s like a poor man’s version of Jason Kidd. If West can embrace being playing Pippen to LeBron’s Jordan and he puts in the off season work to get better West might be a key ingredient to a championship juggernaut.

The Cleveland Cavaliers fell short this year but Boston was supposed to go through the Eastern Conference with a broom and challenge the Spurs for NBA supremacy. Everybody dismissed Boston’s first round scare as a wake up call and most of the experts figured that was bad news for Cleveland. Now people are wondering if Boston was overrated or if Cleveland was better than they were given credit for.

The final verdict will come over the next couple of weeks but after winning 66 games over the regular season there’s no question that Boston was a very good team. They managed to make LeBron look mortal for a few games but the Cavaliers put up a fight. With two players showing up to play in Boston the Cavaliers almost pulled off the big upset. Imagine if Danny Ferry can find a third.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Spygate lost its Sizzle

Well the other shoe dropped and it looks like the New England Patriots are in the clear. There was no gunman on the grassy knoll; Deepthroat did not have the goods on Nixon; the revolution will not be televised.

And that's how the NFL wants it.

Do I think that there was more to the story than officially reported?

You betcha. I suspect that Matt Walsh had some pretty convincing evidence that Belichick's scheming went well beyond what the NFL made public but if the NFL can impose million dollar fines it can also pay people to "lose" DVDs and "forget" pertinent facts. Roger Goodell doesn't want to have the stink of Spygate clinging to his league heading into another season, especially when the Patriots are the sexy pick the rule the AFC again.

The thing is, what Belichick got caught doing isn't exactly that big a deal. There are differing opinions among people who have actual NFL experience but the sort of cheating Belichick practiced is commonplace. Perhaps Bill put more stock in it, but any coach who claims that he never tried to steal a few signals is a liar. We can focus on the Patriots and say that they won Super Bowls by tiny margins that could have been influenced by knowledge of certain plays and signals from the sidelines but anybody who watches football knows that play calling is often predictable. There are nuances within the game that telegraph plays. These are professional football players who study game film in their free time, on any given Sunday 60% of the plays are known by the other team. Football games are not won and lost because of secrecy or surprise. Football is about execution. The best teams will tell you exactly what play they're going to run and beat you anyway. Any high school player can tell you that.

What kills me is Arlen Specter. He knows there's something fishy about how all of this worked out but he's too much of photo op whore to consider that it just doesn't matter. He's ranting and raving and threatening to form a Congressional Committee to dig deeper into this matter. Why? It's a game. Congress should have more important things to do. It's a moot point anyway. The NFL makes its own rules and can enforce the rules as it sees fit. If an owner, player or even a fan feels that the rules have been interpreted unfairly the only option is to file a lawsuit against the league. Belichick didn't break any laws, and Goodell is not obligated to justify his managerial decisions to Specter.

I'm not a big fan of the Patriots but I don't hate them either. Being a Cleveland fan I could have told you Belichick was a snake but he's not my problem anymore. I wasn't concerned one way or the other about the Super Bowl. Living in Central Ohio I guess it's nice that I don't have to deal with another thing Mike Vrable can brag about, but I was able to watch the Super Bowl and just enjoy the game because I didn't have a favorite. Ultimately I guess I like the way it turned out because the Patriots have to live with crapping all over their perfect season and the crabby Dolphins who make such a big deal about '72 will be dead before long. It's all good.

People who are upset with how this worked out should just stop watching the NFL. It's not like you can complain and Roger Goodell will act. As long as the revenue is there he'll continue to run things the way he sees fit. Of course if enough fans are willing to turn their TVs off this fall and do something productive on Sunday the revenue will dry up and Goodell will have to do something about it. But that won't happen. It's just one of those little things people carp about until they have more important matters to attend to. By November nobody will remember Spygate.

Except for Arlen Specter...he's got to have the face time.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Letting the Baby Have His Own Way

In the sports world we hear lots of talk about biases. In college football most people believe there is an East Coast Bias which makes it difficult for teams on the West Coast to attain a favorable national ranking. As an avid student of the game I can tell you that there is no bias. There are simply more people living on the East Coast which means there are more high schools, more student athletes and more colleges.

The population density of the west gets pretty spare when you move eastward from the coast. All you have to do is compare the number of athletic conferences from region to region. The reason it seems that the East Coast has more nationally ranked teams is because they have more teams in the first place. If there was a bias USC wouldn’t have produced three of the last six Heisman Trophy winners.

There does seem to be a bias in major league baseball and that bias favors the Yankees and Red Sox. It’s not really that there’s a conspiracy afoot to ensure the success of these two teams so much as there’s a complete lack of vision on the part of Major League Baseball to protect the interests of smaller market teams. Baseball has always been a corrupt enterprise ruled by greedy men with selfish agendas which is why the Yankees and Red Sox can spend nearly half a billion dollars on payroll. The NFL doesn’t allow money to give teams an advantage and the NBA utilizes rigid salary caps to keep the playing field level.

Of course the NBA is the one place in sports where there is a true bias. The NBA as an organization has a relentless desire to see its big market teams succeed. The reason is because the NBA believes that big market teams bring big television ratings. The statistics bear that out but it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. If the NFL can enjoy fantastic ratings for the playoffs, regardless of where the teams are from, why can’t the NBA?

The problem is the NBA markets individual players rather than the league as a whole. Kevin Garnett has always been an outstanding basketball player but now that he’s in big market Boston the NBA is hell bent for leather putting his face out there. It’s obvious that the league wants to see Boston and LA back in the finals. To the NBA that symbolizes the entire country: East Coast versus West Coast…to hell with everybody in between.

That bias was part of the recent MVP voting. Kobe Bryant won it in spite of the fact that he spent the entire off season trying to force a trade. When that didn’t go through he threatened to skip the season and when the Lakers called his bluff he played, but not without holding a daily press conference to whine about being stuck in LA.

Kevin Garnett was hyped as the MVP all year because Boston went from being a joke to winning 66 games. The problem is that Boston didn’t miss a beat when Garnett was out of the lineup. It’s hard to call yourself the MVP when your team does so well without you.

LeBron James (and I’ll cop to my Cleveland bias now) finished the season with the scoring title. He also was at the top of the leader boards in assists and rebounds averaging close to a triple double yet again. Through sheer will power alone he kept a banged up team in the playoff hunt and carried a new look roster into the playoffs in hopes that they’d find some consistency.

All the while, LeBron kept his mouth shut. He wanted the Cavs to get aggressive in the trade market but he didn’t throw tantrums or call his teammates out in the media. LeBron just went out night after night and played his best. He’s always respectful of his teammates even if those teammates, like Larry Hughes, aren’t worthy of it. When the Cavs entered the playoffs people asked LeBron how it felt and he immediately talked about new teammate Joe Smith who, in all his years of playing, had never advanced in the post season.

Kobe Bryant is a phenomenal athlete and a multi-faceted basketball player but LeBron is better. In head to head matchups LeBron takes Kobe to task and when you sit back and look at the big picture LeBron is the kind of guy who you want leading a team. You know LeBron is always going to stand up for his team. Kobe has proven that he’ll throw them under the bus if he thinks it’s best for him.

So how does a certified jerk like Kobe win the MVP? Big City Bias. The NBA embraces columnist and commentators who refuse to hold players accountable for being jerks. Kobe’s getting credit for leading the Lakers to the top seed in the west when the Lakers succeeded in spite of him. It was the addition of Pau Gasol that made the different down the stretch, and the subtraction by addition stunt the Suns pulled in acquiring Shaq. The Lakers posted a better record than LeBron’s Cavaliers but without LeBron the Cavs would have been vying for that first pick in the draft.

Even if Kobe had to win the MVP because of seniority, which is not how it’s done, the voting should have been close. LeBron wasn’t even in the same ballpark. Kevin Garnett and Chris Paul finished ahead of James in the balloting. You could make a great case for Chris Paul, who was almost as important to his team as LeBron but KG’s finish was another example of that bias.

The message this sends to everybody is that class, poise, and tireless effort don’t matter nearly as much as making a scene and playing in a big market. Kobe was awarded the MVP because he whined the loudest. Let’s hope LeBron doesn’t follow suit.

Friday, May 02, 2008


There are certain endeavors that don’t generally garner a great deal of attention. Some people call them sports and while I agree that many of these endeavors do qualify as sports, most fall short of that moniker for me. Granted, I’m guilty of equating sports with athletics and when I define athleticism I believe there has to be some significant degree of exertion. I ride a bicycle but I don’t consider myself to be participating in a sport when I do.

So pardon me if I don’t think of various forms of racing, particularly the horse and automotive varieties, to be sports. The physical exertion of the athlete is not a direct component of the race. Jockeys and drivers can’t improve performances by hitting the gym. At least in horse racing the credit goes to the pony. In automotive racing we celebrate the guy who spent the better part of a Saturday turning left. WOOOO!

So here we have THE FIRST SATURDAY IN MAY which means its Kentucky Derby time. By the way, is anybody else just a little creeped out by the fact that Kentucky’s official abbreviation is KY? Squeal like a pig! And do you suppose that there’s a tobacco flavored intimate lubricant made for of dentally-impaired friends to the south?

It kills me that so many people become so enamored with the Kentucky Derby, just as millions of people will suddenly take an interest in Indy Car racing in a few weeks. The entire year goes by and nobody thinks about horse racing but this weekend everybody will be talking about it. There are two other horse races that people follow but that’s because there’s an infatuation with the TRIPLE CROWN. Interest in the Belmont Stakes depends on whether the Derby winner wins The Preakness.

Don’t get me wrong, horses are awesome animals and as a country we owe a considerable debt of gratitude to these ready, willing and able creatures but I have trouble celebrating a horse as an athlete. I just don’t believe that horses are capable of making the conscientious sacrifices human athletes make. Michael Jordan could have easily called it a career after winning his third NBA title in a row. He was rich, at the top of his game and had nothing left to prove and he actually did step away for a while but he came back and won three more titles.

Horses don’t get themselves out of bed at 4am. They don’t spend 12 hours a day perfecting themselves because they want to be the best…horses follow orders. They train because that’s what they’re told to do. I’m not saying that horses don’t think, and that they don’t have personalities but it’s not on the same level as people. We can debate it all you want but until you show me a horse holding out for a better contract I’m not buying it.

Besides, I don’t much care for people races. Track and field events don’t excite me at all. I appreciate the effort and athleticism world class athletes exhibit but I just don’t much care to watch anybody or anything run around in circles as fast as they can.

Later this year we’ll be treated to the Summer Olympics where people get excited about more endeavors they usually couldn’t care less about. Pardon me for not jumping on the bandwagon.