Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Lonesome Crowded West



A week ago, the NBA playoffs started, and it looked like the Cavs, indifferent to the point of absurdity since the All Star Break, were in real trouble. LeBron James was looking old and tired, the team wasn't bringing any heat on defense, and they weren't even the #1 seed.

A week later... they are the only team to sweep, Boston is in a 2-2 dogfight that's actually kind of miraculous, considering that the road team has won every game, and there next opponent (Milwaukee or Toronto) is going to have two, if not three, more games in front of them in a first round bloodbath. Even the Wiz, probably the best looking team in the East in the last two months, blew game 3 in Atlanta, and could be going deeper.

But all of that seems trivial compared to what's going on out West, where the finalist was expected to come out and roll the lEastern team, because the Western team always should.

Here, we've got the Warriors up 3-0... but only after a huge comeback, and with Kevin Durant having injury issues, and Steve Kerr maybe not even being well enough to coach again, um, ever. (Back surgery is a terrible thing, people.) On the off chance that you think that head coaches don't matter, um, change your mind on that, because the guy in that seat if Kerr can't go is Mike Brown now, and Mike Brown nearly kept James from making the Finals not so long ago. Any coach that can keep prime James out of the Finals is, honestly, a force that hasn't been seen in the NBA, well, ever.

But the West was supposed to be more than the Dubs, yes? Well, the Spurs are 2-2 with the ever-tenacious Grizzlies. Utah is 2-2 with the Clips in a series where it seems like both teams are going to shed themselves of all positive elements by the close. (The Clips have lost Blake Griffin Yet Again, while the Jazz have been dodging food poisoning for Gordon Hayward and a troublesome knee for Rudy Gobert.) Houston is up 3-1 on OKC, but only because OKC was too dumb for words in fouling decisions in today's Game 4. They should close it out in five, but that's a Mike D'Antoni team, and Mike's teams in the playoffs are never to be trusted.

So we're a week into the playoffs, and the good news? Six out of eight series are in serious doubt, and the actual games have been as compelling as ever.

The bad news?

Well, I don't know about you, but one of these years, there's going to be a Finals without James. And as a guy who respects the hell out of him, but has almost never rooted for his laundry?

Not really the bold and novel narrative you might hope for...

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Rusell Westbrook: The New Iverson

Rage On
Last night in Game 2 in Houston, the visiting Thunder were playing a dramatically better game than the opener, and held a 12-point lead in the third quarter. Houston Rockets PG and MVP candidate James Harden couldn't put it in the ocean, the Thunder were closing out on three-point shooters like they were hungry dogs, and the Rockets couldn't get boards or transition looks against the bigger and burlier road team. It looked like playoff basketball, and Mike D'Antoni teams have a long and storied history of coming up small there, along with the usual prejudice against offense-first squads. The crowd was restless and nervous, and Russell Westbrook was the best basketball player in the world.

Then he took his rest, as he generally does because head coach Billy Donovan knows how to manage his resources, and the Rockets perked up immediately. A few threes went in, the crowd smelled blood in the water, and Westbrook lit angrily into his teammates and pleaded with his coach to let him back in. The lead was cut to manageable by the end of the third, and some part of me thought, "I've seen this movie before, and it doesn't end well for Iver... err, Westbrook."

There really isn't that much similarity between the two men, honestly. Iverson was an undersized shooting guard in an undersized point guard's body, and while he created an untold amount of offense in transition and from creating easy rebound opportunities for teammates from opponent double teams, he never put up similar assist or rebound numbers to Westbrook, and didn't have the same off the charts explosion and finishing ability. You could also, in his era of no zone defense, punish him in the post, the way that Mark Jackson did in multiple series losses to the Pacers. What AI had over Westbrook, in spades, was the ability to handle monster minutes and not have it effect his late play.

But there is one key similarity between the two men, and that's this: they are both trying to win basketball games, against the best players in the world, with wildly inadequate rosters... that actually get closer than you'd expect, because they have been built around their flawed but fantastic talents.

OKC without Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka should be a 40-win 8th seed and easy first round out. Stephen Adams is a good 2-way player, but he's turnover-prone in the block and has limited range. Viktor Oladipo is an athletic 2-guard, but his handle and shot are too suspect for routine starring minutes. Enes Kanter is a good post bench scorer, but indifferent at defense. Taj Gibson tries hard and is tolerable, but is best seen as solid bench. And that's, well, about it. Trying to win a playoff series with these guys in the loaded West should be impossible, and probably is.


But that didn't stop Westbrook, like AI before him, from lashing himself to the mast and charging into the fray. It got them to a 6th seed and a lead in last night's game, but with Westbrook pressed into extra minutes and no one else in his laundry willing or able to step up and make shots, the Thunder were doomed. To the stat sheet eye, he's an unconscionable gunner; to the actual game eye, he's trying to will these guys beyond their means, especially in the half-court. More tellingly, by the end of the game last night, he was spent beyond measure, and got to endure any amount of idiot takes about how Durant's better. (He might be, because Durant's 7 feet tall and can stop people at the rim, but that's beyond the point.) At the end of the night, Westbrook had a 50+ point triple double. But Harden and the Rockets had the win and the 2-0 series lead.

I suspect OKC might win a game in this series, because the Rockets can look bad when the jumpers aren't falling, and Harden isn't going to go to the line a couple of dozen times on the road, the way he did tonight. The NBA's predilection toward long series, suspicious officiating and complacent Game 3 road work is powerful, and Houston isn't filled with lockdown playoff veterans. But the road steal that they needed was last night, and you really got the sense that Westbrook knew it by the close.

One against five might make for great television, and a staple of karate movies. But it doesn't work in the NBA, and it certainly doesn't work four times out of five.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Meaning In Life

What's It All Mean
Today during the Golden State vs. Portland game, the ESPN crew, as it does with disturbing frequency, went into matters of Not Game. In this case, the tragic passing of Isiah Thomas's sister in a car accident yesterday, and how Boston's star guard was going to play despite his heavy heart.

To which color analyst Jeff van Gundy, in his usual role as Guy Who Knows Everything and has Higher Priorities Than You, said "Who cares?"

He wasn't trying to be disrespectful of what Thomas was going through, just that we shouldn't care about a game when such More Important Things were going on.

And, well, um, screw you, Jeff van Gundy.

We have no idea what's going through Thomas' mind during this time of grief. From watching him in tonight's tight Bulls-Celtics game, I suspect there was distraction during his bench minutes, but when he was on the floor, muscle memory took over. Chicago won behind a great fourth quarter from Jimmy Butler, and because Boston plays tight games all the time and so be it.

But what's really telling here is that in trying to be supportive, Van Gundy was as reductive and reactionary as anyone who wants to just tell Thomas to suck it up and play. Grief is personal, and private, and unique and unpredictable. It hits you in waves, sneaks up on you in odd moments, and isn't something you can really speak to if you aren't going through it.

Except, of course, when you are employed by ESPN, and are paid to speak about anything and everything, without regard to human decency or societal mores.

When you are employed by ESPN, you just go and go and go, with a hot take on everything, because that's what fits their terrible, terrible business model.

Here's what you should say about Thomas and his condition: as little as possible. Respect that the audience for Game is an audience for Game, and does not need, nor even appreciate, your efforts to make it about anything else.

We don't need you to tell us what's more important than all of that, really. We've made the choice to turn on the game, rather than go do yard work or parenting or emotional labor or cleaning or walking the dog or sleeping or any of the billion of other activities that we could be doing instead.

All of which might have more Meaning, because Meaning is where you find it.

And what you should be doing is to respect that choice, and COVER THE GODDAMNED GAME.

Because that is doing your job. You know, what Thomas did by playing today.

Honestly, why is this so hard for them to understand?

Saturday, April 15, 2017

NBA FIrst Round Playoff Picks

Boston v Chicago - Boston in five.
Cleveland vs Indiana - Cleveland in six.
Toronto vs Milwaukee - Toronto in six.
Washington vs Atlanta - Washington in five.
Golden State vs Portland - Golden State in five.
San Antonio vs Memphis - San Antonio in five.
Houston vs Oklahoma City - Houston in five.
Los Angeles vs Utah - Utah in six.

No time for details or defending the picks. Enjoy the games, everyone.

Friday, April 7, 2017

The Most Important People In Baseball

The Best There Ever Was
Something struck me the other day, as I was driving back from yet another road trip in my full-on hustle to chase bucks between gigs (yes, why the postings here have gotten few and far between)...

Baseball *is* better on the radio, but only if the radio broadcast team is extraordinarily skilled.

Baseball on the radio just lets you do whatever else you need to do, honestly. Driving for hours, working in the yard, puttering in the work shop or any of the other myriad number of household tasks... all can be done to the fullest of your attention with the soft background of a ballpark where no one is really doing anything of importance, and yet, it doesn't feel exclusionary.

Basketball isn't *bad* on the radio, but if an athlete does something amazing -- and that tends to happen more than a few times a game -- you're cursing yourself for not having it on a screen. In baseball, a fastball strikeout looks a lot like any other fastball strikeout, and a home run looks a lot like other home runs; the outcome matters more than the actual event, and you can pretty much see it in your mind's eye, if you care to. Football on the radio just doesn't work at all, because the actual event is simply a rare event, and you care too much about the event to ever have it be in the background; every game is a de facto playoff event, and playoff events are just not background material.

Which brings us to what has happened to the Philadelphia Phillies in my lifetime, which is pretty much what has happened to any number of franchises. They've gone from legendary broadcasters with stylized performances to, well, jocks. And jock wannabees.

Harry Kalas and Richie Ashburn were the voices of my childhood, and they were so good, you'd tune in to games during lost seasons just, well, to hear them. They didn't talk any more than they had to, and their moments of droll humor -- usually in relation to poor umpire performance, because they didn't have the modern illness of talking about things that were Not Game -- were devastatingly effective, because they were so rare and well-timed.

Kalas had a classic announcer voice, the kind that you could just imagine saying ordinary sentences for high hilarity, and when he was excited about something, it was infectious. Whitey Ashburn was just decent and droll and lovable, and much more prone to honest assessments of despair, which is to say that he was the true voice of the fan in a town where torture seems like a birthright. They mixed beautifully, and you felt like they were family, and not just family, but beloved family; the uncles you never got enough of, who made coming to the dinner table worthwhile. They worked the innings that you remembered, and I fully expect to spend the rest of my days, when I listen to Phillies games, missing them.

But part of why I miss them is that the current guys are, well, just meh. Tom McCarthy seems happy to be there and knowledgeable about the product, but he's just a guy, honestly; nothing memorable about him. Larry Anderson is the lead color guy and the living definition of why Funny Jocks aren't actually Funny, and he frankly irritates me with tired cynicism, because you are covering a game, you mook; mark out for it a little. Both guys avoid undue homerism and are professionals, so it's not a painful experience to listen to them, like you get with a lot of the regional broadcasts that you might catch on the MLB Network, but it's a long way down from legendary.

Baseball is the longest season and the most game, and my work situation may involve more exposure to games on the radio this year than I'd hope for, frankly. McCarthy and Anderson may grow on me; they aren't terrible human beings, and are clearly doing the best they can. But they aren't special, and baseball on the radio can be special. It's never easy to accept a lesser product.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Fantasy Sports Are The Worst

Punish, Sir, Punish
Not going to beat around the bush; it's a bad time for me. We're between gigs with no warning or even strong cause, getting the next one may or may not be pending and always takes a wildly longer time then you'd prefer, and keeping a positive attitude during all of that is, um, A Challenge. I spend about 100 hours a week doing work outside the home for a small percentage of my previous salary, and there's no medical benefits. This has been going on for about two months.

There are other issues at work here as well, but that's besides the point for this. Instead, we're going to talk fantasy basketball playoffs.

I know NBA hoop. It's pretty much all I've been watching, because working crazy hours usually involves passing out in front of the television for me when I am home, and changing the channel just seems kind of pointless. And in the midst of this waking nightmare, I've had one thing that has gone right: my fantasy basketball team.

I went all-in on Russell Westbrook this year; that's, um, worked out, with one of the best regular seasons in NBA history. I pursued a stars and scrubs strategy where every single guy that I went hard after (Rudy Gobert, Draymond Green, Goran Dragic and Blake Griffin) has played well over his career norms. I've surfed waiver wires to load up on under the radar multi-category guys who have logged more minutes than at any other points in their career (James Johnson, TJ Warren). I've stayed alert on injury news to grab next man up opportunities (Willie Cauley-Stein in Sacramento for Boogie Cousins, Tim Hardaway Jr in Atlanta for Kyle Korver). I've massaged my roster to make sure that I had maximum coverage for weekly success. It's been a great year.

This week, I've played against the third place team. I had a games advantage. If I were playing the other two teams on the other side of the bracket, I'd have won handily. With just one game left on the roster, my opponent needed a career game from an undersized rookie point guard to have any chance at all, and even if he got that, I had a guy in that game, too.

You know what happens next, right?

My guy (Warren) misses the game with flu-like symptoms. The PG (Tyler Ulis, from the Phoenix Suns; may he burn in hell for all eternity) faced a Houston Rockets team that had a half dozen guys out with injury and apathy issues, as Houston is pretty much locked into the third spot in the playoffs. Ulis is a 40% shooter for the year. Tonight, he shot 14 for 20. Ulis might be five inches taller than I am, and is facing a guy (Patrick Beverly) that's in the NBA for his defense. That's how little Houston has given a damn about this game.

Oh, and I've gotten to see every single second of it, because I'm fighting off a cold that's kept me from working today, and NBA TV has the game on as a special treat.

Final outcome? We tied in the playoff, thanks to one final make from Ulis. The playoff tie breaker appears to be the regular game matchups, which he won... 8 wins to 7, having tied once.

I'm out at least $120 from this, and maybe as much as $360.

From a single make from a rookie having the best game of his life, in a game that no one cared about.

Just. Freaking. Wonderful.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Serpentine Baseball Draft Results

I've given up on hardcore fantasy baseball league work this year, but going completely cold turkey seemed like overkill, especially when I could join a head to head league and talk trash with a lot of people who I've known for decades. So here's this year's exercise in I know less and less about this game, and consequently may finally stop outsmarting myself.

What works about this draft is that I pretty much just surfed ADP for much of it, was able to load up on power guys who are mostly on the upside of their career, and bought in to a bunch of lottery ticket pitchers with upside and injury concerns late. I'm in trouble if any of the offensive guys go down, because I'm thin there, but in a head to head league, the whole goal is to just be live late enough of the year to surf the waiver wire to a win.

That, of course, implies that I'll be in contention that long, or have the time necessary to do the due diligence to keep this group afloat. But I think I've got a puncher's chance, which, considering that I might have spent less than an hour prepping for it this year, is as good as can be hoped/.

Oh, and I don't have to root for slugs like Ryan Braun and Justin Verlander any more. That helps. too.

1.(6)Nolan Arenado (Col - 3B)
2.(19)Max Scherzer (Was - SP)
3.(30)Starling Marte (Pit - OF)
4.(43)Rougned Odor (Tex - 2B)
5.(54)Kyle Schwarber (ChC - C,OF)
6.(67)Carlos Carrasco (Cle - SP)
7.(78)Jean Segura (Sea - 2B,SS)
8.(91)Seung Hwan Oh (StL - RP)
9.(102)Albert Pujols (LAA - 1B)
10.(115)Odubel Herrera (Phi - OF)
11.(126)Cody Allen (Cle - RP)
12.(139)Adam Duvall (Cin - OF)
13.(150)Jeurys Familia (NYM - RP)
14.(163)Kevin Gausman (Bal - SP)
15.(174)Byron Buxton (Min - OF)
16.(187)Steven Matz (NYM - SP)
17.(198)Julio Urías (LAD - SP)
18.(211)Carlos Rodon (CWS - SP)
19.(222)Álex Reyes (StL - SP,RP)
20.(235)Sonny Gray (Oak - SP)
21.(246)Jacoby Ellsbury (NYY - OF)

Sunday, March 19, 2017

The Sixers Are Failing At Tanking, And It's Delightful

RoCo Wing Span
So a few weeks back at the NBA trade deadline, the Sixers more or less gave up on the season. They traded Nerlens Noel to Dallas in a bone head move, shipped Ersan Ilyasova off to Atlanta for no real value, DLed Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, and more or less pulled the plug on anything that could be considered Fun. It was all depressing, but for a fan base that has endured multiple years of Process, that wasn't the most saddening thing. What really took the starch out of our sheets was that we thought those days were behind us, and that we got to root for a fun team again. Hopefully for good, or at least, for a while.

The team got ripped by middling Milwaukee and dull Detroit, and short of seeing if Dario Saric could counting stat his way to the Rookie of the Year award over Embiid, there wasn't going to be anything of consequence going forward. But then a funny thing happened. They went on the road and competed, leading games in the fourth in all four games. And sure, the Lakers and Suns are truly awful, the Clips and Warriors were racked by injury and the club blew leads to lose to both anyway, but still. Competition was nice. Competition meant you didn't feel dumb for watching.

Friday night, they absolutely ripped Dallas apart with a 40-point home win, in a game the Mavs had to win to keep their playoff hopes alive. Today, they beat Boston for the first time in 11 tries, coming back from 13 down in the third to put a dagger in the hearts of the C's hopes to get home court against the Cavs in the lEastern playoffs.

So what the hell is going on?

Saric, honestly. He was the best player on the floor for the home laundry tonight, tough late, truly multi-faceted and with more than a spark of nasty to him, honestly. He doesn't look anything like a rook anymore, shaking off a 1 for 6 start to end 10 for 20. But there was more to it than the Homey.

A few weeks back, I called the last quarter of the season as all about Richaun Holmes, and his 8/7/5/2/4 line tonight, in 29 selfless minutes, was glue-tastic. He didn't hang his head when Al Horford was having a monster game, and in the fourth, he did outstanding work on loose balls and defensive pressure.

Who else? Honestly, it was all over the roster. Robert Covington went 16/8 with his usual defense. TJ McConnell and Sergio Rodriguez combined for 15/6/14 with just 2 turnovers. Timothe Luwawu-Cabbarot, this year's low first round pick from France with athleticism, wasn't great, but he had his moments and no longer looks overwhelmed by NBA speed. (His corner three in the fourth was also absolute butter.) Nik Stauskaus took nothing but threes tonight and made three of them, adding 6 boards, 4 assists and a steal and two blocks. They overcame a 14 shot deficit at the line.

And sure, Boston didn't dress Isiah Thomas and only went 6 for 29 from the arc (Avery Bradley hasn't gotten the memo that he can't make that shot), and probably win if the downballot MVP played, but we're not going to shed too many tears for the opponent not being able to dress their best player.

Next up is a roadie in Orlando against a Magic team that might play people from the stands in an effort to better their draft position. The win drops the Sixers to 5th in the reverse standing for draft position, but honestly, we've been playing that game for so long, I just want to see fun hoop. This team gives us that again, oddly, amazingly. All credit to HC Brett Brown, who should honestly get some Coach of the Year votes for the way he's kept this group focused and developing.

And next year, when the try hard bunch slide back to their optimal bench positions, and (please, Lord, please) Embiid and Simmons show up to jump start the talent level?

Well, young teams don't generally win in the NBA. Neither do big teams; it's a guard-driven league with the arc the way it is. But a good, young, big team where the talent level is off the charts, with a defensive hammer, a coach that develops talent better than anyone in the league, with a do-everything small forward and many other assets?

You still need a GM that doesn't blow it, health and some luck. But that's less than a lot of other teams. And for a team that wasn't sure about its coach, and isn't likely to have 100% health in the future, since it's had anything but that in the recent past?

We'll take it. Along with 26 wins and counting for the season...

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The Real Meaning Of Nick Foles' Return To The Eagles

Nappy D Is Back
So the Eagles decided that spending $7mm a year on a guy that hopefully will never play wasn't enough, and decided to bring home one-time Young Gun QB Nick Foles, releasing one-year wonder why that happened Chase Daniel. The move comes with a cap hit, which might go away if Daniel gets a big money job with another NFL franchise, which is to say, the Eagles will get cap relief if pigs fly out of my butt. Seeing as I don't eat a lot of pig anymore -- that's pricey protein! -- we're not holding our breath. But let's get beyond the money being spent and into the personnel.

For a guy that supposedly knew the offense and had such a good rapport with HC Doug Pederson, Daniel never looked like, well, a guy that was at all comfortable here. He's small, not as mobile as you might hope for, and the ball just doesn't look good coming out of his hands. His preseason work last year was punctuated with nothing encouraging, and dude was seemingly asking for his release even before the Foles trade, because he's still got dreams of QB1. Which seems nuts to me, but what the hell, Cleveland exists, and multiple McNowns and Detmers have gotten snaps, so you do you, son.

However, honestly, why does anyone who is on path to make eight figures in lifetime earnings without having to put up with the life-threatening misery of QB1... really want to step up in weight class? Life is short, concussions are probably inevitable and not something everyone just gets better from, and QB2 is the cushiest job in football. No one expects you to win games, you are super popular so long as no one has to see you work, and so long as you don't raise a ruckus while you carry your clipboard, all is well. Maybe you have to do some special teams work and hang out with the kicker a little, but still. I've had worse gigs. You probably have, too.

As for Foles... well, he's got the fluke year to end all fluke years in Nero Kelly Year One, and his career won-loss record might be better than any QB2 in the NFL, given that the club went 6-2 when he was under center in the follow-up year. (Foles really didn't have much to do about that, and played shaky / was hurt enough to make Nero pull the trigger for Sam Bradford, but, um, Nero.)

Foles is, of course, tall as hell, about as mobile as a futon, turnover-prone and doesn't throw nearly as nice of a deep ball as you might imagine for a moose... but QB2 standards are quite low, and he's certainly more of a physical match for Carson Wentz than Daniel, at least until he actually has to move his feet. I'd prefer my backup to be mobile, because I generally suspect that QB2 got into the game because QB1 got hurt when the rush took him out, but we're not going to quibble about this. All you really hope to have here is a guy that gives you a chance, and Foles probably does that better than Daniel.

Unfortunately, money paid to QB2 still counts against the salary cap, and Foles is going to make even more than Daniel... which gets us to true WTFery. You'll notice that Smart Teams (New England, Seattle) never spend big on the back up, and yet they still get production out of That Guy, because they coach the hell out of them. The fact that the Eagles under Howie Rosemann / Doug Pederson keep hiring very expensive binkies should be seen as what it is: a vote of no confidence in a young coach that isn't elevating the talent.

So. Foles in for Daniel, and from an on the field product standpoint, probably a good signing. From a GM / what it all means standpoint? Not so much...

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Mad Structure

You Must... Fill Me
(Note: I wrote this for my corporate blog, but thought y'all might enjoy it here as well.)

As it's Selection Sunday as I write this, and I'm a very lapsed college basketball fan but a very strong professional one, I'm struck by the annual urge to dive into the tournament anyway.

Mostly because it's a teachable marketing moment.

Why? The absolutely perfect structure of the enterprise.

For all but the diehards, college basketball really isn't something you need to pay too much attention to before the actual tournament starts. Unlike the 82-game NBA regular season, the college game seems extremely skippable, since it's overlapped by other sports during its run time, and doesn't really matter beyond the highly transitory "who got snubbed" arguments. Sure, if you root for a school in a power conference and they win that title, it's nice, but it's forgotten as soon as the Madness begins.

A word about the timing. It's usually perfectly coinciding with spring celebrations like St Patrick's Day and some spring breaks. It's deep enough into the year that taking a couple days off for a 4-day orgy of bracket obsession is within reach of many workers. The highlight footage of dunks, last second shots, favorites asserting themselves, and so on translates to every platform in our digital age. There hasn't been a tournament yet that lacked for drama, because many of the games are coin flips, and a 40-minute basketball game falls into the small data sample that says anything can happen, and just might. The NBA more or less goes on mute during that initial blast, with networks switching over to the tournament. Football doesn't compete. Baseball is playing games that don't matter. It's a nearly extinct rarity in American media; a ceded time slot with a lack of competition.

The only actual problem is... the product.

Purists talk about how collegians care more and try harder on defense; this is not true, it's just that they are comparing playoff games in the tournament to not equal moments in the NBA. (Try to find lapsed defense in a Game 7, which is, in effect, what all NCAA tournament games are.) Others talk about how into it the crowds are, and sure, but again, Game 7s. The only real difference between the tournament and the NBA playoffs is the structure, which rewards luck far more than the meat grinder nature of the pro game.

Beyond the structure, there's no comparison. The NBA attracts talent from six continents at the height of their physical skills, puts them in the presence of the finest coaches in the world, then pits them against each other in a Darwinian endurance test to qualify for the post-season and acquire home court advantage. Next, it throws the same opponents together for a minimum of 192 minutes of court time to see who is best.

The coaches only coach; there is no recruiting. The players only play; there is no pretense at education, and if they choose to spend the whole of their lives at their craft, their teams will not suffer sanctions. The officiating is at a higher standard, and so is the sports medicine, scouting, practice time, strategies, and so on. It's just a better game.

And yet... that perfect structure. The bands, the crowds, the sense that if you aren't picking a bracket you are just denying yourself joy. Even though brackets almost never end in joy. The nostalgia, if you went to a school that's participating, for times gone by.

From a marketing and advertising perspective, we spend our lives seeking for similar business models and experiences. Structures that write themselves, creatives that play into such advantages, locked and loaded concepts that never fail.

We almost never find them, and even when we do, they don't endure like the NCAA tournament does.

Structure.

Find a perfect one, and everything else falls in its sway.

Friday, March 10, 2017

The Eagles Get Actual Wideouts

2016 Eagles Wideout Storage
So my football laundry, after spending 2016 watching their prized rookie QB try to make a passing offense out of circus animals and pencil shavings, made quite the splash in free agency yesterday.

The small beer component of this is Torrey Smith from the Niners, and while Smith is something of a name from his time with Baltimore, he's probably not all that much. Smith's never really mastered more in life than the straight line deep ball, and as good as Carson Wentz looked last year, that part of his game? Not so much. At 28, Smith isn't exactly moving to the prized years of his life as a deep burner, but at least he keeps Little Nell Agholor and Bryce Treggs from failing to even stretch the defense.

No, the actual news is where the club got Alshon Jeffery from Chicago, and that's a guy who looked fairly special in his first three years in the league, with +2800 yards and 20 TDs in those halcyon days. The last two years have petered off to 1600 and 6 scores combined, with injury and suspension costing him 11 of 32 starts, but when he's on his game, Jeffery is a legitimate WR1, which is to say, the team's first since Jeremy Maclin. He's also 6'3" and 218 while still being quick; he passes the eye test and is a threat all over the field.

Which leads us to the not so hidden bummer factor here; Jeffery took a one-year prove it deal at $14mm, and all indications are that he's basically trying to break the bank with his next contract. So we might have a true ballhog kind of guy, which in theory isn't such a nice thing in the locker room, but in practice? I'll take it. Wentz isn't exactly a shrinking violet in terms of spreading the ball around, and Jeffery gets tolerable but secondary talents like Jordan Matthews and Zach Ertz back to their correct place as WR2 and TE Whatever.

If you believe the hype, Philly was able to get Jeffery's name on a contract despite the presence of presumably better places like New England and Indianapolis, as well as Chicago's attempt to keep him around. So that speaks to top tier talent also believing in Wentz, and maybe even (I'm dreaming) HC Doug Pederson.

What I'm especially fond of here is that the club isn't putting Wentz's development at risk by repeating 2016's mistake of assuming he can elevate replacement level talent. There were an inordinate number of plays last year, especially as the season wore on and Wentz grew more comfortable buying time with his feet, where the wideouts just couldn't separate, no matter how much time they had to do so. Jeffery is big enough to just wall off a catch radius, and also fast enough to do that for more than marginal yardage.

So does this make the club a playoff possibility next year? Well, as nice as it will be to have actual threats on the wides again, the most important person on the offense last year was T Lane Johnson; his presence at the start and end of the year, bookended by his second suspension for a PED violation, more or less matched the time that the team was good. Jeffery also doesn't fix the problem that the team doesn't really have any good CBs -- yeah, cutting loose of Eric Rowe and Brandon Maxwell in the post-Chip Kelly purges might not have been the best move -- and in the NFL these days, you need at least three of those to compete, let alone zero.

But at least now they don't have to try to convince anyone that Agholor is a football player, that Dorial Green-Beckham will develop a working brain for something other than a slant and OPI/holding, that summer hero Paul Turner is a name you have to remember for any reason, and that Matthews is capable of being more than an acceptable slot guy with shaky hands.

Also, and this is absolutely killer?

That they can simply take the best available player in the upcoming draft, rather than going for need.

Since going for need is what led us to Agholor in the first place...

Monday, March 6, 2017

The Andersons... Must Be Stopped

We're Coming For You, Andersons
I'm not going to lie to you, dear theoretical readers... this is the time of the year where sports, for me, consist of just the NBA.

Baseball is weeks and weeks away, and my interest in the sport is at an Oakland A's-inspired (de-inspired?) low. Football was last month, and ended with my second or third least favorite franchise having what might be their sweetest moment yet, and the next day, my job unexpectedly ended, with my old manager being a Patriots fan, so, um, yeah. Screw football. I haven't cared about college hoop since I stopped going to college many years ago, and MMA, NASCAR, etc., just haven't cut through the clutter to me. Especially now that my free time is utterly theoretical.

Which means that the only sport that has any hold on me right now is the NBA, and that means a lot of the national telecasts of the games. ESPN, TNT, NBA TV, ABC. I pretty much put on one of these exclusively right now.

So I've seen the following ad enough times to commit it to memory. Painful memory. Let's deconstruct it, shall we?



We start with a Dad (hey, not a white guy for once! bold casting choice!) angry at his white friends for taking their kid to a basketball game. Honestly. So right away, we're in a pretty odd place of envy driving action, and Dad is a rage monster who hates it when his friends are having a good time. I don't know about you, but I want to be more like this guy!

Next, we have the opportunistic kid (note: I am not prepared to say son, due to what seems to be copious amounts of cosmetics and a sonically neutral voice, Not That There Is Anything Wrong With That), with tablet in hand, who has prepared for exactly this moment. They've got the site and device all lined up, ready to pounce on the opportunity for some sweet NBA action, and the fact that Dad can be goaded into major purchases by trivial provocation? Makes them truly dangerous. Don't let this kid near depressed people, or those in addiction programs, or anyone, really, with poor impulse control. So as bad as Dad is, the kid might be worse. Hey, people of indeterminate genders can all be equally awful. It's strangely uplifting, honestly. Role models for everyone!

"But the game is sold out..." offers Dad, maybe trying to walk back from his aggressively effective offspring, and save himself major bucks. But the camera needs to switch off to the presumed Mom, possibly the most smug person on the face of the Earth, as she prepares some juice-like experience in a kitchen that has clearly never been inhabited by humans, let alone used in food prep. Just look at her eyes closed smirk, and her deep knowledge that Dad is going to take a major economic hit for his lack of impulse control. She's probably poisoning his smoothie while she listens to this. In the world of the Anti-Andersons, she's a survivor.

"The games are never sold out," punctuates the kid with overly emphatic hand gesture, knowing that the prospect is on the hook and MUST NOT ESCAPE. Since the ad is for all NBA markets, we also have to just scroll up and down on the tablet to show all of the teams, rather than an arena floor plan, too. Any basketball game will do, even between the worst teams in the Association, because THOSE BASTARD ANDERSONS.

 "Never?" asks Dad, who doesn't know he's already dead. "And they are never fake," says the kid, going for the close, because Dad is pegged as not just a sucker, but one who can be goaded into action by fear of a wildly unlikely crime. The tickets are never fake? Why, I'd be losing money not to spend it!

"Your Dad's a genius," says our doomed soul, then proves he isn't really African-American by going for the hair touch that was in no way appreciated. Seriously,  consider the freeze frame at the top of this post, and tell me that kid's middle distance stare won't haunt your dreams. They know they are complicit and corrupt in the exploitation of an idiot, but they've made peace with it, because it's getting everyone out of the house and away from all of the horrors that the rest of the Impossibly Perfect House contains. Soon the Andersons, who, let's not forget, clearly deserve it for advertising their existence in a Nelson Muntzian Ha Ha Moment, will get theirs. Oh yes, they will get theirs.

"Grab the keys. We're going to the game," Dad says in full strut, as if he hasn't been fully played by life. The way he delivers the message to his wife, as if he's just dunked in her face, has more than a small whiff of misogyny, and the fact that he hasn't asked her if she wants to go or not is more of the same, but whatever, we're an American sporting audience, and misogyny is just table stakes. As he trails off, Mom and Kid high five behind his back, because another few hours of existence are going to pass without being alone in a room with this guy, and life is all about moments, really.

So, what have we learned?

> NBA fans are seething mounds of resentment that can be goaded into purchases through trace amounts of peer pressure

> The children of NBA fans lie in wait to take advantage of their parents with poor impulse control

> Everyone involved is impossibly rich, bi-racial, gender ambivalent and ready to change their plans for the day in 20 seconds of real time

> There is only one way to purchase tickets, and expense be damned, because criminals clearly use all of the other sites, and

> You can always go to the game, because attendance is a lie, money trumps everything, and you want to go, because you want to be like the worst people you've ever met, or their frenemies

Now, just show this 10 times a night for the next 5 years, and we'll all get the message!

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Richaun Holmes Has 20 Games To Make It

Deliver Us From Oak
Perhaps the only really good news in the wake of the Sixers' idiotic trade of Nerlens Noel? The fact that it's opened up playing time for benchie Richaun Holmes, who is showing signs of being more useful than the 3rd pick in last year's draft. 

This can seem like overstating the case, especially in light of Jahlil Oakafor's big game in New York on Saturday night... but the plain and simple fact is that the only thing that happens when Oak goes for numbers is that you break even at his position, rather than just bleed points and boards.

And I know, kicking Oak when he's Oak seems pointless, especially now that we are past the trading deadline, and he's going to be taking up minutes whenever injury-prone Patronus Joel Embiid isn't around. (Speaking of which, it would be really nice if Joel ever came back. Some of us would like to get back to watching the most fun bad team ever, which is what this club was in January. That was such a better month than this one, for many reasons.)

But let's get back to Holmes, who basically plays like, well, a poor man's Noel. Our man basically gives you 7 and 4 in 16 minutes a game, with nearly a full block, and with the kind of eye-opening jumping and positive energy that makes you just root for the guy. Which means he gets more boards in less minutes than the guy that needs to go, shoots for a better percentage (mostly because he's a dunk machine, though Holmes is also not hopeless from the arc... again, better than Oak), and just has microcosm moments.

In tonight's good effort / no hope stay in the picture loss to the Warriors (don't be fooled by the relatively close score: Stephen Curry couldn't put it in the ocean tonight, and if he has his ordinary game, this is a blowout), Oakafor gave you 4 and 3 with the team's worst plus/minus rating, in one of those sellout games where people make decisions about whether a guy has heart or not. Holmes, on the other hand, had 15/4 and the team's best plus/minus, plus a chasedown block that made national highlight reels. Advantage, second round pick from the Age of Hinkie, rather than the guy that the owners made our martyr GM take instead of Kristin Porzingis. (Yeah, I'm going full conspiracy now. Might as well.)

Oh, and if you are looking for another reason to talk crap about the team's Not Hinkie GM? Justin Anderson, the wing guy that they got for Noel, and the player that apologists are talking up as the guy that will make the trade all work out? 7/4 with 3 fouls in 10 minutes, third-worst plus/minus, and looked like he had absolutely no clue what he was doing out there. 

Oh well. 20+ games left in the regular season, no Ben Simmons, probably not nearly enough Embiid. Holmes my man, feel free to own these last six weeks...

Friday, February 24, 2017

Process, No Longer Trusted

Manhattan For 2nd Round Beads
So the Sixers got well and truly busy at the trade deadline, and with so many assets set up and such a clear need for non-big help, it was showtime for the Colangelos.

Who, well, blew it. And will likely continue to blow it, until this team winds up capping its ceiling in the 40-45 win zone with a healthy Joel Embiid, and a 25-30 win zone without him. Kind of like exactly where we were before three years of acquiring assets!

Let's review both deals in turn.

Nerlens Noel to Dallas for Justin Anderson, Andrew Bogut, and a protected first round that's likely going to be two second round picks.

Ersan Ilyasova to Atlanta for Tiago Splitter and some second round chattel.

No, seriously.

Noel is a world-class defender, a limited offensive player who has still added skills every year of his career, and younger (!) than Anderson, the only return of this trade that's likely to see the court for the Sixers. Anderson's a wing player that looks a lot like a more expensive and less effective Robert Covington, which is to say a guy who is going to get floor time with the departure of Ilyasova, but not do much with it. As for the protected pick, NBA Hell is paved with teams that draft in the 15-25 range, get guys who tap out at bench level, and pay more for them than they would from finding guys in free agency or the second round. (As for Bogut and Splitter, both are likely health and buyout and toss candidates, just like in the bad old days when the Sixers were unwatchable and threw away guys like JaVale McGee just because.)

Oh, and here's the additional fun point: Noel leaving means that the clearly inferior Jahlil Okafor is here for the long term, and Oak isn't, well, a good NBA player. Now or ever, in that his vaunted offensive game is 3-point-less, which means it doesn't really work in today's game, and his defense and rebounding are bad when he cares, and worse most of the time.

If you want to give the Sixer brain trust far more credit than they deserve, you spin it like this. Noel was going to cost a lot of money to retain and would have never been happy being Embiid's caddy and injury fallback. Okafor has been a model citizen throughout this period of uncertainty, and Noel pouted in the pre-season. Scorers are harder to find than defenders, and Oakafor is still really young.

The trouble with all of that is that if Okafor is bad at defense when he's young, plodding and earthbound, he's going to be an absolute joke at it after he gets some wear and tear. And for all of his low-post craftiness, he's not better than Embiid down on the block, which means that he's never going to be a guy you can play effectively with our super stud. Noel, actually, worked well with him, since Nerlens' offensive game is entirely dunk and free throw jumper based; he can just pound the glass and let Embiid do whatever he wanted to.

As for Ilyasova... well, Splitter isn't going to play here, and Sam Hinkie was routinely ridiculed for trading bad players for second rounders. Now we're moving serviceable ones for those. What professionalism the Colangelos bring to the organization; so glad that Adam Silver forced him here.

And yes, I know, I'm making too much out of this, and maybe Anderson develops here and I'm probably just protecting personal stress on this. But dammit, we had a franchise that routinely won trades, always worked with a clear objective in mind, and rarely moved young players at anything other than maximum value.

Now, we don't.

Which pretty much makes it four for four in area teams who seem to just wing it...

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The Madness Of The Kings

The Man, The Monster, The Boogie
So a quick word, because life is very busy right now and all we have time for is quick words, on the train wreck trade that the Sactown Kings gifted the New Orleans Pelicans with this week. DeMarcus Cousins, a problem that might be one of the ten best players in the league, off to NoLa for a great big pile of guys who aren't going to help anyone win.

No, seriously.

Now, I get why the Kings wanted to deal Boogie; he's a massive pain in the ass, but he's also home-grown, in that they've had *years* to try to figure out how to handle him, and never did. Cousins was likely going to walk after 2018 free agency, so moving him before you get nothing has appeal, and yeah, there's also the real possibility that he's a tragic figure, in that if he's the best player on your team, your best player is a technical foul time bomb, turnover prone, foul prone, and quite possibly mental. He's also sporadic with the defense, and might have the worst body language in the game right now.

Here's the problem with all of that: it describes any number of very good NBA players on very bad teams, because very good NBA players on very bad teams either stop caring (i.e., stop being very good) or go insane. There's nothing that Boogie has done that wasn't right in line with the Charles Barkley career, or the Shawn Kemp career, or the Antoine Walker career, or in a couple of years, the Paul George career. The NBA is a brutally competitive league that does *not* take turns; you have a really good chance of being that stud who never wins a ring here, and that role rankles everyone who ever takes it.

The Pelicans get to pair Boogie with Anthony Davis, coming off an MVP effort in the All-Star Game, because when AD doesn't have to deal with centers, he's even more impossible to handle than before. They still have Jrue Holliday, the best PG in the league that no one ever really thinks much of, because he's an ace on defense and misses too much time to think too highly of. Tim Frazier's a decent enough PG2 now, Quincy Poindexter and Dante Cunningham have uses, and they still have a half dozen bigs they can throw out there after Boogie gets teed up. If someone else throws them a decent 3-and-D wing, they'd be downright dangerous in more than theory.

And what did the Kings get? Buddy Hield, the shooting guard from Oklahoma that has first round bust and bench guy ceiling written all over him. Tyreke Evans, the rich man's Tony Wroten, who wore out his welcome with the Kings after they drafted him, because he's a combo guard ballhog and ball stop who doesn't defend. Langston Galloway, who has carved out a nice little career for himself from the Knicks D-league team a year ago, but FFS, we're talking about a guy who could go play in Europe tomorrow and no one would miss him. And pic ktomfoolery, which only really helps if the Pels tank, which they aren't going to any more.

Hield, Evans and Galloway get to pair up with Rudy Gay, I guess, Willie Cauley-Stein (no hands or offensive moves beyond throwing down lobs), Ben McLemore (defense last shooter), Ty Lawson (ancient smurf point guard, no longer a starter in the league) and a bunch of other guys who are going to be dreaming of a trade before the deadline or in the off-season. Because if this teams wins more than 20% of its games in the rest of the year, someone will need to investigate for game fixing.

There's a simple rule about evaluating who wins a deal; it's the team that gets the best player, because trading that dollar bill for several shiny nickles and quarters rarely works out. To that rule, add this: the team that gets the only good player. However, as lopsided as this deal is, I'm also not certain this really changes NoLa's ceiling (first round loser to Golden State or San Antonio), because there's little chance this pairing is going to fully mesh in 25 games, let alone get out and guard the 3-point line, which is where good teams end you, anyway.

But from a pure fan standpoint? We just made the first round of the Western playoffs *far* more intriguing, if for no other reason that we're giving Cousins, the free agent to be in a national showcase and spotlight, four to seven games to show the world that a Dubs-Cavs rematch isn't ordained by God. (It still is, but illusions are more fun than real life. Kind of like the Davis/Cousins Twin Tower concept.)

At least this deal wasn't made by the Lakers or Celtics, or have some team's ex-Hall of Fame player pull the trigger while the league pretends it was fair for both sides...

Sunday, February 12, 2017

How Dare You Hate

Cake Time
Tonight in Oklahoma City, Kevin Durant made his first appearance as a visiting player, having signed a free agent deal with the Golden State Warriors in the off-season. Not surprisingly, the fans booed the living hell out of him, brought cupcake signs to try to rattle him, and cheered as if their lives depended on it, or as if their team really could keep up with the best basketball team in the world. It stayed competitive throughout, and star guard Russell Westbrook put up a 47/11/8 line for the home team, but the Warriors won by 16, and would have won by more if the scrubs had kept up the momentum in the dying moments. In three games this year, the Warriors have rolled the Thunder in every game, and while anything can happen in a single game of hoop, it's hard to see how they wouldn't roll them in the vast majority of encounters.

Which means that we turned, with speed, into Not Game, and for ESPN's cavalcade of Not Gamers, it was how unfortunate it was that Durant's 9-year career for his former laundry wasn't going to ever have the feel-good moment of Thunder Fan thanking him for the memories in a highlight reel of goodness.

Which leads me to the following and final point, and I'm sorry for the following moment of screaming, but...

WHAT THE LIVING HELL, HONESTLY?

Look, NBA tickets are expensive. Sports are something where you can buy a ticket, root for your laundry for a few hours, and think almost exclusively about the dumb thing that everyone else is thinking about. It's a release, escapism, maybe even (just maybe) FUN. Doing something that some media elite tells you to do, because you might hurt the feelings (oh, and by the way, you won't) of some dude who makes more in a single game than anyone in the stands will make in a year...

Well, Screw That. With as much urgency and lack of discretion as humanly possible.

Thunder Fan does not "owe" Durant anything. They don't have to cheer for him if they don't want to. If they ever decide to, maybe in five to ten years if he chose to return to end his career where it began (and even that's not true, since his career started in Seattle), that's on them. You buy your ticket, you get to decide what you want to do, within reason, in the arena. Bring cupcake signs, cheer respectfully in warm-ups than boo him in the game, turn your back on him with a pointed display of disciplined silence (a protest that, I think, would be wildly cool if ever executed)...

it's entirely up to you. Buy the ticket, take the ride. Your ride, your way.

And if any media person wants to tell you any different?

Perhaps, next time, you should bring some signs addressing how much you respect their opinion.

Not that those will get on camera, of course...

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Once More Into The Knicks

This Year's New Low
Let's start this where it begins. In America. The United States, specifically.

In the United States, very rich people like to believe that they got that way on the merits. Those merits might be hard work, insight, vision, determination, or even, more darkly, the superiority of their birth. But independent of anything else, the rich as seen are having merit. After all, if they didn't have merit, they wouldn't be rich.

Now, let's pivot to sports. Unlike way too much of our daily lives, sports has a scoreboard; a wonderful, definitive scoreboard that ends all doubts as to who won and who lost. You can argue that a team was lucky, you can argue that if only one factor had changed, it would be different, but everyone knows in the back of their minds that these are arguments for suckers. You either won or you lost. It's as black and white as life gets, and if you won, there had to have been some merits involved. Talent, hard work, strategy, preparation; teams don't generally just chuck it out there and hope for the best.

Now, the Knicks.

The Knicks are a *terrible* basketball franchise. They've been a terrible basketball franchise for a very long time. In what might be the weakest division in the weaker conference, they rarely threaten for the playoffs, despite playing in the media hub of the universe, to packed houses of NBA-mad celebrities, for a league that keeps its offices in the greater NYC area, and would plainly *love* a NYC team, in the world's most famous arena, to occasionally play a meaningful game.

They don't.

Instead, owner James Dolan fails and fails and fails again. He hires names from the past instead of people who have adapted to the way the game is played now. He cycles through coaches like a sick person cycles through tissues and cough drops. (Yes, actually, as I write this, I'm ill. It's peachy.) And every year, just as it becomes obvious that the construction of the latest Knick roster isn't going to be able to get it done (here's a hint, you mooks: try valuing 2-way players who win on advanced analytics, rather than Name Stars who aren't as good as their reputations, don't move the ball and don't defend)...

Well, there's some New Distraction to show that the organization is always more than willing to put more trash on the fire.

This year, it's GM and Old Man Shaking His Fist At Clouds That Resemble The Three Point Line Phil Jackson, who has spent the past few years showing Tough Love to star forward and embodiment of all that's wrong Carmelo Anthony. With the problem being that Tough Love tends to drive down the old trade value when you are trying to move on from this guy, especially since he's signed to a big whopping contract that you, yourself, inked in the not too distant past, when you made the utter whiff mistake of thinking that you could teach / motivate / change the dude into being something he clearly isn't, which is (not) the centerpiece of a championship team.

This week, it's the tawdry spectacle of franchise legend and very possibly crazy person Charles Oakley, who was escorted out of the building in a scene from Jerry Springer, subsequently banned for life and arrested, then given a rollicking character assassination by Dolan, AKA the last guy who should be discussing anyone's character. (Remember, this is the asshat who keeps hiring Isiah Thomas, no matter what results, on the court or in the courts.)

This has led to the very curious spectacle of people chanting for Oakley at Knicks home games -- as if he's going to wander out on the floor and change the course of play and/or get Anthony to D up -- and the usual hand wringing about what can be done to fix the Knicks.

And now, we're back to where we started; in America. Home of rich people who can screw up all they like, because they are rich.

In other countries, sports leagues have relegation, and long-time readers of the blog will note that I've been singing this sad song for a very, very long time... but the point still holds. If there were many basketball leagues instead of one, the way that the world treats soccer / football, Dolan wouldn't have an NBA (Tier 1) team. And as soon as he didn't have that, the celebs and crowds would melt away, and as soon as that happens, he'd have sold. Or done whatever the hell he wanted to, because who the hell cares.

Instead, Dolan will be an NBA owner until he dies, or takes the Donald Sterling exit. The Knicks will be the Knicks; always chasing the short-term shiny, never doing it with a lick of sense. And we'll have annual moments like the Oakley Affair, with think pieces of how this is the New Low, as if Dolan wasn't always capable of more.

American exceptionalism. See how it hurts?

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