Tuesday, May 31, 2005

The Nomad walks again

Former Carolina Cougars/Denver Nuggets/UCLA/New Jersey Nets/Kansas/San Antonio Spurs/Los Angeles Clippers/Indiana Pacers/Philadelphia 76ers coach Larry Brown is reportedly on his way to adding a tenth team to the list of teams he used to coach. According to ESPN.com's Chad Ford, Brown is set to become the Cleveland Cavaliers' team president, and he's prepared to leave his post in Detroit with three years left on his contract.

No one is surprised that Brown would look elsewhere despite giving his word that he is happy in Detroit. No one is surprised that a signed contract means absolutely nothing to Larry Brown.

But who knew that a coach who defined his career by teaching players to "play the right way" would turn around and stab his faithful charges in Detroit in the back when they needed him the most?

Who knew that a coach who had just won his long-awaited first NBA title wouldn't even wait a year before beginning to long for another franchise and another challenge?

We all wanted to believe that the championship would change Brown's nomadic ways. We all wanted to believe that he was sincere in talking about Detroit as his last NBA job. In the end, I think we all knew better.

If Ford's report is true, then Brown has decided, while in the midst of a playoff run with his current team, to leave the organization to take another job in the NBA. Even though the position in Cleveland (team president) is a promotion from his position in Detroit, this is still reprehensible behavior by a long-time NBA coach who should know better.

No one can fault Cleveland owner Dan Gilbert for wanting to get his front office structure set before the NBA Draft. No one can fault Gilbert for wanting to get the best-possible candidate for the job. However, is Brown really that candidate, and why is Brown flirting with another organization when he has a playoff series to worry about?

This isn't P.J. Carlesimo interviewing for the Timberwolves' head-coaching gig on an off day in the Western Conference finals. This isn't Romeo Crennel interviewing for a head-coaching gig on an off day during the off week between the AFC Championship and the Super Bowl. This isn't that, because it isn't nearly as big a distraction to the team involved.

This is the head coach of the defending NBA champions talking to a division rival about jumping ship, all while his team is trying to defend that NBA title in a very difficult series. This is akin to Bill Parcells negotiating to jump from the Patriots to the Jets, a division rival, while the Patriots are preparing to play the Packers in Super Bowl XXXI. This is akin to Mike Holmgren failing to denounce rumors that he was preparing to jump ship from the Packers while they were getting ready to defend their title against the Broncos a year later.

Larry Brown has been nomadic in the past, but never before has he turned himself into a walking, talking, living, breathing distraction while looking out for himself over his team. He has always taken care of team business first, before worrying about his next gig. This time, Brown violated his own standards and practices.

For Gilbert, the red flags are alarming, and it's amazing that he either doesn't see them or fails to recognize them. The most glaring red flag is Brown's past. With his habit of jumping around from job to job, how can Gilbert possibly trust Brown. How can Gilbert allow himself to believe that Brown will stick it out in Cleveland long enough to take the franchise where he (Gilbert) wants it to go? In two years, when Isiah Thomas wears out his welcome (it might not take that long, but you never know with the Knicks), can Gilbert honestly believe that Brown won't jump ship for the big-market franchise?

There's more. How can Gilbert believe that Brown, who feuded with the young stars of Team USA during the Athens Games, will get along with LeBron James? How can Gilbert allow himself to trust Brown, notorious for hair-trigger reactions, to run the Cavaliers in a level-headed manner needed from an executive? Will Brown try to trade James if the two clash? If he does, how could he possibly get back fair market value for the NBA's most marketable star? When Brown was in Philadelphia, he had personnel control. He eschewed talent like Jerry Stackhouse and signed Gregg Buckner to a huge deal. Then, when the Sixers reached the 2001 NBA Finals, Brown complained that his team didn't have enough offensive punch to beat the Lakers.

Maybe the reports are wrong. Maybe Brown will stay on in Detroit. Maybe his health problems will preclude him from working anywhere in 2005-2006 (we certainly don't wish for this). Maybe Brown is the victim of bad reporting by Ford. Maybe Ford is the victim of sources who are lying or just plain wrong.

The likely answer here, though, is that Brown is leaving. And the timing couldn't be worse. Brown looks like the bad guy in a situation that he could and should have completely avoided. His name will always come up with job openings in the NBA, but Brown is usually pretty good at avoiding the bad publicity that comes with the rumors that seem to always pop up. If Brown wasn't leaving, though, this story would have died a week ago. Instead, it's gained momentum since then. And that leads me to the unavoidable conclusion that Brown has been talking with the Cavaliers, and I'm not sure Brown could have done anything worse than that at this point in time. I don't necessarily buy that this is a series-breaking distraction for this team, but I do think it will be a lot harder for Detroit to overcome Miami when their coach is ready to move on after the season. No matter how often I hear that it isn't a distraction, I have a hard time believing that it isn't at least in the back of the minds of those Detroit players.

I guess we'll just have to add Detroit to the list. Cleveland will have to wait a few more years.

(Is Brown hell-bent on coaching or working for every franchise in the Central? If so, then Chicago and Milwaukee should be on the lookout. The Official Nomad of the NBA might wedge his way into those organizations before it's all said and done.)

Monday, May 23, 2005


--> In interviews with the Washington Post published Monday, the parents of Pat Tillman lashed out at the Army, calling the investigations into Tillman's death a "sham" and making it clear that they feel the cover-up of the truth surrounding Tillman's death has made it harder for them to deal with the loss of their son. Patrick and Mary Tillman, who are divorced, both told the Post of their disgust over the cover-up. Mary Tillman called it disrespectful and said "The administration let him (Pat Tillman) down". Patrick Tillman was more blunt in his criticism, saying "I think they thought they could control it, and they realized that their recruiting efforts were going to hell in a handbasket if the truth of his death got out. They blew up their poster boy". The Tillmans absolutely have the right to be upset, but the level of emotion depicted in the Post article shows how incredibly disgusted they are with the cover-up that started from the very second that Pat Tillman's comrades realized they had killed him by mistake. The rest of the nation should also be outraged by the military's behavior in this case. Those who are trusted to lead our brave young men and women into battle blatantly and willingly lied to cover up the nasty truth surrounding Pat Tillman's death. They went on to allow just about everyone in this country to use Tillman's story as if it was some sort of patriotic PR act. The government knew what happened to Pat Tillman, but knew it would be more difficult to capitalize on his pre-military name recognition if word got out that Tillman was a victim of friendly fire. The fact that they told the public a false story is bad enough. The fact that they lied to the family of a fallen soldier is beyond reprehensible, and the story cannot and should not end here. Those who concocted this lie and spread it to Pat Tillman's family should face punishment. Unfortunately, accountability is not a strong suit of this administration.

--> The Minnesota Vikings will be without their leading rusher from 2004 for the entire season, as running back Onterrio Smith was suspended for a full year because of his inability to keep his hands off the pot. The player who once proclaimed himself the "Steal of the Draft (SOD)" has run into constant trouble with another type of SOD. Smith was caught at an airport in April with "The Original Whizzinator", an incident that spawned numerous jokes that you have probably already read. The suspension is not believed to be related to the Whizzinator incident, and is instead reportedly the result of Smith skipping a mandatory drug test, an action that carries the same weight as an actual positive test under NFL rules. Now is the time for the Vikings to get rid of Smith. Actually, they should wait until he returns from suspension, but he should never play again for the Vikings. Not only did he cause the organization embarrassment and subject it to endless ridicule because of his attempt to carry a Whizzinator onto a plane, but he is a player that can't be trusted. Smith has had multiple suspensions, both in college and pro ball, because of his drug use. He is either incapable or unwilling to clean up his act, and as long as he can't be trusted to be available for 16 games, the Vikings have no use for him.

--> Twins fans, I would like to take this time to pass along a quick statement from Brewers manager Ned Yost: You're welcome. Minnesota took the rubber game of a three-game series at the Metrodome over the weekend by winning 6-5 in eleven innings on Sunday, in a game that could best be described as a gift from the Brewers' skipper. Yost made more inconceiveable managerial decisions in one game than some managers will make in a month. The mistakes were so glaring that it's difficult to pick out which one was the worst:
  • He pulled starter Wes Obermueller after six innings, even though Obermueller had thrown just 77 pitches and was cruising. He was in line for a victory over Twins ace Johan Santana, something that looked improbable when Santana carried a no-hitter into the sixth inning, and the Brewers had barely touched the ball over the first five racks.
  • Yost then put in Ricky Bottalico to start the eighth inning. While that wasn't a sin, what Yost did to respond to Bottalico's wildness certainly qualified. Instead of going with Matt Wise or even Mike Adams, Yost summoned closer Derrick Turnbow with the bases loaded and one out in the eighth. Turnbow would strike out Justin Morneau and Torii Hunter, with a run scoring on a wild pitch to Morneau. However, a long at-bat by Jacque Jones to lead off the ninth would doom Turnbow. By the time that he had yielded the game-tying home run to Shannon Stewart, Turnbow had thrown 40 pitches, and he was clearly gassed after the Jones at-bat.

Yost could have avoided the loss by either letting Obermueller work the seventh, or putting Wise in to replace a struggling Bottalico in the eighth. Instead, his team ends a tough road trip with a potentially crippling loss. On the bright side for local baseball fans, the Twins picked up a game on the White Sox, and they may have found a turning point for their season with such a stirring comeback victory.

--> I'm not going to get too much into the basketball. Quite frankly, I've written so much about the NBA Playoffs that some of you might think I'm trying to be Bill Simmons or something like that. That's not the case. As riveting as the playoffs have been, I'll leave the everyday writing about the NBA to those who know more about the game than I do. That said, I will mention that there's no way San Antonio's going to win the Western finals if they need another 43-point quarter (on nearly 73 percent shooting) to do it. That's not their element, and while the Spurs will get out and run once in a while, and they're hardly the plodding, slow-paced team that Indiana became, they can't afford to get in a shootout with a team like Phoenix. The Suns will be fine in this series if they can play like they did Sunday, while the Spurs could find themselves in some trouble if it takes 115 points per game to beat the Suns three more times.

--> The Cubs have told Carlos Zambrano to cut back on his typing to help save his elbow. That's right. Typing. It seems that Zambrano spends a few hours a day exchanging e-mails with his brother in Venezuela. While the Cubs say Zambrano doesn't have carpal tunnel syndrome, they do say that Zambrano's elbow problems may be, in part, the result of how much typing he does every day in those e-mail exchanges with family back home. Meanwhile, Cubs "manager" Dusty Baker allowed starting pitcher Mark Prior, who was on the shelf with arm issues during spring training, to throw 129 pitches in a complete game win over the White Sox on Sunday. It seems that complete games are about the only way the Cubs can win nowadays, being that their bullpen is a disaster waiting to happen. Someday, Baker will learn. Unfortunately, that day may not come until one of his pitchers' arms literally falls off on the mound during a game. It's neat that one pitcher is allowed to rack up 129 pitches while the franchise is trying to stop another top pitcher from typing so much.

--> Did the Reds designate Danny Graves for assignment because he flipped off a fan, or did they designate Danny Graves for assignment because he makes LaTroy Hawkins look like Eric Gagne?

--> Is it okay to rip into Randy Johnson yet? I'm sure he'll pitch better at some point this season, but I think that most feel quite foolish for just assuming that Johnson would win 20 games. At this point, he'll be lucky to win 15 games.

--> The Denver Broncos might sign Jerry Rice. Why? He's not a running back. Then again, he and Rod Smith could combine to make up one of the oldest wide receiving tandems in league history. I'm sure Jake Plummer would be thrilled with that.

--> Word is that Ricky Williams is "absolutely set" to report to Miami Dolphins training camp this July. He would have to wait until July to avoid a one-year drug suspension, and he would have to serve a four-game ban at the start of the regular season. Why would Nick Saban even want to take the chance? I understand that he drafted Ronnie Brown to be "The Man", but Williams likely won't accept a secondary role if he decides to come back. And how could anyone think Williams is trustworthy after what he pulled last year?

Friday, May 20, 2005

NBA Conference Finals Preview

I know what's going to happen. I'm going to preview the best conference finals matchups the NBA has seen in 15 years, and Phoenix is going to blow their semifinal series with Dallas. Alas, I'm not planning on writing this weekend, so I'll preview both series right now.

First off, it's doesn't make a lot of sense that Miami is on the shelf for an extra day, while the West finals will start Sunday if Phoenix beats Dallas tonight. Why do Detroit and Miami get the extra day of rest, when one would think Phoenix and San Antonio probably should have an extra day or two off? Then again, if Joe Johnson isn't coming back (which he probably isn't unless the NBA lets him borrow a helmet from the Arizona Cardinals), it isn't really a big deal when the series starts.

With that in mind, it's time to look at the likely matchups (sorry, Dallas fans, but this isn't personal...it's laziness, combined with the fact that I won't be able to preview the West finals if they start Sunday).

--> East: Detroit vs. Miami

Everyone is crowding on board the Dwyane Wade bandwagon. But Wade isn't the key to this series for Miami. He's good for 30-7-5 pretty much every game this series, provided that he's shooting well. If Wade has a special night, which will probably happen at least once, because Detroit can't guard him one-on-one, he can carry this team. But Wade can't carry this team over a best-of-seven, even with a healthy Shaq. And Shaq's not healthy - a huge break for Detroit.

The Heat need Shaq at something that at least remotely resembles 100 percent. Without the big man, Wade will be slowed down by the tight Detroit defense, and there will be even more pressure on a shaky bench to contribute big minutes and big numbers. With him, Wade will have more space to maneuver in, and a healthy and motivated Shaq is a matchup nightmare for the Pistons.

The Pistons, however, are not a real favorite in this series. I don't care so much about home court, because Miami is 4-0 on the road so far in the playoffs. Also, Detroit has won some big games on the road, including two games at Indiana in the semifinals.

The most important players in the series are both named Jones. Damon and Eddie Jones of Miami need to come up big. When a team is limited in their offensive options, Detroit typically finds a way to shut them down. To beat the Pistons, Miami needs to be diversified. If the Joneses aren't a serious scoring threat, the Pistons will collapse the defense on Wade and O'Neal, and the Heat won't have a chance. Both Damon and Eddie Jones have hit some huge shots in this series, and it's foolish to assume that Detroit will automatically shut them both down.

Even if Shaq is hurt and/or the Heat bench struggles, Detroit is not a safe bet to win this series. The Pistons have looked less than motivated at times in these playoffs, and they are the thinnest team remaining. With the physical style they employ, it's not a good thing when all five starters log 40 or more minutes in most games. It's okay when the competition is questionable, but Miami is deep enough to challenge Detroit on every possession and wear them down.

I like Miami in this series. I've flip-flopped a bit, and I'm certain of a few things:

1. Miami won't win this series without Shaq at least 90-95 percent. They don't have enough offense, and they don't have enough of a post presence without the Diesel.

2. Miami can win without Dwyane Wade playing out of his mind. In fact, it would benefit Miami if all their key players were contributing, instead of having everything fall on Wade's and O'Neal's shoulders. The more balanced their offense is, the better they'll look against a sometimes-suffocating Detroit defense. Jones and Jones need to hit their open shots, because they'll have their chances.

3. Detroit has to give a consistent effort. They have looked at times like a team that won a championship last year, and that's not a good thing. However, they've also looked at times like the team that won a championship last year. That is definitely a good thing. It should also be noted here that it's a virtual guarantee that someone from Detroit will play the "We won it all last year, and now everyone's picking Miami" card.

To sum it up, I think Miami will win the series. It'll probably go seven, but they have better front-line talent, and their depth is better than people think. Stan Van Gundy has done a good job pushing the right buttons so far, and he understands what matchups work and what matchups don't. It's a better coaching matchup than it looks like on paper, and Van Gundy might actually have an advantage because of how motivated everyone on that team is, especially O'Neal.

--> West: San Antonio vs. Phoenix*

Amare Stoudemire will wring my neck if the Suns drop the rest of the Dallas series because I'm doing this, but I'll do it anyway.

Will anyone who isn't a San Antonio fan be rooting for San Antonio? If the fact that the Spurs have become a perennial championship contender isn't enough, they have one of the most unlikeable players remaining in the playoffs in Manu Ginobli. If you haven't caught this guy's act, sample Game One of this series. Ginobli was flopping around so much in the Seattle series that Peter Forsberg expressed embarrassment over the style of play Ginobli was employing. And he never got called on it.

The Spurs have the best power forward in the league in Tim Duncan. Phoenix won't be able to guard him, and anyone who thinks Steve Nash can slow down Tony Parker is smoking the stuff Onterrio Smith can't leave alone. Fortunately for Phoenix, they don't have to play great defense to win this series. They just have to play passable defense. The Spurs don't match up well defensively with Phoenix, especially if Jim Jackson can play well. Johnson is probably out with his broken face, so the Suns need Jackson to hit outside shots and keep the pressure off Nash and Amare Stoudemire.

The Spurs have the advantage in experience, and I couldn't care less. The Spurs are a great team, and their experience won't be what beats Phoenix. It'll be their defense. If San Antonio allows Phoenix to run and gun and take open jumpers, the Suns will win the series despite their lack of experience. As good as the Spurs are, there might not be much they can do about the Suns. They'll run whenever they feel like it, and they do a better job of forcing their tempo on their opponent than any team in the West.

Without Johnson, this series will be hard on Phoenix. But they have so many weapons that it's still hard to figure that they won't score their share of points. With that comes pressure on the Spurs to play a bit out of their element. They're not a run and gun team, and while San Antonio can get out and score points, they're better off trying to slow the game down. They'll rebound, they'll flop, and they'll hit big shots. Phoenix will match them shot for shot, and Stoudemire will average 30+ points per game over the series.

Look out for Jackson and Quentin Richardson. The Suns relied heavily on Johnson and Richardson during the season, and Jackson will be asked to step in and make jump shots. The veteran has come through before, but this is the biggest series of his career. Richardson has been the most underappreciated starter on this team.

In a battle of tempos, I'll take the run and gun team that doesn't play great defense. In other words, I have a gut feeling that Phoenix will in a seven-game classic. Either that, or I'm irrationally in love with the Suns' style of play and can't face reality. Oh, well. It's my blog.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Life without Lord Stanley

I had a chance to chat with NHLer Darby Hendrickson on Monday. He was very candid about his thoughts regarding the lockout and the future of the NHL. Until I talked to Darby, the fact that we haven't seen the NHL since last June hadn't really hit me. I'm not going to say I wasn't missing it, because I certainly do miss it, but I think it's a very bad sign how eminently replaceable the NHL has been, even for someone who is a pretty big hockey fan. Right now, we should be rolling through the conference finals. Last year saw Calgary beat San Jose and Tampa Bay beat Philadelphia in two very entertaining series. I found myself staying up late to watch the Flames complete their magical run to the Finals. This year, the arenas are empty, except for the occasional American Idol reunion or Velvet Revolver show. There's no hockey to be found, and Gary Bettman's worst nightmare has come true - no one cares.

In a way, this is good for the NHL. If there is a professional sports league that could quickly rebound from a cancelled season, it's one that barely has a pulse to begin with. The 1994 baseball strike took years for the sport to recover from, and to this day, there are people who continue to swear off the sport because of that strike. There will be people that swear off hockey because of it being the first major North American professional sport to lose an entire season to a labor dispute. But the sport has such a small fanbase, that they still can only go up from here, even after they lose a percentage of their fans.

Hockey fans are a loyal bunch. Those who follow the NHL love the sport, and they probably follow it at the lower levels (juniors, college, high school, youth). Personally, I can't get enough hockey. I am a Minnesota-Duluth season-ticket holder, and I follow college hockey and watch it whenever I can, no matter who is playing. When the NHL was active, I enjoyed watching games on occasion during the regular season, closely following the Minnesota Wild, and I watched as many playoff games as I was able to. To top it off, we have high school hockey in Minnesota that's as good as any in the country, and Wisconsin's high school hockey is vastly improved in recent years.

Those who follow the sport will continue to do so, and most that have at least casually followed the NHL will probably continue to do so when the league comes back. The true test for the NHL comes with the proposed rules changes. The league needs to make enough of the right rules changes to inspire fans to sample the game. Once the lockout ends, the NHL has to work in its abysmal television ratings, because no one will watch hockey in this country as long as they think it's boring.

I'm not a fan of some of the proposed changes, such as the wider blue lines, the removal of the red line (two-line pass rule), and the provision that would allow for penalties to goaltenders that wander out to play the puck. But I think the league should make the goalie pads smaller, make wandering goalies subject to physical contact, and they should also move the nets back closer to the endwalls.

European leagues allow two-line passes. While the skill level isn't as high as the NHL, there are many out there who don't believe the European game is significantly more wide-open than the "Americanized" version of hockey. I don't know that the two-line pass rule has a great impact on the overall flow of the game. If the NHL could somehow mandate that all teams go to the 200X100 ice sheets (Olympic-size), that would probably have a greater impact on the game than removing the two-line pass rule would. And we all know that the chances of the NHL mandating that owners sacrifice their most expensive seats and take a short-term financial hit, even if it's for the good of the game and would probably help everyone long-term, are pretty minimal, if they exist at all.

I know many are against the idea of wandering goalies being fair game. After all, if the NFL can over-protect quarterbacks, why can't hockey over-protect goaltenders? There are some big differences. Quarterbacks are allowed to be hit as long as they're in bounds, they have the football, and the play is on progress. They aren't protected by any special rules. It's just that the existing rules are enforced much more diligently when a hit involves a quarterback. There is no rule in the NHL that a player who is pursuing or possessing the puck can't be hit, and goalies shouldn't be an exception to this rule when they leave the crease. The crease was designed to protect the goalies. They aren't to be intentionally hit in the crease. Skaters are supposed to stay out of the crease unless the puck is in the crease. It is a restricted area. To me, it stands to reason that when a goalie leaves the "restricted area", they should be fair game.

Look at it as a "Leave at your own risk" principle. If you leave the "restricted area" (an area I am fully in favor of expanding in exchange for this rule), you are doing so with the full knowledge that you can be hit (within reasonable context of the game). It's a similar rule that is in place for kickers and punters in the NFL. If someone goes out of their way to light up a kicker, they will get a penalty. If you block the kicker with a hard hit while the kicker is in the general area of the ballcarrier, you will get away with it.

It requires the officials to make the judgment call on whether a hit is "unnecessary" or "excessive", but I think it also serves as a deterrent to the constant wandering of goaltenders who can't be touched. It's a scenario that almost shuts down any aggressive forecheck, because players can't go barrelling in after the puck when the goalie goes out after it.

NBA Musings

--> Monday was a strange day for the NBA playoffs. Rarely in the early rounds do you get a night completely void of games. Monday was one of those. The schedule-makers decided to play three of the four series on Sunday and only one (Washington-Miami) on Saturday. When that series ended in a Miami sweep on Saturday, there were no games scheduled for Monday. It was a good day of rest for those of us who aren't used to watching this much NBA basketball that doesn't involve the Timberwolves, and it was a nice chance to reflect on three interesting results from Sunday - results that left the three remaining series tied at two games apiece.

--> The Pistons reassured NBA Nation that they were indeed a better basketball team than Indiana. The Pacers are hardly the no-skill hacks they've looked to be for most of the series so far, but much of the trouble they've had on offense can be attributed to their lack of depth and Detroit's defensive intensity, which was picked up about six notches on Sunday in Game Four. Rasheed Wallace played a great game after guaranteeing a Piston victory in the locker room after Game Three. You have to respect a man who goes out and walks the walk to back up his big mouth. The performances of Richard Hamilton and Chauncey Billups didn't hurt much, either. Hmm...R. Wallace, Hamilton, and Billups hoisted the Pistons on their collective back and carried the team to a huge playoff victory. Does that sound familiar to anyone? Going home for Game Five on Tuesday, the Pistons have the momentum, and it's clear they have an edge in talent. Rick Carlisle has already pulled a couple rabbits out of his hat in these playoffs, though, and if he can get the same level of intensity out of his team that he did in the second half of Game Two, the Pacers will show they're not to be written off yet.

--> In San Antonio, the Spurs face the pressure of a Game Five, along with the memory of their last conference semifinal Game Five. Remember Derek Fisher? His shot beat the Spurs in that pivotal fifth game of last year's West semifinals, and the Lakers put the Spurs away at home a couple days later on their way to the NBA Finals. This year, the Spurs head home under similar circumstances. After two rather easy wins at home last year, the Spurs lost two straight in Los Angeles. Heading home, the Spurs were still confident, knowing they still had home-court advantage, and most observers thought they'd overcome Los Angeles. Fisher's game-winning shot, which came after Tim Duncan hit a go-ahead prayer of a shot for San Antonio with 0.4 seconds left, deflated any real chance the Spurs had of reaching the conference final. This year, the Spurs beat Seattle rather handily in each of the first two games, before losing two tough games in Seattle to level the series. With Game Five in mere hours from the time of this post, all bets are off. If San Antonio wins, they will win the series. If Seattle wins, the Spurs are suddenly under the same pressure they were under last year. The difference is that they're a bigger favorite this year, playing a smaller and less experienced team, and the heat is on San Antonio to get the job done.

--> In Phoenix, the pressure is there, but it's not the same as San Antonio. While expectations are high for a number one seed, the Suns have taken their fans on a wonderful run, and no one's job will be on the line if they can't get past Dallas. Not only that, but the Suns have an extra day to find a counter for Dallas' wonderful effort against Amare Stoudemire in Game Four on Sunday, as they don't play the fifth game of the series until Wednesday. Stoudemire had more fouls (five) than shots (three) on Sunday, and conventional wisdom dictates that it won't happen again. The NBA MVP, Steve Nash, scored 48 points on Sunday, and conventional wisdom dictates it won't happen again. It won't happen again because neither factor is conducive to a Phoenix win. The Suns know it. Nash has to distribute the ball more than he shoots it. Stoudemire has to find openings for more shots. He averaged more than 35 per game in the first three games, so there's a formula for success. It's hard to imagine a marginally talented defensive team shutting down Stoudemire twice in a row, especially with a point guard like Nash leading the way.

--> In the end, I think the home teams will win all three Game Fives, and they will all go on to win their series. With Miami already in for this weekend's start of the conference finals, we will then be set. Thanks to players like Shaq, Wade, Wallace (both of them), Hamilton, Billups, Nash, Stoudemire, Duncan, Parker, and Ginobli, we could be in for the best conference finals we've seen in the NBA since guys like Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley were the prime attractions. With the NHL on hiatus, the NBA has all the momentum going in their direction, and it's just in time for what would be a crippling lockout this fall.

Monday, May 09, 2005

I voted for Earl Boykins...

You'd be hard-pressed to find someone who isn't happy for Steve Nash. Nash was ridiculed by many for signing a free-agent contract with the Phoenix Suns, and for leaving the high-flying Dallas Mavericks in the process. The fact that the Suns were coming off a 50-loss disaster of a season made Nash, who signed for $65 million over five years, look like another greedy athlete who thinks money is more important than winning. This perception existed no matter how emphatic Nash was in his belief that the Suns could win, and no matter how emphatic Suns management was in its belief the team could win.

82 games and 62 wins later, the Suns and Nash look like geniuses. Nash led the league in assists, directing the most exciting offense the league has seen in a decade. He was the maestro, the conductor of an absolute masterpiece of a season. These factors were enough to sway 68 voters to elect Nash the NBA's Most Valuable Player for 2004-2005.

As happy as I am for Nash, who comes across as one of the better people in the NBA, I am left puzzled by the final vote...

--> How could Shaquille O'Neal have possibly been completely left off one of the 127 MVP ballots, while being listed fifth on one and fourth on three others? The argument could be made that Nash was the MVP in the league, though I don't buy it and will discuss it at more length shortly. With that in mind, what self-respecting voter (assuming that these voters are selected from a group of people who actually know a thing or two about the NBA) could even consider leaving O'Neal off the ballot completely? The NBA keeps secret the identity of individual voters, but I wonder how many people will read that O'Neal was left off a ballot and wonder the motivations of that individual voter? I am not playing and will not play the race card, but when you read the thoughts of those who choose to at least imply that race may have played a factor i this vote, such as Dan LeBatard of The Miami Herald, keep in mind that one voter left O'Neal off his ballot.

--> There is no question in my mind that Nash made a huge impact. There is also no question in my mind that Nash wasn't even the most valuable player on his own team, much less in the NBA. The emergence of Amare Stoudemire as a superstar had just as big an impact, if not a bigger one, on the Suns' success. Stoudemire was a force on both ends of the floor, leading the team in scoring while finishing second in rebounding and leading in blocked shots. The offseason addition of free agent Quentin Richardson was also huge for Phoenix, and Joe Johnson set career highs in points, field goal percentage, and three-point percentage (47 percent). Nash had a lot to do with Johnson's improved shooting, but it doesn't matter how wide-open most players are, or how well the point guard sets them up. They still won't hit 47 percent of their threes. The Suns won 33 more games than last season. Nash played a big role in that. The Dallas Mavericks won six more games this season than last, with Nash having bolted as a free agent.

--> Nash is a defensive liability. You won't find a single NBA scout who thinks Nash plays good defense. It's not that he doesn't care or doesn't try. He's just not very good at it. I don't know that any past NBA MVP has been more of a defensive liability, while averaging less than 20 points per game on the offensive end. Yes, Nash led the league in assists, but he is anything but an all-around player. He's a great passer and an okay shooter who is not at all a good defensive player. This fact is not lost when you consider how the Mavericks improved by six wins. They were much better this season on defense, in part because they had people on the perimeter who could guard scoring point guards better than Nash does. The Suns were awful defensively this season, again in part because of their performance against scoring point guards, players Nash is simply does not match up well against.

--> I already brought up the impact that Nash had on the Suns (the team won 33 more games than they did in 2003-2004) and the impact his departure had on Dallas (they improved by six wins). To be fair, let's look at the impact that Shaquille O'Neal's departure had on the Los Angeles Lakers, and the impact his arrival had on the Miami Heat. The Lakers were 56-26 in 2003-2004, winning the Western Conference title and losing to Detroit in the NBA Finals. After trading O'Neal to Miami in the offseason (reportedly to appease fellow star and then-free agent Kobe Bryant), the Lakers slipped to 34-48 this season, a drop of 22 wins. Meanwhile, Miami, a 42-40 team in 2003-2004 (they lost in the second round of the playoffs), jumped 17 wins this season after Shaq's arrival.

--> The Big Fella didn't just help the Heat win more games. His presence was a big reason why Eddie Jones, Damon Jones (who?), and Udonis Haslem all averaged in double figures. Yes, O'Neal had Dwyane Wade, but Nash had Stoudemire, Johnson, and Richardson. If you take the most dominant big man in recent NBA history away from the Miami Heat, do Udonis Haslem and Damon Jones (who?) average in double figures for a 59-win team? Jones (Damon) averaged 4.5 points per game above his career high. Haslem upped his per-game average by about 3.5 points, while shooting almost ten percent better from the floor than in 2003-2004. Eddie Jones, thought to be on his way out as an NBA player, didn't score as much as in previous years, but he shot better than he had in three years.

--> The biggest misnomer of them all comes from those who want to compare the records of the two teams without their star players. Without Nash, some will say, the Suns were inept, scoring just 80 in a game against Detroit, and just 79 in a game against Memphis. What they won't tell you is that Detroit and Memphis were among just four teams in the league that didn't allow 92 or more points per game this season. What they won't tell you is that while the Suns went just 2-5 without Nash, they only played one team (Clippers) that missed the playoffs. And they beat that team. It's not like the Suns lost to terrible teams, where the losses could be pinned on Nash's absense. Meanwhile, the Heat, who were 4-3 in seven games that Shaq did not play in, suffered all their losses to playoff teams as well. If you believe in using a stat devised from an insanely small sample size (less than ten percent of the total games played by these teams), it's still hard to look seriously at these numbers and get anything meaningful out of them.

Much respect to Nash, who proved the critics wrong by having a wonderful season and leading Phoenix fans on an amazing ride. But the snubbing of O'Neal for this award furthers the reputation of the man who might be the most underappreciated player of this NBA generation. It is inexplicable that a player the caliber of O'Neal could play 13 years in this league and only win the MVP award once...especially when a season like this leaves him playing second fiddle to Nash.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

How not to take responsibility for screwing up

Follow these easy steps, and you too could look unwilling to take responsibility for your own missteps!

1. Screw up. Obviously, this step is important. Without screwing up, you don't have anything to take responsibility for.

2. After you screw up and get punished for screwing up, allow your representative (or agent, if you will) the opportunity to speak on your behalf, making clear your intentions to appeal the punishment for your screwup.

3. Let's say your screwup was failing a drug test. Your statement to the media could look like this:

"I want to take this time to thank the Twins organization, the fans and the general public for all of the support they have offered me while dealing with this situation. Baseball is my life, and I was devastated after becoming aware that I tested positive for a violation of Major League Baseball's Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program. The details are confidential and I have asked the Player's Association to challenge the suspension.

What I can share with you today is that I would never knowingly compromise my position within Major League Baseball or jeopardize my relationship with the Minnesota Twins organization or the relationships that I enjoy with my teammates.

I will make no further comments, or answer any questions, until the process plays out in its entirety. However, I will add that I look forward to returning to the field to continue pitching to the best of my ability to help the Twins organization win its fourth consecutive division title.''

I know that this is America, a land where one is innocent until proven guilty. But I'm going to play the percentages. The odds of Twins' relief pitcher Juan Rincon being the victim of some sort of mistake in the drug testing system are astronomically slim. I don't think it would be prudent to act as if there's much of a chance that Rincon is somehow innocent here.

With that in mind, he needs to own what he did. It's difficult to fathom any situation where a player thinks it's a good idea to take a substance that he knows he isn't supposed to take. We don't know what Rincon took, and we don't know how long he took it for, but we know that he took something that was on the list of banned substances.

Alex Sanchez tried the "I bought it over the counter before January 15" excuse, so that one was taken. Rincon's line about not "knowingly" doing anything to jeopardize his roster spot leads me to believe that we're going to hear the "He didn't know it was illegal" excuse.

This guy's not buying it. It's my understanding that players were given a complete list of substances that were banned. I'm sympathetic to language barriers, but only to a point. If Rincon or anyone else had trouble understanding what was on the list, they should have asked for help. You don't assume that something is okay. You don't assume that something is legal. And you don't take something without knowing what is in it, because the bottom line is that you are solely responsible for what you put into your body in a situation like this.

Rincon is going to pay a price for something that I'm guessing numerous middle relief pitchers have done over the years. He tried to gain an edge. I'm in the camp of people that believe there may be something to the fact that middle relievers around baseball are struggling so far this season. It's a trend worth watching, because if it continues, it might be a sign that a number of pitchers were taking some sort of supplement or steroid to help recover from the day-to-day grind that is middle relief. Over 162 games, everyone is susceptible to muscle pulls and other minor aches and pains. Some may have used now-banned supplements as a means to recover quicker and gain an edge, making it easier to work back-to-back days and make two- or three-inning appearances if necessary.

I don't want the Twins to trade Rincon, release Rincon, or punish Rincon beyond his 10-day suspension. It's not their job. For now, they should support their player and try to help him through this in any way they can. When Rincon comes back, it's important that his mind and conscience are clear, and that he can focus on getting the key outs the Twins will inevitably call on him to get.

At the same time, though, the Twins need to send a message to the other 24 men on the major-league roster, along with anyone outside the organization who will listen. They should make it clear to Rincon that they will, though, be much less forgiving should he find himself in hot water a second time, regardless of his status in the team's bullpen at the time.