Play big, pay bigger

Bill "The Sports Guy" Simmons has fans, haters, and even a theme song--but it's still fascinatingly unclear if sports bloggers collectively love or despise the guy. At the very least, his columns provoke conversation and resulting criticism or defense of his alleged homerism, writing style, and knowledge.

The most recent grist for the mill: Simmons' annual trade value column, which is attracting more commentary by the hour.

Every year, Simmons ranks players in order of their value in a trade--by his logic, Dwight Howard is the NBA's 2nd most untradeable player, because the Magic would only deal him for the NBA's most untradeable player, LeBron James. Tim Duncan is the 3rd most untradeable player, because the Spurs would only deal him for Howard or LeBron, and so on. While Simmons better explains his rationale in the article--which is definitely worth a read--the list tends to be highly subjective and admittedly theoretical, with some questionable conclusions. Positional differences aside, at the same age and pay, is David West really a better value than Caron Butler?, we ask Bullets Forever.

(The inconsistencies are easier to understand after Simmons raised the curtain this year, podcasting his annual list-making conversation with buddy Joe House--an entertaining, if not confidence-inspiring discussion. The pair lacked accurate salary data and made inconsistent logical leaps, while House's repeated capitulations to Simmons during the "debate" won't inspire Wilberforce-Huxley comparisons.)

However, buried within the piece are two small, interesting sidebars: Simmons' Top 15 Best and Top 25 Worst contracts in the NBA.

Generated as a side-product of the Top 50 list, these shorter rankings are somewhat more objective. By avoiding the qualitative baggage that Simmons and House talked through, these lists more purely represent good and bad values--and led us to two, quick observations.

1. Playing for the Wizards gets you paid
Well, as we no, not everyone got paid in D.C.

But while Butler's contract (Simmons' 13th best overall) is a model of fiscal restraint, Simmons names one current and five former Wiz kids among the top 20 worst contracts. Sure, Brian Cardinal (#20) got only a cup of coffee in the capital, but the careers of Ben Wallace (#7) and Bobby Simmons (#8) were launched by Washington, and Larry Hughes (#2) and Jared Jeffries (#11) played key roles on the breakthrough 2005 playoff team.

Still, the team isn't exactly the Bulls of the '90s--where guys like Luc Longley, Jud Buechler, and Jason Caffey parlayed their Jordan championships into big free agent contracts--so it's unclear what's so attractive about ex-Wizards. Their coating of magic dust?

2. Big pay + big man = Big mistake
Check out the names we've written in red: The NBA officially lists these guys as playing some center. Scroll back up, and you'll see four of Simmons' 15-best contracts belong to big men; meanwhile, Simmons believes that 15 of the 25 worst contracts in the league--60% of the list--belong to underachieving centers.

Set aside the rankings for a second; it doesn't matter if Larry Hughes is #2 or #12, so long as you agree that his contract is among the worst in the NBA. So if you're generally OK with the inclusion of the contracts listed above, it's not surprising that so many bad deals belong to big men; centers command the highest per-position salaries in the games and competition to get even a decent backup can lead to overbidding. Meanwhile, wing players and big guards tend to have some of the best values per contract, partly because of their relative abundance.

However, overbidding can't be the only reason that center valuations appear inflated. Is it because teams too quickly place a premium on halfway-effective big men? For example, the Celtics offered $42 million to Mark Blount after he had one good year, but aren't there plenty of NBDL, CBA, and European centers who would've provided 85% of Blount's contribution, but at 25% of the price?

Alternatively, maybe the bad contracts signify teams' willingness to roll the dice with centers, who tend to retain value longer than quick guards or athletic forwards. Does it make more sense to take a risk on a Nazr Mohammed, because some other GM who needs size can still be suckered into interested in dealing for him?

Or do these contracts represent teams' desperation for big men in the Shaq/Duncan era? If we went back and looked in the late '80s and '90s, when teams focused on acquiring do-everything guards like Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson or versatile forwards like Scottie Pippen, would we see fewer centers being overvalued?

We prefer to end posts with answers, not questions, but appeal for some second opinions here. Perhaps someone can even point to a John Hollinger or Dave Berri post that's already explored this topic (but if so, we're not sure who to trust these days).

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posted by Crucifictorious @ 18:30, ,

Don't hate the player: The grate of fame

Where we were.
Where we are.
Turning on Arenas is about the most predictable backlash in the L--and maybe the easiest story for a blogger to write today, after the Wiz beat up on the Heat in a feature game on TNT. Heck, we all love a good Ewing Theory.

But easy doesn't always equal accurate.

Gilbert had a Cinderella season on- and off-court in 2006-07, even if the ending was more fractured than fairy tale. Then, once his hype got a bit ahead of his 'comp this year, Gil was shelved before he could yet again let his play speak for himself. And do you doubt that he would have stepped up? Take a lesson.

So now we're into a favorite pastime: Making yesterday's hero into today's tackling dummy.

The Wiz are more than Arenas, of course, and we DC-ites all enjoy the new look, but like Dwyer/Truthaboutit/HSCS point out, let's not pretend this team into a contender yet. Especially without Arenas. Over the past 15 years, nobody--not Webber nor Howard, not Butler nor Jamison, and certainly not Err Jordan--has been as dynamic or clutch in a Washington uni as Gil.

Not even Ledell. It may sound like blasphemy, but even if Arenas is half the man of A-Train, he's three times the player.

20 Second's Friedman may contend that at 128-118 from 2004-2007, the Arenas-led Wizards have been "mediocre for quite some time"--but behind Gil, the Clippers of the East have finally shaken off the cellar! Dave, you realize this is Washington's best three-year stretch in 30 years? Antawn and Caron were strong additions, but Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, they're not.

Injuries sometimes fast-track certain players to the spotlight. Tracy McGrady became a star at the expense of Grant Hill's ankle. Kurt Warner only started because Trent Green went down in the preseason. But the sidekick getting to (short-term) star is a more familiar theme. Last week, Manu's 37-point specials pushed the Duncan-less Spurs over the Mavs and Jazz. Last year, one A.I. stepped up for another in Philly. Even Scottie was MVP-caliber when MJ left for...well, we've collectively forgotten that chapter. Yet who thinks Iggy > Iverson, or would take Pippen over Jordan?

So temporary vanishing acts and surprise star turns are essential parts of the sports fabric; fans aren't required to hate on what's gone missing, just better appreciate what we've got. And in the Wizards' case, maybe it was more than we knew.

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posted by Doctor Dribbles @ 12:37, ,

Heat : Wizards :: Mike Miller's Monkey : Great Dane

The post's title pays homage to a bizarre must-read on True Hoop--and the SAT's verbal analogies section--but just as Sonny rode a dog around the neighborhood, the Wiz cannot get the Heat off their backs.

Washington's losing streak is no secret around D.C.; what's less well-known are the pitiful details.

Counting their 2005 playoff sweep, the Heat are 19-1 against Washington in the teams' last 20 games; while the Wiz flipped the script during the two-year MJ era, going 5-3 against South Beach, the Heat also were 11-0 in the three years beforehand. That's basically a nine-season stranglehold on the series; the last time the Wizards were competitive without MJ, Miami's Ike Austin was battling Washington starting center Terry Davis in the post.

In fact, Washington's only swept the series once: When the teams played just twice in 1989-90, Miami's first season. Not surprisingly, the Heat have an unreal .705 lifetime winning percentage against the Wizards.

Looking at the 27 teams that existed pre-1995, a few other head-to-head matchups are similarly lopsided--and none are pretty, with traditional powers like the Lakers and the Spurs owning the historically weak Clippers and T-Wolves, respectively. It's progressively easier to forget after three straight playoff trips, but the Bullets were East patsies for decades. Ever since Riley arrived in 1996, the Heat haven't been.

So what to expect tonight, as the 11-10 Wizards face the 6-15 Heat? Unclear. Minus Agent Zero, Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison have rallied D.C. to a pretty good place, tempting some fans to use tonight's game as a measuring stick. However, since neither good nor bad Wizards teams could beat the Heat, it's tough to place any stock in yet another loss. Which is expected, after all: the Heat are somehow favored by 5.5 points.

Rather, tonight better forecasts the Heat's prospects: If they win, they'll probably claw back into the playoffs. Since 1998, the only two seasons that Miami didn't win the season series with Washington were the only two years the Heat fell into the lottery. There's no better example than last year, when the Heat made the playoffs partly on the strength of beating the Wizards three times down the stretch.

In fact, until someone takes the crown from them, the Heat remain Southeast kings-for-life; no one else has ever won the three-year-old division, and a stumbling Orlando and muddling Atlanta aren't cinches.

But like Shawn Kemp's career, reigns don't last forever. If the Wiz can win tonight...and Dec. 29, March 23, or April 4...history says that the 2006 champs will be 2008 playoff chumps. Although, that's still better than being Miller's chimp.

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posted by Doctor Dribbles @ 18:59, ,

Kelly Dwyer's blog sucks

Or so say his brilliant, incisive readers at the new Yahoo! Sports NBA Experts Blog. Eight days in on Jamie Mottram's first big move as the Y!'s blogging maven, here's a sampling of responses to Dwyer's 13 (!) posts yesterday:

There's plenty more talk radio-level analysis to be found; one post alone--"Players who have scored more than Jason Collins scored last year"--collected at least two dozen slams. And not the Nick Young kind.

As a result, gauging the blog by readers' responses--something certain critics have been known to do--leaves a dismal impression, with more than one comment suggesting Dwyer should be looking at J-Jobs.

Exactly what we bloggers were saying all along, right?
The guy was born to blog. But what has he been doing? I get emails all the time. Where's Kelly Dwyer?
-True Hoop

Some big news in the basketball blogosphere: Kelly Dwyer, of fame, has a wonderful new basketball blog at Yahoo! Sports.
-Brew Hoop

This may be the best news for fans of good NBA news in a long time — Kelly Dwyer has a blog.
-Forum Blue And Gold

I am shocked and appalled at myself for failing to link to this earlier, but the venerable Kelly Dwyer has taken over the Yahoo hoops blog. This is huge. Kelly has the heart of a blogger but for whatever reason tried to be a columnist for Well, I suppose that worked out fine for him too, but this is really where his talents belong.
-Celtics Blog
One blogger, two completely different languages. What gives?

From an objective standpoint--say, using the same criteria we applied to newspaper blogs--Dwyer's totally acing every measure for a great site. He's prolific and blog-friendly, the words are sharp, the length is right, and the analysis is tight.

And for better or worse...folks are reading!

But while the bloggers who get what Dwyer's doing love him, many Y! members seem to be unfamiliar with the blogging model. As a result, their expectations are totally misaligned; short posts like "Players who..." do seem like "pointless articles" next to Kenny Smith's latest 15-paragraph cliche. Yet let's not cut them too much slack; while the Y! executive editor believes the site has "an audience and community that is desperate to interact with each other," all we've seen so far is the lamest form of community-building: Picking on the new kid.

Look, Dwyer doesn't need our random, infrequently updated blog defending him--the guy wrote for and better-connected friends have his back (An overdue full disclosure: Our riters liked Dwyer's stuff a lot, often discussing his pieces back when we launched WRG; now that he's been linking to us, it's safe to say we love his stuff). We doubt he's going anywhere, even if commenter Michael L. calls Dwyer a "bumb" who needs to be fired. The uninitiated will catch on eventually.

But until the learning curve for the Y! readers wears down--or the noise trickles out--Dwyer could use all of us who enjoy his work. Leaving the occasional positive comment, balancing out the harsh, or even helping a perplexed new reader understand exactly how this whole blogging thing works.

We realize, this is a totally prescriptive post, and we're not super-comfortable with offering it--we prefer sticking to basketball insights, Orioles complaints, and the occasional cheese-related observation. And really, do you owe Dwyer (or more specifically, Yahoo! Sports, which unfortunately forces commenters to register)?

So think of it this way: The sports blog readership is growing, but it's still a trickle compared to Yahoo! Sports' audience in a given month (4.9 million unique visitors in December 2003; 20.2 million in August 2007). And to have someone of quality repping the blog game, who can emerge for the masses like Henry Abbott at ESPN's True Hoop? Every new reader that Dwyer sells on sports blogs, every person who follows a link--that's a win for all of us.

And when those wins add up...well, we don't know what motivates you, but the more mainstream sports blogging gets, the better chance you'll have of turning a profit on your words, getting picked up by a newspaper, or finding that girl who thinks that writing posts for an audience of three at four in the morning (or just reading them) is a normal activity.

Thus inspired, take up your keyboards and enter the fray. The ties that bind us are fascinatingly diverse, but when we're under attack by legions of teenage fantasy football players, Blogfrica should stand together.

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posted by Crucifictorious @ 03:48, ,

LeBron return carries hint of quiet amazing

Very, very good news out of Cleveland. Yes, LeBron's back--but even better, so's more evidence of his savvy. From
James checked in with 5:59 left in the first quarter and the Cavs leading 15-11. He entered with Hughes and forward Anderson Varejao, who was making his season debut after ending a contract holdout last week by signing a three-year, $17 million contract.

James said he requested that coach Mike Brown bring him in off the bench to offset any negative reaction toward Varejao, who during messy on-and-off negotiations said he didn't want to play for Cleveland again.

"I thought it would raise the intensity of the fans, having me, Larry and Andy come in at the same time -- and it worked," James said. "I thought by coming in with Andy it might stop some of the boos Andy might get, just protecting my teammates."
Shelving the cynicism, credit the 22-year-old--who has every right to be angry over Varejao's holdout--with yet another veteran move. And while Dwight Howard's getting all the love (and features) this week, LeBron's having the stronger individual season, both on- and off-the-court. Helping broker peace between angry fans and a holdout Brazilian isn't Nobel-worthy, but a far more graceful act than a young Michael Jordan's notorious teammate freeze-outs. Perhaps guesting on the Simpsons helped LeBron sympathize with Sideshow Bob?

In fact, LeBron's splendiferous season is a resurgent masterwork, as he continues to rebound from last year's downer. Face it: LBJ's playoff performance may be one for the ages, but the King royally coasted through 2006-07 on his talent; then in the off-season, there was the Yankees cap-flap that set Cleveland afire and the SNL appearance that made bloggers' eyes' bleed.

But...all is forgiven and forgotten, when you show up for work the way that LeBron has. With new focus, he's leading the league in PER, playing much-improved D, and collecting a triple-double every fourth game. And thanks to the Nash-Barbosa corollary, the Cavs' six straight losses before tonight position LBJ as a formidable MVP candidate when it's time to collect the ballots.

(Not to mention, LeBron's never mailed it in with the endorsement game, becoming the top-earning star under 25. The guy just can't miss, except when Brett Edwards is watching).

Scream about Howard all you want--and rightfully so, as greatness is being magically realized in Orlando. But back in Cleveland, as we increasingly take the King's majesty for granted, note this special royal favor. In a league Where Amazing Happens, there's little more surprising than superstars realizing the nuance of a moment. And the 10-12 Cavs, made physically and psychically whole again, will be the better for it.

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posted by Doctor Dribbles @ 00:10, ,

Artistical cheeses of the week

Like Shaq shooting free throws, Photoshop is totally out of my wheelhouse. You can hardly tell, right? Maybe I'll improve on my early work one day, but for now it's cool, since our blog's about riters, not artistes.

Of course, guys like the Wizznutzz and the Hype Guy are complete masters of the Photoshop game, which makes their blogs not just cooler than ours, but a lot more entertaining to look at. When your blogmates are writing 2,000 word essays on the history of the three-second violation...which may happen one of these days...this "readability" thing starts becoming more important.

But we're not going to get better at Photoshop, and since we can't just steal other blogs' creations--as much as I might secretly want to--here's the next best thing, a few links to some of the more amusing mash-ups I've seen recently. Enjoy.

Bullets Forever
Nick Young keeps going, and going...
CP3->N.O. The point guard is more machine than man.

NBA Basketball and Other Unrelatedness
The sweet dance of victory in Hotlanta

Make 'Toine an All-Star
Teaching kids, conducting an orchestra, fighting with the Empire...Employee #8's been a busy man

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posted by Doctor Dribbles @ 18:33, ,

Players' development arrested: The NBDL, reconsidered

Before it was gobbled up by Internet gremlins, a quick post on Thursday was all set to discuss PhDribble's very sharp commentary on how NBA teams develop (or more often, don't) their young players.

Since it's a really interesting read that's deservedly blown up--with pundits Abbott and Ziller since weighing in--there's no need to re-rite our lost words (General conclusion by all: It's every man for himself out there.)

Instead, we'll lay out a proposal for a better future, where teams *do* cultivate their young: Use the NBDL as the NBA's minor-leagues.

Yes--it's brilliant and revolutionary, right? Wasn't that the NBDL's point, in the first place?

Well, not really.


When the developmental league was announced in March of 2000, the NBA was reacting to a PR disaster. In a few short months, Leon Smith--a 1999 first-round draft pick out of high school--had attempted suicide and clashed with police, before washing out of the league for good. Clearly, Smith was troubled before being drafted, but the NBA spotlight did him no favors. At the same time, Smith represented the first real crisis for a preps-to-pros phenomenon that had benefited the NBA, producing stars like Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett.

While, pre-Smith, the NBA was considering an overseas minor league--all part of David Stern's world domination strategy--having a state-side alternative eased teams' ability to stash young players under official league supervision. The NBDL wasn't without controversy, of course; to avoid complaints that such a league would spur "competition" with colleges for basketball players, the NBA worked hard to distinguish the NBDL as a league for older players. One oxymoronic Washington Post headline read "Developmental League Targets Experienced Players"; according to the article, the NBDL sought veterans who were the last cuts of an NBA training camp, rather than college-age athletes--a hiring pattern that continues today.

Entering its seventh year, the NBDL has generally achieved its early goals. It's doubled in size, from eight teams its first year to 16 today, but isn't attractive enough to tempt marginal college basketball players to turn pro early. It's provided experience not only for players, but rising coaches, officials, and trainers too. And it's allowed the NBA to extend its brand into new corners of America, although attendance is generally lackluster.

But despite the "D" in its name, the NBDL isn't well-suited for player development, largely because its teams aren't really connected to NBA franchises. In baseball, for example, a minor league team is directly integrated with the big-league club, enabling a franchise to ensure organization-wide strategies and consistent instruction. In comparison, most NBDL teams are "affiliated" with two or three NBA teams, which can mean an NBDL coach often teaches a completely different offense or defense than a partner NBA organization uses. Moreover, NBA teams can only assign two of their first- or second-year players to a NBDL roster. Instead, the NBDL itself signs and controls most of the players, meaning any NBA team can "call up" the first NBDL veteran they choose.

As a result, the league has a mercenary core--most players aren't working to be promoted by their parent organization, but instead audition for the entire NBA, all the time. The every-man-for-himself routine can make for an unstable roster; despite a shorter, 50-game season, most NBDL teams last year used 20 or more players, as guys would leave mid-season to find other opportunities. And because it's hard to truly teach in quicksand, the players who most benefit from the NBDL are those who come with ready-made games, simply waiting for an NBA spot to open up.

For example, the two players called up this season--the 30-year-old Jelani McCoy and 29-year-old Eddie Gill--already have a combined 12 seasons in the NBA. Other than getting exposure and staying in game shape, it's doubtful that either "developed" new skills in their brief NBDL seasons.


Of course, the NBDL has success stories--and one of the best is ex-Fort Worth Flyer and current Golden State Warrior Kelenna "Buike" Azubuike.

Coming out of Kentucky in 2005, Buike was viewed as an intriguing-if-flawed prospect; ESPN's draft experts had flagged him as an "inconsistent shooter," which the website Draft Express further explains:
If [Kelenna] is to someday make the NBA, he'll have to become a much better shooter from outside. Kentucky was sorely lacking a player who could hit the open 3 to compliment Rajon Rondo's ability to drive and dish, and Kelenna was not able to do that in many games for Kentucky this year, failing to hit more than one three pointer in 20 of Kentucky's 34 games. This is hardly the type of shooting ability you would expect from an NCAA junior who is confident enough in his offensive skills to forfeit his final year of NCAA eligibility.
An inconsistent shot didn't stop Buike from being a willing shooter, however. In his Kentucky career, he averaged one three-point attempt every 8.5 minutes played (for comparison's sake, Michael Redd is averaging one three-pointer every 8.8 minutes played, Tracy McGrady every 8.1 minutes.)

Buike went undrafted and ended up with the NBDL's Flyers, where he started about half of the team's games and played pretty well (12.6 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 1.5 apg in 25.6 mpg); the next fall, Buike returned to the Flyers after being the Cleveland Cavaliers' final cut. But something had changed in his game between those first and second years. Since we're bloggers who can't actually interview the guy, we'll have to read between the lines of a few cryptic newspaper quotes.
Our guess: He was working on his shot!

Now a sharper shooter, Buike became much more aggressive, too. While Buike took one three-pointer per 13.3 minutes his first year in the NBDL, he upped that to one attempt per 7.6 minutes (For a sense of comparison, Michael Redd shoots a three every 8.8 minutes, Tracy McGrady every 8.0.). The Warriors called Buike up in January and he continued his aggressive and fairly accurate shooting the rest of the year, winning a spot with the team and getting even more PT this year; here's a chart demonstrating the evolution of his three-point shooting, accurate through Friday.

It's one thing for a professional player who didn't shoot much in college to improve his shot over a number of years. In two seasons at UConn, the Wizards' Caron Butler took one three every 18 minutes, making 36.3%; prior to this season's dramatic improvement, Butler only shot once every 27.5 minutes and hit 30.3% in the pros.

But for swingmen who were aggressive shooters in college, like Buike, and feasted on shorter three-point lines (19'9"), slower defenders, and the greater use of zone, it's rare to see significant improvement in the pros--losing these advantages, the greatest all-time shooters instead shot slightly worse after leaving school. Since the NBA and NBDL share 23'9" three-point lines (a fact kindly confirmed by True Hoop's Abbott), let's combine Buike's Fort Worth-Golden State stats to get a better picture of how his three-point shooting really has dramatically improved, despite the greater challenges and 'pro' distance.


It's tough to know how much the NBDL helped Buike--playing with the same team, two years in a row--versus how much he helped himself, on his own. But his shooting improvement came somewhere and, at minimum, the NBDL let him play against near-NBA competition and with NBA rules.

Several other players have demonstrably improved while playing in the NBDL. Undrafted out of Notre Dame, Matt Carroll in 2003-2004 sandwiched two unspectacular stints in the NBA (with a PER of 6.2, in very limited minutes) around 11 games with the NBDL's Roanoke Dazzle, where he played capably, but not exceptionally. However, Carroll returned to the Dazzle the next year and had an awesome campaign, picking up the league's MVP award; by the time the Bobcats signed him in 2005, Carroll clearly had taken a step forward and was ready to be a rotation player.

But unlike baseball's system, where the better minor leaguers can enjoy reasonable careers after making it to the majors, many NBDL-to-NBA players simply wash out. Of the 13 NBDL players who were called up during the 2005-2006 season, only two (Chuck Hayes and Ime Udoka) are still in the NBA. And shouldn't the ability to cultivate and retain talent be the ultimate test of a "developmental" league?

So--many paragraphs later--here's the proposal.

The NBA drops all pretense, stops inching forward, and within two years turns the NBDL into a true minor league: One team per NBA franchise, to be coached and staffed however the major league club desires. Simultaneously, the league expands both the NBA draft and NBA rosters; while only 12 players could be active for any given game, keeping with current rules, a taxi squad of five-to-six players would either stay with the team to be activated on any given night or play with the NBDL team.

Such a system would require waivers, so teams couldn't shuttle players back and forth from the NBDL forever. The limit on players' experience levels also would be relaxed as well, so veterans could use the NBDL to work themselves back into shape after injury or still-young third- and fourth-year players could add new touches to their games.

In many ways, a true minor league would only improve the quality of NBA play. Teams could better draft and cultivate for need; the Magic could use their minor league squad to identify the best shooters to fit around Dwight Howard, or an aging team like the Celtics could take flyers on a handful of athletic-but-unskilled players, who they could teach up to replace a Ray Allen or Kevin Garnett in several years. Moreover, the change would diminish the current reliance on European teams to act, unpredictably, as a de facto minor league system. Rather than drafting foreign players to stash overseas--and going through complex negotiations to finally sign them--the NBDL could be a true alternative for international players who might not be ready for the NBA, but want to test the American experience.

But the niftiest feature of such a minor league is a pleasure that many baseball fans, growing up far from a major league franchise, already know: Watching present and future stars play in your town, even for a cup of coffee. Like a Roger Clemens drawing record crowds in Trenton, fans might be able to watch LeBron return from injury in Rio Grande or Gilbert warm up in North Dakota. The Portland Trailblazers' current NBDL affiliate is the Idaho Stampede; if Greg Oden played his first game in Boise, wouldn't the entire state light up like his smile?

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posted by Crucifictorious @ 23:39, ,

The known unknowns: Early questions and answers in the NBA

We're a month into the season, and the We Rite Goode crew want to be responsible journalists actually blog about something, so we're revisiting a number of pressing questions, but answering them in total roundabout, WRG-style. We've already wondered why Kobe had yet to be traded and the Wizards were going with a 10-man roster.

Next up: What are the known unknowns so far this season?

Dirk. Carmelo. Zach. Carlos. Yao.

Five of the best basketball players in the NBA--so great that fans don't need last names to catch the references.

But the NBA's five best players, in that order?

See for yourself. That list appeared on ESPN one year ago today, using John Hollinger's PER statistic as an arbiter of success. Granted, a great PER doesn't automatically equate to basketball greatness, but debates over the stat's effectiveness aside, PER does confirm that the five were among the most brilliant offensive performers at that early point of the 2006-2007 season.

That wasn't quite the way the final list ended up, of course. Despite the hot start, Zach Randolph slid off his pace and wasn't picked for the All-Star game, and neither he nor Carlos Boozer were All-NBA. Eighty-two games makes for a long season, full of surprises and streaks; projecting performance on Dec. 6, be it this year or last, is somewhat arbitrary in that we're not even at the quarter-pole yet. Any NBA expert would caution against reading too much into just 16 or 17 games, which naturally never stops many smart fans who think with their hearts over their heads.

Still, the season's first month can be a great bellwether for things to come. The aforementioned fab five went on to record PERs among the league's 20-best, highlighted by Dirk's 2nd place finish (behind an injured Dwyane Wade) and resulting MVP award. And we never need all year to see what's already obvious. So far in 2007, guys like Chris Kaman and Rudy Gay clearly have raised their games; meanwhile, a Kevin Garnett-less Minnesota doesn't have much game, as expected.

But most fans know that the Timberwolves stink and that Kaman doesn't (well, performance-wise; who knows if the Caveman believes in Old Spice). It's less understood, say, how the Bucks are challenging in the Central, beyond some vague sense that Yi Jianlian is actually playing like a No. 6 overall draft pick.

So we're going around the league with the help of a few of our friends, looking at some of the most intriguing teams--from the chumps to the champs--through the eyes of guys who watch more than the box scores. In this young season, we asked, what do we already know, and what should we have wondered in the first place?

No guarantee they all took us seriously, though.
* Note: Some responses written before Tuesday's and Wednesday's games.

Seth Kolloen, Enjoy the Enjoyment

What off-season question has been answered so far?

Whether Kevin Durant could carry our offense. The answer, we quickly found out, was no. He's too inconsistent (shooting a dismal 39%) and he turns the ball over too much. Optimists thought he might be able to dominate the league, but he's mostly just dominated the ball. It's a learning year, though, no biggie.

What question should we have been asking?

Whether Kevin Durant would sabotage our defense. With Durant at the two, the Sonics' perimeter defense isn't NBA speed. When players drive by Durant, the Sonics don't have a shot blocker to stop them (unless Durant catches up--he's leading the team in blocks), and so they're allowing more points per game than every team except Golden State.


Mike K.,

What off-season question has been answered so far?

"How will Zach Randolph & Eddy Curry work together?" The answer is poorly. Randolph's rebounding is up, because he gets all the rebounds that Curry misses. However his shooting percentages are down because he's playing on the perimeter more. On defense, the pair is a disaster. Randolph is as bad a defender as they come, and together with Curry they've made the Knicks the second worst defensive team in the league.

What question should we have been asking?

"Will Isiah be around to celebrate his 4th year with the team?" Isiah was hired Dec. 22nd, 2003. Will he last until Dec. 22nd, 2007? The Knicks are 5-11, and the team is in disarray. It's just a matter of time, I hope.

Ben Go, Thank You Isiah

What off-season question has been answered so far?

Will Luol Deng make the jump into the top tier of NBA players?

Sadly, no. Despite some hype this summer, Deng still finds it almost impossible to create his own shots and the hopes that he could possibly become the missing low-post option for the Bulls have been shot down in flames. Indeed, instead of improving on his promising 06-07 season, Deng has regressed to, or below, his 05-06 production levels in shooting percentage, rebounds, assists and FT percentage. Oh, and he's turning the ball over at the highest rate of his career. Though he's not technically in his contract year, call him the Anti-Vince Carter.

What question should we have been asking?

What the hell did John Paxson do to that voodoo priestess in the offseason?

John Hollinger can detail the Bulls' utter shititude, but he can't explain it. My own attempts to account for this dark abyss of a season left me grasping at the phantoms of Dante, Lao Tzu, and a Lacanian psychoanalyst from Slovenia. At this point, I'd be willing to sacrifice a live chicken if it would mean the pins get taken out of the Hinrich, Deng and Gordon dolls.


Tom, Indy Cornrows

What off-season question has been answered so far?

If Jamaal Tinsley would thrive under Jim O'Brien's offensive system after appearing to regress under Rick Carlisle. So far Tinsley has exceeded all expectations running the club for O'B. He's averaging 14.5 points and 8.6 assists. In addition, he's taken over several eventual wins down the stretch either scoring or setting up the game winning points. Tinsley's play is key since the off-season addition of Travis "Sarunas" Diener has been a bust so far.

What question should we have been asking?

Was Jermaine O'Neal's knee really 100% as he declared. J.O.'s had left knee issues since opening night and is just now rounding into playing shape. Any trade value he had has bottomed out, so now the Pacers have to hope he stays healthy and ups his production.

Jay Busbee, Right Down Peachtree and Sports Gone South

What off-season question has been answered so far?

Can the Hawks win if they run? Yes, absolutely yes. This team has the potential to make the playoffs...provided they run. Steve Nash actually called them a more athletic team than the Suns after Atlanta's November victory over Phoenix. When they run, they win.

What question should we have been asking?

Is it legal to jury-rig those home-detention ankle bracelets to give off shocks if the wearer stops running below a sprint? 'Cause that's when the Hawks lose, when they start slowing down. If we can't do the Speed-esque ankle bracelets, how about just one around the neck of Mike Woodson, and whenever he calls for some plodding four-corners or isolation offense, he gets a zap. Run, Hawks, run!


Jake Whitacre, Bullets Forever and Gilbertology

What off-season question has been answered so far?

Who would fill the gap at center with Etan Thomas sidelined. So far a combination of Brendan Haywood's (somewhat) improved play along with Andray Blatche's coming out party have made up for the loss of The Poet.

What question should we have been asking?

Why are we playing someone who just came off knee surgery 40 minutes a game? Why are we draining his knee so often? Why is he sitting this game out? Why is he sitting out again? What is that surgeon guy doing to Gilbert?!?


What off-season question has been answered so far?

After five straight wins and sitting pretty at 7-4, we were happily believing that Mike Redd had indeed become an all-around player, Mo Williams had learned to be a real PG, our bench was reliable, the defense was better, Yi Jianlian was the truth, and Larry Krystkowiak had stolen all of Scott Skiles' mojo. But now at 8-8...well, we've had to re-ask many of those questions. Still, seeing Yi up close every night you can't help but think that he is going to be a special player, even if we have to wait another year or two for him to get there.

What question should we have been asking?

Could Bogut develop into the team's defensive catalyst? It was kind of assumed going into the year that Bogut would continue to be a solid but entirely unspectacular defender, with most of his improvement coming offensively. But while he's struggled at times to get involved on the offensive end, his defense has been a revelation. He's improved his rebound rate ( 16.4 vs. 15.2), more than quadrupled his shot-blocking (2.3 bpg) and generally acquitted himself well against some of the league's best bigs. He's already exceeded his blocked shot total from last year (35) in just 16 games while recording six games with four or more blocks. In his first two seasons he accomplished that feat once. Yet despite a generally improved effort on that end, the Bucks continue to rank near the bottom of the league in defensive efficiency. Can Bogut keep it up? And will his teammates step up as well?


Howie, NBA Basketball and Other Unrelatedness

What off-season question has been answered so far?

Is Nene made of tofu? Yes. Yes he is. While I like to be humble and modest, I just want to take this opportunity and say "I CALLED IT" that Mr. Hilario breaks down more than my 1992 LaserDisk player.

What question should we have been asking?

Why didn't we start calling much traveled end of the bench warmer Jelani "The Real"? As in, Jelani, "The Real" McCoy? Wait. Don't answer that.


Steve Weinman, formerly of Taking it to the Rack, now Celtics Blog and The Picksix: NBA Handicapping.

What off-season question has been answered so far?

The concerns about whether or not the trio of stars could work together have thus far been assuaged completely. The talking done by KG, Pierce and Ray about forming a close knit and cohesive unit was not lip service. The three have played very well together, getting the team off to a hot 15-2 start and picking each one another up when each has an off night. Perhaps even more importantly, they have made great efforts to not separate themselves from the other 12 men on the roster, establishing early on that, for better or for worse, this is a team.

What question should we have been asking?

How much can and will Tony Allen provide for this team? For all the concerns about the Celts' bench, TA has more potential to be explosive than anyone else on the unit. Sure, Eddie House loves to throw it up, and James Posey has proved to be a valuable cog, but TA (if he is indeed fully recovered from injury, which remains to be seen) has the skills to provide the entire package. He has the athleticism (somewhat hampered now thanks to last season's leg injury) to get to the rim with power as well as the work ethic and correct combo of size and speed to be an excellent perimeter defender and a solid rebounder at his position. Thus far this season, he has had much trouble getting back from injuries and as such hasn't found his niche yet. But if he can get back into the stride he had begun to hit before the injury last year, he legitimately could be a deal-breaker for this team.

Liston Von Culbertson, Introducing Liston

What off-season question has been answered so far?

The most significant off-season question that has been answered for me thus far is: Can you get into trouble for sending naked pictures of yourself to Gregg Popovich? The answer, unfortunately, is fuckin' A you can. I mean, all I wanted to do was see if I have an NBA-ready body. When I was in middle school my coach made me get naked in his office to see if I had what it to took to make it on his team, I just assumed they did the same things in the pros.

What question should we have been asking?

Why are they so much more professional and thorough in middle school then they are in the NBA? I mean, seriously, who hasn't gotten naked for their middle school basketball coach at one point or another?

[Given Liston's total disregard for the questions, we'll assume that--as always--the defending champs' only doubts are off-the-court distractions, like desperate housewives and exhibitionists--Cruc.]

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posted by Crucifictorious @ 02:41, ,

Santana Snoozefest

Baseball suffers from a central flaw: at its heart, it’s boring as hell (so Steven A. doesn’t accuse me of violating journalistic ethics too, this fact has been triple-checked with my mom). Spinning it positively, though, anything that can cram 12 minutes of action into a three hour sitting, and endure as an organized sport for 131 years makes you wonder what it’s doing right. Perhaps it’s baseball’s ability to spawn folksy pseudo-wisdom explaining the myriad ways in which “baseball is like life” (by far the best of which, from Rabbi Marc Gellman, says that in both baseball and life, “most of the time, nothing happens”). Or that in the two hours and forty-eight minutes of inaction, there are countless ways to speculate about the other 12 minutes. Whatever it is, obviously the tradeoff works for millions of fans, myself sometimes included.

As a Red Sox fan, nothing will ever surpass October 17-28, 2004 (I think Game 4 of the World Series went past midnight on the 27th, or at least my phone calls to friends and family certainly did). On the other hand, October 2007 was…kind of nice. Or, as my wife put it to me sitting on the couch after Papelbon finished the Rockies, “Shouldn’t you be excited? Or something?”

Yes, I suppose I should have been. But I’ve become the 8,972,354th person (plenty of whom are Red Sox or Yankees fans) to note that baseball is a heck of a lot less interesting when Johan Santana is on the trade market and the Red Yanx are the only teams in the talks, because Santana wants (and deserves, given last year’s Barry Zito, Gil Meche [ok, Meche was actually decent], Jeff Weaver, and Daisuke Matsuzaka contracts) more than $20 million a year. It’s almost as bad as America Held Hostage: The Randy Johnson to the Yankees Trade Talks of 2004-05.

The baseball winter has become as boring as the baseball summer, with fewer redeeming qualities. (The only promising development so far is Miguel Cabrera in the homeland of Domino’s and Little Caesar’s.)

I’m not asking for much. Here’s what I would like to see:

1. The Twins receive a second tier prospect from the Yankees in exchange for nothing more than a binding promise not to trade Santana to the Red Sox. Am I crazy or wouldn’t the Yankees do this to avoid facing Santana and Beckett at the top of the Red Sox rotation for the next seven years?

2. The Twins trade Santana to Oakland for Dan Haren, Dan Johnson, Mark Kotsay, and a $50 Mall of America gift card for Carl Pohlad, the wealthiest owner in baseball.

3. Next, the A’s flip Santana to Boston for Coco Crisp, Jon Lester, and whoever else.

4. Hank Steinbrenner fires Joe Girardi and hires the late Billy Martin.

Let’s liven this offseason up a little!

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posted by Jimmy Chitwood @ 09:23, ,

A Mandira of Basketball

Sure, it's hard to find good TV as the writer's strike continues and "Heroes" and "Chuck" run out of episodes... but don't fret, sports fans! ESPN2's got a doozy of a college basketball game for you tonight. Check these deets:

In one corner, meet one of the fastest-starting North Carolina teams in their storied history, the nation's current #1-ranked squad. In the other--playing host--is an Ivy League bottom-feeder, which was most recently knocked 'senseless' by a fringe top-25 team.

Who scheduled this game for a national audience? A Princeton alum? 104-67 sounds generous.

There's still reason to watch the slaughter game, however: To see a college basketball star that doesn't get much prime-time exposure. Thankfully, said luminary isn't lumbering Tyler Hansborough or shot-happy Wayne Ellington or whoever's put up 20 for the Tar Heels in their most-recent game.

No, gang--it's the building that you've got to check out. The Palestra. A hoopshead's mecca. Filled with more history than even Duke's much-lauded Cameron.

Of course, while it's a guarantee that ESPN announcers will pan around the building--waxing nostalgic--as the Penn Quakers are getting clobbered, an arena's magic doesn't always show through the screen, especially when a game's out-of-hand. Sometimes you have to be there.

One person who was there--who had to work to get there--was ESPN scribe Kieran Darcy. Sure, the Leader's Page 2 section is oft-lacking, but Darcy's story is pretty powerful. The guy goes from JV walk-on to playing one minute on the varsity squad his senior year. To say much more would be to ruin Darcy's tale, but as he takes us on his journey, we get to witness the majesty of the Palestra as he viewed it: A dream worth striving for, his entire college career.

Nick Horvath played 1,000 more minutes for the Duke Blue Devils, and he never wrote anything so poetic about being a Cameron scrub.

In the high chance that Penn won't keep the score close and its fans won't make the Palestra rock tomorrow night, here's a clip of happier times and better Quaker teams. Watch those first two buckets--students waving their hands, jumping, screaming--and tell me again why the NCAA championship is played in a cold, impersonal arena rather than a tiny bandbox.

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posted by Doctor Dribbles @ 03:47, ,

In-depth analysis: Why buy a bench, anyway?

We're a month into the season, and the We Rite Goode crew want to be responsible journalists actually blog about something, so we're revisiting a number of pressing questions, but answering them in total roundabout, WRG-style. First, we assessed why Kobe had yet to be traded.

Next up: Why haven't the Wizards filled out their roster?

In a slightly unorthodox move, the Wizards decided to start the season with only 13 players, rather than the conventional 15. Here's what happened next.
  1. Etan Thomas: Lost during training camp.
  2. Gilbert Arenas: Back, then probably lost for the year.
  3. Oleksiy Pecherov: Who?
As if by black magic, one Wizard after another has fallen, leaving the team with just 10 healthy players. But despite limited guard depth and newly available Mike Wilks a potential backup point, word comes from the Post's Ivan Carter: Washington won't sign anyone for now, seeking to stay under the luxury tax. This doesn't sit well with readers, who assume that failing to sign players to open roster slots signals some sort of white-flag waving. Asks one commenter, "how do you win by cutting corners?"

Yet as Pradamaster at Bullets Forever succinctly explains luxury tax issues, the Wizards may need more bodies but "it makes sense...[not] going over for a guy who will basically amount to being a 12th man." Since Washington's barely under the tax, signing a veteran to the minimum likely kicks in the dollar-for-dollar tax and forces the team to forfeit potential luxury-tax revenue.


Let's set aside salary math for a second, though, to explore the underlying assumption: Do the Wizards actually need more players? Most NBA teams only have eight or nine guys in the rotation, and with every 'Zard in action save Dominic McGuire, Washington's no exception. So if the team--as presently constituted--can still win games, what's the need to sign Wilks? Even more broadly, if teams know that such pick-ups tend to sit, why bother signing marginal players in the first place?

Reason #1--To protect against injuries: Perhaps the best argument for having quality backups, as demonstrated by the Wizards' Antonio Daniels. However, unless a team's starters and key subs tend to be injury-prone, it's fiscally irrational to invest too deeply beyond the 9th player in the rotation; end-of-the-bench talent is largely interchangeable from players available for the minimum or called up from the D-League. In fact, acquiring too much depth can hinder performance as much as help--especially if it comes at the expense of a more successful stars-and-supporting-cast strategy.

Take the late 1990s-early 2000s Portland Trailblazers, as several very good-but-not-great teams relied on too many very good-but-not-great players, creating playing time and chemistry concerns. For example, the 2001-2002 Trailblazers featured the league's second-highest payroll at $90+ million and seven regulars who posted PERs of 14.7 or better (with John Hollinger defining a 15.0 PER as "a pretty good player"); in contrast, the past two NBA champions--the 2007 Spurs and the 2006 Heat--each featured just four regulars at or above 14.7 PER. Although the Blazers overcame rotation problems and a slow start to win 49 games, the Lakers ultimately swept them in the first round.

How this applies to the Wizards: Some are lobbying to sign Wilks now in advance of any further guard injuries, with Daniels the team's only remaining point. However, while Wilks would be a slight upgrade over Roger Mason, the player with whom he'd compete for minutes and who's having an awful year, he's not significantly better than Mason, who already knows the system, nor any player the Wizards could call up from the D-League should Daniels actually get injured. Basically, there's no reason to make a mediocre move unless someone else goes down.

Moreover, the Wizards' lack of depth is somewhat ameliorated by the team's Princeton offense, which diminishes the point guard's role in favor of cutting and motion. From a decade-old Sports Illustrated:
"Today you always hear, 'What are you, a one or a two?'" says [former Princeton Coach Butch] van Breda Kolff, one meaning a point guard, two being a shooting guard. "The question should be, 'Can you play?'" Except for center, every Princeton part is interchangeable.
With DeShawn Stevenson and Nick Young as big guards who can initiate the Princeton attack, having another mediocre point guard matters less than waiting for the best available contributor to hit the market. If the team needs anything, it might be a big man who can control the ball at the high post; perhaps Pecherov fills that bill when he returns.

Reason #2--To provide quality substitutes: Fans already know that playoff-caliber teams need substitutes who, upon entering a game, either maintain the team's high level of play or provide a missing spark. However, less understood is that who's available to play is far, far more important than how many are ready to go. Beyond the three or four players in the rotation, a typical bench only is expected to offer extra fouls, a few specialists, and perhaps an X-factor to force adjustments. Even fewer qualifications are needed at the far end-of-the-bench; Jack McCallum's great book on the Phoenix Suns, :07 Seconds or Less, details their coaches' search for the "perfect 12th man"--a spirited player who accepted that he'd be a glorified spectator. As a result, teams can readily overcome the loss of a valued reserve, but losing a starter can create a concerning domino effect, as affected bench players move into new, unfamiliar roles.

How this applies to the Wizards: Without Arenas, Daniels became the starting point guard, and everyone on the bench moves up in the rotation (the 7th man becomes the 6th man, the 8th man becomes the 7th man, and so on). Without Etan Thomas, Brendan Haywood became center de facto and Andray Blatche the first big off the bench, moving the rest of the rotation forward again. Thomas's absence isn't ideal, but it's enabled Blatche's emergence; drawing less attention is how the three bench guards have improved since Gilbert's injury, as Daniels plays starter's minutes and rookie Nick Young becomes an offensive catalyst.

Unfortunately, Mason's contract is guaranteed, so while his performance remains less-than-stellar, he's not going anywhere. Still, Wilks sports a career PER of 10.2 so Wiz fans shouldn't rush to proclaim him the backcourt's savior.

Reason #3--To fill out a practice: At minimum, coaches expect to have enough players for five-on-five, in order to conduct walk-throughs and execute drills. Moreover, teams that have young, developing players can use practice time to hone non-regulars' skill sets, such as the Warriors bringing in DJ Mbenga to give Brandon Wright and Patrick O'Bryant a practice big man.

However, practices matter far less in the NBA than they do in college basketball. Barring injury or poor performance, NBA coaches frequently settle on their rotations early in the season; in college basketball, which has far fewer games to begin with, the frequent practices play a key role in establishing a team's identity. Moreover, a rapidly developing college player can start wowing during practice and earn minutes as the season goes along; in the NBA, a Jermaine O'Neal or Michael Redd often sit until they move teams or a spot opens up.

How this applies to the Wizards: It's true that with ten players, the Wizards can barely field a five-on-five practice. Yet until they can't, there's no reason to worry--if anything, it ensures that each player is more necessary during practice, fostering additional engagement--and the team already has a fairly veteran core with experience playing together. And to take an Allen Iverson approach, maybe less is more; not only does Eddie Jordan run an extremely light practice, it tends to cost the players who do show up.


Even if it makes rational sense, having such a lean roster is still a bit unsettling; this is a basketball team, not a factory floor. And although Blatche is playing at a much higher level, one injury to Caron Butler and the Wizards basically revert to the same Arenas-less team that collapsed at the end of last season. If you're a Wizards fan--believing in the team's goal to push ever-deeper into the playoffs--you can't help but envy how Dallas owner Mark Cuban's willingness to pay whatever price helped turn the equally woeful Mavericks into championship contenders.


Unless there's another injury, there's no compelling reason to add a player of Wilks' marginal value. And until last night's stinker versus the 76ers, the team was playing with chemistry and spark missing since March of last year; each guy on the active roster knows that he needs to be ready to go. So long as everyone stays healthy, this squad remains intriguing to watch--as any team that plays its starters during garbage time would be--and by having salary flexibility, the Wizards may even derive a competitive advantage out of their miserly ways.

Still, any favorable forecast for the team requires continued good health...and since the team's already lost Gilbert, Etan, and that big Oily guy, how much worse can it get? Let's hope the Curse of Le Boulez doesnt feel obligated to provide an answer.

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posted by Crucifictorious @ 06:52, ,

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