Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Kobe's Fault

My immediate reaction to the Lakers' loss in game 4 was that it was Kobe's fault.  In the fourth quarter, he was 2 of 10.  Meanwhile, Bynum was a mere 1 of 2 and Pau was 0 for 0.  No wonder they lost!  How did they expect to win, when their second and third best player combine for two shots in the fourth quarter?  This seemed like just another case of Kobe abandoning the game plan and resorting to hero ball.  But after the game, Kobe blamed Pau for not being aggressive enough.  So which one was it?  Did Kobe keep shooting because Pau wasn't being aggressive or was Pau not being aggressive because Kobe kept shooting?  Was it even one or the other?  Maybe the deficiency of the other Laker players on the court allowed the Thunder to focus their defense on Bynum and Pau, thereby putting Kobe on an island.  Who knows?

The problem with analyzing a playoff collapse is that people usually fall into the trap of blaming one person or thing, when the the truth is there are many.  Was it Kobe's shot selection or was it something else?  Because the Lakers had multiple problems:

  • Lack of athleticism- The Lakers were an older team, and were therefore susceptible to transition baskets.  Make a mistake offense and it's pretty much two points the other way.
  • Bench struggles- Jordan Hill was the only good player off the bench.  Exclude Blake's 3-PT barrage in game 7 against Denver (where he went 5 for 6), and he shot 38% from the field and 35% from 3.  Barnes was worse, shooting 27% from the field and 16% from 3.
  • New Coach- Some feel that Mike Brown isn't a good coach.  Even if he is, transitioning to an entirely new system, after a lockout, isn't really conducive to success.  Maybe he's a bad coach or maybe the players didn't have enough time to settle into the system.  Either way, it wasn't exactly a favorable circumstance.
  • No Odom- The value Odom brought to the Lakers was highlighted by his absence.  Not only for the bench scoring he provided, but for his usefulness late in games.  When the Lakers had Odom, they had a second person (after Kobe) who could run the offense and create his own shot.  His versatility would keep the defense honest.
  • Ramon Sessions- With the Lakers, Sessions shot 48% from the field and 49% from behind the arc in the regular season.  In the playoffs, he shot 38% from the field and 19% from 3.  And because the Lakers played more inside-out in the postseason, his percentage of FGAs that were 3's went up from 17% to 22%.  So not only is he shooting a larger percentage of 3's, he's making them 30% less often.
  • Pau Gasol- Pau didn't have a great year.  He averaged the third most FGAs per game in his career.  But with the second lowest FG% of his career (50%), he averaged a personal worst 17.4 PPG.  Reaching a career-low in PPG would continue in the postseason, when he averaged 12.5 points on 43% shooting.

So, do all these things exonerate Kobe?  No, they don't.  He shot 44% from the field and 28% from 3.  However, I do not blame him for their losses and subsequent elimination.  Not because he played well enough to not deserve criticism (he didn't), but because there's too many factors to consider.  How much was his poor performance influenced by the factors listed above?  How much were the factors listed above affected by Kobe's poor performance?  It's impossible to say.  So I refuse to blame Kobe (or anyone else) for the Lakers' defeat. 

But while I don't blame Kobe for why they lost, I do blame him for how they lost.  Why they lost is complex.  How they lost is not.  The fact is, the Lakers have a habit of rolling over.  They don't go down swinging.  They don't give it their all.  They don't leave everything on the table.  Kobe can point fingers all he wants, but his team's poor effort reflects negatively on him.  Why?  Because he's the leader.  

A leader isn't only accountable for their own behavior.  Kobe putting forth maximum effort isn't his only responsibility.  Trying to single-handedly take over a game doesn't absolve him of culpability in the team's loss.  If he truly believed his teammates weren't putting forth effort, then he should've tried to engage them.  Did he not even try to do that?  Or was trying to single-handedly win the game his attempt to inspire his teammates?  Either way, he failed.  If teammates not putting forth effort is the problem, shooting a bunch isn't the acceptable solution.  As he started putting up shot after shot, did Pau suddenly become aggressive?  Did Kobe's effort to win the game transfer to Pau or anyone else?  No.

Which begs the question: why does Kobe's will to win not rub off on his teammates?

Pau is passive and Bynum has reportedly become more and more of a head case who's mainly concerned with his own role.  Why is his own performance more important to him than winning?  Is it just ironic that Kobe's desire to be the alpha dog eventually trumped winning and now the same thing is happening with Bynum?  Does Bynum's attitude really have nothing to do with Kobe?  Look at Duncan.  Was there any problems with the transition from Robinson to Duncan?  Or from Duncan to Parker?  Duncan didn't stage a coup on Robinson and a coup wasn't staged on him by Parker?  Is that a coincidence?  Or is it reflective of his leadership?

Under Kobe's watch, the team has been inconsistent.  They bookended two titles with getting blown out in elimination games against Boston and Dallas.  There have been instances of players lacking effort, acting immature, or being selfish.  Kobe can point fingers at those players all they want.  Maybe they do have bad attitudes.  He should just be aware that attitude reflects leadership, captain.  Either they are following his lead, and this is what his leadership produces, or they don't even follow him?  In either case, Kobe's at fault.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Ranking the Finals Possibilities

The NBA Finals seemed to take a pretty big hit with Derrick Rose's injury and the Lakers imploding.  Now Lakers-Celtics (the rubber match), Lakers-Heat (Kobe vs. LeBron), Bulls-Lakers (Kobe needing to beat the Bulls to tie Jordan's number of rings), and Bulls-Thunder (Durant vs. Rose) are no longer possibilities.  While it's unfortunate that some great options are off the table, there are a few intriguing matchups (emphasis on "a few"). Of the remaining playoff teams, only one (Philadelphia) seems unlikely to go to the Finals.  So what are the best matchups the other five remaining teams could produce?  Here's my ranking:

1. Oklahoma City vs. Miami- This is clearly the most marketable Finals possibility.  Other than LeBron battling Kobe, LeBron squaring off with Durant is the best option.  This is certainly the most intriguing matchup, and everything I wrote about it last year still hold's true.

2. San Antonio vs. Boston- From a pure basketball standpoint, this series would deliver.  Both teams execute like clockwork, with stars that set aside ego for the success of the team.  Parker going against Rondo and Ginobli going against Allen would be fun, but the highlight would be Garnett battling Duncan.  The two best power forwards of the last decade going at it, in what may be each one's last significant playoff series, would be great to watch.  It may lack the pizzazz of OKC-Miami, but it could be one of the most well-played Finals in history.

3. Oklahoma City vs. Indiana- This series would be a battle between two young, energetic teams that share the ball well and play in front of very lively crowds.  Basically, this would be the best version of college basketball.  Similar style and atmosphere, just with way better players and execution.

4. Miami vs. San Antonio-  This would pit the most tenured Big 3 against the least tenured one.  While one came together subtly through the draft, the other one came together through free agency with pomp and circumstance.  Other than that, it's pretty much a similar story to last year's (the well-rounded, veteran team going against the superstar top-heavy team), just without the significant occurrence of an all-time great enhancing his legacy.

5. Boston vs. Oklahoma City- There's only one thing that would make this Finals intriguing: Oklahoma City's path to a championship going through Dallas, LA, San Antonio and Boston.  To beat the reigning champion, the franchise with the best winning percentage of the last decade, and the two most storied franchises in history would be one pretty impressive feat.

6. Indiana vs. San Antonio- This is the least appealing option, and one that would potentially be the lowest rated Finals in history.  You know David Stern has his fingers crossed that this doesn't materialize.

Unlike last year, there's a 50% chance that the Finals won't be very enticing.  Let's hope that just superstardom (Durant and LeBron) or teamwork (Spurs and Celtics) prevails and we avoid any disasters.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Just Once

The first round of the playoffs was pretty lackluster.  The Spurs and Pacers won decisively.  The Lakers and Nuggets going seven games was more about the Lakers’ lack of urgency than it was about the Nuggets actually being competitive.  The Hawks are not really interesting anymore; they’re basically the New York Jets of the NBA (a competitive playoff team with a glass ceiling that isn’t really going to make a run at a title anytime soon).  The Derrick Rose injury ruined the Bulls' postseason.  Multiple injuries ruined the Knicks-Heat series, which was the one I was looking forward to the most.  I was hoping the Knicks would do a poor man's version of last year's Mavs (Carmelo as Dirk, Shumpert as Stevenson, Chandler as himself, Smith as Terry), in addition to getting contributions from Stoudemire, Davis, Fields, and Novak, and actually give Miami a run for their money.  Not that they would've won necessarily, but a game six in the Garden would've been fun.

The two highlights of the first round were Thunder-Mavs and Clippers-Grizzlies.  The Thunder are an immensely entertaining team and the Mavs are so savvy and gritty (especially Kidd and Marion).  It may not have been very competitive, but the first two games were quite entertaining.  The Clippers-Grizzlies was obviously the bright spot of the first round, since it was the only truly competitive series.

While that's disappointing, it wasn't exactly surprising.  Unlike the Grizzlies and Blazers last year, no low-seed seemed likely to pull off an upset.  There was an obvious disparity in quality between the top seeds and the low seeds.  The good news is that as obvious as that disparity was in the first round, it appears to be non-existent in the second round.  There's not a clear favorite to make the Finals in either conference.  Every team has some kind of flaw that makes them beatable, so the second round should be especially good.

But while any team can emerge from either conference, there's really two that need to: the Heat and the Lakers.  Earlier this year, Kobe was quoted as saying that he didn't have any rivals.  For the most part that's true, but if there's one who comes close it's LeBron.  Fans have been debating who's better for years.  Unfortunately, that's the extent of the rivalry, because they've never faced each other in the postseason.  Kobe or LeBron has been in the Finals every year for the last five years, yet they've never managed to be there at the same time.  They have to play each other just once.

Not only do they need to compete against each other for a championship because it would be a travesty if they never did, but also because it's time to move on from them.  Ever since Jordan rose to prominence, the league has pretty much been about one man shows "wanting to be like Mike."  There have been enough players in the mold of Jordan.  It's time to see some in the mold of Bird and Magic.  Bill Simmons wrote about the possibility of this happening with Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose:

"You'd never think of these guys as our next Bird-Magic rivalry … but when you remember their ages (23), mind-sets (basketball-only, all the time, nothing else matters), positions (one's a guard, the other's a forward), conferences (one East, one West), situations (contenders for each), characters (everything they do is about their team), styles (balls-to-the-wall all the time), crunch-time chops (significant) and humility (you never hear either of these guys talk about himself as a brand, just a basketball player), suddenly that Bird-Magic tag isn't so farfetched."

I hope this is the future of the NBA.  I want these two guys to be the faces of the NBA.  I want to see them be in the Finals every year. I want to see them on a talk show 25 years from now talking about their championship battles.  I want LeBron vs. Kobe just once.  Then I want Durant and Rose for the next decade.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Best Draft in Sports

The NFL draft is the reason why football is becoming my favorite sport.  Simply put, it's the best draft in sports.  There are just so many options for teams to consider.  Each team has to decide which need they’ll fill, with which player, in what round.  Are they going to draft a lineman in the first round and a receiver in the second, or vice versa?  Are they going to draft a good player for depth or a pretty good player for need?  Are they going to trade up to get a player they like?  Or trade back to get a relatively comparable player at, theoretically, a better value?  The possibilities are endless.

But it’s not just the abundance of possibilities of how the draft will play out that makes it the best one in sports.  It's also because every pick means something.  That's not the case with basketball.  With exception of the first ten picks, the NBA draft is pretty lackluster.  The general feeling for why this is the case is because basketball is very top-heavy when it comes to talent.  In the last five years, there have only been seven guys drafted after the 10th pick that made an All-NBA team: Manu Ginobli, Zach Randolph, Tony Parker, Carlos Boozer, Gilbert Arenas, Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant.  This isn't to say that, talent-wise, the draft is pointless after the 10th pick (or even the first round).  The second round can provide some good to very good players.  Look no further than six of this year's top seeded playoff teams, where the Spurs (Ginobli, Blair, Green, Bonner, Jackson), Lakers (Barnes, Blake, Ebanks, Sessions), Grizzlies (Gasol, Arenas, Cunningham), Bulls (Boozer, Asik, Korver), Heat (Chalmers, Jones, Turiaf), and Celtics (Bass) all receive significant contributions from second round picks; the Thunder and Pacers are the only top-4 seeds that don't.  The problem is that only five of the guys mentioned are with their original team.  So why put a ton of stock into the draft, when player movement will pretty much negate it?  There's not really a reason to get to invested in players that may not even be around for the long haul.  For the most part, teams don't build through the draft.  Teams with a blue chipper don't really need the draft; they can find talent elsewhere (through trades and free agency).  So the only teams that need the draft are teams that don't have a blue chipper. And since those only come in the first 10 picks (top 5, majority of the time), the draft is pretty much only relevant for teams with one of those picks.

The MLB draft doesn't fare much better.  Because of the way baseball is set up, the draft is basically pointless; as far as relevance to the fans (with exception of the first round, of course).  With basketball and football, the draft is the differentiation of talent; it's the filter of good and bad players.  With baseball, it's not really the draft that serves that purpose, it's the minor leagues.  Being drafted isn't the stamp of approval to play at the major league level.  It's the stamp of approval to have a shot at getting the stamp of approval to play at the major league level.  This means that the draft, to a certain extent, produces an unfiltered talent pool.  On top of that, draft picks almost always spend a few years in the minors.  So basically, the minor league system is multiple unfiltered draft classes.  Not only does this make it extremely difficult to follow every draft pick, there's not really a reason to.  A sizable percentage of them will never make it to the majors full-time, let alone make a significant contribution.  You really only need to follow the ones who perform exceptionally well, or are highly touted by scouts, since they're the only ones who even have a shot at making it to the majors.  In other words, you don't follow picks, you follow prospects. 

The problem with this is that it makes baseball (seemingly) absent of "Cinderella stories," so to speak.  With the absence of knowledge of draft selection comes the lack of expectations.  If you have no expectations of what a player can achieve, how can they surpass them?  Take Albert Pujols, for example. Is the perception of Albert Pujols' greatness any different than that of Alex Rodriguez?  Not that I'm aware of, but shouldn't it be?  Shouldn't it matter that the best player of the last decade was a 13th round draft pick and not a first?  But because no one seems to care about the draft itself, I bet many fans don't even know that he was drafted in the 13th round.  For those who followed him before his major league debut, Pujols was probably just seen as a great minor league player that became the best player in baseball.  Not as a 13th round draft pick that became the best player in baseball.

With football, draft position matters.  That's why Tom Brady being a 6th round pick and becoming the best quarterback in the league is such a big story.  The improbable nature of it is what makes it meaningful.  Granted, that type of story (to that extent) isn't exactly commonplace.  However, it's not exactly rare that late round picks become stars.  Michael Turner, Robert Mathis, Asante Samuel, Dashon Goldson, Brandon Marshall, Carl Nicks, Jahri Evans, Jay Ratliff, Brandon Lloyd and Jared Allen were all drafted later than the third round, and all have been to the Pro Bowl in the last two years.  It adds a little something extra when a non-first round pick becomes great.  Another similar example is Navorro Bowman.  Bowman was a third round draft pick two years ago, where he spent most of his rookie season backing up Takeo Spikes.  Last year, Spikes left and he became the starter.  Not only did he perform well, he became an All-Pro who reportedly could be confused with Willis on film.  To think that any player can resemble Willis on film is crazy.  If a first round pick did that, it would still be cool.  But a third round pick doing it makes it that much cooler.  Knowing where a player was drafted can make it that much more rewarding when they become great.

But rising to Pro Bowl status isn't the only reason to follow every draft pick.  Because with football, multiple draft picks can be immensely valuable to a team in a variety of ways.  They can become a quality starter, a valuable backup (a swing tackle, a pass rush specialist, a nickle corner etc.) or a special teams player.  You can really build a team from the ground up and find multiple pieces in one year.  That's what makes the NFL draft so great.  There's a reason to care about every pick your team makes, because any and all of them could help the team in different ways.

With basketball, you can follow picks from day one.  With baseball, you can't (even if you live near a minor league affiliate, you're still only seeing a portion of their minor league career).  Basketball's draft has too few picks.  Baseball's has too many.  But with football, you can follow a handful of picks and you can do it from day one, with the possibility that one or more could become very good players.  Which is why it's the best draft in sports.

UFC on Fox 3 review

This was easily the best showing of UFC on Fox.  The pacing of the show was good, Randy Couture was once again on the panel (always a positive), and I thought Brian Stann did a very good job as an analyst.  Much better than Jon Jones did last time.  Most importantly, the fights were good.  While the first event had almost no action and the second event had pretty uninspired action, this one was solid throughout.

The highlight of the night was Belcher-Palhares.  For Belcher to beat Palhares decisively is pretty impressive.  For him to do it the way he did was remarkable.  The second Palharaes had Belcher's leg, I thought the fight was over.  Not only did he not tap, he proceeded to stay in that position for nearly the remainder of the fight.  Conventional wisdom says it's not smart to fight Palhares on the ground.  It's even less smart to do it with your legs in his guard.  The fact that Belcher neutralized Palhares in the worst position imaginable was just a display of phenomenal groundwork on his part.  Excellent showing from Belcher.  A fight with him and Anderson Silva is becoming more and more intriguing (assuming Silva beats Sonnen).

As for the rest of the card, Berry-Johnson was a good fight to open with, as it was pretty much guaranteed to not go the distance.  And it went as expected.  It was a pretty good fight with a decisive finish.  Koscheck-Hendricks was decent.  Nothing too exciting, but not terribly boring either.  As for the main event, it was pretty much a Nate Diaz showcase.  Very impressive victory for him.  Apparently he has earned a title shot; which is well deserved, I must say.  Unfortunately, it's a ways away, but I'm very much looking forward to it when it happens (as long as it doesn't end in a rematch).  All in all, it was a good night of fights.  And with the Belcher-Palhares fight (and a little help from Diaz-Miller), I think I can finally start to let go of the fact that they didn't air Guida-Henderson on the first event.