Friday, January 30, 2009

Best in the biz strikes again

It’s unlikely that the sports world cares enough about hockey to crown an NHL GM the best in professional sports but that doesn’t mean it’s not the case. Ken Holland is the best GM in sports and I don’t think it’s a close race. Holland has always been considered among the upper echelon of hockey GMs but his track record through 2005 had always been discounted because the Red Wings spent so much more money than the rest of the NHL. Franchises that spend two or three times as much as the average team in their leagues should be among the league’s best. That’s a fair argument. Brian Cashman gets the same treatment with the Yankees and deservedly so. However, the NHL has a cap now and the Wings are still far and away the best franchise in the NHL. All Holland has done since the implementation of the salary cap in 2005 is guide the Red Wings to the most points in hockey for three consecutive seasons. The last franchise to do that was the ’74-’78 Montreal Canadiens. The cap was supposed to make things harder for the Wings—not easier.

Perhaps the most obvious indicator of Holland’s brilliant transition from no-cap to cap is how the other top teams in the league at the time managed the transition. Prior to the cap, Detroit’s counterparts at the top of the NHL were Colorado, Dallas, New Jersey, and St. Louis. Colorado, Dallas, and St. Louis are among the worst teams in the Western Conference. The cap proved to be disastrous for those franchises. Lou Lamoriello—one of the best GMs in sports—has done a pretty good job transitioning New Jersey into the cap era. Still, the cap has not been nearly as kind to the Devils as it has been to the Red Wings. In three full seasons under the cap, the Devils have yet to make it to the Eastern Conference Finals which is something they did five times in the eleven years before the cap. The Wings, in turn, have done it twice including a Stanley Cup-win last season. New Jersey has acclimated to the cap admirably but Holland’s success has been on a different level.

Holland’s latest gem is the lifetime contract signed by Henrik Zetterberg. Holland managed to ink Zetterberg for a cap hit of only $6.08 million per year for 12 years. Zets is arguably the best two-way player in the NHL. He is only seven months removed from winning the Conn Smythe Trophy. Locking down Zetterberg at a cap number that is lower than that of Scott Gomez, Chris Drury, Wade Redden, Brad Richards, Kimmo Timonen, Ryan Smyth, and Nikolai Khabibulin is simply incredible. To put the feat into perspective, the Islanders gave G Rick DiPietro $67.5 million over 15 years in 2006 for a cap hit of $4.5 million per season. DiPietro is an average NHL goaltender at best. For only $1.5 million more per year, Holland has secured potentially the best overall player in the NHL for life. It gets even better. While Zetterberg’s salary exceeds DiPietro’s, his percentage of the team payroll is actually less. DiPietro made 10.8% of New York’s payroll in the first year of the contract. Zetterberg will only take up 10.3% of Detroit’s payroll and that’s only if the salary cap doesn’t increase. If the cap increases at least 12% as it has over the last three years, then Zetterberg’s portion of the payroll goes down to 9.6%. Considering inflation, Zetterberg’s contract is actually cheaper than the one signed by DiPietro. I hope for the sake of their sanity that there aren’t any Islanders fans reading this.

The deal looks even better when compared to the other elite players in the NHL. Pittsburgh had to dish out $8.7 million per year each to Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. With nearly $18 million tied up in just two players, the Penguins will have very little cap flexibility moving forward. Conversely, Holland has locked up Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk for the next five seasons at a yearly cap hit of $13.7 million. Anyone who watched the Stanley Cup Finals last season knows that the difference in talent between Crosby/Malkin and Zets/Dats is minimal at best. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if at least half of the GMs in the NHL would prefer the two-way prowess of Zets and Dats. The fact that Holland gets his dynamic duo for four million less per year is what allows Detroit to be the best team in the NHL.

Holland’s ability to sign players for less than market value is well-documented. It’s easy to just write that off to having a built-in advantage as the GM of such a successful franchise. That might be true if Holland wasn’t the one who made the franchise what it is. Holland has shaped the Red Wings in a way where he’s not just selling a good hockey team to free agents but a hockey code that says winning and respect trump riches. Players want to take less money to play in Detroit of all places. The Lions, Tigers, and Pistons can tell you how well the allure of Detroit works for them when pursuing free agents. Holland has done such a good job of selling his team-first concept that Datsyuk, Zetterberg, and Marian Hossa actually requested to earn less than Nicklas Lidstrom. Holland continues to have the Red Wings positioned to be the best team in the NHL for the next decade. In a city where the economy has tanked and the Lions, Tigers, and Pistons have disappointed too many times to count, Detroiters can always count on Holland and the Red Wings to pick up the slack. Holland’s next step is the arduous task of resigning both Marian Hossa and Johan Franzen. Logic (and math) says it’s impossible. Heck, I’ll even say it’s impossible. Ken Holland probably disagrees.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Pistons need Curry to do his job

We’re going to find out very soon whether Michael Curry can hack it as an NBA coach. NBA coaches have two responsibilities: 1) make sure there is discipline and 2) get out of the way. I’m pretty sure that’s why the majority of NBA coaches get fired for either having an undisciplined team or getting in the way. Right now, Curry is in the way and he needs to do something about it like yesterday.

Rip Hamilton went down with a groin injury on December 26th. In his absence the Pistons went 6-2. Since his return on January 13th, the Pistons are 2-6. So, everything is Rip’s fault, right? I’m not buying it. I’m not the biggest Hamilton-fan but he hasn’t even started the last three games. That’s not to say that the problems didn’t start when Rip returned. They most definitely did. Curry allowed Rip’s return to disrupt the way the Pistons play basketball. Most damaging is that Curry has managed to temporarily kill Rodney Stuckey’s aggressiveness which had ignited the team since his insertion into the starting lineup on December 9th. Curry handled Rip’s return so poorly that his decision to send Rip to the bench—the right decision, in my opinion—hasn’t changed a thing. Stuckey has only been to the free throw line four times in Detroit’s last six games. Even worse, all four came in the same game. Conversely, in the eight games that Hamilton missed, Stuckey took 43 free throw attempts. Again, I won’t blame Hamilton. Teams don’t struggle because of the sixth-man.

Pistons fans are pissed right now. Ten different fans will have ten different diagnoses ranging from Hamilton’s return to Allen Iverson’s selfishness. Here’s the thing: Rip doesn’t even start and Iverson has been anything but selfish. Iverson has only taken 28 shots in the last three games. That’s the fewest number of attempts he has taken over a three-game stretch in his career by a wide margin. In fact, seven of his nine lowest single-game shot totals have come this season. Iverson has been anything but selfish. Ineffective? Yes, but certainly not selfish.

The Pistons are lost right now. They have no idea what they’re supposed to do offensively. It’s not Iverson’s fault. It’s not Stuckey’s fault. It’s not Joe D’s fault. Right now, it’s Curry’s fault. I would be willing to bet quite a bit of pizza that this team would be among the NBA’s elite with the right guidance. I’m not asking for miracles. This team can’t and won’t beat Boston. Still, the Pistons should be the second best team in the East with the talent they boast. Iverson takes a lot of heat but he has been at his best in All-Star games when he has been able to act as a facilitator. His insanely low shot total over the past three games—and for the season as a whole—suggests that he is more than willing to play that role in Detroit. Stuckey has already proven his prowess in getting to the rim and drawing fouls. This team has all the makings of an elite team but the players have started to defer to the point of paralysis.

I understand the frustrations that fans have with this team. I can relate. Nobody has been as frustrated with the Pistons as me over the last five years. However, it’s only fair to make sure your criticisms are directed at the right person. It’s true that the team has been terrible since Hamilton’s return. Rasheed acts like the paint has VD. Stuckey and Iverson treat the rim like it has a naked picture of Tony Siragusa taped to it. I wouldn’t blame them if those things were actually true. The problem is that the paint doesn’t have VD and I’m pretty sure the cameras themselves would refuse to take such a picture of “The Goose.” So, the players certainly deserve a portion of the blame. However, coaches get paid to make sure the players are doing what they do best. Under Curry’s watch, Iverson has stopped shooting and Stuckey has stopped driving. Not surprisingly, the Pistons have stopped winning.

Curry needs to understand that this team needs to take the ball to the basket. Iverson is still lightning-quick and has shown the ability to set up his teammates for easy buckets so long as they remove the cement from their feet. Stuckey’s ability to get to the rim is on par with D-Wade, Kobe, and LeBron. Iverson is one of the greatest penetrators in NBA history. The Pistons should have two plays: Stuckey off-dribble and Iverson off-dribble. Defenses break down when guards repeatedly get into the lane. Rasheed, Tayshaun, Rip, and McDyess are more than capable jump shooters. These are basic basketball concepts. If Curry can’t figure this out, then he shouldn’t be around next season.

Friday, January 23, 2009

The Big Ten's Magic Act

Big Ten basketball has been the object of ridicule over the last few years. The conference has been light on quality teams (only four NCAA Tournament bids in ‘08) and even lighter on talent (only three draft picks in ‘08). Last season was certainly a disappointment but the ridicule has been overstated substantially considering the cyclical nature of conference supremacy. I’m sure most would be surprised to be reminded that just three years ago, the Big Ten was the #1 conference in the RPI. The overstating of the Big Ten’s plight has given way to the inevitable overstating of the Big Ten’s return to dominance. Columnists, fans, and computers alike are screaming that the Big Ten is back. Statistically speaking, I’m not sure there’s much to argue with. The Big Ten is in a near-dead-heat with the ACC as the top college basketball conference according to the RPI. The RPI has its shortcomings but the Selection Committee loves them some RPI so it too thinks Big Ten basketball is back.

As much as I would enjoy agreeing with all of that, I think the Big Ten’s RPI prowess is more of an illusion mixed with good fortune than it is an indication that the conference “is back.” For instance, the Big Ten is rated ahead of the Big East in the RPI; yet, the Big Ten has only one team ranked in the top 18 of the RPI while the Big East has six. The Big East is on pace to place nine teams in the NCAA Tournament. It is loaded with elite teams and players. The Big Ten has one elite team and very few elite players, if any. The smoke and mirrors going on in this example comes from the Big East’s bottom five teams. A conference with 16 teams is bound to have its share of bad teams and the Big East is no exception. St. John’s, DePaul, Rutgers, South Florida, and Seton Hall are all at least 40 spots lower in the RPI than the 10th place Big Ten team. As a result, the Big Ten finds itself rated ahead of the Big East despite clearly being the inferior conference.

The Big Ten has also seen its status artificially increased by the freefall of the SEC and Pac 10, respectively. The SEC is having one of the worst seasons by a major college basketball conference in recent memory. It would take a miracle for the winner of its West Division to even get a bid to the NCAA Tournament. The Pac 10 hasn’t been quite as bad but it finds itself with only two teams in the RPI 35. Arizona, Oregon, Washington St., and USC have fallen off substantially. The result is the Big Ten looking a whole lot better than it did last season without really improving that much. Sure, Minnesota and Illinois are much better. Conversely, Indiana is much, much worse and Wisconsin is weaker. Michigan, Penn St., and Northwestern have improved but probably not enough to garner a tournament bid.

While peculiarities in other conferences have helped the Big Ten look better than it is, the main reason for the inflation lies in the RPI formula. The RPI formula is: (¼ Team Winning Percentage) + (½ Opponent’s Winning Percentage) + (¼ Opponent’s Opponent’s Winning Percentage). The Big Ten’s rapid ascent up the RPI has been fueled by the combination of its non-conference strength of schedule and its success against bad teams. Looking closely at the RPI formula reveals that conferences don’t actually have to boast a lot of impressive wins to have impressive RPIs. The Big Ten has proved that. The Big Ten has the #1 strength of schedule in college basketball. Half of the RPI is simply SOS. The Big Ten has also been insanely good against teams outside of the RPI 100 leading to an amazing non-conference record of 83-2 record. Most major conferences have stellar records against teams outside of the RPI 100 but not that stellar. The ACC, for instance, has gone 103-9 against non-conference teams outside of the RPI. The Big Ten’s ability to consistently beat weaker teams has meant a tremendous boost in “Team Winning Percentage” which is worth ¼ of the RPI score. Most conferences have slip-ups against weaker teams. The Big Ten’s near perfect record against such teams has made the need for quality wins mostly irrelevant. The Big Ten’s resurgence has been fueled almost completely by the fact that it merely played difficult opponents and was nearly flawless in beating weak opponents. Notice that “beating good opponents” isn’t even a requirement in this scenario. That’s great for the Big Ten and Selection Sunday, but that doesn’t necessarily tell us how good the Big Ten is.

I’m not suggesting that the Big Ten is terrible. The conference has picked up some solid wins. Michigan beat UCLA and Duke. Michigan St. beat Kansas and Texas. Minnesota beat Louisville. Ohio St. beat Butler. Northwestern beat Florida St. There have been impressive wins. There just haven’t been that many of them. The Big Ten is only 21-22 against the RPI 100 and 12-14 against the RPI 50. Indiana, at 179, is the only Big Ten team rated outside of the RPI 80. Even when the Hoosiers are removed from the equation, the results are still underwhelming. Minus Indiana, the Big Ten is only 20-16 against the RPI 100 and 12-12 against the RPI 50. Aside from Michigan St., there isn’t a team even remotely close to being considered an elite team. In fact, the top two teams in the conference as of last week lost to Northwestern in back to back games.

The Big Ten has received a lot of positive pub for its climb up the RPI and deservedly so. Conferences that play difficult schedules and play near-perfect basketball against weaker competition deserve to be credited. It's great for Big Ten fans and if it gets an extra bid or two come Selection Sunday, then all the better. I’m just not buying the conference as the best in college basketball and neither is Ken Pomeroy.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Worst Franchise in Sports

The Lions have unquestionably been the worst franchise in professional sports over the better part of a decade. Since 2001, they are 31-97 for an unfathomably bad winning percentage of .242. They just put the finishing touches on the worst eight-year stretch in the NFL since the Cardinals went 12-70-3 from 1938-45. That stretch was gloriously capped off by the worst season in professional sports history. While the magnitude of the losing is new, the actual losing is not. The Lions are one of only three veteran NFL franchises that haven’t made it to a Super Bowl (Saints and Browns). They also only have one playoff win in the last 50 years. Does all of this make the Lions the worst franchise in modern sports history?

I scoured the four major sports for the worst performers of the last four decades. I chose 1970 as my definition of “modern sports history” for a few reasons. First, the NFL/AFL merger took place in 1970. NFL franchises have been on equal footing since then in terms of scheduling. Second, a number of franchises in each of the sports were formed in or around 1970. In fact, the four major leagues had nearly twice as many franchises in 1970 as they had just five years earlier making 1970 a convenient—albeit arbitrary—separation point between smaller and larger leagues. Basically, 1970 represents the beginning of sports as we know it today.

Defining the “worst” franchise is clearly a subjective measure. Some franchises boast better regular season winning percentages while others boast more playoff successes (relatively speaking, of course). However, I’m pretty confident that I was able to identify the worst franchises of the four major sports taking all factors into consideration. Where there were multiple candidates, I included them all. Here is a chart comparing the relative merits of the most inept franchises of the last four decades (teams established after 1970 are not included)…

Worst Franchise?

LeagueTeamWin%Years +.500PlayoffsPlayoff WinsFinalsTitles
MLBTexas Rangers*.480153000
MLBMilwaukee Brewers.476123110
MLBSan Diego Padres.465135320
MLBWashington Nationals#.483141000
NBAL.A. Clippers%.36464000
NFLArizona Cardinals@.40785410
NFLAtlanta Falcons.429109610
NFLDetroit Lions.413119100
NFLNew Orleans Saints.41386200
NHLL.A. Kings.4791421810
NHLVancouver Canucks.46613211120

*Includes Washington Senators (1970-71)
#Includes Montreal Expos (1970-2004)
%Includes Buffalo Braves (1970-78) and San Diego Clippers (1978-1984)
@Includes St. Louis (1970-1987) and Phoenix Cardinals (1988-1993)

It’s pretty clear that the worst franchises in the NHL and MLB are nowhere near as pathetic as the worst NFL franchises and the L.A. Clippers. While being the worst in a particular league over a near 40-year stretch is nothing to be excited about, the participants from the NHL and MLB can rest easy. Identifying the worst NFL franchise since 1970 is a thankless task. Atlanta is clearly more distinguished than its competitors with the best winning percentage, the most playoff wins, and a Super Bowl appearance. The Saints and the Lions are nearly identical. The Saints boast four more regular season wins and one more playoff win while the Lions boast three more playoff appearances. I’m not sure how much a “playoff win” should be worth in a comparison like this. Is one playoff win worth more than three winless playoff appearances? The Lions and Saints are a push in my opinion. That leaves the Arizona Cardinals as the remaining NFL team in competition. The Cardinals are what got me thinking about all of this in the first place. For years, the Lions could rely on the futility of the Cardinals to bail them out of being the worst franchise in the NFL. I’m not so sure that is the case anymore. In just one postseason, the Cardinals have distanced themselves from the Lions. The Lions still have a fairly significant lead in regular season success outdistancing the Cards by 15 wins. However, the Cardinals own four times as many playoff wins, a Super Bowl appearance, and possibly a Super Bowl-win. That vaults the Cards over the Lions, in my opinion.

So far, the Lions have been worse than every NHL and MLB franchise and find themselves in a dead-heat with the New Orleans Saints as the worst franchise in the NFL. The L.A. Clippers are the only remaining threat to Detroit’s claim to being the worst franchise in modern sports history. Unfortunately, this is a matchup that even the most masochistic Lions fan could not skew in the Lions favor. The Lions have been an embarrassment to the city of Detroit and to the sport of football but even that isn’t enough to take the mantle of worst franchise from the unequivocally atrocious L.A. Clippers. The Clip-show has an all-time winning percentage of .364. That means they have averaged a 30-52 record in 39 years of existence. They also have zero series wins and only six playoff appearances. I tried to put on my objective hat in this comparison but I found myself rooting hard for the Lions. Just like on the football field, though, they came up short yet again. Still, I feel confident saying that the Lions are the second worst professional franchise of the last 40 years.

That could be the end of the debate but it doesn’t necessarily have to be. There is an addendum that could change things depending on how much credence you’re willing to give it. On statistics alone, it is clear that the Clippers have been the worst franchise of the modern era. However, the Clippers were actually formed in 1970. In fact, every team on this list with the exception of the Cardinals and Lions were formed after 1960. The Lions had been a franchise for 50 years before the Clippers ever came into existence. The Clippers had to start a franchise from scratch which usually guarantees a decade or more of futility. That’s why the majority of the teams in the chart are only 40-45 years old. The Lions have no such excuse. The Clippers have been the worst franchise in modern sports history statistically speaking with the Lions and Saints coming in a close second. Considering the Clippers and Saints were newly founded franchises in 1970 and the Lions were founded in 1920, the Lions could very well be the most pathetic franchise in modern sports history. It all depends on whether you grade on a curve or not. Regardless, the Lions have been pathetic. Although, I’m pretty sure all of you knew that already.

Friday, January 16, 2009

The Schwartz is with us

The Lions have a new victim in their quest to the ruin the careers of as many coaches as possible. Jim Schwartz—former Tennessee Titans Defensive Coordinator—agreed to take a shot at the Lions eternal reconstruction project. I applaud his confidence but I cannot imagine what would compel one of the most respected coordinators in the NFL to take the Lions head coaching position. It would be like Steve Sarkisian leaving USC for the winless Washington Huskies. Oh, wait. He did. OK, so I guess there’s a built-in allure to saving a winless franchise. Still, Schwartz is not the first guy to give this thing a shot. I clearly remember Rod Marinelli coming in three years ago with nearly the same pedigree. He was a highly-respected defensive coordinator with a flare for the fundamentals. He preached technique and toughness. He was going to mold a team of men that would make a marine proud. Of course, that resulted in a 10-38 record over three seasons. Schwartz is probably going to preach the same thing. Unfortunately, I think he’s going to quickly find out that he is just another unassuming victim of William Clay Ford’s web of incompetence. Bill Walsh and Vince Lombardi would’ve been bums if they had the misfortune of coaching under Ford. You can’t duplicate success from other places in Detroit. Ford prevents that from happening. Schwartz—god bless him—is going to come in and talk the talk but three years from now he could very well be walking the walk with a pink slip in his hand.

Out of respect for Schwartz, I’ll pretend that he is taking over as coach for a team that isn’t the Lions. That’s the only way I could possibly give his candidacy a fair evaluation. In my opinion, NFL coordinators get way too much credit. Any time a team does well offensively or defensively over a season, the coordinators of those units become hot coaching commodities. In some cases, it’s apropos. In most cases, it isn’t. Talent wins in the NFL. It might be the case that talent and coaching win championships but talent alone is enough to win games and make the playoffs. In the vast majority of cases, teams that have the best players are the teams that make the playoffs. Yet, the coordinators always get the credit. I’m not saying that is the case with Schwartz. I’m just saying it might be. Tennessee was the best defensive team in the NFL for the majority of this season. The Titans finished second in PPG, 7th in YPG, and 5th in sacks. Those are impressive totals but not totally unexpected for a team with the best defensive line in the NFL. Schwartz’s importance to that success is an unknown. He has been the Defensive Coordinator of the Titans since 2001. That’s a long time for the rest of the league to take notice. I find it somewhat disconcerting that the Lions are the first team to take a crack at him especially considering Bill Belichick has called him one of the smartest coaches he has been around. What took so long?

Schwartz’s track record as a defensive coordinator is underwhelming if not erratic. He has had as many defenses out of the top 25 as he has had in the top 15. The Titans were arguably the worst defensive team in the NFL in 2004 and 2006. The Titans were the #1 defense in the NFL under Gregg Williams in 2000. Williams became the head coach of the Bills and Schwartz took over in 2001. The Titans defense fell from first to 25th under Schwartz. I’m not suggesting that it was entirely his fault or that he isn’t a good coach. I’m merely suggesting that hiring Schwartz is as much of a roll of the dice as hiring Marty Mornhinweg and Rod Marinelli. Schwartz was the coordinator of a talented unit. Falling into the trap of falsely crediting coaching over talent has crippled virtually every NFL franchise at one time or another. Then again, I’m not sure how much more a crippled franchise can be crippled so maybe it doesn’t even matter.

The good news here is that Schwartz’s ability seems to be apparent when looking everywhere other than on-field performance. He coached under Jeff Fisher—one of the great coaches in NFL history to not win a championship—for 11 seasons. He coached under Gregg Williams—one of the best defensive coordinators in the NFL—for three seasons. He worked with Belichick for three seasons. He has also managed to work in the NFL since 1992 without being fired. Schwartz is clearly an intelligent man (his decision to coach the Lions notwithstanding). He graduated with distinction from Georgetown with a degree in economics. He is known for his work with NFL statistical analysis including explaining to a disbelieving Belichick in 1995 that fumbles are a random occurrence and do not correlate to team success. Interceptions, however, do. The New York Times just ran a story claiming Schwartz to be the Billy Beane of the NFL. Considering Beane has managed to keep the Oakland A’s competitive in a league without a salary cap, it would seem that a similar approach would have an even bigger impact in the NFL where all teams are on equal footing. While there is a lot to like about a coach who preaches more than toughness and discipline, Schwartz won’t win—no matter how smart he is—without players. That’s where Martin Mayhew comes in. With the Schwartz-hire, Mayhew appears to be 2 for 2 with big decisions (Roy Williams trade is the other). Avoiding a quarterback with the #1 pick and going with Andre Smith would make him 3 for 3 and that would have to be considered a trend. Could "The Schwartz" finally be with us?

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

So long, Sam McGuffie

Before it gets too far into my rearview mirror, I’d like to write a few things on the departure of Sam McGuffie. Most of you will remember that McGuffie was perhaps the most hyped—not best—recruit in the history of Michigan football (apologies to Drew Henson who was not an internet phenom). McGuffie’s Youtube! highlight video was sick. His junior year high school stats were even sicker. A lot of people had a lot of expectations. That’s not to say they were unreasonable expectations. McGuffie was a highly rated recruit coming out of Texas. He spurned offers from USC and Notre Dame to head to the frigid winters of Ann Arbor. It wasn’t an easy decision. In fact, it almost didn’t happen. As Signing Day came to a close, Michigan had received all signed letter of intents from its verbal commitments except for one. McGuffie was torn. He repressed his second-thoughts long enough to officially sign with Michigan but they clearly never went away. McGuffie transferred to Rice last month. His career at ‘M’ didn’t live up to the “hype” but he showed more in one season than most players show in a career.

Obviously, there will be critics. I was lucky enough to receive three separate comments—starting the first week of the season!—from someone who apparently loves criticizing 18-year olds for being pretty good. I realize that one opinion is an insignificant sample size but I do think there are some people out there who mistakenly feel McGuffie was a bust. I’m not quite sure how a rational-thinking person gets to that conclusion and I really don’t care. If you’re dumb enough to think McGuffie was a “fraud”, then you might as well stop reading now.

Nobody expected McGuffie to start as a true freshman. In fact, most knowledgeable Michigan fans wondered if there was even a future for him as an every-down back at Michigan. Needless to say, his rapid ascent up the depth chart was unexpected. Michigan was atrocious on both sides of the ball in the opener against Utah but McGuffie managed to find the end zone in his first game. Michigan’s offense was equally pathetic in its second game against Miami (OH) but McGuffie picked up 118 total yards. He followed that up with a stellar performance at Notre Dame in which he totaled 185 yards and a touchdown. By the third game of the season, McGuffie was clearly the best player on a poor offensive unit. After the Notre Dame game, he went for 80 yards and a touchdown against Illinois and he had 154 total yards against Toledo. Through six games, McGuffie had 612 total yards and four touchdowns leading ‘M’ in both categories. His 3.9 YPC was also impressive considering how poor Michigan’s offensive line had played. McGuffie was anything but a disappointment through six games.

McGuffie’s running style is furious. He looks like a chicken that just got its head chopped off. That style is what makes him effective but it’s also what sets him up for brutal collisions. I’ve been watching football for quite a few years and I’ve never seen one player take so many vicious hits in one season. It was tough to watch at times. Clearly, Michigan’s offensive line didn’t help matters leaving McGuffie prone to violent hits behind the line of scrimmage. The combination of poor line play and McGuffie’s reckless running style contributed to multiple concussions. His season—and career at Michigan—all but ended against Michigan State after a yet another devastating hit lead to a concussion. Through the first six games, McGuffie had 109 carries. Over the last six games he had nine carries. He managed to make it back for the Ohio State game only to suffer a second concussion on a brutal hit on a kickoff return. It would have been easy for him to sit out the season after the Michigan State game. He seemingly had every plausible excuse imaginable. Family problems? Check. Concussions? Check. Likely transfer? Check. Sit out the rest of the season? No check. McGuffie wasn’t just good in ’08, he was resilient.

It’s easy to rip on a player for deciding to transfer in the face of family issues. It’s easy to call a player a “bust” for not being an All American as a true freshman. Apparently, it’s also easy to be a moron. It remains to be seen how McGuffie’s time at Michigan will be remembered by non-morons. I get the impression that most ‘M’ fans appreciate his contributions and wish him luck. However, I’m not sure how many understand that he was pretty darn good as a true freshman. His year at Michigan was admirable for a number of reasons. He didn’t want to sign with Michigan but stuck with his word. He won the starting running back job as an 18-year old freshman. He was Michigan’s best player through six games of the season. He suffered a concussion and still made it back for the OSU game which only left him with another concussion. If that makes someone a fraud, then I want to be a fraud (minus the concussions and family issues).

McGuffie’s departure will not hurt Michigan on the field. There are plenty of capable running backs on the roster to fill his void. Rich Rodriguez is putting together monster recruiting classes which will make the McGuffie chapter in Michigan history a fleeting memory. Still, his toughness and perseverance on the field cannot be questioned and should not be forgotten. If the concussions don’t become a lingering issue, there is no question in my mind that he will thrive in Rice’s high octane offense. For the second time in less than a year, McGuffie might be the most hyped recruit in the history of a football program (apologies to Nick Fanuzzi who also was not an internet phenom). This time, though, it’s unlikely that he’ll get criticized for being good.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Rodney Stuckey superstar

With all due respect to Mel Farr, there is a new superstar in Detroit. Rodney Stuckey is blowing up. He is the sort of coveted asset that can score easy buckets going to the rim and score even easier baskets at the free throw line. If he continues to progress the way he has over the last year and a half, he could end up looking a lot like Dwyane Wade. In the meantime, he’s still pretty damn good.

The Pistons have been bounced from the playoffs the last three years by Wade, LeBron James, and Paul Pierce. All three are among the NBA’s elite at getting to the rim and drawing fouls. I probably don’t have to remind anyone that against those players the Pistons settled for jumpers while those guys attacked the rim. It’s no wonder why they lost. Stuckey is the antidote to those players. He attacks the rim with even more fervor than LeBron and Wade. He takes 45% of his shots in the paint. That’s more than LeBron, D-Wade, and Kobe Bryant. Heck, that’s more than Tim Duncan and Amare Stoudemire! He’s also among the league leaders in “and-1s” which is somewhat obscure but certainly speaks to Stuckey’s ability to get to—and finish in—the paint.

Stuckey’s presence in the paint has rejuvenated a franchise that has struggled to score for the better part of a decade. The Pistons had won seven in a row before giving away a “W” in Portland last night. Three of those games were without Rasheed Wallace and Rip Hamilton. In previous years, that would’ve meant disaster. This time around, it just might have given us a glimpse of what the Pistons will look like beyond this season. I’m not suggesting that this team is better off without Rasheed and Rip right now. The Pistons don’t have enough depth to succeed without them. Rasheed and Rip do a lot of things well. Unfortunately, they sorely lack two of the fundamental responsibilities that their positions require. Rasheed is a power forward who is afraid of making a move towards the basket. Rip is a shooting guard who can’t get to the rim. Those deficiencies could be masked on separate teams. They are exacerbated on the same team. That’s one of the reason why I think Rip should be coming off the bench for the remainder of the season but that’s as likely as Michigan winning a basketball game at Assembly Hall. Wait, I can’t use that one anymore!

Since entering the starting lineup for good on December 9, Stuckey has averaged 19 points, 6 assists, 4 rebounds and 1.7 steals per game. More importantly, Stuckey’s field goal percentage over that time is a whopping 50% (103-204). That is astronomical for a guard. Clearly, that shooting percentage is not sustainable for the long term. However, Stuckey’s presence in the paint should keep that percentage in the upper 40s as his jumper improves. Stuckey is a budding superstar. He hasn’t been around long enough for the rest of the league to take notice but it won’t take long. The Pistons are unlikely to challenge Boston for supremacy in the east because Boston still scores too many easy buckets. However, the Pistons are clearly a different team now that they have a go-to player. They are 13-4 with Stuckey in the starting lineup this year and 7-8 without.

I can’t end this post without giving serious props to the guy who unearthed Stuckey. Joe Dumars deserves perhaps the highest accolades of his brilliant front-office career for taking a chance on Rodney Stuckey with the 15th pick of the first round in the 2007 NBA Draft. Seriously, was anyone happy with that pick at the time? Stuckey has already established himself as one of the premier penetrators in the NBA. His ability to get to the hole is a breath of fresh air for a Pistons team that has made scoring look like quantum physics over the last few years. He will keep the Pistons competitive while they undergo a considerable transition over the next two years. Stuckey is one half of the championship equation. The other half comes down to whether Joe D can convince one (or two) of the dynamos from the ’10 free agent class to come to Detroit.

P.S. How did the Red Sox get John Smoltz for $5.5 million?

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Vote for Utah (Seriously.) II

Last month, I begged the voters of the Harris and USA Today polls to vote Utah into the National Championship game. That would’ve been a big blow to the BCS and a beacon of hope to the college football masses who pine for a playoff. My pleas were ignored as Utah received a grand total of one first-place vote (I do take full credit for that one vote, however). Clearly, the voters of those respective polls are not anti-establishment. Utah will not win the BCS Championship and we will not see a deathblow to the BCS system—at least not from the polls that participate in the BCS. There is another poll—totally unaffiliated with the BCS—that can still inflict a massive wound to the BCS’s legacy. Like Leonidas’s spear hurling towards Xerxes in 300, the AP Poll could be the killshot for the BCS. A split-national championship is exactly what the BCS was created to avoid. The BCS is reeling with opponents popping up each year including the President of the United States. A PR disaster like a mid-major earning a split of the championship would be devastating for the current system. Leonidas, of course, missed his target but the wheels had been put into motion for a glorious albeit bloody victory. Similarly, the wheels are already in motion for the inevitable dismantling of the BCS. The only question is: how long is it going to take? The AP voters could do us a favor and speed up the process by connecting on its killshot by voting Utah the 2009 AP National Champion.

In my previous post, I laid out a number of rationalizations for including Utah in the BCS Championship game. The current system is set up to reward records first and resume second. No matter how good a team is playing at the end of the season, two losses means you’re out with the exception of last year’s LSU team. Utah was the only undefeated team in the regular season. It beat three ranked teams including Oregon St., BYU, and TCU. However unlikely, nobody could say with certainty that Utah was not the best team in college football. I understand the resistance to voting for Utah. It comes from a non-BCS conference. It didn’t have to face the grueling week-to-week schedule of the SEC or Big XII. I get it. I don’t actually believe Utah is one of the two best teams in the country. I do, however, believe that the BCS is an insult to college football fans and voters should use their power to enact positive change in a reasonable way.

Despite the myriad of acceptable reasons to vote Utah into the National Championship game, the USA Today and Harris voters were not compelled to vote for Utah. Fortunately, there are even more reasons for the AP Poll to do so this time around and do so honorably. Most “experts” (including myself if I can be called that) felt that Alabama was going to pummel Utah. Utah’s two-touchdown beatdown should change everything. In my best Dennis Green voice, “They aren’t who we thought they were.” Florida earned a trip to the National Championship by beating Alabama. That victory convinced everyone that Florida was one of the two best teams in the country. Why shouldn’t Utah’s victory over Alabama do the same?

After capping off an undefeated season by beating the team that held the #1 ranking for the last five weeks of the regular season, Utah has credibility. The system didn’t give Utah a chance to win the National Championship. Utah could be the best team in the country and nobody would know it. Florida or Oklahoma is going to get its trophy regardless. A vote for Utah would not deny anyone anything. It would reward a team for being the only undefeated team in the country while simultaneously striking a blow to the BCS. Take a stand. Vote for Utah (Seriously).

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