Wednesday, February 24, 2010

With all due respect...

Joe Dumars—the player—will always have a place in my heart. His rainbow jumper and in-your-face defense brought two NBA Championships to Detroit when Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Michael Jordan ruled the world. Those were my formative years as a sports fan so his legacy as an iconic Detroit athlete will certainly stand at the top for me with Barry, Zeke, Stevie Y, and Tram. Joe Dumars—the General Manager—however, has worn out his welcome. I know that sounds harsh and, trust me, it was difficult to write. Unfortunately, that’s just the reality of the situation. I’m guessing that most Detroit fans agree with me but for the few who don’t, let me ask just one question: what has Joe D done that can even remotely be considered “effective” since February 19, 2004? It’s been over six years since he made the trade for Rasheed Wallace that led to an NBA Championship. It’s also been over six years since anyone has been able to say a good thing about Joe the GM.

Joe deserves credit for assembling a championship roster in a city that by mere mention sends free agents running for cover. He acquired Ben Wallace and Rip Hamilton via savvy trades. He stole Chauncey Billups off the free agent market. He scored big by drafting Tayshaun Prince last in the first round and then capped it all off by acquiring Rasheed for essentially nothing at the trade deadline. That finished product won an NBA Championship. It was a brilliant lesson in team building. Like fresh produce, however, NBA teams have shelf lives. If you let produce sit on the counter for too long, it goes bad— really bad. Joe D let his team deteriorate long after it was obvious that it was no longer salvageable. It went rotten and he did nothing to stop it.

I’ve been willing to give Joe D a pass for quite some time. An NBA Championship certainly earns a GM a requisite amount of goodwill. After seeing Joe’s malaise last far too long, I’m willing to define “requisite amount of goodwill” as “six years.” Joe’s inability to move Prince or Hamilton—not just this year but the last few years—has been mindboggling. Those moves should’ve happened three years ago. It became quite clear once the Pistons were bounced by the Heat in the 2006 Eastern Conference Finals that he was going to ride his team into the ground even to the detriment of its future. On one hand, remaining loyal to the players that brought you a championship is honorable. However, every GM who has ever tried to milk every last basket out of a championship team without an exit plan has lived to regret it. Joe should know that more than anyone after what happened to the Bad Boys team that he played for.

I’m guessing that Joe thought the rebuilding process was going to be fairly “easy” and thus neglected to put the proper emphasis on it when things were going well. That’s really the only way I can rationalize how horrible he has performed his job. The fact that he shipped off Billups for Iverson in a cap-freeing move gave me cause for optimism. It was a bold move but necessary, in my opinion. I was convinced that it was the first step in Joe’s secret plan to rebuild the Pistons into a championship contender. Instead, he took the money from Iverson’s expiring contract (along with the money that freed up when Rasheed left) and wasted it on two players who are more known for their flaws than their abilities. The acquisitions of Charlie Villanueva and Ben Gordon nearly drained every last ounce of confidence I had in Joe’s ability to turn things around. In fact, “dread” is the perfect word to use to describe my state-of-mind when these moves were announced. However, those moves only “nearly” drained the entirety of my confidence. What happened last week, however, ran my confidence tank completely dry.

Earlier this season, Joe expressed interest in seeing his team “healthy” before making any major moves. The idea being that, despite early-season struggles, maybe the Pistons were actually “good” when healthy. And, of course, maybe if I put a quarter in a slot machine, I’ll win $250,000. If you have watched the Pistons at all this season or even follow the NBA in even a remedial capacity, you would know that Joe’s desire to see his team “healthy” screams incompetence. I don’t know what Joe expects to see from a healthy team that simply glancing at the roster wouldn’t easily reveal. Rip Hamilton and Rodney Stuckey play the same position. One of them has to go. Tayshaun Prince and Charlie Villanueva play the same position. One of them has to go. No amount of “health” is going to change the fact that Prince and Rip are redundant players who essentially create a black hole of $22 million.

That’s something that should be obvious before watching this team play a single minute of basketball. When it comes to actually watching the team play, it becomes even more obvious that major moves need to happen and they need to happen now. Other than an aging Ben Wallace, the Pistons have no defensive post presence. They have nobody who can score in the paint. They have nobody who can take a game over or score easy baskets. Rodney Stuckey and Ben Gordon combined would make a phenomenal player but individually they are either too flawed or too inexperienced to be counted on to lead a team. The fact that Joe needs to see his team fully healthy before making a move is troubling. You don’t need to be Jerry West to know what the Pistons are lacking and, unfortunately, it’s quite a bit. Remember, he said this earlier in the season when it actually made sense to hold off on moves with the trade deadline still months away.

Here we are 2-3 months later and Joe cited the exact same reason for remaining static at the trade deadline. I’ve been around for quite a few trade deadlines and this was the busiest I can remember. Among the players on the move were Marcus Camby, Tracy McGrady, Kevin Martin, Antwan Jamison, and Caron Butler. Players that were reportedly available included Amare Stoudamire, Carlos Boozer, and Chris Bosh. The Pistons have a cash-strapped roster full of non-compatible parts. With so many marquee players up for grabs, this was the perfect time for Joe to make a move. Even if he didn’t want to sell the farm for Amare or Bosh, making a run at McGrady’s $22 million expiring contract would’ve given him a mulligan on last year’s free agent debacles. Camby was a player Joe could’ve targeted at the beginning of the season when it was obvious that the Pistons were lacking acumen in the lane. Joe’s primary objective in 2009-10 should’ve been to unload Prince and Rip by any means necessary. I am fairly certain that something could’ve been done with one of the aforementioned players involving Rip and Prince. Instead, Joe cited his desire to see what his 20-35 team could do when healthy. Thanks to that desire, the Pistons will continue to be a hopeless, rudderless ship destined for oblivion. Joe struck gold ten years ago with a slew of under-the-radar moves. Unfortunately, it’s not ten years ago anymore.

Joe hasn’t done anything in six seasons to help his organization move towards an NBA Championship. Joe’s refusal to move redundant commodities has crippled his franchise. The fact that he actually thinks that his biggest problem is his inability to get his players healthy is infuriating. I don’t see any avenue that gets this team competitive in the next three years. If Joe gets this thing turned around, I’ll gladly print out this post and eat my words. But, I’m not worried in the slightest. Dumars for Governor!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Blame the Dead Guy

The only thing worse than an Olympic athlete dying in competition is for that athlete to be blamed for dying. Mistakes are not supposed to end in death at the Olympics. There’s a reason why it had been nearly 50 years since an Olympic Games produced a death in competition and that reason isn’t “luck.” Olympic athletes—even the ones who participate in obscure sports from even more obscure countries—know enough about their sports and have had enough training in their sports to avoid making fatal mistakes. For the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to attempt to avoid the microscope by calling into question an athlete’s training is callous, cruel, and barbaric. It’s unfortunate that it’s not illegal, too, because someone should have to face consequences for such an ignorant and self-serving act of inhumanity.

Nodar Kumaritashvili was not a favorite to medal in Vancouver but let’s not confuse that with being a charity case. Kumaritashvili came from a family of lugers. He began training in 2003. Out of 65 lugers on the World Cup circuit, he was ranked 44th. He had completed 26 runs on the same Whistler Sliding Centre track that ended up taking his life. This isn’t an athlete who was unfamiliar with his sport or even the fatal track. Yet, that didn’t stop the International Luge Federation (FIL) from releasing a statement saying his death resulted from driver-error rather than its torture chamber of a track. Specifically, the FIL said, “Officials of the FIL were able to retrace the path of the athlete and concluded there was no indication that the accident was caused by deficiencies in the track.”

Congratulations to FIL officials for being masters of semantics. The accident may not have been caused by deficiencies in the track but Kumaritashvili’s death sure was. Even if the track itself was universally praised—which was certainly not the case—there’s the whole issue of the unprotected steel beams just inches off the edge of the track; the same steel beams that ended Kumaritashvili’s life. Lugers make mistakes but Kumaritashvili didn’t die because he made a mistake. He died because he catapulted into an unprotected steel beam. Again, mistakes in competition are not supposed to kill Olympic athletes. When they do, you can rest assured that someone other than the athlete did something very wrong.

It’s not that I would expect the parties responsible for producing such a widely ridiculed track to openly accept blame for the death of an athlete. That wouldn’t be good for business. However, would it be too much to ask for them to avoid saying things like “the changes were made for emotional considerations and not necessarily for safety purposes”? That rationale is peculiar in light of another FIL statement that said, "Based on these findings, the race director, in consultation with the FIL, made the decision to reopen the track following a raising of the walls at the exit of curve 16 and a change in the ice profile. This was done as a preventative measure, in order to avoid that such an extremely exceptional accident could occur again.” That would seem to indicate that the track was made safer, to you know, make it safer—instead of the emotional considerations it cited previously.

The FIL and other Olympic butt-coverers must think that the rest of the world is pretty dumb to attempt to pawn off this as an unprepared athlete gone wrong. The Whistler Slide Centre has been panned by coaches and competitors alike for being unsafe and borderline unfit for competition for over a year. Even the FIL’s own president said the track was too fast and dangerous. And based on the events of last week, he clearly knew what he was talking about. A two-time gold medalist from Italy crashed in training as did a German medal contender. A Romanian luger was knocked unconscious. It would be some coincidence if all of these crashes by some of the world’s best lugers just happened to come at a track that had been roundly criticized for being too fast and dangerous and yet have nothing to do with the safety of the track. It would be even more of a coincidence for a luger to die on that track and yet have nothing to do with the safety of the track.

Kumaritashvili himself was downright afraid of the course. His father said that his son told him before his fatal run that he was “scared” of the track. Remember, this is a luger who had made 26 runs down the track and was ranked as the 44th best luger in the world. To hear that an Olympic athlete was literally afraid of participating in a sport that he had spent seven years training for is both sobering and sad.

In the end, the FIL got it right. It shortened the track and, more importantly, put the protecting wall in front of the steel beams that should’ve been there in the first place. It’s just too bad that it couldn't have gotten it right without first getting it so incredibly wrong both in the track design and then in its need to point fingers at a dead Olympian in the wake of such a tragic accident.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

NBA MVP Race is Over

Some of you may have noticed a slight dip in post frequency over the last few weeks. I’ve been on a hiatus from my normal two posts per week routine. In the aftermath of the 100 Greatest Michigan Football Moments post—which was 20 times the length of an average post—I’ve been taking it easy with just a weekly post. Not sure how long the malaise is going to last but, in the meantime, I figured with the NBA All-Star Game just a few days away, now would be a good time to look at the NBA MVP race. Come to think of it, it might be an insult to LeBron James to call it a race because it’s one in name only.

MVP races and voting results can be frustrating for fans. Voting criteria is often based on lame precedents and position prejudices. This expectedly leads to controversy and often cynicism. For instance, Peyton Manning was just named the NFL MVP for a record 4th time. He had a good year but it would be difficult for anyone to argue that he won solely based on the way he performed this season. In a comparison with Drew Brees and Brett Favre, Manning is barely even in the conversation. Brees and Favre had two of the top 12 single-season passer ratings of all-time; Manning wasn’t even close to either. Brees threw 11 interceptions and Favre threw just seven; Manning threw 16. All three QBs played for first-place teams. The only advantage that Manning had was that his name was “Manning.”

Fortunately, it doesn’t look like we’re going to find anything to criticize when it comes to the 2010 NBA MVP. LeBron James—and his preposterous 30 points/8 assists per night stat line—is going to easily win his second consecutive NBA MVP. In fact, barring injury, I’m not sure how anyone other than LeBron is going to win an MVP over the next five years. Clearly, voters could simply become tired of awarding the trophy to the same person every season a la Michael Jordan. MJ probably should have at least two more MVPs to his credit. With the Age of LeBron just getting off the ground, however, it’s unlikely that anyone will be tiring of King James anytime soon.

While it remains to be seen whether LeBron is ready to lead his team to an NBA Championship, his ability to statistically dominate the NBA like nobody in the last 30 years is not in question. He leads the NBA in scoring and is 6th in assists. He shoots over 50% from the field and 36.2% from 3-point land which is, by far, the best mark of his career. He has the highest defensive rating of any non C/PF in the NBA (the measure appears to be biased towards those positions). His team has the best record in the league and—despite his offensive awesomeness—the Cavs boast the best opponent field goal % in the NBA.

If LeBron were erased from the picture, the 2010 MVP race would be one for the ages. LeBron’s exploits are certainly impressive but he isn’t the only baller putting up gaudy statistics. Steve Nash is having arguably the best season of his career with averages of 18.4 ppg and 11.1 apg to go along with a remarkable 52% from the field. Dwight Howard leads the league in rebounds, free throw attempts, and blocks and is second in field goal %. Kevin Durant is having possibly the greatest season ever by a 21 year old. He’s just .1 behind LeBron in the scoring race while averaging more rebounds and shooting better from 3-point land. He also leads the NBA in Free Throws Made which should terrify the rest of the league. Don’t forget about Carmelo Anthony who has seen his game finally mature after six productively disappointing seasons. He might even be the odds on favorite if it weren’t for 13 DNPs. The league is certainly not short on MVP-worthy performers this season. I haven’t even brought up Dirk, D-Wade, and Tim Duncan who are one-man shows for playoff teams. But for all of the shining performers the league has seen this season it will still come down to LeBron vs. Kobe in the minds of the voters (even though it should be LeBron vs Durant).

The debate rages on. It’s every bit as fierce as Team Jennifer vs. Team Angelina and the testosterone equivalent of Team Jay vs. Team CoCo. Everyone has an opinion. LeBron haters argue that he lacks Kobe’s killer instinct. Kobe haters point to LeBron’s freakish size and athleticism. This is a debate that will likely continue for decades. It’s like Russell vs. Chamberlain II with one major exception. What made that rivalry so great was the fact that Wilt and Russ met in the NBA Finals three times. We’re still waiting on LeBron vs. Kobe I. In the meantime, Kobe’s season has been inferior to LeBron’s in just about every measureable away. Thus, LeBron James is your 2010 (and 11, and 12, and 13…) NBA MVP.

Monday, February 01, 2010

I'm sayin' there's a chance

The Michigan basketball team has disappointed more over the last decade than Detroit Lions draft picks and that’s no small feat. After starting the season ranked in the top 15, the Wolverines sit at #124 in the RPI just behind Fairfield and just ahead of Long Beach State. The excitement generated by Michigan’s first NCAA Tournament appearance in 11 years combined with the return of its top five scorers from last season was expected to yield something much more lucrative than the 11-10 record it currently boasts. It’s not that Michigan hasn’t been competitive. Six of its 10 losses have come by six points or fewer including a one-point loss to Michigan State. Michigan only has its self to blame, however. There is little excuse for a team as talented and experienced as Michigan to lose to Alabama, Indiana, and Northwestern. Even its home loss to Boston College was inexcusable for a team that was picked to challenge for the Big Ten Championship. With just two wins over the RPI 100, Michigan is quickly nearing the end of the runway for a safe takeoff into the NCAA Tournament field. Just one win in its recent three-game stretch against Wisconsin, Purdue, and Michigan State would’ve put Michigan on a much more manageable performance plan to close out the season. Instead, it dropped all three games setting up a slew of must-win games over the next five weeks.

The good news for Michigan is that its remaining schedule is far from brutal. That bad news is that there is literally no margin for error. It would be crazy to assume that Michigan is going to walk into Columbus (with Evan Turner present) and East Lansing during the last week of the Big Ten regular season and pick up W’s. It’s even crazier to think that “M” will win four games in four days in Indianapolis to win the Big Ten Tournament. That means that, for all intents and sanity, Michigan is already sitting at 13 losses. Michigan would need to win all eight of its other games—including a first round win in the BTT— just to get to 19-13. With that record, it would likely boast seven wins over the RPI 100 with an RPI hovering around the top 60. Considering how well Michigan would have to play just to get to 19-13—it would need to go 8-3 to close out the season—that might be enough to snag an at-large bid. Anything worse than that doesn’t even merit serious discussion. Michigan will not receive an at-large bid with an 18-14 record. So, a team that stands below .500 in the Big Ten after nine conference games has to win six in a row including three on the road just to get into the discussion for an NCAA at-large bid. So, I’m saying there’s a chance!

Based on my totally arbitrary odds for Michigan’s next six games, the chances of winning all six is 2.25%. As if that isn’t unrealistic enough, Michigan would then need to beat Minnesota at home between its brutal end-of-season matchups with Ohio State and Michigan State. Given a 60/40 chance of beating Minnesota, Michigan’s odds of securing an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament are a robust 1.35%. Michigan looks to be destined for a 6th or 7th seed in the Big Ten Tournament. That means that it would theoretically need to beat the 3rd, 2nd, and 1st seed in successive days to win the tournament. The odds of that—according to me— are 2.4%. Throw in the 60/40 first round matchup and Michigan’s odds of winning the Big Ten Tournament come in at a stout 1.44%. So, if you’re still holding out hope that Michigan will make the NCAA Tournament, don’t even worry about anything between now and March 11th because Michigan’s best chance at making the tournament is via the Big Ten Tournament by a tally of 1.44% to 1.35%*. I don’t know about you but I’m putting together my itinerary for Indianapolis right now!

*The odds are slightly higher for both scenarios simply because of the unlikely—but still possible—outcomes in which a) Michigan wins in Columbus or E. Lansing and b) one or more of the top three seeds get upset in the BTT creating more favorable paths to the Big Ten Championship game.


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