Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Is Rasheed Wallace Ready To Cost his Team an Eighth Championship?

News is that Rasheed Wallace may come out of retirement to play with the New York Knicks. I like Rasheed Wallace (and Need4Sheed is a fantastic site). But do you realize how many times Rasheed Wallace has faltered when his team needed him most? Not one, not two...but as many as seven times. Take a look at this admittedly biased take.
2000: Portland vs. Los Angeles Lakers, Game 7.
On the one hand, you could point out that Rasheed scored 30 points on 50% shooting, and still had 9 points in the 4th quarter. But take this quote straight from the game log:
"Rasheed Wallace scored 30 points on 13-for-26 shooting but had six of the Blazers' 13 consecutive misses during the Lakers' run that wiped out a 75-60 lead. Wallace also missed two free throws with Portland trailing 81-79 with 1:25 to go."

For any other player, this wouldn't seem like much. But Rasheed was just beginning.
2001: Portland vs. Los Angeles Lakers series.
It should have been possible for Portland to return to the Western Conference Finals. For one, Rasheed's regular season totals were perhaps the best of his career, with a career-high in win shares/48. The league average in WS/48 is a .100. During the regular season, Wallace had .180 WS/48. During the postseason and the Lakers first-round sweep? A negative win share as he shot .373 from the field and the Blazers were swept by the Lakers.
2004: Rasheed helps the Pistons defeat the Lakers and takes full advantage of Karl Malone's injury woes. Had Rasheed fixed his losing ways?

2005: Yes, you know about the mistake he made to leave Horry open, and perhaps you know how he helped the Pistons win Game 6. The Horry play prompted this unusually thoughtful essay about Rasheed over at the Good Men Project. But let's review again how bad Rasheed's choice was: "I’ve seen that play dozens of times since it took place nearly six years ago. I’ve commiserated with other Pistons fans. None of us have ever been able to really accept that Sheed would leave the Spurs’ hottest three point shooter all alone (Horry had scored his previous 18 points in the game all in the fourth quarter and overtime and was 4-5 from beyond the arc) in order to double down on a player who had gone 5-16 on the night, was 25 feet from the hoop with his back to it, and was already guarded by the Pistons best perimeter defender."
For the NBA Finals series against the Spurs, Rasheed Wallace averaged under 11 points a game. In the pivotal Game 7, he could only play 28 minutes due to foul trouble. He scored 10 points, but grabbed only one rebound.
2006: The Cavaliers were just happy to be in the second round of the play-offs for the first time in Lebron's career. They managed to take Game 3 from the Pistons, but it seemed only a matter of time before the Pistons moved on to face the Heat. Then Rasheed said this:
"“I know we goin’ win. I know we goin’ bust they ass. Tomorrow night is the last game here in this building this year. Y’all can quote me, put it back page, front page, whatever.”"
I was there for one of the games (Game 4 or 6), and the crowd has never been louder, booing Wallace and carrying the Cavs. The series against the Cavaliers went seven and ended on Sunday (a game where Rasheed shot 4-16, I might add). Meanwhile, the Miami Heat were done with the Nets by Tuesday, getting a full week of rest for an aging, veteran team before the Heat-Pistons series started on Tuesday. In the Miami series, a fatigued? Wallace shot under 40% for 5 of the 6 games. I fully believe Rasheed's comments extended the series and showed the Cavs that the Pistons may have been more concerned than they let on.
2007: In the crucial Game 5, Rasheed shot 4-13 as the Pistons lost in overtime. In Game 6, Rasheed got ejected in the 4th quarter of a game that the Pistons were only trailing by 12. Yes, a Pistons rally was unlikely, but consider how the Cavs were leading. Lebron shot only 3 for 11 for the game, and the Cavs were forced to rely on Boobie Gibson to stay ahead of the Pistons in that game.
2008: In Game 6 against the Celtics, Rasheed decided his previous performance in elimination games wasn't enough. The Celtics won by 8 while Rasheed went 2-12 from the field and an amazing 0 for 6 from 3-point range.
2010: Replacing Kendrick Perkins, Rasheed books a respectable double-double in Game 7 of the Finals. But I still dock him here. The Lakers grabbed 23 offensive rebounds in that game. Given Rasheed himself admitting he struggled with conditioning, he deserves some blame.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Oddly Depressing Rise of the Writer-Athlete: Chris Kluwe and the Mind Above Replacement

Jay Caspian Kang wrote a great article on Grantland about how we tend to put ourselves into the shoes of everyone in professional sports. Titled "Sometimes I Dream that He Is Me", Jay digs into how silly it is when we say things such as "If I were the owner of the Dallas Cowboys." It is more excusable to pretend we are an athlete: at least we've shot a basket or kicked a football before. But most of us have never negotiated a million-dollar deal or had to choose between Bali and Dubai as the site of our winter estate. So pretending we are an owner or commissioner is an even greater sin.

However, certain athletes seem easier to relate to. (As Kang implied, not even the most hardened talk-show caller can really say "If I were Dwight Howard" with a straight face). Take, for example, R.A. Dickey's fine book on his struggles to become a man and a pitcher, or Chris Kluwe's recent writings on Deadspin. It's good to hear from the athletes themselves on Twitter or in an article, without a filter, being themselves. Then why am I oddly depressed about it all? Because perhaps we are the problem.

First, the intellectual bigotry of the modern fan is strikingly clear. We act as if all athletes have a replacement-level mind, fit only for athletic feats. Men deal with physical inferiority by switching the playing field. When Kluwe talks about RPG's to Kotaku, or Dickey makes a LOTR reference, so many fans seem shocked or oddly awed by it. There's a horrible tendency to see athletes as one-track machines and deny them legitimate interests. Just read the comment section of an article if an athlete marries a women who is merely pretty instead of jaw-droppingly beautiful. You would think that athlete had let down mankind. Our idealization of the athlete's athletic gifts to the detriment of their humanity hurts them and us. Worse, it seems intentional. I can keep watching football as long as I don't think about the impact of concussions on another human being just like me, and how even a small headache can easily put me out of commission.

Second, we rely on these athletes to justify our biases. Why in the world does Chris Kluwe's rant on gay marriage have almost two million views on Deadspin? Is it that eloquent, that filled with new information? Couldn't your average 30-something over-posting friend on Facebook write much the same? Why do Christian groups clamor to have Tim Tebow, noted theologian and monk, on stage? If I were an athlete, I'd create a fallback career by being a pitchman for the cause of my choice. Treating the opinions of athletes with such reverence creates a subtle bias that athletes do not have opinions.

But perhaps there is some good in this. Perhaps when Chris Kluwe writes on something that has nothing to do with his job, we idealize that because we wish to do the same. Here am I, let's say Accountant/Amateur Comedian, and I can pursue both options without diminishing or insulting either. I want to live in a world of funny pastors, intelligent athletes, and well-dressed professors, to name a few turns against stereotype. But I don't think we can get to that world if we keep over-reacting every time an athlete shows their humanity.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Forty Years after Title IX, Women Remain Amateurs

Forty years ago today, President Nixon signed Title IX into law. One of the surprising side effects of the law was to make it easier for women to participate in athletics at the scholastic level. However, Title IX has miserably failed in jump-starting a larger interest in women as professional athletes or creating an equal playing field where men and women participate in the same sports. What went wrong?

First, let's consider professional sports. The Women's Professional Soccer league has disbanded, even after the boost of the 2011 US Women's World Cup team and the coming 2012 Olympics. The league was incapable of getting more sponsors or team owners even after this happened:

Meanwhile, the LPGA still struggles despite dynamic and photogenic young stars such as Morgan Pressel. The WNBA, which used to capture my attention, seemingly limps around, and unfortunately doesn't have a Brittany Griner to place on each team. There is no softball league anymore (oh, remember the US Women's softball team?). Not a single women's sport seems to be thriving at the moment in America, outside of the once-every-four years sports of gymnastics and ice skating, which don't use the college system anyway.

So what can be done, if anything? Women's softball or soccer still have some chance of thriving in the United States. I was impressed by the WPS level of play, and even writers who usually are not that enthusiastic about women's sports, such as Bill Simmons, were intrigued by the US women's national team. There's room for a Triple-A type set-up for those team sports in the USA.

It won't be easy, and those leagues may end up completely catering to a family audience. The problem with that is that faithful single male and lesbian fans of such sports may feel left out or neglected. But there must be some sort of compromise where a league can attract significant levels of both. In my posts on the WPS, I saw this starting to work in the last few games of the season.

I also quite frankly wonder if talented athletic women should be targeting men's sports. There have been female baseball players before, in the old Negro leagues. Females have competed in the lower classes of high school wrestling, one example being Cassy Herkelman. (She made news when her opponent in the state tournament, Joel Northup, defaulted rather than face her: see below).
Women have competed quite well in ultra-marathons, for example. Perhaps the true way to fulfill the spirit of Title IX is for a woman to one day play shortstop for the Dodgers.

Overall, however, I believe the spirit of Title IX has failed. Forty years is not too short a time to expect a professional women's league in one sport to become moderately successful. Perhaps we are dealing with fundamental tastes of humanity here, and the lack of interest in paying and watching women play sports will not change. What do you think?

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

On Masai Ujiri and True Ubuntu in Denver

The Denver Nuggets find themselves reeling from a Game 1 encounter with Andrew Bynum in which they looked powerless to take on the Lakers star in the middle. Same old Nuggets, you might say, able to make the play-offs but unable to advance past the first round or two. It's been regretfully easy for seasoned NBA fans to patronize Denver as a good but not great team for the last few decades.

However, let me encourage you to rethink your "Same old Denver" thoughts. General Manager Masai Ujiri is attempting to create a new model for how teams sign players, and I hope is successful. Witness these words from Chris Luchey, who is the agent for Wilson Chandler:
"We're ecstatic," Luchey told SI.com. "[The Nuggets] talked about being a young, athletic team, being a team where a lot of guys make good, solid money and there's not this big gap between the minimum guy and a max player. Having guys feel like they're teammates, not the envious-type typical roster, and young guys who had experience."

Quietly, Ujiri envisions a squad where true Ubuntu (interconnectedness) can flourish and teammates aren't separated by envy and dollar signs. This is no idealism, either: with Ujiri's background and contacts in global scouting, he has the skills to consistently sign above-average overseas talent at merely average prices. It's worth noting that Ujiri is the first African-born General Manager. He seems to have a definite vision of what this team will become. Most teams seem to see the mid-priced veteran as an inconvenience or an accessory to a star. Masai instead seems to see them as valuable assets in their own right. He speaks of getting players experience and building for the future in Denver:

"...Young guys, throw them in and go out and play and maybe get your face kicked a little bit but get some experience and then we know who they are. This is a year that we can afford to do that. We didn’t do it in the intention of not making the playoffs. We did it with the intention of big picture, make the team better and that’s kind of how we feel.”"

There's a second dimension to all this that has yet to be mentioned. Denver is known for being a difficult place for away teams to win. This season that hasn't been true (merely .500-ish at home), but at times the high air of Denver has been difficult for away teams. Denver tried to capitalize on this in the past with run-and-gun offense. But now, Denver is building a roster that is nearly two deep at every position, and strong on defense. With plus defenders like Affalo and Chandler, and shot-blockers like McGee and Anderson, Denver has the possibility of creating a unique home court advantage with its deep bench and thin air. It's the equivalent of how some cold-weather football teams specialize in ball-control, and it's rarely seen in basketball. Admittedly, this may all be hoop dreams, and I'm not sure if such a strategy could make Denver a top three team in the West. But give Denver Democracy its due and notice the unique foundation quietly taking place out west.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Dear Sports Blogs, Please Stop Accidentally Enabling Creepers

I was catching up on Kissing Suzy Kolber today when I came across an article by Justin Halpern. He had an amusing hypothetical idea: Suppose Mel Kiper was at a bar and was grading women instead of football players. As part of the article, he grabbed a random photo of some women at the bar from 2007 and talked about each woman in turn. I assumed the ladies were friends of his or somehow in on the joke. No big deal, right? Here's a photo of some "random" guys in a bar from 2007, for example, that Justin might have used had he been gay or a woman*. Who is your first-round draft choice from the photo?

I want to give Justin the benefit of the doubt. Five years ago, grabbing a random photo, it's unlikely that anyone would find out who those ladies were or know those ladies. But, now that we have reverse image search via tineye.com, the ladies in the photo could be tracked down and identified. They did indeed find out that their photo was being used.

Now imagine how sweet it would be to be described like this on the Internet (taken from Justin's story):
"...His/Her slim physique will be able to take the pounding that comes with a one night stand"
"He/she probably won’t be someone who you can immediately insert your penis in to"
"...He/She more than makes up for with his/her willingness to find a penis, and just put it in his/her mouth"

The lady whose blog it was from requested that the photo be taken down, to no avail. So this poor woman is stuck with slutty comments attached to her and her friends, and being easily found by any creep who reads the comment section. I know, the typical reader for sports blogs isn't Michael David Barrett. But what sucks is, why couldn't Justin use a photo of HIS female friends, if this is just a light-hearted joke? I assume he does has some female friends (insert lazy cliche about virginal writers here). If it's all for laughs and giggles, use a photo that you have permission for, or pick on public figures. (Someone in the comment thread suggested the Kardashians, for example). It's not difficult to find other ways to get our jokes in.

I want to emphasize, most sports bloggers I have met in person were great guys. They were funny, dating/married to lovely women, and not at all socially unacceptable. But there are way too many examples of careless bloggers accidentally putting innocent men and women at risk of Internet creepiness.

For example, a sports blog had a photo of a pretty woman to accompany a random story. When I clicked the link to see if it was some celebrity actress I had never heard of, turns out...in two clicks, it led to a high school student in New Jersey's Facebook photo. I'm going to gently assume that the blogger in question doesn't spend his time trolling Facebook for high school girls. (Yes, I checked if he was on her friends list, he wasn't). But by them publishing the photo, he put that 16-year-old girl at risk of being stalked and/or humiliated.

Sports bloggers need to educate themselves about technology in general to stop accidentally giving away their sources and their secrets when it's not necessary. And this isn't just about women. Take, for example, Deadspin's Barry Petchesky, whose writing I enjoy. He wrote up a very funny post about a finance guy who used spreadsheets to keep track of the women he dated. Unfortunately, this happened (click to enlarge):
Barry went back and fixed the spreadsheet and moved the identifying comments out of the thread, but unfortunately the damage had already been done. Obviously, someone at Dave's office (the office we all know about now, via Linkedin) could use this information against Dave. Or, someone could look up the photos of the women and track them down.

Let me state the obvious. I don't think Justin Halpern is a creep who stalks random women on blogs that are five years old. I don't think that the sports blogger who linked to the photo of the high school girl is at risk of a visit from the police. And I don't think Barry Petchsky's mission in life is to enable stalking. I get it: the more raw the story, the more details, the more titillating and exciting. But I'd just remind you what AJ Daulerio said his biggest regret was. He ran a video of a college girl having sex, and ended up getting an email from her father, who had to watch his daughter possibly being raped in a dirty bathroom. In the end, here's what AJ said:
"Daulerio now says he wishes he hadn't run the video. "It wasn't funny," he says. "It was possibly rape. I was trying to kind of put it in that same category [as the Dallas video]. I didn't really look at the thing close enough to realize there's maybe something a little more sinister going on here and a little more disturbing."

Lest you think this is me riding a high horse, here's my own confession of making this type of mistake. When I first started this blog, I used to run a series on here about sports crushes. It was supposed to be a light-hearted look at women who were good people, interesting, and attractive. "Here's this pretty athlete who also works with disabled kids and is in Mensa." A goal was to pick athletes and writers who were obscure. It meant more Google traffic because of less competition. But I too was enabling stalking behavior.

I have to ask myself, what type of person is using Google for more info on "Jane Doe college basketball photos hot?" Do I really want to be enabling that person? Sure, I have good intentions, it's good for traffic, blah blah blah...but at the end of the day, I am guilty of the same. So I recently pulled those posts from the site. This is my admission that I've made this mistake too, and my attempt to fix that. I hope that others give it some thought the next time they write a story on non-famous people. I know that some of you will take this as lengthy needless moralizing. But I truly am concerned that if we're not more careful, some innocent person will get fired, stalked, or harassed. And no writer wants that on their conscience.

*Those are well-known sports bloggers, as you might have guessed.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

HoopIdea: Giving Credit for Basketball Home Runs and Strikeouts

I wanted to add some baseball-inspired ideas (in honor of opening day) to TrueHoop's interesting project to help make basketball even better. Coined "Hoopidea," they've already had lots of good ideas about improving bad teams and bad defense.

My first idea is regarding blocked shots, similar to baseball's strikeout.
"If a defensive player can block an offensive player's shot so that it does not reach the rim, his team automatically receives possession."
Current situation: While crowd-pleasing, a blocked shot is not valued very much within the game itself. It seems most guards are instructed not to try too hard to block shots, lest they draw a foul. And when a center blocks a shot, the ball merely often goes back to the player who shot it, who now gets a second chance as the center is landing. It would be, as if, a pitcher who strikes out a batter then also had to run home, grab the baseball, and throw the batter out at first for it to count as an out.

Improved situation: This gives defenders an incentive to go for ball on tight last-second plays instead of always holding back to avoid a foul. It also makes a shot-blocker much more vital to his team than before, and increases showy collisions in the paint. It makes it less valuable for, say, a Tyler Hansbrough to throw up a wild shot in the lane in hopes of getting fouled or drawing a charge.

My second idea is regarding fast-break points.
If a team can score before the other team has any players within the circle (or within the key), the basket should be worth three points.

Current situation: Despite the number of great guards in the league, we still fail to see many up-tempo teams. Running teams have had a rather tough twenty years since the Showtime Lakers. During playoffs, teams get more cautious and less likely to run. Thus we get treated to slow playoff basketball with few incentives to run or make more risky passes. Also, steals are less valuable because often a team will hold the ball rather than break for the basket. Basically, a basketball "home run" where the offense makes a hit that none of the defenders can touch should be worth more than a single.

Improved situation: The emphasis on scoring quickly helps balance out the slow-it-down offense so that teams are more willing to play hurry-up on some possessions. Deeper teams, able to run more, are also rewarded with this method. This also can make late-game possessions a little more interesting. A breakaway steal and dunk is now worth 3, not 2, so it's more rewarding to press and gamble rather than lie back in a zone.