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.