SportsProf

(Hopefully) good sports essays and observations for good sports by a guy who tries (and can sometimes fail) to be a good sport.

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Monday, June 30, 2014

Key for USA Soccer: Believe That You Can Play the Full 90 Plus Stoppage Time. . . and You Can Win

I've frequently thought that any team in the same league or tournament can stay with another team for about 75-80 minutes.  Between the pressure, the advance talk, the weather, injuries, who's fit, who's in form and the like, underdogs can hang with the favorites for a long time.  But what the Round of 16 has demonstrated thus far in the World Cup has been that it's what happens after that that distinguishes who advances from who goes home.  And in all instances, it's been the favorite that has advanced.

The U.S. should take note of this fact as it enters its game against favored Belgium, which won its group, tomorrow.  The U.S. almost tasted disaster in its game against Portugal by failing to play intensely for the entire game -- the Americans outplayed Portugal for almost the whole game, only to suffer a defensive lapse within thirty seconds of the game's end that caused a game in which they had all but earned a victory and the precious three points that came with it into a tie and some serious doubt about whether they would advance at all.  If that game didn't bring home the message to the U.S. that they have to sprint through the finish line, many games in the Round of 16 have.

The Dutch were on the verge of going home going into the late minutes in their game against Mexico.  Perhaps the favored Orange had swelled heads.  After all, they were overlooked in the Group Stage, only to emerge as the most likely of any Round of 16 grouping of four to advance (thanks to Spain's surprise exit).  The Mexicans had a good tournament, but in the 88th minute the Dutch scored to tie it, and then they scored the game-winner in stoppage time (okay that was controversial, but it was what it was).  I am sure that many members of the Mexican team wish they had the last two minutes or so of that game to play again.

Fast forward to today, when the heavily favored Germans continued to fail convert excellent changes against Algeria.  The game went to Extra Time, and finally the Germans scored and then scored again.  Valiant play by the Algerian goalkeeper kept the game close, but the Algerians failed to create many chances.  Perhaps it was a case of the better team wearing the underdog down, but the Algerians failed to get it done.  That's probably not as good an example as is the Netherlands-Mexico contest, but outside the French, the favorites all had tough games.

I remain convinced that the U.S. should attack the Belgians early and hard.  True, the Belgians are playing a confounding (for fans) conservative style that has proved to be the best defense against striker Romelu Lukaku that the promising young striker has seen all  year -- his own team's strategy has taken him out of the game.  It would be easy for the U.S. to play into this strategy, play possum, and only take what the Belgians give, but that would be a mistake.  That would mean that the U.S. would agree to keep the ball stuck at midfield and not attack.  If that's the case, count on the Red Devils to awaken in the middle of the second half, push the throttle on their idling engine, and push ahead hard and score a decisive goal.  The Belgians have won all three of their games in this fashion

The problem with a "hang with the Belgians" strategy is that the favorites typically have more at the end to win -- better penalty takers, players who are more creative, players with more stamina, and they figure out a way to win.  Instead, the U.S. should consider hitting a relatively tentative and uncoordinated Belgian team with an aggressive strategy early.  True, they might risk a few long balls over the top of defensive lines that are moved up, but they also might create more chances and bloody the nose of the Red Devils.  Score early, and the U.S. will throw a wrench into the Belgian engine from which Belgium might not be able to recover.  

All that said, the U.S. needs to ensure that it plays in top form in the last ten minutes of the game, especially if they are ahead or the game is tied.  Take the extra run, challenge the extra pass, make the extra play -- each of those things could make a crucial difference in the game's outcome.  That's what seemingly is distinguishing the teams that are advancing -- they have more left in the tank at the end, and they can close out the game and win.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Something Major League Baseball Should Worry About

My rising 9th grader is an active kid, has lots of friends, plays sports, is knowledgeable about them.  When he was little, he played baseball for a while, but also played flag football, football, basketball and lacrosse before settling on rec league soccer,  basketball and lacrosse.  Baseball had become too slow and too rife with fathers acting like Major League managers and playing their sons at key positions.   Even going to Phillies games because a bit much -- it stopped being a lot of fun when you were watching an aging, less motivated team of overpaid stars in blistering heat for three and a half hours.  There was too little action, and the play stopped being as good as it once was.  I also suppose that as kids grow, they make their own choices.  It's part of growing up, figuring out your own interests and realizing that it's okay not to have the same ones as your father.  Quite the opposite, many kids find out that parents will help them develop their new interests and take them to games and events that are outside their comfort zone.  Perhaps the adults might even enjoy it.

We had a conversation the other day about what the kids talk about in gym, at lunch, before class starts and in the hallways.  In the fall, they talk about soccer and football, in the winter about basketball and soccer and in the spring about basketball and soccer and the NFL draft.  And then the NBA draft.  March Madness can loom largely too.  Absent, though, from the discussions, is baseball.

The national pastime, baseball.  The sport whose games can take three hours and fifteen minutes with the ball in play only 15 minutes of every game.  The sport where players do things most of us cannot do -- throw a ball over ninety miles and hour and hit a ball that is coming at you at that speed.  The sport that takes a lot of kids to play if you ever were able to play pick-up games.  The sport that your grandfather and father might have played, and where your father tells stories about different games he went to with his father.

Before video games.  Before the internet.  Before access to an endless amount of games on television.  Before the players thickened and look like tight ends or middle linebackers.  Before steroids.  Before the blind eye was turned toward steroids.  Before scandals about whether steroid era players should be eligible for the Hall of Fame.

Major League Baseball should be very worried about this.  Seeds that might finally grow into mighty oaks are being planted in this country for soccer to take off.  The game moves.  Great athletes of all nations play it, making it a truly international game.  You know if you watch a game it will be over about two hours after you turn on the television or go to the stadium.   The English Premiership had a great debut on NBC Sports Channel.  ESPN"s coverage of the World Cup is extraordinarily good.  Ian Darke is an ace in the booth for the U.S. games.  The U.S. team has advanced to the knockout round for the second World Cup in a row and has a reasonable chance to defeat a young Belgian team.  The bar lounge discussions at the end of a day were excellent -- Roberto Martinez has been great, as have Michael Ballack, Ruud van Nistelroy, Julie Foudy, Taylor Twellman and Alexi Lalas.  The latter might irk some people, but he's knowledgeable and he doesn't pull his punches.  All in all, a huge celebration of soccer.

And there's also the influence of the internet and video games.  As to the latter, EA Sports FIFA game is among the world's most popular, far outselling any MLB game.  Kids learn who the players are by playing all sorts of matches on FIFA, and they buttress that information with what they read on the internet.  FIFA is perhaps the most fun sports video game to play, and its sales the first five days after its release were through the roof.  Even in the US., where you see more and more kids wearing soccer jerseys.

Forty years ago, the five most popular sports in the US were baseball, football, basketball, boxing and horse racing (the latter because it was the only place you could place a legal bet outside Las Vegas).  Horse racing has fallen off, as has boxing.  Tennis surged when you had raw, real characters like Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe, and before cable TV gave you access to so many games at the same time.  But then tennis faded as the individualists left the game and as the equipment has improved to the point that you can smash a hard-to-return serve and volley a weak return into a winner.  American football is now the most popular game in the U.S., and basketball remains strong, with March Madness drawing big ratings.  Baseball remains popular, but it doesn't draw great on television (witness the ratings for many of the most recent World Series) and it moves slowly.  I'm not arguing that it's headed for our popular culture's version of the tar pits, where people will go to Cooperstown in 50 years and say, "How could this game have been so popular, only the Ivy League still plays it?"  But what I am saying is that sometimes organizations make decisions when they're riding high that can help render them obsolete.

American football has surpassed baseball (and it, too, has some significant issues about its future given the damage that players suffer from playing the game and how that damage can shorten their lives or dramatically affect the quality of life after football), and soccer is threatening it.  The NBA just celebrated a great season, his likable stars, and college basketball remains strong.  Baseball still holds out there, benefitting from good weather, nice parks and a place where generations have gone to watch their teams.  But soccer will pinch it if it hasn't already, and if it hasn't already, it's a growing wave that will threaten the marginal dollars that people use to spend on sports.  There are many good things about baseball, to be sure, but as with all industries and economies, there are phenomena out there that can surge fast and threaten its prosperity if not its existence.

The Lords of Baseball should look at the rise of soccer very seriously.  American football already has eclipsed it in popularity, and soccer might soon too.

Friday, June 27, 2014

The Philadelphia 76ers Want You to Buy the Seat You'll Never Sit In

Ah, we yearn for the glory days, of Doc and the Boston Strangler, Moses and Bobby Jones and even Lovetron and World.  The 76ers won, they packed the joint, the place was electric.  More so, believe it or not, then when AI tried to will a team chock full of lesser talents and a strategy rife with clearouts to a title.  At one point, fans really knew that Moses and Doc would win.  With AI, there was profound hope, but hope was all it was, because it was not realistic to think that they could beat the Lakers with Shaq and Kobe (then again, had they not run out of gas in Game 2 of the 2000 finals and held on to win, they would have been up two zip on LA with three games to follow in Philadelphia.)

The title to this post reflects a clever ad campaign the team came up with during Doc's tenure.  A deep narrator's voice said that line and then the video clips were of highlights that would stand up today.  And, in nearly all of them, fans were standing and cheering.  It was a clever use of suggestion and the fans' inference, and it seemed to have worked.  Fans purchased those tickets, and they did stand a lot.

Fast forward until today, where the 76ers will still try to sell you tickets.  Buy even a few on-line or from the box office, and an earnest person from the ticket office will call you to entice you to purchase a season ticket (which, by the way, is hardly worth what you could get for it on StubHub, where discerning fans wait until late to purchase your face value ticket for a steep discount because losing teams do not draw).  The ticket sellers are earnest young people, and this year they've been hung out to dry.  Last season, fans knew that they had to be patient for the return of Nerlens Noel and the 2014 draft.  Going into the draft, fans were hoping that the team would get some guys (read:  Julius Randle, Marcus Smart, a shooting guard or a power forward) that could come in and help. 

And they didn't get it.  Which means that the front office gave the ticket office absolutely zilch to work with.  Noel?  Perhaps.  But two second-round picks with first-round talent according to Jay Bilas?  No Randle, no Smart, no McDermott.  Just (perhaps) some hope for the (not so close) future.  Which means that the ticket office is going to try to sell people seats that they don't want to sit in.   And they'll want you to keep purchasing that ticket for years. 

Until Michael Carter-Williams and Nerlens Noel have more experience.  Until Joel Embiid is healthy.  Until Dario Saric comes to the U.S. to play.  Until the other foreign players do likewise, and until the 76ers reap the harvest that could be the 2015 NBA draft and whoever their lottery pick might be.  And that could be a long time. 

Of course, they do hope that you'll sit in your seat and have the occasion to leave your feet to cheer the hometown team.  But that supposes that you, the hypothetical good fan, buys into what Josh Harris and Sam Hinkie are selling and will continue to do so.  And why would you do that if you could pick off tickets for a few games on StubHub, on a special four-game package, or get them from friends.

It's not that the Philadelphia 76ers want you to buy the seat that you'll never sit in.  It's that they're a bit more desperate than that -- they're hoping that you'll want to come into the building and sit at all. 

"Winless for Wiggins" was one thing.  "Patience for More Players" is quite another.  The fans waited one year; now it looks like they might have to wait two or three more.  Meanwhile, the team will finish 20-62, a panoply of guys who should be playing in the D-League will cycle through the roster, Brett Brown will talk about intensity until he is hoarse, but it all will not matter that much.  What fans had hoped would be a palliative and a bridge to a better future turned into a bridge with a much longer span (and perhaps a crack in one of the bridge supports). 

The Philadelphia 76ers want you to buy a seat.  Any seat.  Any seat at all.

They should remember that their D-League team is in Delaware, just down I-95 -- and that's where the D-League worthy players should go, playing for D-League ticket prices.  They shouldn't be peddling a somewhat stepped-up version of the same product about 40 miles north for NBA prices. 

Soccer Jingoism Only Can Go So Far

I find it difficult to get euphoric after my team loses a game and gets outplayed across the board while doing it.  Yet, many USA fans were jubilant after the US soccer team's 1-0 loss to Germany, but only because a) they didn't lose by a bigger margin, b) Portugal didn't beat Ghana by a bigger margin and c) because of a) and b), the U.S. advanced to the knockout round of the World Cup.  Those fans would argue that the overall results in the three-team round robin in their group were great because many didn't expect the U.S. to beat Ghana (even though for the most part they were outplayed), to draw Portugal (even though they outplayed Portugal and should have won) or, okay, beat or draw Germany.  But by doing what they did, the U.S. escaped "this group of death" and have moved onto the next round.

I could imagine the euphoria had the team played like Costa Rica, which also was in its own group of death with Italy, Uruguay and England.  Los Ticos played better than the U.S., shocked everyone, and two of the world's soccer superpowers are going home.  But by backing in to advance, the U.S. just couldn't get that type of glee from me.  Am I happy that they advanced?  Sure.  Is it a great accomplishment?  Relatively speaking, yes.  For U.S. soccer, it's worth celebrating.  But I doubt that the average fan of Brazil, Germany, Argentina or the Netherlands goes into orbit when it's team makes it to the knockout round.  That's a given for them, an expectation.  Get to the semifinals and then they'll probably be gleeful and hopeful, because then your team is two wins away from winning the World Cup.  The U.S. soccer culture just isn't there yet, and will celebrate anything other than a loss at this point.

Now, it's easy to discount Belgium.  It's a country of 16 million people divided into speaking three different languages depending on where people live (Dutch, Flemish and French).  Twice in the past 100 years the German army went through it to menace France, the French tell Belgian jokes, their beer and chocolate are first-rate, but, well, they are a small country (not as small, though, as some of the Latin American teams).  And they aren't a traditional power the way the Netherlands (who are playing with great pride given that most pundits thought they had their best shot in 2010, only to lose in the final), Germany, Italy and France are.  But. . . they have a very talented squad, so talented, in fact, that you can make and win the argument that no U.S. player -- not Tim Howard, not Michael Bradley and not Clint Dempsey -- could start for them.  The question is one of experience and chemistry.  They are one of the youngest teams in the World Cup, and they haven't played together all that much.  Their play has demonstrated that.  They do have good leaders, though, in center backs Vincent Kompany and Thomas Vermaelen (who have captained Manchester United and Arsenal).  Their midfield abounds in talent, and it's arguable that they have two of the top ten goalies in the world and perhaps the best in Thibault Courtois.  They have all the pieces.

But, as the commentators have pointed out, they haven't played great.  Yet, they won all their games in a much easier group than the U.S., but wins in the World Cup are still wins, under great attention and pressure, so they should not be discounted much.  Pay no attention to the idiotic rating of the remaining 16 clubs that appeared on Comcast.net, having the U.S. rated 10th and the Belgians 11th (with Costa Rica 6th and the Netherlands 1st -- the Dutch got a big break because Spain was sent packing through abysmal play).  The Belgians have more talent, are a better team, and should be rated higher than the U.S. and favored. 

That's not to say that the U.S. cannot beat them.  They can, if for no other reason that the resolve that the Americans play with.  The ESPN commentators (who have been great) have pointed out that they haven't jelled and only turn it on late when they realize that they need to do more than win.  That type of sense of urgency usually catches up with a team and they lose.  And that's where the U.S. can take advantage -- if they come out aggressively, bring more men up earlier and press the Belgians, they could punch them in the face early (and, as Mike Tyson once said, "every one has a strategy until I hit him.").  Score early, and they'll test the mettle of the Belgians.  Will they get a true sense of urgency, play with fury and score the multiple goals they're capable of?  Or, because of their youth and lack of chemistry, will each star and future superstar wait around waiting for someone else to step up, only to have no one do so?  That could happen.  And if that were to happen, the U.S. could emerge with a win, and then take their chances against, in all likelihood, Argentina.

But if the U.S. were to hold back, play it safe and not press, they run the risk that in the end the Belgians talent will win out.  That's what's happened so far, and that trend could continue for the Red Devils.  The U.S., though, should act like the underdog and continue to try to show the world that it can play with the more seasoned countries and players.  It should not defer, it should not wait, it should not pull back their lines.  To do so will not exploit the lack of cohesiveness of the Belgians and their intermittent lack of urgency.

All that said, U.S. fans should temper their euphoria.  Yes, it's nice to get to the knockout round, but for the superpowers of the soccer world, that's not such a big deal.  The stakes are higher now, and the competition will step up.  It remains to be seen whether a team still not full of prime-time international players can keep pace with a team that overflows with them.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

The 76ers are Saving Up for a Rainy Day

Nerlens Noel missed all of last year.

Joel Embiid will miss all of this year.

Dario Saric won't be available for two years.

Okay, so they didn't take Bruno Caboclo.

If there is a great shooter in next year's lottery, the 76ers might have a chance.

But for the NBA title or the World U-21 championships?

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Just When the World Cup Captured the World's Imagination. . .

Luis Suarez bites.

Again.

And I thought it was Italy that once had a big problem with a  dormant volcano.

It will be interesting to see what FIFA does.

Not only did Suarez bite, but his teammate, Gaston Ramirez, tried to force the attacked Italian player to cover up his shoulder.  Another teammate tried to argue that the bite marks were there before the game.

Say what?  The last time I checked, vampires were imaginary and Transylvania didn't have a team in the tournament.

I mean, it's okay to call it the World Cup even if the world's four most populated countries (China, India, Pakistan and Indonesia) have about 40% plus of the world's population and none has a team in the World Cup (I know, I know, then what does that say about baseball's World Series?).  But the soccer that was played up until this afternoon was relatively clean, creative, spirited and excellent.  History didn't dominate -- some traditional powers were sent packing and one, seemingly written off before the tournament, emerged as a favorite to go to the semifinals (Netherlands).  And then Mt. Suarez erupts again.

And that's what people will remember.  Because that's what will dominate the headlines.

FIFA only has one choice -- kick him out of the tournament at a minimum, and then let's focus everyone's attention on the otherwise splendid play of Latin American teams, among other things.  They only have a few days to act, and they've been known to be corrupt (anyone play the Qatar?), but this is a hard one to get wrong.

Even for FIFA.

Lost Opportunity for US Soccer on Sunday Night

About 24 million people watched the game, three quarters on ESPN and one quarter on Univision.  A huge draw by any standard, one which many other sports would envy.  Had the U.S. held on to defeat Portugal, it would have been a big night for U.S. soccer and for soccer in the U.S.

As to the former, well, the knock on the national team is that we're a nation of midfielders, we haven't really developed a good striker, only three players are world class (Howard, Bradley, Dempsey -- Guzan probably is and Altidore could have been but for his woeful year at Sunderland in the EPL) and that where would the fifth largest country in the world be without foreign-born children of U.S. servicemen?  Winning its first two games in the group stage for the first time would have told the country that not only does the U.S. play with resolve, it actually can win games and is a different program from years past.

As to the latter, well, soccer has more than begun to get traction.  Forget about all the youth leagues (which are important but which are a given), but remember that the English Premier League had huge TV exposure in the U.S., that there is a growing Latino population and that EA Sports FIFA soccer game is one of the most popular in the world and fun to play (I love manager mode).  All of these factors point to the growing importance of soccer (and more and more boys aren't playing baseball because (i) you stand around for two and a half hours for ten minutes of action (i.e., the "it's boring" argument), (ii) dads act like wannabe Billy Martins and Earl Weavers and ruin it for everyone else, (iii) going to an MLB game is very expensive and the games take way too long because of too many commercials between half innings, pitcher's taking forever to throw and batters stepping out of the box too frequently or (iv) a combination of all of the above.  Had the U.S. won against Portugal and guaranteed itself easy entry in the Knockout Round, well, that would have completed a pretty picture for those who want soccer to take off in the U.S.

But, alas, U.S. soccer (or U.S. Soccer) has elected to go the difficult route.  Ghana and Portugal will battle, perhaps draw, it's hard to tell, but it's hard to figure that the Germans (who still have something to play for) will bench their regulars and then give the U.S. an easy game.  (And even if Germany benched its regulars, many of its back-ups are better than the U.S.'s starters).  Beat or draw Germany and the U.S. goes through, but that's a tall task against a team that's been favored to go to the semifinals.

All that said, the U.S. is far away from where it needs to be.  Until the country has between 50 and 100 of its top players playing in major leagues around the world, starting, and for good teams at that in some instances, the U.S. will not be a serious contender to win the World Cup.  Look at the teams that have excelled and you'll learn that their players are stars where they play.  Tim Howard is among the top ten goalies in the world, and Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey are good, but there are at least ten countries whose top three players are better than that troika.  Atop that, right now the best athletes in the U.S. are not playing soccer -- they still play football, basketball and baseball.  Once you get the Chris Pauls and Dwayne Wades of the world to play soccer, well, then you'll have stars and superstars.  But, until then, you'll have the perpetual underdog that plays with resolve but that just doesn't have the talent to beat star-laden teams from Latin America or Western Europe.

Still, a win on Sunday night would have been a big boost -- and it would have said that not only was soccer taking off, it hit a different plateau, one from which U.S. Soccer could launch its next great efforts to build a better brand, a bigger following and, most importantly, a more deeply rooted soccer culture in the U.S.  On many fronts, the draw against Portugal was a lost opportunity.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Phillies' President Gives GM Ruben Amaro a Vote of Confidence

One school of thought:  (this from a caller into Philadelphia's 97.5 this afternoon) That's a gutsy move.  Most GM's haven't had the record that Amaro has had; he's won a lot.  And you know what they say, if you're a team executive and you end up listening to the fans too much, you'll end up sitting with 'em.  Good job, Dave Montgomery.

Another school of thought:  Well, he traded a lot of minor leaguers for star players during all the playoff runs, and those minor leaguers didn't turn into anything.  And the prospects he got for the stars he traded didn't turn into anything.  He is the last GM to hire a "Moneyball" type of numbers guy (and then, according to Baseball Prospect, on a part-time basis).  Since 2009 (after he took over for Pat Gillick), the team has gotten progressively worse, going from losing in the WS to losing in the CS to losing in the DS to not making the playoffs and finishing .500 to not making the playoffs and finishing below .500.  The farm system is barren, and the same core that excited us and ignited the team in '08 lost its mojo once it got big contracts.  There are an increasing number of empty seats.

Yes, Ruben is a good guy, but aren't we all?  Yes, he has the unique combination of being a former Major Leaguer and a Stanford alum.  That's fine.

But, as Bill Parcells once said, "You are what your record says you are."  

See the second school of thought.

David Montgomery has to make a move.

Or else risk having the team sink further.

Or else risk having the farm system get worse.

Or else risk having more empty seats.

Or else risk having his radio and TV stations not be able to sell ads.

Phew.

Sure the caller espousing the first school of thought has accentuated the positive.  But the statements under the second school of thought are true.  The team has gone downhill under Amaro's tenure.  That doesn't mean he didn't try hard or didn't try to do his best.  It's just that he failed to adapt, failed to try new methods, didn't get younger players soon enough and trusted his subordinates in the front office to run a good farm system.  At the end of the day, all that's happened is on his watch, and it's not a pretty picture.

Dave Montgomery's public statements, while loyal, are loyal to Amaro and not a fan base that has supported the team almost blindly since they moved to Citizens Bank Park in 2004.  Montgomery is a respected executive and by all accounts a good guy, but he's wrong here.  The front office needs an overhaul, as does the farm system.  It's amazing how unproductive that system has been -- they haven't developed many good pitchers over the years, and they have usually fallen for five-tool high schoolers who fail.  Jeff Jackson, Anthony Hewitt, Tyson Gillies, Larry Greene and many others.  Again, the record begs to differ with Mr. Montgomery.

They say that you cannot fire the players, you only can fire the manager.  In this case, the owners might consider changing out the president (who is in denial), the General Manager (who has not evolved one bit) and many of the players.

The Phillies need hope and change.

Right now, they have neither.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Would the NBA Continue to Thrive if More Teams Played Like the Spurs?

I thought that the answer would be an obvious yes, but some callers to sports talk radio in Philadelphia disagreed.  And that got me to thinking of a comment that Temple's Hall of Fame coach John Chaney once said about the NBA, "it's not about basketball anymore, it's about entertainment."

One caller said he wouldn't watch, because he goes to watch the superstars do their thing and that the Spurs' offense doesn't allow for that.  Initially, I scoffed at the point -- who wants to watch Allen Iverson go one on three and shoot seven for twenty one to get his twenty points and have his team be in the middle of the pack at best?  I didn't and wouldn't, but apparently many do (witness the hero's welcome Iverson received when the 76ers retired his number earlier this year).  And that gets to Chaney's point about the NBA's being about entertainment.

And that got me to thinking -- could LeBron James play in the Spurs' offense?  Could he win?  The answer -- given the construct of the verb "could" is an obvious yes, but that's not the right question.  The right question is, "would he?"

And there the answer gets difficult.  Because it raises other questions, such as, "do the Spurs do what they do because they don't have superstars, and what they do is a way to counteract that fact?"  Or, "would LeBron really want to or need to do that if he had a reasonable supporting cast, because he is so hard to guard?"

My answers to those three questions are as follows:

1.  Perhaps.
2.  Not really.
3.  Perhaps again.

LeBron might do it if it would guarantee him more rings.  But whether he's capable depends on whether he'd be as coachable as the three future Hall of Famers (Duncan, Ginobli and Parker) let themselves be (they also signed for less than the max).  My view is that James would let himself be coach if he respected the coach (and he'd respect Gregg Popovich) and if he had a reasonable supporting cast (and this year, in Miami, the spare parts that the Heat assembled wore out before the main engine ever did).  As for the second question, well, Duncan and Parker are stars, Duncan was a superstar and Kawhi Leonard's last two post-seasons suggest that he will be.  There are stars on the Spurs, but there are different stars every night.  And, yes, if Lebron were in the right situation he'd run the Spurs' offense.  And he'd enjoy it very much.

As for the overall question, I find it hard to understand fans who want to watch sequences where the superstar does a clear out and his four teammates stand to one side so he can go one-on-one with his defender.  Once I saw the 76ers run a three-man half-court weave consisting of Iverson, Andre Iguodala and Chris Webber, while two other teammates stood in the corner and watched.  What was so hard about that?  What was so innovative?  The key to the Spurs is that they play the "beautiful game" the way Barcelona and many other international football teams do.  They look for that extra pass to get a good luck, as opposed to having a superstar cough up the ball by trying to play Superman and dribble effectively between two defenders (lotsa luck with that in the NBA).  I, for one, would watch, even if this style might define a different kind of superstar.

One who wins games consistently.

That, by the way, is by no means a criticism of LeBron James.  He's a great player, perhaps the best in the game.  But what this series proved is that you can be the best in the game, but if you don't get consistent support, you still will not win.

Because involving five players each offensive series is smart basketball.

It's just funny that what Gregg Popovich has achieved is being lauded as so novel and innovative.

Whatever the case, it is a lot of fun to watch.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Thoughts on the World Cup

In no particular order:

1.  Serge Aurier of Cote d'Ivoire is making himself a lot of money.  Two great assists on Saturday.  He'd look great as a replacement for Bacary Sagna at Arsenal.

2.  Viva Los Ticos of Costa Rica!  Speaking of Arsenal, Joel Campbell had a great day for his country, and the Gunners own the rights.  They'll need all the help that they can get given the arms race that Chelsea has started and that perhaps United and City will finish.

3.  Uruguay missed Luis Suarez yesterday

4.  France had an easy opener against Honduras.  While Les Bleus looked impressive, they did have one of the easiest opening games.  Still, you play who you play, and the French are trying to erase the stain that was 2010.

5.  Give Ecuador credit for extending Switzerland, and give Switzerland and particularly Behami credit for making one last run at the end of stoppage time to help his team get the victory and three points.  Many challenged whether the Swiss were worthy of being seeded, and for 93 minutes they seemed to be right.  After the game ended, though, the Swiss showed everyone that they have a lot of character.  As well as a skilled front four.

6.  Argentina had a relatively easy time of it today.  What Lionel Messi proves, by dribbling the ball as if it's an extension of his foot, is that you have to mark him closely.  Fail to do that, and he'll bury you.  Do that, and others will take advantage of the double- and triple-marking that he'll see.

7.  Mario Balotelli is playing for his next stop and a contract, as is Karim Benzema of France.  The bet here is that one of them is ticked for Arsenal, which needs more muscle up front to compete in the EPL

8.  England continues to struggle, and it's hard to put a finer on precisely why.  Other countries suffer from the fact that their players don't play together during the year all that much.  But with England they've struggled with this for decades.

9.  Roberto Martinez is impressive as a commentator and as a coach.  At some point he'll bolt from Everton to a bigger-time job.  But if that job is Arsenal, will he establish himself as the next great coach or end up being another David Moyes to Arsene Wenger's Alex Ferguson.  The bet here says that they'd welcome Martinez with open arms at Emirates Stadium.

10.  While Cristiano Renaldo will draw the headlines, the Germans are a most formidable squad, even without Marco Reus.  Mario Gotze is the real deal, their back-line is very good, and in Manuel Neuer they have one of the three best goalies in the world.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Spurs

If you're a basketball fan -- a pure basketball fan -- you have to love watching the Spurs.  What they are doing in this series is high art.  They're a global team -- an all-timer from St. Croix, two other Hall of Famers from France and Argentina, another Frenchman playing a key role, a starter from Brazil and an Aussie.  They communicate in one language -- basketball.  They share the ball extremely well, and are a treat to watch because of that.  They also have a few Americans -- a sharpshooter from UNC whom they cut twice and a small forward they got in a trade who probably is one of the top 50 players in the game (if not higher).  Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobli, Boris Diaw, Tiago Splitter, Paddy Mills, Danny Green and Kahwi Leonard.  They are simply a great team.

And, yes, you're also watching the greatest player of the modern era, LeBron James.  What this series has demonstrated, though, is that LeBron's supporting cast isn't strong enough to go the entire season -- through the finals.  Somehow, some way, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh have disappeared, and the other role players have not made that much of a difference.  In Miami's only win, Ginobli outscored the entire Heat bench.  Now, you can argue that had the air conditioning been on in the first game, LeBron wouldn't have cramped, and then the Heat would have won Game 1 and the series might have been different.  I get all that, but if that had happened, it's hard to see that the Heat would have won the second game, too.  Both teams came into the game riding the wave they created for themselves -- a great season.  It's just that the Spurs have taken their game to a higher level; the Heat have not.

All this makes speculation about what LeBron might do in the off-season run rampant.  Does he return to the Heat with the hope that Miami can buttress his supporting cast, or does he return to Cleveland to play with Kyrie Irving and someone like Jabari Parker?  Will he have the patience with younger players, players on the rise?  Or will he remain in Miami?  It is not clear whether the Heat have hit a peak, or whether they've simply run into the last chapter of a dynasty.  It could be a little bit of both.

But make no mistake, the Spurs are a dynasty.  They are a great blend of fundamentally sound basketball players who let themselves be coached and subordinate any instincts they have to build their own brand name into a team game (and by doing that, each players has polished his own brand, with the best still yet to come for Leonard).  So enjoy the rest of the NBA Finals -- you might not see a time like come around for a while.


(And true to form in trying to write a global column, I'd like to point out that if you say the word "Spurs" in the U.S., people will think San Antonio.  Say it in England and perhaps also in the rest of Europe, and people will think you're saying the nickname for Tottenham Hotspur, a team in London in the English Premier League).


Thursday, June 12, 2014

World Cup Predictions

Final Four:

Brazil
Germany
Spain
Belgium

Germany beats Brazil
Belgium beats Spain

Germany beats Belgium.

Yes, the home team will not win.

Yes, the winner will not come from South America.

And, yes, watch out for Argentina.  They could win it all.

Belgium is a dark horse.  Germany has veteran leadership and young talent.  Brazil and Spain abound in talent.  If Spain were to win, they're a dynasty.  Period.

But somehow Germany will win outside Europe.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Both Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley are Borderline Hall of Famers (right now)

Source:  Baseball Reference

I decided to use the "wins over replacement player" tables to figure out the top, say, 25 at each position.    The numbers are cumulative, so they reward longevity.  For example, if you played 20 years and rated three wins over a replacement player per season, your number is 60.  If you played 10 years and rated five wins over a replacement player per season, your number is 50.  So, longevity is rewarded.  I also like WARP because it neutralizes the hype that can surround players who were fortunate enough to play for championship teams and gives more of a boost to those who played for also rans.  That said, the number of seasons included below includes partial seasons, too, which leads me to conclude that WARP divided by number of seasons played might not be as helpful a metric as, say, WARP divided by number of games played.  That's enough of a digression.

You have to remember that the Hall of Fame has certain people who don't belong (read:  Rabbit Maranville and many of the old Giants and Cardinals who populate the Hall because their buddies were on the Veterans Committee and voted for their admission.  Among them could well be Casey Stengel and Ross Youngs)

So here are some numbers:

Shortstop (Hall of Famers -- to the best of my knowledge off the top of my head, in bold:

1.  Alex Rodriguez 116 (20 seasons).
2.  Cal Ripken, Jr. 95.5 (21 seasons).
3.  Robin Yount 77 (20 seasons) (he also played CF)
4.  Ozzie Smith 76.4 (19 seasons)
5.  Bobby Wallace 76.3 (25 seasons) (before 1900)
6.  Bill Dahlen 75.2 (21 seasons)
7.  Luke Appling 74.5 (20 seasons)
8.  Arky Vaughan 72.9 (14 seasons)
9.  Derek Jeter 71.5 (20 seasons)
10.  Alan Trammell 70.4 (20 seasons)
11.  Barry Larkin 70.2 (19 seasons)
12.  Joe Cronin 66.4 (20 seasons)
13.  Pee Wee Reese 66.3 (16 seasons)
14.  Monte Ward 64 (17 seasons (before 1900)
15.  Lou Boudreau 63 (15 seasons)
16.  Jack Glasscock 61.5 17 seasons) (before 1900)
17.  Luis Aparicio 55.8
18.  Joe Sewell 53.7 (14 seasons)
19.  Joe Tinker 53.2 (15 seasons)
20.  Bert Campaneris 53 (19 seasons)
21.  Jim Fregosi 48.7 (18 seasons)
22.  Dave Bancroft 48.5 (16 seasons)
23.  Miguel Tejada 47.1 (16 seasons)
24.  Art Fletcher 47.0 (13 seasons)
25.  Vern Stephens 45.4 (15 seasons)
26.  Tony Fernandez 45.1 (17 seasons)
27.  Roger Peckinpaugh 45.0 (17 seasons)
28.  Nomar Garciaparra 44.2 (14 seasons)
29.  Travis Jackson 44.0 (15 seasons)
30.  Jimmy Rollins 43.2 (15 seasons)

A-Rod will sit and wait and perhaps rot before he gets in.  Larkin just got in, Jeter will get in, and Trammell gets the short end of the stick.  He played for years besides Lou Whitaker, played for great teams and the numbers don't lie -- he's worthy of the Hall.   Right now, Rollins is pretty far off, but in the top 30 of all time.  If he can play 3-4 more seasons and have a total WARP of 14 during those seasons, he'll get up to 57.2, and ahead of Aparicio, Sewell and Tinker.  That will make him worthy of the discussion, but it's hard to see him getting in if Trammell doesn't.  To me, Travis Jackson and Maranville are anomalies, products of another era.  But if you argue for Rollins, how can you not argue for Garciaparra?  By no means is Rollins a lock now, and by no means is it a sure thing that he'll add 10-20 points of WARP over the course of the next four seasons.  He's a very good player, but perhaps not a Hall of Famer.

Now we'll look at second base:

1.  Rogers Hornsby 127.0 (23 seasons)
2.  Eddie Collins 123.9 (25 seasons)
3.  Nap Lajoie 107.4 (21 seasons)
4.  Joe Morgan 100.3 (21 seasons)
5.  Rod Carew 81 (19 seasons) (also played 1B)
6.  Charlie Gehringer 80.6 (19 seasons)
7.  Paul Molitor 75.4 (21 seasons) (also played DH)
8.  Lou Whitaker 74.9 (19 seasons)
9.  Bobby Grich 70.9 (17 seasons)
10.  Frank Frisch 70.4 (19 seasons)
11. Ryne Sandberg 67.5 (16 seasons)
12.  Roberto Alomar 66.8 (17 seasons)
13.  Willie Randolph 65.5 (18 seasons)
14.  Craig Biggio 65.1 (20 seasons)
15.  Jackie Robinson 61.5 (10 seasons)
16.  Chase Utley 59.8 (16 seasons)
17.  Joe Gordon 57.1 (11 seasons)
18.  Jeff Kent 55.2 (17 seasons)
19.  Billy Herman 57.7 (15 seasons)
20.  Bid McPhee 52.4 (18 seasons)
21.  Bobby Doerr 51.2 (14 seasons)
22.  Tony Lazzeri 49.9 (14 seasons)
23.  Johnny Evers 47.17 (18 seasons)
24.  Buddy Myer 46.9 (17 seasons)
25.  Robinson Cano 46.3 (10 seasons)
26.  Del Pratt 45.6 (13 seasons)
27.  Chuck Knoblauch 44.6 (12 seasons)
28.  Cupid Childs 44.3 (13 seasons)
29.  Julio Franco 43.4 (23 seasons).

What this tells you is that there probably is a more compelling case for Utley than there is for Rollins and that had Utley not missed about two seasons' worth of games his WARP right now might be about that of Willie Randolph's.  To me, Whitaker is a Hall of Famer, both for the quality of his play and for his legendary and long-lasting pairing with Trammell (a just baseball god would install them together).  Grich was a good player but never got talked about as a potential Hall of Famer (but then again, neither did Whitaker).  Randolph was a very good player, but he didn't have Utley's pop.  Biggio had 3,000 hits so probably should be a lock.  But those who argue for Kent (who was outstanding) might have difficulty if Utley isn't in the conversation.  And Robbie Cano looks like a lock.

That said, if Utley can play 3 more seasons and average a WARP of say 4.0 per year (by no means an easy feat), he'll end up at 67, and in the pack with Frisch, Sandberg and Alomar.  And that would be more likely to put him in the Hall than similar seasons from Rollins.

Are either of them Hall of Famers?  No, not yet.  Are both among the top 30 at their position of all-time?  Yes.  But being in the top 30 and making the Hall are two totally different things.  Both need strong finishes to their careers to warrant serious mention.

Sunday, June 08, 2014

LeBron James and Game 1

Okay, so I am a little late on his taking himself out of Game 1 with cramps.

Clearly, he was hurting.  Clearly, he could have hurt himself worse had he stayed in the game.  Assuming that a teammate or two would have stepped up (which no one did), he would have hurt his team by remaining in the game.  Those who knock him for not playing through it probably haven't suffered that type of cramp or have other issues with James.

But what surprised me in the overall defense of James was the lack of questioning about his preparation for the game (as an aside, I don't think that it should have been played without air conditioning).  Thirty-eight year-old Tim Duncan did not cramp.  Neither did James thirty-seven year-old teammate Ray Allen.  But James did.  And before you let overcrowded broadcast booths defend him with the throwaway "well, he has a history of cramping," we still have to ask the hard question -- "couldn't he have avoided this?"  What no one seemingly examined was his hydration leading up the game.  For example, does he drink a lot of sugary drinks or caffeine?  Does he not drink the obligatory say hundred ounces of water a day during the season?  Has he gotten advice regarding caffeine and sugar?

It sounds elementary, what with all the private chefs and nutritionists surrounding him, that he should be doing that.  But over the years I've read stories about players' drinking hot coffee at court side before games to pump them up, about players drinking a lot of Gatorade to hydrate and about players drinking soda.  So, it stands to reason, that the question should have been asked.  When players ten years his senior did not cramp, the question begs to be answered -- what did LeBron do to prepare for the finals in terms of nutrition and hydration?

Because it seems that he could have failed to prepare properly.