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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Thursday, April 16, 2015

JaKarr Sampson, the 76ers, the Desire to Lose and the Desire to Show 'Em

Perhaps head coach Brett Brown did too good a job.

Perhaps someone forgot to give his players the memo that they were supposed to lose last night's game to the Heat, a meaningless game in terms of the standing, to increase the odds that they could get more first-round picks or ping pong balls or what have you to give them a better chance to get two of the first six picks or three of the first eleven or two of the first ten or what have you, all in accordance with GM Sam Hinkie's strategy to stockpile picks, get better players and field a juggernaut that will create a dynasty the way the Spurs have.  Got all that?

The Knicks took care of business last night, losing big.  The Timberwolves eclipsed their efforts by going on a season-ending skid that guaranteed them the worst record.  The 76ers and Heat played last night in a game that both needed to lose; the Heat played four players for 48 minutes and only two others.  The 76ers played "Brett Brown" hard, and they lost by four.  But only because a Heat player hit a three with about 19 seconds left.

Before then, the 76ers took a 1-point lead because back-up guard JaKarr Sampson stole the ball (he picked the Heat's point guard) and went in for a layup.  He could have sat back.  He could have done nothing.  He could have let the Heat ride it out because, well, the season is over and the game didn't mean anything.  That would have been understandable and even excusable, should such "play off the ball" defense require an excuse in the eighty-second game of the season.  Instead, Sampson, a young player who might have left college too early, made the aggressive play and put his team in the lead.

Why? 

Because while the 76ers are jockeying for draft picks, there is no guarantee that more than a handful of players from this year's roster will be on the squad next year.  Presumably, there will be some talent upgrades; no one on an 18-64 team not named Nerlens Noel should be relaxed.  Which means that everyone else was playing for the scouts, for the film, for people who will play and re-play DVD's of all NBA games looking for the player who is in the wrong situation who might thrive in another.  The NBA has many stories like this, and for some successful players theirs is a tale of resilience and never stop believing in themselves, that given a better opportunity they will show a front office that they should play in someone's rotation or perhaps have the chance to start.  Some young players will wilt, because for most of their playing lives they were the man, and now they are battling to be the twelfth man, and, well, some just cannot handle that type of struggle.  Others relish it.

So there he was, JaKarr Sampson, a relatively anonymous NBA player from a college with a faded basketball tradition, picking the other team's point guard for what could have been a decisive layup.  That shows that JaKarr Sampson doesn't care about high math, Monte Carlo situations, Fibonacci numbers and all the things that his GM does to stockpile draft picks and evaluate players.  He wasn't living in the past -- when his recruitment to St. John's drew attention -- and he wasn't overlooking his present.  He was maximizing it in order to set himself well for the future. 

Because someone is looking.  Someone is always looking.  And the better you look when someone is looking gives you a better chance to find a better situation in case your current one doesn't last.  So while it would have benefitted the 76ers to lose, JaKarr Sampson was on the court to compete and to win.  And he showed it in the waning moments last night.  It took a well-timed three to beat the 76ers, but that's the way any game should be played.

For JaKarr Sampson's sake, hopefully some NBA scout saw that last-minute action and says to himself, "there might be something here.  This kid might have what it takes to help us."

Because someone is watching.

Always watching.

Monday, April 13, 2015

After the Masters, the Next Big Sporting Event Is. . . the NFL Draft

Not the start of the baseball season.

Not the NHL or NBA playoffs, presumably because so many teams make it in and there are so many rounds that the rounds people really care about will still be around after. . . the NFL draft.

Primary evidence of the prominence of the draft as the next big sporting event is that ESPN's home page is dedicated to the Masters and the NFL draft.  Major League Baseball?  Not really.  NBA playoffs?  Perhaps more so than the NHL playoffs.  NHL playoffs?  Not really, or not at all.  MLS?  Are you kidding me?  International soccer?  Perhaps in areas outside the United States, where people really care who wins their league, their domestic cup and the Champions League.

Welcome to the world of picking people and getting into how decisions are made, whether either Jameis Winston or Marcus Mariota will be a good pro or this year's renditions of Tim Couch and Akili Smith, whether the Eagles will trade up for Mariota or pull another dumb move and over-stretch to grab a Marcus Smith II, and which coach might emerge as the next Jimmy Johnson.  Is the corner from UConn the real deal or a combine wonder?  Whether anyone will hold Mel Kiper, Jr. or Todd McShay accountable for misstating the case about players annually or whether I misunderstand and should know that both are there to predict what player teams will select, but not which player should be selected.  As an aside, I don't misunderstand it -- these guys get it wrong a lot, as does the entire league.  Someone, somewhere, has metrics as to how to determine what player you should draft where and how they project; Sam Hinkie is doing this with the Philadelphia 76ers (jury is still out), but is anyone doing this in the NFL?

For several weeks we'll hear all sorts of rumors, discussions, debates and human interest stories.  We heard one several years ago about an overaged former Canadian firefighter ripping it up in the Big 12 -- he became a first-round pick at 26, only to return to being a firefighter a few years later.  Apparently, he was better at putting out real fires than ones on the field, and the human interest story eclipsed actual production or the potential for production at the next level.  Good story for the fans at draft time, but the result wasn't so pretty.  It all gets dizzying, we all lock and load on certain players, not everyone turns out, people will give teams grades after the draft and all coaches go into OTAs and the like hoping and praying that the players they draft turn out to be what they need.  But we haven't had a coach like Jimmy Johnson in a long time, one who always knew where to draft the right player.  Hard to figure out why that is, but with all the energy teams put into the draft, you would think that teams would better be able to pick a group of potentially productive players than they have.  That's a vexing problem for many teams; ones that can "crack the code" so to speak have a chance to outwit and outplay opponents for several years (at least until some of their assistants in the front office get lured to envious competitors). 

So, watch your MLB team freeze, your MLS team toil in anonymity, your NBA team either await its lottery pick or play in a round so early that no one will remember it and your NHL team (if, in fact, you are one of the 20,000 or so people in any city who follows the pro hockey team) play in a similar early round of the playoffs.  Combined, though, at this time of the year, no one seems to care as much about those games as they do about the NFL Draft.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Jonathan Papelbon Could Be Onto Something. . . and the Owners Should Sell the Phillies

Jonathan Papelbon is good copy.  In an era where many try to avoid controversy, conflict or creating bulletin-board material, he is interesting.  He doesn't have a filter, or, if he has one, he elects not to use it.  The unforgiving think it's the former; the more charitable think it's the latter.  It really doesn't matter whether he has a filter or not; Papelbon says what's on his mind, which makes him infinitely more interesting than the beloved Phillie, Chase Utley, for whom opening up to the media is less preferred than undergoing a root canal (and without novocaine at that).

I recall years ago when Scott Rolen turned down a long-term deal and was vilified, and when Curt Schilling questioned the franchise's willingness to spend to win -- and was vilified.  Both, though, were speaking the truth about ownership's commitment and did the fans a favor, because before the team opened up the Bank, it needed to make a commitment to getting good players.  The reason is as old as professional sports -- fans will go to a cow pasture to see a winner, but they will persist in going to a palace to watch a loser.  Enter Jim Thome, some good draft picks, and, voila, you had the 2007-2011 Phillies.  Ownership knew it needed to do something, and, to its credit (and with a little luck, because historically its ability to build a farm system and find prospects was legendarily bad).  So while Rolen was sometimes sullen and Schilling too garrulous to be adored in Philadelphia, both did us a favor.

And now there is Papelbon.  Perhaps he's not the brightest bulb in the box.  But he is who he is and doesn't speak in cliches or bromides.  You could see his competitive juices flowing in Boston, and you can sense his frustration here.  Ownership messed it up in so many ways -- by getting older in 2009 when it needed to get younger, by not developing good prospects to replace aging veterans, by not getting good enough value for Cliff Lee the first time and then Hunter Pence, and by selecting Ruben Amaro, Jr., who has presided over the decline, over Mike Arbuckle, who has helped Kansas City turn into a good team.  When you win a World Series, a lot has to go right.  When you go from World Champion to the worst team in baseball, a lot has to go wrong.

I think it starts with the Phillies' culture, led by a bunch of seemingly well-intentioned monied elites and an all-around good guy in David Montgomery.  They want to win, but they also like the concept of owning a ball club, of having the good seats.  They don't seemed wired enough to want to win -- every day in every way.  They were the last team to adopt analytics, they have had a questionable farm system for, well, ever (with certain mother lodes found at certain times being the exception), they have struggled mightily to develop pitchers (who did they develop between, say Robin Roberts and Cole Hamels?), and, well, they have lost more games than any other franchise -- on merit.  The Steinbrenners want to win; John Henry wants to win; Magic Johnson's group in LA wants to win, and, Lord knows, the guys who own the Giants want to win badly, as does the group in St. Louis.  But the group in Philadelphia -- I don't know them personally, but they are what their record says they are.

Ruly Carpenter got it when he took over the Phillies from his father over thirty years ago, only to sell the team to the current group because the strike of 1981 wounded him deeply and he just grew tired of the labor unrest.  The group that followed has struggled, sinking so low at one point that then-president Bill Giles referred to the club as a "small market" team.  Philadelphia, a small market, you say?  Perhaps it was that he and his leadership of the ownership group was small-minded.  And the record reflected that.

I am not sure that the current ownership group "gets it," and, if they do, they have a funny way of showing it.  The club's two best position players are 36 year-old veterans (increasingly) of the disabled list, the outfield a disaster, the starting pitching roster mostly a last-chance hotel for other teams' castoffs (save Hamels and, when healthy, Cliff Lee), with the bullpen being an asset if healthy.  That does not make for a good Major League baseball club; we're back to the "Steve Jeltz Phillies" all over again.

Yes, they built a stadium, and yes, this group gave us some excitement, but it's been too little and too far between for Phillies' fans.  This group has owned the club for about 35 years, and it's time to sell it to someone else -- someone who has a vision, who is competitive, and who will not take a victory lap over building the new stadium and winning a World Series in 2008 and try to ride that wave for another couple of decades.  New ownership will evolve the team and take it well into the 21st century -- and inject a day-to-day commitment to winning.

And if you don't agree, look at the 76ers, whom Comcast mismanaged for years because they let a faded hockey guy, someone totally out of touch with current methods, run the club for at least a decade if not more.  Under Josh Harris, the team has generated a buzz -- and the team is one of the worst in the NBA.  Yet, if you go to a game, the fans are into it, and the coach has the team playing hard.  They are a few drafts away from being a real force in the league.  The fans are bought in and hopeful, and they call into sports radio to talk about the team.  Sadly, on Opening Day, the lunch-hour talk was about Chip Kelly and the Eagles and the possible draft picks for the 76ers.  No one called in about the Phillies.

They are old, they are bad, and they are not evolving.  They need a new, well, everything, and that starts at the top.

To the ownership group -- the best thing you can do for us is to sell the team.

Let's not make Jonathan Papelbon the issue.  Deep down, I think we all know what he is thinking -- that this is a losing ball club with a defeatist culture.  Who wants to be a part of that?  And who wants to pay big dollars to watch it?

Monday, April 06, 2015

The 2015 Phillies

There used to be a rotation that was the envy of everyone -- the "Four Aces."

There used to be a lineup that the writers referred to as the "only American League lineup" in the National League, a lineup that scared people, the observation a compliment. 

But that was four years ago.  And, at a time when teams started to rely increasingly on analytics, the Phillies' GM, ironically an economics major at Stanford, didn't follow.  And, at a time when most of the team's stars were about thirty, the team got older, not younger.  As it turned out, the vaunted prospects that they used to trade for others turned out not to be that good; none is a Major League star today, and few, if any are regulars.  When you combine the age on your 25-man roster with few prospects on your 40-man roster, you have a problem. 

And that's where the Phillies are today.  Their two best position players are 36 and have been injury-prone; history suggests that they'll get hurt again this year.  Your second-best pitcher's career might be over, and you'll trade your best pitcher before the deadline to add prospects.  Your one-time MVP first baseman suffered from not evolving and an awful dispute with his family that he settled in the off-season.  He could have a decent year, but the odds suggest not.  Your outfield is destined to be the least productive in the Majors.  Your rotation has a star and journeymen.  You have a good bullpen, but the odds are that they won't be in a position to hold let alone save many games.  Many pundits predict that you'll have 99 losses; if you trade the ace, you'll have more. 

It's almost as if Seinfeld's Bizzaro World has hit baseball.  The Royals and Pirates are formidable; the Yankees and Phillies are not.  No one knows what the Red Sox have, the Tigers got old fast and the Angels aren't there and, even with Mike Trout, might not get there.  The historically jinxed Cubs seem on the upswing, and with a good manager too.  And then there are in Nationals, testimony to the fact that while the nation's capital might be first in war and first in peace, it might be fielding the best baseball team on the planet. 

The Phillies are not a good baseball team.  I still root for them and have rooted for them for decades.  I went to many games with my father and with my children.  Some good, some not so good.  There were two World Series championship seasons, the insufferable "Glennbo" advertising campaign of the late 1980's, watching Steve Jeltz play shortstop and listening to Terry Francona talk about the talents of utilityman Kevin Sefcik too much.  The team that got the wrong DiMaggio brother also got the wrong Maddux and the wrong Giambi.  It traded Fergie Jenkins, who then went on to a Hall of Fame career and then gifted Ryne Sandberg to the Cubs decades later for Ivan Dejesus.  And it gave up on Dave Stewart too soon.  The fans boo former GM Ed Wade, who helped find guys named Hamels, Howard, Utley and Rollins.  Go figure.

To top it all off, I listened to Sports Talk Radio at lunchtime today.  The major topics of conversation in Philadelphia were the 76ers' chances at high draft picks based upon their trades and whether the Philadelphia Eagles had improved.  It is Opening Day today, and callers were more excited about the third-worst team in the NBA than their hometown baseball club.  Perhaps it's because the basketball team has a plan and hope.  Perhaps it's because the baseball team has neither.

Today, though, the team is tied for first, at least until 3:05 p.m. EDT, when Cole Hamels will deliver the game's first pitch.  And maybe they'll win today, and go 1-0 and give themselves a chance at a win streak.  The weather is nice and the ballpark is a great venue.  And it was only four years ago when the team won over 100 games in the regular season.  Which is proof that a lot of change can happen in that time span.

It was fun, though, while it lasted, from say 2007-2011.  It's just too bad that the front office didn't see what some of the fans did -- a team that needed to get younger fast, and a team that didn't.