Sunday, May 26, 2019


I have more than a passing interest in lacrosse.  I know people who played it, my son played it in high school for a while, I have been to travel team tournaments and a few NCAA Division I Final Fours.  At times, it can be a most compelling game.  That said, in this advanced age of specialization, there is something that is killing it -- the advent of the FOGO, which stands for "face off, get off."  The FOGO can be one of the most important players on the team -- all for a player who in all likelihood will not take a shot on goal, not get many assists and will not be on the field for important defensive series -- and who might be on the field for less than 10 minutes of a 60-minute game.

The FOGO arrived on the scene when the Lords of Lax decided that there should be a faceoff after every goal is scored.  Before that happened, it was "make it take it" -- according to a friend who played DI lax back in the day -- before the advanced age of specialization.  That is, you scored a goal, you got the ball.  At some point, the rule changed, and smart coaches -- and there were many of them -- figured out that they needed kids to specialize in the skill of bending low, with the back of one's stick to his opponent's, and exhibit feats of strength known to edge rushers, Greco-Roman wrestlers and perhaps Frank Costanza on Festivus in order to win the ball and get a team's offense going.  Have a good FOGO, one who can win many more than half of his face-off attempts, and your team will have more than a good chance of winning games, for the basic reason that you will have the ball -- and thus many chances to score -- much more than your opponents will.  Have a great FOGO and you can get to the Final Four.

I am not criticizing parents who encourage their kids to become FOGOs or players who become FOGOs.  Trevor Baptiste, seemingly a wonderful young man, was a four-time all-American at the University of Denver -- as a FOGO.  Baptiste was all set to go from his private school in northern New Jersey to Franklin & Marshall, a DIII school in Lancaster, Pennsylvania when Denver's Hall-of-Fame coach Bill Tierney saw him play.  Lax coaches are known for not poaching recruits who have committed to other schools; Tierney spoke with the F&M coach, got his approval to talk with Baptiste and low and behold what Tierney saw in the 5'9", 220-pound or so midfielder bore out -- Baptiste was amazing.  As is Yale's TD Ierlan, a FOGO who almost singlehandedly demoralized #1 Penn State yesterdaly in the first half with his ability to win almost every faceoff against the Nittany Lions.  The Lions are known for their scintillating offense, but they could not get it into gear until the second quarter because Ierlan kept winning faceoffs.  By that time Penn State was down 10-1, and while they staged a noble comeback, the difference in the game was the work of Ierlan.  He dominated the conversation of the announcers on ESPN.

The importance --and I would say exaggerated importance -- of the FOGO begs the question -- is this really good lacrosse, is this really necessary and does this specialization make the game better?  There was a time in basketball where they had a jump ball at mid-court after each basket, until some guys with names like Wilt Chamberlain made a mockery of it, won almost jump ball, and now the game has evolved today where they have a jump ball to start the game and on a rare occasion when the rule compel a jump ball as opposed to the possession arrow's dictating which team gets the ball next after the players tie up the ball.  Basketball is much better for it.

So why can't lacrosse either go back to "make it take it" or giving the ball to the scored upon team after a goal is scored?  The games will go faster -- there were times in yesterday's Penn State-Yale contest where the standoff between faceoff men lasted at least 20 seconds if not more, so determined and stubborn were the gallant FOGO's not to yield any edge to their opponents.  More importantly, guys who are not on the field for much of the time will not have an overexaggerated impact on the game.  Sure, women's softball pitchers can have a huge impact on the game -- but they are out there as focal points the entire time.  The FOGOs -- they are hardly on the field.  That just does not make any sense.  Let the players who are on the field the most have the biggest impact on the game.

That is the main point -- that the players who play most of the minutes have most of the impact.  Sure, you can argue that no one has ever won the Tewaarton Award -- given to the best DI lax player -- being a FOGO.  That's because the FOGO's do not rack up goals and assists.  But the FOGO's determine in great part which team will have the greater amount of possession -- and thus the opportunity for more goals and assists.  And somehow, that just doesn't seem right.

I am sure that my lax friends will tell me that I am wrong, that the game is great, that I am the one exaggerating the importance of the FOGO and not the Lords of Lax, but I would like to understand why they say that.  I do not think that there is a phenomenon like the FOGO in any other sport -- and to me, that is a good thing.

End the FOGO.  Make the game better.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

The 76ers' future

The Philadelphia 76ers' spin machine will work overtime to pat the franchise on the back for its heroic effort in its playoff series against the Toronto Raptors and losing Game 7 on a last-second shot to one of the best players in the game.  If spin were the measurement for success of an NBA franchise, the 76ers would be champions.  The reality is something far more stark -- especially since the team lost badly twice in this series.

First, the team reinvented itself twice during the regular season.  How could it have expected to get to the conference finals with a group that had hardly gotten to mesh together?   Especially when it was hard to find practice time for the whole squad together, since star center Joel Embiid was dealing with an iffy knee and other health problems.  The expectation was unrealistic.  And it shows how far the team is from being an elite one.

Second, the team only has four players signed for next season -- Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Zhaire Smith and Jonah Bolden.  It needs to find 11 more players.  Even if say 3-5 of the current squad come back, the remainder of the roster will take some time to come together with the current squad.  That there are 13 teams with cap room to sign a player to a max deal (and a few might have room to sign two players to max deals) exacerbates the team's problems.  There are not 13 or more players worthy of a max deal, which means that there are owners out there who will overpay for players.  And that means the competition will be fierce for Jimmy Butler, who is worthy of one, and Tobias Harris, who is not.  The Clippers traded Harris for what they could get because they did not think him worthy of a max deal, and, as it turns out, they fleeced the "win now" 76ers for Landry Shamet and three first-round picks, killing whatever might have been left of Sam Hinkie's thoughtful "process."  Don't expect the roster to be a cornucopia of high-ceiling players; at least three will have significant holes in their games and be satisfied being part of the "happy to be here" club.  Flying on private jets and staying in five-star hotels are great perks.

Third, Ben Simmons' lack of a jump shot kills the current makeup of the team.  Absolutely kills it.  NBA basketball people know it; the press seems to ignore it, look at the positives, defend Simmons for being "only 22," point to his highlights and his stat lines.  The latter, though, are only part of the story.  Simmons touches the ball more than any other player in the league, and is happy to dribble the ball hard down the court, take off near the foul line, turn his back to the basket and try to find an open man.  That's a strategy?  Because Simmons cannot shoot, Coach Brett Brown, about whom an open question remains whether the players still listen to him, locates Simmons on the low blocks.  Why?  Because put Simmons up high and the defenders will lay off him -- he cannot and will not shoot.  As it turns out, putting Simmons on the low blocks is worse.  He clogs that area, takes it away from the league's most devastating low blocks player, Embiid, and enables his man to double Embiid, who publicly is magnanimous in his comments but privately must be livid.  Simmons might thrive in a run-and-gun scenario; he is doom to a half-court offense.  That he did not work on a jumper last summer is a reflection on his desire and character.  If he does not develop one this summer, the 76ers will have a huge problem, perhaps insurmountable.  

Fourth, Embiid needs to get into better shape.  Part of this is on him -- he has to lay off the milk shakes and try to get in the pool when his knee is bothering him.  It seems like he knows this, has accepted this and will accept this challenge.  Part of this is on the team -- NBA teams range widely in their attention to nutrition and fitness, and would be well-advised to take pages out of the books of European soccer teams to condition their players better.  An in-shape Embiid, one who can play 75 regular-season games, is a top-5 player.

Fifth, the front office seems to be dysfunctional.  The owners are New York private equity guys with little connection to the city and to the fans.  They hired a general manager with precious little experience (even if he is by all accounts a good guy), perhaps because Elton Brand was the only person willing to take the job. They are sharks about promotion and maximizing ticket value, but after the hype you have a team that is an odd aggregation of parts, not all of whom function in harmony most of the time.  Brand is outmatched as a GM, and it seems as though Jerry West and the Clippers took him to the cleaners on the Harris deal.  Odd that the league forced the team's hand to oust Hinkie and bring in the younger Colangelo because of the older Colangelo's thinly veiled interest in what was best for the league (and that Adam Silver failed to see a hidden agenda) but failed to step in to thwart this version of highway robbery.  This trade was a disaster.  Harris seemed to melt a little every time the lights got brighter.

Sixth, speculation will run rampant about free-agent signings and who goes where.  Butler and Embiid do not seem compatible with Simmons, and Brown's coaching seemed to favor Simmons over Embiid and Butler.  Butler only will return if a) Philly offers him the most money (and it can offer more to him than others) and b) if Philly offers him the best opportunity at a championship ring (much more doubtful).  The bet here is that he goes elsewhere, and to play for and with a coach who is more aligned to his style of play.  The bet here is that the team will sign Harris -- to a max deal -- and hype it to the max.  Then they will pursue various free agents, but it seems unclear as to who might be a good fit.  

Seventh, as for free agents, some speculate that the team will sign a point guard -- such as Kemba Walker or D'Angelo Russell.  Fine, but then what of a Ben Simmons without a jump shot?  That point guard will not want to co-exist with a Simmons who has to run the offense.  So, can you turn a Simmons without a jumper into a power forward?  Yes?  No?  Is that what  you drafted him for?  Or does he just morph into a much better hyped form of a Michael Kidd-Gilchrist?  Simmons cannot co-exist with a true point guard, and the team does need some guards who can guard other teams' guards; it failed mightily in that regard this past season.

Eight, and this goes along with the prior points, can you trade Ben Simmons?  Opinions vary as to his worth.  My view is that he is not now viewed as someone who was worth the top pick in the NBA draft.  My view also is that there are a few front offices who still might view him that way and might want to build their franchise around him.  Which begs the question -- who are those desperate owners and general managers and who might they offer for Simmons?  One logical franchise is Sacramento, which just missed the playoffs, which has a bevy of pedigreed young players and a head of basketball who has been known to make bad decisions in the past.  Can you get Vlade Divac to give you De'aaron Fox and Marvin Bagley, Jr. or Willie Cauley-Stein for Simmons?  If you can, make the deal, and make it fast.  

Nine, the team needs to sign bench players.  Mike Scott and James Innis are worthy of a return; Greg Monroe and Boban Marjanovic should go.  JJ Redick is worthy of a return, but at compensation far less than the $23 million the team gave him last year.  That makes seven players when you include the four signed up for next year.  The team needs eight more, so if you add the first-round pick the team has it will need seven more players.  That is a tall order for any team, let alone one that is touting itself as building for even better years.  The status of the roster suggests a desperate ownership group that cashed in many chips for an obviously flawed "win now" strategy.  It also suggests that it is a funny way to build a contender for the future.

This off-season is crucial for the 76ers.  Get it right, and they get to the conference finals.  Get it wrong, and a downward spiral might begin.

And then the process was just that -- interrupted, flawed, failed.  With nothing to show for it except a sizzle machine that is worthy of Hall of Fame mention.

And plenty of empty seats.


Wednesday, May 01, 2019

Jan Vertonghen

Yesterday's Champions League semi-final match between quick, upstart Ajax and a battered Spurs squad was marred by the aftermath of a collision between Spurs' two center backs -- Belgian national team teammates Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen, who comprise one of the best center back tandems in the world.  What resulted was both players lying on the ground, Vertonghen bleeding profusely from the nose and holding his head.  The referee stopped play; the Spurs' physios ran onto the field and did what they could to stop the bleeding and do what physios normally do -- patch players up and keep them in the match.  Especially one as important as a Champions League semifinal at home.

But what Vertonghen suffered was not a kick to the shin or a bump on the back of his leg.  His head collided with that of a teammate.  Hard.  It seemed to be an awful blow.  The physios stopped the bleeding and then took Vertonghen off the field -- this is permissible without substitution, as the Spurs played with ten men on the pitch -- to change his jersey (there was blood on it) and to attempt to stop the bleeding a bit better.  Having thought they achieved that, Vertonghen -- to the delight of the Spurs' faithful, too -- was sent back onto the pitch.  Mission accomplished!

Or so someone thought, but not everyone.  Vertonghen was not right and quickly signaled so, looked woozy and almost collapsed when the referee once again stopped play to enable Sissoko to come in for him.  When the play stopped, Vertonghen, looking wobbly, needed assistance to be helped off the field.  It was a sad moment -- for football, for the Champions League, for Spurs and for Vertonghen, who clearly deserved better.  He was hurt.

It is easy, of course, to say that the Spurs' physios (for you Americans, that's trainers, which, in UK English, means sneakers) and medical staff failed Vertonghen.  I read in one account that Vertonghen passed the initial concussion protocol tests that FIFA/UEFA/EPL whomever -- have in place.  What is problematic is that there is no intermediate solution for a player -- either he gets substituted off or he remains in the game.  And in football, if a player gets substituted off, he is done for the contest.  There is no opportunity for him to go off, be evaluated, and come back in -- unless his team is willing to play a man down for a long period of time (as you might estimate it might take 20-30 minutes for a proper evaluation to occur -- and not the 2-3 minutes that Vertonghen apparently got).  So, perhaps FIFA/UEFA et al. should consider a new rule that permits a team to take a player off the field and provide a perhaps temporary substitute while that player is getting a fuller and better evaluation for a concussion.  If that rule existed, then the stark circumstances that exist now -- substitute or keep the player in the game -- go away.  But if a new rule should not come about, then the choice need not be stark, as Vertonghen has a full life to live -- take the player out of the match.  Period.

Yesterday's match deserved more discussion of Ajax's continued sparkling run, its young captain, its fearless center midfielder and its enterprising keeper.  It also warranted a discussion of Neres's hitting the post in the second half and the ramifications of that near miss, Spurs' tactics and the effect of all of Spurs' injuries and Son's suspension on the match.  All are good topics for discussion.  Instead, the mishandling of Vertonghen's injury draws a billing right after the announcement of the surprising final score.

I am not a Spurs' fan; as an Arsenal fan, it is almost constitutional that I cannot be.  Yet, I respect their organization tremendously -- from top to bottom -- and what they have accomplished.   I also like an underdog -- hence my admiration for Ajax.  What happened to Vertonghen and Spurs could have happened to any team anywhere.  Let's hope that the football powers combine their best thinking to make sure that something like this does not recur.  And here is to a speedy recover to Vertonghen, and for that matter, all other injured Spurs.