Friday, August 24, 2012

The Toy Gun Principle

When I was a kid, my father used to take me on a Father-Son Campout every fall. What this really meant was he got to sit around a fire with his buddies while me and my friends darted off into the woods to have a pretend army “battle.”

It was always a Friday night, and the battles were always legendary. It was seriously the most fun thing a 10-year old boy could possibly imagine: running around in the woods, minimal parental supervision, and lots and lots of toy guns. Those battles felt so real, so energetic it was intense and an amazing joy ride.

 On Saturday morning, everyone would eat breakfast and then basically pack up and head home. The other guys who lived in my neighborhood and also attended this campout always ended up congregating at the massive rock fort in my backyard to try to keep playing with our guns and keeping that fun streak alive that we experienced the night before.

There was one big problem though: just because something was great once does not always mean it turns out just fantastic the second time (I believe marriage also follows this same “toy gun” principle).

No matter what we did or how real we tried to make these battles, it just never lived up to the perfect elements that made the previous night so fun.

With that principle in mind, a few NFL players experienced a high uptick last year because they were in ideal conditions for success.

Michael Vick ran for 9 touchdowns in 12 games for the Philadelphia Eagles in 2010. In 2011 he only ran for 1 touchdown in 13 games. LeSean McCoy saw the uptick as he ran for 17 touchdowns in Vick’s absence. I would not consider LeSean McCoy a top 5 player for that reason. Can you really be sure Vick will miss so many games that McCoy will again benefit?

Maurice Jones-Drew is another candidate to regress this season. He finally won his first rushing crown. Great. He ONLY received 343 carries. If Jacksonville wants to either trade him or save some of his legs (both of which they appear inclined to do) they will not run him as often and as heavily, especially when things get stacked up near the goal line. Do no spend a top-5 pick on MJD.

McCoy and MJD seem to be consensus top-5 selections, but now that we have bumped both of them down (and please do not let McCoy fall out of the top-10 and MJD out the top-15), it is time to create a new top-5

1.     Aaron Rodgers: just do yourself the favor and grab the best player in the NFL first overall. The league is clearly given to passing now more than ever. More Runningbacks will still be there when the draft snakes back around. Rodgers is still improving; his arrow is clearly pointing up especially considering all the weapons at WR and TE that Green Bay employs.

2.     Tom Brady: similar logic here, nothing fancy—grab the second best quarterback with the second pick! I will spare all the clich├ęs previously stated about the passing league and so forth, let’s get to the meat. Brady’s best deep threat last year was Chad Ochocinco, and his spot was upgraded to Brandon Llyod. Big Jump!

3.     Ray Rice: he finally broke through and doubled up his TD numbers to go with his big-time yardage. And now that he looks even better in the redzone, grab the Fantasy RB MVP from last year and lock down that roster spot.

4.     Arian Foster: the guy was limited in the first three games of the season and still pulled out 1200 yards and 10 TDs on the ground, He is also a very reliable pass-catcher, which bodes well with gunslinger Matt Schaub.

5.     Calvin Johnson: the rest of the RBs look a little dicey and why gamble on a player when Megatron is still available? It is similar logic as with the QBs: just grab the player available, if all else fails draft the talent with the gambles. If Matthew Stafford gets the ball up; Megatron will have a big year.

Grabbing a sleeper is all about taking risks, and if the other players in your league have forgotten about Michael Vick, make them pay. I know he has a high pedigree, but the big plays are still there. His injuries will hold others back, but not you!

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Dream On

The Dream Team was plain and simple the most influential basketball team ever constructed, but does that necessarily mean it was the best team ever built? The team’s impact on the world at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics is undeniable.

But how does Michael, Magic, Charles, and company stack up with the current stars of today’s NBA?

The Dream Team’s roster was interestingly constructed—9 players at the peak of their powers (G John Stockton, G Michael Jordan, G Clyde Drexler, F Scottie Pippen, F Chris Mullin, F Charles Barkley, F Karl Malone, C David Robinson, and C Patrick Ewing), 1 player who had just sat out a season (G Ervin “Magic” Johnson), 1 player on his way to retirement (F Larry Bird), and one uber-successful college star (F Christian Laettner)—because the roster was balanced with players who filled the typical point guard, shooting guard, small forward, power forward, and center positions.

For sake of comparison and contrast, let’s construct the 2012 Olympic Roster in similar fashion—four guards, four forwards, two centers and the two best players at flex positions—and see who would hypothetically come out on top.

The problem with naming point guards for the 2012 team is that many of the players who dribble the ball up the floor for today’s team are more combo guards than anything. In the most recent NBA Finals, the assists leaders were Russell Westbrook at 5.9 per game and LeBron James at 5.6 per game. Westbrook never played point guard until Oklahoma City drafted him out of UCLA where he was primarily a shooting guard, and James definitely does not fit the role of a prototypical point guard. The two players that come closest to playing the pass first, score second game are Chris Paul and Deron Williams. Both players have averaged close to a double-double for their careers in points and assists, and the team being built to face off with the Dream Team certainly will not lack in scoring. So the point guards will need to fill the facilitator role instead of the scoring role. Players like Westbrook and 2010-2011 MVP Derrick Rose will definitely receive consideration in the flex spots, but Magic Johnson and John Stockton were distributers first and that is exactly what Paul and Williams provide to the equation.

Shooting guard is probably the scarcest position in the NBA today. Players who line up at the 2 are usually hyper-athletic slashers and wings that do not have a natural position and are not be listed at shooting guard because they cannot shoot. Shooting seems to be an obvious requirement for this position, but even the two clear cut, best shooting guards do not shoot three pointers at a very high clip. Kobe Bryant (career 34%) and Dwyane Wade (career 29%) are the two best guards available, and all-around are fantastic players that there really cannot be much of a debate with any other two-guard. But it does leave a flex spot for a marksman available.

After watching LeBron James dominate the Oklahoma City Thunder in the low post, I think it is safe to no longer list him as a small forward, but as a power forward, or at the very least a point forward. Removing James from the mix, small forward becomes much easier to decipher. Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony are scoring machines averaging 25+ points for their careers. They both rebound relatively well for their position and shoot three pointers on par with Bryant at 36% and 32% respectively. The one area they lack is defense, but all the previous players named are above average defenders, but it leaves the door open for stoppers like Andre Iguodala off the bench.

The power forward spot behind LeBron James can go a few different directions: top pick-and-roll player Chris Bosh, elite rebounder/deadly three point shooter Kevin Love, or high energy but raw Blake Griffin. The biggest problem with all three is their lack of defensive prowess, especially considering they would hypothetically be matched up against two of the most offensively gifted power forwards ever in Barkley and Malone. Bosh is a lightweight in the post, Love struggles against quicker forwards, and Griffin is still new to the whole post-defending concept. Subbing in one of these guys for James is serious drop-off. With the type of high-scoring team we have built so far, a role player will really be needed above all. A slight nod for this roster spot goes to Bosh barely over Love. Bosh has proved the past two years in Miami that he can be effective without seeing the much off the ball. Love remains in contention for a flex spot because of his rebounding and shooting

At center, it is Dwight Howard and then what? Andrew Bynum? Tyson Chandler? Al Jefferson? Much like power forward, the drop off after the top spot is considerable. There is no question that Dwight Howard protects the rim like no one else in today’s game, but it can be argued that his offensive proficiency is a little skewed due to the limited skills of the big men he faces on a nightly basis. Nonetheless, on this team it will not matter because the scoring load will fall elsewhere, and Howard will be most useful protecting the rim and rebounding. With that being said, I think we want the same thing from our center off the bench as well. Chandler, the 2011-2012 Defensive Player of the Year, fits this bill much better than Bynum or Jefferson. Protect the rim and rebound; let the scoring load fall on the capable shoulders of Bryant, Wade, Durant, Anthony, and James.

Now that we have got 10 team members down on paper, the final two flex spots become intriguing. We know what we have at point guard: two pure passers and with LeBron James on roster we also have a player very capable of distributing the load. Giving one of these spots to a combo guard eliminates the need to also select a backup wing player because modern point guards can also feature well off the ball in an offense. Two players jump out immediately and leaving one of them off the roster will be the most difficult choice for this team. Russell Westbrook or Derrick Rose? On paper, these two players are very similar: both average around 20 points, dish out almost 7 assists, and shoot around 30% on three pointers. Watching them play, their high-energy and athletic play jumps out immediately. Rose has a slight edge on field goal percentage, which spikes over Westbrook’s, because of his ability to get to the rim at will. Neither player would be the wrong choice here, but Derrick Rose gets the slight nod over Russell Westbrook.

For the final roster spot, we can either choose what the Dream Team did and select a college player bound for the NBA or be different and take another proven star. Luckily for this go around of Team USA, the best college player also happens to be a power forward who has demonstrated his ability to protect the rim and make an impact on games without needing too much of the ball. Anthony Davis may seem like a risky pick, but given the makeup of this team, Davis’s athletic play around the rim fits in perfectly with the overall goal of the 2012 Olympic Team: protect the rim and rebound.

So we have our twelve: G Chris Paul, G Deron Williams, G Derrick Rose, G Kobe Bryant, G Dwyane Wade, F Kevin Durant, F Carmelo Anthony, F LeBron James, F Chris Bosh, F Anthony Davis, C Dwight Howard, and C Tyson Chandler.

The one glaring hole on the Dream Team, and it truly pains me to write this, was Larry Bird. The Legend was given a roster spot and a starting nod purely out of respect for what he did for the game in the 1980’s. By this point of his career (the Gold Medal Game win over Croatia would be his last competitive game), Bird’s back was so bad he had to lay down on the sidelines during breaks in play.

With the goal to beat the 2012 Olympic squad in mind, I am going to take the liberty of sliding Bird to the bench and insert Scottie Pippen into the starting lineup at small forward in Bird’s absence. So our Dream team starting five consists of PG Magic Johnson, SG Michael Jordan, SF Scottie Pippen, PF Charles Barkley and C Patrick Ewing.

And the starting for for the 2012 team would look like this: PG Paul, SG Bryant, SF Durant, PF James, and C Howard.

Matchup problems galore across the board entirely!

Magic Johnson at 6’9” is handful no matter who guards him, but at 6’0” Chris Paul will definitely have his work cut out for him. The one thing Paul has going for him are his lightning hands and propensity for stealing the basketball. On the opposite side, the one knock on Johnson over his career was his ability to defend quicker guards, and no one is as quick as Chris Paul. The obvious advantage here goes to Magic, one of the five greatest players ever, but I think both players would excel tremendously on the offensive end of the floor. The interesting proposition at point guard would be shifting LeBron James there permanently. Yes, we would lose his presence in the low post, but he would have no problem defending Magic and creating plays on the offensive end. Honestly, it would just be ideal to clone LeBron James and start him at all five positions to compete against the Dream Team.

The matchup up that would have everyone talking would be Michael Jordan vs. Kobe Bryant, which surely would feature no passing and a lot of trash talk. In 1992, Jordan had finally reached the apex of his career as a complete player. He had won the first two of his eventual six championships and was finally beginning to at least tolerate coach Phil Jackson’s triangle offense. On the other hand, the 2012 version of Kobe Bryant appears to finally be slowing down. He can still score with the best of them, but his offensive game looks much more forced at this stage of his career as opposed to the effortless explosion that was the hallmark of his younger years. Defensively, Jordan was at his peak in 1992, while the 2012 Bryant definitely has lost a step. A major advantage here for the dream team as Jordan would probably light Bryant up on offensive and then bust out the Toni Kukoc shutdown special on defense to try and make Kobe’s life miserable.

The two forward spots have to be combined and compared together because I believe Scottie Pippen would be the one tasked with guarding LeBron James and Charles Barkley would then shift over on Kevin Durant. Watching James and Pippen go at it would be almost as compelling as the Jordan vs. Kobe matchup, but for more basketball related reasons. There probably is not a better defensive player in NBA history than Pippen, and there definitely is not another player that boasts LeBron’s skill set. LeBron would have a slight advantage on offense over Pippen, but it would be ever so slight. With Barkley on Durant, we would get the complete opposite styles going head-to-head: Barkley’s brute force against Durant’s silky-smooth efficiency. Barkley has been noted throughout his career for his elite quickness despite his large size, but keeping up with Durant outside the paint would pose a problem for Sir Charles. For Durant, he would have to keep his head in the game and not turn into the invisible man with Barkley playing the most physical defense that Durant will have seen. On the other end of the floor, I believe the matchups would switch and Durant would take Pippen and James on Barkley being the marquee matchup. Barkley was a great scorer on the low block and seeing how James defends him would be interesting. Durant and Pippen almost cancel each other out with Durant only being an average defender and Pippen being an above-average scorer at best. Overall, the forward spot is a tough one to call; much harder than picking Magic and Michael at the first two spots. LeBron James appears to be on a path to greatness, but with the best defender in NBA history on him and then having to contend with the Dream Team’s top scorer on defense; LeBron would fall just short and the advantage would again go to the Dream Team.

Thankfully the 2012 Olympic Team has Dwight Howard at center because if not, they would get dominated in a huge way. Howard is the modern NBA’s best two-way center, and he might be the only two-way center in today’s game. Both Dream Team centers, Patrick Ewing and David Robinson, dominated at both ends of the floor, and Ewing received the starting nod in 1992. Howard’s career averages are right on par with Ewing’s peak years, but it leads to the question: Ewing put up huge numbers against the best crop of big men in NBA history, who is Howard even competing against? If Howard was transported back in time to 1992, he would be eaten alive by the likes of Ewing, Robinson, and the even more formidable but not yet a U.S. citizen Hakeem Olajuwon. Big advantage here to the Dream Team; at the very worst, Ewing and Howard cancel each other out.

Now for the one area where the 2012 Olympic Team may have an advantage: deeper and better guard-play off the bench. John Stockton was as crafty as they come, but seeing him keeping up defensively with Deron Williams or Derrick Rose would be difficult. The modern NBA point guard is fast and athletic, two things that Stockton is not. At shooting guard, Clyde Drexler and Dwyane Wade are at the very least comparable players all-around with Wade having a slight advantage offensively. The overall theme here among the backup guards is just how athletic and explosive the 2012 Olympic Team would be, especially in the transition. So, for the first time in this game, advantage 2012 Olympic Team.

The reserve forwards also show promising signs for the 2012 Olympic Team with Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, and Anthony Davis matching up against Chris Mulllin, an aging Larry Bird, and Christian Laettner. The advantage again is clearly athleticism with all three Dream Team reserves being noted as slow throughout their careers. The Dream Team bench guys can counter the speed with outside shooting which cannot be overlooked off the bench. Mullin and Bird were both better outside shooters than anyone the 2012 Olympic Team has on their roster. The problem would be guarding Anthony, who is the best pure scorer off the bench for either side. If the responsibility fell to Bird, advantage Anthony, but if Mullin picked up Anthony, he would have a much more difficult time scoring. Bosh would bring energy and an elite ability to score in pick-and-roll situations, and the 2012 Olympic Team would have to like what Davis gives them over the flat-footed Laettner. The advantage goes to 2012 stars, but they should be thankful that the 1992 version of Larry Bird was on the roster as opposed to the 1987 premium edition.

Center is the one position where the Dream Team comes out on top with David Robinson bringing much more to the table than Tyson Chandler. Best-case scenario is that Chandler equals what the Admiral does on defense, but Robinson unequivocally has the supreme advantage on the offensive end. In the easiest of decisions, advantage Dream Team.

Despite all the talent that the 2012 Olympic Team has and given how they are expected to dominate the world scene (even without almost half the players named to this roster that are out with various injuries), the most influential basketball team ever would probably retain its title as the greatest team of all-time. The 2012 Olympic Team would definitely give the Dream Team a closer game than their average victories of 44 points, but, as noted, most of the matchup advantages belong with team that took Barcelona and the world by storm in 1992.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Land of the Free and the Home of the Euro Cup?

The tournament has already started, but, too much surprise, the chatter at work has shockingly started. Euro 2012 is fully under way, and many Americans have taken notice. When my Portuguese coworkers and I raced into the locker room at the 2:20pm buzzer today to check the score, a welder named Dwayne barked out that Chelsea was ahead 1-0. All right so maybe he had the wrong tournament, but since when does a middle-aged welder from Rhode Island know that Chelsea is not a woman, but a football squad? This really got things revved up as guys were mentioning seeing the highlights and commenting on the recent performance of the Russians and previewing Germany v Netherlands.

I could not believe what I was hearing—a bunch of blue-collar die-hard NFL fans were beginning to notice the world’s sport.

This led to a locker room preview of the different teams and comparing them to various American sports’ teams. This idea caught on quick and hopefully will help others out there trying to handicap the field the rest of the way out and deciding on who to support.

Breaking the field of 16 in half and working through in reverse order…

8. Croatia

The new kids on the block, Croatia still very young as both a country and footballing squad, but what potential lies within their roster. Many of their players are still unknown commodities at this point in their careers, but after a breakout competition they could see the world’s top clubs seeking their services.

Captain Darijo Srna will provide experience from the midfield as attackers Luka Modric and Niko Kranjcar bomb forward to aid in the attack. Up front lies powerful Eduardo (alright Brazilian-born, but competes internationally for Croatia) who has and impressive 23 goals in 47 international caps (soccer’s term for games played).

This squad has the playmakers, especially in the sought after Modric, to due damage to an unsuspecting side, just ask the Germans. But as in many of these big tournaments it will come down to their defense and goalkeeping to help decide close games.

Comparison: Cincinnati Reds, up and coming with some unknown but talented players. The Reds like Croatia have made their mark, but can they sustain it?

7. Portugal

To the casual observer, the Portuguese team will appear to begin and end at Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal’s dominant winger/striker. But other valuable and talented option feature in the rest of this squad.

Center back Pepe will do all the heavy lifting required of him whether it be marking the opponents top striker or diving to earn a cheap foul. Pepe is a player his teammates love but opponents absolutely cannot stand playing against because he gives them fits. If midfielder Joao Moutinho can establish himself early in games and set the tone for Portugal, they will be better for it.

The three-headed monster of their offense will be what frightens opponents most about the Portuguese—Nani on the left, Helder Postiga in the middle and the aforementioned Ronaldo on the right. Nani frequently finds himself criticizes at Manchester United for disappearing in games and not finishing the easy chances and that must not be the case at Euro 2012. This could be the moment for Ronaldo when he at the very least outs himself equal with Lionel Messi as the world’s top player. His Real Madrid teams bested Messi this season, and if he shines in this tournament the world could be his. Helder Postiga’s jobs will simply be to poach and finish the chances provide to him be the skill players.

Comparison: New England Patriots, lots of offensive flash with no defense and a Tom Brady-talent in the superb Cristiano Ronaldo.

6. England

No side will be under more pressure that is for sure. England biannually is drummed up on home soil only to go out and under perform in international tournaments. The Three Lions have only won one World Cup (on home turf, no less) and their best finish in the European Championships is a lackluster third place. England even failed to qualify for Euro 2008.

The country that invented soccer not only fails in big tournaments, but occasionally fails to even participate.

The team heads to Poland/Ukraine in upheaval. Top striker Wayne Rooney will be dealing with a two-match ban for stomping on an opponent during qualifying, former captain John Terry will again have to deal with racism claims against him, and new manager Roy Hodgson takes over after Fabio Capello stepped down over the winter. Pundits across the continent are wondering how on earth England will deal with their usual national pressure, but also from other nations who will be eager and ready to put the Brits in their place.

The key to the whole squad will be the veteran leadership and hopeful calming presence provided by midfield general Steven Gerrard. The Liverpool man will need to dictate the pace of the game and help the young and inexperienced players find their rhythm. Up front, Jermaine Defoe will need to be on top form for the Brits to have any hope.

Comparison: Notre Dame football, all the hype in the world and always seems to land a top recruiting class; just like these talented Brits, they fail to produce when it matters

5. France

Les Bles were so awful at the 2010 World Cup that most of their squad was sent home early for in-fighting and arguing with the coach which is never a recipe for success. France will enter Euro 2012 with a much younger squad that will look to help their country forget the previous tournament.

Attackers Franck Ribery and Samir Nasri should be a strong combination whether deployed from the midfield or as wingers flanking Karim Benzema. There also appears to be much more stability at the top with former Manchester United defender Laurent Blanc running the show.

France also looks solid through the back of the midfield with Yann M’Vila and Alou Diarra slotting in behind Ribery and Nasri. Manchester United’s Patrice Evra will anchor the defense from his left back position and will create havoc with his devastating runs forward.

Ultimately, France is a strong side, but all question marks are with player make-up and team chemistry. The last bunch went sour after the going got tough, but what will this side do?

Comparison: New York Knicks, a team with very talented skill players that just finished quitting on their coach (Mike D’Antoni) and and now beginning to mesh and play slightly better for their new boss (Mike Woodson).

4. Italy

The 2006 World Cup Champions enter Euro 2012 in similar fashion as their last international triumph. Calciopoli, a corrupt match-fixing scandal, dominated all the headlines leading up to that tournament, as the Italians are no strangers to buying off referees. Fullback Domenico Criscito has already been dropped from the roster as the police investigate him and fellow defender Leonardo Bonucci for accepted Match-fixing bribes during the last Serie A (Italy’s National Soccer League) campaign.

Even with the loss of Criscito in their defense, fullback play will be strong from Italy as usual. Giorgio Chiellini follows in a long line of great Italian center backs and has proved at Juventus that he is ready to stand tall for his country. Goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon is still a first class talent and will hope to return to his incredible form of 2006 when he led Italy to the title.

Italy’s strategy will presumably be to sit back and defend and counterattack when necessary. Midfielder Andrea Pirlo orchestrates all from his central midfield role and lines up one of the world’s most devastating free kicks. But aside from Pirlo, Italy is severely lacking skilled players who can run at and take on opposing defenders. Most of the other midfielders on roster are defensive minded and limited out wide on the tough lines. Enigmatic striker Mario Balotelli will patrol up front in the number 9 shirt hoping to net a goal so the world can see his first rate Chad Ochocinco type celebrations.

Unfortunately for Italy, Balotelli appears to be their only player with flair and if his service up front is limited, expect long, drawn out, 1-0 games from the Italians. And despite all the distractions, one thing Italy has proved time and time again is that they are resilient under pressure as evidenced by their victory on 2006.

Comparison: 2000 Baltimore Ravens or 2002 Tampa Bay Bucs, a first rate defense that needs the offense to just manage games and power home 1-0 victories.

3. Netherlands

No country can sport a more talented top four than the Dutch: Robin van Persie, Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder, and Rafael van der Vaart. The one problem is that those four superbly talented players have never been able to fully coexist on the field.

The Oranje will hope things are different this go around as van Persie has established himself as one of the world’s premier strikers. RvP dominated the English Premier league this season netting a league-high 30 goals for Arsenal. The form for the other three, who all pine their trade from different areas of the midfield, is not on the same level. Robben will be deployed primarily on the right wing for the Dutch to best utilize his left-footed shot as he turns inside to goal. The problem lies in whether his teammates will tolerate this very talented player wondering around the field and switching positions at his own liking. With Sneijder and van der Vaart, the Dutch have two players who, by all accounts, cannot stand each other. Both play as attacking midfielders, love taking free kicks (as does Robben), and are used to being in possession of the ball in a “point guard” role.

For this squad, it is too many captains and not enough sailors. From the outside it appears the Dutch lack the players willing to do the dirty work. Their three midfielders need to coexist with one another for this to be a successful tournament.

Comparison: Miami Heat, watching the Dutch is like watching All-NBA players LeBron James and Dwyane Wade talking turns on the offensive end, but when they get out in transition, as Holland will in counterattacks, it is completely breathtaking and you remember why they will be one of the most feared teams in Poland/Ukraine.

2. Germany

With three World Cups and three European Championships, there is no better big-tournament team than the Germans. Consistently placing in the semi-finals at minimum has long been a calling card for the Germans, and this side should not be any different. Manager Joachim Low will return much of his third place squad from the 2010 World Cup.

At that tournament, midfielders Mesut Ozil, Sami Khedira, and Thomas Muller were a breath of fresh air in a usually subdued and calculating German side. That same up-tempo and energetic game needs to be on display for Germany, and that means mercurial striker Mario Gomez (yes, he is German) will have to be on top form to slot home his chances. Germany can afford to attack heavily because opponents will have great difficulty counterattacking as long as Bastian Schweinsteiger is sitting deep in the midfield. Schweinsteiger proved in the Champions League Final that he is the game’s premier tactician and the engine that powers this high-octane German team.

Comparison: New York Yankees, decorated professionals in every sense of the word and this hungry team have players that know how to win big games.

1. Spain

The reigning World and European Champions will again put their tiki-taka style (a gameplan predicated on short, quick passing) on display for the world in Poland/Ukraine. The squad is basically the same as the one that won the last two tournaments, save for two notable exceptions out with injury: former captain Carles Puyol and clinical striker David Villa.

The players swear that those two injuries will not affect them, but the evidence is not in their favor. Puyol was the unquestioned leader of the team, barking out orders from defense and flying forward on corner kicks to strike for goal. David Villa was equally important and his 51 goals in 82 international contests is astounding. With those two out, pressure and responsibility will fall on fullback Sergio Ramos and striker Fernando Torres to pick up the slack. Ramos’ talent is undeniable, but he occasionally loses his head and is susceptible when he falls asleep in the back. Torres was at one point in time considered the world best striker, but he has not been on the peak of his game for a couple seasons. This could be the moment when he reasserts himself onto the world scene again by delivering big goals, as Villa always has, for his country.

Through the midfield, Xavi and Andres Iniesta will be the straws that stir the drink that is Spain’s attack. Both players, though diminutive in stature, leave huge impacts on games because they epitomize the short passing style better than anyone. To play Spain means to not have the ball because the will dominate possession and pass you to death. Teams must stay disciplined or Xavi and Iniesta will have their way and hoist a third straight internation trophy.

Comparison: 1980’s San Francisco 49ers, a short passing game led by the elite Joe Montana (Xavi in Spain’s case) methodically chewed up defenses en route to dynasty status.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

My Point Exactly

I just received an urgent phone call from one of my Rec League Basketball teammates. He was frantically trying to figure out if we won or lost the game we just finished about an hour ago. My reaction was not even that of surprise or curiosity or even bewilderment.

Let me set the scene here: I’ve known this teammate my whole life and have probably spent upwards of 200 hours on the court with him. A talented player for sure, blessed with the some of the quickest hands I’ve seen and a sweet shooting stroke from behind the arc; he is the type of player you hate playing against and love having on your team. Off the court, well let’s just say we wonder what he is thinking most of the time.

His question did not catch me off guard; frankly, it was not even out of the norm for this player. Whether we won or lost just was not that big of a deal in his life—he honest to goodness just forgot. Now, to me this is just complete lunacy. After all, winning and losing are the two most important aspects of a box score, right? I get out there every week and love playing basketball, but honestly I am the most miserable human being if we lose. Does not matter if I dropped 20 points or blocked 10 shots; I just want to win.


The satisfaction of walking out of that gym with a win, and simply knowing that you and your teammates were just better than opposition is a phenomenal feeling. This is the way of life on every level of basketball—from jayvee hoops all the way NBA—winning signifies a major accomplishment. Some players are more accomplished than other because they were the best of a generation: Bill Russell with 11 rings, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar with 6 rings, and Michael Jordan with 6 rings. Others just happened to be in the right place at the right time: Tom Heinsohn with 8 rings alongside the indomitable Russell (and most of the role players from the Celtic dynasty of the late 50’s and 60’s), Robert Horry with 7 rings from three different teams, and Steve Kerr with 5 rings, three from Jordan and two more with a player many are already beginning to forget—Tim Duncan.

Nothing about Duncan’s game is flashy or breathtaking, but he powered the San Antonio Spurs to four titles in eight years. He is seven feet tall, but yet rarely throws down a dunk considering this immense size. Regularly and methodically, all he does is win (copyright: Skip Bayless). Currently riding an 18-game winning streak and leading the Spurs to the Western Conference Finals, Tim Duncan has no peer. Not Hakeem Olajuwon or Patrick Ewing or even Shaquille O’Neal, a man who intersected the majority of Duncan’s career.

When debating the greatest players of all-time, usually Duncan and O’Neal receive a lot of airtime together. Shaq thrust himself into the limelight from Day One in the NBA, whereas Duncan preferred to spend his time off the court in less crowded settings to say the least. Shaq made rap albums and movies; Duncan invited his coach go swimming in his native St. Croix. On the court, both almost immediately were successful, but in vastly different ways. Only Duncan’s first NBA Championship can even really be compared to Shaq’s. David Robinson was just at the tail end of his prime by that point and had enough left in the tank to help power the Spurs to their first title in franchise history. After that, the team was 100% Duncan’s, and three more championships followed.

Shaq on the other hand always had a dominant sidekick playing alongside him. From Penny Hardaway helping to carry the Orlando Magic to the 1995 Finals to Kobe Bryant winning three titles next to him with the Los Angeles Lakers to Dwyane Wade willing the Miami Heat to the 2006 Finals, Shaq always had plenty of help. Along the way, Shaq also managed to make a lot of noise for the franchise that employed the Big Diesel. Shaq constantly feuded with teammates, coaching staffs, and various levels of management throughout his 19-year NBA career.

The true contrast though is what both players have done with the skills and abilities they have been blessed with. Nobody in the NBA has done more with less than Tim Duncan. He is not overly fast or athletic, but has used his high basketball IQ and elite post moves to average 20 points and 11 rebounds for his career. Shaq on the other hand was blessed with an amazing sense of balance and sneaky quickness despite his 325+ pound frame. Dominant and relentless, but only when he wanted to be—and therein lies the problem.

Tim Duncan wanted it more than Shaquille O’Neal. Winning appears to be the most import thing in the Big Fundamental’s life. I am not saying that Shaq would ever finish a game and call up Kobe to ask if they won because he forgot, but you don’t think that once he was showered and changed, O’Neal was at peace leaving the arena and heading out into the night?

All the nonsense from Shaq off the court helps to overshadow this truth about his career. People remember the funny quotes and the raps about Kobe and the crazy pregame dance moves, but forget that if Shaq had given 100% instead of about 80-85%, he would have gone down as the greatest Big Man ever, aside from Russell. We have our happy memories watching the joy on his face after throwing down that lop pass against the Blazers and watching his massive hands grasp the Larry O’Brien Trophy and Finals MVP Trophy with a big smile on his face and can even see his oversized, comical figure on TNT’s in-studio show during the playoffs, but just remember: he could have been so much more.

Duncan on the other hand left everything; repeat everything, on the court. When was the last time you heard a story about Duncan doing something ridiculous in his spare time? When is the last time you even heard Duncan speak? Four championships should speak for themselves, but how many times can we really be expected to watch the same spin move for a right-handed hook shot off the glass? For the reasons that nothing is memorable about Duncan’s game will be the reasons I will always tell younger NBA fans about how truly great he really was. You knew what you would get every night from #21: fantastic leadership, top notch post-D, and, yes, that same old spin move off the glass. And Spurs coach Gregg Popovich will continue to get that level of production from his almost unnoticed superstar throughout the remainder of these playoffs because that is what epitomizes Duncan’s career—consistency. Despite people not caring or noticing or whining about how boring Duncan appears to be, he will put up the same numbers and do whatever it takes to help his team win.

I told my father yesterday on the way home from work that I was considering writing my next column on Tim Duncan. My father (who can be described as an average basketball fan and can at the very least carry on an intelligent NBA-related conversation and know what he is talking about) responded in this way:

“Tim Duncan? Is he still active in the NBA?’

My point exactly.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

A Surprising Answer to the NHL's Most Title-Starved City

Consider the averages of the seven-year apexes for these two players:

Player A: 38 goals, 48 assists, 86 points, +25, 1 Hart trophy, 5x All-Star, 1x All-NHL
Player B: 26 goals, 65 assists, 91 points, +27, 1 Hart trophy, 7x All-Star, 3x All-NHL

Player B was traded along with five other players, two draft picks, and $15,000,00 cash for Player A.

Player B is two-time Stanley Cup champion Peter Forsberg, and Player A is the much-maligned Eric Lindros.


It happens every year at this time; honestly, it happens almost every time a champion is crowned in one of the major sports, but during the rush of the NHL/NBA playoffs, it is a guarantee.

“What is the most title-starved city out there?” a coworker says to me.

I think for a moment and realize many logical and fitting candidates exist (I’m looking at you Cleveland), but since hockey is the closest to crowning a new champion, I wanted to plant my flag right in the middle of that sport’s draught argument. So, I quickly give back my answer, and before I was able to elaborate why, we both remember we get paid by the hour. Seeing as our company’s president was in town for a visit, we decided it would be ideal if we returned to work instead of taking the time for this column to be spoken rather than written. However, this conversation led to a great distraction piece in my head for the rest of the day, which, as usual, was more than welcome.

On paper, the large Canadian metropolises of Toronto and Vancouver look like the logical candidates. Forty-three seasons have elapsed since the Maple Leafs last brought home Lord Stanley’s Cup, and the Canucks have played 40 seasons without ever seeing their captain hoist the sport’s ultimate prize. The Leafs have not even returned to a Cup Final since upsetting Jean Beliveau and the high-flying Montreal Canadiens at the height of their powers in 1967 (the Habs responded by winning eight out of the next twelve Cups in the midst of a 15 out of 24 run from 1956-79). Vancouver on the other hand has appeared in three Cup Finals, and aside from being blown out by the New York Islanders’ dynasty in 1982; they let two winnable Cups slip through their grasp. In 1994, the Canucks took the New York Rangers to a Game 7 in Madison Square Garden where the fell by one goal in a 3-2 Rangers win, and their 2011’s Presidents’ Trophy-winning squad could not beat the Boston Bruins in a Game 7, on home-ice nonetheless.

Trust me; both of these draughts are substantial in length and have plenty of pain hanging over the heads of the two fan bases, but fans of hockey in Toronto and Vancouver have plenty of positives to push themselves back towards positivity: Toronto, Canada’s largest city, is home to the Hockey Hall of Fame and Vancouver just watched Sidney Crosby’s overtime winner against Team USA in the Olympic Gold Medal Game on their ice.

In my mind, two other cities jump out right away and both for a totally different reason, but one mega-trade will eternally link these two together: Quebec City and Philadelphia.

The Flyers Cup-drought of 35 seasons places them seventh overall on the waiting list, but to make matters worse, Philly has appeared in six Cup Finals since captain Bobby Clarke last lifted the Cup in both 1974 and 1975. No other team even comes close to six losses in the Cup Finals in that span (Vancouver and the St. Louis Blues have each lost three to place them in a tie for second place). A three-peat was on the line for the Flyers in 1976, but they were promptly swept by the aforementioned juggernaut from Montreal. Philly made two more appearance in the 1980s, both against the NHL’s new powerhouse, the Edmonton Oilers. Wayne Gretzky and Co. plowed through Philadelphia to take the series 4-1 in 1985, but Flyers’ net-minder Ron Hextall managed to single-handedly keep Philly afloat in a 1987 rematch that went seven games before the Oilers clinched the Cup. The Flyers returned to the Cup Finals in 1997 (we will get to that one later), and also made a fluke appearances as a seven seed in the 2010 Cup Final.

Six Cup losses and a thirty-five season Cup-less streak is a rather depressing notion to dwell on, but unfortunately we must go to the one place darker and more depressing than Philadelphia—Quebec City, which saw no championships from the Nordiques in their sixteen NHL years playing in the Colisee de Quebec. And then in 1995, it was bye-bye Quebec City and hello Denver, Colorado.

It has been almost 20 years since the fateful trade of Eric Lindros for Peter Forsberg, Ron Hextall, Chris Simon, Mike Ricci, Kerry Huffman, Steve Duchesne, a 1st round selection (Jocelyn Thibault) in 1993, a 1st round selection (later traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs, later traded to the Washington Capitals—Nolan Baumgartner) in 1994, and $15,000,000 cash between the Philadelphia Fylers and the Quebec Nordiques—20 years that had the trade never happened, would have surely resulted in a Cup for each city.

Eric Lindros was the most talented player of his generation, and also the biggest enigma. He dominated opponents in every sense of the word on the ice. Listed on draft day at 6’5” and 228 pounds, he simply was bigger, stronger, and, amazingly, faster than everyone else. The team that ended up securing Lindros’s services would be viewed as an immediate contender in the NHL and a force to be reckoned with for years to come. Of course, there was a catch—the general manager that selected Lindros would then have to figure out how to get him to put pen to paper and sign a contract offer.

The Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds of the Ontario Hockey League initially held Lindros’s rights after drafting him out of Toronto’s prestigious St. Michael’s College School. In what would set a precedent for Lindros, he refused to sign with the Greyhounds and instead took his talents to the Oshawa Generals, also of the OHL, where he blew the league away with an OHL-high 149 points for the 1990-91 season. Lindros’s name was firmly affixed to the top of every draft board prior to the 1991 NHL Draft.

The elite skill set Lindros possessed made the red flags surrounding him easy to ignore before the 1991 NHL Draft. Lindros was not only the top amateur player by a mile (1.6 kilometers for those in the Great White North) that year, but by this point in time, quite possibly the highest regarded hockey prospect ever. Scouts and analysts alike were completely enamored with the man-child of the Oshawa Generals. But there was still the problem of his firm stance of refusing to sign with the Nordiques if they used the top pick on him.

If Lindros was the “can’t miss” prospect in the 1991 NHL Draft; Peter Forsberg was completely under the radar as a fringe second rounder. When the Flyers reached for him with 6th overall pick, General Manager Russ Farwell was heavily criticized in the local and national media. All of this was of course before Forsberg continued to star with Sweden’s Modo Hockey and delivered for his country an Olympic Gold Medal at Lillehammer in 1994. Forsberg would be the centerpiece of Quebec’s haul for Lindros, and a trade that for the city of Quebec should never have been made. As has been the theme with these two intersecting careers, hindsight is always 20/20.

Two cities, two pains, and one trade lives in the middle.

The one large variable that I am going of off here is virtually impossible to change. However, this is sports, and if there is one thing that sports proves over and over again, it is that the “what if” question will always be present.

What if Lindros cared first and foremost about just merely playing hockey and not about the potential lack of marketability, speaking French, and listening to what his mother famously thought he should do? What if Lindros put on the Nordiques sweater that was handed to him by GM Pierre Page on draft day? What if Lindros anchored a second line behind the first line unit led by team captain Joe Sakic? I believe the answer is simple—the NHL would never even have thought to relocate the Nordiques to Denver. The league would have a built in blood-bath rivalry featuring Quebec against the Montreal Canadiens, their most marketable player in Lindros pining his trade in a Canadian city, and have two of the league best centers on one team. If in this parallel universe the Nordiques were still be able to pull of the heist of Patrick Roy from Montreal, the NHL would be looking at a potential dynasty forming in Quebec City of all places.

On the flipside, Philadelphia clearly would not have made out so bad either. As noted in this column’s introduction, Forsberg appeared to have not only an equal statistical career as Lindros, the argument can be made his career was even better. When the Flyers returned to the Cup Finals in 1997, none other than Ron Hextall was back in net wearing the black and orange. They could have just saved his contract and let him play out those years in Philly because Lord knows they could have used a reliable goaltender through the ‘90s. The four other players in the trade were role guys who would have augmented and filled out the remaining roster nicely, and valuable pieces were available in both the 1993 (Saku Koivu and Todd Bertuzzi were still available after the 10th pick) and 1994 NHL Draft if they felt like they did not want to go with Thibault and Baumgartner. The saved money is another interesting aspect. The $15,000,000 in cash they gave Quebec was almost double that of their payroll. After the NHL emerged with a higher salary cap after the next lockout, Philly would be sitting on a pile of cash that owner Ed Snider was willing to spend on Lindros, so why not the free agents that were hitting the open market in the mid to late ‘90s? The dynasty that was built in Colorado would be 1,725 miles (again, that is 2,760 kilometers) away in the City of Brotherly Love.

Instead, the Flyers gutted their franchise giving up more for Lindros than even the Los Angeles Kings gave up for Wayne Gretzky who was in the prime of his career. The Nordiques on the other took the loot and bolted town a few years later. The city of Quebec was forced to sit by and watch their old team raise the Stanly Cup and celebrate in those hideous Colorado Avalanche jerseys. As much pain as been dealt to the Flyers since their last Cup in 1975, there were some excellent years with Lindros when he was healthy and focused to what he could control on the ice instead of feuding with team GM Bobby Clarke. For the Nordiques, there are hardly any positives to take away from this whole debacle—their team is not only gone, but the national pastime of their country no longer exist as a NHL franchise in Quebec. Throw all that in with the Avalanche’s two Stanley Cups, and the choice is an easy one. Despite no longer possessing an NHL franchise, Quebec City gets the nod as hockey’s most title-starved city.

If Eric Lindros had just donned the sweater of the team that drafted him, the whole mess would surely have been prevented.