POSTED AT 11:08 PM ET, 06/24/2010
Wizards on right track
NEW YORK -- Teams building from scratch have to make moves, bold and creative moves. They have to do so quickly and aggressively, taking calculated risks, looking not too far into the future while realizing it's not time to live in the present either. The Washington Wizards, on all of those fronts, did splendidly Thursday night, drafting and trading pieces that figure to be part of a contending team or later allow for further moves that will ultimately help deliver a run deep into the playoffs.
The 2010 NBA draft didn't mean jack to most NBA teams, most notably the two-time champion Los Angeles Lakers and the runner-up Boston Celtics. But it meant everything to the Wizards, who got to select a franchise player in John Wall; acquire a veteran guard in Kirk Hinrich, who can play real live defense and shoot; draft a project in Kevin Seraphin, a big and athletic Frenchman, about whom we know terribly little, but a kid the Wizards loved and knew they wouldn't find available with a later pick.
Seraphin has a manageable European contract to buy out and he wants to come right now; there's no stashing him for a year or so to see what he'll do. The Cavaliers wanted him. Other teams wanted to stash him for a year, which he declined to do. The Wizards, on the other hand, have the luxury of letting the kid develop with the big club. He doesn't want to play this summer in France; word is he wants to come to Washington and Wizards management wants him.
For now, we have to assume the Frenchman and Hinrich will arrive in Washington on July 8, compliments of the Chicago Bulls, who needed to unload Hinrich and the first-round pick to clear enough salary cap room to sign not just LeBron James, but a second A-list free agent, say, Joe Johnson or Chris Bosh. The Bulls are playing for now, right this minute. Their game begins July 1 when they can officially begin wooing LeBron.
The Wizards made sure to get in the right place at the right time. Hinrich has $17 million total left on his deal but it only lasts two seasons. And at least the Wizards will be paying somebody who can play both ends of the court, who's not a menace in the locker room, who's a pro, who's got plenty of playoff experience, even if it is in the first two rounds. In fact, one of the big things the Wizards need to do, sooner than later, is dramatically improve the team's toughness, mentally and physically, and find four or five guys who actually consider defense their calling card. If the Lakers and Celtics were interested in trading for Hinrich this past February -- and they were -- then clearly he has some value.
Remember, the Wizards do have to play now, while nobody much outside greater Washington cares. They have to put a player out there every night alongside Wall and that player might as well be Hinrich, who on a contender should be a sixth or seventh man but on a rebuilding team is (for now) a starter.
What about Gilbert Arenas, you ask? Here's my preferred scenario: the Wizards have to hope the New York Knicks get shut out of the Big Free Agent Action about to ensue, then turn to Arenas who can score 25 points a game for Coach Mike D'Antoni. The Wizards would have to take back Eddy Curry and his onerous contract, but it expires in one year. Even this season, they could buy him out and tell him to never show up at Verizon Center. That's how the Wizards can get rid of Arenas. All the better to turn the team over to Wall, who ought to have the opportunity to fight through his own mistakes without taking on somebody else's baggage.
Trading Arenas for Curry would give the Wizards even more cap room this time next summer, to pursue the like of, say, Carmelo Anthony or whomever they target. Sure, it'll require good decision making on the part of management, but the point is to have money and a flexible roster when making these decisions ... and a couple of young players who, when the time comes, have grown up enough to contribute to a team developing some aspirations. The acquisitions the Wizards made on draft night should be at least a step in that direction.
POSTED AT 11:25 AM ET, 06/18/2010
On Kobe's legacy
LOS ANGELES -- "Legacy" is the word I hate most now, as in "How is Kobe Bryant's legacy affected by winning his fifth NBA Championship?" It's nearly as annoying a topic of discussion as NFL OTAs.
Kobe Bryant is the best player in professional basketball today, better than LeBron James, better than any and everybody, even if his determined one-on-three efforts in Game 7 Thursday night were misguided and helped the Celtics build a 13-point lead at one point. The Lakers won an entirely dramatic if not very well played winner-take-all Game 7 because Pau Gasol controlled the action from the low block for an important spell, because Ron Artest justified the Lakers' faith in him by, of all things, hitting a couple of huge shots and carrying the offensive load early when Kobe wasn't up to it, and because Kobe closed it all out by finding his game in the final few minutes.
And then it was on ... the discussion about Kobe's place in Lakers history, basketball history, sports history, because we obsess over perspective now, as much the fault of sports columnists and TV talkers as anything. The newest entirely lazy thing in sports is simply counting championships and ranking a player accordingly. And because Kobe has surpassed Shaq and Tim Duncan's four NBA Championships won, has now tied Magic Johnson's five, and has crept within one of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Jordan's six, there is this need in some quarters to ask the question as to whether Kobe has pulled even with the likes of Magic and Jordan.
So let me answer the question very quickly.
POSTED AT 11:31 PM ET, 06/ 3/2010
Give it to him, Bud
Of course Bud Selig should ignore the "baseball purists" who are for the most part self-appointed sanctimonious irritants, and declare Armando Galarraga's Wednesday night masterpiece an official perfect game. It's a no-brainer. There's no downside to it. There's no presumption. The erroneous "safe" call on the 3-1 put-out was the 27th and final out of the game. This wasn't some sixth inning mishap that calls on officials to speculate on what might have happened. The Cleveland Indians runner was out, period. Game over. Galarraga, above all else, earned the perfect game.
Second, umpire Jim Joyce, needs an assist from his bosses in MLB. He admirably admitted his error, repeatedly. I can't think of any other time when a referee/umpire so endeared himself to the sporting public and to the people he officiates. Joyce's tears in the day-after game Thursday told just how sorry he was that he cost Galarraga a perfect game. Now, Selig ought to save Joyce from ridicule for the rest of his career by declaring this a perfect game.
I don't care that it can't get Don Denkinger off the hook, or that baseball's thousands of erroneous calls over 150 years go unaltered. Selig can address this mistake, and should, because we all know, through replay, the runner was out. It's undisputed. We have evidence now that Judge Landis didn't have in 1927. There's nothing dumber than trying to ignore what all of us see so plainly at home. Figure out how to use replay as wisely, in a limited capacity of course, the way the NHL used it to get the calls right on the same evening in the Stanley Cup finals series between the Blackhawks and Flyers.
Galarraga, from his wry smile to hugging Joyce, demonstrated a humanity and sense of decency most competitive people simply couldn't muster under such circumstances. Can you imagine what Roger Clemens would have done? I'd have had a George Brett-style pine tar fit had that call been made to ruin my perfect game. Galarraga's ability to be so composed in such a heated moment is amazing. Everybody has behaved so far (even the runner who was called safe when he knew he was out) in exemplary fashion, even admirably...which doesn't happen every day in sports anymore. Now, so should Bud Selig. He's going to take heat either way, so take it after doing the right thing, the smart thing for baseball, for the pitcher, the umpire, for everything involved. Call it what it is: a perfect game.
POSTED AT 11:24 PM ET, 06/ 3/2010
Wooden in L.A. hearts, minds
LOS ANGELES -- The mood wasn't entirely festive in Los Angeles before Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Thursday night. John Wooden, perhaps the most revered sports figure in Southern California and certainly in basketball circles in and around L.A., was reported to be in grave condition. Wooden, 99, was being treated at UCLA, where he led the Bruins to 10 NCAA championships during the 1960s and '70s.
His two most prominent players, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton were in attendance at the Staples Center in downtown L.A., as was former all-American forward Marques Johnson. Jabbar is a Lakers assistant and Walton and Johnson have long worked in sports broadcasting. Wooden has had hospital visits in the past but never was reported to be in grave condition. The NBA and media outlets scrambled to prepare tributes as Game 1 of Lakers-Celtics began.
While basketball's roots are eastern -- the game originated in Springfield, Mass. -- Los Angeles over the years has become, arguably, the basketball capital of the United States, as the UCLA Bruins became synonymous with greatness at the college level and the Lakers, with nine professional championships since 1980, supplanted the Celtics as the best franchise over the past 30 years.
Wooden, quite simply, is the greatest college basketball coach ever, and no coach will ever approach his 10 championships. Before the game, as reports circulated that Wooden was ailing, Lakers Coach Phil Jackson, a man with 10 championships of his own as a coach, said, "He established a goal that is unreachable in college sports...and held it to such a standard that we all appreciated his teaching and his mentoring of college students...And I think it's a day gone past for what we see now out of NCAA college players. But at the time it was inspirational, and his coaching has been an inspiration to all of us coaches."
POSTED AT 2:39 PM ET, 05/20/2010
Fast-forward to the Finals
LOS ANGELES -- The story of the first two games of the Western Conference finals can be told with two simple numbers. The Los Angeles Lakers are averaging 126 points on 56 percent shooting. It sounds like a statistical leftover from the old ABA. Even worse for the Phoenix Suns is these are the new and defensively improved Suns. Unlike in the Mike D'Antoni days, Phoenix is actually trying to play defense...not that the Lakers seem to notice. Every Laker who played Wednesday night in Game 2 -- and there were eight of them -- scored at least seven points and six reached double figures. Pau Gasol, with 11 baskets in 19 shots, has morphed into a combination of Kevin McHale and Bill Walton.
Once again the NBA has a playoff mismatch. The post-season has been full of them, and as a result the post-season has been a dud. No overtime games so far. Only one Game 7, an artistic disaster between the Atlanta Hawsks and Milwaukee Bucks in the first round. The second round featured three sweeps (our of four series) for only the second time ever. And now even the conference finals, with Boston and Los Angeles cruising, could end in sweeps as well. That would be five sweeps in the final six series of the playoffs.
Who has a better chance to avoid a sweep? Logic would say the Suns because they've got two home games coming up, Sunday and Tuesday. And these Lakers tend to get bored. Orlando is going on the road for two in Boston Saturday and Monday, but the Celtics have played terribly at home. (Remember that double-digit loss to the Wizards at the end of the regular season?) Thing is, we're at the point where the Lakers and Celtics are already playing each other, looking across the country at one another, trying to impress. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird talked about doing just that in the 1980s as each approached the NBA Finals.
The Suns are still capable of simply exploding offensively at home and stealing a game, but nothing we've seen so far in the first two games suggests Phoenix can get more than a game. And Orlando hasn't exhibited the mental toughness to suggest they can change the course of this series. The Magic lost this series last summer, when they essentially traded away Hedo Turkoglu (he was a free agent and went to Toronto) for Vince Carter, who has never produced in any meaningful way when the lights are bright.
Celtics Coach Doc Rivers came up with a simple but effective defensive dare. He decided to put big butt Kendrick Perkins on Dwight Howard, one-on-one. Double-teams are kept to a minimum, so that the other four players can close out and get right up on the Orlando shooters. So instead of Rashard Lewis, Jameer Nelson, Michael Pietrus, J.J. Redick and Matt Barnes being wide open (usually from behind the three-point arc) because a second defender is on Howard, they're blanketed by Boston defenders. And instead of having Turkoglu drawing double-teams with his creative drives to the basket and ability to kick passes to those shooters, Orlando is stuck with Carter creating only for himself. What a disastrous personnel miscalculation. Carter is also two or three inches shorter than Turkoglu, meaning Rivers can assign a guard to cover Carter. All those mistmatches Orlando enjoyed last post-season because of Turkoglu and Lewis getting open shots or firing over shorter defenders are gone because Turkoglu is the one who got shots for Lewis and because Doc Rivers won't be suckered into double-teaming Howard, who is still no more than a pretty good offensive player.
Boston's players know Orlando can't score and Van Gundy knows he doesn't have the personnel to do anything about it, and if the Celtics play with the same intensity Rivers has been able to rally so far from his team, the Celtics are going to put the Magic out of their misery and get on to the business of playing the Lakers, who should do the same to the Suns. If these series aren't going to be competitive -- and they hadn't been so far -- then let's cut to the chase and see if the NBA playoffs can finally produce some entertaining basketball before the post-season is put to bed.
POSTED AT 9:56 PM ET, 05/18/2010
Maybe it's Wall, after all
I've been operating under the impression that John Wall is a nice player, but not a special one, not a kid who makes you think your ship has come in because you just won the NBA draft lottery. I thought that winning the right to draft Kentucky's Wall was like winning $500 in the lottery, not the Super Duper Mega Lottery where you never have to work again a day in your life.
I was convinced, in fact, the Washington Wizards, the franchise with the worst luck in the history of professional sports in America, would win the lottery Tuesday night because there was no college player to lose your mind over. No Magic Johnson, no Hakeem Olajuwon, no David Robinson or Patrick Ewing, no Allen Iverson, Tim Duncan, no LeBron James ... not even a Yao Ming or James Worthy. I was thinking that this, 2010, simply wasn't the time to get all worked up over winning the lottery if Wall was the Guy.
And then somebody who knows more about basketball than anybody of his generation shook some sense into me. Magic himself, sensing I was undervaluing what had just happened for the Wizards, said: "No, no, no, no! The Wizards have got to take John Wall. They must take this kid.
"When he's got the ball in his hands, he causes excitement. You can always get an Evan Turner. He's a very, very good player. But there will be an Evan Turner in next year's draft. The game has changed. ...There are no more huge big men you have to stop, no back-to-the-basket guys. The big guys are all shooting fadeaways and playing 15 feet from the basket.
"More than ever you have to start with a really good point guard. Look at what Utah does with Deron Williams, New Orleans with Chris Paul, Chicago with Derrick Rose, Oklahoma City with Russell Westbrook. ... Look at how Rajon Rondo has come along with Boston.
"John Wall's got a little special in him. You can't pass on him. Look at Atlanta; they passed on Chris Paul and Deron Williams and are still trying to recover from that mistake. The last two rookies of the year [Rose and Tyreke Evans] are point guards. Wall has that same type of ability, lived up to the same level of hype as Rose did in college. You do it at Kentucky, you're playing on the biggest stage in college basketball every night, against top competition every night. You know what Wall does now as well as anybody in the league? Gets it off the glass and goes. I mean, right now he does that as well as anybody in the league."
I'm not about to argue with Earvin Johnson on the subject of point guards. He's the final word on point guards, on who can play and who cannot, on the importance of the position -- and most important to John Wall -- how much more important the position has become in the last 10 years as Big Men become big men. In that way the NBA has become more like college basketball. Guards rule. Mostly point guards.
Magic says he wouldn't even automatically dump Gilbert Arenas. "I like a guy with something to prove," he said, "a guy desperate to prove he's still one of the top players and that he can avoid trouble. And Gilbert has exactly that to prove."
If Magic turns out to be right, Tuesday night, May 18, 2010, will have been an enormous night for the Washington Wizards. This isn't like the Washington Redskins making noise in the offseason. One player in basketball makes that big a difference, both on the court and in energizing the fan base. And goodness knows the Wizards needed something good to happen to them. Something, anything.
If ever it was going to happen, how appropriate on the draft lottery after the death of Abe Pollin? How gracious of Ted Leonsis to wait in the wings while Irene Pollin, wearing her late husband's 1978 Bullets NBA championship ring, officially represented the club. Maybe it's Leonsis, with two overall No. 1 picks to his credit -- one in the NHL, one in the NBA -- who's going to change the luck of the franchise.
No matter, winning the lottery and the right to draft John Wall isn't a nice thing for the Wizards, it's an enormous thing. The way you go from awful to great in the NBA, with few exceptions, is to win the lottery.
If Wall's what Magic and most everybody else thinks he will be, it would help attract Carmelo Anthony with all that salary cap money the Wizards could still have next summer. Or, dare I say it, Kevin Durant. All-stars want to play with all-stars and if you have one it's easier to get another one. That's why the New Jersey Nets were so excited about the chance to draft Wall because it figured that LeBron James wanted to play with him. The Nets, all of a sudden, aren't so attractive. The third overall pick? I like Georgia Tech's Derrick Favors and Syracuse's Wesley Johnson more than Kentucky's DeMarcus Cousins, a lot more, actually. But they're not point guards and it wouldn't seem they are players who would make LeBron say, "Yep, I gotta play with him."
This doesn't mean LeBron's going to want to play with Wall in D.C., either. The Wizards aren't at that point yet; they haven't evolved enough to be invited to the big party just yet. But winning the lottery and drafting John Wall appears to be a step toward the door.
Magic Johnson had one more thing to report about Wall before we turned our attention on the ESPN set to the Orlando-Boston Game 2: "I talked to guys who told me that Wall has been in Los Angeles for the last two weeks practicing six hours a day. All the indications are he's a gym rat. You want a guy with that skill level who wants to be in the gym. You've got to take that cat."
POSTED AT 9:31 AM ET, 04/28/2010
So much for all the panic
LOS ANGELES --The anxiety and apprehension that gripped greater L.A. for the better part of two full days was over 10 minutes into Game 5. The defending champions finally recognized the decided advantage they hold over Oklahoma City and played to it ...possession after possession after possession after possession.
With a numbing discipline, the Lakers -- even Kobe Bryant -- threw the ball inside to 7-footers Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol and the two most skilled big men on the court, and they buried Oklahoma City. The only statistic that mattered in the Lakers' thoroughly one-sided victory is that Los Angeles scored 36 points in the paint the first half to Oklahoma City's 10. If the Lakers hold no other athletic advantage over the younger, quicker, more athletic and energetic Thunder, it has height and length, being nearer to the basket. That was the game, in a nutshell. There was no suspense, no reason whatsoever if you live in the East or Midwest not to turn off the TV and go to bed. The Big Event was a dud.
So much for all the panic, for the notion that Tuesday night perhaps being the night these Lakers would drag their old bodies around the Staples Center for the final time together. The fear was palpable as the stars and starlets entered the building. Kobe was so injured, he looked so old, maybe he was simply done. Phil Jackson might be coaching his last game. Jerry Buss, the owner who had opened his checkbook to put this team on the floor, was going to dismantle the whole thing ... if the Lakers lost Game 5 because surely they couldn't go there (if they'd lost here) and solve the Thunder in Oklahoma City, where they'd dismantled the champs twice last week.Continue reading this post »
POSTED AT 10:03 AM ET, 04/23/2010
Ovechkin's snow patrol
Is this thing with Alex Ovechkin and the kid in Montreal really that big a deal? Quick story: when I was 13, 14 years old I went to a game at Comiskey Park in Chicago and sat along right field railing right by the old "bullpen dugout" where in this case the Boston Red Sox spare pitchers and catchers sat. I think it was a double header and Carlton Fisk wasn't catching the second game, which is why he was in the bullpen dugout. Anyway, I made a nuisance of myself for about six innings, leaning over and shouting into the dugout...Finally, having had enough of this young punk, Fisk took his dusty, musty catcher's mitt and washed my face with it.
I was thrilled. A future Hall of Famer smushed my face. Five or six years ago after a round of golf in Lake Tahoe I was on a gondola ride with Fisk and his wife and told him about the incident and how happy I was at that age to be engaged by a big leaguer. The point is, aren't you supposed to be thrilled if a future Hall of Famer like Ovechkin, the most exciting player in the league, sprays you with some ice shavings? That was cool when I grew up. What happened?
Not surprisingly, around here any observation or criticism of Ovechkin, no matter how mild or legit, is simply brushed aside by Capitals fans, as if Ovechkin is perfect. Look, he's a roughneck, and where I come from that's 75 percent compliment when you make a living in sports. He seems to be hellbent from the time he leaves the locker room, which is surely part of what makes him the most exciting player in the NHL. But that's always a thin line to walk when you're a franchise player, when you're one of the best players in the league.
POSTED AT 9:54 AM ET, 04/23/2010
Wilbits: Playoffs vs. draft
My gradual withdrawal from the NFL draft is complete, thankfully. After three or four years of watching very little of the draft, last night I finally made the last step of my glorious transition to watching absolutely none of it, not one second. I'm determined to make an annual tradition of ignoring it, especially now that the first round in conducted in prime time, which is quite a feat given that it's televised by two networks (ESPN and the NFL Network), and given that chunks of days and weeks are devoted in advance to breathless and needless speculation on every twitch of every player who ever got into a three-point stance last fall.
Nothing is as important as the NFL and its broadcast partners want us to believe the NFL draft is.
Undoubtedly, millions disagree with me, which is why the rating for the draft coverage will probably quadruple any other counter programming from Thursday night. But you couldn't pay me, literally, to watch any more NFL drafts. (Ooops, I AM paid to watch, sort of, and won't). Thankfully, the clicker was working real good at my house. So I had no trouble finding the thriller Game 3 between the Bulls and Cavaliers, no trouble finding that thriller Game 5 between Pittsburgh and Ottawa, no trouble finding people losing their minds in Oklahoma City as the Thunder won its very first home playoff game, over the Lakers, no trouble finding the Blackhawks beating Nashville or Phoenix running up a 31-point lead en route to beating the Blazers in Portland.
When you watch the Cavaliers, it's possible to see LeBron James do something no basketball player has ever done. Same with Kobe. Same with Sidney Crosby playing in the Stanley Cup playoffs. You watch world-class athletes in the post season and they'll bring your fat behind out of your seat. Derrick Rose did that Thursday night against LeBron. Oklahoma City's Russell Westbrook did that Thursday night against the Lakers. You watch the draft the only thing that's going to pull you out of your seat is a trip to the bathroom from drinking too much beer. You watch the draft you know the Redskins took that big lineman from Oklahoma in the first round. Hell, I know that and all I did was go to washingtonpost.com about two hours into it...(Actually, if I can say something nice about the Redskins...this is two straight drafts where they did something sensible...Orakpo last year and a highly-rated lineman this year? Boy, the Redskins are no fun anymore...although I'd love to have been with Dan Snyder when he found out Ben Roethlisberger was on the trading block).
You watch the draft; I'll watch Russell Westbrook and Oklahoma City. Why do I keep seeing Westbrook, a UCLA guy, wearing a Lakers uniform in a couple of years? Westbrook and Rose, coming to the league not long after Chris Paul and Deron Williams, makes the NBA neck-deep in great point guards. Rose and Joakim Noah are as tough minded as any young tag-team in the league today. But the Bulls can't really threaten Cleveland. The Cavaliers, in fact, should have stolen Game 3 in Chicago even though the Bulls led by 21 in the third quarter. (Why has the talented/athletic J.J. Hickson just disappeared from the Cavs lineup, as well as he played in the second half of the season?) Oklahoma City, on the other hand, has a quartet of talented young players. Everybody fixates on Kevin Durant, deservedly so, because he's the youngest player ever to lead the league in scoring. But Westbrook, Jeff Green and James Hardin make the Thunder formidable now. Cleveland is going to win Game 4 in Chicago, plain and simple. Oklahoma City, on the other hand, could win Game 4 at home and put some pressure on the Lakers. It wasn't only that Durant grabbed 19 rebounds, it's that he bothered Kobe Bryant defensively. And the Lakers simply cannot guard Westbrook. Game 4 Saturday night will go a long way toward showing us whether the Lakers are going to get tangled up in a long first-round series or start to look like defending champions.
As good as the Dallas Mavericks are, with Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd, Jason Terry, Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood, when the Mavs and San Antonio Spurs take the court for Game 3, the two best players on the court will be Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan. And as good a job as Rick Carlisle has done coaching Dallas this season, he's not Gregg Popovich, who has four championship rings and is probably the second-best coach in the NBA, behind Phil Jackson. So, if your team has the two best players and the best coach in the series, as San Antonio does, how is it that so many folks think Dallas has the better team?
For people who continue to make the dumb mistake that coaching doesn't matter in the NBA, just look at the adjustment the Suns' Alvin Gentry made after his team was torched by Portland in Game 1. After Portland's Andre Miller bullied his way to the basket in the series opener and made it clear Steve Nash couldn't hope to guard him, Gentry put 6-foot-8 Grant Hill on Miller and he's been a non-factor the last two games. Portland double-teamed Amare Stoudemire into frustration and trapped Nash on the pick-and-roll, so Gentry demanded his team swing the ball to wingmen Channing Frye and Jason Richardson, who had the best game of his postseason career in Game 3 when he scored 42, while Portland's defense obsessed over Stoudemire and Nash.
Do we really think the NCAA men's basketball tournament is going to stay at this newly announced 68 teams? Why am I fearing an announcement later this summer that the tournament field is going to 96 anyway? The best news is that people will be able to see all the games without buying special packages, now that Turner Sports will be sharing the load with CBS.
Turns out the Pittsburgh Steelers weren't really stupid enough to trade Roethlisberger. I'm one of the few people who doesn't necessarily think Roethlisberger needs to be suspended by the NFL. I'm uncomfortable with leagues trying to legislate morality. It's understandable that any workplace, particularly one that trades on image, would want to establish rules that require more responsible behavior than local or state laws. But in the absence of enough evidence for authorities in Georgia to prosecute Roethlisberger, what protects the player? The easy answer is "staying out of trouble" and I think it's fair to conclude that Roethlisberger's behavior has been somewhere between cavalier and reckless. And the Steelers, while I think they'd be goofy to trade him, have every right to decide who will represent their franchise, which is still a family-owned business. But I'll just mention two names of athletes who not only recovered from major and embarrassing accusations to not only win, but to become the primary face of their franchises: Ray Lewis and Kobe Bryant. Do we really think that Ben Roethlisberger can't be a top-flight quarterback again and learn some lessons from these recent embarrassing episodes?
POSTED AT 3:59 PM ET, 04/17/2010
Opening up the ballot
Votes for any and everything in sports should be made public, from Hall of Fame ballots to post-season awards for professional leagues. And as someone who covers professional basketball for ESPN/ABC (The Washington Post prefers staff writers not vote on post-season awards, so I do so while wearing my other hat) I turned in my ballot Wednesday night for the 2009-10 awards. So here, with explanations in some cases, is my ballot for the NBA's post-season awards.
No long explanation needed for voting LeBron James the league's MVP. He was the best player in the league all season, led his team to the best regular-season record while playing at a level only a handful of players in history have ever reached. Dwight Howard, my runner-up and easily the league's best defensive player, led a team in major transition (Vince Carter in, Hedo Turkoglu out) to the second best record in the Eastern Conference. As impressive a year as Kevin Durant had, I couldn't see voting for him ahead of Kobe Bryant, who despite various injuries virtually the entire season led his team to the best record in a conference where all eight playoff teams won 50 games.
Most Valuable Player
1. LeBron James
2. Dwight Howard
3. Kobe Bryant
4. Kevin Durant
5. Amare Stoudemire
Rookie of the Year
1. Steph Curry, Golden State
2. Tyreke Evans, Sacramento
3. Brandon Jennings, Milwaukee
This was the toughest vote of all, the one for Rookie Of the Year. Even though Brandon Jennings is the only one of the three to contribute to a playoff team, the vote should be split right down the middle between Steph Curry and Brandon Jennings. After traveling to northern California three weeks ago to see Curry and Evans each play against the Lakers, I had decided my vote was going to Evans. Twenty points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists. Only people named Oscar, Michael and LeBron had done that. Evans is a pretty darn good defender for a rookie, smart, controlled, a worker.
But Curry also has a historical distinction: He's the first rook in history to shoot as high as 45 percent from the floor, 40 percent on three pointers, and 85 percent from the foul line. The kid led all rookies in assists, steals, three-point shooting and foul shooting. He had twice as many 30-point games as Evans. And if you make the case that Curry benefited inordinately from Don Nelson's warp-speed offensive system that's unlike anything else in the league, you also have to consider Curry had to share the backcourt with Monta Ellis, who has to be one of the more maddening teammates in the league. Passing is only something he does as a bail-out. Ellis makes Gilbert Arenas look reticent.
Anyway, I submitted my first vote with Evans' name, then changed it, then called the NBA office at least twice more to considering changing it again. That's how even these two are. I know, I know...Brandon Jennings played for a winning team. He also played with Andrew Bogut and (after the All-Star break) John Salmons, two polished veterans. I could make the argument and do it passionately for all three, which bodes well for the league. (By the way, what was Minnesota thinking, drafting Ricky Rubio ahead of Curry?) I wound up sticking with Curry, which I'll certainly not regret. Talk about finishing strong; Curry for the month of April averaged 26 points, 8 assists, 6.4 rebounds and 2.63 steals. Most rookies hit some kind of wall; Curry ran right through it. He could finish as rookie of the month for three of the last four months...Still, I wouldn't mind seeing the votes split right down the middle, as happened in 1995 for Grant Hill and Jason Kidd, for the same award.
Coach of the Year
1. Scott Skiles, Milwaukee
2. Scott Brooks, Oklahoma State
3. Alvin Gentry, Phoenix
Wouldn't you rather have Brooks' Thunder roster than Skiles' roster in Milwaukee? Of course, you would. Even after Bogut suffered that gruesome injury the Bucks just kept on winning. If Bogut was healthy they'd take Atlanta right out of the first round. Gentry can't get enough credit for getting the Suns to play better defense and developing the bench (Jared Dudley, Lou Amundson, Channing Frye, Goran Dragic), which also led to the best chemistry the team has had in years. He benched Amare Stoudemire for not rebounding one night, which turned around the season, put Robin Lopez in the starting lineup, sent Frye to the second unit and weaned the team from having to play every possession with Steve Nash...Thing is, Nash and Stoudemire are all-league players, as are Durant and (soon enough) Russell Westbrook while Skiles has no such mega talents to work with.
Defensive Player of the Year
1. Dwight Howard, Orlando
2. Josh Smith, Atlanta
3. Gerald Wallace, Charlotte
F LeBron James
F Amare Stoudemire
C Dwight Howard
G Kobe Bryant
G Dwyane Wade
F Kevin Durant
F Dirk Nowitzki
C Chris Bosh
G Jason Kidd
G Steve Nash
F Carmelo Anthony
F Gerald Wallace
C Andrew Bogut
G Joe Johnson
G Deron Williams
6th Man of the Year
1. Jamal Crawford, Atlanta
2. Lamar Odom, L.A. Lakers
3. Jason Terry, Dallas
1. Marc Gasol, Memphis
2. Aaron Brooks, Houston
3. Joakim Noah, Chicago
Please, don't tell me Andray Blatche belongs on this list considering he tried to undermine his coach's authority, then tried to beg his way into a triple-double one night. That's poisonous. The award usually goes to somebody who makes the most of increased playing time, and Blatche did a good job there. But if the two men were at the top of the draft board and you chose Blatche over Gasol you'd have a team stuck in last place. Gasol's rebounding, defense and shooting percentages are all likely to increase again. If Noah had been healthy the entire year, he'd have averaged more than 11 rebounds a game and would have gotten the vote.
POSTED AT 1:02 PM ET, 03/26/2010
Don't mess with perfection
Only a fool would want to mess with the NCAA men's basketball tournament. Only a fool would goof around with the size, the structure, the balance or the drama of the thing. Why would you mess with a competition, even a little bit, that produces something as breath-snatching as Butler-Syracuse and Xavier-Kansas State in one night? It's hard to imagine the tournament being any yummier than it was Thursday night and into Friday morning.
We had indeed crossed into Friday by the time Kansas State finished off Xavier in double overtime, in what might be the best game of the tournament, a game for the ages actually. Those two games, specifically, were so well played, so evenly contested and absurdly dramatic they made me root against my own picks, for the destruction of my own bracket. Who waves goodbye to something like this, as the NCAA is thinking of doing? Who says, "No, it's not good enough; I need something better!"
We should have seen K-State coming because of their guard play, which is often the secret recipe in March. The Wildcats have a couple of keepers: Denny Clemente and Jacob Pullen, and together they were just a tiny bit too much for Xavier's Jordan Crawford, a great college basketball player who's every bit as good as any NBA-bound guard who plays to more fanfare in the ACC and Big East. And we should have seen Butler coming because they'd won 20 straight entering the Big Dance, and now it's up 23 straight. And it doesn't matter what league you play in if you win 'em all. Larry Bird and Indiana State taught us that more than 30 years ago. Butler, an outstanding defensive team, forced Syracuse into crazy-quick shots, many of them threes, and 23 turnovers, many trying to throw the ball into the post. You can say the Orange sabotaged themselves, or that the Butler did it by forcing all those mistakes. Either way, Butler is one more win from going home to Indianapolis for the Final Four. Please don't use the word "upset" in describing what Butler did to Syracuse. Butler's a fine team, a team that has an even chance to take out K-State Saturday in one regional final.
The only disappointment of the night was that Cornell wasn't up to holding its own against Kentucky. The talent disparity was too overwhelming. Kentucky was too quick to the ball, too strong on the glass. Foul shooting may cost Kentucky against West Virginia Saturday, but that seems to be Big Blue's only weakness, which is pretty impressive for a team whose two most important players (John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins) are freshmen.
It's really something to behold, the tournament at its best. And this is its best. The field is deep and keeps giving us surprises, yet some of the best coaches (John Calipari, Bob Huggins) are back in the regional finals again. And the best news is there are five more days of it, resuming tonight. Everybody is vulnerable, everybody is capable. March Madness isn't a good enough name for what we're seeing this month; March Magic is.