Friday, October 23, 2009

NBA Action is Fantastic


Back in the ‘90s when Tom Odjakjian was playing roundball matchmaker while with espn, he laid out for El Hombre the perfect recipe for a successful conference hierarchy – at least from the TV perspective:

Take three or four top-shelf teams, a couple hopefuls with the potential to pull upsets now and then and a bunch of catfish living at the bottom of the sea, incapable of doing anything but pumping up the big boys’ records. Mix together for maximum drama and excitement.

In other words, screw parity. That socialist concept may be nice for the NFL and Sweden, but real interest gets generated when there are some true heavyweights roaming the land, stumbling into each other every now and then and staging some memorable battles, preferably near the end of the season.

Odjakjian has since moved on to the Big East, where he has to – among other things – figure out a way to get South Florida and DePaul’s hoop teams on TV every season, no easy task. But his idea remains vital today when it comes to fan interest. Parity may lead to the most equitable level of hope for fans and fill coffers in a similarly identical manner, but no matter how much a matchup between a pair of mediocre teams might make league officials happy, real excitement comes when showdowns between the big boys take place.

It would seem as if Odjakjian was orchestrating the NBA’s off-season moves, because the league enters a watershed season with its most impressive collection of heavy hitters in a long while. It doesn’t quite match the 1980s for star power, but the moves made over the summer have turned the top part of the league into a five-way battle royal, while at the same time pushing the league’s Dalits even further from contention. It’s amazing to look at how the upper echelon fortified itself, while perpetually awful teams cut salary (New Jersey), added incongruous parts (Memphis) or simply gave up (Milwaukee).

San Antonio conned the Bucks out of Richard Jefferson for a few postcards of the Alamo. The Celtics added Rasheed Wallace for versatility and crankiness. Cleveland decided that defending the high pick-and-roll wasn’t all that important (even though every NBA team has 439 variations of the ancient set) and brought Shaquille O’Neal aboard for interior heft and comic relief. Vince Carter is now with the Magic, playing the part of Hedo Turkoglu, without the bad hair. And Los Angeles decided the best way to defend its title was to have Ron Artest beat on Kobe Bryant in practice, rather than in games. Each of those extremely high profile moves, along with a few other, less-publicized transactions (Marquis Daniels in Boston, Antonio McDyess in San Antonio) should create a strong upper class that will allow for maximum attention and a fascinating playoff season.

With a possible work stoppage looming in ’11, serious financial problems plaguing many teams (buy one ticket, get 20 free) and a free-agent frenzy on the horizon that could completely change the league’s personality, it’s nice the NBA has a season ahead that could be truly memorable. Here are some of the more interesting storylines:

Rent-a-Net: New Jersey is running an interesting promotion: Buy four courtside seats for 10 games at the low-low price of $25,000, and you get access to the Izod Center’s club, free food and beverage and the chance to have the Net player of your choice show up at an event for an hour. What a deal. Imagine having Jason Kidd or Vince Carter or Richard Jefferson at your kid’s birthday party or enlivening a Bar Mitzvah celebration. Oh, you mean they don’t play in Jersey anymore? Somehow Devin Harris, Brook Lopez and Yi Jianlian don’t have the same cachet. How about this marketing slogan for those crazy enough to buy that package: Sucker Seats.

Dysfunctional Family: The most frustrated man in the NBA has to be Memphis GM Chris Wallace, who is credited with (blamed for?) the team’s acquisitions of Zach Randolph and Allen Iverson, even though he had nothing to do with them. Those choices were made by Grizz owner Michael Heisley, or if you believe A.I., the Lord. Heisley is so cheap he probably charges for catsup and mustard at the concession stands and thought bringing two of the league’s most selfish players to town would help sell tickets. They sure won’t help Memphis youngsters Rudy Gay, O.J. Mayo, Mike Conley and Hasheem Thabeet, unless they want to learn how to hog the ball and stay out late. Expect this team in the playoffs again around 2019.

One More Chance: Don’t be surprised if Cleveland Cavalier fans don’t learn the lyrics to the Jackson Browne classic, “Stay,” and serenade LeBron James every time he takes the floor. James can opt out of his contract after this season, and one would imagine the Knicks will go after him with the same zest Eddy Curry attacks the post-game buffet. James wants to make money, lots of it, and he has a bigger chance to do that in New York, even though the Knicks can’t offer him a contract as lucrative as Cleveland can. We’re talking endorsements. We’re talking Wall Street. We’re talking lunch boxes. To make it harder for James to leave, the Cavs spent all they could during the off-season to make their team better. Shaq’s in town. So are strong role players Anthony Parker and Jamario Moon. Cleveland re-signed Sideshow Bob. This is the team’s best chance for a title, and whether it wins one might just determine James’ address next year.

Reverse the Curse: When top overall draft pick Blake Griffin hurt his knee just before training camp – after hurting his shoulder during summer league play – everybody laughed and credited the Clipper Curse for stalling another promising career. But Griffin is stronger than some superstition, and the team has more talent than previous incarnations, which pretty much always found a way to lose. It all depends on PG Baron Davis, who is said to be svelte and in shape, a big difference from this time last year, when he hit the pasta full throttle in a reality show diet scheme. But Griffin and fellow pups Eric Gordon and Al Thornton have big upsides, and L.A. has a manageable payroll and stalwarts who are tied up for a couple more years. The Clips won all of 19 last year. Expect them to double that and then some, unless of course, you know, they’re cursed.

On the Rise: The Thunder is so young and so new to its OK City digs that it’s tempted to consider it an expansion team, rather than a franchise that has been around since the late 1960s. (How else would it have chosen a name like “Supersonics?” Love that space age wonder.) If things continue on their current path, that kind of thinking should evaporate pretty quickly. Thanks to young standouts like Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Jeff Green, the Thunder is heading in the right direction. There’s no way Oklahoma City can make the playoffs this year, but don’t count out a run next season and count them in for sure the year after that. Then, the only problem for the team will be whether all of those players want to leave town.

Fearless Predictions: Eastern Playoff Teams: Cleveland, Boston, Orlando, Atlanta, Chicago, Washington, Miami, Detroit. Western Playoff Teams: Los Angeles Lakers, San Antonio, Utah, Portland, Denver, Dallas, New Orleans, Los Angeles Clippers.

Conference Finals: Cleveland over Boston; San Antonio over Los Angeles.

Finals: San Antonio over Cleveland.

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EL HOMBRE SEZ: Washington coach Jim Zorn is just the latest victim of owner Daniel Snyder’s stupidity. El Hombre understands that the money is great, but why would anybody want to subject himself to being part of the Redskins’ circus…Shame on Magic Johnson and (and to a lesser extent) Larry Bird. Instead of putting together what would have been a great book about their rivalry, which had so many rich components, they chose to rip on Isiah Thomas. Sure, Thomas deserves a lot of heat for his mismanagement as a coach and commissioner, but to load their book with rumormongering and innuendo was small time stuff…One month after separating with his wife, Dodgers owner Frank McCourt fired her as CEO of the team. Jamie McCourt should have a pretty good case against her estranged husband, because EH hears he was sleeping with one of his employees…Oklahoma QB Sam Bradford’s shoulder injury – and re-injury – will forever more be known as Exhibits A and B why any player with the chance to go in the top five of the NFL Draft should do so without question. Unless there is a rookie salary cap, there is little reason to take the risk Bradford did, all in the name of devotion to dear, old State U. Even if there is a salary cap for newcomers, it’s possible Bradford’s injury could impact his career – and earning power – permanently. That’s a steep price to pay for loyalty.

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YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? Every time Cole Hamels has pitched during the post-season, fans and Phillies brass have hoped the lefthander would return to the form that made him so successful last October. Well, it ain’t happening. Unlike Brad Lidge, who has regained some of his mastery after discovering the two-seam fastball, Hamels is a flawed pitcher right now. Teams have solved him somewhat and are sitting on his solid but hardly jaw-dropping fastball, a fact evidenced by the large number of at bats that he requires six, seven and even eight pitches to complete – sometimes with a poor outcome. Hamels can’t get lefties out, is running high pitch counts in early innings and looks like he has lost his confidence. Once the team’s ace, he’s now better suited for the three or four spot in the World Series rotation. Hamels needs to gut out the rest of the year and then discover a way to counter the hitters’ adjustments to him, unless he wants to remain ordinary. With that in mind, here’s how the W.S. pitching order should go – Game One: Clifford The Big Red Ace; Game Two: Heavy B; Game Three: Pedro; Game Four: Hamels, unless Lee wants to go on three days rest like his Yankee pal C.C. Sabathia.

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AND ANOTHER THING: The absolutely horrible umpiring during the post-season has renewed pleas for an instant replay system in Majoke League Baseball. The game simply can’t be determined by incompetent umpires, especially when so much is at stake. Since MLB already has a system in place for home run calls, it wouldn’t be a major step to institute a method of reviewing other plays – but not balls and strikes. Give each team one or two challenges a game and let it stay at that. For those worrying about how much time it would add, like some of those interminable NFL replay stoppages, remember that a big part of that process involves clock and yard-line issues, considerations which don’t have any role in baseball games. Further, allow for no commercial breaks during reviews, the better to prevent a 30-second interruption from mushrooming into two or three minutes. Think the umps would have needed much time to divine that Joe Mauer’s hit in Game Three against the Yankees was fair? Hell, an NBA ref could have seen that. It’s time to take the game out of the hands of incompetents and get it right.


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