Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Top Ten Most Soul-Crushing Sports Injuries



10.  Andrew Bynum 2008


With some of these star-crossed players, the hard part isn’t deciding to include them on this list but deciding WHICH of their ridiculously disappointing injuries to highlight.  In the case of Andrew Bynum’s injury-riddled career, one stands out:  the dislocated knee he suffered on January 13th, 2008 against the Memphis Grizzlies.


Bynum’s sophomore NBA season in 2006-2007 had been a promising one.  Drafted 10th overall by the Lakers in 2005, Bynum struggled to make an impact as the youngest rookie in league history, but by the middle of 2006-2007 Bynum had started to turn heads with his explosive, athletic play at the center position, something the Lakers had sorely missed since Shaq was traded to Miami for spare parts in 2004.  


Unfortunately for the Lakers they became one of the first victims of the modern era of ubiquitous amateur surveillance when video emerged of Bryant apparently telling persons unknown that he felt the Lakers should trade Bynum.  The embarrassing leak threatened to damage Lakers chemistry just as they were starting to pull things together, but Bynum appeared to take the negative publicity in stride.  He opened the 2007/2008 season on a tear, averaging a double-double and establishing himself as one of the game’s best young big men.  


Then one night it all came crashing down.  Bynum landed awkwardly on teammate Lamar Odom and was helped off the court holding his dislocated kneecap.  Initially it was thought there was little damage, and the Lakers we riding high on their longest winning streak since before Shaq left, but eventually it was revealed that Bynum was lost for the season to arthroscopic knee surgery to repair the damage from the dislocation.   


Those Lakers would go all the way to the 2008 NBA Finals without their seven-foot phenom, losing to the Celtics in six games.  Bynum’s absence was particularly glaring as Laker big men Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom struggled to match the intensity and athletic ability of Celtics all-world power forward Kevin Garnett or the grit of dirty-work specialist Kendrick Perkins.  


The Lakers would get to the promised land in 2009 and 2010 with a healthy (er, healthier) Bynum, which blunts the trauma of this injury somewhat.  But at the time losing to a hated rival without their best young player must have been a bitter pill for Lakers fans to swallow.  


9.  Miguel Tejada 2015


The 2015 New York Mets were in fine shape entering their National League Division series against the LA Dodgers.  Their pitching staff was a who’s-who of rising stars (and Bartolo Colon), and while their offense had struggled for most of the year, they had made a sudden turn midseason when they added La Potencia, Yoenis Cespedes, who upon putting on a Mets uniform had suddenly transformed into Willie Mays.  


They would lose only one game in the NL playoffs en route to a showdown with the Royals in the World Series, but that one loss would prove devastating, not because of the result of the game but because of the result of a slide.  


With his Dodgers having lost Game 1 and now down 2-1 in the seventh inning of Game 2, Chase Utley went out of his way to make sure Miguel Tejada, the Mets starting shortstop, couldn’t make the relay throw to first base in order to complete what would have been an inning-ending double play.  Utley executed a chop block on Tejada, cutting his leg out from under him and instantly fracturing his fibula.  


The play hurt all the more because it resulted in the Dodgers eventually winning the game, but the Mets would win their next seven games to sweep their way into the World Series.  


Unfortunately against Kansas City the Mets’ felt Tejada’s absence most acutely as beloved-but-overmatched backup shortstop Wilmer Flores failed to make an impact on offense or defense in the Royals’ five game dismantling of the first Mets pennant-winner since the 2000 Subway Series.
Further injuries to other crucial players would send the Mets into a tailspin in 2016, one from which they have yet to recover.  Utley’s aggressive targeting of Tejada seems, for now at least, to have derailed one of the more promising young teams in Major League Baseball.


8.  Steve Nash, 2012


The 2012 Lakers, coming off two disappointing seasons since winning back-to-back titles in 2009/2010, decided to overhaul their roster to bring in two of the league’s top stars to complement their MVP, Kobe Bryant.  One was Dwight Howard, a reliable low-post scorer and the best defensive center in the league.  The other was Steve Nash, a man with two MVP trophies of his own, albeit from more than half a decade earlier.  


Despite Nash’s advanced age he was still one of the best offensive point guards in the game, routinely zipping eye-popping passes through tight lanes created by his uncanny ability to score from impossible positions all over the court.  


Preseason expectations for the Lakers were sky-high, as every member of their starting lineup had made at least one All-Star Game.  But in the season’s second game Nash collided with Damian Lillard and suffered a broken left leg, knocking him out for an extended period.  When Nash returned, he was not himself, struggling to run the pick-and-roll (a play he had done more than anyone else to revitalize) and seemingly unable to stay in front of ANY player on defense, even the most harmless of plodding bricklayers.  


Over the next two disappointing seasons it would gradually become clear that Nash’s useful life in the NBA was at an end, as nerve damage in his hip and back would worsen and send him into retirement.  


Lakers fans, used to deep postseason runs, quickly started grumbling that Nash was goldbricking, content to sign a late-career deal and then spend his afternoons hanging out on Southern California beaches.


When photos of Nash hiking and playing golf leaked in 2014, the animosity reached such a crescendo that Nash was moved to send a heartfelt letter to Lakers fans explaining that while he was indeed healthy enough to hike and play golf, he could not longer play NBA basketball, as much as he might want to.  Fans weren’t particularly placated, and the entire affair left a foul odor hanging over the franchise in the twilight years of Bryant’s own career.


7.  Joel Embiid 2016


The last time the Philadelphia 76ers had a winning team Allen Iverson was the league’s scoring champion.  If that feels like it was a long time ago, that’s because it was - twelve years, to be exact.  Since then the Sixers have been mired in various phases of what Sixers fans now sarcastically call “The Process” - a vast, seemingly endless rebuilding effort that saw the team go 10-72 in 2015/2016, their worst record since the depressing post-Wilt era in the early seventies that saw them field several of the worst NBA teams of all time.  


No player has exemplified this dark period in 76ers franchise history better than Joel Embiid, the third overall pick in the 2014 NBA draft.  Embiid came in with an extraordinary fanfare - the team infamously touted him as possibly the best player ever - but the hype quickly dulled when a series of foot injuries saw The Process derailed for his entire first two seasons.  


Then, in 2016, all seemed to be well as Embiid finally took to the court in a 76ers jersey and instantly showed the world what all the fuss was about.  Embiid’s agility was shocking for a center, but the real story was his shooting - in his first 31 games in the league, The Process shot a quite-useful 36.7% from behind the three-point arc.  In a league where “traditional” big men were quickly being replaced by rangy shooters, Embiid looked like an evolution:  a center with old-school size and post presence combined with a shot deadly enough to draw opposing bigs out of the paint.  With Embiid on the court, the formerly woeful Sixers suddenly looked like a playoff team, and the team even embarked on some lengthy winning streaks.  


Then Embiid started missing games with what the team termed a “bone bruise” of the kneecap.  When Embiid went out against the Portland Trail Blazers in January, rumors began to swirl that Embiid had a more significant knee injury.  The team soon admitted that Embiid had a torn meniscus and would miss the rest of the season.  Ironically, the team’s Embiid-fueled midseason run hurt their chances in the draft lottery and they were forced to trade up into the top 3.  Joel Embiid, the team’s representative at the draft lottery, assured fans without apparent irony to once again “trust the process.”


6.  Kendrick Perkins 2010


Though oft-injured players are allowed only one slot in this list, Andrew Bynum found a way to work his way onto the list a second time when he unintentionally kicked Kendrick Perkins in the back of the knee while going over his back trying to prevent Perk from grabbing an offensive rebound.  


It was Game Six of the 2010 NBA Finals, and Perkins’ Celtics were up 3-2, needing only to win one of two to capture their second championship in three seasons.  Though he was the only starter not considered one of the Celtics’ “big four,” Perkins’ toughness and veteran savvy was crucial to the team’s success.  The instant he went down, the series completely shifted.  The Celtics were blown out on LA’s floor in game six and were forced to return home to try to close out the series on the hallowed parquet floors of the Garden in Boston.  


Even without Perkins, the Celtics played inspired basketball, holding the Lakers to a cover-your-eyes-awful 32.5% field goal percentage.  Unfortunately another ugly stat wound up being the story of the game.  With Perkins out and neither Rasheed Wallace nor Big Baby Davis able to hold his own against the Lakers’ merciless pounding of the offensive glass, the Celtics gave up a shocking and uncharacteristic 23 offensive rebounds on the way to a narrow 83-79 loss.  Securing any of several loose balls - a Perkins specialty - would have undoubtedly allowed Boston to clinch the title.  Instead they watched the hated Lakers celebrate on their home floor.  


It would be the last chance for that version of the Celtics as their core would break up over the next few years without ever reaching another NBA Finals.  The only one of the Big Four to win another title was Ray Allen, who bolted to the Miami Heat before their 2013 title run, a move which irks Perkins to this day.  


5.  Ken Griffey, Jr.  2005


Another player who has plenty of injuries that could be candidates for this list, Griffey, Jr. is undoubtedly an all-time great whose career is full of impressive accomplishments.  He won ten gold gloves, seven silver sluggers and an MVP award, and is sixth on the all-time home run list.  To call his career a disappointment would be an absurd insult to one of the best players of his or any era in baseball history.


Yet Griffey could have been so much more.  Having come down from his amazing peak in the late 90’s when he hit 50 home runs with 1.000 OPS seemingly every year. Griffey was still putting up solid numbers despite a series of nagging leg injuries gradually slowing him down.  Then in 2005 he won Comeback Player of the Year, playing in 128 games for the first time in several years and looking something like his old self.  2006 saw Griffey slowed again by nagging injuries, and during the 2006 offseason the team got terrible news:  Griffey had broken his wrist while vacationing in the Bahamas.  Wrist injuries are notoriously difficult for hitters to recover from, as timing and bat speed is highly dependent on strong, supple wrists.  


In 2007 Griffey returned to the league and played well, but having been moved to right field to hide his declining range, it became clear that he was well past his best.  He had lost too much time to injury, and his body had been prematurely aged by the litany of recoveries and surgeries that he had endured.  His beloved Seattle Mariners resigned him in 2009, hoping he could revitalize his career in The House that Griffey Built, but when an embarrassing scandal erupted over Griffey allegedly napping during games, it was clear that The Kid was gone, and a tired old man was all that was left of him.  Griffey left the team and abruptly retired in the middle of a series with the Minnesota Twins.  


4.  Allan Houston 2004


It is a term that modern fans have come to dread - “microfracture surgery.”  But in 2004 it was a relatively unknown procedure until Allan Houston unwillingly vaulted it into the mainstream consciousness after he underwent microfracture surgery in an attempt to resolve problems with his knee stemming from injuries sustained during the 2003-04 NBA season.  


Houston had become one of the league’s highest-paid players after the 2001 season when he signed a max extension that paid him over $20 million per season.  It was no mystery why Houston was considered so valuable - in 1999 he had helped carry a gimpy Patrick Ewing to the Knicks’ first NBA Finals since 1994 and only their second since they last won the title in 1973.  


Unfortunately Houston would never live up to the expectations that were placed on him after signing his huge extension.  In fact, the signing of that contract would prove to be the Knicks’ undoing.  Houston would never fully recover from the surgery.  Neither would the Knicks; in part because of the burden of Houston’s massive contract, New York has won only one playoff series in the twelve seasons since first announcing Houston’s injury.  A single knee injury derailed one of the premier franchises in basketball, and the end of the dark days that resulted do not yet appear to be in sight.


3.  Tom Brady 2008
It’s easy to scoff now that Brady and the Patriots have cemented their legacy as the greatest football team of modern times, but Patriots fans could have been forgiven in 2008 for thinking their franchise was suffering from some bizarre curse.  


After completing a perfect regular season in 2007, the Pats had entered the 2008 Super Bowl as massive favorites over a Giants team that had suffered a near-fatal collapse in the second half of the season, sneaking into the playoffs as a 10-6 wild card after losing a tough game to the undefeated Patriots in Week 17.  
Then the Giants defeated the Patriots in what can only be called one of the most improbable upsets in sports history, with several crucial plays being decided on against-all-odds mishaps and coincidences, culminating in an almost indescribable play that has come to be known simply as The Helmet Catch.  The best team in NFL history won the least-coveted crown in sport - the best team not to win the championship.  


Undaunted, the Pats entered the 2008 season knowing they were far and away the best team in the league - they had the league MVP in Tom Brady, seemingly at the peak of his powers, and few if any of their rivals in the AFC looked prepared to challenge them en route to a return trip to the Super Bowl.


Then, it happened - in Week One against the Kansas City Chiefs, a pass rusher who had been blocked to the ground lurched forward to hit Brady in the left knee just as he planted it to deliver a long pass down the sideline.  Postgame MRI confirmed the team’s fears - Brady was out for the year with a torn ACL.  


Though the Patriots went on to a fine season with the underwhelming Matt Cassel at the helm - there was plenty of talent, after all, on a team that had just gone 18-1 the previous season - they suffered yet another unlucky break when they failed to make the playoffs despite an 11-5 record.  The Patriots, who just a year before had appeared to be on their way to the first 19-0 season in NFL history and the league’s first undefeated championship run since the 1972 Dolphins, were now facing an uncertain future, out of the playoffs with their 31 year-old MVP quarterback looking at a long recovery from a serious knee injury.


It would all turn out fine for Brady and the Patriots, of course, which is why he loses out on the top spot in this list.  But in terms of how it looked at the time Brady’s injury must be one of the most demoralizing a fan base has ever experienced.


2.  Kawhi Leonard 2017
With so much ink having been spilled in this hot-take era over whether Zaza Pachulia is a dirty player for sticking his foot into Kawhi Leonard’s landing zone on a jumpshot in Game 1 of the 2017 Western Conference Finals, we may not have yet properly had time to digest the enormity of the misfortune that has befallen these Spurs.


For a team that just saw Tim Duncan, its greatest player ever, ride off into the sunset, the 2016/2017 Spurs certainly didn’t miss a beat.  They rolled to a sterling 61-21 record in an extremely tough Western Conference and managed to hold off a spirited challenge from a plucky Memphis Grizzlies squad before dismantling a Rockets team that some analysts thought was preparing to inaugurate a new era of analytics-based dominance, supplanting teams like the Spurs that still operate on old-school basketball principles.  


The Spurs are alive and well, thank you, and in fact looked well on their way to doing what many thought was impossible - challenging the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals.  The Spurs were cooking on Golden State’s home floor in Game One and looked to be about to easily take a 1-0 lead and put the Warriors, who had been expected to cruise into the NBA Finals, into a situation where Game 2 already looked like a must-win.  


Instead, the tables turned when Kawhi Leonard, who has struggled with ankle injuries for much of his career, took off for a contested jumper in the left corner as Golden State center Zaza Pachula hustled to close out on him.  Pachulia, looking to cause maximum discomfort to the shooter, tried to snake his body into a small sliver of space - too small, it turns out, as Leonard landed on Pachulia’s foot and was lost for what appears at press time to be the rest of the series.  


It was a devastating blow to Spurs fans, but what makes this injury all the more devastating is its effect on the NBA Playoffs as a whole - with the Cavs putting a historic beatdown on the overmatched Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Leonard injury seems to have derailed what probably would have become an all-time classic Western Conference Finals between two of the best teams of the modern era.  Instead it’s a walkover for the Warriors as the Leonard-less Spurs just don’t have the firepower or the perimeter defense to stay with the Warriors for 48 minutes.  


What should have been a long, thrilling series was turned, with one awkward landing on one giant-sized sneaker, into a dull, predictable probable sweep.  All Spurs fans - and fans of any NBA team other than the Warriors and Cavs - can do is wish Kawhi the best in his recovery and hope he can return at full strength next year.  If not we could easily be looking at a fourth straight installment of Warriors/Cavs in the NBA Finals.  


1,,  Plaxico Burress 2008


What could possibly be worse than your MVP candidate going down for the count while you’re blowing out the championship favorites on their own floor in Game 1 of the conference finals?  What about having your title defense derailed by your star receiver blowing a hole in his own leg while illegally carrying a pistol in a crowded New York nightclub?


That’s right, it’s somewhat forgotten now, but the 2008 Giants were TEARING up the league after their amazing run to defeat the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII.  Plaxico Burress, Amani Toomer and Steve Smith were open on seemingly every play as the Giants pasted opponents en route to a 10-1 record.  


Then, a few days before a game with their division rival Washington Redskins, Plaxico Burress was hospitalized after accidentally firing a loaded handgun while it was inside his pants in a New York nightclub.  The bullet grazed Burress’ leg, injuring him, but the physical effects of the injury turned out to be the least of the Giants’ worries.


Burress, licensed to carry a concealed weapon in Florida, was not licensed to possess a handgun at all in New York, making his discharging of a firearm inside a club in midtown Manhattan into much more than a painful embarrassment - it was a felony.  Instead of leading the Giants to another Super Bowl, Burress would spend the next two years unsuccessfully fighting felony gun charges, eventually agreeing to a plea deal that saw him serve 20 months in prison.


Such was the bad blood between Burress and the Giants - who fell apart down the stretch without their best receiver, losing in the first round of the playoffs - that Burress had to sue the Giants in order to collect a portion of the bonus he had earned for signing his contract with the team prior to the season.  Burress did eventually collect, but his days on the Giants payroll were over.  After his release from New York state prison, he would attempt a comeback with the crosstown Jets, but he would never again make a significant impact for an NFL team.  He was out of the league by the end of 2013.

The Giants, for their part, did go on to win a title without Burress, but Burress’ extraordinarily boneheaded self-inflicted career-ending injury must go down as the most depressing sports injury of the modern era.  

Friday, April 21, 2017

Lebron, Cavs Break 70 Year-Old Comeback Record

Well, that was interesting.  Last night the Cavaliers certainly flipped a switch.  Whether it was the switch or not remains to be seen.  But before we get to the game itself, let's cover a couple things I was wrong about (and at least one I was right about) yesterday.

First and foremost, JR Smith wound up overcoming his hamstring injury and starting for the Cavs, which is a good thing because Iman Shumpert was pretty much awful in the thirteen minutes he did play.  Shump had a role in the Cavs second-half strangling of the Pacers, but it was a small one, and he committed 4 fouls in 13 minutes which is, well, that's something that you expect from an uncoordinated 7-footer who just came back from a foot injury or something, not the sort of thing a "wing stopper" ought to be doing.  So, sorry JR for doubting you, the team is not better when you are hurt,  I am quite chagrined to have said that.  For penance I will not wear a shirt today,

Second, I think it will be some time before I next allege that LBJ, Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson are "an excellent rebounding frontcourt."  Love particularly is supposed to be an elite rebounder but he just isn't doing anything to deserve that reputation right now.  He's slow to box out, seems to be mistiming his jumps, and just generally seems to lack the nastiness that is required to be an elite rebounder in the NBA.  TT is awesome, and James is elite at basically everything when matched up against a 3 (he struggles to rebound against much taller men but that's pretty much how basketball works), but Love is trash at the moment.  Not sure what's going on.

Then the one thing I got right; the Cavs finally benched Richard Jefferson (he played only three minutes and did nothing) and hopefully that is a sign of things to come.  Shump's got to get it together though or we'll probably see RJeff back in the lineup as at least he isn't committing 46 fouls per game or whatever Shump is averaging right now.

So, what happened exactly?  Well, in the first half the Cavs were worse than ever on defense.  They really looked lost and got embarrassed on several plays where the ball would swing to a guy who nobody was even pretending to guard.  Some of those were three-point looks for Lance Stephenson, who is a bad three point shooter, so maybe you can live with those, but even a bad three-point shooter is going to make a useful percentage of shots when he's completely wide open with no one guarding him at all.  Even I can make those shots from time to time and I'm one of the worst shooters who has ever laced up a basketball shoe.

So the Cavs gave up 74 points in the first half (that's bad!) and looked to be headed to a lopsided Game 3 loss and a couple nights of soul-searching before they came out in the second half and just absolutely demolished the Pacers with a strangling defense that was even better than the score would indicate (they gave up only 40 points in the second half) because the Pacers caught some lucky bounces that turned into offensive rebounds and other extra possessions.

What changed?  Unfortunately I don't yet have the complete video of the game to review so I can't really say.  One thing that happened in the fourth quarter is that Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love didn't play, but they played almost the entire third quarter when the D was even better than the fourth so, who the hell knows?  The narrative about the Cavs is that they only play well when they feel desperate, and while I am always wary of such narratives (usually these things are the result of statistical variability and not these psychological factors as we are so fond of assuming) I must admit the Cavs looked like a completely different team after halftime.

Maybe Lebron was right and they were just a half away from "flipping the switch" and finally playing some defense.

One thing that hasn't changed is that the Cavs crater when Lebron sits down.  He's only sat for 11 minutes in this entire series so this number has a lot of noise in it, but in those 11 minutes the Pacers have scored at a rate of 152 points per 100 possessions, which is a number so outrageous that it's impossible to even contextualize.  It is indistinguishable from not playing defense at all.  It's All-Star Game level defense.

The only thing that's saved the Cavs is that they've actually scored at a pretty nice clip in those 11 minutes, so Jordan help them if the scrubs start missing shots.

The big looming issue for the Cavs, besides why Kevin Love doesn't seem to be able to rebound at his normal elite level, is what is going on with Kyrie Irving's shot.  As we discussed yesterday, Irving is a bad defender most of the time and while he's a decent passer for a point guard and has great finishing ability around the rim, he's really not an NBA starter-quality player without his deadly three-point shooting.  In the past two finals runs he's averaged a little over 44% shooting from deep which is a high enough number that he bends the defense and commands huge respect from opposing coaches when they are picking matchups, deciding swtiches, etc.

Right now in this series Kyrie is averaging 24% shooting from three, which is so far below a useful level that Irving, the Cavs' second scoring option, has actually recorded a negative Value Over Replacement Player in his first three games against the Pacers.  That means that replacing Kyrie with a random warm body off the trash heap would have helped the Cavs in this series.

Quite simply. the Cavs cannot win the title unless Kyrie is playing at an elite level, and right now he is playing at a sub-replacement level.  The Pacers aren't good enough to take advantage of that, but the Bucks (currently up 2-1 in their series with Toronto) certainly are, and it's possible to imagine Irving having trouble getting minutes in that series since he might be too small to guard any Buck except Dellevadova.

Three point shooting is notoriously high-variance, but 6-for-25 is a pretty severe slump.  Look for Kyrie to get it going in Game 4 or for questions to start surfacing about whether Tyronne Lue might need to get creative with his Round 2 lineups to give the Cavs the best chance to advance.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Cavs Close, Says Lebron; Flip That, Says I

So we’re two games into the playoffs, and Lebron says the Cavs are close to “flipping the switch.”  Maybe he’s right, and we should know better by now than to doubt the King. but so far the Cavs seem very much like the flawed defending champion they’ve been all year.  


Let’s get one thing out of the way first - JR Smith getting hurt is unequivocally good for the Cavs’ short-term prospects in these playoffs.  I’m a lifetime Gold Club member of TeamSwish but facts are facts:  JR has been TERRIBLE for the Cavs this season.  I mean he is KILLING them.  In 41  regular season games this year JR posted a GameScore over 10 (10 is the theoretical average for a starter) exactly nine times. The Cavs record in those games?  9-0.  Meanwhile he posted a GameScore under 2 in fourteen games, and the Cavs are 4-10 in those games.  


What does it mean to have a Game Score under 2?  It’s not good; I can tell you that.  It certainly isn’t something a starter for a championship contender should be doing more than a third of the time he steps on the floor.  


The problem is that the Cavs probably need a healthy, engaged JR Smith to have a shot against the Warriors in the finals - he’s integral to their Curry defense strategy, which is going to be all the more important this season due to the presence of Kevin Durant, which takes away the option of slotting Lebron onto Curry in most sets.  The Cavs probably don’t have anybody else who can guard Durant, so Lebron is going to have to do it most of the time.  


But for now, yes, without question, the Cavs are better with Iman Shumpert starting in place of JR Smith.  Shump is a “mistake player” who commits a lot of costly errors, but so is Smith, and Shump has actually been a slightly better shooter than JR this season.  Shump’s defense has slipped over the past few seasons but he is still regarded as a decent backcourt stopper who can slide up and guard wings (which JR really can’t do.)  


So, on to the rest of the team.  First things first - the idea at the end of the regular season was that the Cavs and Tyronne Lue had some sort of secret plan to fix the defense.  It looks like that plan is still under wraps because YE GODS the defense against the Pacers - one of the weakest, least complicated offenses in the 2017 NBA playoffs - has been atrocious.  


The 2017 Cavs allowed opponents to score about 110 points per possession.  That’s bad!  But they’ve been worse in the first two games against Indiana, surrendering over 118 points per 100 possessions.  That number extended over an entire season would be substantially worse than the worst NBA defense.  In fact the difference between the worst NBA defense what the Cavs have done in two games defensively against the Pacers (in Cleveland, let’s not forget) is about the same as the difference between the worst NBA defense (the Lakers, BTW) and the tenth-best defense (the Thunder.)


Part of this is some hot shooting from Indiana - they likely won’t shoot 43% from deep or 50% from the floor in this series, and Paul George certainly won’t continue his absurd 56% mark from beyond the arc (much of that on difficult, contested pull-up jumpers.)  But just watch the games and you’ll see an absurd number of missed assignments, miscommunications on switches, sloppy rebounding and general confusion that is not going to fix itself just because the playoffs have started.  It’s not an illusion. The Cavs are a bad defensive team, and historically speaking bad defensive teams just don’t win titles and certainly don’t successfully defend them.


But why are the Cavs so bad?  On paper they shouldn’t be.  Lebron is an excellent defender even if his effort and concentration do slip at times, and he can guard all five positions so you can slot him anywhere you need to in order to get the best matchups for your other guys.  Kevin Love is much-maligned as a defender but he really isn’t terrible - he is big enough to guard most big guys and while he’s not your first choice to switch onto a shifty wing or backcourt player he CAN succeed in those positions, and together with Tristan Thompson and Lebron he makes up what should be an excellent rebounding frontcourt.  


So what’s left?  Oh yeah - the backcourt.  You’d expect this would be where the problem lies, and you’d be right.  Kyrie Irving, who rehabilitated his reputation last season with some good defense in the Finals, and JR Smith, who has become thought of in the last couple seasons as a very  good perimeter defender despite a prior reputation as lazy and uninterested, have appeared to revert back to their old bad habits.  Basically any screen that involves one of these two defenders is an instant crisis for the Cavs defense, and the Pacers have treated Kyrie with utter contempt, swinging the ball to his man any time he’s matched up against someone with a shred of offensive ability.  He contests horribly, doesn’t recover well, has bad timing on his help, it’s just a mess.  


Behind those two guys they have Shumpert and then other atrocious perimeter defenders like Deron Williams, Kyle Korver and Richard Jefferson (who has been awful all year and hopefully will see zero significant finals minutes, but who the Cavs are relying on for big minutes at the moment.)  


Shumpert should help a little now that he’s been plucked from the end of the bench to the starting lineup, but he won’t help much and here’s why:  bad defenses are as bad as the worst mismatch on the floor, and JR, as bad as he was, usually wasn’t the worst mismatch.  That’s Kyrie, or Deron Williams when he’s on the floor, or Richard Jefferson when he’s on the floor.  Korver should probably go on this list too, but he is SO incapable of guarding people that you don’t really see him that often when there isn’t some terrible Pacer for him to hide on.  


So in the end a team full of bad defenders is going to be bad defensively.  The Cavs just don’t have enough good defenders to pull together a good defense.  They don’t have to stay THIS bad - far-worse-than-the-worst-NBA-defense-bad - but they aren’t going to suddenly become good.  This is who they are.  It’s depressing, but it’s reality.  The Cavs need to outscore people.  


Now, that said, a lineup of Kyrie, Shump, Lebron, Love and Tristan Thompson really ought to be able to stop people.  It’s not a murderers row of fearsome defenders for sure, but it isn’t bad.  Eventually it seems like this lineup is going to emerge as the only viable go-to lineup for defending opposing starters, and the rest of the rotations will adjust to reflect that.  But the quesiton still looms as to what the Cavs are going to do when Lebron is off the floor.  Right now they are getting absolutely crushed when Lebron sits (usually for Richard Jefferson who in case you’re just joining us is terrible), in fact his on/off splits are troublingly similar to what we saw from the 2009 Cavs.  That was back when Lebron was still being blamed for the Cavs woes since he “didn’t know how to win” but 2009’s playoff run for the Cavs in hindsight was Lebron attempting the absolutely Sisyphean task of building a lead over the course of 20 minutes and then seeing that lead instantly barfed up in four minutes every time he tried to sit down and have a drink of water.  


That same thing looks to be happening in these playoffs and it’s ominous.  As good as Lebron is, he can’t do it all.  The playoffs are too long and too hard and at some point he runs up against the limits of physics and biology.  The Bucks especially are well-positioned to take advantage of a tired Lebron and force the Cavs to the wall, should they get past the Raps and into a second-round matchup with Cleveland.  

The Cavs should be starting a competent defensive unit tonight against Indiana, and if Kyrie plays well it could be a downright good one.  They need to establish that unit, get everything they can out of it, and use it to build some semblance of a decent defense going forward.  They also really need to sweep this series to get Lebron some rest, because he’s not going to get much while the games are going on, that much is clear.  

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

State of the Association pt. 1

Since the election (and since the Browns are bad even for the Browns) I've been mostly pretending that the only thing that exists in the universe is NBA basketball.

Given that fact, and the fact that I haven't been writing much, here's a post (or, fingers crossed, a series of posts!) about the state of the NBA, with a special focus on my beloved Lebrons, erm, I mean, Cavaliers.  I thought about starting a new blog called The High Post based on my love of the Lowe Post basketball podcast with the great Zach Lowe, but The High Post is already taken as a blogger blog, and also I have enough fallow blogs.  So here goes.

True NBA fans know that the "real" NBA regular season runs from Christmas day to the middle of March, a span of about twelve weeks.  Everything before that is too early to worry much about, and everything after that (late March and early April - the playoffs start on Tax Day) is garbage time since a big portion of the league isn't really trying to win games but rather to jockey for lottery position.  

Thus it's a good time right now to take a look around the league and see where things stand at the end of what we might call the post-preseason, aka the first third of the regular season when teams are still trying to figure out what they might have.  

Part One:  The Hopeless Garbage

30.  Philadelphia 76ers

Fans of the Sixers will probably chafe at this ranking, and indeed it gives me no pleasure.  The Sixers are fun to watch, and they have a lot of interesting pieces.  But oh my goodness they are terrible.  Their offense is basically what happens when you pick up a new basketball video game for the first time and you can't really figure out how it works so you're constantly making the wrong pass, jacking up bricky fadeaways with 15 seconds left on the shot clock, and dribbling out of bounds for no reason.

The Sixers are super-young, and they will get better as the season goes along and Joel Embiid works his way into a full-time job.  As many jokes as we've made about Embiid during his two-year odyssey to return from foot problems, he appears to be as good as advertised.  He's far and away their best player and if he stays healthy he's a lock to become an All-NBA fixture.  

That said, this team is a major mess, and it's hard to imagine them winning a playoff series with anything like this configuration.  The Process continues.

29.  The Phoenix Suns

Oh, the poor Suns.  Once the Moneyball A's of the NBA, the Suns pioneered many of the modern pace-and-space concepts that are now the accepted model for constructing an offense.  Then all those guys retired and left this... thing.  I can't say a ton about them because I don't watch them.  Neither should you.  Their niche is that they are a smallish team that doesn't shoot the ball very well and doesn't play very good defense.  That's not a niche you want to be in.  

Like the Sixers, they have a lot of young players who will get better.  Unlike the Sixers, they don't have anyone who particularly seems like a transcendent talent.  No franchise has a bleaker outlook at the moment, except maybe...

28.  Brooklyn Nets

Suns fans may be howling "how can you put us lower than the Nets?"  Honestly, you're probably right, and the fact that is the best thing that can be said about your team is a sign of something very, very sad.  The Nets STINK.  Worse, they're not even young.  Their situation is utterly hopeless, stretching endlessly out into the future.  They have been terrible for years after trading away their draft picks, meaning they haven't even gotten any young talent in exchange for their awfulness.

The only reason I can't put them lower than the Suns is that the East is so bad that it's possible the Nets could somehow stumble into a playoff appearance in the next couple of years and maybe even give some 3-seed trouble.  That will not happen to the Suns. 

Remember those pace-and-space concepts we were talking about?  Yeah.  The Nets two best players are Brook Lopez, who can't run, and Trevor Booker, who can't shoot.  They're also giving major minutes to Anthony Bennett, who can't do anything.  Do not watch this team.  That is all.

27.  LA Lakers

Another storied franchise that's fallen on some hard times, these Lakers, like the Sixers, are actually quite watchable.  They have a few interesting characters (Metta World Peace!  Jose Calderon!), a quirky, talented bench (Larry Nance, Jr!) and some veteran leadership (Timofey Mozgov!  Luol Deng!)  What they don't have is anyone who can credibly guard another human who is more than five feet from the basket.  

The Lakers are the bizarro version of the Warriors - they give up points so effortlessly it almost seems like a different sport.  Opposing dribblers get into the lane with such ease that someone watching their first basketball game might come away with the impression that it is illegal for the defender to be in the offensive player's way.  Their attempts to defend pick-and-roll have the appearance of a team that wasn't told before the game that the pick-and-roll is a thing.  

Brandon Ingram should improve, and that will make a big difference because right now he is absolutely KILLING the Lakers with a brutal 35/27/71 shooting split, and D'Angelo Russell seems to be developing into a nice shoot-first, pass-second, defend-last point guard in the Kyrie Irving mold, so there's some reason for optimism here.  But it has to be a concern that the Lakers are trying to develop young guards on a team where absolutely no one plays defense.  That kind of thing tends to be contagious.  

26.  Orlando Magic

By far the most talented of the truly hopeless teams, the Orlando Magic might be the most oddly-constructed team in the NBA.  It's as if someone started collecting interesting puzzle pieces that had been cast off from other teams...  and then just kept collecting those interesting puzzle pieces until the roster had 15 guys on it.  Actually that is basically how this team was constructed, and it shows.  

The Magic's best player is Serge Ibaka (and it's not close), who is a major asset because he can shoot and he can play the 4 or the 5 for short stretches (or longer stretches if the opponent goes small a la the GSW Death Lineup.)  Also on the roster are Nikola Vucevic and Bismack Biyombo, neither of whom can shoot threes (Biyombio can't shoot at all; Vucevic has a nice midrange game) or play any position except center, thus taking away some of Ibaka's value.  I cannot explain this.  I doubt Orlando can either.  

When teams let Orlando ground-and-pound with their bigs on the floor, they can beat you up and wear you down.  But it's not too difficult to put Biyombo in situations he can't handle (and that's being kind) at which point this becomes a team with no ideas beyond Elfrid Payton's sometimes-nifty drive-and-kick game.  The problem there is that other than Ibaka and Evan Fournier, the Magic just don't have the shooters to scare anyone away from just clogging the paint and forcing Payton to jack long jumpers that he has no prayer of making.  

There are enough assets here that you get the feeling the Magic could become something, but right now they're locked into this Island of Misfit Toys act and it's pretty excruciating.  

Next:  The Hopefully Mediocre


Sunday, June 21, 2015

Inside Out

Some movies are like memories - frozen moments in time that define a character and the fictional world around her.  Some are like ideas - lines of reasoning aimed at making sense of the world as it presents itself.  


Inside Out is both and neither at the same time.  It is a movie about how ideas, the tools we use to try to navigate the trials of life, affect our memories, and how our view of our memories affects our ideas about how to live.


Few children truly live the life of Riley, but most think they do until age ten or so, at least according to our cultural mythology.  At the beginning of Inside Out we meet our Riley at the age of eleven and she’s just endured a setback that threatens to overwhelm her sunny disposition with sadness.


If it stopped there it would be a standard schmaltzy children’s movie (“Don’t say the D-Word!” - managing editor Fake Bill Simmons) but Pixar went above and beyond in this one, sacrificing some narrative zip for some real thematic breadth.  The problem with Riley’s sadness isn’t how it makes her feel, it’s how it affects what she might do.  For the parents in the audience at least, the movie takes on its momentum at the instant we realize that Riley’s choices in response to her deteriorating emotional situation might really be limiting what she might be able to accomplish in her life.  We are in danger of losing her.


Amidst all this is a serious meditation on the finality of forgetting - the knowledge that when a little girl forgets a memory that bit of time is irreversibly discarded, used up.  And we can rewind the movie as many times as we want but that yawning pit of forgetting is always there, disintegrating everything into dust as black as ink.  


Yet rarely has a movie ever seemed so effortlessly positive about the state of the human condition.  Everyone in this movie suffers, and none of it is meaningless.  The terrifying trials the animated children of our childhood memories endured are the blueprints for houses we live in today, where we stuff coca-cola and twizzlers into our backpacks before taking our children to movies to learn important lessons about honesty.  


Pixar has put the entire universe into the mind of a depressed preteen girl and made the universe seem all the more limitless for it.  A best picture nomination seems assured.  Bravo.


Thursday, June 5, 2014

My Quickie Take on the Series Right Before It Starts Because I’m a Procrastinator and Didn’t Do It Before Now

Why The Heat Will Win

 I’m rooting for the Heat so this could very well be motivated reasoning.  But I think of boxing history, where we find many examples of an aging champion having a tough fight with a young upstart and losing a contest that could have gone either way.  

 In this situation the two fighters almost always rematch within the year, and the fighter who won the first fight almost always wins the second fight easier than he won the first fight.  The reason is fairly straightforward - the aging ex-champion is older, slower, and creakier, while the young champion is about the same.  

 He may even be better.  Lebron is having his best, most efficient playoffs since he tried to take on the entire NBA by himself with the 2008-09 Cavs.  The Spurs gave Lebron some trouble early in the series in 2013, but he may be ready for them this time.  His shot selection and relentlessness have been the Scylla and Charybdis that have sunk some excellent Eastern Conference defenses, while Tim Duncan’s minutes and production have been dwindling for years.

 What’s Wrong With This Reasoning

 Basketball isn’t boxing.  They let you bring other guys on the court with you to help you win, and the Spurs are better than last year with the addition of Marco Belinelli and the continued development of Kawhi Leonard.  It must have pained other Western GM’s to see Belinelli go to the Spurs - he’s the perfect bench shooter for them and he makes the series just a little bit more fascinating.  

 The Spurs’ role players are mostly young guys, and the Heat’s supporting cast is practically an AARP meeting.  Ray Allen, Rashard Lewis, and Shane Battier may all be too old to be expected to reasonably defend any position in the Spurs aggressive offensive scheme for more than a few minutes.  

 If that happens, the Heat don’t really have a plan B.  James Jones can’t guard anyone either, so their other outside shooting option is Norris Cole, who creates super-small lineups when he’s on the floor with Chalmers, lineups the talented San Antonio frontcourt will be able to exploit.  

 Why the Heat will Win Anyway

 Lebron James is very good at basketball.  Kawhi Leonard had a decent time defending Lebron last year, but in the end James was too good shooting the jumpshot and lit him up in Game 7.  There’s no real reason to think Leonard has James’ number.  He has to prove it all over again, and it may be too much to ask a third-year player to be Lebron James’ primary defender in two straight Finals.

 The even more important difference that’s easy to forget is that Dwyane Wade was a shell of himself last season.  There’s a reason Spo created the “maintenance program” that saw Wade play just over half of the regular season.  Wade wasn’t awful in last year’s playoffs, but he wasn’t Dwyane Wade - he was a solid two-guard, nothing more, nothing less.  

 This season he’s back and he’s killing teams with his ability to get EASY midrange jumpshots (and the death of the EASY midrange jumper is greatly exaggerated) and that little hook he uses as he dribbles across the lane out of the post.  Not to mention the fact that Wade and James are still the most terrifying fast break force since Jordan and Pippen.  

 Chris Bosh, as always, will play a big role without necessarily needing to put up big numbers.  The Spurs bench is clearly better, so the Heat stars will have to shine.  But they will, and they’ll do it the same way they did it against Indiana - stealing one in San Antonio, winning both in Miami, losing game 5, and then closing it out in six.  Game Six won’t be a blowout, though, and it’ll end on a controversial call.  That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!

Monday, February 24, 2014

Macroeconomics #1

Originally I was trying to keep this blog very focused.  But it turns out a lot of days I just don't have it in me to write about personal, stay-at-home-dad type stuff, and so I don't write, and it breaks the chain.  So I'm going to write about whatever, and figure people can ignore the stuff that isn't their thing.

Which brings us to macroeconomics, and to this excellent (though long) post by William Black on the topic of news coverage of austerity budgeting.  I don't expect most people to read the whole article, though if you do bravo, but here's the key bit I want to highlight:

"It is not acceptable journalism to ignore the dominant economic view, 75 years of supporting events, and the empirical studies by austerians (the IMF) finding that fiscal changes have more powerful effects on the economy consistent with the dominant theory.  It is not acceptable journalism to ignore unemployment and inequality and the role of austerity in increasing both. "
Allow me to clarify and expand on this point briefly.  What Black is driving at is this - there is a dominant view in macroeconomics, which has held for over 75 years, that governments should not "tighten their belts" during periods of recession but should in fact spend more money and collect less money in taxes.

This view strikes non-macroeconomists as very odd and counterintuitive because people's experience with money suggests that when "times are tough" you have to cut back or "generate more revenue" as the common Newspeak phrase goes.  Also, economics is somewhat like climate science in that while there is broad agreement on many points, there exists a small rump of mostly non-scientists who make a living trying to muddy the waters and make it appear as if there is controversy even on these points of broad agreement.

So it falls to humble bloggers to say this:  despite what you hear from policymakers, think tanks, your Facebook friends, etc., there is a broad consensus in macroeconomics that austerity budgeting in a recession does not do any good and in fact makes the problem worse.  You can argue with that conclusion but if you are a reporter or commentator you should begin with the acknowledgement that this is, in fact, the overwhelming view of mainstream economics.  This is the meaning of the quip "We are all Keynesians now" that is attributed to Milton Friedman in the 1960's.

It's beyond the scope of this post to go into the academic research, which is voluminious, into the phenomenon of austerity budgeting.  What we can do is address one extremely important misconception about federal (national) budgets.

FEDERAL DEBT IS NOT OWED TO ANYONE AND DOES NOT HAVE TO BE PAID BACK.

This is extremely important.  Many lay people have a misconception that deficits mean that the government has borrowed money from someone - a bank, the Chinese, etc. - and that this money will have to be repaid by future taxpayers.  In a system like ours (Europe is a bit different which is why their system is in so much of a worse pickle than we are), the federal government does not borrow money in order to spend.  Bond issue is a completely separate consideration that has nothing to do with financing government operations.  The federal government simply spends money into existence.

The situation of a federal government is exactly like the situation if you had a system of scrip in your home for motivating your children to do chores.  You issue your child a piece of scrip each time he or she cleans up a room or takes the trash out, and the scrip is redeemable later for some privilege.

Since it's impossible to run out of scrip (because you issue it) and since you control the privileges your kids have, there is no level of debt that is "unsustainable" in the sense of not being able to "pay it back."  You didn't borrow the scrip from anyone, and since from your perspective it's merely a notional extension of your police power over your kids, there's nothing to run out of in any case.

The federal government is in the same situation.  From the USG's perspective, a dollar is simply a voucher against future (or present) tax liability.  Issuing too many such vouchers can erode their usefulness ("inflation") but there is no sense in which issuing too many such vouchers can lead to a "debt crisis" in the traditional sense, if a nation controls its own currency.

This is widely known and understood by macroeconomists, but unfortunately is known and understood by almost no one else, including policymakers.  As long as that sad state of affairs persists, we will persist in these terrible, useless policies that are causing untold suffering and waste for no reason at all.