timbersfan's WunderBlog

The Reducer, Week 30: Bad Scene, Everyone's Fault

By: timbersfan, 11:29 PM GMT on March 28, 2012

By Chris Ryan on March 27, 2012
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Oh, hey, buddy. You doing OK? You don't look so hot. Want to talk about it? This is a safe space. You fire your manager? That happens, pal. Your current boss looking at bigger and better things? Like a national team job? Hey, YOLO, am I right? Star creative player getting his head dented by Dean Whitehead? Uh-huh. Midfield string-puller refusing to sign a new contract? Chin … up. Team captain talking to the press about how the club just isn't as good as it used to be? Can your French international forward not stay on the field for more than a few games in a row because he keeps getting red carded? Riiiiight.

With a few exceptions (Arsenal, United, Everton, and Sunderland), Premier League clubs seem to be, well, going through some stuff, man. Manchester City, Tottenham, Queens Park Rangers, Liverpool, Chelsea, Aston Villa, and the poor, beshitted Wolves. What do these clubs have in common? Yes, they all lost left points on the field over the weekend. But beyond simply losing ground in the league table and the fight for European places or survival, these teams seem to be exhibiting signs of burnout, the managers seem to be grasping at straws, and the players seem to be thinking more about this summer's Euro 2012, or their summer 2012 European vacations, than about the matter at hand. Steven Fletcher, thy name is Ibiza.

Even when looking at the teams that won last weekend, few did so convincingly, save Arsenal, a club bizarrely hitting their highest gear at the time of the season when it typically takes a nosedive. Forget Athletic Bilbao taking United out behind the woodshed, Valencia beating Stoke, Milan trumping Arsenal, or City losing to Sporting in aggregate. This isn't about how teams are performing in European competition. Look at the Premier League form guide. Look at all that red. These sides aren't performing that well in England!

This season has given us some surprises (Swansea, Norwich, and the resurgence of the Northeast, with Newcastle and Sunderland), some great performances from some world-class players (David Silva, Juan Mata, Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney), and some great drama (and off-field melodrama), but the title will be decided by whichever Manchester side screws up least.

There's an air of cynicism to a lot of the clubs right now, whether it's in the way that they are playing or what their players or managers are saying off the field. All we care about is Champions League qualification for next season.

In a perfect world, we would see a lot of the clubs hitting their stride as March turns to April. Instead, it's looking like a transitional season, not just for many of the teams, but also for the league itself.

Let's look at some of the teams staring into the abyss (and, yes, one or two soaring above it all … for now) after a weekend of football that, for the most part, never managed to excite.

Liverpool

I always thought the Carling Cup was going to be either a stepping stone or a consolation prize for Liverpool. As it turns out, there was a third option: a curse. The Reds have lost four of their last six matches since lifting the taking-your-cousin-to-the-prom of English trophies. And this last week, in terms of on-the-field results, has been the worst of Kenny Dalglish's second stint in charge. After blowing a two-goal lead to QPR in midweek, Liverpool should have been frothing at the mouth to get after some vengeance on Wigan, a side that looked like its Premier League alarm clock was finally about to go off. The Latics had never won at Anfield, but in this match, as has been the case for much of this season, this Liverpool team never really played like a team and the result was a 2-1 loss. This is a club with such a tremendous identity, such a sense of self, but when you watch the Reds play, you get the impression that the players wearing the club colors don't know who they are. And for as much as it might pain Liverpool fans to hear it, that problem falls at the feet of Dalglish.

The chief job of the manager is to get his players ready to play. But too often these Liverpool players look like a team without a plan. When you watched Liverpool under Rafa Benitez, there was the feeling like they were merely shirt numbers he was arranging around a game board. You, no. 8, move there; no. 4, stay there, not too far. Always on the touchline, there was Benitez, adjusting the positioning of his players. It was all geometry, not poetry.

Dalglish is all poetry; he is an icon, a Knight of the Liverpool realm. But Jordan Henderson is not a right-winger, Andy Carroll and Luis Suarez's little-man-big-fella-act doesn't seem to work, Steven Gerrard is long since past the point where he can be an effective defensive player in the middle of the park, and perhaps most galling of all, the greatest trick Sir Alex Ferguson ever played was making anyone think Charlie Adam's free kicks alone were worth more than the price of admission.

On the back of this mismanagement, Dalglish has struggled to cope with the RSS Reader Era of football media. Dalglish has blamed their success (the Carling Cup, the long FA Cup run) for their failure and their "lovely football" for their league form. Liverpool haven't been that successful and their football hasn't been that lovely. In fact, Dalglish's suggestion that Liverpool has a style at all is somewhat erroneous. That's the problem.



One of the more interesting decisions that the manager has taken has been his reluctance to play some of Liverpool's highly vaunted academy players in Premier League games. Raheem Sterling and John Flanagan both got run-outs against Wigan, but Dalglish chalked their inclusion up to injuries in the first team. "It is nice to see the kids get a game but it is also better for us to look after them and manage them. We are not going to throw kids in and destroy them, but it is nice to see them on the pitch." I get that. But Liverpool just lost to Wigan at Anfield. What's the worst that could happen?

Manchester City

Does money make you cynical? I think for many Fantasy Football Manager players, to say nothing of actual football managers out there, the idea of having Sheikh Mansour's Brinks truck to drive around Europe conjures up visions of building a new Barcelona in the Northwest of England. Sure, Manchester City have top-of-the-line training facilities and they've been hoovering up young talent everywhere they find it, but if Kenny Dalglish is something of a poet at heart, Roberto Mancini is a construction foreman. And what he is building in Manchester City is, well, practical.

Perhaps that's due to circumstance. Manchester City, over the last few weeks, has regressed to the mechanical style that got them an FA Cup and third place in the league last season. This, despite having one of the most exciting collections of attacking players in Europe with Silva, Samir Nasri, Sergio Aguero, and Mario Balotelli. I say exciting, but they are also mercurial. I sympathize with Mancini pulling the reins back a bit on the fantasy football that City was playing in the fall, when they were quite simply blowing teams off the field. He, as much as anyone, must have noticed the drop-off in Silva's play. And that was before Stoke's Whitehead almost caved in his melon during City's 1-1 draw with the Potters.



Mancini might feel aggrieved that Peter Crouch's wonder goal put City down, 1-0. And he probably feels like Whitehead should have been sent off for the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Stoke player move. But it's not like Yaya Touré's rocket wasn't blessed with some good luck of its own, and Gareth Barry is lucky he wasn't sent off for his own reckless challenge early in the match. These things actually do even out.

For City, the bigger question, especially with the reemergence of Carlos Tevez, is what is the best kind of football to play in order to be level with Manchester United. It feels like each week Mancini declares every remaining match a cup final — and every week Manchester City comes out a little bit underwhelming in their play. Defensively, they are sound, as long as Stefan Savic is nowhere near the football field, but they've lost their attacking identity. They'll need to find it before they host United at the end of April. Mancini can talk about cup finals all he wants, but that Manchester derby might as well be the Super Bowl.

Wolves

This is the saddest story I've ever heard. Well, no, not Ford Madox Ford sad, but still, Wolves were a scrappy Midlands club with cool colors, some nice wingers (Michael Kightly, Matt Jarvis), a ferocious (somewhat dirty) central midfielder in Karl Henry and some industrious forwards (Steven Fletcher, Kevin Doyle). They were almost the model of stability under manager Mick McCarthy, a guy who made up for whatever tactical limitations he had with some genuine charm. For one reason or another, Wolves quit on McCarthy and the club higher-ups (who are regular guests on English sports talk shows like 606 Football Phone-in) decided to can the long-serving Irishman. Enter … nobody. After a protracted, midseason job search, the club hired McCarthy's assistant, Terry Connor. Since Connor's hiring, Wolves have lost their last three matches 13-1 on aggregate. That's relegation form. And they are at the bottom. At this point it almost seems like going down would be some kind of cleansing act for the club, but that hasn't stopped Mick McCarthy from offering to come back for one, last-ditch effort at saving the club's Premier League lives. You sure, man?

Step Overs

• About a month ago, Manchester United midfielder and semiprofessional Scanner Roy Keane said that this season's Arsenal were the worst he had ever seen. Some, like former Gunner Emmanuel Petit, seemed to almost agree with him. I can't tell what's more shocking, the fact that this same Gunners team has now won seven matches in a row, or that the winning streak seems to be powered along by the unlikely duo of Tomas "Dead Leg" Rosicky and Theo Walcott. The English winger especially looks reborn, playing far more centrally against Aston Villa over the weekend, drifting in from the right. It's always been his preferred position and with service like Alex Song's lovely, lobbed-through ball, it's easy to see why.



• Frank Lampard has had a tough season, being held out of the squad and marginalized for much of Andre Villas-Boas's short reign as Chelsea boss, but he isn't helping himself, his club, or his interim manager, Roberto Di Matteo, by coming out and saying, "We're not as good as we used to be," on the eve of Chelsea's Champions League match with Benfica. I think that was, for the most part, Villas-Boas's point, Frank!

• Tottenham have been one of the true pleasures of the Premier League season, so it's a shame to watch it all sputter right at crunch time. Luka Modric, inexplicably farmed out for some of Spurs' last few games, has been the subject of more summer exit rumors. Some have tied Modric's future to that of manager Harry Redknapp. I've been equally impressed this season by the abandon with which Spurs have played and the stupefying way in which Redknapp is trying to talk himself out of both the England and Tottenham jobs: "They don't care whether I'm the manager next year, they wouldn't lose any sleep over that. Footballers are footballers: they play the game, they train every day. Someone else could come in here tomorrow … The king is dead, long live the king. That is football. They don't worry if Harry's going to England, or if he's going somewhere else. It doesn't happen that way. They don't think about that; I don't think about it." Is it possible to overdose on inspiration?

Goal of the Week: Peter Crouch, Stoke



As if it could be anything else. If he had taken that out of midair it would've been a little too much like Zidane-at-Hampden for the universe to process.


Quote of the Week: Roy Hodgson

"It is something I did without thinking out of pure frustration at conceding the third goal. I meant no disrespect by it to such a great player, nor his family, and offer my sincere apologies if it has caused offence." This is Hodgson, apologizing for throwing an armband worn in memory of West Brom legend Ray Barlow after Newcastle scored their third goal against the Baggies in a 3-1 win. Football, bloody hell.

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Explaining the U.S. Olympic bonus discrepancy; more Planet Fútbol

By: timbersfan, 11:48 PM GMT on March 17, 2012

BARCELONA -- We've been putting the planet in Planet Fútbol lately, spending the last two weeks in London, Milan, Genoa, Baltimore, Seattle and Portland before coming this week to Barcelona. It's great fun from a journalistic perspective, though perhaps less so in a jet-lag sense; my body has zero idea what time zone it's in right now. But don't worry: We'll continue soldiering on through the hardship. (Joking!)
Most of my work will be in Sports Illustrated in the next few weeks, but I wanted to put out a few useful notebook nuggets here. So let's dive in:
U.S. Men's Olympic Team Has No Olympic Medal Bonus While U.S. Women's Team Does
The U.S. men will compete for one of the two Olympic berths available at the CONCACAF men's qualifying tournament starting March 22 in Carson, Calif., and Nashville. The date to circle on your calendar is March 31, the day the two Olympic spots will go to the victors of winner-take-all semifinals in Kansas City.
The U.S. women already qualified for the Olympics in January, which brings up an unusual situation: While the U.S. women will receive a bonus of slightly more than $1 million from U.S. Soccer if they win the gold medal, the U.S. men are currently not scheduled to earn a dime from the federation if they strike gold in London. (The U.S. Olympic committee will give $25,000 to any U.S. athlete that wins a gold medal.) It's an intriguing turn of the tables considering the history of men receiving more prize money than women in events like the Wimbledon tennis tournament in years past.
What explains the discrepancy in Olympic soccer bonus money? Well, the Olympics is a senior-level event on the women's side, while it's an under-23 tournament (with three overage players allowed per team) on the men's side, the better for it not to compete with the World Cup. The bonus money for the U.S. women was negotiated as part of the senior team's collective bargaining deal with U.S. Soccer, while the under-23 men's team doesn't have a collective bargaining agreement with the federation.
That said, there's nothing preventing the U.S. men's senior team from negotiating an Olympic medal bonus for the under-23 team in its own CBA, especially since the team will likely include those three overage senior players. It just hasn't happened that way.
When I asked U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati about bonuses recently, he didn't want to comment on the situation for 2012. But he did acknowledge that the 2000 U.S. men's Olympic team (which lost in the semifinals to a Xavi-led Spain and fell to Chile in the bronze-medal game) would have received a bonus had it won a medal. "I don't know what had been contemplated in 2008, to be honest," Gulati said. (The U.S. men failed to qualify in 2004 and went out in the opening round in '08.)
Harry Redknapp Talks Seattle, The NASL And Downtown Freddie Brown
During my London stop I had an excellent stream-of-consciousness trip down memory lane with Tottenham coach Harry Redknapp, who started his coaching career as a player-assistant manager with the old Seattle Sounders of the NASL in 1976. Redknapp was a good man to spend some time reminiscing about his Seattle days even though the Spurs-Arsenal game was only 48 hours later. Perhaps the best way to present the conversation is to let Redknapp ride the wave, with ellipses between thoughts:
"I started coaching [in Seattle] with Jimmy Gabriel and Bobby Howe. We went over together from Bournemouth. Geoff Hurst played for us. So did Bobby Moore. They were great days, a time when everybody was in America. The Cosmos had Pelé and Beckenbauer and Carlos Alberto. Every player in the world was out there at that time: Gerd Müller, all the great Dutch boys. ... We used to go training in the mornings, come back after training and the wives would be down at the lake doing a barbecue. It was a great way of life. ... The crowds were amazing, and the people were great to us. You'd go back to the booster club and they made a fuss of everybody. And lovely atmosphere! It wasn't like here when if you'd played badly you wouldn't go to the supporters club afterward because you'd get slaughtered. It was different. We all enjoyed America.
"We played in Portland one night, and it went to the shootout. The 35-yard-line! And the referee had just come in from somewhere, and he didn't know the rules. So the shootout lasted about an hour and a half, and all 10 players missed! All 10! It was finally sudden death. ... Do they allow draws now [in MLS]? Because they always felt the public wouldn't like the draw. ... Can you get a draw in basketball? I followed the basketball when I was out there. The Sonics were the world champions that year. Downtown Freddie Brown! He'd take long shots, you know."
At this point, I informed him the Sonics had moved to Oklahoma City.
"I didn't know the Sonics had left Seattle. My god. Why? They were so popular! ... I'd love to go back to Seattle and take the team there. We're talking about going to America again. ... I played in the first game ever played indoors. In Houston. We played Real Madrid! They were the European champions then. It was the Houston Astrodome. ... It was so different for us all. They were so bad, Astroturf pitches, back then in the '70s. Portland had a terrible pitch! It was absolutely dreadful. We played in the Kingdome. That's gone now as well, hasn't it, the Kingdome? I saw them blow it up on the television."
Thanks, Harry, for putting a smile on my face. And let's get that return friendly set up between Spurs and Seattle.


Read more: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2012/writers/gran t_wahl/03/16/olympic-bonus-harry-redknapp/index.ht ml#ixzz1pQAWEtM0

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New York looking for redemption, DP summer rush, MLS East notes

By: timbersfan, 11:47 PM GMT on March 17, 2012

The 2012 MLS season starts on Saturday, and this week I spoke to all 10 of the coaches in the Eastern Conference (just as I did with all nine MLS West coaches not long ago). The idea here isn't to produce complete scouting reports for every team, but rather to present the nuggets that came out of our conversations.
And one nugget is this: Houston coach Dominic Kinnear isn't exactly disappointed that his team was kept in the Eastern Conference instead of being moved to the West with the addition of a 19th MLS team in Montreal this season. If Houston had switched to the much tougher West, it would have faced a more difficult route to the playoffs, not least because MLS' new unbalanced schedule has teams playing in-conference far more often in '12.
"Midway through last season, I looked and I was like, 'Man, it's not so bad to play in the Eastern Conference,'" cracks Kinnear, whose Dynamo rode a late-season run to the MLS Cup final. Truth be told, the same should be the case this season, with three West teams (Los Angeles, Salt Lake and Seattle) entering the new campaign as the class of the league. Yet that doesn't mean the East is without intriguing storylines, to wit:
Which New York shows up?
New York and Los Angeles spend far more money on players than any other teams in the league, and while L.A. made it count with an MLS Cup title last season, New York was a high-priced failure, earning more attention for its dysfunctional defense and locker room than anything else. Coach Hans Backe is promising bigger things in '12, and now he'll have to back them up or face the possibility of losing his job. No MLS coach is on a more uncomfortable hot seat entering the season.
"There's always pressure on this level," Backe says, "but I still have problems understanding people saying we have the biggest budget. I don't think that's really fair to say we have big, big money. We have two DPs and we can get a third one. Perhaps we can pay a little more for a DP than other clubs can, but we have the same salary cap as all the other teams."
MLS 2012
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CREDITOR: Preseason Power Rankings
SI PODCAST: MLS season outlook
STEJSKAL: Top 10 breakout players
DAVIS: 10 biggest preseason storylines
CREDITOR: 2012 SuperDraft review
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Thierry Henry wasn't the problem last year, but Rafael Márquez was a locker-room cancer. Backe claims that the Mexican national-team veteran is ready to turn things around. "He's absolutely aware that he wants to show another side of himself. He's been training very well this preseason, and he's not a guy who will end his career with a poor season. He'll definitely make a difference this year."
Is Bobby Convey a forward?
Kansas City surprised a lot of people by having the East's best regular-season record last year, but Sporting won't catch anyone by surprise this season. One big question is whether Bobby Convey (newly acquired from San Jose) can make the switch to a front-line wing position in the high-octane 4-3-3 formation used by coach Peter Vermes. Convey has been a midfielder and even a left back in his MLS career, but moving this far forward is a new thing for him as he tries to replace the departed Omar Bravo.
"Bobby has a lot of qualities to be a very good winger," says Vermes. "Some guys are athletes and then players, and some guys are players and then athletes. Bobby's a player-then-athlete. It's not an insult. I think he's a soccer player first. He's got a smart soccer brain. The key for him is with the way we play, sometimes we're very up-tempo. That's something he has to get used to a little bit. But from a soccer perspective I have all the confidence in the world in him. Now it's about getting him acclimated to our pace."
Will the Designated Player rush come in the summer?
D.C. United (Hamdi Salihi) and New England (Shalrie Joseph) were the Eastern teams that put DPs on the books in the offseason, but more are on the way in July if coaches are to be believed. Robert Warzycha says Columbus has offered three players DP contracts "but for different reasons we couldn't sign them. So we're still looking." Houston was unable to land Kris Boyd (who went to Portland), but Kinnear says "we're going to continue to try [to sign a DP]. The landscape of the league is changing." Backe says another DP is coming to New York "for the summer."
And Jesse Marsch says there is "even the potential for there to be two in the summer window" for Montreal. "The organization is committed to trying to make a pretty big splash with the kind of DP they bring, somebody who's been a great player in great leagues with great teams. It's no secret we've had conversations with Nicolás Anelka and Michael Ballack. But the organization has been very good at understanding it's important to get someone who soccer-wise fits too."
As MLS gets older, more teams are buying DPs and doing it the right way, says United's Ben Olsen. "Teams are making fewer mistakes on players. There is always going to be your odd botch on a signing, but the more time goes by and people see which players succeed in this league, it's a good sign for our league to get better. We're getting younger players in their prime. Salihi is 27. So the talent we're attracting now as a league is a much higher quality at a younger age. I'm very excited to see this league in five, six years and see what type of teams we're producing."
Is this the year Freddy Adu establishes himself at club level?
Adu's recent excellence with the U.S. U-23 team is a reminder that the 22-year-old has shown short-term impressive flashes with U.S. youth national teams (and even the senior team in '11). But Adu has yet to perform on a consistent basis at the club level eight years after turning pro.
What will it take to do so in Philadelphia? "Freddy's doing a tremendous job," says Union coach Peter Nowak. "I was always a little bit scared to praise him too much because he was still very young and inconsistent. But I'm impressed with his work ethic and his desire to get better. His preseason was outstanding. You can see it when he plays with the Olympic team. The tricky part is he's going to be in and out. We have one game in Portland [on Monday] and then we won't see him for another four or five weeks. Then we get him back and he goes again [for the Olympics]. The tricky part is to establish good communication with the Olympic coaches. I don't want to create a situation where he comes back and has all these expectations again. We're going to be patient but keep in mind what's best for him. Sooner or later his work will pay off and he'll see the fruition of how he plays with the Olympic team and the role he has with our team."
Wenger or Mattocks?
Montreal's decision to draft Andrew Wenger ahead of Darren Mattocks may be MLS's version of the old Kevin Durant/Greg Oden debate in the NBA. Vancouver's Mattocks has already publicly criticizied Montreal for not taking him with the No. 1 overall pick. But Montreal's Marsch reiterates his support for Wenger, as well as his decision to put him up top instead of on the back line (where he played for part of his Duke career and more recently for the U.S. U-23s).
"He's a forward for me," Marsch says. "It's still going to take time to develop, but from the beginning I watched him pretty carefully for the past six months. I see pure attacking instincts. I don't see a lot of defensive instincts in him. That was both when he played in college and the Olympic team camp. That's not to say I don't think he could develop that at center back, but even if you asked him what his instincts are, he'd say attacking instincts. Everybody talks about the speed of Darren Mattocks, and those two will probably always be compared, but Andrew is an incredibly athletic kid himself. His speed I would put on par with Darren's. But I think he's got a real soccer sense to him as well."
Is real youth development on the way in MLS?
MLS youth academies still have a long way to go, but some clubs are leading the way, none more than Toronto (which has invested in a $20 million youth academy). "I think it's not only for us. It should be normal for all the teams in the league," says TFC coach Aron Winter.
For Kansas City's Vermes, few topics are more important to the league. "As far as we're concerned, we believe in the long term our academy will be the heartbeat of our club," he says. "Because we have to be in the business of developing our own players for the future. Probably the hardest thing in MLS is to sign a foreign player. There are so many pitfalls in an individual negotiation, and the odds are against you that you won't sign the player. The league office does a great job of trying to assist in making those things work, but so many things can fall through. We've gotta get away from relying so much on that and be developing our players from within so that's what becomes the lifeblood of the individual clubs in MLS."
What else did I learn from my conversations this week? Here are some team-by-team nuggets:
CHICAGO
Coach Frank Klopas couldn't be happier with midfielder Pável Pardo, who has proved he still has it at age 35. "When you have players that are able to go abroad to Germany and win the Bundesliga championship and become a captain at Club América, you know you're getting a quality player and human being," Klopas says. "He's a little bit older for sure, but the way he reads the game and his decision-making have been huge for us." ... Klopas is expecting bigger years from goalkeeper Sean Johnson and attacking midfielder Sebastián Grazzini after they finished last season strong ... The coach adds that there's still a place in the starting lineup for holding midfielder Logan Pause.
COLUMBUS
Robert Warzycha wants more of his team to share the wealth in 2012. "If you look at our team last year and the year before, we have only two guys that were scoring for us," he says. "What I'm looking for this year is more guys to contribute, to be honest with you. We need Eddie Gaven to score five or six goals at least and [Dilly] Duka, [Tony] Tchani and [Milovan] Mirosevic. If we share that, I think we'll be a very good team. We can't just rely on one or two guys."
D.C. UNITED
Ben Olsen has high expectations for new DP Hamdi Salihi. "He's a true number 9," Olsen says. "He moves in and around the box extremely well. That's why his goal-scoring record is what it is. He's committed to scoring goals. What separates him is his ability to get free in the box and find space and anticipate where the ball is coming. It's a rare trait." ... When it comes to new starters, Olsen says they will form "up to half" of his XI ... Olsen is hoping there will be more support for reigning MVP Dwayne De Rosario. The team "was built last year around him. But I think our supporting cast is better this year. I'm hoping that will take a bit off his shoulders so he doesn't have to carry the load every game. He's willing and capable of doing that, but for us to be successful we need Andy [Najar] and [Chris] Pontius and Salihi and [Branko] Boskovic to make sure we're not just a one-trick pony."
HOUSTON
After playing on a narrow field at Robertson Stadium for years, the Dynamo moves to a bigger playing surface when its new stadium opens on May 12. Will that impact the way Houston plays? "It'll be a little bit bigger, but it won't change anything we do at all," says Kinnear. "If you look at the way we've played and coached over the years, big field/small field changes things a little bit. But someone said to me: 'Are you going to be less reliant on Brad Davis and set pieces?' I said no. Why? He's a big strength of our team. Why would you put your concentration somewhere else?"
KANSAS CITY
Keep an eye on rookie Dom Dwyer, whom Vermes almost gleefully called "a pit bull" and "a little Sherman tank" in the same sentence ... We're starting to see more MLS teams play in a 4-3-3, from Kansas City and Toronto to Vancouver, Colorado and maybe Dallas this year. But it's not something you can install overnight, says Peter Vermes. "It's hard to just say we're going to play this way and you guys have to figure out how to play that way," he argues. "You have to get the players to play that formation. It took us some time to do that and develop that style. I understand teams want to play that way and think that's good, but all of us have to get results. That's the key here."
MONTREAL
Jesse Marsch has noticed the increased maturation and variety of tactical approaches in MLS, too. "There are so many different tactics, styles, approaches and types of players," he says. "Teams are really starting to have identities now, which I think is a pretty recent development. When you looked back five years ago, you could say one or two teams had a commitment to the way they played. But now you look around the league and see significant style differences from club to club. When I was with the national team and watched every game on the weekend, it was interesting to see how teams matched up with each other, what the tactics would be on the day based on what they and the other team had." ... When asked which players he's looking for to step up most this season, Marsch includes Josh Gardner, Justin Braun and Justin Mapp, but the guy he talks about most in those terms is Tyson Wahl at center back ... Marsch, who took French in college, is seeing a French tutor twice a week so that he's better able to deal with local media coverage that he says "is at another level for our league" volume-wise.
NEW ENGLAND
As with Montreal, defining "success" this season in New England doesn't necessarily mean aspiring to the MLS Cup title. "It's hard to say the end goal is a championship [this season]," says Jay Heaps. "That's how everyone thinks, but it would be unrealistic to think in those terms just because of where we've been the last few years. I think success will be if we get everyone to buy into what we're doing early. I love to coach tactically and the technique of the game, but I also like to coach the personalities and the people. If I continue to connect with them and get them to believe in what we're doing, each step forward will help us cross the threshold." ... When Heaps talks about his playmakers who can change a game, the first two names he mentions are, unsurprisingly, Benny Feilhaber and Shalrie Joseph. But the third one is a rookie, Kelyn Rowe, who could get significant time on the field this year. "He's come in and really shown that he belongs, that he deserves the time he gets on the field," Heaps says.
NEW YORK
Hans Backe appears ready to start 21-year-old Ryan Meara in goal this season. "He seems to be very confident, calm and composed," Backe says. "I think he definitely has a future. We'll see when we start these competitive games." ... One youngster who isn't playing much is Juan Agudelo. What will it take for him to play more this season? "It's not that easy when he's not around us," says Backe. "That speaks for itself. He's had a couple sessions with the team since Jan. 16. He'll be involved in one game and then leave for another three weeks [for Olympic qualifying]. It's not easy to become a regular."
PHILADELPHIA
Peter Nowak is high on new Colombian forward Lionard Pajoy. "Lio has different qualities. He's not only a box player or poacher, he's a guy who creates a lot for the other guys," Nowak says. "He's smart with his runs, he drifts left and right, he's mobile coming back getting the ball. And his speed is encouraging." ... Nowak thinks the league needs to crack down on excessive interactions between coaches and the fourth official on the sideline. "Coaches being active with the fourth official, that's not supposed to happen," he says. "The fourth official is a Switzerland on the sideline who is supposed to monitor the situation and not be a shrink for the head coaches. You don't see benches in Europe jumping left and right including the equipment guys talking to the fourth official. I'm not happy with the behavior on the bench because all this stuff is translating to the field. Some coaches and players avoid talking to the referees on the field but wait for them in the tunnels and talk to them. How are you going to stop this? Are you going to get a camera and put it on YouTube? This kind of stuff has to stop. Coaches need to be shown red cards or suspended. That's a hard line, but it needs to happen."
TORONTO
I owe Aron Winter one. Our phone connection was so bad during most of our conversation that he might as well have been speaking Dutch. But he has an intriguing team that I'm picking to make the playoffs for the first time, so we'll revisit with him soon.


Read more: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/soccer/news/20120 309/mls-east-notes/#ixzz1pQAIhE9j

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2012 MLS season predictions

By: timbersfan, 11:46 PM GMT on March 17, 2012

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Another MLS season is upon us starting this weekend, and I've been working the phones and the pressing the flesh to get ready for the 2012 campaign. Come back on Friday for my interviews with all 10 MLS East coaches, a companion to my interviews with all nine MLS West coaches. But for now let's look into the crystal ball for my predictions on MLS '12:
How will the regular-season standings finish?
WEST
1. Los Angeles. The reigning champs had the best offseason of any MLS team, retaining David Beckham and Juninho and bringing back forward Edson Buddle. Omar González's injury absence will hurt the back line, but coach Bruce Arena will find a way to compensate.
2. Salt Lake. When healthy, RSL is the team that best stacks up with the Galaxy. The window may be closing on the decorated group of Javier Morales, Kyle Beckerman, Nat Borchers, Jámison Olave, Nick Rimando and Álvaro Saborío.
3. Seattle. The Sounders have three MVP candidates in Fredy Montero, Mauro Rosales and Osvaldo Alonso. How Eddie Johnson fits into the team may determine how high Seattle flies.
4. Portland. If new DP Kris Boyd can bang in the goals (and I think he can), the Timbers will take the next step and make the playoffs.
5. San Jose. The Earthquakes had the second-best offseason of any team, acquiring Colombian playmaker Tressor Moreno and Dallas's Marvin Chávez, among others. Chris Wondolowski is a proven finisher in this league.
MLS 2012
Season Preview
WAHL: 2012 season predictions
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WAHL: Western Conf. coaches' notes
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SI PODCAST: MLS season outlook
STEJSKAL: Top 10 breakout players
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CREDITOR: 2012 SuperDraft review
MLS Standings/Stats
MLS standings
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Team rosters
Previous Coverage

6. Dallas. In the competitive West, even making the playoffs is difficult, as FCD will find out. I don't expect a big drop-off from last season, but I do think the uncertainty over losing young stars Brek Shea and George John to Europe could have an impact.
7. Colorado. New coach Óscar Pareja is going to need some time to establish his system.
8. Vancouver. New coach Martin Rennie has a wealth of attacking options and has improved the defense, but his team has to play a lot of games against the West, which is by far the better conference. Too bad: the Whitecaps might make the playoffs if they were in the East.
9. Chivas USA. I don't think Chivas is a bad team, but I do think the West is brutally tough. Keep an eye on Ecuadorean Osvaldo Minda in the midfield.
EAST
1. Kansas City. Sporting won't sneak up on anybody this year, but that's OK. This is a young team on the rise that has figured out how to play Peter Vermes' 4-3-3 system. Graham Zusi is set for another big year in the midfield, and count me in the group that thinks Bobby Convey as a wing forward will work.
2. Houston. The Dynamo is more settled this year, with Geoff Cameron emerging as a star center back (not a midfielder) and less need for the kind of midseason changes we saw in '11. Brad Davis just keeps going and going and going ...
3. New York. Spectacular success or brutal failure is always a possibility for the league's most interesting team, but I think the Red Bulls will fall somewhere in the middle by the end of things. Thierry Henry should score goals again, but I'm not totally sold on a spine that includes Rafa Márquez, Wilman Conde and rookie goalie Ryan Meara.
4. Chicago. Speaking of spines, it's hard not to like what Sebastián Grazzini and Pavel Pardo have brought to the Fire, which was a genuinely good team for much of the second half of last season. If Dominic Oduro can keep scoring the same way, look for a return to the playoffs in a wide-open East.
5. Toronto. One of the best-supported teams in MLS has never made the playoffs ... until it happens this year. Coach Aron Winter went through a lot of players in 2011, but he has found a good combination spearheaded by Torsten Frings and Danny Koevermans.
6. D.C. United. Reigning MVP Dwayne De Rosario has more support this year in forward Hamdi Salihi and a healthy Chris Pontius and Branko Boskovic, but this is still a work in progress to get back to the old D.C. United.
7. Columbus. There are some good pieces on Robert Warzycha's team, from Emilio Rentería to Eddie Gaven to Chad Marshall, but the Crew has never quite recovered from losing Guillermo Barros Schelotto.
8. Philadelphia. I can understand why the Union jettisoned Sébastien Le Toux and is building for the long term, but that vision could be accompanied by some growing pains this season.
9. New England. New coach Jay Heaps admits he has a ways to go in rebuilding the Revs, so don't expect miracles in Year One.
10. Montreal. The expansion Impact will play hard and do their fans proud, but goals may be hard to come by at the start.
Which team will win the Supporters Shield?
Los Angeles. Arena has built a fearsome outfit out West, one that can sustain success over the long haul. The Galaxy isn't always pretty, but L.A. is ruthless.
Which team will win MLS Cup?
Salt Lake. The playoffs are more of a crapshoot than the regular season, and the switch to a two-game conference final will give Salt Lake a better chance to dethrone L.A. in a short time-frame scenario.
Who will be MVP?
Landon Donovan, Los Angeles. He may be 30 now, but Donovan is primed for a season setting up the Galaxy's other stars, and it helps him to have so few MLS games on international dates this year. Other top candidates: Javier Morales, Salt Lake; Robbie Keane, Los Angeles; Fredy Montero, Seattle; Thierry Henry, New York.
Who will win the Golden Boot?
Thierry Henry, New York. The man still knows how to score. Don't see that changing this season. Other top candidates: Chris Wondolowski, San Jose; Robbie Keane, Los Angeles; Fredy Montero, Seattle; Kris Boyd, Portland; Dwayne De Rosario, D.C. United.
Who will be Rookie of the Year?
Luis Silva, Toronto. So much about putting yourself in contention for Rookie of the Year is finding a situation where you can start and have an impact. Silva appears to have found a good spot in Toronto to do both. Other top candidates: Kelyn Rowe, New England; Andrew Wenger, Montreal; Darren Mattocks, Vancouver; Tony Cascio, Colorado.
Who will be Defender of the Year?
Nat Borchers, Salt Lake. With defending DoY Omar González out for much of the season, longtime RSL stalwart Borchers goes to the top of the list.
Who will be Coach of the Year?
Frank Yallop, San Jose. This is the year people will remember that Yallop is a two-time MLS Cup-winning coach. His smart offseason moves will pay off.
Who is your MLS Cup dark horse?
My pick: Kansas City. I know K.C. is the favorite to win the East, but I think the gap between this team and the top teams in the West is smaller than people think. When I say "dark horse," I mean dark horse to win the MLS Cup final.

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Free Agency Day 3: Did The Bills Overpay Mario Williams?

By: timbersfan, 11:44 PM GMT on March 17, 2012

As it turns out, Buffalo was more than a leverage stop for Mario Williams. We expected Williams to use an offer from the Bills, an organization that hasn't won a playoff game since 1995, to get a similarly sized deal from a more prominent team. Instead, on Thursday morning Buffalo completed the most surprising free agent signing since Reggie White in 1993, locking up Williams with a six-year deal that guarantees him an incredible $50 million. And as free agent signings go, the deal sure feels like it leans closer to masterstroke than disaster.

The $50 million guarantee is the truly incredible thing about this deal. The previous record in guaranteed money for a defensive player in free agency was set by Albert Haynesworth, and depending on what source you see for that contract, the guaranteed figure was between $36 million and $41 million. If the $50 million figure is legitimate, it dwarfs the previous record and creates a new standard for dominant defensive players to approach. Without this deal, the Packers could have gone to Clay Matthews this offseason and creditably offered him $40 million in guaranteed money as part of a new deal; now, no. 52 will probably get $52 million in guarantees on his next contract.

Did the Bills overpay? Yes and no. In a way, they had to overpay, because they probably wouldn't have been able to lure Williams to Buffalo on a market-value deal. Maybe they whispered "$50 million" into Williams's agent's ear at the Combine and got his first visit as a result. Maybe they whispered "$40 million" instead, got him to show up, and upped their offer to $50 million when Williams left their facility on Tuesday night. It's hard to imagine that Williams would have chosen the Bills over most other teams in the NFL with money being equal, and it's also simultaneously hard to imagine anyone else in the league shelling out $50 million in guaranteed money for Williams. Heck, while we suggested that the Bills should make Williams a Godfather offer before free agency, even we didn't think they'd go to $50 million.

On the other hand, this is exactly the sort of player you need to be comfortable overpaying, because it's almost impossible to acquire him otherwise. There's no other way the Bills can get a 27-year-old pass-rusher with this combination of production and athleticism. That's the difference between the Bills overpaying Williams and a team like the Jaguars overpaying Laurent Robinson, a move we criticized yesterday. You can get 95 percent of Laurent Robinson for $500K because there are dozens of guys like that in the market, so it's not worth getting the real thing for $12 million. Ninety-five percent of Mario Williams would still be a $30 million player, because there's nobody like that who comes available in free agency. Paying a premium to lock up that guy is fine.

Beyond giving the Bills an elite pass-rusher for the first time since the criminally underrated Aaron Schobel retired, this signing should solidify Buffalo's front four as the best defensive line in football. The Giants will have more depth than the Bills, but nobody is topping a one-through-three punch of Williams, Kyle Williams (the new Williams Wall?) and Marcell Dareus. Kyle Williams should be healthy after spending the second half of 2011 on injured reserve, and Dareus was a dynamic player in the first half of this past season before badly tiring during the final stretch of the year. Since we always think of big acquisitions in terms of how they will affect a team's most notable regular opponent, this move should allow the Bills to consistently rush Tom Brady with just four down linemen and drop seven into coverage, which is a huge advantage versus those teams who have to blitz Brady to create pressure. The Bills are moving back into a 4-3 after two years in the 3-4, which should put Williams back at his natural position of defensive end and allow the talented Bills linemen to penetrate into the backfield to make plays.

Does it turn Buffalo into an instant playoff contender? Probably not. Bills fans point to the team's 4-1 start last season before injuries began to create depth issues, but that was a record built on unsustainable luck. Those Bills forced 16 turnovers across five games and pulled off consecutive 18-point comebacks for the first time in NFL history while going 3-1 in games decided by a score or less. In their final 11 games, the defense forced just 14 turnovers and the Bills were 0-4 in games decided by a score or less. Ryan Fitzpatrick also played at a career-high level during that stretch before returning to the mirror image of his previous self during the second half, and there are still questions about whether he can suddenly improve into an above-average passer at 30. Williams will make the defense way better, both by creating big plays and making everyone else's job easier, but the Bills will need to match Williams's work on defense with an above-average offense if they want to make the playoffs. For the first time since the Music City Miracle, though, Bills fans have a reason to enter a season with hope.
Odds and Ends

The two most prominent offensive guards left on the market both changed teams on Thursday, as Ben Grubbs left Baltimore to replace Carl Nicks in New Orleans, while Steve Hutchinson signed a three-year deal with the Titans. The Grubbs deal was a necessity for the Saints, who had already lost their best offensive lineman when Nicks signed with the Buccaneers earlier in the week. They couldn't afford to allocate such a large portion of their payroll to Nicks and fellow guard Jahri Evans, and Grubbs's contract calls for him to receive $16 million in guaranteed money over a five-year deal, about half of what Nicks received from Tampa Bay. In truth, Grubbs shouldn't represent a significant downgrade from Nicks's level of production.

Hutchinson, on the other hand, is coming off a bad season in Minnesota and might be just about finished at 35. While he was once the league's best interior offensive lineman, Hutchinson's performance has badly slipped over the past two years, and he seems unlikely to regain the form that took him to seven consecutive Pro Bowls from 2003 to 2009. The Titans gave him $6 million guaranteed, which is a lot of money for a player who might very well only last one season with his new team. If Hutchinson were named Steve James and had the same level of skills at the same age without any pedigree, he'd have gotten a one-year deal for $900,000.

Kansas City added depth at tight end by signing Kevin Boss to a three-year deal. Boss should compete with Tony Moeaki for playing time at tight end, but he should also allow the Chiefs to go with two-tight end sets more frequently in 2012. At this point, Boss's name is more prominent than his actual performance. He never developed after an impressive playoff run as a rookie, and he's now had both the Giants and Raiders give up on him in back-to-back years. It's telling that the Giants, in need of a tight end after their incumbents seemingly all tore their ACLs during the Super Bowl, opted for Cowboys malcontent Martellus Bennett over Boss when the Raiders released Boss last week.

The Redskins continued their march toward their own tails by nabbing Brandon Meriweather with $6 million on a two-year deal. Maybe the NFL took the Redskins' ability to watch game film away, too, because Meriweather's been a disaster over the past two years. As bad as he was in New England, Meriweather's famously poor game against the Lions in October should have sealed his fate as a replacement-level safety. The problem is that Meriweather fancies himself a brilliant freelancer in the vein of Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed, but Meriweather lacks the athleticism of Polamalu and the instincts of Reed, which leads to disastrous decisions and big plays for the opposition. The Redskins will hope that Meriweather can replace the injured and departing LaRon Landry, but history suggests that he'll become the latest symbol of how bad the Redskins are at this whole player-evaluation thing.

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Free Agency Day 2: Catch Me If You Can

By: timbersfan, 11:43 PM GMT on March 17, 2012

When teams overpay to acquire marginal talent in free agency and the decision takes some criticism, that team's fans usually respond with a fair-but-flawed argument: "We sucked at that position last year and we desperately need to improve there, so if we overpaid, that's life." It's what plenty of Redskins fans said Tuesday afternoon about Pierre Garcon, and it's what plenty of Jaguars fans said Wednesday about Laurent Robinson. So let's explain why that mode of thinking is troublesome, and how teams can use that desperation to their advantage as opposed to forcing themselves into bad decisions.


First, as you might suspect, most teams don't spend a significant amount of money to acquire a new free agent at a given position unless they were specifically subpar last season in that area. You might get the occasional exception, but the Bills aren't targeting Mario Williams because they have a dominant pass rush, and nobody with a franchise quarterback is going after Peyton Manning. The only situation in which it really makes sense to acquire a veteran player in the hyperinflated world of free agency is when you're desperate. So that argument seems superfluous.

The bigger problem is the idea that upgrading at that position, or in that facet of the game, requires a team to throw money at acquiring a talented player, even if it means that the team overspends in the process. Teams approach the problem of having below-average output at a position by saying, "We need to upgrade to something better here, even if it costs us too much." Instead, they should approach it from the equally compelling, alternative viewpoint of, "We're already so bad here that we can't be much worse next season, so upgrading to a superior player is incredibly easy!" Rather than seeing the free-agent pool as being full of players who would provide superior production to the guys on your roster, bad organizations insist on picking one player from that pool and spending more money than they should to obtain an upgrade they can get from just about anyone.

Jacksonville's signing of Robinson to a five-year, $32.5 million deal on Wednesday is a perfect example of this sort of dysfunctional thinking. It's important to take a look back at Robinson's career to put the logic related to signing him into its proper context and understand why this is a foolish move. Before the lockout, Robinson had basically been a middling receiver for the Falcons and Rams, while struggling to stay healthy; nothing about his performance record suggested that he was about to have a breakout season, which is why the Rams chose not to re-sign him heading into the lockout. After he sat on the sidelines for a week, San Diego nabbed him on a one-year deal for close to the veteran's minimum, $685,000, but he failed to make the roster and the Chargers cut him on September 3. Again, he returned to the waiver wire and sat there for days without any nibbles. A wideout-needy team like the Jaguars could have brought him in for a tryout, but they weren't interested enough to do so. Four days later, he signed with the Cowboys, who released him after a week. Again, the Jags could have trusted their eyes and brought him in. They chose not to. Dallas brought him back onto the roster a week later when Miles Austin injured his hamstring, and Robinson responded with 11 receiving touchdowns in 14 games.

Now, the Jaguars had heard of Laurent Robinson before he had his big season with the Cowboys. They had a scouting report on him coming out of college, played a game against him in 2007, and probably had a pro scout watch some tape to assign Robinson a grade before free agency. They had multiple chances to sign Robinson for essentially nothing and decided against it. How can a player whose skills were not worth the minimum salary to a team in September somehow be worth $14 million in guaranteed money to that same team in March?

Because the Jaguars got fooled by Robinson's 2011 season, that's why. They saw a player who is yet to complete a single healthy season put up excellent numbers as a second or third wideout within a great offense and mistook it for skills that they somehow didn't notice six months earlier. The Jaguars talked themselves into thinking that Robinson is a burgeoning talent with huge upside, capable of dominating teams in the red zone and downfield for long touchdowns, and they fell for that simplest of statistical quirks: the small-sample-size fluke.

Robinson had 54 catches for 858 yards last year. Those aren't incredible numbers — roughly similar to the production of Jerricho Cotchery (57-821) or Terrell Owens (55-829) in 2009, and neither of those guys got big-money deals in free agency.

The big difference between Robinson and his peers is that 11 of his 54 catches resulted in touchdowns. That's a touchdown rate of 20.3 percent. It's totally unsustainable. Since 1990, there have been 20 other wideouts who caught 30 passes in each of two consecutive seasons and had a touchdown rate of 20 percent or greater in year one. Not even one of them improved their touchdown rate in the second year. During their second seasons, those guys caught touchdowns on 10.1 percent of their receptions. Robinson's touchdown rate is going to plummet next year, and it's not going to be because he's playing poorly. It will be because the Jaguars were expecting him to repeat something that isn't repeatable.

Teams make mistakes like this all the time, but the Jaguars were fooled by the same statistical quirk less than 12 months ago! Back then, general manager Gene Smith felt a desperate need to lock up a talented young target for his quarterback of the future and signed Marcedes Lewis to a mammoth contract extension while giving him $18 million in guaranteed money. Lewis was coming off a 58-catch, 10-touchdown season that, we noted at the time, was totally unsustainable. Lewis had scored either one or two touchdowns in every single season of his career up to that point, but the Jaguars paid him like a red zone threat after just a single season of production there. The bumbling tight end responded with a number of key drops in the end zone during a miserable 2011, as he failed to catch even a single touchdown pass. Lewis's touchdown rate did not regress toward the mean. It regressed all the way past it to zero.

If that were the only problem facing the Robinson contract, it would be an ill-advised decision. If you throw in the fact that Robinson qualifies as one of the Free Agents You Meet in Hell and has an incredibly checkered injury history, it's unbelievable. Instead of paying Robinson millions of dollars based on one fluke season in a great offense, the Jags should have saved their money and gone into the market to try and find the next Laurent Robinson. Maybe that's somebody like Donnie Avery or Chaz Schilens, players with brief spurts of performance who have seen their games stifled by injury. There's every chance those guys will be as good in 2012 as Laurent Robinson will be, and they're almost guaranteed to be better than Chastin West or Taylor Price. Even more importantly, they would save the team $10 million that could have gone to someone like Mario Williams or Vincent Jackson, the sorts of excellent players who you can't find for free on the waiver wire.

Why do teams refuse to approach the holes on their roster this way? The biggest reason is their incredible aversion to risk. There's a chance that Avery and Schilens won't play great or get injured. If so, the organization will look bad in the media and it will seem like they didn't make a serious investment to try and improve on their weak points. It's easier to just throw $14 million at the problem and silence that argument in advance, even if the money finds a player who is no more likely to actually solve the problem. As we noted in Grantland noted last week, NFL teams are afraid of the dark. They're so afraid, in fact, that they're willing to light money on fire to avoid it.
Green for Green

If you want an example of how a good organization manages risk and procures talent, look at the Eagles and what they did over the past 12 months with DeSean Jackson. When the team neglected to sign Jackson to a long-term deal before the 2011 season, he held out for a week before returning to training camp. He reportedly wanted a deal that was comparable to or in excess of Santonio Holmes's five-year, $45 million contract that allowed for $24 million in guaranteed money. The Eagles were all-in for a 2012 title and could have used a respite from any contractual distractions, but they weren't willing to break the bank and buy high on Jackson because they had both perspective and leverage.

Before last season, we wrote about Jackson's subpar catch rate and why it drained some of the value out of his big-play ability. We also should have noted how unsustainable Jackson's yardage was, as the speed demon averaged an incredible 22.5 yards per catch in 2010 after averaging 16.6 yards per grab during 2008 and 2009. There's virtually no precedent for a player averaging those sorts of yards per catch in consecutive years, and Jackson was extremely unlikely to be the exception. Furthermore, the Eagles held all the leverage by virtue of the franchise tag, which seemed destined for Jackson after Philly locked up virtually every other big-name free agent they had pending. They could have caved, but they were a disciplined organization and chose to wait.

Jackson's contract year was far from monstrous. His catch rate failed to improve to league average, and his yards per catch dropped off to the exact same 16.6 figure he averaged during the first two years of his career. Jackson was dismal on punt returns, disappointing when his team needed him, and with just four touchdowns, he looked like a shell of the player who terrified teams next to Mike Vick just a year earlier.

The Eagles chose this, the low point in terms of Jackson's leverage and value, to pounce on locking him up. After franchising him, the Eagles dangled the carrot of a long-term deal in front of Jackson and got him to agree to a contract for far below his market value. While Jackson's deal sounds big — five years, $51 million — it contains just $15 million in guaranteed money. That's $10 million less than what the Jets guaranteed Santonio Holmes, and it's virtually identical to what the Jaguars just gave Laurent Robinson. Hell, it's only about $6 million more than what the Eagles had already guaranteed Jackson for one season as part of the franchise tag process.

That's an unfathomably good deal, and because they saved $15 million or so by waiting on Jackson as opposed to paying him for his outlier season (as the Jaguars likely would have done), Philly was also able to re-sign star pass-rusher Trent Cole and able run-stuffer Antonio Dixon on Wednesday. Some of the money saved will also go to a new deal for LeSean McCoy. Although the Eagles are one of the NFL's more analytics-friendly organizations, this sort of forward thinking doesn't take some crazy advanced math. It just takes a bit of common sense and financial planning.
Where Does the Facility End?

[Ed. note: Mario Williams to Buffalo looks to be done deal, but read on to gain insight into the peculiarities of this particular signing.]

While we criticized the Bills for letting Mario Williams leave their facility in yesterday's column, we finished by noting that Williams might be compelled to stay in Buffalo after a good night's sleep. That's exactly what happened, and after going to the airport to pick up his fiancée, he spent a second day and night in Buffalo. He's expected to return to Buffalo's facility on Thursday for a third day of negotiations.

It's important to note the difference between a facility and a city in terms of whether the Bills were remiss to let Williams leave, but if the Bills knew that Williams was going to return in the morning, it's basically the same thing. That these negotiations are now entering a third day, though, is very weird. It says both good and bad things for Buffalo's chances of acquiring Williams. On the positive side, Williams wouldn't be sticking around for three days if the Bills weren't serious contenders for his services. Every hour he spends in town makes it more likely that the Bills are Williams's top suitors, and less likely that he's using their deal as a posturing technique, which we suggested he might be doing yesterday.

On the other hand, if this deal were such a great fit, why wouldn't Williams be signed by now? Williams took a physical on Wednesday, but the results would have already been in and the team would have happily announced his signing shortly thereafter. Contracts don't take this long to negotiate, so it's clear that there's some sort of impasse preventing the deal from being signed. It still seems like the Bills are the favorites to lock up free agency's best player, but it's unclear how close they are to actually sealing the deal.
Top of the Market

Ideally, teams should be equally comfortable playing premiums for top-tier talent while they scout their way through the flotsam of undrafted free agents and late-round picks into valuable properties. The Buccaneers have understood this over the first two days of free agency and targeted two of the market's best players, locking them both up with enormous contracts. On Tuesday, it was Vincent Jackson; on Wednesday, the team turned their attention to the offensive line and signed former Saints guard Carl Nicks, who got a five-year, $47 million deal with $31 million guaranteed that will make him the highest-paid guard in league history. He'll play left guard, while Bucs right guard Davin Joseph is one year into a seven-year, $53 million deal. Some teams don't have $100 million in contract totals for their entire offensive lines, let alone two guards. If it works, the Bucs could have the best offensive line in football next year, especially as run blockers.

Meanwhile, the Cowboys used their limited resources to go after a star on the other side of the ball. Despite the financial limitations placed on them by the league, Dallas gave Brandon Carr a five-year deal worth $50,100,000 on Wednesday. No word yet on guaranteed money, but we can guarantee that Carr only got $50.1 million to get more than Cortland Finnegan, who had signed a five-year deal for $50.0 million the previous day. We just wish our pissing contests earned us an extra $100K. No word yet on what the guaranteed money is, so we'll look closer at that deal once the guarantee comes out.

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The Legacy of Oscar Robertson

By: timbersfan, 11:47 PM GMT on March 15, 2012

In honor of the 50th anniversary of Oscar Robertson's 1961-62 season, where he averaged the first, and only, triple double in league history, here are two excerpts from Bill Simmons's book The Book of Basketball. The first entry deals with Robertson's placement in Simmons's Basketball Hall of Fame concept. The second breaks down why Robertson's legendary season shouldn't be as highly regarded as it is.

10. OSCAR ROBERTSON

Resume: 14 years, 13 quality, 12 All-Stars … '64 MVP … '61 Rookie of the Year … Top 5 ('61, '62, '63, '64, '65, '67, '68, '69), Top 10 ('70, '71) … 3 All-Star MVPs … 5-year peak: 30-10-11 (first 5 seasons) … 2-year Playoffs peak: 31-11-9, 47.2 MPG (22 g's) … leader: assists (6x), FT% (2x) … career: 25.5 PPG (8th), 9.5 APG (3rd), 7.5 RPG, FT's (3rd), assists (4th), points (10th) … 2nd- best player on champ ('71 Bucks), starter on runner-up ('74 Bucks) … 25K Point Club

GET YOUR BASKETBALL


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Back in February 2008, I was killing time in an airline club waiting for my delayed flight to board. Sitting only twenty feet away? NBA legend Oscar Robertson. Did I jump at the chance to make small talk with one of the ten greatest players who ever lived? Did I say to myself, "This is a gift from God, I can introduce myself to Oscar, tell him about my book, maybe even have him help me figure some Pyramid stuff out"? Did I even say, "Screw it, I gotta shake his hand"?

Nope. I never approached him.

Had I heard too many stories about Oscar being a miserable crank? Was I still scarred from finishing his 2003 autobiography, The Big O: My Life, My Times, My Game, maybe the angriest, most self-congratulatory basketball book ever written by anyone not named "Wilt"?1 Did I feel bad because Oscar was a profoundly bitter product of everything that happened to him? I don't know. But he may as well have been wearing a BEWARE OF OSCAR sign. And so we killed time just twenty feet apart for the next three hours. I never said a word to him.

There are few happy Oscar stories. Teammates lived in perpetual fear of letting him down. Coaches struggled to reach him and ultimately left him alone. Referees dreaded calling his games, knowing they couldn't toss the league's best all-around player even as he was serenading them with F-bombs. Fans struggled to connect with a prodigy who had little interest in connecting with them. After he finished in the top five for assists and points for nine straight years, made nine straight first-team All-NBA appearances, averaged a triple double for the first five years of his career, won the '64 MVP with Russell and Wilt in their primes and transformed the role of guards in professional basketball, his team still decided, "We need to get rid of him." Even his hometown paper (the Cincinnati Enquirer) piled on by writing in February 1970, "For years, Oscar has privately scorned the Royals management; he has ridiculed Cincinnati and its fans; he has knocked other players, both on his team and others; and he has never been willing to pay a compliment. He is, has been and probably will grow old a bitter man, convinced that it was all a plot." Of course, Oscar included this excerpt in his book thirty years later as proof that the notoriously right-wing newspaper was bigoted. Maybe both sides were right.

Oscar grew up like Bizarro Jimmy Chitwood in Bizarro Hoosiers, the never-released movie where a black basketball team prevailed … but not before facing profound prejudice and hostility along the way.2 When Oscar's Crispus Attucks High School became the first all-black champion in state history in 1955, Indianapolis rerouted its annual championship parade toward the ghetto, with the implication being, We don't trust the blacks to behave themselves, so let's keep this self-contained. Oscar never got over it. Nor did he get over Indiana University's coach, Branch McCracken, for recruiting him by saying, "I hope you're not the kind of kid who wants money to go to school." (Note: If you don't think Oscar didn't immediately stand up and walk out of the room, then you don't know Oscar well enough. Yes, that was a triple negative. I was due.) He chose the University of Cincinnati and had experiences that defy imagination six decades later. This stuff actually happened? His teachers belittled him in class and went out of their way to make him feel dumb. In Dallas, fans greeted him by tossing a black cat into his locker room.3 In Houston, he couldn't check into his hotel because of a NO BLACKS ALLOWED sign … only his team stayed there anyway, with poor Oscar stuck sleeping in a Texas Southern dorm room. In North Carolina, someone delivered him a pregame letter from the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan that simply read, "Don't ever come to the South." In St. Louis, he and a black teammate strolled into a restaurant and were greeted by stony silence, followed by every other customer clearing out within a minute or two. Even in downtown Cincinnati, they had "colored" water fountains and a cinema that wouldn't allow blacks as patrons … a theater that stood only half a block from where he starred for the Bearcats. Night after night, Oscar was filling a gym with fans and couldn't even walk down the street to catch a movie.

At some point, the Big O snapped, shut himself off and settled for taking his frustrations out on everyone else. I don't blame him one iota — even in photos of Oscar from high school to the NBA, you can actually see the grim transformation in his face. Young Oscar is wide-eyed, innocent, grinning happily in every photo. Older Oscar looks like he's smoldering, like he's barely happy enough to fake a smile for the photographer. Had Magic or Jordan dealt with everything Oscar dealt with, they would not rank higher than him in this book. There's no way. So in a Pyramid that hinges on five dynamics — individual brilliance, respect from peers, the statistical fruits/spoils of whatever era, team success and an intangible connection with teammates — Oscar's career remains the toughest to project. Yes, he was brilliant. Yes, his opponents and teammates revered him. Yes, he took advantage of some undeniable gifts from his particular era. No, his teams didn't succeed as much as you'd think. No, his teammates didn't love playing with him (as much as they respected him). His statistics were remarkable, sure, but didn't we just spend a book that's now the size of War and Peace proving that basketball is more than just numbers? Shouldn't it matter that Oscar never made the Finals until his eleventh season, well after his prime, when he rode Kareem's gangly body to his first title?4 Or that Oscar thrived statistically but missed four postseasons and only won two playoffs total? Or that three former teammates went on the record with the following quotes (from Tall Tales)?

Jerry Lucas: "Oscar was a perfectionist and he'd yell at you if you messed up. Then you saw that he yelled at everyone, so you learned not to take it personally."

Zelmo Beaty: "He was such a perfectionist that I never could have lived up to his expectations. The way he'd scream at Wayne Embry: 'You dummy, catch the ball … I put the ball right in your hands, how could you drop that one?' I felt sorry for Wayne."

Wayne Embry: "Oscar was so far ahead of us humans that you could never come up to his level. But because of his greatness and what he meant to the franchise, you hated to fail him. Oscar's greatness sometimes overwhelmed Adrian Smith. [He'd] tell Oscar, 'Please, O, you know I'm trying, I really am. You gotta believe me, O.' "

Oscar's demanding personality overwhelmed everyone around him. After his playing career ended and CBS jettisoned him in 1975, nobody hired him as a coach, general manager, broadcaster, or adviser for the next thirty-four years (and counting). He resurfaced occasionally as the Grumpy Old Superstar in any story comparing the good old days to whatever was happening in the current era.5 You could always rely on one churlish Oscar quote about how today's players make too much money; how he never could have palmed the ball so blatantly back in his day; how he would have loved to have played in an era of charter planes, personal trainers and low expectations; how today's triple doubles didn't matter because you could get an assist for anything nowadays. Every Oscar quote makes it sound like Dana Carvey should be playing him with Robert Downey Jr.'s Tropic Thunder makeup. Back in my day, I used to get triple doubles playing in bad sneakers with nails sticking out of the floor and fans throwing stuff at me and I loved it! There's just enough evidence that Oscar was an insufferable curmudgeon that he vacillated as high as no. 6 and as low as no. 12 for my Pantheon over a three-month span, ultimately settling here.

We know this much: every teammate and opponent revered his talents; the consensus seems to be "Jordan before Jordan"; and even West admits that it took him three or four years just to catch up to Oscar's level. But since every laudatory Oscar story centers around his uncanny consistency and not quotes like "nobody was better when it mattered" and "this guy could turn chicken shit into chicken salad," how can we reconcile his phenomenal individual success with his undeniable lack of team success? His supporting cast was serviceable from 1961 to 1966 (Lucas, Twyman, Embry, and '66 All-Star MVP Adrian Smith were his four best teammates); you could argue his teams slightly overachieved by finishing 60 games over .500, going 55-25 in '64 and dragging two Russell teams to a deciding playoff game. On the flip side, he played with quality players from '67 to '70 — not just Lucas and Smith, but youngsters who went on to bigger and better things, like Jon McGlocklin, Bob Love, Happy Hairston, and Tom Van Arsdale — and never dominated an increasingly diluted league. Considering Jordan's supporting cast was equally uninspired and his league was tougher, it's hard to fathom why Jordan's teams kept improving while Oscar's teams wilted over time. Both were famously brutal with teammates, only Jordan's competitiveness boosted his team's collective confidence while Oscar chipped away at it. Can you succeed when you're petrified of letting your best guy down? Beyond that, can you succeed when your best scorer also happens to be the guy running your team? Obviously not. The Royals never won anything … and really, never did anyone else who fit that category.6

The bigger problem is that Oscar's top-ten resume rests mostly on one thing: his dominance from 1961 to 1965, when he averaged a triple double and unleashed holy hell from the guard position.7 Those numbers make more sense than you'd think. Much like Wilt, Oscar was four or five years ahead of his time from a physical standpoint. There were only four "modern" guards during Oscar's rookie season; since the other three (Sam Jones, Greer, and West) were shooting guards, Oscar physically overpowered defenders the same way that Wilt boned up on the Darrell Imhoffs and Walt Bellamys. Imagine if 2009 Dwyane Wade played against a steady stream of Jason Terrys and Steve Blakes every night for 70 games, and for the other 12 he had to play against Kobe and Pierce. Then imagine every power forward was six foot six and under, and imagine there were only seven elite centers in a thirty-team league. Next, imagine he played in a run-and-gun era where there were 80 rebounds and 120 field goal attempts available every game.Would Wade average a 35-10-10 for the season? Of course he would. How is that different from Oscar's situation as a rookie? There were eight teams and eighty-eight players total, along with an unwritten "don't have more than two black guys on your roster" rule. So in a peculiar twist, some of Oscar's early success happened because of racism. Unleashing Oscar on a mostly white NBA in 1960 was like unleashing a horny Madonna on a nightclub filled with good-looking twenty-year-old Hispanic dancers. Check out the cream of the crop for Oscar's first season.

1961 All-Stars (guards): Oscar and Greer (black); West, Cousy, Tom Gola, Gene Shue, Larry Costello, Hot Rod Hundley, Richie Guerin (white)

1961 assist leaders (guards in top twenty): Oscar, Guy Rodgers (black); West, Cousy, Gola, Shue, Costello, Hundley, Guerin, Johnny McCarthy, Bucky Bockhorn,8 Chuck Noble (white)9

KC Jones, Al Attles and West were Oscar's only opponents who could dream of handling him physically. Oscar used his size with scorching results, backing smaller players down, finding his favorite spots 15 feet from the hoop, then turning around and shooting over whomever. The Big O mastered a deadly high-post game that hadn't even been invented yet — like watching a Wild West duel where one guy pulls out a revolver and the other guy pulls out an Uzi. Within five years, the color of the league changed, the pace of the games slowed and Oscar lost that Uzi/revolver advantage to some degree.

1966 All-Stars (guards): Oscar, Greer, Rodgers, Sam Jones, Eddie Miles (black); West, Ohl, Adrian Smith (white)

1966 assist leaders (guards in top twenty): Oscar, Rodgers, Wilkens, Greer, Mahdi Abdul-Rahman, Dick Barnett, Wali Jones, Sam Jones (black); West, Guerin, Ohl, Adrian Smith, Kevin Loughery, Howard Komives, Johnny Egan (white)

Is that why Oscar's stats dropped slightly (28-6-10 from '66-'70) when he should have been peaking like West?10 The Royals never won a playoff series after 1965; from 1968 to 1970, they missed the postseason completely as Oscar gained weight and said things like "My primary purpose is to get the team moving, establish community out there and make some money." There was no magic in his game, just a quality that Frank Deford described in 1968 as "eerily consistent," adding, "In eight years as a pro he has never averaged less than 28.3 points a game or more than 31.4, and in six of the eight years his average varied less than a point. In assists and free throws he has maintained the same level of consistency. He is like a .333 hitter who arrived at that figure by going 1 for 3 with one walk in every game of the season."11 Instead of Mr. Clutch, Oscar was Mr. Groundhog Day. That went for his personality, too. He grumbled about being underpaid and marginalized so relentlessly that the Royals swapped him for Gus Johnson, only Oscar pushed for a $700K extension from Baltimore before vetoing the trade. (Before you excuse his behavior by saying, "The guy was frustrated, he just wanted to win," consider Magic Johnson's plight late in his career. He was saddled with Kareem's corpse in '89, a Mychal Thompson/Vlade Divac center combo in '90, then a Divac/Sam Perkins combo in '91. His best teammate was Worthy, an excellent player who couldn't crack my top forty-five. His second-best teammate was Byron Scott, never an All-Star and a textbook "right time, right place guy." In a loaded league, did Magic give up, point fingers or demand a trade? Nope. He averaged 59 wins per year and dragged the Lakers to two Finals.)12 When the Royals shipped Oscar to Milwaukee, I know it's romantic to think, "They just wanted to give him a chance at a ring." Here's the reality: Cousy decided Oscar wasn't worth big money anymore and sent him packing for 40 cents on the dollar, then tabbed Tiny Archibald to replace him.13 The following players would never have been traded unless they demanded out: Bird, Magic, Jordan, West, Duncan, Shaq, Hakeem or Russell. In Oscar's case, the Royals moved in a different direction. Big difference.

Clearly, something was a little off with the Big O. You never heard the word "happy" with him, except for that transcendent '71 season when the Bucks destroyed everyone in their path. He ended up leaving Milwaukee just as unhappily as he'd left Cincinnati, furious that the team lowballed him (in Oscar's mind) before the '75 season. Sam Goldpaper's subsequent New York Times story started, "Pro basketball has lost what once was its greatest and most complete player. Oscar Robertson, after 14 seasons and many contract disputes, announced his retirement last night." You couldn't get through the second sentence of Oscar's basketball obituary without finding something negative. Twenty-eight years later, Jack McCallum's SI feature wondering why Oscar had effectively disappeared from basketball started, "The Big O is known in basketball circles for being the Big Grind, a hoops curmudgeon who protests that in his day the players were better, the coaches smarter, the ball rounder. The reputation is not entirely undeserved. But today — 40 years after a season in which he averaged a triple double in points, rebounds and assists — Oscar Robertson wants you to know that he does not spend his hours stewing in a kettle of his own bile. Well, wants you to know is a little strong because, frankly, he doesn't much care what you think."

Again, complimentary … but negative. Nobody sifted through Oscar's never-ending acrimony well enough to figure him out. Even when he heroically donated a kidney to his ailing daughter in 1997 (saving her life), the moment came and went; you probably didn't remember until I reminded you. His biggest legacy had nothing to do with talent: Oscar's ballsy performance as president of the Players Association led to skyrocketing contracts, the ABA/NBA merger, an overhaul of free agency and every eight-figure deal we see today, only he never gets credit because the struggles of NBA players haven't been romanticized by writers or documentarians. Even stranger, of all the NBA legends who ever lived, only Oscar doesn't belong to a current franchise because the Royals moved to Kansas City in 1973 (and then Sacramento in 1985). He can't go back home like Russell/Bird in Boston, or Magic/West/Kareem in Los Angeles, or even Willis/Clyde/Ewing in New York, simply because home doesn't exist. He's a historical nomad. He belongs to nobody. And maybe it's better that way. To this day, Oscar remains damaged goods — a victim of his vile racial climate, someone who battled a rare form of post-traumatic stress disorder that can't be defined. As his teammate during Oscar's prime, you would have respected the hell out of him, you would have felt sorry for him, you would have marveled at him … but ultimately, I'm not sure you would have enjoyed playing with him that much. This was a man who decided during the epilogue of his book, "Once I heard someone say that in order to write love songs, you have to have been through some bad times. To write a love song, you had to have your heart broken. If that's the case, I can state right here and now that I could write the greatest songs in the world."

Of all the injuries that determined the ninety-six spots of my Pyramid, I can tell you this much: Oscar Robertson's broken heart resonates the most.14

1960-61: THE SCORING BOOM

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Not necessarily a good thing. Why? Nobody played defense, and every game looked like a disjointed All-Star contest or even worse a college pickup game where nobody runs back on D because they're sweating out the previous night's keg party. The '61 Celtics led the league in scoring (124.5 per game) and averaged 119.5 field goal attempts and 33.5 free throw attempts. To put those numbers in perspective, the 2008 Celtics averaged 76 field goal attempts and 26 free throw attempts per game. That's insane. Play suffered so badly that NBC dropped the NBA one year later despite a memorable '62 Finals.1 The following season ('63), commissioner Maurice Podoloff slapped together a production team to "broadcast" the All-Star Game and the NBA Finals, then sold a syndication package to local affiliates around the country like it was Cheaters or The Steve Wilkos Show. Unbelievable.

Because of the inordinately high number of possessions, the statistics from 1958 to 1962 need to be taken with an entire shaker of salt and possibly a saltwater taffy factory.

Within five seasons, scoring increased by 18.6 points, field goal attempts increased by more than 4 per quarter, there were nearly 18 more rebounds available for each team and shooting percentages improved as teams played less and less defense.

YEAR G FGA REB FG% PPG
1956-57 72 6,809 4,494 38.0 99.6
1957-58 72 7,333 5,160 38.3 106.7
1958-59 72 7,368 5,043 39.5 108.4
1959-60 75 8,151 5,513 41.0 115.4
1960-61 75 8,642 5,789 41.5 118.1
Then the '62 season rolled around and the following things happened:

1. Wilt averaged 50 points

2. Oscar averaged a triple double

3. Walt Bellamy averaged a 32-19

4. Russell averaged 23.6 boards and fell two behind Wilt for the rebound title

Hard to take those numbers at face value, right? And that's before factoring in offensive goaltending (legal at the time), the lack of athletic big men (significant) and poor conditioning (which meant nobody played defense). I watched a DVD of Wilt's 73-point game in New York and two things stood out: First, he looked like a McDonald's All-American center playing junior high kids; nobody had the size or strength to consider dealing with him. Second, because of the balls-to-the-wall speed of the games, the number of touches Wilt received per quarter was almost unfathomable. Wilt averaged nearly 40 field goal attempts and another 17 free throw attempts per game during his 50-point season. Exactly forty years later, Shaq and Kobe averaged a combined 52 points a game on nearly the same amount of combined field-goal/free-throw attempts.2 Things leveled off once teams started taking defense a little more seriously, although it took a full decade to slow down and resemble what we're seeing now statistically (at least a little). Here's a snapshot every four years from 1962 on. Notice how possessions, rebound totals and point totals began to drop; how shooting percentages kept climbing; and beyond that, how the numbers jumped around from '62 to '74 to '86 to '94 to '04 to '08.4

YEAR G FGA REB FG% PPG
1961-62 80 8,619 5,713 42.6 118.8
1965-66 80 8,195 5,458 43.3 115.5
1969-70 82 8,147 4,336 46.0 116.7
1973-74 82 7,697 3,955 45.9 105.7
1977-78 82 7,615 3,863 46.9 108.5
1981-82 82 7,236 3,565 49.1 108.6
1985-86 82 7,268 3,572 48.7 110.2
1989-90 82 7,146 3,538 47.6 107.0
1993-94 82 6,924 3,526 46.6 101.5
1997-98 82 6,536 3,407 45.0 95.6
2003-04 82 6,545 3,461 43.9 93.43
2007-08 82 6,683 3,442 45.7 99.9
Compare the numbers from '62 and '08 again. Still impressed by Oscar's triple double or Wilt slapping up a 50-25 for the season? Sure … but not as much.

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31 Notes on the Breakdown of Practically Everything

By: timbersfan, 11:45 PM GMT on March 15, 2012

"It's no secret that I love pigeons." —Mike Tyson

1. Every era of sports history has its own ways of caricaturing famous athletes. Caricatures of famous athletes generally have some relation to the actual personalities of said athletes (Michael Jordan really is an asshole), but they're equally influenced by the needs of the eras that create them. This is no different from saying that sports is a mirror of culture.

2. For example, try this thought experiment: How would David Beckham, Muhammad Ali, Walt Frazier, Babe Ruth, or Joe Namath have been perceived if they'd played 30 years earlier or later? In the World War II era, Joe DiMaggio's easy grace made him the icon of a kind of lyric patriotism. If he'd played in the '80s, it's easy to imagine how that same quality could have been translated into a very different category of cool.

3. The defining sports caricature of the moment is probably the "crazy" athlete — the athlete who's so wild, unpredictable, unfiltered, and potentially destructive that he seems to be literally insane. This isn't the only sports caricature of our era — and there are some caricatures, e.g., the Inspirational Pocket Passer, that seem to be essentially timeless — but it's the one that's most distinctively ours.

4. Examples of the "crazy" athlete include Ron Artest/Metta World Peace, Mario Balotelli, Dennis Rodman, Mike Tyson, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Milton Bradley, Randy Moss. Emmanuel Frimpong, the 20-year-old Arsenal midfielder, has excellent potential as a "crazy" athlete, but was recently set back by the revelation that his "Dench" clothing label was inspired by a slang term pioneered by the Ghanaian-British rapper Lethal Bizzle, and not by Academy Award-winning actress Dame Judi Dench.

5. For an athlete to qualify as "crazy," it has to be plausible that he would attack someone for no reason. But violence by itself doesn't make an athlete "crazy." Ndamukong Suh isn't "crazy." Joey Barton wasn't "crazy" back when all he did was beat people senseless in the taxi queues outside nightclubs. But he has since become "crazy" on the basis of his mournful spirit-quest posturing, his constantly quoting Nietzsche, and his Twitter advocacy of a fat tax.

6. Other athletes who aren't "crazy": Ricky Williams (too bashful, too dreamy), Andrey Arshavin (not dangerous enough), 95 percent of jabbery wide receivers who are ultimately just looking for attention.

7. Obviously, current media conditions give athletes more opportunities to influence fans than ever before, creating an incentive for athletes who might otherwise be overlooked to establish their own brands by whatever means possible. Chasing that incentive doesn't automatically make you not "crazy." But you can't be "crazy" if you're just cannily exploiting a business opportunity. "Crazy" is not a tactic. To be "crazy" while trying to build a self-consciously "crazy" brand, you have to pursue your brand-building in a way that is itself "crazier" than you realize, so that the "crazy" of the brand you're trying to build is actually only a subset of the larger "crazy" that you represent. Dennis Rodman is the gold standard here. Chad Ochocinco is little more than a commentary on the cultural relevance of other "crazy" athletes.

8. Clearly, there's a lot of complex racial and cultural cross-wiring that goes into the perception of what constitutes "crazy," which is one reason an international sport like soccer, which is full of 20-year-old Ghanaians landing in European cities where they can interact/found clothing labels with the local expatriate hip-hop scene, produces "crazy" at a higher rate than a relatively localized sport like American football. This is a delicate area. A lot of "crazy" is inevitably going to include some element of misunderstood ethnic coding, but real "crazy" has to be seen to come from a deeper, more individual place. Allen Iverson was never "crazy." Making white people nervous doesn't mean that you aren't sane.

9. The "crazy" athlete is the athlete who does or says whatever comes into his mind, for whatever reason, without regard for either consequences or social norms, whether that means dressing up as Santa Claus and driving around an English city handing out money (Balotelli), wearing a wedding dress (Rodman), or biting someone's ear off (Tyson). His actions are the diary of his id. He's so utterly absorbed in his own weirdness that if he shocks you, it's a coincidence.

10. The assumption here is that faced with any given situation, the "crazy" athlete contains all possible human responses; the one that comes out is selected by a roll of the dice.

"Pigeons are man's first feathered friend." —Mike Tyson

11. Here are six things I learned in around three minutes on the Internet:

i. During World War II, "Project Pigeon" was American behaviorist B.F. Skinner's attempt to develop a pigeon-guided missile.

ii. Also during World War II, an American dental surgeon named Lytle S. Adams formulated a plan to strap time bombs to the legs of bats and drop them over Japanese cities from 5,000 feet in the air. Franklin Roosevelt approved the plan and the military spent $2 million developing a "bat bomb," including staging a full test in a mocked-up Japanese village somewhere in Utah.

iii. The Soviet Union trained dolphins to attack invading frogmen using harpoons strapped to their backs. The dolphins could also go kamikaze and carry explosives against enemy submarines.

iv. In 12th-century China, armies dressed monkeys in oil-soaked straw jackets, set them on fire, and released them in enemy camps.

v. During the siege of Megara in the third century B.C., flaming pigs were unleashed to frighten enemy war elephants.

vi. An American homing pigeon named Cher Ami was awarded the Croix de Guerre for heroic service in World War I. He delivered messages for the Allies during the Battle of Verdun. After dying of wounds sustained in battle, he was mounted by a taxidermist, and is now on display at the Smithsonian next to a dog who was promoted to sergeant in the 102nd Infantry.

12. The Internet has given us access to every weird thing in the world while simultaneously taking away the last vestiges of the "exotic." You can see pictures of a manatee smoking a cigarette, but you can't say "far Timbuktu" when you have a Flickr photoset about Timbuktu saved on Pinterest.

13. Most of us will, of course, still never get close to the real Timbuktu in our lives.

14. One consequence of this is the tone of burned-out overstimulation that, for no particular reason, I've taken to calling "whaff." Whaff, in its simplest form, is semi-sarcastic exaggerated praise for the bizarre, the cute, or the stupid. If you're on Twitter, chances are you've encountered whaff within the last 10 seconds. "OMG THIS IS THE GREATEST THING EVAR," followed by a link to an animated GIF of a baby owl falling into a hot tub, is the elemental template of whaff.

15. Whaff is never, however, entirely sarcastic. The attitude it projects is somehow both despairing and celebratory, without really occupying any of the middle ground between those two extremes. Whaff is nihilistic (because the world is so arbitrary and nonsensical) but also full of wonder (because the world is so huge and surprising and strange). At the same time, whaff is always both self-mocking (since you're admitting that you actually like reading fanfic about Stan Van Gundy's sweater collection) and self-congratulatory (since you're smart and interesting enough to have undertaken the online odyssey that led you through the emotional arctic of the various fuckyeah Tumblrs to Stan Van Gundy fanfic in the first place).

16. Whaff is the tone of explorers who have been given more maps than they could ever use and who never have to leave their own rooms.

17. Whaffy link dissemination obviously thrives on social networks and other decentralized platforms. But the fact that people like reading really weird shit online has also caused a noticeable migration of whaff into corporate media. Think of the way the "James Cameron is going to descend in a submersible to the bottom of the sea" story was reported last week. Or think of the News of the Weird-type stuff that dominates CNN.com, all of which is pretty much unreconstructed whaffbait, one important lesson of the Internet being that, shockingly, people are more likely to click on the words "red-hot sexpocalypse" than on the words "relevant information."

"You're going to see some dirty guys with pigeon shit on them, working the real deal." —Mike Tyson

18. One important point about the caricature of the "crazy" athlete is that the "crazy" athlete is never seen entirely as a villain. Invariably, a lot of people hate the "crazy" athlete, in the same way that a lot of people hate New York City or Facebook. But the "crazy" athlete also has fans, and many quasi-fans who cheer on the "crazy" athlete's antics in a way that is neither exactly glorifying nor exactly mocking. In a way, the moment that cemented Ron Artest's legacy as a "crazy" athlete — the Palace brawl — was also the moment when he was least "crazy," because the perceived seriousness of the incident made it too hard to mock/glorify his role in it. That wasn't a problem when, say, Craig Bellamy attacked a teammate with a golf club, or when Mario Balotelli was stopped by police for robbing his own house.

19. It goes without saying that the soft-focus cults of "crazy" athletes are generally strongest online, and generally operate in a very whafflike register. It's probably not a coincidence that, historically speaking, the "crazy" athlete emerged as a viable caricature in America during the mid-to-late '90s, the heyday of Rodman and post-prison Mike Tyson — roughly the same moment the Internet became a ubiquitous feature of American culture.

20. The pre-Internet version of the "crazy" athlete: Deion Sanders.

21. Another important point about the caricature of the "crazy" athlete is that it's just that, a caricature, and never exactly reflects the real personality of the athlete. Athletes marked as "crazy" often complain that the stories told about them are false, or that everything they do is misinterpreted and exaggerated because of their reputations. This is also no different from saying that sports is a mirror of culture.

22. "Crazy" athletes who try to challenge the way they're depicted tend to be unsuccessful at convincing the world that they're sane, either because they're genuinely bad at it or because the world isn't open to persuasion. Example: Mario Balotelli gave an interview to the BBC last week in which he denied most of the weirdest reports about him. However, he (reportedly!) only agreed to give the interview because it was conducted by Noel Gallagher, the former lead singer of Oasis.

23. A couple of weeks ago, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the "crazy" Swedish striker who plays for Milan, released his autobiography, I Am Zlatan, as an iPad app. I Am Zlatan is an unusual cash-in sports bio in that it's (a) terrific, and (b) fairly unrelenting in its portrayal of Ibrahimovic as a self-deluding asshole,1 which is to say as a plausible human being. You can read I Am Zlatan in all sorts of fascinating ways: as a case study in the ways extreme poverty and extreme wealth both distort a person's worldview; as an illustration of the isolating effects of fame, even among teammates; as a sustained attack on middle-class hypocrisy; or just as the gripping story of a kid from the wrong side of the tracks (of Sweden!) who rises to the point where he can have obnoxious opinions about cars.

24. However, I Am Zlatan also came with a lot of "crazy" trappings. There were multimedia breakdowns of the author's back tattoos.2 There were wacky intertitles — the first chapter was printed under the enormous heading "When I get angry the red mist descends." (Again, that was Chapter 1.) The book/app's website was festooned with unbelievably high-stakes blurbs from important-sounding, but suspiciously Scandinavian, reviewers.3 The book/app was translated into this ultra-shitty ersatz British supermarket lad-lit vernacular, all "blokes" and "mental" and "rubbish." There was so much weirdness around the book/app that it was easy (for me, anyway) not to notice how interesting it was. It felt like the accidental fulfillment of every stereotype of Ibrahimovic's loopy egomania — a sort of unintended sequel to Cirkus Zlatan, the documentary in which he rode around answering questions about his parents from the back of a gold stretch Hummer. The Internet freaked out about it for half a day, whaff was bandied about with a fury, and then everybody moved on to the next thing.

25. In other words, rather than seeing the coherent human being — smug, angry, and entitled though he was — that Ibrahimovic and his ghostwriter had constructed for us, we fell back on the idea of Ibrahimovic we'd already constructed for ourselves. He wasn't a person so much as a random scramble of comic data, one that was purpose-built for the way we kind of saw the whole world.

26. In other other words, it made sense that the title of the book was I Am Zlatan. Because so am I.

"I'm just a dark guy from a den of iniquity." —Mike Tyson

27. Here are two things I learned in about four minutes on the Internet:

i. Reuters, the international news agency, was founded in the mid-19th century when Paul Julius Reuter realized he could use pigeons to bridge a 76-mile gap in the telegraph network between Brussels and Berlin.

ii. The world record for the largest jigsaw puzzle ever completed is 551,232 pieces. When assembled over 17 hours by 1,600 students in a sports stadium in Ho Chi Minh City, it depicted a lotus flower with six petals, each representing a branch of human knowledge.

28. Generic Conclusion No. 1 (Mainstream): Technology, which is continually bringing us closer to athletes, is also making it harder to see them as real people. We know what Dwyane Wade ate for breakfast, but there's too much fragmentation, maybe too much information in general, to resolve everything we know into a meaningful picture of a human being. We should resist this. We should try harder to have sympathy for other people. Whaff is the Internet equivalent of lighting bats on fire.

29. Generic Conclusion No. 2 (Contrarian): We've never seen athletes as real people. The whole apparatus of sports has always worked to prevent that from happening. In the 1920s we saw them as larger-than-life heroes, villains, and clowns, and we do so now. The only thing that's changed is how we define those words. Whaff serves a social purpose! Sports is supposed to be a mirror of culture, and culture is @Horse_ebooks.

30. But you know what? The pieces don't go together that easily. This isn't a case where you can say, "Everything is disintegrating, but look, a pearl of wisdom." That's not what happens when everything disintegrates.

31. It may be that the most you can hope for in the case of the "crazy" athlete is they're getting a laugh out of it and you're getting a laugh out of it — that it isn't a one-sided pantomime. There are probably cases where it's terribly destructive, but there are also, hopefully, cases where everyone does what they're not supposed to do in a satisfying, even creative, way. Even if that just means parking a Ferrari on someone's front steps and then making jokes about it. Birds flying over battlefields probably like being in the air, whether or not they know they're carrying messages, or whether or not they realize there's a war.

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Carmelo Anthony: Joy Wrecker

By: timbersfan, 12:12 AM GMT on March 15, 2012

So this challenge just hit my inbox from one Bill Simmons: “Yo, Koppelman," it began, "… write a Carmelo rant for our sports blog today.” It was followed by an e-mail from Grantland editor Dan Fierman, also calling me out for "whine, whine, whining” on Twitter instead of really saying something.

OK, boys, if it’s a rant you want, it’s a rant you get. But I’m warning you, it ain’t gonna be pretty. It ain’t gonna be stat-filled or fair and balanced. Because after a lifetime of Knick fandom, I don’t have an ounce of fair or balanced left.

Let’s start with the disgraceful commercials the Knicks ran in welcoming Carmelo Anthony to the team. These ads, designed to stir the emotions of long-suffering Knickerbocker lifers like me, had the audacity to compare this selfish, ball-hogging, team-chemistry killer to Bernard King, probably the most beloved Knick of all time, after Willis Reed, and the one Knick since the '70s who performed in the clutch, played hurt, never complained, and gave us hope that we might actually win a championship. This is not unlike comparing Paulie to Luca Brasi in The Godfather. One sells out the Don for a few extra bucks. The other dies for him.

You want specifics? Well, it’s not about any complicated sports-geek metric. It’s just this: The Knicks are a winning team without Carmelo, and a losing team with him. I can talk about shots per game, Mike D'Antoni's offense, Amar’e Stoudemire’s conditioning, but what it comes down to, in the end, is that Carmelo Anthony, on the court, does not care about anything but Carmelo Anthony.

Just watch two quarters and you’ll see it. First few plays, he runs the lanes, has his eyes up, even makes a pass or two. But then it starts, usually after one of his teammates misses a shot or has the audacity to throw the ball to someone other than Carmelo. That’s all the justification he needs to take matters into his own hands — which means dribbling the ball until there are about eight seconds left on the clock before shooting (and usually missing), no matter where he is on the court.

Sometimes, if he’s in an even worse mood, he just dribbles across half court and fires up a 3, without even waiting for anyone else to get under the basket. And let’s not even talk about defense. Because what would there be to say?

And that’s not the worst of it. The worst of it is the effect he has on all the other players. Anthony, by sulking, by demanding the ball, by refusing to even acknowledge he’s part of a team, has killed all the momentum the Knicks built up, all the team spirit that surfaced when he was injured. I believe Jeremy Lin is the real deal and will be a starting point guard in the league for a long time, but what Linsanity really boiled down to was this: a team jelling, a team having fun, a team remembering that basketball could be a great game to play. That’s an important thing in this shortened, intense season. Actually liking basketball and having a blast out there on the court results in wins. I saw it with my own eyes. And don’t get started with the whole, "The Knicks didn’t play anyone during the streak” argument. Because that’s crap. We beat the Lakers and the Mavericks — and both teams were out for blood.

Carmelo has now taken all of that positive energy and joy and he’s wrecked it. Because that’s what he is, a joy wrecker. Just ask the guys on the Nuggets if they like it better now or when he was their "leader."

The really painful part of this is that most of us knew this was a mistake before the Knicks made the trade. (Donnie Walsh knew it, too, which is why he’s no longer with the team.) The truth is, the anger I feel toward Carmelo is really anger that should be directed at owner James Dolan. If ‘Melo is Paulie, then Dolan, to continue the Godfather analogy, is basically Fredo, if Fredo were twice as stupid and three times as jumpy. When Fredo panicked, all he did was fumble the gun, sit down, and cry. Dolan would’ve accidentally fired it, hitting his father another couple of times in the back, before running away and hiding.

Well, I’m sick and tired of getting shot in the back by James Dolan. And, speaking for most Knicks fans, I demand that he trade Carmelo Anthony before the deadline expires. I know he won’t. Because that would require Dolan admitting he was wrong about something and then actually doing something about it. Which will never happen.

And so I will spend the rest of the season curled up in the fetal position as I watch Carmelo destroy our team’s offense, our team’s chemistry, and our team’s promising point guard, Jeremy Lin. And all I’ll be able to do about it is tweet.

Adrian Wojnarowski

@WojYahooNBA
Mike D'Antoni has resigned as New York Knicks coach, a source tells Y! Sports.
14 Mar 12 ReplyRetweetFavorite
The news of Mike D'Antoni's resignation broke after I penned this rant. So there you have it. Carmelo and Dolan put a bullet in the head of the guy who found a way to win with all his supposed stars on the bench. The guy who actually gave the Garden 10 days of hope.

I hope whoever comes in next knows to always sit with his back to the wall and his eyes on the front door. Or at least has a gun hidden behind the tank of an old-fashioned chain toilet.

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Dwight Howard: The Indecision

By: timbersfan, 12:11 AM GMT on March 15, 2012

The most miraculous thing about this entire will-he-won't-he Dwight Howard ordeal is that it has somehow made LeBron James and his decision to make his decision with The Decision look like a good decision! At least he made a decision, right? Howard has been holding the Magic, and in a way the rest of the NBA, hostage as he bobs and weaves around questions about his basketball future. On Tuesday night, following a colossal, 24-point, 25-rebound performance in a 104-98 Magic victory over the Heat, Howard again commented on the possibility of being traded: "We've been talking, like I said, for a while. I told them [Magic front office] I want to finish this season out and give our team, give our fans some hope for the future. But I feel they have to roll the dice."

Of course, Howard's latest statement has done nothing to quell the rumors that he will, in fact, be dealt by the trade deadline and that being dealt is exactly what he's agitating for. Or not. Nobody can really tell what Dwight Howard wants, other than to make Otis Smith and Magic president Alex Martins feel like escapees from an insane asylum. He exists in a state of Indecision. Jim Gray should ask him about it …

Thank you very much. Everybody is on pins and needles across the country, particularly those teams who are in the running for Dwight Howard.

Are you ready to go, Dwight? Where is the Superman outfit?

It's at the dry cleaner's. I got grape jelly on the cape.

What have you thought about this process?

I have thought lots of things actually, but the most important thing is that whatever I thought, whatever I think, I share it. It's important to me that I make things as confusing and aggravating as possible for the Orlando fan base.

You weren't able to be recruited because you went straight to the NBA from high school. Have you enjoyed this recruiting process now?

Oh, it's been awesome. But don't underestimate my ability to upset the collegiate athletics apple cart. Sometimes I will just call random college basketball coaches and let them know I'm available, too. Just the other day I called Eddie Sutton at 5 in the morning.

Eddie Sutton hasn't coached in years.

He mentioned that.

How many people know your indecision right now?

Define "know."

One hand or two hands?

Let's go with a baker's dozen. That's my favorite number.

When did you not decide?

I didn't decide this morning. I got up, called Chip Kelly and told him I was on the verge of becoming a Duck, quacked really loudly, hung up, then made a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Then I got jelly on my cape. Had to go put on my other cape. Then I checked my voice mail and Stan Van left me a message that was just the sound of his facial hair growing. Then the day just got away from me.

So the last time you changed your mind was yesterday? Today?

There is no spoon.

So does the team that you're going to, that you'll announce in a few minutes, do they know your indecision? Are they aware you still don't know what you want to do?

No, that would take the fun out of it.

Do you have any doubts about your indecision?

I feel like at this point indecisiveness is a key building block to my brand.

The answer to the question everybody wants to know: Dwight, what's your decision … that you are not making?

It's like I said, "This moment is what matters." At this moment, I want to watch Finding Nemo. Primarily, Jim, the key for me is not being cold.



Some men leave for rings and some men leave for money. I could have gone to Chicago, but that place is basically an Arctic research base nine months of the year, and I have no interest in growing some crazy, frosted-over beard. Even though I really did think Kurt Russell was a boss in The Thing. So that rules out the Windy City. Then you've got Brooklyn …

You are aware that Brooklyn is not exactly Scottsdale, Arizona, right? And do I need to point out that the weather in Orlando is rather … temperate?

But Orlando already belongs to Mickey. I need an unclaimed, open territory to build up my own Magic Kingdom. I can no longer live in The Mouse's shadow. What do you think of when you think of Orlando? Boom. Space Mountain. What do you think of when you think of Brooklyn? Notorious B.I.G., cheesecake, and old-timey artisanal cocktails. I can work with that. I can take that over. Besides, the weather doesn't bother me. I'm more worried about the construction workers who will be building my bio-dome. In the end, I care about other people.

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NBA Rookie Rankings IX

By: timbersfan, 12:10 AM GMT on March 15, 2012

This week, the NBA rookie corps mourns a devastating loss. Last Friday against the Lakers, Ricky Rubio suffered a season-ending knee injury that might prevent him from playing in the 2012 Olympics. Without Rubio, this year's rookie class won't be the same. There are a number of other great rookies who have been coming into their own in recent weeks, but Rubio was one of a kind. Although it's sad to see a talented player like Rubio go down, there are still dozens of first-year talents to watch and rank. Let's get to it.

1. Kyrie Irving

Irving shines when he's asked to create his own shot. He posts 1.049 points per possession (PPP) in isolation situations, which puts him in the top 5 percent of all NBA players. But Irving struggles some in pick-and-roll situations, and his biggest weakness is taking care of the ball. When Irving uses ball screens, he turns it over 14.5 percent of the time. Irving has no problem using his quickness and ball-handling ability to beat defenders one-on-one. However, when the defense collapses on him after a pick-and-roll, that's when he struggles.



Irving needs to improve at reading the defense's rotations and finding his open teammates when those rotations occur. More often than not, Irving tries to hit the wrong man or create his own shot against multiple defenders. Cleveland runs pick-and-rolls with Irving on 38.4 percent of its possessions, compared to 12.3 percent for isolations. I'm not a strong believer in isolation basketball as the "right way to play," but the numbers and tape show that Irving is at his best when working one-on-one. The Cavs should try to get him more of those opportunities.

2. Kenneth Faried

Last week we talked about Faried's post defense. This week, his high energy and rebounding have allowed him to skyrocket to the second position in our rankings. Faried's 17.0 Offensive Rebound Rate, which measures the percentage of available offensive rebounds he grabs when he is on the court, ranks second in the NBA. The most impressive aspect of Faried's activity on the offensive glass is that he rebounds out of his area. He gets rebounds that don't just fall into his hands. He tracks down the ball and beats other players to it.



Faried is always working, getting around guys, pushing guys out of the way, reading the ball off the rim, and getting to the spot where he thinks the ball might land. He's hustled his way into an important role in the Nuggets' rotation.

3. Isaiah Thomas

Thomas's strength in the pick-and-roll is reading and reacting to what the defense gives him. His weakness, as it so often is with rookie point guards, is taking care of the ball. Thomas commits turnovers on 22 percent of his pick-and-roll possessions. This makes his overall effectiveness on ball screens — 0.949 PPP, in the NBA's 89th percentile — pretty remarkable. If Thomas cuts down his turnovers, he could be one of the most efficient pick-and-roll players in the NBA. Thomas's problem in these situations is also his best asset — speed.



Too many times, Thomas comes off a screen at full speed and looks to turn the corner. That's too fast. He needs to take his time and set up screens before he uses them. If he plans to split the screen, like he does in the first clip above, he needs to slow down and set up the hedge man with a hesitation dribble. He can't just sprint at him. If Thomas can learn to change speeds at the right times, he'll become a much better scorer off pick-and-rolls.

4. Derrick Williams

The best thing about Williams's defense is his versatility. He's quick enough to stay in front of small forwards on the perimeter. That quickness also allows him to hedge against point guards and help off screeners in pick-and-roll situations. When Williams is the big man defending a ball handler in a pick-and-roll situation, he holds offenses to 0.732 points per possession on 37.5 percent shooting. Even more impressive is that teams turn the ball over 22.5 percent of the time when Williams hedges on pick-and-roll plays.



Williams is so big that his presence can bother guards who come off ball screens. It's hard to shoot a quick jumper over Williams or make a pass around him. He also has the speed to stay in front of ball handlers and force them to slow down or stop. This allows the primary defender to work around the screen and get back to the ball handler, which is exactly what the defense wants.

5. Bismack Biyombo

It has taken a while, but Biyombo is finally making an impact on defense. It's no surprise that Biyombo is most effective at protecting the rim. He's an aggressive shot blocker who can prevent teams from scoring in the paint. As you'll see, most of Biyombo's blocks come from the weak side, when he helps off his man to stop dribble penetration.



Despite being young and possessing very raw skills, Biyombo has learned to recognize when he should rotate from the weak side and when he shouldn't. With his exceptional length and athleticism, Biyombo can wait longer than smaller and slower bigs who have to rush to get into help position. The extra split second that Biyombo waits before leaving his man makes it tougher for offenses to score. By staying home longer, Biyombo makes it hard to dish to his man. With that pass taken away, the offensive player attacking is forced to go up with the shot, and that's when Biyombo can range over to get the blocked shot from the weak side.

6. Klay Thompson

We all know that Thompson is a knockdown shooter. To develop his game on offense, he needs to add a countermove to use with his jumper. Right now, Thompson doesn't have that shot in his repertoire. It's either catch-and-shoot or pump fake, take one dribble, and take a jump shot. Defenders know this, and they close out on him hard, almost daring him to put the ball on the floor and drive. Why? Because they know he can't do it.

I'd like to see Thompson add a floater to his game. Right now, Thompson tries to get all the way to the rim when he drives and he simply can't finish there. A floater would allow Thompson to get a shot off before he gets all the way to the rim, where opposing bigs can bother his shot. Once Thompson can freeze his man with a pump fake and hit that floater, teams will stop running so hard at him, and that pretty jump shot will be easier to knock down.

7. MarShon Brooks

The more MarShon Brooks is on the court, the more teams are going to attack his weak defense against isolation plays. Brooks is in the bottom 20 percent of all NBA players in defending these plays. He allows 0.950 points per possession and 51.6 percent shooting on one-on-one defense. Brooks's problem is that he allows players to penetrate against him. When he forces players to shoot jumpers, Brooks uses his long wingspan to hold players to 25 percent shooting. Unfortunately, that only happens 21.1 percent of the time. On the remaining 78.9 percent of isolation possessions against Brooks, players drive to the basket and shoot 60.1 percent from the field. Brooks needs to keep his man in front of him and force him into jump shots. The fewer drives he gives up, the better defender he will become.

8. Enes Kanter

Kanter has dropped in these rankings because he has lost playing time in recent games. He's been stuck on the bench because he struggles to score except for putbacks. In post-ups, Kanter's 0.554 points per possession puts him in the 12th percentile among NBA players. Working off cuts, Kanter posts a PPP of 1.044, putting him in the 28th percentile. Rolling to the rim, his PPP of 0.824 lands him in the 28th percentile again. Kanter's scoring woes stem from his lack of size. He's not long enough to finish over other big men. He needs to learn from a player like Glen Davis, who is about the same size as (or maybe smaller than) Kanter, but who still has found ways to finish. Davis does a good job of creating contact with defenders to negate their size and reach advantages. Once Kanter learns a few tricks like this, he should become a more reliable scorer.

9. Iman Shumpert

As the season continues and Shumpert receives more opportunities to create his own shot, he has shown that he is only really effective at moving without the ball at this point in his career. Yet for some reason, Shumpert still gets to use ball screens on 25.1 percent of his possessions. He shoots 25 percent in these situations, commits turnovers 21.8 percent of the time, and posts a 6th-percentile PPP of 0.445. If the Knicks keep expecting Shumpert to create in pick-and-rolls, they're likely to be disappointed over and over again.

10. Kawhi Leonard

The San Antonio Spurs need a spot-up shooter, and they're trying to turn Leonard into that player. A third of his possessions are spot-ups and he shoots an adequate 34.8 percent with a 0.874 PPP on them, which is near the league's 50th percentile (44th, to be exact). Leonard's numbers would improve if he could convert more catch-and-shoot opportunities. Leonard is guarded on 30.6 percent of his shots, and he knocks down 40.9 percent of them. When open, Leonard shoots 36 percent. To me, the fact that Leonard shoots better when guarded means that he is just in a slump right now, but has the talent to become a better shooter. If his shot starts to fall, then the Spurs may have found their spot-up shooter.

The Rest: Kemba Walker, Markieff Morris, Gustavo Ayon

Injured List: Ricky Rubio

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Person of Interest: Monta Ellis

By: timbersfan, 12:09 AM GMT on March 15, 2012

Monta Ellis is having the worst season of his career. The We Believe Monta — the second-round draft pick who got into the lane with the ease of Iverson and converted seemingly impossible layups at a 60 percent clip — is a distant memory. This Monta Ellis is still putting up 22 points and six assists per game, but his tanking shooting percentages and his always-questionable shot selection have cemented Ellis's reputation as an inefficient gunner. As such, prior to Tuesday night's trade that sent Monta, Ekpe Udoh, and Kwame Brown to the Bucks for Andrew Bogut and Stephen Jackson, we had been hearing all the usual questions about Monta Ellis. Is Monta Ellis a winner? Does he make his teammates better? Can you win a championship with Monta Ellis as your primary scorer?

The answer to the last question is a flat-out no. But its definitiveness should not stand in as the answer to the other questions about Monta Ellis. The high-scoring guard on a bad team who takes a lot of inefficient shots has become basketball's pariah (for the latest updates, see Anthony, Carmelo) but that wave of basketball judgment doesn't really tell us much about how said high-scoring guard would fare in a different situation. The We Believe Monta Ellis was arguably the most-explosive scorer on two Warriors teams that won 42 and 47 games. Playing next to Baron Davis and a fun cabal of long-range shooters, Monta's primary role was to get into the lane and score. He did this better than anyone in the league. In February of '08, he became only the ninth guard to ever shoot over 60 percent over the course of a month and posted a 53.1 percent rate over the course of the season, the best rate by a perimeter player in the past five years.1 After re-signing with the Warriors in the summer of '08, Monta got into a mysterious motor scooter accident, missed 57 games, and has arguably never been the same.

Which is too bad. Prior to the scooter accident, Monta's contract — six years, $66 million — felt like a bargain for a 22-year-old well on his way to becoming Iverson-lite. The Warriors had just shipped a petulant Baron Davis off to the Clippers and were looking to rebuild around Monta and Andris Biedrins, who signed his own six-year, $54 million deal in the offseason. Instead, Monta ruined his ankle, DeMarcus Nelson became the only undrafted free agent to ever start on Opening Night, then-rookie Anthony Randolph twisted himself into a lovable but ultimately useless ball of nerves and energy, and Don Nelson kicked off his two-year cruise to Hawaii. The Warriors have been terrible ever since.

Tuesday night's trade to the Bucks was the culmination of two and a half years of frustration and should provide some closure for the Warriors, who were never really able to answer the question: Can Monta Ellis and Stephen Curry coexist? But this question was largely made moot by the hiring of Mark Jackson and assistant coach Michael Malone. Since Jackson got to town and began preaching defense, the Warriors have gutted their roster in search of a center to anchor Malone's system. After missing out on Tyson Chandler, the Warriors, who owe Biedrins and David Lee a combined $22 million a year, amnestied Charlie Bell to make an offer for restricted free agent DeAndre Jordan (who quickly re-signed with the Clippers.) Still desperate for a defensive center to play alongside Lee, Monta, and Curry, the Warriors signed Kwame Brown for $7 million.

With Andrew Bogut, the Warriors finally have their defensive center. Unfortunately, he's likely to miss the remainder of the season. It's pretty clear at this point that the Warriors front office got caught up in the dogged pursuit of two basketball truths. The first: You need a great defensive center to win a championship. The second: High-volume, low-percentage shooting guards are antithetical to winning basketball.

The problem? The Warriors' quest for an efficient, defensive-minded team came at nearly every conceivable cost. They burned their amnesty; they eroded their reputation with a fan base that expected the new ownership to be able to sign big free agents; they cut ties with the promising Ekpe Udoh; they filled their cap space with Steven Jackson's $9.25 million per year. They even relieved themselves of Kwame's $7 million expiring contract. Perhaps most important, they shipped off one of the 10 most gifted scorers in the league; a guy who, for two straight seasons, had been playing in the worst possible of situations.

I understand the need for a new ownership and coach to change the identity of the team. But when every move comes with a crippling tax, when your Tyson Chandler dreams devolve into an injured Andrew Bogut, maybe it's better to be patient and make sure that you've properly assessed your best assets.

In his best season, Monta shot jumpers on 59 percent of his possessions and took it to the rim roughly 37 percent of the time. The gap between those numbers has been steadily widening. This year, Monta is shooting jumpers on 62 percent of his possessions and is taking it to the rack at around a 25 percent rate. Mark Jackson has tried to plant Monta in the post, where he's been scoring at a remarkably efficient rate,2 but it's hard to see a guard of Monta's size lasting for too long in the painted area.

All these numbers point to a once-electric dynamo who has lost a step and now relies on a mid-range and post game to get his buckets. But while there's no doubt that Monta has changed his approach, I don't think it's because he's incapable of resurrecting the We Believe Monta Ellis. Rather, his decline was more the result of a shift in his role. The '08 Warriors, coached by Don Nelson, ran the court relentlessly. Once Nelson and Davis left town, Monta was tasked with running the point and sharing the backcourt with Stephen Curry, another combo guard who needs to have the ball in his hands.

Here's the last, yet arguably most important, Monta Ellis statistic. He has led the league in Minutes Per Game in each of the last two seasons. Those who point to his efficiency problems and his steadily declining shooting percentages should also adjust for the number of times he's been forced to take a shot at the end of the 24-second clock, the number of times he's had to carry the scoring load while playing with D-Leaguers, and the herculean effort that's required to play his style of basketball for 40 minutes a night. Once players start settling for jumpers, it's nearly impossible to get them flying at the rim again. So yes, the Monta Ellis who shot 60 percent over the course of an entire month is probably not heading toward Milwaukee. But having watched Monta for much of his career, it's also clear that he hasn't lost a step as much as grown frustrated with a system and a franchise that no longer cater to his unique talents.

Next year, the Warriors will presumably start the season with some mix of Bogut, Curry, Lee, Klay Thompson, Stephen Jackson (nobody else is going to take on that contract), Biedrins, and their selection from this year's stacked draft class. Who "scores the basketball" on that team? And if the idea is to build a team that can grind out 88-84 wins, how are the Warriors going to do that with defensive liabilities like Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and David Lee playing big minutes?

Curry, despite his persistent ankle problems, was always going to win out in the end. Which is understandable — he's the more marketable star and plays the point a bit more effectively than Monta. But the question of whether or not Ellis and Curry could co-exist in the backcourt was never satisfactorily answered.

With no time to practice and a diluted pool of talent, this season has seen some particularly brutal stretches of offense. Of the teams in contention (term used loosely), the Thunder (James Harden), the Mavericks (Jason Terry), the Clippers (Mo Williams), Philadelphia (Lou Williams), Memphis (O.J. Mayo), and Denver (Andre Miller) all have bench players who can create shots for themselves. Coincidentally, Chicago, Miami, the Spurs, and the Lakers — four of the top six teams in the league — do not. It's a bit of a fallacy, though, to point to the Bulls and/or Miami's record and conclude that a team does not have to have a microwave/bench scorer/irrational confidence guy to win a championship. Last year, the Mavericks had Jason Terry and J.J. Barea — two guys who could carry the offense for large stretches of the Finals and were able to swing games against the Heat's second unit. The 2010 Lakers championship team had Lamar Odom, the rare big man who can create his own shot. The 2008 Celtics championship team had Eddie House and James Posey in those roles. Critics can point to LeBron's fourth-quarter meltdowns as the reason why Miami didn't win last year, but if House and Miller had given them a bigger contribution off the bench, Miami wouldn't have been in all those close games.

Microwave scorers have become an undervalued commodity in the league, mostly because they're only useful to contending teams. And had he been traded to a real playoff contender, Monta would have potentially swung the balance of power, especially in the Eastern Conference. Had Orlando been able to land him, the Magic would have had a legitimate shot at beating the Bulls in a seven-game series. For those who just scoffed, remember that Orlando beat Chicago last week, mostly because the Bulls' second-team offense mostly revolves around setting up shots for Kyle Korver. Had Monta gone to the Bulls, they would have had a better shot at unseating Miami, who, despite Norris Cole's emergence, still haven't found someone to take over when the Big Three are having an off night.

Instead, to nearly everyone's surprise, Monta ended up with the Bucks, playing alongside Brandon Jennings, who had to promise to shoot over 40 percent this season. Milwaukee's season, despite its current position as the eighth seed in the East, will not hinge on whether Monta Ellis can carry the team through scoring droughts. And while there are legitimate questions to raise about playing two smallish guards who don't shoot particularly efficiently, Monta and Jennings will instantly be the fastest backcourt in the league. Baron Davis never shot over 44 percent from the floor in Golden State, but he engineered the fast pace that allowed Monta to flourish beside him. I'm certainly not going to say that Brandon Jennings will ever be the distributor that Baron was for the Warriors, but, as Chuck always says, winning teams have always been able to establish the pace of the game.

For last week's MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, Rafe Bartholomew — a fellow editor here at Grantland — and I began preparing a paper called "Montametrics." We wanted to create a system that could properly quantify pretty much every cool thing that happened on a basketball court. We came up with stats like "Impossible Shotability" and tweaked "True Shooting Percentage" to count the number of times a given player could make you say, "He's the truth." Our muse, of course, was Monta, who does at least three or four Montametric things a game. Our paper, which we never wrote or presented, was mostly an attempt at humor, but the underlying impulse came from our general frustration with the myopia of efficiency ratings that bury valuable scorers who might be stuck in bad situations. Again, Monta provided the perfect model.

Yes, Monta Ellis has become a less efficient scorer over the past three years. But in those three years, he has gone through three coaches, played way too many minutes with almost no supporting cast, and has had to endure endless trade rumors. When you watch him play up close and in person, he still displays extended glimpses of the We Believe Monta — the speed, the quick hands, the jaw-dropping crossovers, and the impossible shots are all still there. Before the Warriors began imploding around him,3 that skill set created one of the most efficient, exciting scorers in the league.

That Monta is still there. But like all players of his caliber — second-tier guys who can't be the best player on a championship team — he just needs to be put in the right situation. Milwaukee might not be the best fit, but it's better than always being the odd man out in Golden State's blind charge toward a new identity.

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Free Agency Day 1: The Insightful and the Incoherent

By: timbersfan, 12:09 AM GMT on March 15, 2012

On Tuesday morning, word around the NFL was that the Bears were basically formalities away from locking up Vincent Jackson and Mario Williams. By 5 p.m., the Bears had acquired Brandon Marshall, but the Bills were now going to host Robert Meachem and Mario Williams and sign them both before their fans woke up the following morning. As the clock struck midnight on the East Coast, Meachem was on the Chargers, Williams was a free man, and we vowed to stop listening to the rumor mill. And then on Wednesday at 12:05 am on the East Coast, we started refreshing Twitter every five seconds while jonesing for our fix. We're only human.

By the end of a busy first day of free agency, the league had raided the wide receiver and cornerback aisles and left them barren, with 10 notable signings between the two positions alone. About half of those moves made a lick of sense, as logic took a backseat to getting (or spending) cash now. It is our duty to cover both the insightful and the incoherent, and so we start our look at Day 1 of free agency in Washington, where the Redskins defied the odds to pull off their best Redskins impersonation.

Grantland's Free Agent Countdown

Part 1: Which teams can't spend?

Part 2: Which teams should stay out of free agency?

Part 3: Which teams should spend a little?

Part 4: Which teams should go all out?
The More I Get, The More I Want

With their draft picks tied up in the RG3 trade and their spending money repossessed by the NFL, you would have forgiven the Redskins for taking a rare opening day of free agency off. And then they would have said, "Thanks for forgiving us! Now, please get out of our way so we can get back to spending money we may or may not have. There are second-tier free agents just roaming around out there! For free! Without contracts!"

And so the Redskins found it in their hearts to give Pierre Garcon a five-year, $42.5 million contract with $21.5 million in guaranteed money. This is the same Pierre Garcon who has caught just over 53 percent of the passes thrown to him over the past three seasons despite having Peyton Manning at quarterback for two of those three years. The other Colts wide receivers caught just under 64 percent of the passes thrown to them over that time frame. And while a low catch rate is fine if you're a deep threat or a demon after the catch, Garcon's averaged 13.6 yards per catch over that span, which is almost exactly league average. Jabar Gaffney has averaged more yards per catch over the past three years than Pierre Garcon. Is he a downfield threat?

Garcon fits one of the archetypes we identified last year when we described the free agents you meet in hell, a second or third wideout from an effective passing offense. These sorts of players look good against single coverage with great quarterbacks around them, but when you move them into the no. 1 slot on a team with an inferior quarterback, they fail to meet expectations. Last year, Garcon's raw numbers showed some improvement because he took more snaps and made it through all 16 games for the first time in his career, but his catch rate without Manning fell from 56 percent to 52 percent, and that came while Garcon enjoyed the splendor of garbage-time yardage for the first time in his career. He had three receptions for more than 40 yards all year, and two of them came in one game against the dismal Buccaneers. What about this guy says, "We need to give him $21.5 million as soon as possible?"

While the Redskins were seemingly down to Santana Moss and flotsam at wideout, they already had a useful receiver sitting in Mike Shanahan's ample doghouse. Anthony Armstrong spent most of 2011 on the bench because Shanahan thought he couldn't get off press coverage at the line of scrimmage, but Armstrong's production as a starter in 2010 was arguably better than Garcon's, despite the fact that the former swapped out Peyton Manning for Donovan McNabb and Rex Grossman:

2010 Catches Targets Catch % Yards Yds/Catch
Garcon 67 119 56% 784 11.7
Armstrong 44 86 51% 871 19.8
Garcon might be the better player, but it's not a clear case. At the very least, the difference between the two of them over the next two seasons certainly isn't $21.5 million in guaranteed cash. As bad signings go, this isn't bringing in Albert Haynesworth, since Haynesworth was at least at the top of his game in the two seasons before the Redskins paid too much for him. This is more like the signings of DeAngelo Hall or Brandon Lloyd, when the Redskins acquired (or retained) a B-list player by giving him A-list money. You can make the case that Washington needed to upgrade at wide receiver and give RG3 options, but you don't accomplish that by throwing $21.5 million at league-average receivers.

On the other hand, the Redskins made a perfectly rational, reasonable decision to buy low on Josh Morgan, who broke his leg after five games and missed most of San Francisco's 2011 season. Morgan's statistics aren't all that impressive, and he's not regarded as a burner, but he's spent the past three years playing with Alex Smith in a conservative offense. It's also worth noting that he's averaged 13.0 yards per catch over those three seasons, virtually identical to Garcon's figure. The Redskins only paid $7.5 million in guaranteed money for Morgan on a five-year, $12 million contract that will void after two years (for cap purposes, the Skins will spread the signing bonus hit over five years, but it's essentially a two-year deal). Washington may find that Morgan's actually the better player of the two.

Big Receiver-a-Go-Go

We were right to assume that there were two oversize wideouts on the market who would move fast during free agency, but we had the wrong receivers. After the Saints locked up Marques Colston early Tuesday morning, the Bears abandoned their chase of Vincent Jackson and shockingly acquired Brandon Marshall from the Dolphins for a pair of third-round picks.

The Marshall trade didn't obviously stink the way that the Santonio Holmes trade did — when the Jets acquired a Pro Bowl-caliber receiver for a fifth-rounder — but the sudden availability and acquisition of Marshall suggested that there was more to the move than meets the eye. It was no surprise hours later, then, when Adam Schefter reported that Marshall was being investigated by the league for yet another off-field incident. It later came to light that Marshall had allegedly "slugged" a woman in the face at a New York City club on Sunday, a move that might have inspired Miami's desire to give up on Marshall.

The only logical perspective from which this makes sense for the Dolphins is the disciplinarian angle, where a new head coach simply wanted to move on from a frustrating player. That makes for wonderful quotes, but Marshall was the team's best offensive weapon by a wide margin, and there's nobody left on the market to replace him. They gave up two second-round picks for Marshall and then paid him $19 million for two years of above-average production before shipping him away for two third-round picks.

Obviously, what Marshall offers on the field is worth more than two third-round picks. Over the past five years, only four players have more receiving yards than Marshall, and his three 100-catch seasons all came in Denver with Jay Cutler at the helm. Cutler, of course, will be Marshall's starting quarterback again in Chicago. Marshall's arrival will take the heat off Devin Hester as a no. 1 wideout and keep Earl Bennett in the slot, moves that will make everyone in the offense better. In addition, the Bears won't be responsible for paying Marshall's signing bonus and should only owe Marshall his base salary (a little over $9 million) in each of the next three years. If Marshall becomes too much to handle, they can cut him without incurring any cap penalty.

We had a whole paragraph written here about how the Dolphins now needed to sign Reggie Wayne — even if it meant throwing him a few extra bucks — because it would fill their biggest need while giving Peyton Manning extra ammunition to choose Miami over Denver in his quest for a new organization. After being linked with Manning for the past week as a combo deal, Wayne stunningly returned to the one place Manning isn't heading to, Indianapolis. The Colts gave him a three-year deal worth $17.5 million with $7.5 million guaranteed. It's shocking that the a receiver-needy team like the Dolphins wouldn't have offered Wayne more in guaranteed money, but perhaps the veteran wanted to finish his career in Indianapolis after all. The Colts don't exactly need a 33-year-old wideout these days, but at that price, Wayne can be a viable target for the beginning of Andrew Luck's career without costing the organization very much. It's a win-win-oh-my-god-the-Dolphins-lose deal.

And as for Jackson, he finally got the long-term deal he's sought for years by inking a five-year, $55,555,555 contract with the Buccaneers to serve as Josh Freeman's top wideout. The deal guarantees Jackson $26 million. To put that in context, consider that Jackson has more receiving yards over the past three years than Garcon despite being thrown 97 fewer passes (344 for Garcon, 247 for Jackson), while his catch rate is at a far-superior 58 percent despite being the target of so many Philip Rivers prayers downfield. We'll stop picking on Garcon now. Jackson has his own history of off-field issues and has spent his entire career playing in an effective passing offense with a great quarterback, so he could qualify as a free agent from hell (especially if you consider Antonio Gates to be the team's top target), but his sheer size and athleticism should play well in a division with small corners like Brent Grimes and Jabari Greer. The Bucs should be a little concerned that they have two wideouts of markedly similar styles in Jackson and Mike Williams, though, and they might want to stay in the market to add a slot receiver who can do some damage underneath. That player could be Early Doucet, who the Cardinals can't afford to retain.

The Chargers found their replacement for Jackson in Robert Meachem, giving the former Saints wideout a four-year deal with $14 million in guaranteed money after he failed to come to terms with the Bills. As a third or fourth option in the Saints' passing attack over the past few years, Meachem's been remarkably consistent. Over the past three seasons, he's started either seven or eight games, caught between 40 and 45 passes, and averaged between 14.5 and 16.0 yards per catch. Those numbers have some value, but at 28, it's worth wondering whether Meachem is ever going to become anything more than that. If the Chargers continue to use Meachem as a third target, they should find that he's up to the task. If they expect Meachem to be their no. 1 receiver, though, San Diego might be disappointed by what they find.

Finnegan's Wake of Money

Last August, Cortland Finnegan disappeared from Titans training camp and attributed the absence to a personal matter. The personal matter was that he wasn't happy with his contract and wanted the Titans to give him a new one. As you might suspect, the Titans were not desperate to re-sign Finnegan this offseason and let him go to St. Louis, which released a bevy of veterans to sign Finnegan to a five-year, $50 million deal with $26.5 million in guaranteed money. Much like the Redskins, the Rams desperately needed help at cornerback. Their top three corners all went down with season-ending injuries last year, and since previous ace Ron Bartell's injury was a fractured neck, it's easy to understand why the Rams would go out and target a top corner.

Is Finnegan a top cornerback, though? Pro Bowl voting is far from exact, but Finnegan's only made one Pro Bowl in his career, and that was in 2008. More importantly, is Finnegan going to be a Pro Bowler with the Rams? St. Louis is paying him like one, and there are reasons to be concerned about his future viability. Finnegan, who just turned 28 in February, is generously listed at 5-foot-9. The recent history of short cornerbacks making it into their thirties as starters is not very long, as only five players listed at 5-foot-9 or less have started 12 or more games in a season after they turned 31 since 2002. That includes a few embarrassingly bad seasons, too, for guys like Fred Thomas, Dre' Bly, and Tyrone Poole. The only short corner to really keep up his performance at a high level into his early thirties is Antoine Winfield, while dozens of taller corners have lasted into and beyond that age range over the same time frame. The Rams might get a year or two of solid performance out of Finnegan, but this contract is likely to end very messily.

Compare the Finnegan signing to that of Carlos Rogers, who re-signed with the Niners on Tuesday on a four-year deal for about $30 million. There's no word yet on the guaranteed money, but Giants cornerback Terrell Thomas re-signed with his team on a similar deal with about $11 million guaranteed, and it's hard to imagine that Rogers would get more than $15 million or so of his deal locked up in guaranteed cash. Rogers was better than Finnegan last year, when he made his first Pro Bowl, and he's arguably been better over the whole of the past three years. And for that, Rogers is getting about as much total money over the length of his contract as Finnegan's getting in guaranteed cash. That's a victory for the San Francisco front office, which now returns all 11 starters from last year's dominant unit.

Block the Doors With Beef on Weck

Don't let him leave the facility. It's the rule that every team follows when a big-time free agent heads to their city for a visit. If you get a player to hop on your private plane and head to your town for hours of meetings and interviews, your best way to sign that player is to lock him in your offices until he puts pen to paper. If that means ordering in the fanciest dinner in town, turning on the stadium's lights, and dining on the 50-yard line, you do it. If it means adding a few million dollars to the contract figure you had in mind, you do it. If it literally means locking the doors and stalling the player in question from getting in a limo to take him back to the airport, you do it. The moment that player leaves your facility and heads out of town, though, your odds of signing him decrease dramatically. The Bills had their shot at Mario Williams last night. They weren't able to keep him in the facility.

Although we suggested that the Bills should only enter the market to make a Godfather offer to Williams, we were pleasantly surprised to see that they actually went ahead and convinced Williams to start his free agent tour in Buffalo. They presumably got Williams to head there by telling his agent that the organization would give Williams the prescribed $40 million in guaranteed money that would help make him the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history.

It's here where the NFL's business model shines through. Because the league's television contract is entirely national and split evenly between the league's 32 teams, every team has enough money to make a legitimate top-dollar offer to the best free agent on the marketplace. Meanwhile, baseball teams who were already struggling with an income gap between the haves and have-nots are facing cavernous differences in their local television deals. The Pirates would not have been able to credibly offer Albert Pujols $300 million this offseason. The Bills — in a tiny market with a 40-year-old stadium — can outbid the rest of the league for an elite player if they want to.

Unfortunately for the Bills, it takes two to tango, and it doesn't appear that Williams wants to dance. In all likelihood, Williams chose to start his national tour in Buffalo to send a message to his other suitors. Baseball's rumor mill is famous for introducing the Mystery Team, an unknown suitor who agents would perpetually report as lurking in the shadows to sign their free agent for an exorbitant sum. Williams has basically started free agency by going to visit the Mystery Team. He can now go visit any other team in the league and tell them that Buffalo's made him the biggest offer any defensive free agent has ever seen, and unless they're willing to come close to that offer, he'll go back to Buffalo and take their money. The Bills don't have the leverage to take their deal off the table, since there's nobody else in the market who would be worth that sort of contract. Even if Williams has no intention of ever signing with the Bills, it makes total sense for him to start his search there and strike fear into the penurious hearts of owners around the league.

Of course, Williams could still end up sticking around in Buffalo and signing with the Bills. Maybe they sweeten the pot and make it $45 million, or Williams simply changes his mind after a long night's sleep and decides to stay. Nobody even whispered Williams's name in reference to the Bills before free agency began, so there's little reason to trust the rumor mill surrounding him now. We know one thing for sure, though: You can't sign a contract with one team when you're locked inside another team's facility. Once the Bills got Mario Williams inside of Ralph Wilson Stadium, he shouldn't have left without a contract.

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Pau Gasol and the NBA Transfer Deadline

By: timbersfan, 12:07 AM GMT on March 14, 2012

The NBA trade deadline has us all sitting on the edge of our seats, or in the case of Brandon Jennings, sitting on the edge of our seats, looking like this guy. One guy who, despite all the specualtion, seems to be taking the speculation like a grown-up is Pau Gasol. And that could have something to do with the sporting culture from which Gasol comes.

Spain is a football country. In European football, rather than have trades, you have transfers. Sometimes a player agitates when he thinks more money or trophies can be found at a different club. In other cases, the club looks to sell the player, capitalizing on their initial investment. Rumors about prospective transfers are planted by clubs, player agents, and shadowy figures, and then published in periodicals with the most sympathy to their respective cause. It's all very sneaky, and very fascinating, and it can make you very cynical, very fast.

So it should come as no shock to find that Gasol finds none of this trade talk particularly shocking. The (at least for the time being) Laker recently gave an interview with the Spanish sports daily, Marca. The picture you get is not one of a despondent, shattered basketball player, but rather a cultured veteran, well aware of the twists and turns a life in professional sports can take.

Especially interesting was Gasol's take on the role of franchise ownership in this whole ordeal. This is a man who comes from a country where football clubs are ruled in an occasionally insane (Atletico Madrid), often meglomanical (Florentino Perez at Real Madrid), sometimes slipshod (Valencia) fashion. So Jim Buss is nothing new to Pau. You can tell as much when he talks about the role Buss and Mitch Kupchak have in determining his future (translated): "This is a business where the owners are in charge and if they want to do something, they will. The general manager follow orders. You can have your opinion, but if the owner wants to do something — I do not 100 percent if he wants to in this case — he will."

Elsewhere in the interview he uses Lamar Odom's trade as an example of why he's not taking any of this personally: "Seeing that you get an idea of how things work," he said.

But where Odom has been a shadow of his candy-ingesting self this season in Dallas, following his surprising move to the Mavs, Gasol seems like he has a much better grasp on the realities of life in the NBA. "Like so many things in life, this is something you cannot control," he said.

That's news to Dwight Howard.

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Free Agent Countdown: Teams That Can't Spend

By: timbersfan, 12:06 AM GMT on March 14, 2012

With just four business days left before the start of the NFL free agency period, it's high time for us to start the final portion of our sprawling, seemingly endless free agent preview. After standing in for agents, scoffing at the largesse of owners, and identifying comparables for the pool's key players, it's finally time to approach free agency from the perspective of the league's general managers and player personnel departments.


Of course, there's just one problem with figuring out who's going where and what every team's plan should be: We still don't know what the salary cap is going to be for the 2012 league year. The NFL year officially starts this upcoming Wednesday, so the league will have to come to some sort of conclusion about the figure by then. It won't make a difference for some teams — who cares if the Buccaneers have $60 million or $62 million to spend? — but for a team like the Steelers, an extra $2 million could be the difference between locking up Mike Wallace or losing him to a rival. We have a vague idea of how much each team has to spend, but specific numbers remain unavailable.

Grantland's Free Agent Countdown

Thursday: Which teams can't spend?

Friday: Which teams should stay out of free agency?

Monday: Which teams should spend a little?

Tuesday: Which teams should go all out?
We'll be splitting the league into four groups, as is our wont, and covering eight teams per day. Today, we're starting with an extremely unexciting group: The teams who can't spend much money at all in free agency this year. Wait, don't close that tab! We can — and will — still talk about the free agents those teams have to retain and the choices they'll have to make as free agency goes along. At the very least, we can make fun of them for having no money to spend and point out all the dumb mistakes they made to get in this situation. It'll be fun, we swear.

Our tour around the league starts in Baltimore, where the Ravens will focus on keeping their own before they go after anybody else's treasure …

Baltimore Ravens

Why they can't spend money: Need to lock up their future first

Ozzie Newsome's two best draft picks during the John Harbaugh era are set to hit the free agent market this offseason, and it's essential that the Ravens lock them both up. Ray Rice (25 years old) and Lardarius Webb (26) are key contributors to this current Ravens team, but they also should be viable contributors to the Ravens team that forms after Ray Lewis and Ed Reed retire. You're undoubtedly familiar with Rice, who serves as an effective runner while supplementing his game by serving as Joe Flacco's security blanket, but Webb emerged as one of the league's top cornerbacks last season after tearing his ACL in 2009 and playing at less than 100 percent in 2010. Baltimore has spent money on veteran free agents like Domonique Foxworth and traded for the likes of Fabian Washington, but Webb is the best cornerback the team's developed since the heyday of Chris McAllister. They should be able to retain both; Rice has already received the franchise tag and should be amenable to a long-term contract, and Webb is a restricted free agent. The Ravens can tender him a one-year deal for $2.7 million and either keep him at that salary or match any offer Webb gets. If Webb got a deal they couldn't match, Baltimore would receive a first-round pick.

While the Ravens waived Foxworth and wideout Lee Evans to create cap space, long-term deals for Rice and Webb could cause them to be stuck making some tough decisions. It seems likely that outside linebacker Jarret Johnson will leave; Johnson gets talked up as the hidden star of the Ravens defense, but think about the guys he plays next to and behind. The team will also take a long look at re-signing left guard Ben Grubbs, but after giving a big deal to right guard Marshal Yanda, it would be difficult to imagine Baltimore spending so much money on a pair of guards.

If they make any forays into the veteran UFA market, it will be to add some depth on their defensive line behind Haloti Ngata and Terrence Cody. They could target a veteran with 3-4 experience like former Chargers end Luis Castillo or make a move for former Baltimore fifth-round pick Aubrayo Franklin, who had a soft market in last year's free agent period and failed to make a significant impact in New Orleans's 4-3 alignment.

Carolina Panthers

Why they can't spend money: They spent wildly to keep a 2-14 team together last year.

Panthers general manager Marty Hurney spent last summer on a shopping spree unmatched by anyone short of the Eagles, but while Philadelphia went looking for other teams' players, Carolina spent exorbitantly to keep its own in-house. How did it go? Not so well. Although Cam Newton revitalized the offense, virtually all of the veterans Hurney retained failed to live up to expectations. Running back DeAngelo Williams was effective, but only carried the ball 155 times in a rare healthy season. Linebackers Jon Beason and Thomas Davis were given in excess of $80 million in contract extensions but combined to make it through just one regular-season game before going on injured reserve. Defensive end Charles Johnson had nine sacks, but that's a pedestrian figure for a player who got a $72 million contract to stay with the team.

The result of that spending spree was a four-win improvement to 6-10, but Carolina is now up against the cap and Hurney's probably had the corporate card taken away. That won't hurt a lot this year, but mercurial wideout Steve Smith and promising young runner Jonathan Stewart will be free agents after this season, and the Panthers won't be able to go out and add a big weapon for Newton because their money is tied up in the mistakes of 2011.

Carolina's in perpetual search of a tall wideout to play across from Smith, and while they have young prospects in house, they could go out and make a small offer to Braylon Edwards in the hopes that he spent the offseason remembering how to leap over things. Alternately, they could go after the other Steve Smith — the ex-Giants/Eagles wideout — and ruin football writing forever. How would we tell them apart? "The Steve Smith who is terrifying" and "The Steve Smith whose knee is not all there"? That wouldn't be fun.

Detroit Lions

Why they can't spend money: Megatron's mega-contract.

As important as Calvin Johnson is to the Detroit Lions (and the Pacific Northwest), the final year of his contract with the team calls for the star receiver to receive $22 million from the team. That's a significant portion of the team's salary cap, and the Lions are essentially desperate to lock up Johnson to a long-term deal that would make his 2012 cap figure far more palatable. They're also desperate, of course, to avoid a Mario Williams situation; as Adam Schefter noted in January, if the Lions don't lock up Megatron before next season, his figure under the franchise tag would be a whopping $27.5 million. In other words, Johnson would probably hit the market as an unrestricted free agent. At 27. That's going to be a fun agent book to put together.

Assuming that the Lions do end up negotiating a long-term deal for Calvin, their next move will be to lock up pass rusher Cliff Avril, who received the franchise tag after an 11-sack season that took him to 30 sacks through his first four years. You want to know why one team's bad contract affects another? Cliff Avril's agent is going to the Lions right now and pointing out that Charles Johnson got a $72 million deal after an 11.5-sack season when he only had 21.5 sacks through his first four years. The Lions may be forced to pay for Marty Hurney's stupidity. Starting linebackers DeAndre Levy and Stephen Tulloch are also both free agents, although Levy is restricted.

Detroit has attempted to get by with stopgaps at middle linebacker under Jim Schwartz, and since they're also in need of some leadership on the defensive side of the ball, could London Fletcher be an option on a one-year deal?

New York Giants

Why they can't spend money: Spent it all on confetti, lacking cap space

When the Giants won the Super Bowl in 2007, they did so with a crop of talented youngsters who emerged during the playoffs as viable contributors despite their rookie salaries. Outside of Jason Pierre-Paul, that's not really the case for this team's title run, which mostly came out of great work by Big Blue's veterans. The bad news is that those veterans make a lot of money, but the good news is that most of them are still signed for another year or two. The biggest decision the Giants will have to make is at cornerback, where first-round pick Prince Amukamara might be ready to step into the starting lineup ahead of free agents Terrell Thomas and Aaron Ross. They've reportedly already decided to move on from right tackle Kareem McKenzie, and third wideout Mario Manningham will be forced out by the emergence of Victor Cruz and Manningham's insistence that he's secretly a no. 1 receiver.

The Giants will replace those departed players from within, but they have options if they want to create cap space. They could choose to trade Osi Umenyiora or, alternately, give him a contract extension that would free up room for a veteran or two. Brandon Jacobs might also be released. New York's been seeking a middle linebacker ever since Antonio Pierce left town, and for all of Chase Blackburn's heroics after he made his way back onto the Giants' roster last season, they might look to someone like Dan Connor or even Fletcher in free agency.

New York Jets

Why they can't spend money: Went all in last year.

All the cap tricks in the world can't hide it when you spend money at seemingly every position, and outside of their defensive line, the Jets simply aren't a frugal organization. That line will be thinned further by the likely departure of Sione Pouha, a glue guy for Gang Green up front dating back to the Herm Edwards days. They'll have to hope that 2011 first-rounder Muhammad Wilkerson can become a starter in his second year with the team.

General manager Mike Tannenbaum restructured his fair share of deals last year to lock up Santonio Holmes and Antonio Cromartie while opening up the space to go after Nnamdi Asomugha, but those deals didn't work out and Asomugha went elsewhere. He can try to keep pushing that fateful piper-paying day to future years, but who knows if the new CBA makes that quite as easy? If they don't continue to restructure veteran contracts in the hopes of grabbing Peyton Manning, the Jets should actually have a quiet offseason for the first time in years.

Oakland Raiders

Why they can't spend money: Way over the cap.

New Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie appears to be desperate to steer the ship back on course, even if it means kneecapping his team's chances to compete in 2012. The huge deals given to merely above-average players like Stanford Routt and Kamerion Wimbley are gone, with Routt released and Wimbley about to be. Richard Seymour and Michael Huff restructured their deal to create some breathing room, but veterans like Aaron Curry, Hiram Eugene, John Henderson, and Chris Johnson are likely going to be shot out of a cannon into the market, saving the team $15 million or so in the process.

Because of the cap issues, they might also lose some young talent that's about to get expensive. Center Samson Satele is undersized and athletic, which would fit in offensive coordinator Greg Knapp's new zone-blocking scheme, but the team appears set to move on in the middle of the line. Running back Michael Bush may also be too expensive to retain, as the Raiders depend on Darren McFadden to stay healthy and Bush's agents try to portray him as the next Michael Turner.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Why they can't spend money: Held hostage by Mike Wallace.

The Steelers simply don't wade into the free-agent waters very frequently. When they do shop, it's for veteran role players who might fill in as injury replacements. The last time they expected starting-caliber play out of a free agent was from offensive lineman Sean Mahan in 2007, and he only lasted one year before Pittsburgh let him go. Whatever money they have is going to be earmarked for a possible Mike Wallace bid, with the idea that teams around the league will offer Wallace front-loaded contracts in an attempt to prevent the Steelers from retaining their star wideout.

With injuries crippling them on both sides of the line in 2010 and 2011, expect Pittsburgh to target versatile veterans like Leonard Davis and Cory Redding for one-year deals at something close to the veterans' minimum, especially if the Wallace deal gets taken care of quickly.

St. Louis Rams

Why they can't spend money: Saddled with old-style rookie contracts

While the Panthers got more than their money's worth out of Cam Newton this past year, the Rams spent twice as much on the likes of Sam Bradford and Jason Smith because the league's rules for rookie contracts were different when they were drafted. Those contracts are exorbitant and take up a disproportionate amount of the St. Louis cap space.

The team hasn't given up on Bradford, but only three years after he was the second overall pick in the draft, it's a make-or-break season for Smith. Selected to be the team's left tackle of the future, he's been moved to right tackle and spent time on the injured reserve during each of his first two seasons. His $10 million contract for this year is guaranteed, so the Rams can't even justify giving up on him until next year. When you throw in Chris Long's deal and the contracts given to failed veterans like Jason Brown and Quintin Mikell, there's just not a lot of flexibility to be had for the Rams in free agency.

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Free Agent Countdown: Teams That Should Lay Low

By: timbersfan, 12:05 AM GMT on March 14, 2012

Our preview of free agency continues today with those teams who should go into free agency and hold steady, even if that's not what they actually end up doing. Of the four groups of teams that make up this free agent preview, this is the closest one to a "Leftovers" set, but there's no shame in that; you can't hit the free agent market hard every year, and some of these teams enjoy annual success without pounding the pavement in March.

Of course, there are exceptions for every team. Some of these franchises are likely to lay low … unless there's a superstar that might fit the bill. Others will need to spend more time focusing on retaining their own free agents, and then a few need to just stay out of free agency for their own good. In all, this group should spend less money on new veteran free agents than the rest of the league, but we've tried to lay out scenarios where they could delve into the market to fill a hole or two. On Monday, we start with the spenders.


Grantland's Free Agent Countdown

Thursday: Which teams can't spend?

Friday: Which teams should stay out of free agency?

Monday: Which teams should spend a little?

Tuesday: Which teams should go all out?
Atlanta Falcons

Top priority: Re-signing Curtis Lofton

Remember the legendary 2008 draft class that started Thomas Dimitroff's reign in Atlanta? It's hitting free agency this year, and it's not quite as hot as it once seemed to be. Matt Ryan has yet to win a playoff game, and while Thomas DeCoud has emerged as an above-average safety, the only other starter left from the group is Curtis Lofton, the team's run-thumping middle linebacker. After the Falcons slapped the franchise tag on cornerback Brent Grimes, Lofton became the team's top priority. Arguably the team's top defender, Lofton made a full 15 percent of the team's tackles on defense, the fifth-highest rate in the league. (D'Qwell Jackson was first, at an even 17 percent.) Atlanta could try to move Sean Weatherspoon into the middle or go after someone like Stephen Tulloch as a Lofton replacement, but he belongs in a class with David Harris as one of the best run-stopping young linebackers in football.

Although the Falcons seem likely to lose John Abraham in free agency, it's going to be very difficult for them to make a significant investment in a pass rusher after signing Ray Edwards last season. Edwards, who averaged just under seven sacks per year as a starter across from Jared Allen in Minnesota, was only able to muster 3.5 sacks during his debut season with the Falcons. With the departure of Abraham, Edwards will be the top pass rusher on a team for the first time in his career, and because of the Julio Jones trade, the Falcons don't have a first-round pick to go after any help for him. The Falcons will need to buy low on a veteran like Matt Roth or hope that Kroy Biermann, re-signed last week, can pick up the slack in Abraham's absence. Of course, they only went after Edwards last year because Biermann struggled as a starter in 2010, so …

Buffalo Bills

Top priority: Locking up their young talent

To some extent, it's not smart for the Bills to get involved in free agency. Right or wrong, Buffalo is viewed around the league as a dormant franchise and city, which means that they have to overpay to bring in anything resembling a marquee free agent. You might remember the Bills bringing in Terrell Owens in 2009; he got $6.5 million in guaranteed money for a one-year deal, which was far more than he could have gotten elsewhere. Their last prominent free agent before that was guard Derrick Dockery, who got $18 million in guaranteed money and lasted two years in upstate New York. The process hasn't worked for them.

The problem, though, is that Buffalo's about to get squeezed by the new CBA rules. In 2013, the spending floor that the union fought to have included in the new bargaining agreement comes into play, which means that the Bills will need to spend 89 percent of the cap in cash on an annual basis. That means a payroll in excess of $100 million, and the Bills only have two ways to get there. One would be to spend on free agents for the sake of meeting the cap floor, paying a premium for bad players in what's commonly known as "The Pittsburgh Pirates."

The other strategy would be to lock up their above-average or better players before they have a chance to hit free agency, where they could presumably get players who already realize the charms of Buffalo living to stay home at the prevailing market rates. They've already done that with Stevie Johnson, but they might also consider deals for offensive lineman Andy Levitre, slot corner/returner Leodis McKelvin, and even 31-year-old running back Fred Jackson, who has just 817 professional carries and might actually play younger than his age would indicate.

If the Bills do go out onto the market, they should go down swinging. There's no point in giving big deals to the middle tier; since they're in need of a pass rusher, maybe they're the team that goes out and dares Mario Williams to take $40 million guaranteed to come play in Buffalo.

Green Bay Packers

Top priority: Plugging small holes in the starting lineup

It's ironic that an organization that might have made two of the best free agent signings in league history (Reggie White and Charles Woodson) has basically disavowed acquiring veterans in free agency. The last starter the Packers brought in as an unrestricted free agent was Brandon Chillar, who got all of $5.2 million to sign with the team. (Tramon Williams was signed after he was cut by the Texans, but that was straight out of training camp when Williams was an undrafted free agent.) Of course, the Packers have opted out of free agency for a good reason; general manager Ted Thompson is so effective at drafting and developing talent that the team simply doesn't have very many holes on its roster to fill.

This year might be a rare exception to that rule, but Green Bay won't go flying into the market for a variety of starters. They have a hole at center, where Scott Wells is an unrestricted free agent, and they could use a viable pass rusher across from Clay Matthews. In a deep year for centers, Thompson could make a foray into the marketplace and come out with someone like Samson Satele or Todd McClure, even if it's as a short-term stopgap while the team identifies its center of the future. They're more likely to go after a pass rusher in the draft.

With Matt Flynn departing, the Packers could also look for a veteran backup at quarterback to provide more depth behind the rambunctious Aaron Rodgers. If Rodgers were to go down with an injury, the Packers' starter would be former Texas Tech star Graham Harrell. Oh boy. Then again, that's what we used to say about Flynn, too.

Houston Texans

Top priority: Letting go of Mario Williams

The Arian Foster signing may not have been the optimal way for Houston to spend its money, but what's done is done, and the Texans need to act accordingly. Houston fans are currently playing with abacuses and building spreadsheets in an attempt to find a way for the Texans to retain Mario Williams, but at this point, it just doesn't make sense for them to do so. Locking up Williams will put Houston into cap hell, and with Matt Schaub's contract about to come due in 2013, they're better off putting the savings into a new deal for Schaub and extensions for guard Mike Brisiel and center Chris Myers.

And while we still think the Texans should have held on to Williams, they can survive without him. Outside linebackers Brooks Reed and Connor Barwin should be able to pick up the slack (as they did when Williams missed most of 2011), and if they cut Kevin Walter, they could go after somebody like Robert Meachem to play across from Andre Johnson at wideout. Either way, the Texans should be fine; they're the only above-average team in the weakest division in football, and they're the huge favorites to win the AFC South again in 2012.

Minnesota Vikings

Top priority: Taking things slow

The Vikings, meanwhile, are the cellar-dwellers in what might be the toughest division in the league, the NFC North, and they really don't have a lot to look forward to in 2012. The jury's still out on Christian Ponder, Adrian Peterson's still recovering from his torn ACL and MCL, and while their 2-9 record in games decided by one touchdown or less suggests that they should be better next year, that bounce probably won't be enough to push them into anything resembling contention.

With that in mind, the Vikings should take free agency off this year and save their money for 2013. At that point, they'll have a better idea of what they've got with Ponder, a healthy Peterson, and two years of high draft picks to replenish their barren roster. If they do go after veteran free agents, they should try to target low-risk, high-upside players coming off of injuries or out of situations where they were backing up well-known veterans. Like who, you ask? Maybe they try to fill their hole at wideout by going after Josh Morgan or Chaz Schilens, young players who have performed well when they've been healthy. At cornerback, they could consider former Giants starter Terrell Thomas, who should be close to 100 percent after tearing his ACL last August, or Super Bowl hero Tracy Porter, who limped through the 2011 campaign with a variety of injuries. Regardless of who they get, any shopping plan for the Vikings should focus on young, talented players who can contribute to a winning Minnesota team in 2013 and beyond.

New England Patriots

Top priority: Getting Mike Wallace

Is there a better fit between player and team this offseason than Mike Wallace and the Patriots? New England's passing offense is already very good, sure, but their inability to stretch the field without a healthy Rob Gronkowski cost them in the Super Bowl. Gronkowski's ankle will be fine come 2012, but he only fell to the second round of the 2010 draft because of his injury woes in college, so counting on him to always be healthy is dangerous. Wallace is a vertical threat beyond compare, and at just 25, the Patriots would be getting him for the prime of his career. It would cost a first-round pick, but the Patriots have an extra first-rounder thanks to the Mark Ingram trade with the Saints last year, so that wouldn't be an enormous hindrance. The Patriots would also be taking a key player away from their perennial rivals at the top of the AFC. Honestly, if you're a Patriots fan and you're not picketing on Route 1 for this to happen, you're not doing your job.

If the Wallace trade doesn't happen, New England will probably sit free agency out. Observers have mooted a move for Mario Williams, which would fit Bill Belichick's game plan of only targeting versatile, high-end veterans in free agency, but did the moves for Rosevelt Colvin or Adalius Thomas really work out as planned? The Pats played more 4-3 last year than they ever have under Belichick, but you have to figure that the 3-4 guru wants to eventually get back to his scheme of choice, and Williams's experience in the 3-4 consists of five games last year. The Patriots will instead lock up Wes Welker and add veterans to serve as utility players in their front seven. They could also choose to re-sign either Mark Anderson or Andre Carter, who each had 10 sacks last year, but will probably struggle to bring them both back.

Philadelphia Eagles

Top priority: Finding a left guard to lock in their offensive line

After all the hype last year, the Eagles failed because their play at the line of scrimmage wasn't up to snuff. In particular, Philadelphia's offensive line was a patchwork group that never played a single down as the five-man unit the organization expected to use throughout the season. Repairing that line should make Michael Vick healthier, DeSean Jackson more effective, and that dismal goal-line performance a thing of the past.

Although the team endlessly shuffled players around on the line last year, four of the team's five spots are set. The only hole they need to fill is at left guard, and by coincidence, the best lineman in free agency just happens to play left guard: mammoth Saints Pro Bowler Carl Nicks, who appears set to leave the team after New Orleans failed to come to a long-term extension with Drew Brees and were forced to stick the franchise tag on him. Nicks will be expensive, but he's the exact sort of brutal run-blocker the Eagles need. If Nicks is out of their price range, they could also go for Ravens guard Ben Grubbs, but they're the only two guards on the market worth serious cash, so expect the bidding to be extensive.

The team could also try to use Jackson's down year to try to negotiate a long-term deal with their deep threat as part of a sell-low maneuver. They're expected to trade or release Asante Samuel, which would clear out cap space for such a move.

San Diego Chargers

Top priority: Replace the departing hordes

Vincent Jackson! Marcus McNeill! Luis Castillo! Kris Dielman! Nick Hardwick! The young talent that was supposed to be peaking in San Diego appears to be leaving town in droves, as the list above includes five starters who are 30 or younger and unlikely to return to San Diego. Dielman chose to retire, Castillo's been released, and McNeill will be unable to pass a physical and should be cut over the weekend. The team could choose to retain Hardwick, but Jackson is likely to leave after the team spent years dragging their feet on a possible long-term deal.

The problem is that there's not a heck of a lot to replace them. General manager A.J. Smith will try to re-sign Jared Gaither as a replacement for McNeill, but Gaither is a question mark who both the Ravens and Chiefs gave away last year. The Chargers hope he's a franchise left tackle and will have to pay to find out if he is. The organization hopes that 2011 third-rounder Vincent Brown can fill in for Jackson, but how is a 5-foot-11 guy going to play the same role as the 6-foot-5 Jackson? San Diego could shell out for Marques Colston in free agency, but why pay Colston — with a history of knee troubles — and not Jackson? They'll also be in the running for all of the interior offensive linemen we've discussed in this article, especially if they can't come to terms with Hardwick.

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Free Agent Countdown: Teams That Should Spend a Little

By: timbersfan, 12:04 AM GMT on March 14, 2012

Phew. Two pieces into our NFL free agency preview and we've knocked off the 16 teams who are unlikely to spend all that much this month, which yields the exciting leftovers that we'll sift through over the next two days: the 16 teams we expect to do the bulk of the work in this year's marketplace. These are the teams with both money to burn and reasons to spend it, although NFL teams have never required either to justify their pursuits.

For each of the remaining teams, we're going to identify the types of players they need to target in terms of age, pedigree, and cost. Some teams need to target one high-profile player at a particular position and save their money if they don't end up with him; others just desperately need to upgrade their roster and throw money at a variety of players. The good news is that the NFL finally confirmed the 2012 salary cap figure this weekend at $120.6 million, so we now have an idea of each team's salary-cap space heading into the free agent period, courtesy of Pro Football Talk. We've also adjusted each team's cap figure by the $1.6 million they received as part of Monday's sanctions against the Redskins and Cowboys.


Grantland's Free Agent Countdown

Thursday: Which teams can't spend?

Friday: Which teams should stay out of free agency?

Monday: Which teams should spend a little?

Tuesday: Which teams should go all out?
Today, we're going to focus on the teams that should only spend a little bit in free agency; this can mean that they either need to go after players at one position, or that they should focus on retaining their own players while making forays into the market for depth or borderline starters. We finish up tomorrow with the huge spenders.

Arizona Cardinals

Cap space: $-14.8 million

That's right: The Cardinals are rumored to be among the front-runners for Peyton Manning, but they're further over the cap than any other team in football. So how can the Cardinals even consider going after Manning or anybody else in free agency? By cutting Levi Brown, that's how. Arizona's embattled left tackle has been a huge disappointment since the team selected him with the fifth overall pick of the 2007 draft, and he has a $17 million cap hold for the final year of his rookie deal with the team. The Cardinals are likely to release him before free agency begins in order to avoid paying him a $6 million roster bonus, a move that would push them under the cap and begin to create space for a possible Manning signing. Arizona will also try to come to a long-term deal with franchised defensive end Calais Campbell, who has a $10.2 million salary and cap hold for this season that could be cut in half with a long-term deal.

If Manning goes elsewhere, Arizona is unlikely to go after Matt Flynn, who would represent even more of a gamble on the unknown than Kevin Kolb did a year ago. With limited cap space and a hole at left tackle, the team might gamble on a veteran like ex-Steelers tackle Max Starks, who tore his ACL and might not be 100 percent for camp. They could also try to agree to terms on a smaller deal with Brown, which is a more plausible outcome. The good news for Arizona is that outside of Campbell and cornerback Richard Marshall, none of their unrestricted free agents are key contributors.

Chicago Bears

Cap space: $24.2 million

Two years ago, the Bears spent heavily in free agency and came out of the market with Julius Peppers, Chester Taylor, and Brandon Manumaleuna. They made it all the way to the NFC Championship Game. Last year, they spent very little in free agency and went 8-8. So the solution is to spend a ton in free agency again in 2012, right? For some reason, the Bears seem to think so, as they've been linked to just about every big-name player on the market over the past couple of weeks. The Bears aren't unwise to spend, but they might want to be selective about where they put their money.

Chicago's biggest problem last year was that they didn't have a real backup quarterback to come in for Jay Cutler when the starter broke his thumb in November. If Cutler stays healthy or Caleb Hanie isn't the worst quarterback ever, the Bears make the playoffs. As a result, backup quarterback should be a priority for the Bears this offseason. They could choose to re-sign Josh McCown, who looked competent once the Bears gave up on Hanie, or shell out a little bit of guaranteed money for one of the league's better backups. Would they consider going after former Bears Rex Grossman or Kyle Orton? They're both free agents who have looked better since leaving Chicago, but neither of them have a shot at being a full-time starter somewhere else, so they might consider a return to the Windy City as the backup for the somewhat breakable Cutler.

The Bears have been heavily linked with a move for Chargers wideout Vincent Jackson, but it's hard to see the Bears pulling the trigger on that sort of move. They've already committed long-term contracts at wideout to Earl Bennett and Devin Hester, and if their offensive line can't keep Cutler upright long enough for Jackson to get open, he's not going to be worth the $19 million or so in guaranteed money that Jackson's winning suitor might have to shell out. The Bears might be better off adding an offensive tackle like Jared Gaither in free agency to try to shore up the line in front of Cutler. Gaither could play on the left side and move rookie J'Marcus Webb, who is wildly stretched at the line's most important position, to the right tackle spot.

The problem with the Bears is that spending won't guarantee an improvement, but they're virtually forced to spend right now because of where they are as a team. The Briggs-Urlacher-Tillman core on defense got a boost when Peppers came into the mix, but they'll be a combined 97 years old this season and can't keep this up forever. Lovie Smith is in his ninth year as the team's head coach and unlikely to survive a rebuilding project, but new general manager Phil Emery isn't as desperate as the deposed Jerry Angelo would have been in the same situation. Instead of going after one big-name free agent in the hopes that they'll revitalize the team, as Peppers did in 2009, the Bears might be better off selling their big names to veterans who will come in on short-term deals to try to win a ring. Could they get Plaxico Burress, John Abraham, and Ronde Barber for less than what it would cost to sign Jackson? And would they be better off?

Cleveland Browns

Cap space: $19.0 million

The Browns have already made some moves before free agency by locking up linebacker D'Qwell Jackson and giving the franchise tag for a second consecutive year to kicker Phil Dawson, who will receive an absurd $3.8 million for an easily replaceable performance. Cleveland's other prominent free agent is running back Peyton Hillis, who is likely to leave town after a terribly disappointing year that saw him go through four agents while scoring just three touchdowns. It's never good when team sources leak a story about you wanting to quit football and join the CIA after the season and nobody seems to doubt that it's true. That's close to Tyson Zone territory.

So, with a roster that lacks skill position talent, the Browns have their work cut out for them. They do have two first-round picks to work with, and they could end up using the fourth overall selection on Oklahoma State wideout Justin Blackmon or Alabama halfback Trent Richardson, each of whom would be there if the Vikings follow the script and take USC tackle Matt Kalil third. They should figure out who they want more now and act accordingly in free agency by taking a player at the opposite position. If they grab Blackmon, the Browns could make a run at Michael Bush, although he's already 28 years old and struggles to stay healthy. BenJarvus Green-Ellis is a year younger and would come cheaper, although he's nowhere near as effective of a receiver as Bush. If they prefer Richardson, the market at wide receiver is far more fruitful, as the Browns could consider young players with upside like Mario Manningham, Pierre Garcon, and Robert Meachem.

A pass rusher across from Jabaal Sheard, who had 8.5 sacks in a quietly impressive rookie season, would also be a worthwhile expenditure. The Browns are probably wary of the Patriots after spending years under Romeo Crennel and Eric Mangini, but this could be a team that considers bringing in revitalized pass rusher Mark Anderson, who had a 10-sack year with the Pats in 2011.

Dallas Cowboys

Cap space: ???

The Cowboys had $4.7 million available to them before a league ruling on Monday afternoon took away $10 million of cap space from the organization over the next two years. The Cowboys can spread the hit from the penalty over two years, so it's not quite as bad as it seems (or as it will be for the Redskins), but the sudden decision throws Dallas's free agent planning into wild disarray and raises questions about whether they can really make significant improvements on last year's disappointing 8-8 team.

For one, the chatter about adding a superstar lineman like Carl Nicks or Mario Williams can end. The logic in adding Williams didn't make much sense once the Cowboys franchised outside linebacker Anthony Spencer, who plays in the exact spot where Williams would line up if he came to Dallas. Nicks was slightly more plausible, but the team won't be able to invest serious money in upgrading their offensive line this offseason because of the cap penalties.

The only move the team could still really consider is one for Chiefs cornerback Brandon Carr, who would serve as a replacement for Terence Newman. Dallas would have to cut Newman, which would save the team about $5 million on their cap, and then structure a deal with Carr that would include a large signing bonus, but a low base salary over the first year or two of the deal, depending on how Dallas handles the cap penalty. Players get the actual cash from their signing bonus up front, but teams can spread the cap hit from the bonus over the length of the player's contract, which makes the big signings a little easier to handle. A $10 million signing bonus on a five-year deal only produces a $2 million cap hit per season. If the Cowboys can convince Carr to take a low base salary and offer him an enormous signing bonus up front, he could still somehow find his way to Dallas.

Dallas will also likely miss out on re-signing wideout Laurent Robinson, who impressed as a starting wideout during Miles Austin's absence this past season. With the team committed to Austin and Dez Bryant as their starting wideouts, the Cowboys won't be able to match the starter money Robinson can get elsewhere. Unfortunately for the Cowboys, they built their team and now they're mostly stuck with it.

Indianapolis Colts

Cap space: $13.2 million

Fortunately for Colts fans, this organization is under no delusions about its ability to contend in 2012. They're going to grab Andrew Luck and release just about every middling veteran they can in the process, clearing out cap space while creating opportunities for young players to build the next great Colts team alongside Luck in the process. That process led to the releases of Joseph Addai, Dallas Clark, Gary Brackett, and Melvin Bullitt last weekend, four players who had spent their entire careers with Indy and had little to offer the Luck era. The only weird exception was the long-term deal given to 31-year-old Robert Mathis, who will move to outside linebacker along with Dwight Freeney in Indianapolis's new 3-4 alignment.

With that in mind, the Colts should follow the blueprint we laid out for the Vikings yesterday and target a few low-risk, high-reward players in free agency. That strategy focuses primarily on young players with solid performance records coming off of injuries, like Josh Morgan and Tracy Porter. Unlike the Vikings, though, they might want to go after some veterans in the front seven to fill a few of the gaps in their 3-4 alignment, with a particular focus on players with experience in the defense that Chuck Pagano is bringing over from the Ravens. Jarret Johnson played outside linebacker under Pagano in Baltimore, but the team could choose to move him inside to play next to Pat Angerer, who might be the Colts' best young player. Former Ravens defensive lineman Aubrayo Franklin might also be targeted to play the nose tackle up front, where he excelled for the 49ers. Either way, the Colts should save the serious spending in free agency till 2014, when Luck should be coming into his own as a franchise quarterback.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Cap space: $42.2 million

While the Jaguars have plenty of money to work with, it would be naive of them to jump into free agency and spend it all in the hopes of becoming playoff contenders in 2012. Their biggest priority is figuring out whether Blaine Gabbert is actually a franchise quarterback, and barring some incredible season-over-season improvement, he's not going to be a playoff-caliber passer for this upcoming season.

That's not to say that Gabbert should spend his season throwing to the likes of Chastin West and Cecil Shorts again. Jacksonville would be smart to bring in possible weapons for Gabbert, but there needs to be an emphasis on acquiring players who will be part of the long-term equation as opposed to guys who might deliver most of their value as an acquisition in 2012. Instead of targeting Vincent Jackson, who turns 29 this season, the Jags would be better off looking at Mario Manningham (26 this year) or Josh Morgan (27) at a much cheaper rate. In fact, since the only viable wideout the Jags have on their roster at the moment is Mike Thomas, why not both?

General manager Gene Smith also faces a tricky path on the defensive side of the ball, where an underrated unit that spent the entire season facing terrible field position has a number of question marks. Do the Jaguars spend serious money to retain defensive end Jeremy Mincey, who became a regular starter for the first time at 28 and had a team-high eight sacks? If not, the Jags won't return a single player who had more than 3.5 sacks last season. A dreadful run of injuries at cornerback led the team to start nine different guys there last season; Jacksonville already locked up longtime corner Rashean Mathis with a one-year deal, but Mathis is coming off of a torn ACL and will turn 32 in August. Should they look for certainty at cornerback and target a known quantity like Tracy Porter or Aaron Ross, or do they hope that someone like Derek Cox emerges from the mass of young players with torn ligaments from last season? The answer isn't clear, and it's a good idea to save your money until the answer becomes clear.

New Orleans Saints

Cap space: $5.2 million

(Note: The Saints did not receive a portion of the money made available by the sanctions placed upon the Cowboys and Redskins, for reasons unknown.)

It's safe to say that the Saints are an organization in flux right now. In addition to the bounty scandal that seems likely to cost the team a future first-round pick, general manager Mickey Loomis managed to royally piss off star quarterback Drew Brees by failing to come to terms on a long-term deal before franchising him this past week. That decision prevented the team from placing the franchise tag on wideout Marques Colston or guard Carl Nicks, and with Brees taking up just under $16 million on the Saints' cap because of the tag, the Saints won't have the cap space to re-sign either player. What fun!

While the league hasn't yet announced the penalties for the bounty program, it's essential that the Saints know their fate by Tuesday so they can plan accordingly for free agency. If middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma is suspended for a large portion of the 2012 season, they'll need to find a replacement for him in free agency, most likely a veteran in the neighborhood of London Fletcher. On the other hand, if Vilma escapes a suspension, the Saints could use that money to earmark a deal for somebody like Robert Meachem or Tracy Porter. Of the two, Meachem seems more likely to return, as the Saints will likely move 2011 first-rounder Patrick Robinson into the starting lineup at corner and let the inconsistent Porter depart.

Departing veterans Aubrayo Franklin and Shaun Rogers also leave the Saints thin at defensive tackle, where they've struggled to find a solution since Sean Payton arrived in 2006. Because the team has limited cap space, expect the Saints to try to solve the problem on the cheap again in 2012, with a veteran like Brodrick Bunkley likely to suit up next to inconsistent 2008 first-rounder Sedrick Ellis up front.

Seattle Seahawks

Cap space: $31.4 million

Despite investing heavily on their offense in free agency last season, a young, talented defense allows the Seahawks to remain a possible landing point for many key free agents this offseason. Seattle will obviously hope to get more out of free agency this year than they did out of the combination of Tarvaris Jackson, Sidney Rice, Zach Miller, and Robert Gallery in 2011, but three of those four guys should be back and playing at a higher level in 2012.

The exception is Jackson, who proved yet again that he's maxed out as a backup who won't embarrass the team in limited work as a starter during an inconsistent, injury-filled 2011 season. Because of the presence of former Packers staffer John Schneider at general manager, the Seahawks have been linked to Matt Flynn as a quarterback upgrade, a move that would make sense in both the short and long term. None of the other prominent free agents on offense make real sense for Seattle, as the team remains deep at the skill positions with a promising offensive line protecting the quarterback, whoever he is. The only exception might be Alex Smith, but buying high on Smith might be worse than taking him away from the divisional rival 49ers.

Remember that cheap and effective defense? Well, the reason why the Seahawks aren't likely to spend very much this offseason is because that defense is about to get more expensive. Three of the defense's likely starters are free agents this year, notably kick-blocking dynamo Red Bryant. Because he's a mammoth 333 pounds, the 28-year-old defensive lineman should attract interest from both 3-4 and 4-3 teams, which could make it harder for the Seahawks to keep him in town. Linebackers David Hawthorne and Leroy Hill are also free agents, and the Seahawks are thin at linebacker after trading away Aaron Curry last season. Regardless of whether they re-sign Hawthorne and Hill, they could consider adding a versatile veteran like Omar Gaither or Erik Walden for depth.

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Free Agent Countdown: Teams That Should Empty Their Wallets

By: timbersfan, 12:03 AM GMT on March 14, 2012

It's finally here! With free agency just 24 hours away, we finish up our free agent preview today with a look at the teams who we think should spend exorbitant sums of money to improve themselves over the next couple of weeks. And while last year's free agency period was overshadowed by the lockout and the mass confusion that emanated from said work stoppage, it's good to see that this year's shopping spree will not be overshadowed by any pressing NFL business that could have been resolved months ago.

Well, shit. Just when we thought Bountygate was going to occupy us for the next few weeks, the league decided to add a spending scandal to the mix and dramatically change the financial outlook for the Cowboys and Redskins. Toss in Peyton Manning's nationwide tour and the holding period that a fifth of the league seems to be in while waiting for his decision, and it seems like the crop of veteran free agents we expected to be the lead story are basically irrelevant right about now.


Grantland's Free Agent Countdown

Thursday: Which teams can't spend?

Friday: Which teams should stay out of free agency?

Monday: Which teams should spend a little?

Tuesday: Which teams should go all out?
Amazingly, we still don't know the answers to free agency's most important questions. Is what the NFL did to Washington and Dallas legal? Can the Redskins file an injunction to get their cap space back? Does Peyton Manning's arm work? Is he part of a package deal with six or seven other Colts? We only found out how much salary cap space everybody had on Monday, and even that information is outdated after teams spent the day engaging in a massive salary bloodletting league-wide. This may end up being a more frantic free agency period than last year's, or it could go extremely slowly as Peyton makes his decision and Jerry Jones takes the league office hostage. We'll find out starting Wednesday, but until then we're going to review the roster situations for each of the eight teams we expect will spend heavily in free agency.

Make that seven teams, actually. We were going to suggest that the Redskins should use some of the $31.1 million they had available to surround RG3 with talent, but after the NFL docked Washington $36 million in cap space over the next two seasons, the Redskins might not be able to make any serious investments in free agency until 2014. In fact, the Redskins already went ahead on Monday and released safety O.J. Atogwe and fullback Mike Sellers, two veterans who might have been kept on the roster if Washington hadn't been penalized. The Bears are likeliest to benefit from the punishment, as they were rumored to be alongside the Redskins in close pursuit of Vincent Jackson. Now, the Bears might have Jackson all to themselves.

All the salary cap figures below are estimated from the totals provided to profootballtalk.com and any changes the teams have made since Sunday afternoon. In addition, each figure includes the extra $1.6 million that 28 of the other 30 teams received as a result of the spending scandal.

Cincinnati Bengals

Cap space: $51.5 million

After shocking everyone by making a run to the playoffs last year, things suddenly look promising in Cincinnati for the Bengals. With the Ravens and Steelers getting a bit long in the tooth on defense and the mandatory spending floor coming into effect next season, 2012 might be a good time for the Bengals to press the issue and spend heavily in free agency as part of an attempt to claim the AFC North. And unlike some of our other teams on the spend-heavily list, the Bengals have a pretty simple shopping list:

1. A starting running back
2. A complementary wide receiver to play across from A.J. Green
3. A starting safety to replace Reggie Nelson

That's it. If the Bengals wade out into free agency and come back with those three parts, they'll be a significantly better football team. The obvious running back candidate is Michael Bush, the only three-down back with fresh legs on the market, although the Bengals could choose to use him as a two-down back and expand Bernard Scott's role as the primary backup. At safety, the Bengals could try to re-sign Nelson or target a veteran like Atogwe. The wide receiver problem is the easiest of the three, since just about any ambulatory NFL wideout could play across from A.J. Green and look good. The Bengals could also add some depth on their defensive line, but remember that they have an extra first-round pick this year from the Carson Palmer deal and will have the ability to trade up, down, or around as they please. Is it actually possible that nobody is in a more enviable position heading into free agency than the Bengals?

Denver Broncos

Cap space: $46.3 million

While the Broncos are a young team, they were 25th in points scored and 24th in points allowed. They're not going to even go 8-8 again unless they bring in talent to support those young players. That could start by adding Peyton Manning, but if Manning heads elsewhere, the Broncos will still want to consider adding a weapon or two for Tim Tebow to work with. Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker showed promise at wideout, but mixing in a deep threat like Robert Meachem would help things, as would a pass-catching tight end. Denver would have loved to have gotten a shot at the Packers' Jermichael Finley, but with Finley locked up, they could make a run at John Carlson or Kevin Boss, who was released by the Raiders on Monday.

The six-game suspension levied on D.J. Williams for providing non-human urine to a drug tester might get appealed, but the Broncos will still likely consider adding a weakside linebacker to serve as insurance for an absent Williams in 2012. The only problem is that there are no outside linebackers worth devoting serious money to in free agency. With middle linebacker Joe Mays and primary backup Wesley Woodyard also hitting free agency, the team could make a splash by bringing in vicious Lions run-stopper Stephen Tulloch to play the middle and play second-year linebacker Nate Irving on the weak side. If they really need a 4-3 outside linebacker, the market can provide the likes of Erin Henderson, Rocky McIntosh, and Philip Wheeler, none of whom should inspire confidence.

Where Denver can make a serious upgrade, though, is at defensive back. Champ Bailey and Andre' Goodman will be 34 next season, and the team will have to replace the departed Brian Dawkins. 2011 second-rounder Rahim Moore will be in the running to replace Dawkins, but the Broncos desperately need an upgrade across from Bailey. They should be in the market for the likes of Brandon Carr and Cortland Finnegan, especially the former; Carr would take a young starter away from a division rival (Kansas City), and his age (25) matches up well with the young core of this Broncos team.

Of course, if they do end up grabbing Manning, all of this could play out very differently. Manning might insist that his new team sign Reggie Wayne, which would move Decker into the slot while taking away his starting spot. The Broncos would also likely seek a pass-catching running back and could add another Manning teammate, Joseph Addai.

Kansas City Chiefs

Cap space: $34.1 million

Despite their cap space, the Chiefs appear to have already moved on from starting cornerback Brandon Carr, as the team added released veteran Stanford Routt from the Raiders to team up with incumbents Brandon Flowers and Javier Arenas. Bringing Carr back would be an unlikely luxury now.

The good news is that the Chiefs have a young, deep roster; the bad news is that their biggest hole is at right tackle, which is a remarkably thin position in free agency this year. They could try and make a move for Pro Bowl-caliber tackle Eric Winston, released by the Texans yesterday, but Winston's coming from a zone-blocking scheme in Houston and may not be as effective in a different style of play. He's certainly the most talented player available to fill the position, though, and the Chiefs should at least give him some consideration.

With Justin Houston coming on at outside linebacker at the end of the season, the Chiefs might also trust Houston to develop into the team's second-best pass-rusher across from Tamba Hali and try to find an answer at inside linebacker, where Derrick Johnson has propped up Jovan Belcher over the past couple of years. The organization's paid lip service to Belcher's abilities, but they only tendered him at a second-round level and there are far better run stoppers available. They could consider going after Curtis Lofton, who would represent a huge upgrade on Belcher, or stick with Belcher for another season. Nose tackle Kelly Gregg is also gone, and the Chiefs could consider a veteran like Aubrayo Franklin or Paul Soliai to replace him.

Miami Dolphins

Cap space: $13.4 million

And here come the Dolphins, who desperately want a quarterback and wouldn't mind bringing along half of an offensive line with him. The good news is that the Dolphins are mostly set elsewhere; years of solid drafting and development have produced a young, deep team that played better than their record in 2011. We suggested in our RG3 reverberations piece yesterday that the Dolphins could consider Mario Williams as a luxurious option across from Cam Wake in Miami's new 4-3 defense, but that's unlikely to occur unless owner Stephen Ross misses out on Manning and starts crying and throwing his toys out of his stroller.

At the moment, it seems like the most likely starting quarterback for the Dolphins in Week 1 is Matt Flynn. Let's take that somewhat-conservative view and start plugging in free agency for the Dolphins accordingly. Regardless of who plays quarterback, the Dolphins need to rebuild the right side of their offensive line, where Vernon Carey and Marc Colombo played subpar football and aren't likely to return. They could take a shot at Texans right tackle Eric Winston, but Winston is likely to be signed by somebody else by the time Flynn and Manning make up their minds. A more realistic target at tackle might be longtime Giants right tackle Kareem McKenzie, but he wasn't much better than Colombo last year.

Miami will also need to replace nose tackle Paul Soliai, who will leave as the Dolphins move into a 4-3 from their previous 3-4 alignment. The Dolphins will look for a smaller, speedier defensive tackle who can penetrate into the backfield, like Titans free agent Jason Jones or even Albert Haynesworth. They could also choose to re-sign Kendall Langford, who played defensive end in their 3-4, and move him inside to play defensive tackle in the 4-3. If that were going to happen, though, wouldn't the Dolphins have locked him up by now?

If the Dolphins get Manning, they will struggle to find the cap space to add Wayne while bringing in competent starters to man the right side of the line. That could lead them to cut veteran safety Yeremiah Bell or tight end Anthony Fasano.

San Francisco 49ers

Cap space: $21.2 million

The 49ers were busy before free agency even began. In addition to locking up rotation linebacker Ahmad Brooks and franchising safety Dashon Goldson, the Niners made headlines on Monday night by signing veteran wideout Randy Moss after Moss spent the 2011 season out of football. The move likely brings an end to Josh Morgan's tenure in San Francisco.

Those moves leave the Niners with three prominent free agents to consider re-signing: cornerback Carlos Rogers, guard Adam Snyder, and, notably, quarterback Alex Smith. San Francisco hasn't been able to come to terms on a long-term deal with Rogers, so they might not be able to retain him once he hits the free market. Snyder just hit the wrong side of 30 in January, but the team is also losing backup guard Chilo Rachal and has no obvious option for a replacement. They could be in the market for a player like Ben Grubbs or Steve Hutchinson, the latter of whom was released by the Vikings over the weekend.

The issue of Smith's contract, though, remains curiously unaddressed. The Niners have failed to meet Smith's terms as part of a three-year deal, with a reported gap of about $4 million per season between the two sides, but it's hard to imagine that Smith's price will go down once he hits the free market. It's not as if the Niners have a veteran backup to work with, as the no. 2 quarterback on the roster is 2011 second-rounder Colin Kaepernick. Would San Francisco really be comfortable turning the offense over to Kaepernick if Smith signed elsewhere? They might go after someone like Kyle Orton early in free agency to get some sort of veteran presence under contract.

Once the quarterback situation is taken care of, the Niners will still want to add depth at wide receiver and across the defense. While the San Francisco defense was fantastic last year, they were lucky to have their 11 defensive starters combine to miss just eight games. And although Isaac Sopoaga did an admirable job at nose tackle last season, the 49ers could try to re-sign Aubrayo Franklin, who left the team in free agency last season and was a disappointment in New Orleans.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Cap space: $44.3 million

After years of saving their money and operating with one of the league's smallest payrolls, the Buccaneers will need to start spending money next season. With more than $40 million of cap space to work with and an increasingly disenchanted fan base, they might want to get that process started this year. With Carolina making huge strides last year and likely to be healthier in 2012, the Buccaneers are in danger of getting lapped in terms of talent by the rest of their division.

So far, the Bucs have been linked to improvements at wide receiver and cornerback, each of which would make sense. Both Vincent Jackson and Mario Manningham have been rumored as likely targets for general manager Mark Dominik, and while Tampa could afford to add them both, the presence of Mike Williams makes it more likely that they would try to get Jackson and then only nab Manningham as a fallback plan. Cortland Finnegan has reportedly attempted to bring Jackson along with him as a package deal to Tampa Bay, which would represent a nice one-two punch for Tampa at the top of the market. Any move for a cornerback would likely spell the end of Ronde Barber's tenure in Tampa Bay, as the longtime Bucs starter is a free agent this year.

Tampa's needs don't end there. Adding parts to a porous front seven is essential for a team that ranked 31st in rushing yards allowed per carry and last in sacks. If Mario Williams is looking purely for the largest financial package available in free agency, the Buccaneers should find a way to offer him that package. He could take the heat off of Adrian Clayborn, who had an impressive 7.5 sacks as a rookie starter, while moving Da'Quan Bowers into a situational role. Alternately, Tampa could try to improve up the middle at linebacker by giving a long-term deal to Tulloch or former Falcons starter Curtis Lofton, who seems likely to leave after Atlanta signed Lofa Tatupu this weekend. Taking a chance on a talented, injury-riddled player like LaRon Landry at safety would also make some sense.

Tennessee Titans

Cap space: $29.7 million

While the Titans appeared to have their quarterback situation under control with Matt Hasselbeck and 2011 first-rounder Jake Locker at the helm, owner Bud Adams tossed all that into the garbage by publicly announcing his team's interest in Peyton Manning, apparently over the wishes of his head coach and general manager. We saw the Titans as a possible long-shot option for Manning last week for a few reasons, but we didn't think the team would give up on Locker so quickly. If they do get Manning, though, this offense could be downright scary from Week 1 on. The only hole on their offense is at right guard, where veteran Jake Scott is a free agent and the Titans might consider the aforementioned Hutchinson as a short-term replacement.

Instead, the Titans need to go shopping to improve their defense, despite the fact that they allowed the eighth-fewest points in the league last season. They gave safety Michael Griffin the franchise tag, but four other full- or part-time starters from a year ago are unrestricted free agents, most notably Cortland Finnegan. Finnegan is as good as gone, but the Titans haven't been linked to Brandon Carr as a replacement. They could go for someone further down the hype chain, like Tracy Porter. Barrett Ruud, Jason Jones, and Dave Ball are all also likely to follow Finnegan out the door.

Although it seems like Tennessee is yet another organization that could benefit from making a huge offer to Mario Williams, they're probably going to save the bulk of their cap space for a run at Manning and Reggie Wayne, so they may need to shop in a less expensive aisle. That could see them target a speedy edge rusher like Mark Anderson while opting for the bulk of Red Bryant or Brodrick Bunkley in the middle of the defensive line.

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The Reducer, Week 28: Manchester City Gets the Shakes

By: timbersfan, 12:00 AM GMT on March 14, 2012

You know it's not exactly a scrapbook-worthy weekend of football when managers are reduced to bemoaning what they deserved or how they were the better team or how they "bossed it" (I see you, Martin Jol) following a loss or a draw. Coming at the end of a week where there was plenty of talk about England's place in European football's pecking order — what with Arsenal going out of the Champions League and both Manchester sides losing in the Europa League — the weekend's action did little to quell murmurs that the Premier League is no longer the premier league.

It can be a bit hard, after watching the first-touch control, elegant passing, and positional fluidity of AC Milan, Barcelona, and even Athletic Bilbao, to go back to watching Stoke, West Brom, Sunderland, and, frankly, Liverpool. But for whatever the league seems to be lacking in technical quality this season, it's making up for in the mad rush for various places on the league table. There are fevered battles going on for the title, the Champions League spots, as well as the Europa League slots. And then there is the scrap to stay out of the financially ruinous relegation zone — a fight that is currently embroiling five different clubs and could draw in more.

Since we missed a week last week, I'd like to cover as many sides as possible. Let's go from top to bottom and look at a bunch from this round of matches.

The Top


Swansea City 1, Manchester City 0



With Joleon Lescott and Vincent Kompany injured, Stefan Savic and Kolo Touré paired for the first time together in central defense. City manager Roberto Mancini compounded this deficiency by making an ill-advised move in this match: yanking Gareth Barry for Sergio Agüero early on, essentially going 4-2-4, with David Silva, Agüero, Sami Nasri, and Mario Balotelli up top. With only Yaya Touré and Nigel de Jong in the midfield, Swansea were allowed to get into rhythm with their passing, methodically moving the ball. Mancini obviously plays favorites and Balotelli is a wonderful sports personality, but the manager's soft spot for the player, who lost himself quite a knot of cash after a late-night strip club adventure last week, might have cost City some much-needed points on Sunday.

Balotelli's insolence and attitude are part of his edge. No one is sure what he is going to do next, and it's that unpredictability that terrifies defenders as much as it excites audiences. But Sunday he just acted like a brat. Two examples: first, attempting to catch the excellent Michel Vorm off his line in the first half, trying a shot from nearly midfield, even though he had a streaking Nasri running on ahead of him. And second, late in the game, repeatedly taking on multiple Swansea defenders or trying shots that Stephen Hawking would have been hard-pressed to explain the angle of, instead of keeping possession and moving the ball for a better shot.

It was indicative of the way City played when the pressure was on. At the end of the game, with some industrious Welshman banging on a kettledrum he had snuck into Liberty Stadium, Mancini's men seemed to be relying on individual acts of brilliance from players who haven't been individually brilliant this decade. On their final possession, with Joe Hart in the box, with about £90 million in attacking talent on the field, at a moment when — and imagine me banging on my desk and looking really serious about this cliché — champions find a way to win (or draw), City played a short corner to Gaël Clichy, who proceeded to try a shot even 2009 Gaël Clichy would have chuckled at. Hell, even Kolo Touré was going for YouTube clippery with his shots. For such a disciplinarian, Mancini's team played like this was a pickup game at the park.

A note about the fantastic Welsh club: Coming up from the Championship, Swansea were always going to have to make the most out of limited resources. But Swansea are showing that who you spend your money on is as important as how much money you have in the first place. As we are seeing with a lot of the teams mired in relegation battles (I'm thinking specifically of Wolves, who I'll get to later), making the wrong additions to a lean squad can have catastrophic effects.

Here's the problem: Unlike with American pro sports, there is never a "nothing to play for" period of the season. Teams are either competing for the top seven, hoping to get into Europe, or working hard to avoid being brought into a possible relegation battle. So you don't have what, say, baseball has, where "the kids" get a chance toward the end of the season. There's no room to take chances, and whatever few mid-season additions a manager makes are usually cosmetic, or with an eye toward the future, rather than looking for big on-field impact.

Swansea has been a subtle exception. Brendan Rodgers has tinkered with his team personnel as brilliantly as he has directed them on the field this season. In January he added Chelsea's bright young thing Josh McEachran on loan, journeyman striker Luke Moore, and Icelandic midfielder Gylfi Sigurðsson. All of them have contributed already, with Moore scoring the game-winner on Sunday, moments after being introduced, and Sigurðsson seeming to play everywhere in the central midfield at once. He's exactly the kind of creative passer that Chelsea so desperately need. He'll likely either return to Hoffenheim in Germany or earn a big-money move in the summer. I hope he stays, though; watching him partner with Leon Britton has been one of the pleasures of the season's second half.

Manchester United 2, West Brom 0



After United dealt with the Basque cheetahs from Athletic Bilbao last week, West Brom probably seemed like a bunch of guys riding Hoverounds. This is not meant (really) as any disrespect toward the Baggies. They played well in defeat, and looked like they might get something out of the game in its opening minutes. The Baggies players move in well-drilled, lock-step movement with one another. You can see it: midfielders advancing and retreating in a line, defenders conservatively shielding their territory. That discipline is exactly why I don't think West Brom boss Roy Hodgson will become the manager of England.

In recent days, with the anti-Harry Redknapp voices growing a bit louder, Hodgson has emerged as a candidate for the job, with Hodgson himself, who is in the last year of his WBA deal, saying he's "flattered." I feel bad negging the hopes and dreams of a 64-year-old man who sits in the technical area rubbing his face like a squirrel who just smoked some of Heisenberg's "Blue Ice," but Hodgson's coaching methods take much more time to be realized than he would have with the national team. Through both success (Fulham) and failure (Liverpool), Hodgson's players have often talked about the monotonous work they do on team shape, claiming they only see results after repeating the same drills for months. Given the timeline the FA have, where they plan on hiring a manager after the Premier League season wraps up, Hodgson will only have a matter of weeks before Euro 2012 kicks off in Ukraine and Poland.

As for United, Rio Ferdinand brought stability to the defense and Paul Scholes anchored the midfield, and they are both way too old for this shit, but it really doesn't matter because spring is here and Wayne Rooney is blossoming. Playing more as a creative playmaker, in the hole behind Javier Hernandez, Rooney scored two goals on Sunday, giving him 20 league goals for the season.

Arsenal 2, Newcastle 1



Arsenal's recent run of form — which includes come-from-behind victories over Tottenham and Liverpool, and almost pulling off a miracle victory over AC Milan in the Champions League (down 4-0 after one leg, the Gunners beat the Italians 3-0 in the next match, coming up just short) is making me question my value system. These are the kinds of matches Arsenal is supposed to blow, especially against Newcastle (the streets are paved with the tears of Gunners fans who remember Newcastle's four-goal comeback last February). It's hard to point to any one thing that's different about this Arsenal team from the one that drew with the Magpies last winter or even the one that played so ineffectively for most of the season. Tomas Rosicky, playing in the hole in place of Aaron Ramsey, has been a revelation; Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain have been excellent on the flanks, and getting Bacary Sagna back has definitely helped the defense. The real key, though, is Robin van Persie — but not in the way you might think.

When you have 25 goals in 28 games, that is Player of the Year form, but where van Persie has been equally impressive is how he has been a team leader. Inheriting the captain's armband from the departed (as in went to Barcelona, not, you know, dead) Cesc Fábregas, van Persie has given Arsenal, especially in the last few matches, a bit of a dickish edge.

Fabregas was an officially licensed and bonded magician, but whenever things got tough, his attitude seemed to veer toward exasperation. With van Persie, you get the goals, but you also get the Dutchman. And Dutchmen love to mix it up. They especially love to mix it up with other Dutchmen. And van Persie's late-game altercation with Newcastle keeper Tim Krul, following Thomas Vermaelen's late winner, was some fantastic mind-gaming. The protracted argument delayed the kickoff, making it difficult for Newcastle to catch a celebratory Arsenal asleep at the wheel.

Everton 1, Tottenham 0

Going back to Redknapp … he's everybody's uncle when they're winning, but lose three on the trot and "'Arry" disappears and a little bit of "Hatchet Harry" emerges. Redknapp was rather twitchy following the loss to the Toffees. When asked whether the speculation over his being the England manager-to-be was affecting his team, the Spurs boss responded, "Absolute rubbish. Absolute rubbish. Absolute rubbish. You saw the effort out there. How can it destabilize the team when they come out and play like that? They haven't just said: 'The manager is leaving, we ain't bothered any more.' We have had three very, very difficult games — Man U, Arsenal away and Everton away, who have beaten Man City here and Chelsea here." OK then!

The Spurs' dip is somewhat due to gravity (for every peak, a valley; Tottenham could not possibly have maintained their sizzling form for an entire season) and somewhat due to Redknapp's injury-triggered tinkering. The manager has been shuffling Gareth Bale around, trying to find him the kind of open space he needs to get into a high gear. On Saturday, Bale seemed one-dimensional. If he couldn't find a runway he couldn't take off. By comparison, Everton's Leighton Baines made him look rather pedestrian. The prices often quoted for purchasing Bale have been astronomical, but I'd rather have Baines at less than half the price; he's a dead-ball specialist, excellent passer, and smart defender.

They get to play QPR, Blackburn, and Bolton (Bolton twice) in the coming weeks. If what the manager says about England not being a distraction is true, they should be able to hold on to their Champions League place for next season.

Chelsea 1, Stoke 0



This match marked the first Premier League victory in Roberto Di Matteo's career as Chelsea boss. It also nearly marked the end of the Ivanovic family name, when Stoke forward Ricardo Fuller bizarrely stamped on the Chelsea defender's jewels. Di Matteo, perhaps stating the obvious, said, after the game, "At the moment, the result is probably more important than anything else." Meet the new Chelsea, same as the old, old Chelsea, just a bit older and not as good. Andre Villas-Boas was relieved of his hysterical, jittery touchline-dancing (and managerial) duties because his efforts to transform a physically imposing, defensively sound, rather direct, and increasingly slow team into a quick-striking, counter-attacking bunch of high-line-playing banshees fell terribly flat. Di Matteo reinstalled the old guard of Terry, Lampard, and Drogba, but no matter whom he started the Blues were quite clearly driven by the creativity of Juan Mata. Coming on a sub in the first half once Stoke went down to 10 men, his passing and movement inside completely befuddled the ogres in Stoke's defense.

The Middle

Sunderland 1, Liverpool 0

Liverpool is, barring some kind of appearance by Gozer the Gozerian that turns everything upside down, out of contention for the Champions League next season. After watching Jay Spearing and Charlie Adam on Saturday, you couldn't say the Champions League will be any poorer without them. Ever since Lucas Leiva went down with a season-ending knee injury, Liverpool have seemed off. The Brazilian provided defensive cover and a steadying influence in midfield. Without him, it seems as though everyone is playing just slightly out of position (Jordan Henderson is about as much a right winger as Charlie Adam is a male model). With Europa League guaranteed, it would be a great opportunity to see some of Liverpool's highly vaunted youth players get a run of games. I basically just want to see Raheem Sterling in action — but pride will likely make Kenny Dalglish stick with his first-teamers.

I won't dwell on this one. Given that Dalglish said, "I don't think it was much of a game," I'm certainly not going to write a ton about it. I only included the highlights to illustrate that nobody celebrates a goal that barely belonged to him like Nicklas Bendtner.

Aston Villa 1, Fulham 0

This was my first time watching the "Cold War" partnership of Clint Dempsey and Pavel Pogrebnyak. I was slightly distracted by several things:

1. Pog partnered with Andy Johnson rather than Dempsey (who, to be fair, isn't a pure striker, and often drifts in the area between midfield and the forward line … or really anywhere he wants, because he's Clint Dempsey).

2. Danny Murphy's face nearly coming off.

3. Stephen Ireland laughing after nearly taking Danny Murphy's face off.

4. Moussa Dembele's excellent midfield play. He had to cover for Murphy for a chunk of the first half. He then partnered well with Mahamadou Diarra. His ability to make just slight adjustments while in possession and to open up whole new passing lanes is wonderful to watch.

5. Remembering that Mahamadou Diarra is the subject of this, one of the funniest bits of soccer commentary you'll ever see:


The Bottom

Blackburn 2, Wolves 0

How are things going at Wolves? Roger Johnson turned up drunk at training last week. That's how things are going at Wolves. On Saturday, Wolves striker Steven Fletcher — who I SWEAR did not have any tattoos last week, but then again, I am not an avid Steven Fletcher tattoo observer — seemed to be seeing double, Jamie O'Hara was screamed at outside the grounds by Wolves fans while he was holding his son in his arms, and the guys at the top, from manager Terry Connor through the executive brass, don't seem to know what they're doing.

Steve Morgan, who was once a prospective buyer of Liverpool, and his mouthpiece Jez Moxey (who I keep having to remind myself is not Bez from Happy Mondays) had a lovely day of reading a banner in the crowd that said, "Scouse Mafia Out" (he's a Liverpudlian). Then he went out to face the profane, furious music outside the ground, where he met with angry fans that had been chanting, "Morgan, show your face!"

I'm not trying to be provocative when I say the English have a complicated relationship with outsiders. And their football, specifically the Premier League, has been an illustrative example of that. All over the nation — last season at Liverpool, Manchester United, and Blackburn, to say nothing of the lower leagues — you see fans decrying the missteps of "foreign" ownership, whether the owners are from outside the country or, in the case of Wolves, outside the region.

Across the board, Wolves definitely have the talent to stay in the Premier League, but in much the same way that Carlos Tevez seemed to single-handedly keep West Ham in the top flight a few seasons ago, special individuals can sometimes change a team's fortunes more than any manager or group effort can. In Blackburn's case, that talent is Junior Hoilett. The Rovers' attacking midfielder scored two goals on Saturday, running rampant all over the field. Along with Mauro Formica, he was the difference in the game, and could well prove to be the difference between Blackburn staying up or going down.

Goal(ie) of the Week

This is Joe Hart imitating Kobe Bryant telling LeBron to shoot the last shot at the All-Star Game. Rather similar results, too.



Quote of the Week: Sir Alex Ferguson, Manchester United

"We won't get nervous."

This is getting fun.

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28 Days Later: Day 1

By: timbersfan, 11:59 PM GMT on March 13, 2012

What happens when you combine the NBA's lockout-shortened season with some unforeseen scheduling quirks? You get 28 Days Later at Staples Center. Here's how I explained it to my wife yesterday morning:

Me: "Crazy stretch at the Staples coming up."

Her [immediately suspicious]: "What do you mean?"

Me: "Starting today, the Clippers, Lakers and Kings have 28 home games in 28 days."

Her: "Wait, 28 games in … [thinking] … you're not planning on going to all of those, right?"

Me: "I was thinking about it. Maybe —"

Her: "If you go to 28 games in 28 days, I'm going to start moving your stuff out of the house one game at a time."


So much for that idea. Hence, a slight tweak: We're covering these 28 games on Grantland as a group effort. I handled yesterday's opening doubleheader, which featured a nationally televised Lakers-Celtics game followed by a Clippers-Warriors showdown three hours later. Now here's a case where Los Angeles might be underrated as a sports city. An NBA doubleheader featuring four different teams, three locks for the 2012 Olympic team (Kobe, CP3 and Blake), five future Hall of Famers (Kobe, KG, Allen, Pierce and Gasol), the league's most famous rivalry (Lakers-Celtics), the league's most entertaining team (the Clippers) and the league's most lovably tortured franchise (the Warriors)?

Quick tangent: I moved to Los Angeles in November 2002 and always assumed I would be gone by now. There are probably two dozen reasons why I haven't left yet and why I may never leave, but the most underrated one? Having two NBA teams playing 20 minutes from my house. I bought Clippers season tickets in 2004 and probably attend 25 games per season. I don't attend nearly as many Lakers games, if only because being around 18,000 Lakers fans gives me the same sinking feeling that one of the Walking Dead survivors has when they're trapped in a school bus or a barn with zombies banging against it. But that's fine — I like knowing I can go anytime I want. I like that LeBron and Kevin Durant come twice as many times; that I have double the chance to catch a must-see rookie (like Kyrie Irving or Ricky Rubio this season). At this point, I can't imagine having it any other way.

Occasionally, there's a day like yesterday, when everything falls into place and Los Angeles feels like the capital of the basketball world. The Lakers and Celtics started things off with one of those exhausting battles that brought back memories of "Hearns-Leonard III" or "Ward-Gatti III" — you know, the third act of one of those boxing trilogies in which both boxers aren't remotely the same anymore, but it's still fun to watch them beat the hell out of each other. The Lakers have managed to remain competitive with three elite players and nine guys who range from "below-average" to "somebody needs to drive you to the NBA vet and put you down." I don't think there's ever been an NBA roster quite like it. It's like making a $200 million blockbuster movie with Will Smith, Charlize Theron and Ryan Gosling … then casting people off the street for every other role. I picked them to finish 34-32, assuming there was no way Kobe, Gasol AND Bynum could stay healthy during a condensed schedule. Wrong. Improbably, they're contending for the no. 3 seed in the West while steadfastly avoiding any crippling injuries. Nobody thinks the Lakers can win the title … then again, nobody wants to play them in the playoffs.

The Celtics haven't been as lucky: They lost Jeff Green for the year and Jermaine O'Neal and Chris Wilcox recently, although you could argue they lost those guys the moment they signed them. They went into yesterday's Lakers showdown with Kevin Garnett, Brandon Bass, Greg Stiemsma and JaJuan Johnson as their only bigs. Yikes. I can't remember the last Lakers-Celtics game that featured so many players ranging from "mediocre" to "downright useless": Keyon Dooling, Stiemsma, Sasha Pavlovic, Avery Bradley, Derek Fisher, Troy Murphy, Andrew Goudelock, Matt Barnes, Josh McRoberts … I mean, those were 45 percent of the guys who played, and I didn't even include Mickael Pietrus, Metta World Peace or Steve Blake (or the four guys who didn't play). It's a shame they didn't make this a "Losing GM Leaves Town" match.

A normally lively crowd of Celtics haters didn't even wake up until halftime — when the Red Panda Acrobat wheeled out on her unicycle and flipped bowls onto her head — then finally got involved after a Pierce/Peace/Garnett skirmish in the third that almost seemed contrived by all three to get the crowd going. By the fourth quarter, it felt like a playoff game: The Lakers were pounding Boston inside but couldn't handle Rondo's speed in transition (or his general you'd-be-crazy-to-trade-me brilliance). Kobe nailed two huge 3s midway through the fourth right as Boston was trying to pull away, then another big jumper after Ray Allen's 3 had put Boston up five with 2:41 to play. The Celtics never scored again. On the biggest play of the game (up one, under 40 seconds left), Boston tried for a two-for-one possession and ran a perfect play, getting Brandon Bass a wide-open 17-footer that he'd been draining all game. He missed it. The Lakers pounded it inside to Bynum for the clinching hoop and that was that.

The lesson, as always: When you're running the biggest play of the game for Brandon Bass, you're probably a no. 8 seed. By the way, I knew the Celtics were in trouble when I noticed Tom Brady sitting courtside. Anytime Brady and I are in the same building, something traumatic happens. We need to go to couples therapy or something. I don't want to talk about this game anymore.

My friend Chen (fellow Lakers hater) and I quickly scampered out of the building and drove to The Greatest Chinese Food Restaurant Ever to eat away our sorrows. (I can't tell you the name, or where it is. It's like Fight Club. You'll never get the name out of me. Even if you waterboard me.) Just know that I gained three pounds from this meal. Ninety minutes later and loaded with MSG, I caught a ride back to Staples and reentered the suddenly Clippers-friendly arena. How do they turn the building over that fast AND clean it AND fumigate the stink of Lakers fans? It's a great question.

Like everyone else in attendance, I assumed the Clippers would cruise to an easy victory because (a) they were kicking off a six-game homestand, (b) Stephen Curry sprained his ankle for the 755th time, (c) the Warriors played the night before, and (d) the Clippers have more talent than the Warriors. But when Dorell Wright starts making 3s (four in the first quarter!!!) and the Clippers start bricking free throws (16 in all)? All bets are off. Hey, you know a bad playoff recipe? Poor free throw shooting and bad coaching. I have been following the NBA since I was 4 years old — if the Clippers' 2012 destiny isn't losing a Round 1 or Round 2 playoff series in the most excruciating way possible, then I don't know anything.

The real problem is Vinny Del Negro was hired before the 2010-11 season by Clippers owner/skinflint/slumlord Donald Sterling because the Bulls were paying half of Del Negro's salary. You get what you pay for. As I tweeted last week, I don't think the Clippers necessarily need to fire Vinny — they can simply demote him to assistant, or add him as the third man in the TV booth. He doesn't need to go away entirely. He just needs to, you know, stop being the head coach.

Every game, Vinny does at least one thing that makes you think, What the hell is going on here???? Last night, he waited waaaaaaaaaaaaaaay too long to play his energy guys (Reggie Evans and Eric Bledsoe) with the game slipping away (an 18-point deficit) in front of a comatose/semi-horrified crowd. When he finally played the Evans/Bledsoe card and they brought the Clips back (and woke up the fans), Vinny missed multiple chances to sub his best player (Chris Paul, also one of the best players alive) for an ice-cold Mo Williams (1-for-8) midway through the fourth, finally pulling the trigger with just 3:18 remaining in a tie game after Paul had been sitting for a solid half hour. Inexplicable. You would have thought dozens of "PUT CHRIS IN!" cries would shake Vinny out of his stupor, but no. The Clippers couldn't finish down the stretch, and that was that. Yet another annoying loss for a team that should be running away with the Pacific and somehow is allowing the Lakers to hang around. Aaaargh.

I left the building mildly impressed by the Warriors (for a lottery team, they play their butts off and don't have any dogs, although Curry's ankle problems continue to be perplexing), mildly discouraged by the Clippers (who just can't seem to stay out of their own way some nights) and unequivocally delighted by the doubleheader of hoops (two NBA games in nine hours!). Only in Los Angeles.

The good news for Clippers fans: They get to play an almost-definitely-dead-legged-and-shorthanded Celtics team tonight.

The good news for Celtics fans: Between Vinny and the Clippers' foul shooting malaise, you're always in any Clipper game.

The good news for me: Three games in 32 hours! Say what you want about Los Angeles, but in 2012, it's the professional basketball capital of the world. Until tomorrow.

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28 Days Later: The Los Angeles Celtics

By: timbersfan, 11:58 PM GMT on March 13, 2012

With the Lakers, Clippers and Kings hosting a whopping 28 home games in 28 days from March 11 through April 7 — all happening at Staples Center, which is only a wind-aided Andy Lee punt from Grantland’s headquarters — we couldn’t resist attending these 28 games and writing about as many of them as possible. If you missed Day 1, click here. Here’s Day 2.


My first "Celtics at Clippers" game happened on February 15, 2003, three months after I moved to Los Angeles to write for Jimmy Kimmel. My life was a mess. Jimmy’s show had just launched a few weeks earlier to tepid reviews; we were working 15-hour days and creating the show on the fly. My then-fiancée had just arrived from Boston without a job or a single friend. Our closest family member was 2,900 miles away. We had stupidly rented an apartment in the wrong area of West Hollywood, regretting it almost instantly … but were unable to move for 10 more months. We found ourselves overwhelmed by the size of Los Angeles and beholden to our car’s navigation system, to the point that we named our navigation lady’s voice "Carol" because she had become a bigger part of our lives than anyone else. Only our new puppy, the Dooze, made us feel grounded in any way.


You know that annual Survivor episode when everyone has one family member show up, and the Survivors all start crying as soon as they see them? That’s how I felt seeing the Celtics on that Saturday night. There had to have been 4,000 Boston fans there, everyone wearing green, everyone cheering loudly for every Boston basket, everyone starting "Let’s go Celtics" chants. I remember we were trailing late, then Pierce and Antoine nailed consecutive 3s and flipped the game our way. The best part happened in the final minute, with every Clippers fan heading for the exits and every Celtics fan sticking around to celebrate. You could only see green. It felt like being in Boston again. You can’t have these moments at Celtics-Lakers games because it’s too difficult for Boston fans to find tickets. But Clippers games? You can have those moments.

And so the annual Celtics-Clippers game became one of my single favorite things about living in Los Angeles. I haven’t missed a single one. Even if my wife and I love it here now — we have two kids, two dogs, our own house and a bunch of friends, and we don’t need Carol anymore — that sea of green never gets old. When the NBA was creating its condensed post-lockout schedule in December, I worried about losing that game, even badgering my friends in the league’s office to keep it.

"You don’t understand," I told them. "This will be my 10th year going to that game. I only care about six days: my anniversary, my kids' birthdays, Halloween, Christmas Eve and this game. That’s it. I can’t lose that game."

They ended up keeping it, but not because of me — they had the Celtics scheduled for a West Coast swing in mid-March and everything fell into place. Thursday afternoon’s trade deadline gave the game extra meaning for obvious reasons: for all we knew, it was the last time Garnett, Pierce, Rondo and Allen would play together. As the great Bob Ryan remarked a few weeks ago, the Celtics are stuck in Year 5 of a three-year plan. They eked one title out of that nucleus and probably should have won two. Now they’re in no man’s land: just good enough to make the playoffs, not quite good enough to seriously contend. They can’t get fair value for any of their best players, so it makes more sense to flip expiring contracts and a draft pick for one more impact bench guy … only, they can’t find the bench guy, and they don’t want to trade the draft pick. To be honest, I don’t know what the hell they’re doing. And neither do they.

When you’re in flux like that, you end up working backward and asking yourself, "What do we have?" In Boston’s case, they have three proud veterans, an exceptional point guard, two decent role players and a quality coach. They will fight and they will keep fighting, and that’s all we know. You’re not going to break them; you’re not going to disrespect them. On Sunday, they traded haymakers with their archrivals the Lakers for 12 rounds. Thirty hours later, the Clippers tried to get chippy with them and the Celtics quickly slid into "Eff You" mode. You can’t call them dead, simply because it wouldn’t be true. For two straight days, I watched them fight.

I knew we were going to win midway through the third quarter, and not just because Vinny Del Negro was giving the game away by stupidly playing smallball against a team with a depleted front line. Pierce tipped it off: Whenever the team is locked in, and he knows it, he starts carrying himself a little differently. Puffs his chest out, turns to his bench after baskets to feed off their reactions, struts around during stoppages doing his "nodding and staring down the crowd" routine. Puts his swagger suit on, basically. His backbreaking 3 with 2:47 remaining didn’t surprise me in the least, nor did his reaction afterward — the slow jog backward, the prolonged stare at his bench, the nodding that always comes with it. For one night, the Celtics were badasses again.

People around the league believe Boston would trade anyone on its roster, including Pierce, if it meant securing some semblance of an identity going forward. I’m fine with the identity we have now. People grow old, people change, shit happens. You can’t fight it sometimes. I never thought I would live in Los Angeles for a solid decade, but I’m still here. I never thought I’d be afraid to take my daughter to a Celtics-Clippers game because she’s only grown up in Southern California and might instinctively root for the wrong team, but that’s life. I never thought one random Celtics road game would mean as much as it does to me, but 10 years later, it does. I never expected to say the words, "Let’s ride this season out even though it makes much more sense to gut the team and start over," but I’m saying them.

The truth is, the Celtics aren’t getting Dwight Howard or Deron Williams. Blowing things up for a pipe dream makes no sense, especially when the alternative is making this year’s team better (within reason) and hoping for one last memorable playoff run. The Celtics are what they are: old, proud, stubborn and (mostly) fun to watch simply because they know each other so well. They are going to fall in the first or second round of the playoffs, probably to Chicago in a look-at-how-the-roles-have-flipped bloodbath against the once-precocious Bulls in which they put up the biggest fight you can imagine. And lose. But still.

Of course, there’s a chance that some contending GM caught last night’s game, watched what Pierce or Garnett did, and said to himself, "That guy might push me over the top," followed by the Celtics quickly dismantling the Three-Year Plan That Lasted Five Years. And that’s fine. We’ll always have that final minute after the Clippers fans filed out, when it was just the sea of green and a nodding Pierce happily soaking in those "Let’s go Celtics!" chants again. Leave them alone and the 2012 Boston Celtics will go down swinging. That’s all we know, and frankly, that’s good enough for me.

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Five Fearless March Madness Predictions

By: timbersfan, 11:57 PM GMT on March 13, 2012

As the NCAA tournament has become Bigger and More Important, it also has become more and more predictable. It's not even any real surprise that the president is bringing British prime minister David Cameron to Dayton tonight to watch the play-in game — er, the first-round games. The president likely will attempt to explain to Cameron how the four teams playing tonight are really as legitimately a part of the tournament field as are any other entrants. Cameron, however, since he is familiar with the process of relegation from having followed the English Premier League all his life, will not be fooled for a moment. Nevertheless, the appearance of a sitting president at the tournament — even at the extended trailer for the tournament that they put on in Dayton every year — is now to be expected, since the tournament is Bigger and More Important than ever.

Too many horses are out of the barn for the thing ever to go back to the charming little cultist event it used to be. (My first Final Four was in Greensboro in 1974. My ticket cost nine bucks, and that was to see Bill Walton and David Thompson tee it up.) The games forever now will be played, preposterously, in domed football stadiums. The primary gift of the Internet to the world being gambling and porn, the underground bracket-pool economy will continue to draw in the suckers from Human Resources, and your idiot brother, the Classics major who always picks teams that have nicknames drawn from ancient Greece and Rome, and who always ends up winning some money because Michigan State makes it into the Final Four. Dilettantism is always the price of success.

There are so many things you can count on every year that the tournament has lost almost all of its renegade charm. It's a product now. As such, it is required to be safe and reliable, the way we want all our products to be. You make peace with that, or you find another event to love. I choose to stick with this one. Therefore, here are five predictions of what will ensue over the next month. I present them, as always, For Entertainment Purposes Only.

1. The Redemption Song of John Calipari

I have no illusions about how the sausage gets made. I actually met the street agent who, upon being given a leased luxury car by the assistant coach from a Major Power with whom he was doing business, drove the car three blocks and into the side of an elementary school, whereupon he walked back to where the horrified assistant coach was still standing and asked for another car. I was covering the game when AAU ball was just getting started, and many of the teams were being run by very skeevy, very sweaty rich guys, and the whole thing was the Wild West. (In AAU ball, as is the case in college basketball, the corruption is now more systematized and, therefore, less interesting.) I remember how Al McGuire banned a New York City talent hound from the entire city of Milwaukee on pain of having the poor guy arrested the minute he stepped off the plane. The guy operated out of an Orange Julius stand in Times Square that was run by a Chinese gent somewhere between 80 and 400 years old. A coach calling for the scout had a 50-50 chance of being screamed at in fluent Mandarin. This always has been the way of the world. I mean, I been around.

But Calipari is sui generis in the history of basketball brigandage. He has taken two teams — UMass and Memphis — to the Final Four and, according to the official NCAA record books, neither one of those teams exists anymore. Their participation has been Vacated because it subsequently was revealed that (a) things were going on at UMass that made that program one small step away from being an actual whorehouse, and (b) there was some jiggery-pokery surrounding who actually took the SATs for Derrick Rose.

A lot of coaches cheat. A lot of coaches lose control of their programs, or don't care to exercise it in the first place. But, in the history of the game, only one coach has had two Final Four teams taken down. This is a remarkable historical achievement. When Kentucky gets close to winning this year, I predict that nobody on television will bring this up, although I'll buy a cookie for the first analyst who says, "What's the over/under number on Vacated? I put it at eight months."

2. The Love Song of Christian Laettner

This is the 20th anniversary of the Kentucky-Duke regional final that is reckoned to be one of the best tournament games ever. It ended with Christian Laettner's jump shot, as we all know from the endless replay of the moment on CBS, where it is the One Shining Moment of all One Shining Moments.

Apropos of the anniversary, here are a couple of things that will not be mentioned as the assorted Kelloggs and Vitales reminisce about that game. The first is the fact that Laettner should not have been in the game to hit that shot. He should've been thrown out for deliberately stomping Kentucky's Aminu Timberlake earlier in the contest. The second is that Laettner, along with his Duke teammate and close personal friend Brian Davis, has gone on to a second career allegedly stealing other people's money, which has resulted in the two of them owing various people $30 million. One of those people apparently is Shawne Merriman. I'm not expert in defrauding people, but I'd say it is advisable not to defraud professional linebackers who have the PED doctor on speed-dial.

3. The Zebra Stampede

There are three kinds of game officials in college basketball. There are the professional incompetents, the egomaniacal showboats, and the overworked immortals. (I swear that Ed Hightower is the only referee still alive who was heckled by James Naismith when the latter was coaching at Kansas.) These categories are not mutually exclusive. There are professional incompetents who are also egomaniacs. There are showboats who work 100 games a year.

And then, of course, there's Karl Hess.

The ACC tournament just past is a perfect precursor to the fact that some team's One Shining Moment is going to be ruined by incompetence, egomania, overwork, or some combination of the three. There was the ludicrous no-call on what would prove to be the winning basket for North Carolina over N.C. State. But even worse, and little remarked upon, was the towering choke at the very end of the other semifinal between Duke and Florida State. The latter held a three-point lead with barely over a second left, and the FSU player inbounding the ball threw it up for grabs at midcourt, gambling that the ensuing scramble would eat up the clock. The scramble ensued, and Duke's Seth Curry wound up with the ball, whereupon he took at least three steps with the ball literally under one arm before launching a shot that damned near tied the game. He looked like Ray Rice breaking the containment on a sweep. And he did this right in front of the referee. Had the shot fallen, as it nearly did, this would now be another Shining Moment, even though the referee clearly choked on one of the most obvious walks in the history of the game. It will happen again in the tournament. And more than once.

4. The SAT Bowl

I am happy for Vanderbilt. I am really happy for Harvard. I am even happy that the Selection Committee, which, as we know, produces these matchups only through the happy accident of their arcane mathematical formulas, and not because it would be a really good story, paired them up in the first round. I can only vainly hope that the players on both teams are not hijacked into some phony morality play about student athletes, and the role of sport in our educational process, and Whither Goest We From Here?

The NCAA is under unprecedented assault from the respectable media. My old buddy Joe Nocera has attached himself to the organization's ankles on the op-ed pages of the New York Times. Taylor Branch performed a splenectomy without anesthetic in the pages of The Atlantic. The basic absurdity of having large educational institutions running multi-billion-dollar entertainment industries on the principles of unpaid labor, and the obvious existence of the underground economy that's resulted from said absurdity, is becoming too great for anyone to ignore. I have an ominous feeling that the NCAA is going to use this game, and the players in it, as part of a general pushback that we're going to see throughout the tournament, as though the tournament itself isn't prima facie evidence of the basic absurdity under discussion. The players at Vanderbilt and Harvard deserve better than to be used that way. For that matter, so do the players at Kansas and Michigan State.

5. That Damn Song

Can we please, for the love of god, find something besides "One Shining Moment?" That thing makes Hamilton, Joe Frank & Reynolds sound like the Sex Pistols, and no matter that they've replaced the original sensitive singer-songwriter version with something a little more soulful. Every year, the tournament is contested among kids who listen to hip-hop, or crunk, or basically anything that doesn't sound as though it were recorded in 1972 by Arista Records. Then, in the end, all that hard work is rewarded by a song that sounds as though it were written by Dan Fogelberg's boring brother-in-law. Jim Nantz will be struck into speechless awe by this chunk of cream cheese. That's all ye know and all ye need to know.

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NBA Trade Value

By: timbersfan, 11:22 PM GMT on March 09, 2012

I just spent two solid weeks figuring out where Jeremy Lin should be ranked in the annual "Who has the highest NBA trade value?" column. I asked my friends, coworkers and bosses. I asked NBA employees. I asked Knicks fans. I asked my Asian American friends, people dating Asian Americans, and anyone I knew named Jeremy. Heck, I even asked Jeremy Lin himself. Here was Jeremy's actual take.

"I'm hoping that I'm more valuable than the 467th best player in the league, and thankful if it happens because my trainer kept yelling '467!' every time I got tired during workouts!"

See? Even Jeremy doesn't really know. How can you assess the trade value of a rising star/walking sports movie/nine-figure cash cow/cultural icon? How can you ask, "What would it take for the Knicks to trade Jeremy Lin?" when the answer is, "Sorry, there's no f-ing way the Knicks would trade Jeremy Lin." And even then … would they ever in a million years trade Jeremy Lin? Would Jimmy Chitwood get traded? Would Rudy Ruettinger get traded? Would Roy Hobbs get traded? When you catch lightning in a bottle, you don't shake the bottle, take the cap off and hope it happens again.

NBA TRADE VALUE RULES

1. Salaries matter. Would you rather pay Kyrie Irving $5.1 million a year or Tony Parker $12.5 million?

2. Age matters. Would you rather have Dirk Nowitzki for the next five seasons or Blake Griffin for the next 15?

3. Pretend the league passed the following rule: For 24 hours, any player can be traded without cap ramifications but with luxury-tax and next-day-cap ramifications. If Team A tells Team B, "We'll trade you Player X for Player Y," would Team B make the deal?

4. Concentrate on degrees. I don't think the Bulls or Heat would make a Wade-Rose swap, but Miami would at least say, "Rose's available?" while Chicago would say, "There's no way we're trading Derrick for someone seven years older." That counts in the big scheme of things.

5. The list runs in reverse order. So if Rajon Rondo comes in at no. 15, players 1 through 14 are all players about whom Boston would say, "We hate giving up Rondo, but we definitely have to at least have a meeting and discuss this deal." And the Celtics wouldn't trade him straight-up for any player listed between nos. 16 and 50.
And so Jeremy Lin became the first player to defy the spirit of this column. I wrote it, anyway, only needing 12 viewings of John Tesh's "Roundball Rock" (the official Trade Value anthem) to get my confidence back. You rattled me, Jeremy Lin, but you didn't break me. As always, I spent three weeks crafting dozens of different lists, getting input from The Committee Who Shall Not Be Named, repeatedly getting into e-mail fights about things like, "You can't tell me that the Lakers wouldn't trade Andrew Bynum for Marc Gasol, you just can't!!!!!!!!" and "I would rather marinate my testicles in sulfuric acid than put Tyreke Evans on this list."

Here's who got bumped from last year's top 50 list: DeJuan Blair (no. 50 last year) had a spirited "who knows, maybe he can play 15 years with no ACLs!" campaign lose luster when Brandon Roy's no-cartilege bid disintegrated … Danny Granger (44) is the captain of the "Guys Paid Like Franchise Players Who Aren't Franchise Players" All-Stars … Kevin Martin (43) is like a bottle of scotch: It's more fun to regift him than to keep him … there are 65 million reasons why Nene (42) didn't make it … Luis Scola (41) hasn't been the same post-Veto (couldn't you say that about all of us?) … we might need to introduce Andrew Bogut (40) to Phoenix's training staff soon … David West (33) lost an ACL and Chris Paul … Lamar Odom (31) proved he wasn't kidding when he turned down Portland's lucrative free agent offer in 2010 by saying, "You don't understand, I need to live near the beach" … Carlos Boozer (29) spray-paints his own hairline … Kevin Garnett (28) looks like "The Ageless KG" some nights and "The Washed-Up KG" other nights … and Amar'e Stoudemire (20) is 27 months away from legally changing his name to "Amar'e's Expiring Contract."

One note before we get to this year's toughest omissions:1 Once upon a time, I could barely scrape together 40 good players for this column, as we found out when the 2006 edition pegged Shawn Livingston at no. 27. This year? I easily could have slapped together a top 60. The league hasn't been this loaded for 19 solid years. We're in a good place. Here are my toughest omissions from "least tough" to "toughest":

Taj Gibson: Making one-seventh as much as Boozer, only every time he comes in for Boozer, it's like subbing an ISDN line for a dial-up. How would Gibson fare playing 35 minutes a night? It's unclear. Stay tuned for "More Things That Will Be Answered When Chicago Amnesthizes Boozer This Summer" right after this.

Trevor Booker: Sorry, I have a weakness for him.

Kenneth Faried: My favorite sneaky-good rookie from a likably eclectic rookie class, narrowly edging Enes Kanter, Jan Vesely, Nik Vucevic and Isaiah "Jimmer This!" Thomas.2 Remember when Faried was advertised pre-draft as an energy rebounder/defender who gave you young legs off the bench, nothing more, nothing less? That's EXACTLY what he is. He's like Safe House — you saw the trailer, you knew what to expect, then you saw the movie and came out of it thinking, That's exactly 100 percent what I expected!

Brook Lopez: His rebounds-per-game dwindled from 8.7 (2010) to 5.9 (last year) to 3.6 (this year). I wouldn't care except for the part that, you know, he plays center. Dwight Howard averages more rebounds per quarter. Let's all stop pretending those two names can exist in the same trade. Thanks.3

JaVale McGee: My wife rescued a sweet (and historically ugly) dog named Olivia who always slinks around our house like she did something wrong. If you say her name in a mean way, she'll immediately collapse to the ground in a puddle. There's just too much residual damage from her pre-rescue days. I feel like we're getting close to that point with JaVale: He's been stuck on a rudderless lottery team for years, with damaging results — a shame because the league isn't exactly overflowing with big guys who protect the rim. JaVale could have easily been "The Rich Man's DeAndre Jordan" on the right team. Instead, he's destined to be "The Underappreciated Leaper With Raw Tools Who Can't Help Doing Two Supernaturally Dumb Things Per Month and Has Been a Godsend for Sports Blogs." Too bad.4

Nicolas Batum: The geek-friendly teams (San Antonio, Houston, Dallas, Oklahoma City, etc.) have circled him for years, fully expecting him to become Battier 2.0 on the right contender. He's getting an offer sheet next July that will make you say, "Wait … WHAT?????" Be prepared.

Monta Ellis: He's underqualified to be one of the best two guys on a contender and overqualified to become a more polished version of Jason Terry in Dallas (an Irrational Confidence Guy Deluxe). Where does that leave us for someone making $11 million a year? I don't know.5

Tyreke Evans: When somebody makes a documentary about the 2011-12 Kings, it's either going to be called The Sacramento Black Holes, Tyreke Takes It Himself or Wide Open: The Chuck Hayes Story. And the trailer is definitely going to have Paul Westphal or Keith Smart screaming Norman Dale-style, "What did I tell you guys? I want no passes before every shot! You hear me? NO PASSES!"

Al Jefferson: Can't decide if Al's recent revelation, "Hey, it's taken me eight years to realize that if I pass the ball outside and guys hit open shots, it helps free me up, I guess better late than never" should move him higher or lower.

Andre Iguodala, Luol Deng, Rudy Gay: Quality starters getting paid like franchise guys. Deng was the toughest omission — not only is he playing splendidly, I can't remember the last time a radical haircut transformed my opinion of someone this dramatically. You might have to go back to Demi Moore in Ghost.

Joakim Noah: The bad news: Making $60 million through 2016 … and we have no idea if the Bulls can survive offensively playing Noah in crunch time in June. The good news: He's played better after a botched attempt to sabotage his own trade value in the Dwight Howard talks. The great news: It's really fun to Photoshop his hair on other NBA players. As we're going to prove in Part 2 of this column.

Ersan Ilyasova: We're omitting this kooky DNA hybrid of Ivan Drago, James Franco, Josh Hartnett, Kevin McHale, Lurch and That Guy From Boardwalk Empire only because he's an unrestricted free agent this summer, making him impossible to assess for trade value purposes (especially when he's making just $2.541 million this year). Ilsh6 will have to settle for running away with 2012's "Random Free Agent Pickup Who Single-handedly Swung Your Fantasy League's Title," "What the Hell Just Happened in This Box Score????" and "Seriously, WHAT THE $%#@ IS GOING ON HERE!!!!!!!!!" awards.

Tony Allen: The league's best perimeter defender (it's true) and contract bargain (two years, $6.3 million), as well as someone who improbably shed "Trick or Treat Tony" status (he's just Tony now) and made Celtics fans say things like, "I wish we had Tony Allen" (also true). Why I love the conceit of this column — there's no way Memphis would rather pay Iguodala or Deng $14 million a year than Tony Allen $3 million a year. None.

Nikola Pekovic: This year's toughest omission. I didn't want to go overboard about six legitimately inspired weeks … but jeez, when he's giving us 17 points, 10 rebounds every night, thriving on high screens and banging bodies while carrying himself with the same nasty, Eastern Euro intensity of one of the bad guys in Taken, and he's doing it for just $4.5 million this year and $4.8 million next year, what more do you need?7

On to the top 50 …

GROUP N: "I Wouldn't Take This Call If I Knew He Was Definitely Sticking Around"

50. Ryan Anderson
Remember my December column about the Salary Cap Fantasy League? Would you enjoy paying $2.24 million this season for a guy who plays 31 minutes a game, averages 16.5 points and 7.5 rebounds, makes 43 percent of his 3s (and takes 6.7 per game!) and 86 percent of his free throws and plays with the effectiveness of an obscenely rich man's Steve Novak? I thought so.8

49. Roy Hibbert
Like Anderson, a restricted free agent next summer. I love paying Roy Hibbert $2.59 million this year. I would not love paying Roy Hibbert $13 million next year.

48. Josh Smith
The original JWOWW needs a new team, new fans and a creative point guard who understands his fundamental need to slam home alley-oops with the sustained fury of a pregnant Jessica Simpson housing a box of doughnuts. Did you know the Hawks are paying $46 million to three guys next year (Smith, Al Horford and Joe Johnson)? See where I'm going with this? TRADE!!!!!!!!!

Only one problem: Josh Smith trades never seem to work. Who says no to Smith for Brook Lopez and Memo Okur's Expiring Deal? (Answer: The Hawks.) Who says no to Pau Gasol for Josh Smith, Tracy McGrady and Kirk Hinrich? (Answer: The Lakers.) Who says no to Atlanta saving $20 million next season by dealing Smith and Marvin Williams to Cleveland for Antawn Jamison's expiring contract? (Answer: The Hawks. But they definitely had a two-hour meeting about it.) What about the same Smith/Williams package for KG's expiring deal? (Answer: Probably Boston … if only because Danny Ainge took a designer drug that makes him think he can sign Dwight Howard this summer.) Who says no to a "Derrick Williams and the Anthony Randolph/Anthony Tolliver expirings for Josh Smith" swap? (Answer: Minnesota. But you know who says yes? YouTube!!! Rubio teamed up with Josh Smith????) There's never been a player thrown into more failed Trade Machine deals than Josh Smith.

GROUP M: "Sorry We're Being Irrational, It's Just That We Don't Want Him to Come Back and Haunt Us"

47. Derrick Favors
46. Evan Turner
Let's see … Philly needs to get bigger … Utah needs to get better on the perimeter … both teams have talented no. 2 overall picks who aren't playing enough … both teams are a little too attached to those guys … the Trade Machine approves … (can't we just call this one in????)

45. Eric Gordon
Would you trade Luis Scola, Kevin Martin, Goran Dragic, Lamar Odom and New York's 2012 no. 1 pick (probably 21st overall) for Gordon, Al Farouq Aminu and Minnesota's 2012 no. 1 pick (probably 19th overall)? Sure … if you were intentionally trying to suck all kinds of suck. Stay classy, David Stern.9

GROUP L: "Unsung Heroes With Favorable Contracts"

44. Ty Lawson
43. Paul Millsap
Everyone pounded the "Lawson is underrated!!!!" angle so violently that he became slightly overrated for someone who gives a fringe playoff team a 16-7 with 47/32/81 shooting splits and a couple of look-how-freaking-fast-he-is highlights per game. Just don't expect Millsap to give up that "So Underrated He's Slightly Overrated" belt anytime soon — not when he's averaging a 15-9 every game, making big shots for an overachieving team, and wielding a favorable contract ($16.4 million total through next season) and even more favorable PER ranking (this year: 16th overall). He's called "The Underrated Paul Millsap" pretty much as a rule at this point. All of this worries me — once you become overrated for being underrated, bad things ensue. Just ask Ben Wallace (overpaid by Chicago, never the same) and David West (blew out his knee). Tread carefully, Paul Millsap.

42. Danilo Gallinari
Every Knicks fan just grunted out loud, stared sadly at the screen for a few seconds, then thought back fondly to the MSG announcer yelling "Danilo Gallinarrrrrrrrrri!" with his fake Italian accent after a Gallinari 3. They had a weakness for Gallo, the same way I have a weakness for any news stories about serial killers or point shaving scandals. If a serial killer ever shaved points, it would be all over — I wouldn't be able to function. Wait, where were we?

41. Tyson Chandler10
40. Anderson Varejao
I'd rather have Chandler, but his contract (four years, $55.4 million) and facial hair (that goofy Fidel Castro look) isn't nearly as favorable as Varejao's contract (four years, $34.8 million) and haircut (the throwback Sideshow Bob look). Of course …

39. Marcin Gortat
Paying just $21.7 million through 2014 for a true center averaging a 16-11 with 56 percent shooting? Sign me up.11 This had a chance to become Otis Smith's shrewdest signing ever, only he messed it up by flipping Gortat into $58.8 million of Hedo Turkoglu and Jason Richardson. Otis Smith, everybody! He's the Reverse Black Friday — instead of everything being 50 percent off, it's 220 percent on.

38. Kyle Lowry
Killer value ($17.5 million total through 2014) for a quality point guard (16-7-5, 39 percent 3FG, elite defense). Let's have a round of applause for Dork Elvis — he basically traded Carl Landry, Rafer Alston, Aaron Brooks, a washed-up Tracy McGrady and Vassilis Spanoulis12 for Lowry, Martin, Scola, Dragic, Jordan Hill, the no. 23 pick in 2011 and New York's 2012 no. 1 pick. Also, did you know Houston is the only above-.500 team without a lottery pick in its nine-man rotation (much less starting for it)?
Bill lemme know what else you need or if this paragraph will suffice. Good seeing you in Boston. Thanks, Daryl.

(Whoops, I forgot to take that last part out. Sorry about that.)

GROUP K: "Sorry, It's Been Crazy Around Here … Actually, Can I Call You Back?"

37. Zach Randolph
Let's go inside the Grizzlies' war room …

Chris Wallace: "Should we quietly shop Z-Bo when he comes back from his knee injury?"

Assistant GM no. 1 [nodding]: "We're 22-12 without him."

Wallace: "And we don't want to pay Z-Bo, Gay, Conley and Gasol a combined $224.2 million through 2015 — "

Assistant GM no. 2: "Hold on, hold on … are you crazy? The five best players in last year's playoffs were LeBron, Dirk, Wade, Durant and Z-Bo! If he's even 80 percent back this spring, we can beat anyone in the West. We're a matchup nightmare! NOBODY WANTS TO PLAY US!13

[Everyone falls silent.]

Wallace: "You're right, let's ride him this spring, make a run at the title and shop him this summer. Anything else?"

Assistant GM no. 2: "Yeah, the league office called — they said that, no matter what happens this season, you're still ineligible to win 'Executive of the Year' because you picked Hasheem Thabeet over James Harden and Ricky Rubio."

36. Steve Nash
I don't blame the Suns anymore. I blame Nash. I think he's afraid to get traded. I think he likes toiling away on mediocre teams, playing that martyr role and having everyone feel sorry for him. Poor Steve Nash! Look what the Suns did to him! We have to get Nash out of there! #freestevenash Maybe he doesn't want the pressure of playing in the playoffs anymore. Maybe he'd rather bang out meaningless regular seasons, go traveling during the playoffs and save himself two months of wear and tear. Maybe he's hiding behind this whole "leaders don't sell out their teammates by asking for a trade" thing. Maybe he's just being a coward.

(By the way, I don't believe any of this — I just wanted to use a little reverse psychology to get Nash to ask for a trade because Phoenix is obviously too cowardly to accommodate him. I'm at wit's end. Don't you want him in the playoffs?)

35. Stephen Curry
Fell 15 spots from last year's list purely for "All right, what's really going on with Curry's right ankle?" reasons. That's one of the top-five conversation topics in NBA circles right now, along with "Why do the players hate Rondo so much?," "What are you hearing about Dwight?," "What are the Lakers going to do?" and "Did we ever figure out why Al Jefferson has a 38-year-old girlfriend????" So what's the answer? Is this a potential Grant Hill situation? Do the Warriors have the worst trainer/medical situation on the planet? Is Nike slipping? Are Curry's ankles made of papier-mâché? If there was a pay-per-view special of Curry getting an MRI on his right ankle, followed by Phoenix's medical staff breaking down the results, I think I'd pay $49.99 to watch it.

The good news for Warriors fans: Their team made a $500 million mistake by choosing Charles Jenkins over Jeremy Lin on December 8 (it's true, look it up), then wasted its amnesty on $4 million of Charlie Bell so they could overpay DeAndre Jordan with an offer sheet (didn't work), leaving them stuck with Andris "Why Didn't You Amnesthize and Put Me Out of My Own Misery????" Biedrins (owed $9 million each of the next two years) and little cap flexibility this summer. Oh, wait, that's horrible news. Speaking of Linsanity …

GROUP J: "We'll Consider It If You Throw in 500 Million Dollars"

34. Jeremy Lin
This feels about right. It's certainly better than being ranked between Sean Marks and Zabian Dowdell.

GROUP I: "The Young Guns"

33. James Harden
Even if it's about eight spots too high, I'm using this year's "I Know This Is Weird, I Just Like Him" immunity idol on him.14 Just know that, as a Celtics fan, it's hard to watch Harden without thinking of the days before the Perkins/Green trade, when Sam Presti sucked Danny Ainge in with the old, "I know we were talking about Harden for Perkins all week, and I know you were banking on the deal happening, and I know you already cleared the deal from your end with Doc and everyone else, but the more I'm thinking about it, I just can't do it … what about Jeff Green?" move. A Boston buddy of mine described it perfectly: It was like Costco drawing you to the store with a "50 Percent Off All Televisions!" sign, then picking out a state-of-the-art TV and going to pay, only to have them tell you, "No, no, that deal only counts for last year's models." Only at that point, you're already in the store and ready to buy something. Only bad things can happen after that.

(One silver lining: I pull this move on my wife all the time. Honey, I know we said we were getting dressed up and going to dinner on Sunday night, and I know you were banking on it, but I just can't do it … what about going to the Clippers-Warriors instead?")

32. Mystery Player A
Hold this thought until Part Two.

SOUGHT-AFTER CONTRACTS

The 12 most cap-appealing NBA contracts that aren't rookie deals or expiring deals:

1. Tony Allen: 2 years, $6.45 million
2. Paul Millsap: 2 years, $16.7 million
3. Marcin Gortat: 3 years, $21.8 million
4. Kyle Lowry: 3 years, $17.5 million
5. Nikola Pekovic: 2 years, $9.3 million
6. Rajon Rondo: 4 years, $45 million
7. Tony Parker: 4 years, $50 million
8. Anderson Varejao: 4 years, $34.8 million
9. Josh Smith: 2 years, $25.6 million
10. Sam Dalembert: 2 years, $13.6 million
11. Udonis Haslem: 4 years, $16.8 million
12. Brandon Bass: 2 years, $8.5 million
31. Derrick Williams
Remember when the Celtics panic-traded rookies Chauncey Billups and Joe Johnson for immediate help, then everyone collectively realized you shouldn't trade lottery picks after slow starts? That mind-set wavered when struggling top-six picks like Darko Milicic, Jonny Flynn, Wesley Johnson and Thabeet weren't traded in time and lost their value, causing some teams to simultaneously think last month, Maybe the Timberwolves will be dumb enough to give up on Derrick Williams! and KAHHHHHHHHHHHHHN!!!!!!! Nope. Not after this box score happened.15

30. Hasheem Thabeet
Just kidding.

30. John Wall
As you know, I'm the longtime chairman of the "Is He a Point Guard or Not?" committee. (It's kind of like how Tip O'Neill was the Speaker of the House for all those years — you never knew how it happened, just that it was.) My verdict on Wall: He's a breathtaking athlete who has little to no idea how to run a team, lead his guys, make teammates better, ride hot hands, control the tempo of a game or do anything else that, say, Chris Paul does on a nightly basis. It's also a terrible sign that, for two straight years, Wall hasn't affected Washington's win-loss record really at all.16 Then again, could there have been a worse situation for a young point guard than the post-Arenas Blatche/McGee/Saunders Wizards? I wouldn't trade him … but I wouldn't trade for him, either. To be continued.

Hold on, it's time for a tangent: During Dorkapalooza 2012 in Boston last weekend, Seattle Sounders owner Drew Carey mentioned his favorite brainstorm, followed by me being practically paralyzed with idea envy. The idea? Carey wants to have Sounders fans vote for his team's president every four years. You know, like a presidential election. Is that brilliant or what? If there hadn't been 2,000 witnesses, I would have Zuckerberged the idea for myself. I just love it.

Anyway, we know the Wizards are hiring a new GM this summer; we know owner Ted Leonsis loves thinking outside the box; and we know the Wizards have no chance of being relevant in a "getting Kornheiser and Wilbon talking about them in the first five minutes of 'PTI'" kind of way unless they have another gun incident or JaVale McGee enters a game without shorts (which might happen, don't rule it out). Can you think of a better NBA team to say, "Screw it, let's have our fans vote for our team's GM every four years"? Why not? How would this NOT become one of the biggest sports stories of the year? And should I hire a campaign manager right now to be safe?

29. Paul George
28. Sergeballu LaMu Sayonga Loom Walahas Jonas Hugo Ibaka
The best stage for a rising young star: That "new car smell" phase when you haven't been paid big money yet (but it's coming), you go for too much in every fantasy auction, your rookie cards are worth twice as much as they should be, you're measured by your potential (not the actual results), everyone remembers your good games/moments (and not your bad games/moments), you're playing in the right situation for the right team, you're undeniably overvalued … only nobody cares, because you'll have these moments/sequences/games that make people say, "That dude is GOING places."

27. Al Horford
[Cut to Al Horford nodding wistfully.]

GROUP H: "Thanks Anyway, But He Should Probably Retire With Us (and It Would Be Bad Karma If He Didn't)"

26. Tim Duncan
25. Manu Ginobili
24. Paul Pierce

The inherent flaw of this column: Some guys aren't getting traded for the same reason that you wouldn't trade your kids, your dog or your spouse. [Thinking.] You're right, some people would trade their kids, dog or spouse.1 But once you win a title with someone, you can't just callously cut ties with them. Here's a good example of why I'm right …

Let's say Indiana offered Paul George straight up for Pierce — something that's actually conceivable because Indiana is $14 million under the cap right now (and could contend this spring with a short-term Pierce/George upgrade). You're running the Celtics. That trade saves you $12.9 million plus another $8.9 million in luxury tax money in 2012, then puts you $38 million under the cap heading into the 2012-13 season. It doesn't totally ruin this year's season and makes you better defensively. It gives you two-thirds of a pretty sweet under-27 core: Rondo and George. Really, it's a logical deal except you'd be crapping on a future Hall of Famer who just gave you 13 great years, wanted to retire with Boston and planned on going down as one of the six or seven best Celtics ever. That's why Boston would say no, just like the Colts would say no if they had a chance to release Peyton Manning and build around Andrew Luck.

(Hey, wait a second … )

GROUP G: "Too Young, Too Cheap, Too Good … Stop Calling Me"

23. Ricky Rubio
Poor Ricky played himself out of the top 15 with a ghastly shooting slump (he's down to 35.5 percent shooting for the season) that mushroomed these past eight games (17-for-69), a swoon that would feel like a bigger deal if Jason Kidd didn't shoot 38 percent for his first three seasons. Special players figure it out. Rubio sees the floor differently. He's always a half-step ahead of everyone else, especially defensively. His unselfishness is genuinely infectious in a Bird/Magic kind of way; along with Rick Adelman (it's 1999 Sacramento all over again for him), that's the biggest reason why the Timberwolves have morphed into the league's best passing team. And you can't deny his effect on Nikola Pekovic (a stiff last season) and Kevin Love (now a franchise guy). Watch the Wolves every week and you can't help but mutter, "Those guys look like they're having fun." Yeah, because it's fun to play basketball with Rubio and Love when Adelman is coaching you.

Of course, you can pick apart Rubio's "impact" pretty easily with advanced stats, which actually makes me feel better about basketball as a whole. I'm glad Ricky Rubio can be picked apart. I'm glad he's the 33rd best point guard in PER right now. That reinforces everything I believed about those numbers in the first place. Sometimes, they're going to be a little … off. They should be used to accentuate what we're watching, not to single-handedly shape opinions or beliefs. You can't fully measure how teammates relate to one another and fit in with each other; even the five-man plus/minus stat (which I like) only goes so far. We'll always have players and teams defying their metrics. Kyrie Irving is better than Ricky Rubio — we can all agree, right? — but I'm not sure this particular Timberwolves team would be better with Kyrie Irving. That's why I love basketball. It doesn't always make sense. And by the way …

A. Minnesota is going to make the playoffs unless somebody gets hurt.

B. Rubio could shoot 30 percent the rest of the way and still be the second-biggest reason it happened. So there.2

22. Mystery Player B
All right, release that thought (from Mystery Player A, ranked no. 32 in Part 1). Contrast these 2011-12 numbers …

Mystery Player A: 29.4 MPG, 16.2 PPG, 11.4 RPG, 1.2 APG, 1.2 BPG, 43% FG, 73% FT, 21 PER
Mystery Player B: 32.7 MPG, 16.4 PPG, 10.3 RPG, 2.5 APG, 0.6 BPG, 50% FG, 79% FT, 23 PER

Slight edge to Player B, right?

OK, so let's say Player B is a normal guy … and Player A is an unpredictable loose cannon who may or may not have just gotten his first coach fired a few weeks ago. Now which guy are you taking?

Here's the point: Boogie Cousins gets more hype than Greg Monroe; he got drafted two picks ahead of him; his upside seems like it should be higher; he's more fun to follow; he has a better nickname; and he's always going to seem a little more overpowering when he has it going. In the Grantland headquarters, we've probably had 20 Boogie Cousins conversations and 135 moments where Jay Kang cackled, "I LOVE BOOGIE!!!!" I don't remember anyone discussing Greg Monroe even once. I'm not even sure half our staff knows what he looks like. Just know that Sacramento would flip Boogie for Monroe in a cocaine heartbeat … and if the roles were reversed, Detroit would hang up.

GROUP F: "I'm Hanging Up and Calling You Back From a Pay Phone"

21. Andrew Bynum
Has there ever been a better "We'd be selling high if we traded him right now" example? From 2007 through 2011, Bynum played 35, 50, 65 and 54 games. Miraculously, he's played 35 consecutive games this season … in a lockout-shortened season, no less! We keep hearing that Jimmy Dolan 2.0 (a.k.a. Jimmy Buss)3 won't trade Bynum because that's his guy, but man, wouldn't it make sense to flip a healthy-right-now-at-this-moment Bynum for a point guard and/or multiple pieces for one last three-year run behind Kobe and Gasol? What am I missing? Could you get Lowry, Chase Budinger and Luis Scola for him? What about Nash and Gortat? What about Danny Granger and Roy Hibbert? What about Josh Smith, Zaza Pachulia and Jeff Teague? What about Elton Brand, Nik Vucevic and Evan Turner for Bynum and cap fodder? What about … ?

20. Deron Williams
Yeah, what about Deron Williams??? Isn't "Bynum and Steve Blake for Deron and Johan Petro" the single most logical basketball trade any two teams could make right now? Why aren't the Nets frantically trying to trade Williams for a proven name instead of crossing their fingers for the Dwight/Deron era? Why does Williams seem so content to waste his prime running plays for Lakers castoffs and Kardashian castoffs? Why would he ever in a million years re-sign with the Nets unless he thought someone else was coming? Is someone else coming? Why are NBA insiders equally adamant that (a) Dwight and Deron are going to Dallas, and (b) Dwight and Deron are going to Brooklyn? Why does Jay-Z hold so much sway over this situation when he owns 1 percent more of the Nets than you do? Who's going to root for the Brooklyn Nets when we just proved with Linsanity yet again that everyone in New York loves the Knicks? What's going on here? Seriously, what's going on here? Why can't I stop asking questions? Could someone slap me in the back of the head like a wonky TV screen?

19. Carmelo Anthony
Dear New York Knicks fans,

I know you're a little testy right now because Linsanity was so much fun, and now it's not as much fun. I know it's easy to redirect your anger and angst at someone whose name rhymes with "Bardello." Just remember …

A. Your team is struggling because its schedule got tougher post-Linsanity, and because you have a floating bull's-eye on you right now (not because 'Melo came back).

B. You might want to give one of the best pure scorers of the last 20 years a couple more weeks adjusting to TWO new point guards without any real practice time before deciding this situation can't be redeemed (especially when those two point guards are a de facto rookie and someone coming off back surgery who hasn't been relevant in three years).

C. Ask Portland fans what they think of Ray Felton. Ask Denver fans what they think of Timofey Mozgov. You basically acquired Carmelo and the cap space to sign Tyson Chandler for Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler.4 I'm pretty sure ANYONE ON THE F-ING PLANET would make that trade again.

D. You're focusing your frustrations on 'Melo because it allows you to avoid the elephant in the room … you know, Amar'e's uninsured/un-amnesty-able/cap-killing contract ($83 million through 2015), his general doughiness, his egregiously awful defense and the fact that he seems a half-step slow permanently. None of this is Carmelo's fault.

E. I went to Sunday's nationally televised Knicks-Celtics game in Boston. Carmelo made what seemed to be the clinching basket; Pierce made a 3 to tie; then Carmelo had a chance to win the game in regulation. As 'Melo was getting off the shot, everyone in the building had a collective slow-motion heart attack. Noooooooooooooooooo! We all thought that shot was going in. In my opinion, seven 2012 players make opposing fans crap their pants in a big moment: Kobe, Wade, Durant, Rose, Dirk, Carmelo … and just on reputation alone, Ray Allen. If you employ one of those players, you have a better chance of winning the title than everyone else. That's the way basketball works. Everything slows down, the pressure turns suffocating, games swing on one or two possessions, and playoff series hinge on two questions: "Can you get a stop when it matters?" and "Can you get two points when it matters?" You have the second question covered thanks to Carmelo. You need to work on the first question. In short, I think you should give this a few more weeks. You go 10-deep. Your team is scary. Take a deep breath and enjoy the ride … and remember, five years ago, the most riveting Knicks-related story you were following was a sexual-harrassment suit.

Sincerely,
Bill Simmons
President of the "I Still Think Carmelo Can Work in New York" Club5

GROUP E: "You Realize We Could Make the Finals With Him, Right?"

18. Chris Bosh
Someone Who Knows Things told me that — dating back to last summer — Miami's Micky Arison wouldn't even discuss a Howard/Bosh trade with Orlando, which is why you never hear Miami's name mentioned as a possible Dwight destination (and why Dwight conspicuously left them off his trade list). I thought that was interesting. Of course, Chris Bosh isn't THAT good … and you know how much I love conspiracies … and you know I'll always believe to my dying day that LeBron/Wade/Bosh to Miami was decided weeks and maybe even months before The Decision happened (which certainly explains why the 2010 Heat threw away their season for cap space under the "wishful" thinking that Wade would "hopefully" come back and "maybe" recruit some help) … and if that's true, and Bosh was in on it all along and knew where the bodies were buried, wouldn't you be afraid to trade that guy?

(Just nod "yes" so we can move on. Thanks.)6

17. Pau Gasol
This is weird, so bear with me. Somehow, Pau's trade value has become underrated. After the Lakers nearly flipped him for Chris Paul in December, the "they'd never trade Pau" seal was broken and Pau became fair game for any and every trade rumor. Just because they tried to swap him for one of the league's 10 best players — smartly, by the way — doesn't mean they stuck him on Craigslist for the rest of the season. He's still the most skilled offensive big man in basketball and he's only 31. You know you can win a title if he's your second-best player. You know he's one of the few elite guys who can coexist with Kobe. Why trade someone like that? And also, why do I keep giving the Lakers advice? The more I'm thinking about it, trade Pau and keep Bynum — he's made of solid oak!

16. Tony Parker
That whole week of talking heads saying, "I'll tell you who the MVP is right now, it's Tony Parker!" was patently absurd and I'm not dignifying it. If you don't think LeBron is the league's MVP and best regular-season player, I don't know what to tell you — apparently your League Pass is broken. A more interesting angle: Do the Spurs have a Hall of Fame backcourt right now?

You could make a solid case that — factoring in rings (six total for Ginobili and Parker), winning percentage (in the .600s every year), playoff moments (plentiful), All-Star Games (six combined), the international thing (Parker is the best European guard ever; Ginobili is the best South American guard ever),7 styles (each has a couldn't-possibly-be-replicated offensive game), and the fact that both guys aren't close to being done yet (especially Parker) — both guys are headed for Springfield someday. Current backcourts in the Hall of Fame: Cousy/Sharman, Wanzer/Davies, the Jones boys, West/Goodrich, Monroe/Frazier, Isiah/Dumars … and we're done.

Group D: "Jeez, I Don't Know … We Have Him at Such a Good Price Right Now … "

15. Rajon Rondo
Hold on, I have to climb to the highest building in Los Angeles so I can scream this as loudly as I can in all caps: "THE CELTICS AREN'T PANIC-TRADING RAJON RONDO!!!!!!! IT'S NOT HAPPENING!!!! THEY HAVE ONLY TRIED TO TRADE HIM ONE TIME — FOR CHRIS PAUL, ONE OF THE BEST 10 PLAYERS IN THE LEAGUE!!!!! THEY HAVE NO INTEREST IN TRADING A DOLLAR FOR TWO 50-CENT PIECES!!! STOP SAYING OTHERWISE, PEOPLE WHO WRITE/SAY THINGS ABOUT BASKETBALL FOR A LIVING! IF THEY CAN'T GET A BLUE-CHIPPER FOR HIM, THEY ARE KEEPING HIM! MARK MY WORDS!!!!"

The biggest reason why Boston won't trade Rondo: his contract. Four years remaining, $45 million? That's highway robbery.

The second-biggest reason: On TV a few weeks ago, Chris Webber said something that made me say, "I wish I had thought of that first."8 They were talking about trades, and C-Webb pointed out that championship teams are always stubborn. In other words, instead of caving to the whims of their fans, the pressure of the media, the ebbs and flows of a season (or even someone's career) or especially conventional wisdom, they say to themselves, "Screw this, I know what I have, I'm sticking with it."

Now …

That's an awesome point. MJ's Bulls always resisted the urge to trade Pippen. Same for the Mavericks (Dirk), Lakers (Kobe), the Celtics (Pierce), Rockets (Hakeem), Lakers (Kareem)9 and even some lesser examples (the Spurs and Tony Parker circa 2010, the Sixers and Allen Iverson circa 2000, etc.). On the flip side, think of the teams who caved and dealt a signature player: Wilt Chamberlain (twice), Charles Barkley, Elvin Hayes, Jason Kidd, Pau Gasol, Dennis Johnson, Moses Malone, Alonzo Mourning, even C-Webb … for every Stephon Marbury or Bob McAdoo who doesn't haunt their old team, there are many more Barkley-like examples when the team wasn't stubborn enough to say, "No!!!!!" If we've learned anything from NBA history, it's that you should always be extremely wary about trading a blue-chipper without getting a blue-chipper back.

In Rondo's case, he's been playing in Boston just long enough that every Celtics fan can't help but pick apart his game … and yes, I include myself. I have flip-flopped on Rondo more than any sports issue maybe ever. Shit, I might change my mind again before the end of this paragraph. He can't shoot. He's terrified to get fouled — repeat: terrified — which changes how he plays in crunch time (he contorts his body as he's shooting layups to avoid contact). He's been described as "mercurial," "moody," and "an outright dick" behind the scenes. He's also been described as incredibly smart/astute, to the point that nobody would be surprised if he ran his own NBA team someday. He's also mired in a fairly thankless situation, playing on an aging contender with veterans who can't keep up with him; if they kept a statistic for "one-man fast breaks," he'd lead the league.

Don't underestimate the whole Theo Epstein/Larry Lucchino dynamic here; for years and years, Rondo was the "kid," the little brother, the one Pierce, Allen and Garnett teased and bossed around. Remember in Goodfellas when Tommy (Joe Pesci's character) snapped because his former boss kept telling him to go get his shinebox? It wasn't just the comment, it was the lack of respect festering behind it. Tommy knew that, to his old boss, he'd always be the loser who shined his shoes. It bugged him. That's why he flipped out. That's also why Theo left the Red Sox in 2005, and that's the biggest reason why Rondo has such a prickly relationship with Pierce, Allen and Garnett. They knew him when he was 20 years old, when he was holding that shinebox for them. You don't just flip a switch and stop thinking about someone that way.

There's just a lot going on. It's complicated. That's why "Should we trade Rondo?" dominated 70 percent of my conversations in Orlando (All-Star) and Boston (Sloan); I couldn't hash out my own feelings until stumbling across that C-Webb comment. Who knew Chris Webber (traded three times) would emerge as the Yoda of this situation? He's right. It's in Boston's best interests to be stubborn here … and I think Danny Ainge knows that better than anyone. With trade rumors swirling before a nationally televised game last Sunday, Rondo unleashed the "full car wash" package: an 18-17-20 box score that only J-Kidd and Oscar in their primes could have replicated, along with just enough contorting-his-body-to-avoid-contact missed layups to make us shake our heads and say, "Damn, he could have had a 30-20-20." Just know that everyone walked out of that building saying, "We are NOT trading Rondo." Which is exactly where we should have been all along.

(Well, unless you could get one of these next 14 guys.)

14. LaMarcus Aldridge
Here's what you're getting: 21 points and eight rebounds a night, decent defense, and someone who needs to be double-teamed (when he's feeling it) at an extremely fair price. You argue he's the most properly paid player in the league: $12.87 million this year; then $14 million, $15.1 million and $16.26 million. And on that note, I'm mailing in the rest of this paragraph just like the Blazers mailed in the 2011-12 season.

13. Marc Gasol
The reason why I stuck him higher than Aldridge, Gasol and Bosh: defense. He's the best all-around player of the four. Always in the right spot, fun to play with, doesn't need the ball too much … I mean, Memphis just rolled off a 22-12 stretch in a brutal conference with Gasol as their only reliable rebounder/defender. And he's only 27. And he's properly paid with a contract that seems semi-preposterous on paper (four years, $57 million) unless you're watching what he does every night. I am a fan.10

That reminds me: We'll remember 2012 as the year Eli Manning became the best QB in football, two Clippers started in the NBA All-Star Game, Jeremy Lin saved the Knicks, Tim Tebow won an NFL playoff game with an 80-yard touchdown pass, Marc Gasol passed Pau Gasol in the Trade Value column, and David Kahn got a contract extension … and it's not even April yet. The Mayans are having the best "Nobody believed in us!" season ever.

GROUP C: "Lemme Save You Some Time: N-O."

12. Russell Westbrook
11. Kyrie Irving11
A pure financial decision: I'd rather pay Irving $16.1 million from 2012 through 2014 than Westbrook twice as much. Also, if you're scoring at home, I moved past the "deeply regretting ever writing that Cleveland would regret passing on Derrick Williams for Irving" stage and entered the "Maybe I didn't go far enough when I said Kyrie was Kevin Johnson 2.0" stage about three weeks ago. What a gem. Could Cleveland really end up with Kyrie Irving AND Robert Griffin III?

(Add this to the list of kooky things happening in 2012: God no longer hates Cleveland.)

GROUP B: "Only If They Asked to Leave"

10. Dirk Nowitzki
When we taped the B.S. Report with him in Orlando, a beaming Dirk showed up and — as my Grantland colleague Dave Jacoby described it — sat down and basically threw his dick on the table. That "I'm the Finals MVP, we won the title, I came through, I don't have to spend the rest of my life wondering about what-ifs and having everyone pick my career apart" mind-set was practically oozing from his pores.

I can't remember another NBA superstar having his personality transformed by an NBA title; if it happened with, say, Hakeem Olajuwon, I don't remember reading about it. Dirk's next few years will be interesting for historical purposes: In my basketball book, I ranked Bird, Duncan, Havlicek, Baylor, Erving, Pettit, Malone and Barkley as the greatest forwards of all time (in that order). Dirk already leapfrogged the last three; he's about to jump the next three; and if that happens, suddenly he's one of the best 12 or 13 players of all time by any calculation. He's also the greatest international basketball player ever — and actually, you could argue that the distance between Dirk and the next best foreign guy (Gasol, Ginobili) is more like a chasm.12

(Well, unless you count Steve Nash. And I don't. In my opinion, Canada is no less of a foreign country than Texas is. Seriously, who do you have more in common with — Canadians or Texans? I'd trade Texas for Canada in a heartbeat even if the Intercontinental Trade Machine keeps rejecting it.)

9. Kobe Bryant
Pretty interesting career transformation going on here: Kobe slowly morphing into the anti-LeBron, an end-of-the-game killer and basketball-only machine, a man's man who has no problem baiting LeBron during the All-Star Game and derisively telling him, "Shoot the ball" (and threatening LeBron's manhood to some degree). He's done such a savvy job of positioning himself as "The Guy Who Is SO Not Afraid of Big Moments" that it's easy to forget that he's been lousy in big moments (at least this season, as 82games.com tells us). Beyond that, his durability is starting to feel superhuman — you could almost throw "Kobe Bryant injuries" into the Tyson Zone.

Kobe has a concussion and a broken nose? Just give him a mask and some Advil. Kobe broke his left arm in three places? He's listed as "probable" for tonight. Kobe's left leg was severed in a car accident and reattached in a nine-hour surgery? I guess that means he can only play 35 minutes a game instead of 40.

Look, he will never be Jordan. I was there for both. It's not close. But the way Kobe carries himself — at least this season — is starting to feel a little Jordan-esque, especially when you remember that Jordan's greatest feat ever was playing 310 out of 310 games (including playoffs) in a 31-month stretch from November '95 through June '98 (an insanely durable accomplishment that only Kobe could consider pulling off). You know what really impressed me after Kobe's buzzer-beater in Detroit this week? He didn't react even a little. Just walked back to his bench like he knew it was going in. That's the final stage of playing basketball: We watched Bird and Magic get there, and Jordan, and now Kobe. Shaking off a made buzzer-beater? That's when you know you're great. We're watching one of the best basketball careers of all time. Maybe you wouldn't have wanted to play with Kobe Bryant, but you'll always remember him.

8. Chris Paul
7. Dwyane Wade
The dumbest part of the Trade Value column every year: ranking the trade value of guys who will never, ever be traded. By the way, these guys are coming off the bench for the 2012 Olympic basketball team.

6. Dwight Howard
Am I the only one watching Orlando these last few weeks thinking, Wait, with the shooters they have surrounding Dwight right now, couldn't they do a pretty good impersonation of that 2009 Magic team that snuck into the finals? This goes back to the whole "stubborn" point from earlier: Since Orlando doesn't have a killer offer for the league's only overpowering center (and by all accounts, they don't), why not get a little stubborn here, hope you catch fire in the playoffs, then hope your significant financial advantages (thanks to the new lockout agreement) will be enough to sway Dwight to stay? Or does that make too much sense?

Before we get to the Untouchable Five, as promised (from Part 1) here's a link to our blog post of Joakim Noah's hair Photoshopped onto other NBA players. Thanks to Friend of Grantland Neil for the help.

Without further ado …

GROUP A: "Completely and Utterly Untouchable"

5. Blake Griffin
4. Kevin Love
One of the best random Trade Value battles I can remember. Let's break it down:

SALARIES: Blake is still playing under his rookie deal (two years, $12.95 million); Love just signed a lucrative extension (four years, $65 million with an out after Year 3). ADVANTAGE: GRIFFIN

NUMBERS: Blake is averaging 21-11 with 53/20/56 shooting splits and a 23.5 PER; Love is averaging 25.5-14 with 45-37-83 shooting splits and a 25.02 PER … on pace to surpass Duncan's best statistical season ever, by the way.13 ADVANTAGE: LOVE

BIGGEST WEAKNESS: For Griffin, his piss-poor free throw shooting (a real issue that's starting to affect his career). For Love, gravity. ADVANTAGE: LOVE

MEDIA SAVVY: Nobody works Twitter/blogs/ESPN/radio shows better than Love, but Blake's marketing plays (especially his Kia campaign) might be the shrewdest in years. Did anyone even know what the hell Kia was 18 months ago? ADVANTAGE: TIE

"SEEING THEM IN PERSON" FACTOR: This hurts because I love watching Love chase down boards with the sonar rebound chip that's implanted in his head. But this is 100 percent true … there's a rule at Clippers games (at least in my section) that goes, "Don't leave your seat to pee, eat or drink when Blake is on the court." ADVANTAGE: GRIFFIN

DEFENSE: Both guys try their hardest; both guys will never be McHale in his prime (or anywhere close). Love is a little further along only because he always seems to be in the right place; you can't say that about Blake. At least not yet. In Blake's defense, his coach is Vinny Del Negro. If I were Blake, I'd use that defense for anything and everything. Even speeding tickets. ADVANTAGE: LOVE

DURABILITY: Not a problem for either … but man, Griffin needs to start picking his spots better. When you're trying to win a title, you don't need to go for the Greatest YouTube Highlight Ever every time (especially in blowouts, and especially in traffic). Against Miami, Blake made the mistake of trying to dunk over Joel Anthony from eight feet away — just foolish for about 10 different reasons — and nearly ended up breaking his hip. Law of averages says he's going to get hurt one of these times. (Frantically knocking on wood.) Unless he slows down. Then again, that's my favorite thing about Blake: He goes 110 percent every play. He can't help himself.14 ADVANTAGE: LOVE

FACIAL HAIR: Huge win for Love here. A runaway. I don't think Blake can even grow one of those wispy 20-hair Larry Bird mustaches. ADVANTAGE: LOVE

CRUNCH-TIME CHOPS: A work in progress for Griffin, who can be handled by smarter teams who either swarm him with doubles or dare him to shoot 20-footers (and if he gets into the paint, they just foul him). But here's where Love has been a revelation — he's turned himself into a late-game assassin with his ability to shoot 3s, run high screens with Rubio and even post up with his back to the basket (he killed Kenyon Martin late on Wednesday night). ADVANTAGE: LOVE

NICKNAMES: Blake doesn't really need one; he's just "Blake." (Although "The Blake Show" isn't terrible.) Kevin Love's nickname is his full name said together — he's never called "Kevin" or "Love," just "Kevinlove." Boring category. ADVANTAGE: NEITHER

INTANGIBLES: Has there ever been a better in-game dunker than Blake? I saw MJ, 'Nique, Vince and Kemp in their primes — they never dunked on people as relentlessly and violently as Blake does. Meanwhile, Love has locked up the Mokeski Award15 (see the trophy below) for the second straight year. And, probably, for the rest of the decade. I love this category as much as I hated the last category. ADVANTAGE: GRIFFIN

[+] Enlarge

ESPN.COM ILLUSTRATION
FINAL VERDICT: Blake is going to keep getting better and better if only because he wants to get better. But Love transformed himself into the league's best power forward and (in my opinion, anyway) the no. 2 MVP candidate behind LeBron. Nobody does more for his team night after night after night. It's true. ADVANTAGE: LOVE

3. Derrick Rose
2. Kevin Durant
Damn, if we weren't edging toward 10,000 words for Parts 1 and 2, I would have broken this one down, too. Allow me a couple of quick thoughts …

• Over the next few years, we're going to make a big fuss about Kobe becoming the first player to pass 40,000 career points. Just remember, Kevin Durant is closing in on 10,000 points (he'll get there by mid-April) … and he's only 23 years old.

• This is a weird comment that can't be backed up but I'm making it anyway: I don't think any NBA fan base loves a player more than Bulls fans love Derrick Rose. If you went into a Chicago sports bar and started trashing Rose during a Bulls game, you'd get beaten up and left for dead in an alley.

• You'd never think of these guys as our next Bird-Magic rivalry … but when you remember their ages (23), mind-sets (basketball-only, all the time, nothing else matters), positions (one's a guard, the other's a forward), conferences (one East, one West), situations (contenders for each), characters (everything they do is about their team), styles (balls-to-the-wall all the time), crunch-time chops (significant) and humility (you never hear either of these guys talk about himself as a brand, just a basketball player), suddenly that Bird-Magic tag isn't so farfetched. Kobe mentioned recently that he never had a "rival," which was technically true (although I blame Vince and T-Mac for not holding up their ends of the bargain). Rose and Durant have each other. Maybe. Regardless, whenever I think to myself, I love this season, I love the league and I love where we're headed, I think of these two guys first. A good sign for the future.

1. LeBron James16
Stick a fork in the 2012 MVP race. A 28-8-7 with 55/39/79 splits, world-class defense and a staggering 33 PER? Child, please. We spend so much time picking the Regular-Season King apart that it's easy to lose sight of the bigger picture — only Bird, Magic, Kareem, Russell and Wilt ever won three MVP awards in four years. I find it interesting that …

A. If you're starting a "Which Players Peaked With the Best Four-Year Runs?" discussion, you'd have to include 1984-87 Bird (3 MVPs, 2 titles); 1987-90 Magic (3 MVPs, 2 titles); 1990-93 Jordan (2 MVPs, 3 titles);17 1961-64 Russell (3 straight MVPs, 4 titles); 1965-1968 Wilt (3 straight MVPs, 1 title); and 1971-74 Kareem (3 MVPs, 1 title).

B. LeBron would have a chance for four straight MVPs if The Decision didn't unleash last spring's "I just don't feel right about voting for him, I'm picking Derrick Rose" backlash that eventually corrupted too many voters and media people. Including me. Nobody has ever won four straight MVP awards. 2009-12 LeBron and 1990-93 Jordan probably came the closest. And Russell was the only one who won four MVPs in five years.

C. You may have noticed that everyone else on that "three MVPs in four years" list won at least one title. So if Miami blows the title this spring, LeBron really will be making history. No pressure or anything.

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Sean Avery Is No Dennis Rodman

By: timbersfan, 2:32 PM GMT on March 07, 2012

Sean Avery's done a lot to destigmatize fashion and hockey. Four years ago, he spent his NHL offseason as an intern at Vogue. He told the Daily Beast he prefers women's clothes to men's because with women the clothes have a narrative and with men it's just suits and pants — a conclusion he might have come to after guest-editing the Men's Vogue website in 2008. Avery's even spoken out in favor of gay marriage. He told ESPN that as a boy he played with dolls. He likes to psych out opponents by fistfighting in black nail polish.

If it didn't seem so self-serious, The Sean Avery Experience would be a performance stunt, like the only reason to do any of this as a professional athlete is to trick other guys into calling you a fag. But toiling for Anna Wintour is quite a detour just to remind people that you play in a league of Neanderthals. And wouldn't that be rich coming from someone as widely loathed for, among other things, being a Neanderthal?

At his high point — which was about three or four years ago (at the moment he's playing for the Rangers' Connecticut farm team) — Avery was really going for something. He seemed to be out there crusading for some kind of harmony. You always got the sense that he preferred to dress like a woman but had made his peace with being a mere man.

This was all before the rash of homophobia in the NBA helped provoke Dan Savage's It Gets Better campaign. He was practicing a more discreet and furtively inspiring diplomacy. Here was this professional athlete and practicing heterosexual committing himself to fashion. He pitched his devotion as vocation, as some higher calling he just couldn't help. Baby, he was born this way!

It seemed bold back then. Avery wanted to be noticed for both his hockey and his interest in haute couture, for agitating in his sport and away from it, for making people feel weird about whatever fixed idea they have about the genders. He wanted to be Dennis Rodman. But the culture appears to have caught up with him. Who is a male sports star without a line of clothes or a contract with a big fashion company? And Dan Savage, as it turns out, is better qualified to be Dan Savage. Avery's been usurped. He's been normalized.

Without his perch in the NHL, and looking for both legitimacy and a provocation, Avery now appears to have entered a self-parody phase. He's become Anna Wintour. Or at least that's what he appeared to be going for as a guest judge on a recent Project Runway All Stars. Week 5's challenge required contestants to make a new garment inspired by clothes they bought off the backs of strangers in New York's Union Square Park.

Avery didn't appear until the final 15 minutes, and for the microscopic sliver of the Venn diagram where sports fans and this show meet, it was surely heaven. It's possible that the sliver isn't so microscopic, after all. The genius of Project Runway is the way it turns fashion into sport. Bragging and bullying on a singing show is distasteful. Bragging and bullying on Project Runway ensures a skate to the final four. In any case, the challenge produced some lovely women's clothes made by an assortment of fashion nerds and stress cases.

It was an opportunity to see tomorrow's designers today and to catch a glimpse of what Avery's been up to. Attempts to glean an answer from this episode proved inconclusive. Avery didn't say much. He was going for "strange sports dude." He wore tinted glasses and lots of black. He looked like he had a disease — the Kors, perhaps. While the show's regular judges, Isaac Mizrahi and Georgina Chapman, talked about how much they love themselves a jumpsuit, Avery just sat there, slumped. He perked up a bit as the discussion of the challenge's very best and very worst designs turned to Michael Costello's leather-belted bathing suit, a barely-there travesty that not even Michael's model could rouse herself to sell to the judges. Avery read aloud what he had written down about the outfit: "Lady Gaga and Gwen Stefani at Burning Man on acid." He said it with a kind of groggy bitchiness. The agitator couldn't get it up — or, rather, he wouldn't.

Sometimes with TV, people misunderstand what the camera does to them. Avery might have been aiming for Wintour's sangfroid. But he was mired in Joaquin Phoenix's "I'm Still Here" bloat. The microscopic sliver might have been hoping for what I was hoping for, too: that Avery and Mizrahi would form an instant bond of catty perception and enthusiastic support, that every exchange these two shared would become a golden television moment, that Avery would use this platform to advance some kind of inter-orientational mind-meld PR stunt the way Elton John and Eminem did at the 2001 Grammys. What we got was Mizrahi mentioning that Jerell Scott's barely-there design made the model's stomach look big and Avery saying, "You should never refer to a woman's stomach as 'big.'"

It was as if Avery rewatched his old interviews and profiles, as if he'd seen other tough young guys in other sports experiment with their clothes and their images, and thought he'd done his part and it was time to move on. Whatever he was doing on Runway felt like a restigmatization. If he can't be at the forefront, then he'll undermine everything by turning back into a Neanderthal again.

It's too late to turn back now, though. He must know that, which is why he indulged himself with a bad bit of crypto performance art. Was he still trying to dissolve the contradiction between sports and fashion? Was he trying to prove there was no contradiction in the first place? Was he Sean Avery or "Sean Avery"? He didn't undo on Runway what he's accomplished. He can't. He was part of an important shift in making straight dudes comfortable in a gay cultural neighborhood. It's possible his comments were edited down to nothing, that being a judge on this show would suck the life out of anybody. But rather than advancing the conversation he helped start, he kept quiet long enough to make you wonder whether all that diplomacy was real. On Runway, he seemed irrelevant.

Permalink

Do Trade Rumors Help Rajon Rondo?

By: timbersfan, 2:27 PM GMT on March 07, 2012

Here's Kevin Garnett, explaining Rajon Rondo's insane stat line — 18 points! 17 rebounds!! 20 assists!!! — against the New York Knicks, which came in the midst of heavy trade rumors Sunday: “I've been around [enough] him to know when he's motivated and when he's more than motivated. Tonight was one of those nights. The trade talks really is a motivating factor for him. If you know Rondo, he's an 'I'll-show-you' type of person." Here's Rondo himself, after the game: “I think I’ve been playing better since the trade rumors, so keep them going.” And here's the rest of the world (at least according to a condensed Twitter reading): “Ahhhhdhoowhwhwhahhhdkdkaahhhhh!!! Rondo just told Danny Ainge to get off the damn phone!!!”

If you want to know whether the Boston Celtics will truly squash the trade chatter in the light of Rondo's bonkers performance — then, sorry, that's not so clear. But if you want to know whether Rondo really does play better when he's pissed off — well, we can try to find an answer for you. Thanks to his oddly uneven skill set and his, shall we say, tempestuous nature, Rondo has found himself in the middle of more speculative trade talk than the USITC. (It's a quasi-judicial federal trade commission. It provides information on matters of international trade and competitiveness. Um, never mind.) So, does he actually perform better in the midst of trade rumors? Does he truly use rage as fuel? Has Ainge been maniacally incepting Rajon Rondo for years?! Let a reverse chronological breakdown shed some light.

March 2012

The Rumors: ESPN's Chris Broussard reports that, once again, the Celtics are “aggressively trying to trade Rajon Rondo.” Also, once again, everyone maybe hates him: “Celtics find Rondo's personality to be too high-maintenance and his clashes with coach Doc Rivers remain an off-court distraction." The specific targets for Boston include the Lakers' Pau Gasol and the Warriors' Stephen Curry, with the latter trade either not happening because Golden State straight balked, or because Boston was concerned about Curry's history of ankle injuries.

The Reaction: He lays down a monster! In 48 minutes of action (plus every minute of OT) against the Knicks on Sunday, Rondo tallies the aforementioned 18 points, 17 rebounds, and 20 assists, and tacks on a steal and a block for good measure. The last guy to get a triple-double with 17 or more in three statistical categories? That'd be Magic Johnson, back in 1989. (And not since 1968, when Wilt did it, has anyone gone for 20 or more in three categories.) Making it more impressive was the fact that the Celts needed every last one of Rondo's manifold statistical achievements to claim victory in what was another tight New York-Boston battle.

And the kid does it in style:


This seems like a good time to note that Rondo has long made a habit out of showing up to high-profile games, whether or not the high-profile-ity of them has to do with a rumored end of his Celtics tenure. As Sean Grande writes: "13 of Rondo's 17 career triple-doubles have now come in nationally televised games. Last year, his season-high 26-point game was on national TV, as were 6 of his top 8 assist games. In 2010, Rondo's top two rebounding games, 13 and 11, both came in, yep, national TV games. And in 2009, his 32-point destruction of Steve Nash, which was his career-high until two weeks ago, was a Sunday afternoon ABC game." Also: You should see just how he turns up his roller-skating when the pressure is on!
November 2011

The Rumors: The Rondo-for-Chris Paul chatter was heard loud and clear, with the word being that Ainge was on the hunt for a third team to make the trade palatable for the Hornets. Meanwhile, Yahoo! reported that the Pacers were interested in Rondo, and that "[t]he Celtics have been gauging Rondo’s trade value for more than a year, and have held discussions with teams about him across the past few trade deadlines and NBA drafts. There have long been divides within Boston’s front office, coaching staff and locker room about Rondo. He can be moody, difficult and stubborn.” Later, Ainge denied the reports with one of his classic should-sound-definitive-but-somehow-doesn't-at-all comments: “Rondo will be fine. Rondo knows that we love him. He knows that we like him.”

The Reaction: Because of the NBA lockout, it'd be several weeks before Rondo could respond on the court. But when he did — in the first game of the season against the Knicks on Christmas Day — it was another valiant effort: In a Celtics loss (Paul Pierce wasn't back in the lineup yet), Rondo tallied 31 points, 13 assists, five steals, and five rebounds.

One more thing: In late November Broussard tweeted that after last year's playoffs, “Boston offered Rondo & Jeff Green to OKC for Westbrook & KPerkins after last season's playoffs. OKC was not interested, sources say.” Because there's no clear indication as to when Rondo heard about this proposed trade, I like to pretend that it was five minutes before he laced 'em up for the State Farm Big Blue All-Stars Tour, and that he responded to those trade rumors doing this:


February 2011

The Rumors: OK, so this particular entry has nothing to do with trade rumors, but bear with me for a minute. Last February, Rondo's pal Kendrick Perkins — remember, they were the two young guys starting alongside the Hall of Fame Big Three — was traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder. The move broke up the starting five that had won a title in 2008, and shocked fans; it's probably fair to assume that Perkins's teammates didn't really see it coming, either. So, yes, this time we're talking about the effect not of trade rumors on young Rondo, but rather the controversial trading of his center. How would Rajon — who, and I really don't know if anyone has ever mentioned this to you before, can just be kind of moody sometimes — handle it?

The Reaction: Not well! The next game after the trade, the Celts played the Clippers, and Rondo had 11 assists alongside seven turnovers. Also, in 34 minutes, he only shot the ball twice. It was a harbinger of the rest of the season. Sporting News reports: “Before the trade, Rondo averaged 10.8 points on 50.9 percent shooting, with 12.3 assists. After, he was down to 9.8 points on 41.6 percent shooting, with 9.2 assists.” Some troubles, it turns out, Rondo's not so great at playing through.
June 2009

The Rumors: Rondo and Ray Allen to the Pistons for Richard Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, and Rodney Stuckey. Said Yahoo!: “Boston general manager Danny Ainge and Detroit's Joe Dumars never spoke, but rather the Celtics had a lower-level executive make the pitch to a Pistons official over the past weekend, league sources said. Detroit immediately rejected the idea, and it never advanced to the two top executives speaking about particulars." But that's not all! Also on the table at various points that summer was a trade with Brian Scalabrine to Memphis for Rudy Gay, Mike Conley, and the no. 2 pick, and another to Phoenix, with Allen again, for Amar'e Stoudemire, Leandro Barbosa, and the no. 14 pick. And, of course, there were those familiar concerns over whether Rondo was, you know, a dick. According to ESPN: “There were maturity issues. Rondo called a team meeting late in the season which was destined to backfire from the outset. It did … Rondo can be high maintenance or, as his agent prefers to say, 'he's complicated.'”

The Response: Again, Rondo had to wait a while until actually getting on the court. Once he did, in the season opener against the Cavs, he had himself a stellar, if unspectacular, Rondo performance: 4-of-8 shooting for eight points, 10 assists, six rebounds, and three steals. And Boston did win, shutting down the then newly minted Shaq-and-LeBron show in its first outing. But, as the Sporting News speculated, that summer's grip of trade talks might have had less to do with spurring on-court performance as it did with bringing Rondo's price down. That offseason, Rajon was negotiating his extension, which ended up being the highly reasonable $55 million for five years.

And here's more grist for the “Ainge drops Rondo trade talk the way Leonardo DiCaprio incepts rich guys” point of view: If Danny wanted to trade Rajon now, he could, thanks to that insane triple-double — after an insane triple-double just maybe spurred by trade talks in the first place — do it with the young man's resale value at a marked high. [Bwaaaaahng.]

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The Saints, Head-hunting, and (Another) Disaster for the NFL

By: timbersfan, 2:25 PM GMT on March 07, 2012

Over the weekend, Harvard opened up its museums to the public for free. It was Parents Weekend, and the long corridors and exhibit halls were jammed with parents, uncles, and noisy younger siblings getting under everyone's feet and wondering why there was a rule against climbing up the dinosaur skeletons. At one point, I got shuffled along into a corner of the Mesoamerican exhibit in the Peabody that contained artifacts from the Copan, an ancient Mayan ballyard. Things went hard for the players back in those days. Most of them were captives taken in war, and many of them wound up beheaded, or as the prime attractions in some other kind of ritual bloodletting. As President Jed Bartlet once said, "If the Oscars were like that, I'd watch," but, still, it's plain that the Mayan ballplayers needed a union and some decent workplace protections. However, after what we learned about what may have been going on in New Orleans — and maybe in Washington — I have to admit that it was rather refreshing to be confronted with some good, honest paganism for a change.

Think of all the illusions about the National Football League that the revelations of a bounty program in New Orleans shatter. Think of all the silly pretensions those revelations deflate. The preposterous prayer circles at midfield. The weepy tinpot patriotism of the flyovers and the martial music. The dime-store Americanism that's draped on anything that moves. The suffocating corporate miasma that attends everything the league does — from the groaning buffet tables at the Super Bowl to the Queegish fascination with headbands and sock lengths while teams are paying "bounties" to tee up the stars of your game so they don't get to play anymore. What we have here now is the face of organized savagery, plain and simple, and no amount of commercials showing happy kids cavorting with your dinged-up superstars can ameliorate any of that.

Which is why Roger Goodell is going to land on the Saints, and on their coaches, as hard as he possibly can. It's not so much that they allegedly paid players to injure other players. That's just the public-relations side of the punishment to come. Goodell can see the day when one of these idiotic bounty programs gets somebody horribly maimed or even killed, and he can see even more clearly the limitless vista of lawsuits that would proceed from such an event. But what the Saints will truly be punished for is the unpardonable crime of ripping aside the veil. For years, sensitive people in and out of my business drew a bright moral line between boxing and football. Boxing, they said, gently stroking their personal ethical code as if they were petting a cat, is a sport where the athletes are deliberately trying to injure each other. On the other hand, football is a violent sport wherein crippling injuries are merely an inevitable byproduct of the game. I always admired their ability to make so measured — and so cosmetic — a moral judgment. This was how those sensitive people justified condemning boxing while celebrating football, and, I suspect, how many of them managed to sleep at night after doing so.

The entire existence of the NFL — and of football at any level, for all of that — rests on whether or not the game can keep fooling itself, and its paying fan base, that it is somehow superior to boxing and to the rest of our modern blood sports. That's how it gets the upmarket ad revenue that is still leery of, say, those barbarians who compete in MMA. That's what keeps the luxury boxes filled with executives from BMW and Sony, and not with guys peddling cheap legal services and discount gold. That's why the NFL was so unpardonably dilatory to come around on the issue of head injuries. To recognize that head injuries were as essential a part of football as they are of boxing would be to erase the fine distinction on which the game's respectability rested.

If the primary defense being mounted is true — if the Saints were not alone and if "everybody" does it — then professional football is simply a moral morass with instant replay.
What reportedly happened in New Orleans makes a mockery of all of that fine Jesuitical moral parsing. Players were paid $1,000 for a "knockout hit" and another $1,000 if a player were to be carried off the field. These events were not incidental to the playing of the game. They were an essential part of it. The players who participated in the program did not do so accidentally. The coaches who designed the program did not do it without knowing full well what it entailed, including the possibility of retaliation if the story ever got out, and a subsequent football arms race that would end up with someone dead on the field. The ownership that claims it didn't know simply didn't want to know. And, if the primary defense being mounted in certain quarters of the league's kept press is true, if the Saints were not alone and if "everybody" does it, then professional football is simply a moral morass with instant replay.

We may well be reaching something of a tipping point in our relationship with our true national pastime. Football was always a deal we made with ourselves. We adopted it for its brutality, which was embedded in a context that happened to be perfectly suited to television and to gambling, but which we could convince ourselves was only incidental to our enjoyment because it was only incidental to the game itself. But the players got bigger, and even the unsolicited hits got louder, and the damage to the athletes soon became too obvious to ignore. Dave Duerson kills himself. Chris Henry dies at 26, and an autopsy shows that he has the brain of a 70-year-old Alzheimer's patient. Terry Bradshaw admits that the six concussions he suffered while playing for the Pittsburgh Steelers have cost him a good piece of his short-term memory. Science, that great murderer of comfortable illusions, continues to increasingly undermine the bargain we'd cut for ourselves with the game.

Gradually, football has seen its appeal slip at the most basic levels. Pediatricians are advising parents not to let young children play organized football too early in life. Local high schools are looking at skyrocketing insurance rates and wondering, in a time when school budgets are being squeezed to a pulp all over the country, whether this particular game is worth the candle. Major college programs have all the economic problems present in the high schools combined with all the workplace-safety issues with which the NFL is grappling. Football may be losing some of what once appeared to be its unbreakable purchase on the country's soul. If the politics of the past two years have taught us anything, it's that the people of this country can be made to react viscerally to two issues in particular: their personal economies and the perceived well-being of their children. At the moment, football seems to be slipping onto the wrong side of both those volatile concerns.

This is something worse, though, particularly in the context of the NFL's conspicuous — and rather newly minted — concern over the brain injuries suffered by its players. Everybody in the league knows that the NFL is trying to make the game at least nominally safer. Everybody in the league knows why it's trying to do that. They've read the studies. They know what the data indicates. How does a team establish a bounty program in the face of what it knows the league is trying to do? What kind of thinking drives a team to do it in the face of all the grisly data that keeps piling up? The people in New Orleans were aware of the consequences of the everyday violence of the sport. They didn't need to create performance bonuses for extraneous brutality. For the Saints to put in that program at this particular moment in time is evidence of a moral chaos in the game's essential culture that may very well be unredeemable. It is to make everyone complicit in unprincipled barbarism in the guise of professional sport. Good, honest pagan savagery is looking better and better by the day.

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NBA Rookie Rankings VIII

By: timbersfan, 2:24 PM GMT on March 07, 2012

Now that we've reached the second half of the NBA season, we're finally seeing some stability in the Rookie Rankings. Of this week's top 10, seven also made the list before the All-Star break. (Although, that number is somewhat deceptive because three players from the previous top 10 have been moved to the injured list; they have missed more than 50 percent of their games since the last list.) The NBA teams must be relieved that their rookies are not falling victim to the rookie wall. Despite the breakneck schedule of this condensed season, expect to see strong performances from these rookies through the next few months. Now, on to the rankings.

1. Kyrie Irving

Last June before the draft, I compared Kyrie Irving's game to Derrick Rose's, noting that he favored his left hand 62.9 percent of the time when isolating at the top of the key. In that same post, I wrote:

If Irving wants to become a Derrick Rose-type threat in isolation situations, he is going to have to develop a comfort level with both hands. One of the things that makes Derrick Rose so dangerous is ... he is a threat to go either way ... If these struggles [for Irving] going right continue in the pros, defenses will start to force Irving right, taking him away from his area of strength ...
My biggest concern was that defenses would attack his left hand, forcing him to put the ball on the floor and go right — similar to how defenses have begun to guard Jeremy Lin. But Irving is still very successful from the top of the key. According to data from Synergy Sports, Irving is posting a points per possession (PPP) of 1.333 in "top isolations," among the top 2 percent of all NBA players. Most notably, defenses have not been able to stop Irving from his preferred move: He has landed in this top 2 percent while still going left 63.6 percent of the time. In fact, when Irving attacks the basket from the left side, he is posting the best PPP among all NBA players, scoring 1.467 points per possession:



Irving tends to finish with his right hand when he drives left out of an isolation. This may not be the most fundamentally sound way to finish, but Irving throws off the defense by using his right hand on the left side. Additionally, Irving deftly uses the the basket as a pick when he takes the ball to the right side of the hoop, thus preventing the defense from altering his shot.

2. Ricky Rubio

We already know that Ricky Rubio is a fantastic passer with a knack for getting his teammates involved, and the numbers confirm it. According to Synergy, Rubio creates 1.35 points per possession off his assists, among the top 3 percent of the league. He excels particularly in the half court: 41.4 percent of his assists result in 3-point shots:

When Rubio attacks the lane, he is constantly looking for an open teammate, always aware of where the help defense is coming from. Usually the defense collapses in on Rubio, with the helper coming from behind the 3-point line. He recognizes this quickly and gets the ball to his open teammate.

3. Isaiah Thomas

If I've made one mistake, it's that I haven't recognized the play of Isaiah Thomas before. Thomas excels with the pick-and-roll, a play he runs 23.9 percent of the time. He posts a PPP of 0.9222 in pick-and-roll situations, among the top 13 percent in the league. Thomas has been successful because he can knock down a jumper as he comes off a screen, shooting 42.9 percent and posting a PPP of 1.034, again placing him in the top 13 percent. If he drives all the way to the basket off a ball screen, he posts a PPP of 1.438, putting him in the top 3:


Thomas skillfully adjusts his play based on what the defense throws at him. If he is given any space, he pulls up and knocks down a jumper. If a big comes over to help, Thomas can get around him and drive to the basket. This good decision-making is matched by an impressive hesitation dribble (as seen in the final clip above), all of which make Thomas very effective off ball screens.

4. Klay Thompson

Klay Thompson is a fantastic shooter, knocking down 54.1 percent of his spot-up jumpers and posting a PPP of 1.403, which places him in the top 1 percent of all NBA players. But Thompson's problem is that he can't create his own shot and he struggles when defenders play him closely. In isolation situations, Thompson is in the bottom 10 percent of the league with a PPP of 0.444, he shoots just 22.7 percent, and he turns it over 18.5 percent of the time.


Now that Thompson is exposed as a catch-and-shoot specialist, defenses will extend on him, keeping him far away from the basket. He needs to adjust his game and learn to get to the rim from the isolation. As of now, he frequently can't get by his man, resulting in ill-advised jumpers or turnovers. And when he is able to get past the defender, Thompson makes poor decisions about whether he should pick up his dribble or drive all the way to the rim. He needs to make the defense respect his dribble penetration by adding a midrange jumper and a floater to his game. If he does that, he'll be very hard to defend.

5. Enes Kanter

Even though he is 6-foot-11, Enes Kanter only posts a 0.542 PPP when he posts up, which puts him in the bottom 13 percent. Where Kanter does excel, though, is on offensive rebounds. Here he is in the top half of the NBA with a PPP of 1.088 on putback attempts while shooting 54.7 percent; offensive rebounds account for 31.9 percent of his possessions. Despite how raw he is offensively, Kanter already has the necessary fundamentals on the boards:



He locates the ball as it goes up, understands where it will come off the rim, and gets to the right spot to secure the basketball. Then he keeps the ball high and goes right back up before the defense can recover. This is particularly impressive in a young player like Kanter because he is relatively undersized.

6. MarShon Brooks

Brooks is undoubtedly one of the best isolation scorers. He is in the top 8 percent of the league with a PPP of 0.991 in these plays, and he makes 46.5 percent of his shots. However, he has yet to find his rhythm in catch-and-shoot situations. He is shooting just 34.1 percent overall and 31.6 percent in catch-and-shoots when defended. His main problem is shot selection. Nearly half (46.3 percent) of Brooks's catch-and-shoot jumpers are considered guarded, according to Synergy Sports. Instead of contested catch-and-shoot jumpers, why not throw a pump fake? Or why not create an isolation — in which he excels — by catching the ball, facing up, and then attacking the rim? Once Brooks gets a better understanding of his strengths and weaknesses, he will turn into a much more efficient offensive player.

7. Kawhi Leonard

As a rookie on a team featuring Tim Duncan, Kawhi Leonard should not expect many set plays designed for him. Thus, he needs to become a master at moving without the ball to create opportunities for himself — which is exactly what Leonard has done. He posts a PPP of 1.387 when cutting to the rim, placing him in the top 13 percent of all NBA players. When he cuts while his teammate posts up, Leonard has the highest PPP in the league, scoring 1.727 points per possession, which means he scores almost every time, and converting 88.9 percent of these opportunities. Leonard has a great feel for exploiting the defense, adroitly recognizing when his defender turns his head and when to cut off of his defender's back. He is a great complement to Duncan's post game.

8. Kemba Walker

Though Kemba Walker may shoot too often, he is in fact a good, confident shooter. Jumpers make up 80.4 percent of Walker's shot attempts, with 61 percent of those coming off the dribble. Confidence is not the only reason he shoots so much, though; he is a very poor finisher by the rim. According to Synergy, Walker has scored 48 points on 54 shot attempts around the rim, actually scoring on well under half, placing him in the bottom 12 percent of all NBA players. Walker's bigger problem by the basket is that he hardly draws fouls. On his shot attempts around the rim, he has gotten to the free throw line just 4.6 percent of the time. To be an efficient player, he needs to be able to pose a threat and finish at the rim.

9. Kenneth Faried

Kenneth Faried has proven his reputation as a tremendous effort guy. He plays very impressive defense in the post, holding players to a PPP of 0.5888, which places him among the top 10 percent of all defenders. He uses his size (he's 6-foot-8) and strength to his advantage, and he does it without fouling. Faried has committed fouls in post-up situations just 5.9 percent of the time, a very low number for a rookie defender as aggressive and strong as Faried. This combination of strength and finesse is something you don't often see in bigs, especially rookies. He has the potential to turn into one of the best post defenders in the NBA.

10. Derrick Williams

Much like MarShon Brooks, Derrick Williams has become one of the best isolation scorers in the NBA. He is in the top 15 percent with a PPP of 0.920. Williams is especially impressive when he isolates at the top of the key. From there he scores one point per possession, placing him in the top 11 percent of all NBA players. So far this season, Williams has driven left 33 percent of the time, driven right 33 percent of the time, and taken a shot without dribbling 33 percent of the time. He forces his defenders to play him closely because he just doesn't have a weak side.

The Rest: Markieff Morris, Brandon Knight, Gustavo Ayon
Injured List: Iman Shumpert, Bismack Biyombo

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Person of Interest: Rasheed Wallace

By: timbersfan, 2:23 PM GMT on March 07, 2012

The week before the All-Star break, several news outlets reported that Rasheed Wallace had come out of retirement to play with the Lakers. That news turned out to be nothing but another Internet rumor, but it got me thinking about Rasheed's career.

Over two years in Chapel Hill and 15 more in the NBA, Rasheed Wallace was a study in negative space. His histrionics provided fans and media with a very sports-talkable, "polarizing" figure, but the fascination with Rasheed, especially in his later years, usually didn't come from what he did on the court, his various "off-the-court troubles," or even what police officers might have found in his car. Because there was such a profound, seemingly meaningful distance between the "Ball Don't Lie" Rasheed — a gregarious, hysterical guy who probably cared about basketball the exact right amount — and his reputation as a technical-fouling, weed-smoking, Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals-choking, towel-throwing malcontent, his fans sought him out in the chatter accidentally picked up by courtside microphones, in the appliances he put in his bathroom, in the glowing testimonials from teammates about the intelligence of Rasheed Wallace. His image, perhaps more than any other athlete of his generation, was fueled by wild speculation. "Both teams played hard, my man," Rasheed's go-to response to ward off reporters, brought his fans closer, and, for those with perhaps too much faith, cast a skeptical eye on just how much beat reporters and columnists could actually tell you about a basketball player. But outside of those video snippets and the occasional funny anecdote, Rasheed never really gave you much more than the wink, the nod, and the "both teams played hard."

And yet, he gave just enough to become one of the most beloved players of the past 20 years. His in-your-face humanity takes most of the credit for that feat, but the fact that all it took was a couple jokes, one championship, and a whole lot of technical fouls shows the wariness and outright contempt the NBA's younger fans felt toward the traditional sports-talky model of the athlete as role model and ambassador for all bland, generic virtues of sportsmanship and dignity.

You can't be an NBA fan without building up a straw man or two. Just as the SABR nerds shake their fists at something called "Murray Chass," which, in truth, may or may not exist, the generation of basketball fans who grew up with Iverson and the Fab Five have built their own golem: the crusty old sportswriter who hates hip-hop, only lionizes white players, talks mostly in racial euphemisms, and truly believes, in his heart, that four years in college is God's greatest gift to mankind. Rasheed, even more than Iverson, became the hero for young NBA fans who wanted their players to stonewall the golem with, "Both teams played hard, my man." He was the liberated, talking man in a league obsessed with the creation of relatable, worldwide brands.


Before he became the dude who launched a thousand basketball blogs, Rasheed Wallace was the bogeyman of my middle school. In Chapel Hill, all moral lessons ultimately get distilled through basketball, and so I can remember seeing photos of the Tar Heels' 1993 freshman class and hearing talk about a different breed of recruit. I remember watching the generic yet faithfully repeated hand-wringing over who had said what about staying all four years and all the little raptures that might get set into motion if Rasheed Wallace, Jerry Stackhouse, or Jeff McInnis decided to leave school early for the NBA. The previous spring, a group of overachieving upperclassmen had beaten Michigan and won a national championship. While the town's old lefty academics tried to wrangle cultural significance from the spectacle of the Fab Five, their children flocked to the Tar Heel Barbershop and ordered "The Montross."

Two months later, Rasheed, Stackhouse, and McInnis arrived to a Chapel Hill overrun by adolescents with high-and-tights and a fan base that conflated the blackness and the youth of their new recruiting class with the freshly vanquished Fab Five. It was a strange marriage from the start — Eric Montross, Derrick Phelps, Donald Williams, Brian Reese, and a gangly 7-footer named Kevin Salvadori were all back from the championship team, along with a sweet-shooting, lushly coiffed sophomore guard named Dante Calabria. The Dean Smith basketball factory always mirrored the liberal, academic, yet thoroughly Southern politics of its host city. Smith, the first coach at a major Southern university to recruit and play a black player, promptly stuck Charlie Scott and all his offensive firepower within the confines of the Four Corner offense. Smith famously refused to play freshmen, until a very talented freshman named Michael Jordan forced his hand in 1982. And so, as the early reports began to filter through Chapel Hill in the summer of 1993, all of them saying that the freshmen were already better than the upperclassmen, the usual divide opened up between the town's staunch basketball traditionalists and all the transplants who secretly wanted to see the Fab Five take down the profound stiffness of Phelps, George Lynch, and Montross.

Rasheed Wallace, of course, became the central figure in Chapel Hill's civil war between old and new. Stackhouse and McInnis were more traditional Carolina recruits — both had grown up in-state and played at prep powerhouse and ACC feeder Oak Hill Academy. Rasheed came from Simon Gratz, an inner-city high school in Philadelphia. Dean Smith had recruited players from big Northeastern cities before — Brian Reese, who started over Stackhouse, was from the Bronx — but none had come with Rasheed's reputation. Before signing on at Carolina, Wallace had failed on multiple occasions to get the 700 SAT score necessary to compete as a student-athlete in the Atlantic Coast Conference. He was famously ejected from the McDonald's All-American game. According to his legend, in an early scrimmage, Wallace dunked on Montross and Salvadori and screamed, "Your job is mine!" Stories like this kept popping up during Wallace's freshman season, and, as so often happens in college towns that house major collegiate athletic programs, nearly everything said about Rasheed, Stackhouse, and McInnis was (a) distorted and (b) ubiquitous.

In a science class in seventh grade, my tablemates and I were asked to design a space station. For all the usual rebellious reasons, we created the Rasheed Wallace space station, complete with a bald spot loading dock. Our teacher, a very young, perpetually nervous woman who, among other traits noticed by the adolescent male, owned a dazzling collection of form-fitting skirts, asked us to redo the assignment. The reason? She didn't think the Rasheed Wallace space station was "appropriate."


I don't think it ever changed much for Rasheed. In Chapel Hill, he sparked talk of wasted potential, anger management, selfishness, and how a lack of discipline could bankrupt a wealth of basketball talent. This line of discussion about Rasheed Wallace persisted for the next 15 years, through Washington, Portland, Detroit, and ultimately Boston. But it's a mistake to think that this was just a product of media laziness (that came later), where an athlete can never break out of his original casting. Rather, Rasheed just kept finding ways to incense those moral watchdogs, who, for whatever silly reason, choose collegiate and professional sports as their medium for judgment and self-aggrandizement. This isn't to apologize for Rasheed's missteps, both off-court and on, but the discussion surrounding him always seemed to be amplified into something that reached past basketball and its vague code of conduct. As happened in Chapel Hill, Rasheed divided fans in the NBA because he found himself at the center of nearly every tired basketball argument. He arguably did not live up to his potential. He arguably did not take the responsibility of being a role model very seriously. He arguably placed himself over his team and derailed what could have been a championship team in Portland. He was arguably one of the most beloved players in the league, especially among the population of hoop heads who automatically celebrated anything that rankled the traditional pundits.

Allen Iverson will always be the league's "hip-hop" (whatever that means) antihero, but his consistent excellence and the grim, machine-like style with which he played kept his fans at arm's length. You didn't love Allen Iverson as much as you appreciated him, respected him, or feared him. Rasheed, despite his troubles, was always more accessible, more open to discussion. This, in part, came from that aforementioned potential. With Iverson, there was never any doubt that he was playing at the height of his talents. However you might feel about his demeanor on the court, you recognized it as a necessary evil. Rasheed always left himself open to the frustrations of a public who continually fantasizes about how a tweak in "attitude" or "lifestyle" can lead to 25-point scoring averages, enhanced teamwork, and championships.

Portland didn't help. Rasheed was arguably the best player on seven playoff teams for the Trail Blazers, including the 1999-2000 team that choked away Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals. But like Chapel Hill, Portland is a city where basketball matters way too much. It's unfair and simplistic to blankly state that race was the only factor in the Jail Blazers' problems with their host city — Clyde Drexler and Terry Porter are still heroes in Portland. Kevin Duckworth had a port named after him. According to Ben Golliver, a Portland native who writes about the team at blazersedge.com, Rasheed's problems with the city arose from a litany of very specific incongruities. "When you put Rasheed Wallace in Portland," Golliver explained, "every player in Portland is under great scrutiny, for better or for worse. If you act like Clyde Drexler and shake everyone's hand and talk to kids, you'll be a god in this city. If you come in and don't really care about that sort of stuff and have some minor baggage, you'll get lambasted by fans who expect you to be a perfect gentleman."

In the early aughts, Rasheed tried to reach out to the Blazer fan base by hosting a radio show on Jammin' 95.5, Portland's only hip-hop station. Wallace and a friend mostly played underground Philly hip-hop and spat freestyles over instrumental tracks. "There was a younger generation of Blazer fans who loved Rasheed and really wanted to get to know him," Golliver said, "but how many people in Oregon really know how to process that? He'd try to find outlets to express who he was, but unfortunately, we're just not the type of city to accommodate that sort of guy."

Portland's close and troubled relationship with marijuana made things even more difficult for the man whom Peter Vecsey unrelentingly referred to as "Rashweed." The city has long since been associated with pot-smoking hippies, a fact not particularly embraced by its more conservative, wealthy base. "A lot of the season-ticket holders try to create a divide between themselves and the town's pot smokers," Golliver explained. "When the players are conforming to 'hippie patterns,' those season-ticket holders will react more violently. Honestly, if weed wasn't such a polarizing issue here in Portland, I don't think Rasheed would've gotten it as bad."

Of course, nearly all of this would have been forgiven if Rasheed, who scored 30 points in that fateful Game 7, but who contributed six of the team's 13 straight missed shots down the stretch, had been able to carry the Blazers to the NBA Finals. But the Blazers never achieved their expected level of success, and fans and media members who were looking for an easy scapegoat focused on Wallace and how everything that didn't make him the prototypical, model athlete doubled as a reason for his team's failures.

Rasheed played three more years with the Blazers. Those teams won 50, 49, and 50 games, but each lost in the first round of the playoffs. When he was finally traded to the Hawks for a game and then to the Pistons, Portland's patience with their talented power forward and his supporting cast had run its course. "The city's perception of a kid from inner-city Philly came from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air," Golliver said. "We thought we could mold him. The reality, of course, was that Rasheed Wallace wasn't Will Smith."

In Detroit, Rashweed became 'Sheed and displayed the unique talents that had been mostly hidden from the greater basketball public. His antics, which had once seemed menacing and petulant, took on a different tone with the team-first 2004 Pistons. Before Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Pacers, he became Guaransheed. His relationship with the media began to change, in part, because outside of his rookie season with the Bullets, Detroit was the first town where Rasheed wasn't the center of all discussions about sports and ethics. When the Pistons beat the Lakers in the Finals and all his teammates began talking about the Rasheed Wallace that most people didn't know, his legacy was recast. Where he once was the hip-hop bogeyman who would eventually destroy the integrity of the game, he quickly became celebrated for his former demons.

This swing from leader of the Jail Blazers to the most beloved, almost cuddly personality in the league explains why most conversations among basketball nerds never get too far before they get to Rasheed Wallace. But while the rapid conversion can tell us a lot about how we process basketball differently than other sports, it doesn't tell us a whole lot about Rasheed Wallace the basketball player. I don't think it's a stretch to say that the public's understanding of Rasheed Wallace, regardless of whether he suits up again for an NBA game, will experience a third edit. In 20 or so years, when the memories of Rasheed's personality start to fade and we're left with his statistical record and what has been written about him in newspapers and major media outlets, how will the list makers of 2030 regard a player who averaged 14.6 points per game over his career?


Over his 15-year NBA career, Rasheed never came close to the statistical landmarks that define a great or even a very good career in the NBA. He never averaged more than 20 points or 10 rebounds per game. Despite his reputation as an unselfish, defense-first player, his assist and blocked-shot totals never registered as anything but average. He never made the first or second All-Defensive teams. On Basketball-Reference.com's Hall of Fame index, which rates Hall of Fame candidacy, Antawn Jamison, Larry Nance, Tom Chambers, and Larry Johnson all have better shots at enshrinement in Springfield.

Rasheed Wallace excelled at two basketball things. The first: He was an elite one-on-one post defender who could match up against Tim Duncan or Kevin Garnett or Tracy McGrady without needing a double-team. Basketball's ongoing love affair with Tyson Chandler has helped elevate the perceived importance of this particular skill, but there's no reliable way to measure just how much impact this has on a team's overall defense. The second: Rasheed Wallace, by all accounts, understood the pace and rhythm of the game. He knew when he should go on the block, he knew when he should shoot from the top of the arc, he knew when to defer to hot teammates. These instincts and the accuracy with which they are applied get lost somewhere in the vagaries of "basketball IQ," the extremes of which are easy to spot.

Rasheed spent a lot of his time on the court making explicitly "low basketball IQ" plays. He was an average passer at best. He spent much of the second half of his career launching ill-advised 3-pointers. He racked up technical fouls at bad times and turned referees against his teams. He threw a towel in Arvydas Sabonis's face. And yet, he never once played on a team that finished with fewer than 39 wins. This fact can be attributed to the surrounding talent, but Rasheed never played with a truly elite talent in his prime. In their two successive trips to the Western Conference Finals, the leading scorer for the Blazers averaged 13.9 (Bonzi Wells in 1998-99) and 16.4 (Wallace in 1999-2000) points per game. Given that those years approximate the peak of Wallace's career, it's worth questioning whether he might have scored more on a bad team. The record will show that he was a very efficient scorer, but he probably would have been a more effective player if he had shot more and been more aggressive in the post. He was, I believe, the best player on seven Portland teams, each of which made the playoffs. But that's a pretty vague way to evaluate a player, especially when those claims can't really be backed up by numbers, and when the print record is so overrun by talk of marijuana, technical fouls, leadership, and pretty much everything but basketball.

Would we remember Rasheed's untrackable strengths differently if, say, he had averaged 20 and 10 over his career? If we weren't faced with the question of "How did this guy become one of the most important and roundly discussed players in the league?" would we look at his skill set differently? This brings up something I call the Bruce Bowen problem. It's what happens when we, who have been brought up to evaluate athletes through their numbers, fail at explaining why a certain player is held in high esteem. There's no question that Bruce Bowen was an elite defender, but I also believe that if he could do something more than launch 3-pointers from the corner, his defensive skills would be looked at in a diminished light. The fact that Bowen could play 38 minutes for a championship team and only score, say, six points and grab four rebounds demands some explanation. And, fair or not, we tend to fill those explanations with "intangibles." The late-career Rasheed Wallace, because of his centrality in basketball discussions and his lackluster stats, became defined almost entirely by his qualities as a teammate, his post defense, and his basketball smarts. I'm not saying this is right or wrong, but it always struck me as a bit of an overcorrection. Say what you will about the validity of the All-Defensive NBA team, but it's still damning that Rasheed Wallace never made one. Every other elite-level defender in his era (Garnett, Duncan, Ben Wallace, Bowen, World Peace) made multiple first and second teams. He did make four All-Star teams, including in 2008, when he averaged 12.7 points and 6.6 rebounds per game. Chris Webber, who averaged 20 and 10 for his career and was clearly the best player on the Kings, only made five All-Star Games.

Those All-Star Game selections are the only hard evidence that Rasheed Wallace, basketball player, was something more than Otis Thorpe with range. All-Star Game selections, of course, are also highly subjective, and these say more about Rasheed's standing within the league's fraternity of players and coaches. Which brings us to a somewhat frustrating conclusion: There's no real way to define Rasheed Wallace's career, and, as such, he probably won't be remembered as the outsize personality who put a urinal in his house in Portland, helped supplant the Kobe-Shaq dynasty, and single-handedly redefined the public perception of what makes a great NBA teammate. Those moments will ultimately be forgotten. His statistical record tells us even less. When evaluated within the context of basketball history, every player takes on some unwarranted or un-evidenced baggage — the negative space must be filled in with something. I can't think of a player whose negative space shaded more positively. At first, Rasheed Wallace was given absolutely no rope, and then he finished his career with the benefit of every single doubt.

But maybe we're right to side with Rasheed. Yes, the younger generation of NBA fans has probably pumped up his actual accomplishments and might remember him a bit too fondly, but that impulse came out of a collective frustration with the media's inability to look much past the polarity of players who must either be "well-spoken" or "thugs." By simply not caring what the media had to say about him, Rasheed forced a reevaluation of the characteristics that make a good basketball player, and, by extension, some necessary reflection on the type of thinking that would create a term like "Jail Blazers."

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Top 5 MLS Acquisitions

By: timbersfan, 6:25 AM GMT on March 04, 2012

Perhaps no sports league hinges on offseason turnover quite like MLS.

After all, parity is as ubiquitous in MLS as theatrical ankle-grabbing in La Liga. A season's successes or failures in America are nearly as much a product of a team's work in the offseason as its play in season.

Keeping that in mind, here are SoccReligious' top five offseason signings for attacking players. This list has been carefully trimmed from 20, but feel free to comment with your own opinions.

1. Edson Buddle - L.A. Galaxy LA's quest to become the greatest side in U.S. club history was given a great boost with the re-acquisition of Buddle. He's a proven goal scorer who should returned more seasoned than fatigued from his stay in Europe. If Galaxy lacked anything last year, it was a reliable target to feed. With Landon Donovan and David Beckham feeding him, Buddle shouldn't be starved for opportunities in 2012.

2. Eddie Johnson - Seattle Sounders Take the reaction from Seattle's fanbase to Johnson's acquisition with a grain of salt. For two backups at a position of depth, the Sounders got an explosive athlete with a lot to prove. Johnson bounced around Europe like a hitchhiking postgrad, but a return to the States should get his head back on straight. He's already impressed in preseason with Seattle, and the best soccer atmosphere in the country should give him the fuel he needs to get back into goalscoring form.

3. Sebastien Le Toux - Vancouver Whitecaps Le Toux, on his best night, is as good as any player in the league.

Vancouver will take the disgruntled former Union man happily and throw him up top with a trio of talented attackers. Along with Eric Hassli and Davide Chiumiento, LeToux could help give Vancouver one of the league's most dynamic attacking tridents. The Northwest is certainly the place to be this season, and Le Toux's addition could make Vancouver the surprise stars of the region.

4. Kris Boyd - Portland Timbers Gone is Kenny Cooper, but in his stead is a striker with an even bigger foot -- and mouth. Boyd has already made headlines with the latter in his short time at Portland, but he'll make more with the former, if his track record is any indication. The Scottish international is best known for the 101 goals he scored in the 143 appearances he made at Rangers. Time will only tell if he was worth the first-round pick Portland traded to Houston for Boyd's rights, but my gut says he will be.

5. Bobby Convey - Sporting Kansas City The most diminutive figure on this list could have the greatest impact. Convey has been promised a spot on the left wing, as opposed to the left back slot he filled for San Jose, and the move forward could be just what the 28-year-old needs. His composure and vision, too, will be key for a Kansas City team on the cusp of Eastern Conference dominance.

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Kill the Messenger

By: timbersfan, 1:29 AM GMT on March 04, 2012

It was a star-filled night in Chechnya's besieged capital of Grozny. The snow crunched under my feet as I walked with the Chechen rebel commander away from the warmth of our safe house. When we entered a bombed-out neighborhood 15 minutes away, I put the battery in my Iridium satellite phone and waited for the glowing screen to signal that I had locked on to the satellites.

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I made my call. It was short. Then the commander made a call; he quickly hung up and handed me back the phone. "Enough," he said, motioning for me to remove the battery.

As we walked briskly back to the safe house, it was exactly 10 minutes before the cascade of double wa-whumps announced the Grad rocket batteries pounding the vacant neighborhood we had just left.

It was December 1999, and the Russian assault on Grozny was unfolding in all its gruesome detail. After the dissolution of so much of the former Soviet empire, Chechnya was one country that the newly minted prime minister, Vladimir Putin, refused to let go of. His boss, Boris Yeltsin, and the Russian army had been defeated and then humiliated in the media by Chechen forces in the first war. Five years later, Russia was back. And Putin's new strategy was unbending: silence, encircle, pulverize, and "cleanse." It was a combination of brutal tactics -- a Stalinist purge of fighting-age males plus Orwellian propaganda that fed Russians a narrative wherein Chechen freedom fighters were transformed into Islamist mercenaries and terrorists. More than 200,000 civilians were to die in this war, the echoes of which continue to this day.

This time, journalists were specifically targeted to prevent sympathetic or embarrassing reports from escaping the killing zone. As such, you can't find a lot of stories about the second Chechen war. One of the few and best accounts was written by Marie Colvin, who described her terrifying escape from Grozny for the Sunday Times. Last month, Colvin thought she could roll the dice and enter the besieged Syrian city of Homs to defy yet another brutal war of oppression. This time she lost.

It's impossible to know whether Syrian President Bashar al-Assad -- a longtime ally of Russia -- studied the success of the last Chechen war before launching his own assault on the restive city of Homs. However, his Russian military advisors surely know the tactics well. The crackdown in Homs carries a grim echo of Grozny, both in its use of signals intelligence to track down and silence the regime's enemies and in its bloody determination to obliterate any opposition, including Western journalists.

Assad's ability to lethally target journalists using satellite-phone uplinks could well have cost Colvin her life. Multiple reports have suggested that Syrian forces used phone signals to pinpoint her location and then launched a rocket barrage that resulted in her death on Feb. 22, along with that of French photographer Remi Ochlik and multiple Syrian civilians.

The use of satellite and cellular transmissions to determine a subject's location was relatively new a decade ago, when I was in Grozny. Tracking phone transmissions to hunt down targets began in earnest with a covert unit of U.S. intelligence officers from the National Security Agency (NSA), CIA, Navy, Air Force, and special operations called "The Activity." This snooping unit was also called the Army of Northern Virginia, Grey Fox, and even Task Force Orange. We see much of this technology used to inform modern drone and U.S. Joint Special Operations Command strikes. My decade covering U.S. spec ops, intelligence gathering, and their contractors highlighted the impressive ability of various countries to monitor, locate, network, and act on what is called SIGINT, or signals intelligence.

The Russians have their own version of this capability, which fell under the command of the Federal Agency of Government Communications and Information, now part of the Federal Protective Service. In the United States, it would be equivalent to the NSA and FBI combined, and the agency provides sophisticated eavesdropping support to Russia's military, intelligence, and counterterrorism units -- and to Russia's allies, including Syria.

Russia has spent a long time perfecting these techniques. On April 21, 1996, Chechnya's breakaway president, Dzhokhar Dudayev, was speaking on a satellite phone with Russian envoy Konstantin Borovoi about setting peace talks with Yeltsin. During the phone call, he was killed by a signal-guided missile fired from a Russian jet fighter. The warplane had received Dudayev's coordinates from a Russian ELINT (electronic intelligence) plane that had picked up and locked on to the signal emitted by the satellite phone. It was Russian deception and brutality at its finest.

It should have been clear even back then that there was a benefit and a distinct penalty to modern communications on the battlefield.

Flash forward to Syria today. The opposition Free Syrian Army is officially run by a former air force colonel who commands a barely organized group of army defectors supported by energetic youth. They rely almost entirely on cell-phone service, satellite phones, the Internet, and social media to organize and communicate. Early in February, according to a Fox News report, Qatar provided 3,000 satellite phones, which the Syrian rebels have used to upload numerous impactful videos and stories.

These past few weeks, under a barrage of mortar, tank, and artillery shells, their plaintive calls for help from inside the besieged Baba Amr neighborhood of Homs sparked international outrage. But without Western journalists filing for newspapers and television outlets, these videos -- mostly shaky, low-resolution footage of corpses and artillery strikes -- wouldn't have had the impact they deserve.

In a welcome resurgence of non-embedded journalism, brave reporters like Colvin and many others risked their lives to enter Homs and report from the ground. What they showed us was moving, horrific, and embarrassing. Once again, Western governments were caught doing nothing -- while women, children, and innocents were murdered by their own government. It's a playbook the Syrians are good at: The shelling of Homs began on Feb. 3, 2012 -- exactly 30 years after the Hama massacre, in which Hafez al-Assad, Bashar's father, killed up to 15,000 civilians over three weeks in a similar program of wanton destruction.

What we haven't seen as clearly is the extent to which the Syrian regime (thanks to its Russian advisors) now has the tools of electronic warfare to crush this popular uprising -- and anything that happens to get in the way. Syria is one of Russia's biggest clients for weapons, training, and intelligence. In return for such largesse, it has offered the Russian Navy use of Tartus, a new deep-water military port in the Mediterranean. Moscow sold Damascus nearly $1 billion worth of weapons in 2011, despite growing sanctions against the oppressive Assad regime. With these high-tech weapons comes the less visible Russian-supplied training on technologies, tactics, and strategies.

The sounds of rockets pulverizing civilians should have brought back memories and warnings to Colvin. She would have recognized all the signs from her previous reporting in Chechnya, where she and her escorts were hunted relentlessly by Russian domestic security agents who sought to arrest, silence, or kill any journalist attempting to report on the slaughter of civilians.

My time in Grozny included being surrounded three times by the Russian army, numerous direct bombardments, and frequent close calls. I paid attention to the safety warnings of the Chechen rebel commanders who kept me alive. These rebels were once part of the Soviet military and intelligence apparatus and were fully schooled in Russia's dirty tricks. They taught me much. Chief among them was not communicating electronically while in country, not trusting "media guides," and never telling people where I was going. If captured by Russian troops, they urged me -- for my own safety -- to say that I had been kidnapped by Chechen forces.

Just as I exited Chechnya, I met Colvin, who was heading in. She wanted to know as much as she could. I warned her of the duplicity and violent intent of the Russian military and their Chechen proxies. Despite my warnings, she bravely entered Chechnya and wrote riveting, award-winning stories that now sound almost identical to her coverage from Syria.

I was distressed to read of Colvin's death in Syria, and even more distressed to think she might still be alive now if she had remembered some basic warnings. Her first error was that she stayed inside the rebel "media center" -- in reality, a four-story family home converted to this use as it was one of the few places that had a generator.

The second was communication. The Syrian army had shut down the cell-phone system and much of the power in Baba Amr -- and when journalists sent up signals it made them a clear target. After CNN's Arwa Damon broadcast live from the "media center" for a week, the house was bombarded until the top floor collapsed. Colvin may have been trapped, but she chose to make multiple phone reports and even went live on CNN and other media channels, clearly mentioning that she was staying in the bombed building.

The third mistake was one of tone. She made her sympathies in the besieged city clearly known as she emotionally described the horrors and documented the crimes of the Syrian government.

Unsurprisingly, the next day at 9 a.m., a barrage of rockets was launched at the "media center." She was killed -- along her cameraman, Remi Ochlik, and at least 80 Syrian civilians across the city -- targeted with precision rocket barrages, bombs, and the full violence of the Syrian army.

In Grozny, Russian forces decided that they would eliminate everything, everybody, and every voice that stood up to the state -- including journalists who tried to enter. Syria has clearly made the same determination in Homs. This military action is intended to be a massacre, a Stalinist-style lesson to those who dare defy the rulers of Syria.

The United Nations estimates that more than 7,500 Syrians have so far been killed in the yearlong spasm of violence there. Perhaps this ghastly toll would be even higher now if brave reporters like Colvin had not entered. With the recent news that the rebels have retreated from the bombardment of Baba Amr to safer territory, Assad's forces, as well as their Russian advisors, are claiming victory. According to official news reports from the Syrian Information Ministry, "the foreign-backed mercenaries and armed terrorist groups" have fled, the corpses of three Western journalists have been "discovered," and Homs is now "peaceful."

Despite what Damascus claims, this fight is not yet over. And we need more brave and bright journalists who will shine a light in places like Syria, where a regime works diligently to plunge its people into darkness. But let's not forget whose callous playbook they're using.

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Sky Sports' Spanish football expert Guillem Balague looks forward to this week's live

By: timbersfan, 1:27 AM GMT on March 04, 2012

Barcelona v Sporting
6.55pm, Sat, Sky Sports 4 HD

All the talk has been about the future of Pep Guardiola, as we've been discussing for quite a while on Revista. He's got to find new motivational skills for his team; he needs to find new tactics to overcome the teams that know how to play against Barcelona; he needs to deal with Real Madrid; he needs to deal with Jose Mourinho and that's quite a lot to sort out! It's a very demanding job and he's got to think about what to do next. However, I think Barcelona as a club is confident and they think they will convince him to stay.


Sevilla v Atletico Madrid
9pm, Sat, Sky Sports 4 HD

This should be a tough game because both managers are doing really well at the moment. Michel Gonzalez and Diego Simeone have started working on the psychology of their teams and they are both becoming more confident. Atletico Madrid are turning into a mirror of their manager, as is often the case with good teams, and that's also true of Sevilla in some ways because they have started playing more football and are keeping the ball better. They have started using the old guard and not just Jesus Navas (who is a bit like Steven Gerrard, he's quiet but he's a leader on the pitch and wants the ball all the time), but also Julien Escudé and Fredi Kanoute. Michel has realised that he needs a solid backbone for the team to progress.


Real Madrid v Espanyol
7pm, Sun, Sky Sports 1 HD

I'll be at this one! I don't expect a big surprise and that's not simply because Real Madrid are so strong, especially at home. Also, the way that Espanyol like to play, building form the back, will help Real Madrid in a way because if they lose the ball then the home team will counter with pace and destroy them. Let's see, at some point I want to see Espanyol hurt Real Madrid, but it may not be on this occasion.

Guillem answers your questions...

Got a question for Guillem? Then send it in here or use the feedback form below, and then look out for his answer next week.

VALERO ON THE GO?
I've heard rumours that Borja Valero could be leaving Villarreal this summer. How good is he and do you think he's ready to make the move to the Premier League? If so, how much do you think he would cost? Billy Atchem (West Ham fan)

GUILLEM SAYS: Borja Valero came close to signing for Chelsea in the summer, but in the end Chelsea decided against it because of his age. He's 27, but I would challenge that decision because they would have ended up with a player at the peak of his powers for not very much money. He'll be able to leave now for around 12million to 13million euros, which is not a lot for somebody who has Premier League experience (with West Brom) and has played for Real Madrid. He's the best player at Villarreal at the moment and looks fantastic playing on the left-hand side and coming inside in between the lines. He can also play as a more central midfield player, which is where I think he will play as times goes on.

It will be an interesting summer because Villarreal decided two or three years ago to stop spending money and it means that players like Valero and Giuseppe Rossi will have to move on. I think that Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid will go after him and I get the impression that he could be a signing for Manchester City because they are looking for that kind of central midfield player and he's got the quality to play there. But if Liverpoolhear about this, if they've got the money to spend and if they want a creative central midfield player who can play in different positions then they should go and try to get him. I'm pretty sure he would be happy going there and he's heard lots of positive things about the club.

MORE TORRES TALK
Hi Guillem, enjoyed your comments on Fernando Torres. In fact some of them made me laugh! Are you saying that Torres isn't to blame himself? Why isn't he ever in the box? While I agree Chelsea need wingers, I'm sure he'd be scoring goals if he made more of an effort to get in the box rather than drift out wide. You never know - one might hit him and go in and that might be all he needs. Obviously, it was no surprise to see him dropped by Vicente Del Bosque. I presume you agree with that decision? Scott Burton

GUILLEM SAYS: I was just trying to explain what Chelsea could do to improve him. Of course he's also got to be responsible for his own form and this is not just a player failing to fulfil his potential because of tactical decisions or the situation of the team or the problems within the dressing room. It's a mixture of all of those things, but it's a situation that has got to be sorted because they've got a top, top striker.

As I've suggested, getting wingers is definitely one solution and I think Chelsea are trying to move in that direction next season. But of course he is a player that has succeeded mostly with space in front of him in a counter-attacking team. I'm not sure Andre Villas-Boas will change his way of playing for just one player. I agree with Villas-Boas when he says Torres has got to improve his movement too. I remember Gianluca Vialli saying how cleverly he moves, but he's got to keep at it and adapt to his team. I've seen it with Spain, which is a team that doesn't leave him much space to run into and he adapted to that. All in all it's about the club and him and they have to help each other to improve. It's very important that Torres helps the club and vice versa.

WILL HE, ELLIOT?
Hi Guillem, I noticed that Elliot Kebbie has moved from the Barcelona academy (La Masia) to Atletico Madrid (Jan) on a four year contract but I'm having trouble finding any information on the Madrid website or Wikipedia? Just how good is he... or more to the point why is no one mentioning him in England? Aaron Smith

GUILLEM SAYS: He did not sign for Barcelona. He had a trial there, as did many other kids, and he doesn't have a four-year deal with Atletico Madrid. The length is undisclosed as part of a compensation deal with Leeds.

Basically the story is that this is a 17-year-old guy who can play right-back or as a midfielder and is mature for his age. He was born in Halifax and is a natural athlete; apparently he won a national schools sprint title, running the 100 metres in 11 seconds.

He's product of the Leeds United youth system, where he was since the age of nine. He was involved in the England set-up and was offered terms by Leeds at the age of 14 with his scholarship due to start in 2011, but he left Leeds and didn't have a club for a while. He went to Spain and played a trial game at La Masila (Barcelona's Academy), but he didn't get in. He now has a contract with Atletico Madrid, which he signed three weeks ago, and that's all I know.

There's a few young English kids spread all over the place, but not many. Maybe one day we should get them all together to see what their experiences have been like in Spain.

Got a question for Guillem? Then send it in here or use the feedback form below, and then look out for his answer next week.

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Goal-line tech poised to enter soccer after 2 systems are approved for final tests

By: timbersfan, 1:24 AM GMT on March 04, 2012

BAGSHOT, England — Goal-line technology could be introduced in soccer by the end of the year after two systems were approved Saturday for a final round of testing ahead of a vote in July.

The International Football Association Board chose Hawk-Eye and GoalRef to help provide fast and accurate rulings on disputed goals. The board assessed the test results from eight systems.

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English Football Association general secretary Alex Horne said the two high-tech aids will be “tested to destruction,” before they can be approved for use in matches at a meeting of the IFAB on July 2.

While that’s considered too late for any system to be used in the major European leagues in the 2012-13 season, FIFA hopes to have goal-line technology at the Club World Cup in December in Japan and certainly by the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

“We are very comfortable the technology is proving itself,” said Horne, whose federation hosted the IFAB meeting. “It’s an important step forward for us but it is important that we do test it for failure. ... The principle is approved, the question now is, is there a system working or not.”

Sony Corp.’s Hawk-Eye is a camera-based ball-tracking system successfully deployed in tennis and cricket. GoalRef, owned by a German-Danish company, uses a magnetic field with a special ball.

Both systems send a signal within a second of the ball crossing the line to the referee, who will retain the power to make the final call.

FIFA President Sepp Blatter ended his long-standing opposition to the high-tech aids after England midfielder Frank Lampard’s “ghost goal” against Germany at the 2010 World Cup. His shot bounced down off the crossbar beyond the goal line but was not counted.

Even if goal-line technology is approved, competitions could still opt to use the five-official system championed by UEFA President Michel Platini. After being tested in continental club matches, additional referees’ assistants will be deployed at the European Championship in June.

The IFAB annual meeting Saturay also took a step toward allowing female Muslim players to wear hijabs during games, five years after banning the headscarves because of safety reasons.

FIFA Vice President Prince Ali on Jordan gave a presentation to show how headscarves can be held in place by safe Velcro fasteners.

“I am deeply grateful that the proposal to allow women to wear a headscarf in football was unanimously endorsed by all members of IFAB,” he said. “I welcome the decision for an accelerated process to further test the current new and safe design presented.

“I am confident that once the final ratification in the July Special Meeting of IFAB takes place, we will see many delighted and happy players returning to the football field and playing the game that they love.”

IFAB, which is made up of the four British associations and four FIFA delegates, also approved an English proposal to have a two-year experiment on rolling substitutes in amateur soccer. FIFA withdrew a proposal to allow a fourth substitute during extra time.

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Just how good is Clint Dempsey?

By: timbersfan, 1:23 AM GMT on March 04, 2012

With all the talk focused on England’s defeat to the Netherlands, you may have missed another result from last night that really was something special. No, I don’t main France’s victory against Germany in Bremen, I’m referring to a match that occurred further south on the continent.

Yesterday the USA travelled to Genoa and beat Italy 1-0. It was the first time Team USA had beaten the four time World Cup winners – a winless streak covering 10 games and spanning 78 years. A remarkable result, albeit in a friendly, for Jurgen Klinsmann’s team.

The goal scorer was Clint Dempsey, receiving a perfectly weighted pass just inside the Azzuri box which he was able to strike first time with his right foot, directing the ball past Gianluigi Buffon and into the bottom corner of the net. It was a moment of well timed precision that should take the Fulham midfielder’s reputation higher than that of his compatriots, past and present, and could perhaps see him soar into the realms only known by America’s national bird.

Last night’s strike was Dempsey’s 25th in 83 international appearances. That’s quite a remarkable return for a player more often than not deployed in midfield. To put it into context, Steven Gerrard has scored 19 goals for England in 90 appearances. Cristiano Ronaldo has 32 goals in 88 appearances for Portugal. Xabi Alonso has 12 goals in 93 appearances for Spain. For the Dutch, Dirk Kuyt has 24 goals in 85 appearances. Dempsey’s international record holds up against, and in many cases betters, the leading names in world football, players who play a similar attacking midfield role. At the 2006 World Cup, Dempsey was the only American player to score at the tournament. At the 2009 Confederations Cup, the Texan was on target as USA beat Spain 2-0 in the semi-finals. He scored again in the final, against Brazil. England fans will of course remember his goal at the 2010 World Cup – although Rob Green must take some credit for that one.

At club level, Dempsey’s record continues to stand up. His goal in Fulham’s 1-0 victory over Liverpool earlier this season saw him overtake Brian McBride to become the most prolific American goalscorer in the history of the Premier League. He has reached double figures this season for the second season in succession – a feat not easily acheived in England’s top flight. 24 players scored over 10 goals last season. Of those 24, only four (Dempsey, Wayne Rooney, Frank Lampard and Steven Fletcher) have reached double figures so far this term. His exquisite chip against Juventus in 2010 as Fulham came back to win 4-1 against the Italian titans in the Europa League will forever be among the greatest goals witnessed at Craven Cottage.

Despite operating at such a high level for the last couple of years, it seems that only now is the 28-year-old coming to the world’s attention. Ahead of the Cottagers’ FA Cup tie with Everton, his American teammate Tim Howard singled him out, saying that Fulham were over reliant on the former Dallas Texans youth player. And he’s right, they are – in the same way Manchester United aren’t the same without Rooney, Liverpool miss Gerrard or Arsenal struggle without Robin van Persie. Every team has their talisman – Dempsey is Fulham’s.

Dempsey has the ability to dribble with the ball, albeit in a rough, somewhat out of control manner. He can score from distance. He positions himself so he can poke it in from a couple of yards. He can play on the wing, in central midfield or as a striker, with or without a partner. There is a strong argument that he is the best at heading the ball in the Premier League.

For all this, since joining Fulham in a £2m deal from MLS side the New England Revolution in 2007 – he has rarely been linked with a move away from SW6. When possible clubs are suggested, the consensus has always been (at least up until now) he’s not quite good enough for one of the established top sides – a Manchester United, Chelsea or Arsenal. But that conclusion doesn’t match the analysis. It says more about the accord many football fans have of American born players. This is a player who produces consistently first-rate performances for his club side, has shown the class needed on the world stage and at 28-years-old, is in the prime of his career. Surely this summer his club side will be tempted by some serious offers. Fulham should do all that they can to retain the American’s services, but the Cottage may not be big enough to hold this Eagle, who right now is flying.

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U.S. looks to build on Italy win

By: timbersfan, 1:12 AM GMT on March 03, 2012

GENOA, Italy -- To understand the significance of the U.S.' 1-0 friendly win over Italy here on Wednesday, it's good to know what it was and what it wasn't. Was it historic? By all means, yes. The U.S. had never beaten Italy in 10 previous games going back to 1934. Winning against a four-time world champion on the road is always important, even if the game doesn't count. And yet the U.S. players were still cognizant that there were limits to how much you should take out of the result.
"We fight for respect every time we step on the field, so every little bit helps," said Michael Bradley, who was probably the U.S.'s best player in the central midfield. "When you come to Italy and you're able to play a game like that and come away with a win, it's a big result. At the same time, we're not going to sit here and act like just because we won a friendly 1-0 that now they're handing out the World Cup trophy. We'll take it for what it is and use it as a stepping stone."
The game provided the clearest evidence yet that Bradley can in fact thrive under coach Jurgen Klinsmann. After taking a while to assert himself in the first few months of the new regime, Bradley was a rock against the Italians, breaking up plays alongside Maurice Edu, positioning himself well and linking up with the attack on occasion. In many ways he out-Italianed the Italians.
"Michael had an outstanding game," said Klinsmann afterward. "Half a year ago, he had a difficult situation with his club. When he told me he was going to Italy [to join Chievo], I said, 'Michael, this is exactly the step you need now, to go to Italy and learn the whole tactical side of the game, to really read the space and read the game in advance. You will learn a hell of a lot.' Today he wanted to show that. He made a huge step forward in his own career coming here."
It's important to note here that the U.S. didn't reinvent the wheel in its approach to Italy. In fact, Klinsmann approached the game not much differently than the U.S. approached top opponents under Bob Bradley (Michael's father): by tightening up on defense and looking for the occasional opportunistic counter. Klinsmann may advocate using a more attacking style against midlevel and CONCACAF foes, but Italy in Italy is a different matter. And for now that pragmatic style is just fine, even if it isn't revolutionary.
The U.S.' main strategy was to clamp down on the passes coming over the top from the ageless Andrea Pirlo, who's made a career of pinging it around "like Brett Favre dropping balls on these guys' feet when they're running," as U.S. captain Carlos Bocanegra put it. "It's frustrating. You think you have a good position and he has time to do that. He's a good player. They had a few chances, but we limited them."
The U.S. back line had to go through an adjustment period after Pirlo's passes created early chances for Alessandro Matri, Sebastian Giovinco and Thiago Motta (whose shot was saved well by Tim Howard). But the U.S. settled down and improved its timing on the back line, especially center back Clarence Goodson, who had been a step off in the opening minutes.
"We knew what they were going to do: Dink balls over the top," said Howard. "I thought we played it well. The first couple were a little hairy, but we got the hang of it. We dropped the lines at the right times, and we stepped up and pressed them in the hole." Time and again the U.S.' coordinated back line work caused the Italians to be offside.
No one would say the U.S. created many chances in its own attacking third, but quantity matters less than quality, which is what Clint Dempsey has in spades these days. The 28-year-old Texan has been tearing up the Premier League this season with Fulham, and he continued his torrid form against Italy, scoring the game-winner on a nice team effort in the 55th minute.
Left back Fabian Johnson, a German-American making his second U.S. start, sent a pass to Jozy Altidore in the box. Altidore looked for his own shot first, he said, but then he saw Dempsey lurking just behind him. "He was in a great spot, so it was a no-brainer," Altidore said. "I just tried to put it where he could hit it one-time. It looks like an easy goal, but it's not. He looked at the keeper and wrong-footed him. It was a fantastic finish."
"I was going to try to stay where I was and get a shot off, and I felt like that wasn't going to happen," Dempsey said. "So I tried to move to my right side and get in an area where I could get a shot on goal. When he played the ball I tried to get a good first touch and hit it hard and low." Dempsey's shot didn't just beat any goalkeeper, either; it was Gianluigi Buffon, one of the world's best over the last 15 years.
The Americans hung on gamely as Italy threw a barrage at them in the final minutes, with late sub Jonathan Spector blocking a number of shots in a solid team effort. Afterward, the U.S. players caught the right tone, realizing the historical importance of the victory while remembering that more important games await.
"I feel like we've been shortchanged a bit the past few times we've played them, with the red card in the Confederations Cup [in '09] and the red cards in the World Cup [in '06]," said Bocanegra. "To come here and beat Italy on its soil feels really good."
"I know it was a friendly and you don't get much for it, but it's a heck of a lot better than losing," said Howard afterward. "And it was historic. The fact that it was the first time ever [beating Italy], that's pretty cool."

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Dempsey gives U.S. a historic win

By: timbersfan, 1:11 AM GMT on March 03, 2012

GENOA, Italy -- Three thoughts after the U.S.' 1-0 victory against Italy on Wednesday:
• This was a big win. Yes, it was only a friendly, but coach Jurgen Klinsmann's outfit got a historic victory, beating Italy for the first time in 11 games all-time after seven losses and three ties going back to 1934. Beating the four-time World Cup champions on Italian soil, thanks to Clint Dempsey's 55th-minute goal, is even more impressive. Yes, this wasn't Italy's full first-choice lineup, but it was still a team that featured Andrea Pirlo, Gigi Buffon, Thiago Motta and Alessandro Matri -- top-level players who play (or have played) in Serie A. The U.S. had some good buildups in the first half despite more chances created by Italy, and Tim Howard made a huge save early on Motta. The Americans continued showing confidence moving forward in the second half, and Dempsey's deft finish -- off a smart layoff by Jozy Altidore -- was a bit of class in the box that Italy just couldn't match.
• Fabian Johnson is a real find. The 24-year-old German-American was one of the best players on the field again for the U.S. in just his second cap with the national team. Johnson was dangerous against Slovenia as a left midfielder in November, and on Wednesday he was effective as a left back, both defensively and moving forward down the left flank. Johnson has an attacker's mentality, and it was his thrust forward and pass that set up Dempsey's goal. Johnson also had some good moments of understanding with left midfielder Brek Shea, and suddenly the questions about the left-back spot that have plagued the U.S. for years are looking much more answerable.
• Michael Bradley and Maurice Edu did stellar work. There might have been groans from some U.S. fans when they saw the Americans were coming out in an alignment featuring two holding midfielders, Bradley and Edu, and a lone forward in Altidore. But Bradley and Edu had a game Italian soccer-lovers could appreciate, breaking up Azzurri attacks, making smart decisions and essentially winning the midfield battle for much of the game. This was Italy in Italy, so perhaps we shouldn't have been surprised with Klinsmann's formation choice. In the end it worked. The U.S. spine was rock hard in this game, and much of the credit for that should go to the Bradley-Edu tandem.
NOTEBOOK
• U.S. Soccer did something new on this trip, offering what it calls an "Ultimate VIP Experience." The two people who have gone through the program this week are Mark and Kristin Beach, a couple from San Mateo, Calif., where they work in finance. "It's been unbelievable," says Mark, a hard core U.S. fan. "This is the single greatest trip for me, ever." The highlights have been many, they said. Former U.S. star Brian McBride flew over and has been their personal host, sharing nuggets from his playing career. They had private conversations with Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore and Jonathan Spector, got special access to training sessions and received a guided tour of nearby Portofino. (They sat at the game with McBride and surprise guest Mike Piazza, the former baseball All-Star.) "It hasn't all been soccer, so it's a nice balance for me," says Kristin. The price wasn't cheap -- one source says it cost the couple around $16,000 for a three-day experience, not including airfare -- but part of it is tax-deductible and will go to funding U.S. youth development programs. The first couple to do it is coming away happy. "I will be doing this again," Mark said with a smile.
• I figured it was time to do an Annotated Klinsmann, at least when it comes to the old-school numbers that he associates with positions on the field. They're reflected in the numbers players wear on their U.S. jerseys now (from 1 to 11, without names), and they even come up in Klinsmann's discussion of players. The other day he talked about Sacha Kljestan playing in the "6" or "8" position. Here's how it breaks down if the U.S. plays a 4-2-3-1, as it started against Italy:
1 = Goalkeeper
2 = Right Back
3 = Left Back
4 = Right Center Back
5 = Left Center Back
6 = Left Holding Midfielder
7 = Right Wing Midfielder
8 = Right Holding Midfielder
9 = Striker
10 = Central Playmaking Midfielder
11 = Left Wing Midfielder
• The topic of goal-line technology came up again this week after AC Milan had a shot go two feet over the line against Juventus in a crucial Serie A game, only for a goal not to be allowed. UEFA president Michel Platini once again came out and said he was not in favor of goal-line tech (he wants to have goal-line officials), but he's in an increasingly smaller crowd. "I'm 100 percent in favor of goal-line technology," Tottenham Hotspur goalkeeper Brad Friedel told me yesterday. "If you can set up a Hawk-Eye system that can see 140-mile-per-hour serves and tell if it's in or out, I think we can do it for soccer. As far as should teams have challenges and stuff like that, I say no. You should keep the human element with refereeing with the exception of the goal line."
When I asked U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati if U.S. Soccer and MLS would like to be part of any FIFA experimentation with goal-line tech, he said yes. "We've told FIFA in the past," he said. "Their issue now is to come up with the best system out of the ones that are out there, whether it's Hawk-Eye or another one. If they decide to experiment with one of the systems, we'd be happy to be part of that. MLS has said the same thing."

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U.S. team not just looking for a learning experience against Italy

By: timbersfan, 1:11 AM GMT on March 03, 2012

GENOA, Italy -- Four thoughts heading into the U.S.'s friendly against Italy here on Wednesday (2:45 p.m. ET, ESPN2/3, Galavisión):
• Can the U.S. get a result? The last time the U.S. played in Europe, a 3-2 win in Slovenia last November, was a step forward for a team that had been struggling to score goals under Jurgen Klinsmann. But Italy will be a much stiffer test. Health issues have taken out multiple U.S. starters, including Landon Donovan, and so the attacking onus will fall largely on the in-form Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore. Klinsmann was clear in saying today that the U.S. is here to try and beat Italy, not just for a learning experience, but that won't be easy against an Italy team that will include Gigi Buffon, Andrea Pirlo, Claudio Marchisio, Thiago Motta, Antonio Nocerino and Alessandro Matri.
• This is a game for Michael Bradley. It was no coincidence that the U.S. had its best performance under Klinsmann once Bradley became starter again in November against Slovenia. Bradley has settled in well at Serie A Chievo, and his virtues (smarts, toughness, positioning) will be even more important against a well-organized Italian team. Bradley has gotten the star treatment in Italy ahead of this game, appearing in a full-page spread in Tuesday's Gazzetta dello Sport, where he talked about growing up watching the great AC Milan teams and wanting someday to play for Milan himself. With the spotlight on him in this game, a good performance would help burnish his profile even more in Italy.
• Who will we see on the field? Italy coach Cesare Prandelli already confirmed his lineup on Tuesday: Gianluigi Buffon; Christian Maggio, Andrea Barzagli, Angelo Ogbonna, Domenico Criscito; Antonio Nocerino, Andrea Pirlo, Thiago Motta, Claudio Marchisio; Sebastian Giovinco, Alessandro Matri. (The biggest surprise is Ogbonna, a Nigerian-Italian who plays in Serie B for Torino.) So it's a lineup without Giorgio Chiellini, Daniele De Rossi or (because he wasn't even called in) Mario Balotelli. That said, it's a formidable side that should provide plenty of defensive resistance. I'd keep a particular eye on Matri, who has been a goal-scoring menace for Juventus, and see how he interacts with a U.S. center back pairing that should include Carlos Bocanegra and Clarence Goodson. Here's my projected U.S. lineup: Tim Howard; Steve Cherundolo, Clarence Goodson, Carlos Bocanegra, Fabian Johnson; Maurice Edu; Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, Brek Shea; Jozy Altidore, Edson Buddle.
• There's plenty of history in USA-Italy. I had a nice talk at the stadium with former U.S. forward Brian McBride, who's here as part of an ultimate fan experience that a couple from California has paid top-dollar for to U.S. Soccer. I asked McBride if he ever heard back from Daniele De Rossi after the famous World Cup '06 incident in which De Rossi was sent off for spearing McBride in the face, drawing a blood gusher. McBride said De Rossi came to the U.S. locker room after that game and was as apologetic as he had ever seen a player before. That unforgettable 1-1 tie, in which the teams finished playing nine-vs.-nine, was also on the mind of Bocanegra, who recalled it as one of his greatest memories that in his first World Cup game the U.S. was able to get a result against the eventual 2006 World Cup champions.

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For Spain, no time for nostalgia

By: timbersfan, 1:08 AM GMT on March 03, 2012

If there is one thing in football that not only sells stories but also gives off very nearly the same degree of endorphins as a brilliant live match, it is nostalgia. We drink to it, we daydream of it, and like a life belt in a sea of mediocrity, it can salvage something beautiful from the stormiest of times for your club or country.

Not long ago I was fortunate enough to spend a couple of hours in the scintillating company of Gordon Strachan, who is currently enjoying "downtime." A title winner in Scotland and England with Aberdeen and Leeds, Strachan also helped the former defeat both Bayern Munich and Real Madrid. We gloried in the old anecdotes, his triumphs and mutual friends. It was divine.

I'm often asked to write or broadcast about "golden" times, which is harmless enough. But nostalgia is to current top-level footballers and coaches what rust is to the underside of a car: If they let it into their thinking, it can dull their competitive edge.

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Notwithstanding all that, Spain coach Vicente del Bosque could easily have been forgiven for being lulled into a little bit of looking happily in his rearview mirror ahead of Spain's game against Venezuela in Malaga on Wednesday. (You can watch it on ESPN at 3:30 p.m. ET.)

In the absence of Fernando Torres (more on that below), here was a chance to invite the hardworking, free-scoring and much-admired Roberto Soldado into the full Spain squad after months of his showing tenacity, skill and a real nose for goal at Valencia.

Soldado? Nostalgia for Del Bosque? Yes, I hear your quizzical tone and sense your raised eyebrow.

Twelve years ago it was Del Bosque, as coach of Real Madrid, who went to take a final look at the then-14-year-old Soldado and told his youth-system scouts that this was the center forward of the future. The Valencia-born striker was recruited and fed into the Madrid nursery system, and then he began to score freely.

It's typical of the recent story of Real Madrid that Del Bosque was shown the door gracelessly in 2003, and Soldado followed not too long afterward. Both men would have served for longer is the retrospective verdict.

Soldado now has a first-class record in the Champions League and is easily Valencia's most valuable, most coveted footballer. And here he is with the world champion at a time when Torres is searching for goals and form, David Villa is fighting to be fit for the summer and Alvaro Negredo was dropped out of the squad through injury just when his opportunity beckoned.

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Jorge Guerrero/AFP/Getty Images
Spain's coach Vicente del Bosque talks with Carles Puyol and defender Gerard Pique during a training session this week.
But if Soldado was waiting for sweet words of encouragement from the man who gave him his first big break, he'd have been as disappointed as Torres was to be left out.

Much as Del Bosque holds Soldado in affection, Spain is entering that survival-of-the-fittest moment.

"There are no favored sons in this squad," Del Bosque said Tuesday. "Every single player who joins the Spain squad finds that there is an established order -- those who are playing well for their clubs are, at the same time, earning their chance with Spain. That won't change.

"I well remember the day I went to Valencia to see this 14-year-old kid, and it's always a pleasant emotion when a guy in whom you had faith reaches the top. Often your expectations are frustrated, for various reasons, so I'm enormously pleased for Soldado. When a big player, an important guy like Torres drops out, it's always the case that someone else benefits. We are close to the summer, the months will fly past, and while we experimented with a system where we didn't use a central striker against Scotland and England, we have always, otherwise, used a center forward."

Given Fernando Llorente's excellent form right now, it will be interesting to discover how much game time Soldado enjoys, and it's also his misfortune that this big opportunity arrives just when he has been playing well enough, but the goals have been harder to come by.

A couple of weeks ago, I made the case (which I stand by) that it's more likely that Torres goes to the European Championships with Spain (although he absolutely needs to be playing regularly with Chelsea) and that his value as both a support striker and as an impact player could still be vital for the world and European champions.

In my view, Torres' being left out of the Spain squad for this game is perfectly legitimate given that Didier Drogba has relegated El Nino to the bench, and part of Del Bosque's intention is to make it clear to Torres, and every other player, that there will be no favors done for established stars if they are out of form and sitting on the bench for their club.

Equally, it is clear that Soldado will need to impress in training, in his attitude and in the game time he receives.

Should Del Bosque favor the "false" center forward tactic during the European Championships, he has a handful of footballers who can adapt to that role.

David Silva has done that twice (successfully against Scotland) while Juan Mata, Santi Cazorla, Cesc Fabregas and Andres Iniesta could all, in theory, mimic the role that Lionel Messi has made his own at Barcelona and that was once the territory of Francesco Totti at Roma and Michael Laudrup on the Barca Dream Team.

There is a problem in that this "false" center-forward position requires a player who possesses pace -- absolutely, blinding, searing pace if possible. Technique, timing and a good dribble are all required, but that ability to erupt past defenders usually defines whether the role is yours. Probably only Iniesta unites all the qualities, but his physique and tendency toward picking up injuries would render it a decent-sized risk to put him in this physically demanding position.

One of the unknown wild cards which Del Bosque may be able to play is Villa. Although his broken leg was a serious injury, this tough son of a miner has worked tirelessly to advance his rehabilitation. And although many things like strength, sharpness and getting the green light from medical specialists still lie ahead as obstacles to Villa's successful return to the Euros, the betting in Barcelona is that he'll make it in time.

Barcelona's Brilliance
Graham Hunter is also the author of "Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World," available as an e-book on the iPad, Kindle and Kobo. The printed version is available in paperback and can be ordered at BackPage Press.

So for the supporting cast behind Llorente (Pedro, Negredo, Torres, Soldado), there are going to be some nervous and disappointing days ahead. If Villa is fit and selected this summer, one or two big names will miss out.

However, the great football tournament stories are full of unlikely late-arriving heroes, and personally, I'm not giving up on Torres until it is clear whether he can win his starting role back at Chelsea. If he does, he can still be a vital asset for Spain. If not, there is no place for nostalgia.

On which point there have been two phrases heard more loudly than any others over the past few days with the Spain squad. One is simple and two syllables: compete. It's a word that is being drummed into the players and to which they respond. The champions won't go to the Euros this summer full of arrogance and superiority complex -- they will go to compete. Hard.


The other phrase you hear? It is this: "We have to forget the last four years." They have been golden, they have been glorious and they have taught this group many lessons that are now etched into the computer chips in the brains of Xavi, Iniesta, Xabi Alonso, Iker Casillas et al. But there will be no resting on laurels, no turning up and expecting to stroll to a third straight international title. Spain may not be quite the powerful proposition it was approaching the past two big tournaments. But it is not to be underestimated.

Nostalgia? No thanks. Not here.

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A Fitful Marriage

By: timbersfan, 1:06 AM GMT on March 03, 2012

So guess what — it turns out Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook can play together after all. Oklahoma City's free-jazz marionette of a superstar and its hailstorm of a point guard are not, as fate would have it, the incompatible matter/antimatter Toby Keith/Dixie Chicks pairing that the recent history of semi-emergent NBA memes would suggest. I know, crazy, right? But the Thunder are 29-7 and are ahead of the Heat for the league's best record. Durant is obliterating 25-foot jumpers as usual1 and Westbrook, armed with the assurance of his still-pretty-new $80 million contract, has bumped his scoring and his shooting percentage for the third straight year while running the NBA's third-best offense and not even scowling that much. A couple of weeks ago Durant scored 51 and Westbrook scored 40 in the same game, the first time that barrier had been broken by teammates since Jordan and Pippen were new. The (pre-)story of OKC's (possible future) conflict2 has disappeared in the glow that always seems to surround this team, bright as a natural-gas-company logo come to life.

Right? Well … I think so, yeah. As a Thunder fan and overall lovesick fool for any NBA team that gives me free chocolate-chip cookies, I couldn't be more delighted with the way the season has gone. There's the usual fun-Thunder stuff, of course, the last-second 3s and happy fans and ongoing sense of a young team exceeding expectations. (Also exceeding expectations, cosmic though they were: James Harden's beard, which increasingly looks like what would happen if Motown broke out in ancient Egypt.) There are also pleasant surprises, like Serge Ibaka leading the league with 3.1 blocks per game,3 the bench turning into a murderer's row (of benches), and even stuff like Reggie Jackson growing into the void left by Eric Maynor's exploding ACL. Yes, I wish the defense were tougher, and I wish Kendrick Perkins would find a way to pull out of his weird free fall, both as a player and as a human being who keeps making headlines like "Perkins irked by LeBron James's tweets."4 But on the whole? It's been great to watch.

So why am I so uneasy? I can't quite put my finger on it, but somewhere in the wash of good vibes there's something very faint that I don't like. And this speaks mostly to the way being a sports fan — a pursuit that on one level is American culture's last major inducement to proficiency in math — also depends on intuition and emotional guesswork. We talk a big game about VORP and PER and ADOBBB,5 but a whole lot of this hobby still comes down to projecting ourselves psychomagically into the minds of 25-year-old millionaires, and who knows whether that sort of speculation can ever really be accurate? But we keep doing it because, basically, it's what we've got, and rooting for algorithms is only fun if you convince yourself beforehand that the algorithms have personalities.

And on that level, I guess what's worrying me is, what if Durant and Westbrook actually are incompatible? Again, there's no evidence that they are.6 They're obviously halfway decent at playing basketball together. But I think that one of the reasons the conflict meme got traction in the first place is that intuitively, they don't really look like a good fit. They don't scan, basketball-telepathy-wise. Scottie Pippen's sleepy cunning always seemed like a natural complement to MJ's wide-awake primacy — not too demanding, willing to do what was necessary, able to press or hang back whenever the moment required. By contrast, the inferable psychological traits at work in the Durant-Westbrook partnership are a lot harder to reconcile. If you accept the prevailing notion that an NBA team needs to be organized around a single dominant leader, the Thunder's dynamic is almost as crazy as the Heat's.7

I feel most of the time like Kevin Durant is a birthday present from the god of basketball to me personally, so please don't take this as criticism. But he's a really, really weird sort of superstar. He is self-evidently lethal, intimidated by nothing, and cooler under pressure than most of us are asleep. At the same time, you don't get the same sense of compulsive ultra-competitiveness from him that you do from the average NBA alpha dog. Guys like Kobe and Michael survey the court like they're looking for rebellions to subdue. They invent slights to give themselves motives to crush people. Durant seems infinitely more self-contained — like he's not even thinking that much about the other players or who's the best or who defers to whom, he's just doing his own thing, only his own thing happens to be absolutely brilliant. There's a basic insecurity that drives the need to be recognized as dominant, but Durant somehow has the ability to dominate without being driven by it. His signature move isn't blowing to the basket and leaving humiliated defenders in his wake, it's curling off a screen, jab-stepping, then going up for some bewilderingly slightly off-balance jump shot that somehow reconfigures your sense of angles. He's just a dude taking part in space. He's not deficient as a leader — he's actually a pretty good one — but for all his natural gregariousness, something about his game seems to point toward an ideal in which leadership doesn't have to exist.

Westbrook, on the other hand, is all explosive swagger, basketball played with the intent to ruin lives. He's got dominance DNA. You do not — from his facial expressions, from his demeanor, from his crossover dribble — get the sense that he's built to defer to anyone, or that he wants to. (For all that Westbrook and Durant are thriving together this season, Westbrook's assists are actually significantly down.) He wants to take his team on his back. It's just that his teammate happens to be one of the greatest basketball talents of the age.

But where does that leave him? So far, Oklahoma City has thrived largely because both Westbrook and Durant have recognized that their situation at the Thunder is special and committed to making it work.8 They've forged an alliance in which Durant is the clear protagonist, but Westbrook is one of those Shakespearean sidekicks who get most of the best lines. But Westbrook and Durant are 23. They're only just now starting to experience real sustained success. What happens if they make the Finals this year? What happens when they're 25? What if Westbrook, who's had essentially the same on-court personality since he was a pip-squeak in AAU, never fully accepts a secondary role? Do they keep negotiating new terms of allegiance, or do the strings eventually snap? (It's worth noting that none of those Shakespeare characters lives out the fifth act.)

Of course, it's possible that I'm getting ahead of myself even in getting ahead of myself. This is the kind of stuff fans worry about when things are going well. The Thunder have been an elite team for two seasons now, and while they still have an aura of newness about them, it's finally starting to feel like some tough things are expected. There's a bar now that they can't clear just by showing up. Maybe what I'm really feeling here isn't worry about Durant and Westbrook at all; maybe I'm caught in the vague anxiety of one of the hardest transitions, for both players and fans, in sports. Like the Thunder, I now have something to lose.

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Why England is in trouble (again)

By: timbersfan, 12:22 AM GMT on March 02, 2012

No permanent manager, no permanent captain and, in the grand scheme of things, nothing of note to be positive about for England ahead of Euro 2012.

As it was, a fairly young England side struggled to create clear-cut chances against an experienced Netherlands team on Wednesday at Wembley. There was structure to the team, but its passing was slow and the ball remained too long in defense whenever England won possession -- in short, the Three Lions consistently lacked a man to carry the transition from defense to attack. Although there was a late fight back when 0-2 became 2-2 inside the final 10 minutes, Arjen Robben's second excellent goal of the game snatched the win for the Netherlands in front of a few thousand jubilant, orange-clad Dutch fans who outsang the English support for long periods.

With uncertainty still lingering over the coaching position -- Stuart Pearce? Harry Redknapp? Someone else? -- it's still difficult to even imagine what tactics England will use at Euro 2012. With Wayne Rooney suspended for the first two group games, only three players can be counted as definites to start the opening match against France in June: Joe Hart, Ashley Cole and Wednesday's captain, Scott Parker. Every other position is up for grabs, which is both uplifting and unsettling at a time when England seemingly has moved on to the next generation without yet turning out the lights on its previous crop.

That said, there were some positive factors for Three Lions fans. In stark contrast to the consistency of selection from their opponents (a side largely unchanged from the World Cup final), only three of the 17 English players used -- Steven Gerrard, Gareth Barry and James Milner -- played at the World Cup in South Africa. Emphasizing the lack of a complete transition, there were plenty of youngsters on show despite that the old faces are not out of the picture. Gerrard, Frank Lampard, John Terry and Rio Ferdinand -- the core of the England side that has failed at the highest level in the past decade -- all expect to be involved in Poland and Ukraine. England has not cast aside these players the way Spain did with Raul, for example, or how Jogi Low has unceremoniously called time on Michael Ballack's international career. As such, there's not a particularly obvious set of players for the new coach to work with, meaning that as many as 50 players could be in with a chance of representing England this summer.

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So this game was solely about individuals -- and which players shone? At the back there was little to get excited about. Micah Richards, perhaps the most obvious beneficiary from Fabio Capello's departure, gave a decent performance at right back. But Gary Cahill still doesn't convince at the international level despite his fine finish for England's first goal. Chris Smalling, thankfully fine after suffering an extremely nasty head injury, tracked Klaas-Jan Huntelaar too closely for Robben's opener, then didn't track him closely enough for the Schalke striker's headed goal. Leighton Baines got forward well but looked nervous defensively and was at fault for Robben's winner.

In midfield, we discovered nothing new. Parker will scrap for his life and is probably a decent choice as captain; Barry is solid yet underwhelming when fielded alongside another holding midfielder because he is unable to play incisive passes; and Gerrard still has the potential to carry the side, but a combination of overambitious long balls and minor injuries continue to hamper his international form.

So then we had to look up front, where there were a couple of bright spots. Danny Welbeck was rightly hailed in the British media for his performance and might well be the No. 9 England has lacked since Michael Owen's decline. Most obviously, Welbeck is strong and quick, yet it's his intelligence and technical quality that make him stand out from the lumbering, static target men England has often used alongside Rooney. Welbeck's movement is excellent, constantly drifting into the channels, pulling center backs out of position and creating space for others (though sadly, it generally went unexploited). Furthermore, his link-up play is very good; his performances on loan at Sunderland were notable for his high pass-completion rate -- he's happy doing work outside the box and playing in teammates.

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Ashley Young's pace, work rate and willingness to challenge his opposite number are things England will need in Euro 2012 and beyond.
Welbeck has the potential to be a real all-rounder. He is not perfect yet, of course, and there are elements of his game he needs to improve upon -- becoming a more ruthless finisher, for example, and creating more chances for himself. But there is no obvious area in which he will never excel; compare to the way Jermain Defoe isn't an aerial force, Peter Crouch rarely impresses with his movement and Darren Bent will never be good enough at linking play.

The fact that Welbeck can play alone up front yet also combine well with Rooney and/or Javier Hernandez at Manchester United means he is the ideal pick to start the Euros in those games England will be without his United teammate until Rooney's suspension expires.

Continuing the Manchester United connection is Ashley Young, who capped a good all-around performance with a coolly taken equalizer (the pass was provided by yet another United man, Phil Jones). Young has two qualities that his rivals for a wide position lack -- first, good movement. He shares that skill with Welbeck, and this is crucial for England, for the core of the Three Lions' poor attacking play in South Africa was not the personnel, nor necessarily the formation, but the static, boxy nature of their play.

Young constantly tests the opposition -- he drifts inside into the center, then out to the wing, moves forward to reach through-balls yet also comes deep toward the midfield. Left back Baines looked decent when he had space to motor into by virtue of Young's intelligence -- after Gerrard's injury, the left-footed, unsophisticated Adam Johnson moved to that flank, and Baines was no longer a force.

Young also delivers a good dead ball. Recent international tournaments have been played at a slow pace with few goals in open play, meaning that creating chances from set pieces has become extremely important -- particularly for underdogs. It's not inconceivable that England will field an XI without a top-class set-piece taker, and Young would fill that void.

But then, being positive for the sake of it is pointless. Caretaker manager Pearce handled himself well in front of the media but admits he isn't a long-term option. The FA says it is no closer to appointing anyone on a permanent basis and has not yet approached Tottenham Hotspur about Redknapp, the obvious candidate.

All told, it is a farcical situation just three months before a major international tournament. If England was to even vaguely succeed in the summer, it would send a terrible message -- don't have a long-term plan, don't have a permanent manager, don't have a settled group of players. Instead, turn up unprepared and try to fluke your way through.

At this rate, England could do with a real shock in the summer to put into perspective how utterly ridiculous this position is, with the vague hope that it might learn lessons. But then, it is England -- the Three Lions didn't learn in 2000, they didn't learn in 2007, they didn't learn in 2010 and they won't learn in 2012. I suppose we may as well get behind them.

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The Reducer: Week 26, Ghosts of the Carling Cup

By: timbersfan, 1:19 AM GMT on March 01, 2012

I'm fairly certain that, while Kenny Dalglish may not exchange Christmas cards with Arsene Wenger …


… they can both agree on this: It is more important to not lose the Carling Cup than it is to win it. On Sunday, Liverpool narrowly defeated championship side Cardiff City, winning 3-2 (technically 2-2) after a comical, watch-through-your-fingers shootout that seemed to encapsulate 40 years of English penalty-taking in a matter of minutes.



It was a fantastic cup final. But that's all it was: a cup final. Winning the Carling Cup doesn't make you one of Europe's elite, nor does it fill your club's coffers with jewels and trinkets. I don't even think the players get a lifetime supply of Carling out of it (which is probably for the best). It just means you won something. It's the bronze medal of English football. There's no evidence that winning the Carling Cup does anything to lift the clubs' performances or statures. But there is something to suggest that losing the final acts as a rather strong tractor beam into a landfill of misery. That "something" is the last 365 days of Arsenal Football Club.

On February 27, 2011, Obafemi Martins, who had, at that point, seemed to have played for about 68 clubs and been on this earth for 200 years, scored an injury-time winner in the Carling Cup final at Wembley Stadium, stabbing the heavily favored Arsenal in the heart, and awarding the trophy to soon-to-be-relegated Birmingham.

It was a huge upset and an enormous disappointment for Arsenal. Its manager, Arsene Wenger, had often downplayed the importance of the League Cup, using it as a platform for some of his highly vaunted young players. For fans of Football Manager it was a chance to see Sanchez Watt and Henri Lansbury in the flesh. For everyone else it was a sign that Wenger hardly prioritized the competition.

The 2010-11 League Cup was different. Wenger, sensing a growing, vocal unease over Arsenal's then six-year trophy drought, saw that the "third best" cup in England was Arsenal's best chance at some silverware, so he began playing much stronger lineups.

Which made it all the more painful when Arsenal defender Laurent Koscielny and keeper Wojciech Szczesny acted out some kind of silent-film slapstick involving grown men chasing after a kitten, allowing Martins to pounce and kick off Arsenal's year of miserable thinking.

After the Gunners lost at Wembley, they proceeded to go out of Europe (losing to Barcelona), the FA Cup (at the hands of Manchester United), and sputter to the Premier League finish line like a Peugeot running out of gas, winding up in fourth place. Winning the League Cup would likely not have kept Samir Nasri or Cesc Fabregas, both of whom departed the club in the summer, but it certainly didn't help matters.

Anyone who has read this column or watched the Premier League this season knows how the club's 2011-12 season has gone for the Gunners; several great results (Chelsea, Blackburn, the fairy-tale ending to the Leeds FA Cup game) mixed in with some facepalm-bad losses (Milan, Manchester United … Blackburn).

So tenuous is life on the border of England's elite teams, so necessary is it for the sake of finances and appearances to constantly be competing for something bigger, something brighter, that Liverpool was probably acutely aware — from director of football Damien Comolli down to the (possibly fictional) tea lady that English clubs still supposedly employ — that the embarrassment of losing to Cardiff would probably have a more profound negative effect than any lift that winning the Carling Cup would give them.

You could feel this sense of both relief and underwhelming from the Liverpool players in their post-match comments. "I just think — the Carling Cup for Birmingham last year. Was it a platform for them? It certainly wasn't," said Craig Bellamy, who was perhaps trying to downplay the importance of the victory in light of the fact that he had just helped defeat his boyhood club, Cardiff. But he was not alone in his tempered response to the trophy. Jamie Carragher said, "Yes, it is nice to have it in the bag, but we are bigger and better than that."

For Steven Gerrard, the problem was probably more result of the nature of the victory. In a penalty shootout that saw the Liverpool captain's shot blocked on a save of a lifetime by Cardiff keeper Tom Heaton, the match was actually decided by another Gerrard; Steven's cousin, Anthony. The lesser-known Gerrard shanked a penalty wide of Pepe Reina's goal, giving Liverpool the edge in the shootout. After the match, Steven Gerrard was understandably measured in his reaction: "It was always going to be the case that one of us was going to be sad and one would be celebrating. I have mixed emotions at the moment. Obviously I'm delighted to have won a trophy for our supporters, but I feel for Anthony and Cardiff. It doesn't matter what I say to him at this time. I have been there when I scored an own-goal against Chelsea. I will be here for him after the game and all the family will be behind him."

Over and over, Liverpool players talked about being happy for the supporters, about paying them back for so many years without a cup to celebrate, without a trip to Wembley to enjoy. But if you read between the lines, it sounds more like "Thank God we didn't lose" than "Thank God we won."

The Best I Ever Had

Speaking of the Almighty, he or she seems to have a very interesting sense of humor when it comes to Arsenal. After putting the club through one of the most punishing weeks in its recent history, whatever deity oversees football bestowed onto the Gunners, its players, and its fans one of its more memorable victories.

Here are some quick hits about a typically wonderful North London derby (the below video is rather Arsenal-centric, but the production is so nice I thought it would be fun to post — sorry, Spurs fans):



• Arsene Wenger often talks about mental strength, usually within some mild-mannered monologue about "quality." If any one player showed that strength, it was the one Gunner who is so often accused of lacking in the mental department: Theo Walcott. He may have an abysmal first touch, and his crosses often look addressed to someone living in Vermont rather than to one of his teammates, but after getting booed by his own supporters for most of the first half Walcott showed some incredible resilience to put away two goals. The rap on Walcott is that his career has hit some kind of wall, but statistically, he's had a very good year, scoring five in the league and nicely hooking up Robin van Persie. Had the Dutch striker passed back to Walcott in the 35th minute, Walcott might have had a hat trick instead of the two finely taken goals he nabbed.

• Special mention must also go to Tomas Rosicky. Usually the Czech midfielder is the one player in the world who I think could benefit from Paul Ince's particularly basic brand of coaching ("SHOOT!"), but Rosicky played like his shorts were on fire. Slotted in the role usually reserved for the injured Aaron Ramsey, Rosicky was all over the place, scything down Spurs players and scoring Arsenal's third.

• When Gareth Bale went down, drawing a penalty that led to Tottenham's second goal, I couldn't help but be reminded of the last time he "ran" into Wojciech Szczesny (who called this victory one of his best ever and compared it to Arsenal's defeat of Barcelona in last season's Champions League).

• Tottenham has United at White Hart Lane and Stevenage in the FA Cup next week. United is United and Harry Redknapp seems constitutionally opposed to beating Sir Alex Ferguson, but if Spurs somehow lose to Stevenage or even drop points away to Everton on March 10, people will start wondering whether the "Redknapp for England" speculation is actually hurting Spurs.

• I don't know what was more surprising, the fact that Arsenal was going into tackles like a bunch of teenagers hopped up on Nerds or the fact that Tottenham seemed so blasé about the match in the first place. Emmanuel Adebayor's pass to set up Louis Saha for the opening goal was beautiful, but he had a certain "who gives a shit" vibe that seemed to trickle down to his teammates.

• I would like to say that Arsenal has finally killed the ghost that's haunted them since last season's Carling Cup Final and will go on to get a Champions League place and maybe even terrify Milan in the return leg of their European clash. But … well, this is Arsenal we're talking about.

Step Overs

• It's probably a product of the fact that they haven't had a really high-profile match in a while, but does anybody really care that Manchester City is starting to jog away with the title? They've dispatched Fulham, Villa, and now Blackburn in recent weeks. Not even a new Mario Balotelli goal celebration made me excited. What's wrong with me? They will likely be the first non-Chelsea/Manchester United champions in 10 years.

• Mark Hughes should probably join the Chris Paul Society for Men Who Do Not Like Being Touched on the Head. "Sparky" has a stick up his ass and now he's got his club, QPR, playing like it. He pretty much admitted that he sent Samba Diakite out onto the field with a mandate to kick the crap out of people, and Hughes paid the price for his caveman tactics. That was a testy, testy West London derby between Queens Park and Fulham. Looks like the Cottagers' Pavel Pogrebnyak was acutely aware of that. Check out his goal celebration. Also? If he hadn't already done so, that assist from Moussa Dembele probably sealed Pogrebnyak's transfer to one of the top six sides in the league next season.



• Terry Connor drew with Newcastle in his first game in charge of Wolves. I really don't know what he said at halftime, with his side down 2-0, but given the fact that he looks like he could flatten an aluminum can full of soda WITH HIS MIND, it was probably pretty inspiring.

Goal of the Week: Grant Holt, Norwich (at 1:27)



I know that Jonas Gutierrez let off a rocket against Wolves and van Persie pulled another poetry-inspiring turn-and-shoot against Spurs, but GRANT HOLT, people! Against United! And look at that muffed celebration!

Quote of the Week: Andre Villas-Boas

One of my favorite things in English football is the "player or manager gives interview to foreign press and said interview gets roughly translated back to England" phenomenon. Check out what the Chelsea boss had to say to Portugal's TSF radio station: "I think I have felt the confidence from Abramovich. But the pattern of behavior of the owner has led to a downfall in similar situations or even 'better' situations. What will be the reaction? It will be one of the two. A continuation of the project and full support or just the cultural pattern that has happened before. We don't know." Yeah. I think we do.

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Behind the Scenes at All-Star Weekend

By: timbersfan, 1:17 AM GMT on March 01, 2012

The NBA All-Star Weekend took me back to my freshman year in high school. When you arrive on campus, you think you're the man. You dominated junior high, you had a killer summer at camp, and you've officially come into your own. The braces are off, you've just started doing pushups at night, you held a girl's hand at the movies once, mom started letting you shop for yourself at Marshalls, and all signs point toward a growth spurt.

But much like the experience of being a freshman in high school, the reality of my serf-like position at the bottom of the All-Star Weekend feudal system became quite clear within minutes of settling in at my hotel in Orlando. By the end of my first week of high school, I understood that the rest of the year would entail athletes and older guys looking over me without acknowledging my presence, girls my age acting completely disinterested, and older girls sitting around, hating on the younger girls.

At first, I was bummed out, mainly because I'm an only child and used to getting at least some form of attention. But as the weekend progressed, I realized my insignificance could actually be a blessing in disguise. In this sea of NBA players, NBA insiders, wannabe NBA insiders, celebrities, and wannabe celebrities, here I was, almost invisible.

My various badges and passes got me close to most of the action but not too close. I could always see what was going on, but my invisibility cloak had its limits. Too close, and my cover is blown and next thing I know, Gym Class Heroes and Jesse Jackson are giving me swirlies in the bathroom between second and third period. There was always a buffer zone of lameness that separated me from the beautiful people, but at the same time, if they had the ability to actually notice me, they would have been thoroughly creeped out by me, staring at them, jotting down notes, always dying of laughter.

My beat for the weekend was to always be around, keeping my head on a swivel, noticing when hilarity ensued, watching as celebrities interacted, and most importantly, guessing what they were talking about, based on who they were and their mannerisms. This sounds like an easy task, but at an event like the NBA All-Star Weekend, it can cause a serious case of carpal tunnel. The observations are seemingly endless.

So here we go.

Probable quotes/conversations in italics.

Friday Night: BBVA Rising Stars Challenge

9:10 p.m. Shaq high-fives everyone on #TeamShaq, and then gets to Jeremy Lin:
Shaq: Hi, little fella.
Jeremy: Hi, Shaq.

9:11 p.m. Shaq keeps going, and then finally makes it to Blake Griffin. Blake is the only one who stands up and embraces Shaq:
Shaq: Why you playing with these little kids?
Blake: I got to, man, it's part of the deal.
Shaq: OK, well get me three oops in the first five minutes and I'll sit you till the end.
Blake: Thanks, man.

9:17 p.m. Wale is sitting courtside, alone, with two empty seats on both sides of him, texting.
Mass text to Maybach Music Group: WHERE IS EVERYONE? THIS IS MAD EMBARRASSING.

9:19 p.m. Mascot puts a cheerleader in Shaq's lap:
Shaq: Heeeey mama, get outta here before you get me in trouble (slides hotel key).

9:28 p.m. Wale, still frantically texting, still laughably alone:
Guys, this is really uncool. People are starting to stare. Hurry, please.

9:32 p.m. Jeremy Lin's parents are caught on the Kiss Cam texting and never react:
Mom: Jeremy is playing horribly.
Dad: I think we're on the Kiss Cam.
Mom: Don't you dare look up.
Dad: It's getting awkward. Everyone's laughing. Just listen.
Mom: DON'T YOU LOOK UP.

9:38 p.m. Rapper Meek Mill and friends arrive. Wale looks elated:
Wale: I'm so elated.
Meek: Does Ross know we're courtside?
Wale: No, but I charged these on his card and am hoping he doesn't check his bank statement.
Meek: We're screwed if he finds out.

9:39 p.m. Meek Mill takes phone call. Looks important.
Meek: Hi Rozay. Yeah, I didn't know they were courtside, either. Wale got them, sir. I'm sorry. OK, we'll see you Monday. Bye, boss. BOSS.

9:55 p.m. MarShon Brooks hits a 3, points at Deron Williams. Deron says something to wife:
Deron Williams: That dude sucks.

10 p.m. The JumboTron is playing the top 10 plays from people in the Frosh/Soph game. No. 1 is obviously Blake dunking on Kendrick Perkins.
Blake: (Not saying anything, towel over face, almost embarrassed as his teammates go crazy.)
Blake's thoughts: I am so awesome.

Side note: Watching Blake watch Blake is an incredible experience. So meta.

10:04 p.m. MarShon Brooks has an open short jump shot, runs back for a 3, airballs it, and then looks at Deron Williams. Deron says something to wife:
Deron Williams: What did I say? He's the worst.

Saturday Night: Shooting Stars/Skills/3-Point/Dunk Contests

8:43 Kevin Hart and Spike Lee talk around Mary J. Blige:
Spike: How you get these tickets?

9:05 p.m. Russell Westbrook and the kid he was "playing for":
Russell Westbrook and kid: [No conversation.]

9:10 p.m. Tony Parker and the kid he was "playing for":
Tony Parker and the kid: [No conversation.]

9:20 p.m. Westbrook and Parker, talk over kids:
Westbrook: When is this over?
Parker: Hahahaha.
Westbrook: Trying to go get changed and watch this dunk contest.
Parker: Hehehehe.
Westbrook: What hotel you staying at?
Parker: Bahahahaha.

Side note: It is at this point that I move seats and sit a few sections behind the Black NBA Illuminati. In order (from left to right): Evan Turner, LaMarcus Aldridge, Serge Ibaka, Kemba Walker, Andre Iguodala, Dwight Howard, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade. (Deron, Westbrook, and Durant join in later.)

To the right of the crew are The Decision Kids and to the left are The Money Team. If you have no idea what I'm talking about, this would be a good time to close this blog post.

9:32 p.m. The Money Team (50 Cent and Floyd Mayweather) and Evan Turner:
Money Mayweather: Yo fam, you got love for the Money Team?
Turner: Well, I, um … So it's funny, you know.
Money Mayweather: Don't look at me, ever again.

9:35 p.m. 50 Cent and white guy next to him:
No eye contact (not to be a spoiler, but this doesn't change for the rest of the night).

9:55 p.m. After noticing the different handshakes throughout the Black NBA Illuminati, neighbor David Jacoby and I decide we need a Grantland handshake.

9:58 p.m. Durant teaches Money Mayweather a handshake:
Mayweather: So it's bap bap and then salute?
Durant: No, we just went over this. Bap bap bap and then salute.
Mayweather: Yo chill son, I got this, Money got this. Three baps. Done. I got this.

9:59 p.m. "Bap bap bap and then salute" becomes official Grantland handshake.

10:03 p.m. Rondo comes out, walks toward the crew, and no one gives up seat. He sits alone elsewhere.

10:08 p.m. Deron comes back from the skills competition, negotiates with one of the Decision Kids:
Deron: I think you're in my seat, my man.
Decision Kid 1: Nope.
Deron: OK.

10:08 p.m. Older guy next to Decision Kids gets up and moves.

10:09 p.m. Money Team approaches Rondo and they each take one ear:
We know you ain't got no friends. Get in this Money Team.

10:15 p.m. Jacoby points out that the mascot Benny the Bull is the meanest, rudest creature ever created. He's right.

11:07 p.m. Floyd aggressively waves Durant and Westbrook over to take a walk with him:
Money: Aight, so y'all down with me and the Money team?
Westbrook (answering for both): Yes, we're down.
Durant (looking puzzled at Wesbtrook): OK. What do we have to do?
Money: OK. First assignment: Get me and 50 some bags of Cooler Ranch Doritos from the vending machine. You've got two seconds.

Sunday Night: The NBA All-Star Game

PREGAME
6:55 p.m. Walking in behind La La Vazquez-Anthony and Gabrielle Union:
La La Vazquez-Anthony: Girl, you look good.
Gabrielle Union: Girl stop, you know I don't.

7:09 p.m. Weezy and Orlando Magic Mascot:
Wayne: fas;ldkfja;ldfja
Mascot: asldfjasldfja;ldf

7:20 p.m. Bill Russell and Mary J. Blige:
Mary: It's such an honor to meet you, Mr. Russell.
Bill: And you, the same. Who are you?
Mary: Mary J. Blige. I'm a singer. I'm actually singing the national anthem.
Bill: Did you win one of those shows?

INTROS
7:21 p.m. Kobe and Chris Paul:
Kobe: I'm dropping 40.
CP3: You better get yours before Westbrook gets in.

7:26 p.m. (Before they walk out) Melo, LeBron, Wade, Howard, Rose:
LeBron: We're walking out to "I'ma Boss." Let's go ham.
Wade: In.
Howard: Yay.
Melo: Lehgo.
Rose: No.

7:28 p.m. Walk out. LeBron and Dwight yell "2 CHAINZ" and are dancing. Melo and Wade join in. Jason Bourne Derrick Rose waits, stone-faced, for his next instructions.

7:29 p.m. Alex Rodriguez and girlfriend (sitting four feet away):
[No conversation, yet.]

7:31 p.m. Drake and Wayne:
Drake: Can I stand on this chair?
Wayne: [No response.]

7:32 p.m. Drake stands on chair, post-Canadian national anthem, and cheers.

7:36 p.m. Derrick Rose flashes first smile with Bill Russell:
Russell: How are you, Derrick?
Rose: Thank you for all you've done for the sport, Mr. Bill Russell.

7:43 (ALERT) First overheard conversation of the weekend — Kobe to A-Rod:
Kobe: What up, boy. [Chest beat.]
A-Rod: What up. One of two smiles of the evening.]

Actually, I'm just remembering it was mouthed. Still haven't used my ears.

7:49 p.m. Drake and Wayne: Still no conversation yet. Further evidence they aren't actually friends.

7:51 p.m. Drake and Wayne stand up together, then quickly sit down. No words exchanged.

7:55 p.m. Dwight ties shoes while he and LeBron chat:
LeBron: Last night was mad real.
Dwight: Sunglasses and Advil.

7:57 p.m. Wayne takes off glasses, gives to neighbor, they talk:
Wayne: Take my glasses.
Neighbor: OK.

8 p.m. Highlight of weekend: The West calls time out, the lights come up, and Ne-Yo puts back on his shades. I bet the interior of his fedora is lined with wet-wipes.

8:02 p.m. The troops are honored, Wayne stands up and pulls an American flag out of his pocket, waves it, yells something:
Wayne: FREE WEEZY.

8:03 Ne-Yo finally speaks to date:
Ne-Yo: I'm Ne-Yo.
Ne-Yo's date: I know.
Ne-Yo: That's cool.

8:04 p.m. Dwight is sitting in stands with an old white dude:
Dwight: Orlando in the building.
Old Dude: Yes sir, this building is most certainly in Orlando.

8:05 p.m. Westbrook makes a shot in front of Young Money. Wayne growls at him.
Wayne: Graaaawwwwwl

Side note: In addition to the Black NBA Illuminati, there's the Black Celebrity Illuminati. Will get into that later.

8:06 p.m. Wayne and Drake actually have a conversation. Again, I was on the other side of the floor, but I know this is exactly how it went:
Drake: Young Moolah Baby.
Wayne: Young Money Bitch.
Drake: Toronto stand UP.
Wayne: N'Awlins.
Drake: Ahhhhhhhhhh.
Wayne: Ughhhhhh.
Drake: Hoes.
Wayne: Birdman.

8:10 p.m. Wayne has headphones on and is rapping along to something. Or maybe singing.
Wayne singing: "Bad dreams in the night. They told me I was going to lose the fight. Leave behind my wuthering, wuthering, wuthering heights."

8:13 p.m. Rondo and Pierce go up for rebound. Both interfere and it goes out of bounds. They stare at each other.
[No words.]

8:15 p.m. Spike looks like Diane Keaton.

8:18 p.m. Second meta moment of the weekend, as Dwight & Co. watch Dwight on the JumboTron do the cookie challenge. You know, when you put a cookie on your forehead and try to get it into your mouth without using your hands?

8:19 p.m. Dwight gets the cookie at the buzzer, LeBron and Wade are freaking out, dapping up Dwight:
LeBron: Ahhhhhh, you see that?
Wade: COOKIE CHALLENGE.
Derrick Rose: [Hands behind back, sweating, because he wasn't programmed to respond to the cookie challenge and knows he shouldn't celebrate, but loves cookies.]

8:20 p.m. Nicki Minaj has made her way to the Black Celebrity Illuminati row.

8:21 p.m. Wayne still has headphones on. Looks like a different song this time:
Wayne singing: "Hey ladies. When your man wanna get buckwild. Just go back and hit 'em up style. Put your hands on his cash and spend it to the last dime. For all the hard times."

8:22 p.m. Wow. Chris Tucker is here. Again. Rush Hour money is, apparently, the longest money.

8:24 p.m. Mascot skit with Chumbawamba's "Tubthumping." They fall at "I get knocked down."
Cee Lo: Haha.
Travie McCoy: Point and haha.
Kevin Hart: Stands up and haha.
Drake: Laughs, looks at Wayne, stops laughing.

8:27 p.m. Moment of the weekend: I reach across body and catch a T-shirt that flies over A-Rod's head without even standing. I get love from my section, and A-Rod turns around and flashes his second smile of the night. That happened. Moving on.

8:43 p.m. Three kids come up to A-Rod and ask for autographs but are too scared to get his attention. They eventually get it. So proud of them for their courage.

8:50 p.m. Halftime — Pitbull/Chris Brown.

8:51 p.m. A-Rod knows his Pitbull.

8:54 p.m. Paul Pierce, on court, taking video of Pitbull on phone. No other players to be seen.

8:48 p.m. A-Rod and CC Sabathia acknowledge each other, but still, no words. It's like they know I'm right there, taking notes right behind them.

9 p.m. With our own eyes, Jonathan Abrams and I watched the Drake/Common beef end. They shook hands, hugged, and ended it just like any two Basketball Wives would squash a conflict:
[Handshake.]
Common: Yo man, it's all about love. Let's squash this.
Drake: Yeah man, I feel you. I feel you. Most definitely.
[Hug.]
Common: I hope you learned your lesson.
Drake: What?
Common: I'm crazy, son.

9:02 p.m. Wolf Blitzer and a guy with Louis Vuitton hat/scarf set:
Wolf: Where'd you get that Louis Vuitton hat and scarf set?
Guy: Yo man, you know I can't tell you that.
Wolf: Oh my bad, no disrespect, I'm just trying to finish the winter out in style.

9:05 p.m. Dirk and Nash, on the court, seemingly talking about basketball:
Steve: So you know they're not going to pass it to you, Dirk.
Dirk: I know. Will you pass it to me?
Steve: Of course I will. We've got to stick together.
Dirk: Wait, what are you talking about?
Steve: You know …
Dirk: No Steve, what are you trying to say?
Steve: Never mind, just look for the pass.

9:09 p.m. Kevin Hart and Benny the Bull:
Kevin Hart: Get out of my seat.
Benny the Bull: I'm going to kill you, Kevin Hart.

9:11 p.m. Dwight comes up to Bill Russell and tries a five-hit combo handshake with him:
Russell: What are we doing?
Dwight: It's our new handshake.
Russell: I don't like this.
Dwight: No Bill, it's cool.
Russell: I don't like you.

9:13 p.m. Seats change: Chris Brown is back. Chris Tucker gets sent away.

9:18 p.m. A rabbi to Sabathia: FIRST QUOTE ACTUALLY HEARD:
Rabbi: Hi, I'm your wife's rabbi. I bet you didn't know your wife had a rabbi.

Actually, Abrams heard it because I was too busy staring at A-Rod's girl, but yes. It happened and I'm still quoteless.

9:24 p.m. Chris Brown is announced, everyone cheers, I put head in hands and attempt to disappear.

9:39 p.m. Benny the Bull touches a Gym Class Heroes member's mohawk, then wipes residue on someone else. Wayne laughs. Mohawk guy doesn't.

9:53 p.m. Mid-yawn in the quietest arena I've ever been in, I see Drake talking to security guard, making hand gestures:
Drake: Yo, can Birdman Jr. and I please get some nachos? I'm Drake. That's Lil Wayne. Doesn't that mean anything to you?

9:54 p.m. 2 Chainz sits next to Wayne and they're talking:
Wayne: Boi, where ya been where ya been?
2 Chainz: 2 CHAINZ.

9:55 p.m. 2 Chainz is talking through a headpiece receiver connected to his iPhone.
2 Chainz: 2 CHAINZ.

10:03 p.m. LeBron hits a 3, causing an all-YMCMB stank face.

10:04 p.m. Benny the Bull takes someone's hat.

10:05 p.m. LeBron hits a 3, first real energy in the arena all weekend.

10:06 p.m. Durant comes back with shot. Crowd goes wild, guy behind us spills beer on Abrams. Abrams is mad. Abrams is sad.

10:09 p.m. The score is 141-146, West. Everyone is into it. Spike is talking to referee:
Spike: Ref, give me a break.
Ref: You were so good all weekend.
Spike: What'd you expect. I'm Spike Lee, maker of films and other assorted statements.
Ref: Good point.

10:15 p.m. Tom Thibodeau is yelling, writing up a play for the East team:
Thibodeau: Give it to LeBron. Good GOD just give it to LeBron.

10:17 p.m. Finally, with 22.8 seconds left in my All-Star coverage, my first actual quote of the weekend. The crowd is yelling "DE-FENSE." At the All-Star game. Unbelievable.

10:17 p.m. Also, with 22.8 seconds left in the All-Star weekend, Kevin Hart leaves. Meanwhile, on the other side of courtside, Wayne, Drake, and 2 Chainz are standing up, stressing. This is the moment that separates the camera-hungry, clownish sports fans from the camera-hungry, clownish non-sports fans.

10:20 p.m. LeBron has the ball and with only seconds left decides to pass it. And it's picked off by Blake Griffin.

10:21 p.m. Kobe, in LeBron's ear:
Kobe: I can't believe you passed it.
Kobe: You know I wouldn't have passed it.
Kobe: I would have shot it.
Kobe: Would have gone in, too.
Kobe: Ha. You passed it.

10:22 p.m. Spike is on the court, begging for a lane violation during Blake's second free throw.
Spike: LANE VIOLATION. GOOD LORD.

10:23 p.m. Blake makes free throw, a timeout is called, Tommy Thibs writes up one last play.
Thibodeau: Do NOT give it to LeBron. Good GOD just do anything but that.

10:24 p.m. Play doesn't work. Game over. Weezy is ecstatic.
Weezy: Young Money.

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Free Agent Hype Chronicles: Mario Williams

By: timbersfan, 1:17 AM GMT on March 01, 2012

Disclaimer: This article is part of my series on free agency from the perspective of the agent, where I prepare Scott Boras-esque "books" that detail where each player stands in the marketplace and why he deserves as much of your team's money as possible. Normally, my goal is to use statistics and historical context to present the most accurate depiction of football that I can, but in this series, all I want to do is convince you to spend money on the player in question. As a result, I may include information or suggest comparisons that I don't necessarily agree with, just as an agent might try to play up his clients' strengths. Keep that in mind when you're reading. (For more on this, check out the Monday piece on Mike Wallace that started this series, and Tuesday's article covering Matt Flynn.)

Once every few years, a game-changing pass-rusher hits the market and inspires his team to hit new defensive heights. Reggie White. Kevin Greene. Julius Peppers. Mario Williams is the next player in that group of legendary acquisitions, a one-man wrecking crew who carried a dormant Texans unit on his back for five seasons. And while those players were acquired after they had passed their athletic primes, Williams just turned 27 in January; he's about to hit his athletic peak. As the most well-rounded and versatile lineman in this year's class, Mario Williams is the sort of player that can make a bad defense good, a good defense great, and a great defense legendary. His combination of proven performance, elite athleticism, and room to grow with age makes him the most valuable defensive player to ever hit unrestricted free agency.

The Preeminent Young Pass-Rusher

Mario Williams creates havoc in the offensive backfield to an extent that only the best defenders in football can match. Unfortunately, because he hasn't had the players around him to complement that rare pass rushing ability, his performances haven't received the sort of notoriety that more prominent players have gotten. The Texans finally put together a secondary to take advantage of Williams' rushing ability in 2011, but after five sacks in five games, Williams suffered his only major injury as a pro, a torn pectoral muscle that sidelined him for the remainder of the season. If we put Williams' performance in context by accounting for that season and the players around him, a masterful pass-rusher is revealed.

What's first impressive about Williams is how successful he has been without the presence of a second significant pass-rusher to play alongside him. Other pass-rushers who have hit free agency in recent years have had dynamic rushers on the other side of the field to take the heat away. Ray Edwards had Jared Allen, and Allen had Tamba Hali. Robert Mathis had Dwight Freeney. There was not a player of any note to operate across from Williams before 2011, and teams keyed on that fact by doubling Williams on virtually every single play.

Despite those double-teams, though, Williams was still able to sack the quarterback at a truly impressive rate. From 2006 through 2010, the Texans sacked opposing passers 143 times. Williams had 48 of those sacks, accounting for more than one of every three Texans sacks by himself. Over that time frame, only two players produced a higher percentage of their team's sacks than Williams did:

PIECE OF THE TEAM SACKS PIE

2006-10 Player Sacks Team Sacks Percentage
1 DeMarcus Ware 72 207.5 34.7%
2 Robert Mathis 48.5 144 33.7%
3 Mario Williams 48 143 33.6%
4 Jared Allen 63 190 33.2%
5 John Abraham 49 154 31.8%
6 Tamba Hali 41.5 136 30.5%
7 Dwight Freeney 43 144 29.9%
8 Julius Peppers 48.5 162.5 29.8%
9 Aaron Kampman 44.5 172 25.9%
10 Trent Cole 52 206 25.2%
Williams was the only Texans player during that five-year stretch to produce six or more sacks in a season, something he did in four consecutive years. Other teams knew that he was coming and that he was the only person they really needed to worry about, and they still couldn't stop him. That says a lot about Williams' ability to be "the man" on a defense, the guy to whom the unit turns when they need a big play.

What's even more incredible is that Williams was doing all this at a remarkably young age. For a 25-year-old to average nearly 10 sacks per season over a five-year stretch is nearly unprecedented. In fact, since the NFL started tracking sacks in 1983, only two players have accrued more sacks by the time they turned 26 than Mario Williams: Derrick Thomas and Dwight Freeney.

SACKS BY THE AGES

Sacks by 26 Player Sacks
1 Derrick Thomas 58
2 Dwight Freeney 51
3 Mario Williams 48
4 Tim Harris 48
5 Terrell Suggs 45
6 Bruce Smith 44.5
7 Simeon Rice 44
8 Shawne Merriman 43.5
9 Jared Allen 43
10 Elvis Dumervil 43
If you want to give Williams credit for that sack-per-game pace and suggest that he would have finished a fully healthy 2011 season with 16 sacks, that would give him a total of 64 sacks through the completion of his age-26 season. The only player with more sacks than that through 26 would be Thomas, and even he would only be two ahead of Williams.

Let's include that 2011 season in the analysis, because once you account for the lost time, Williams' production just becomes all that much more impressive. Over the past five years, Mario Williams has sacked opposing quarterbacks 48.5 times in just 66 games. That's an average of 0.73 sacks per game, or just under 12 sacks per full season. It's a figure that's also only been topped by two players.

SACKING THE AVERAGE

2007-11 Player Team(s) Sacks per Game
1 DeMarcus Ware DAL 1.00
2 Jared Allen MIN/KC 0.99
3 Mario Williams HOU 0.73
4 James Harrison PIT 0.73
5 Trent Cole PHI 0.71
6 Osi Umenyiora NYG 0.71
7 Elvis Dumervil DEN 0.71
8 John Abraham ATL 0.70
9 LaMarr Woodley PIT 0.69
10 Dwight Freeney IND 0.66
Hitting His Peak

Furthermore, whichever team signs Mario Williams as he heads into free agency for the first time can expect to get a player at the top of his game, because elite pass-rushers peak at ages 26-28 before beginning a decline that becomes steep in their 30s. To test this, we took the top 50 pass-rushers (by career sacks) since the NFL started tracking the statistic and measured how many sacks they accrued per game at each age. (We assigned each season to a particular age by noting their birth date as of the opening game of the season.)



Based on how those sack artists performed historically, they peaked at age 27 by sacking quarterbacks 0.71 times per game. Remember from the previous table that Williams has been sacking opposing quarterbacks at a slightly higher rate — 0.73 times per game — over the past five seasons, when he was 22-26. These dominant pass-rushers put up a roughly similar performance at ages 26 and 28 before beginning to decline thereafter.

The real dropoff comes at age 32, when the top 50 pass-rushers average 0.53 sacks per game and never again approach an average above that half-sack-per-game figure. You'll note that the market's two other prominent defensive ends are 31-year-old Robert Mathis and 33-year-old John Abraham. Each of those players have likely already played his best football. Your team can lock up Mario Williams on a five-year deal and actually see him play out the entire contract before he can be expected to suffer any sort of serious decline.

Conclusion

Mario Williams can do a lot of things. He can play as a defensive end in a 4-3. He can move to outside linebacker in a 3-4. He can play the run effectively. He can bounce to either side of the line. What your organization is going to pay Mario Williams to do, though, is rush the passer and create big plays for your defense. And when you put the numbers in their proper context, the only player in football who compares to Mario Williams as a young pass-rusher forced to go it alone is DeMarcus Ware. Other teams will get a veteran and hope that he hasn't lost it. Only one will get the sure thing, a superstar in the prime of his career.

To be quite honest, Mario Williams shouldn't be a free agent. The Houston Texans failing to negotiate a contract extension with Williams before his deal expired will go down as one of the great mistakes in league history, like the Eagles failing to lock up Reggie White, or the Falcons letting Deion Sanders go. Their inability to lock up Williams with the franchise tag is going to be a franchise-defining moment for two teams: the Texans and whatever team is lucky enough to add the most valuable defender in the history of free agency to their roster.

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NBA Rookie Midterm Report

By: timbersfan, 1:16 AM GMT on March 01, 2012

Since the NBA took four days off for its All-Star break last week, there weren't enough games on the schedule to warrant a new edition of Rookie Rankings. Instead, we're going to evaluate this year's crop of NBA rookies over the first half of the season. Two themes stick out about this rookie class: First is the battle for Rookie of the Year between Ricky Rubio and Kyrie Irving; second is the number of young big men who have earned spots in their teams' rotations. While all these players have found ways to be effective on the court, they also have flaws in their games that they'll need to improve to take the next steps in their NBA careers.

The Top Two

Since the start of the season, Kyrie Irving and Ricky Rubio have been at the top of these rankings. Although both players are point guards, they play the position in very different ways. The best example of how their games differ is probably the pick-and-roll, a play they each run on about 40 percent of their offensive possessions. What's interesting is that Irving and Rubio run the pick-and-roll almost equally well — they just get their results differently. Rubio, who typically looks to make a pass that leads to a score when he uses ball screens, posts 0.919 points per possession (PPP) on pick-and-roll plays. Irving, who often looks to score when he comes off a screen, is posting a PPP of 0.911. To highlight this difference, look at how often Irving and Rubio shoot and pass in pick-and-roll situations.


SEBASTIAN PRUITI
This chart, using data from Synergy Sports, confirms that Rubio gets his teammates involved more than he creates for himself and that Irving does the reverse. The following chart shows just how efficient these guards are when they play to their strengths.


COURTESY OF SEBASTIAN PRUITI
Here, we see that the Minnesota Timberwolves average more points per possession when Rubio passes out of pick-and-rolls than the Cleveland Cavaliers do when Irving does the same. Irving, however, is more efficient when he looks to score than Rubio is when he shoots off the pick-and-roll. You might be thinking that Rubio has Kevin Love and Minnesota's platoon of athletic wing scorers to pass to, so it's easier for him to be a pass-first point guard than it is for Irving, who has lesser targets in Antawn Jamison, Omri Casspi, and Anderson Varejao. That's not the case. When you watch Rubio and Irving play, it becomes clear that these are two point guards who affect the game in different ways.



When Rubio comes off screens, he keeps his head up and surveys the defense. He usually isn't looking for space to create his own shot; instead, he is reading the defense to find the right opportunity to pass to an open teammate. Even when Rubio drives to the rim, he's still looking for teammates, and if the defense overcommits to stopping his attack, Rubio will kick out a pass to his open teammates.

Irving, on the other hand, is looking for his shot before anything else. If he comes off a screen and sees open space in front of him, Irving will pull up for a jumper. He also looks for holes in the defense to attack so he can drive to the basket. He scores well in both situations, and the way Irving attacks screens and looks to score makes me think that it's just his style to play that way. Likewise, it's Rubio's style to always have an eye out for the assist.

The Bigs With Something Missing

The biggest surprise of this year's rookie class has been the number of quality big men it has produced, and that's not even counting the Toronto Raptors' lottery pick Jonas Valanciunas, who is playing overseas this season. Enes Kanter, Markieff Morris, Bismack Biyombo, and Gustavo Ayon (as well as Chandler Parsons, Nikola Vucevic, Kenneth Faried, and Ivan Johnson, whom we won't have space to examine) have all impressed their teams and earned more playing time as the season has progressed. However, none of these rookies has a complete game, and each has a hole in his game that needs to be addressed.

The following "radar" charts (once again, using data from Synergy Sports) for each rookie big man show the percentile ranks of the players' respective PPP numbers in the following categories: Putbacks/O-Rebounding, Post Offense, Pick-and-Roll Offense, Pick-and-Roll Defense, and Post Defense.


COURTESY OF SEBASTIAN PRUITI
As I mentioned in last week's rookie rankings, Kanter is excellent at showing against ball handlers who are coming off screens. He's also a decent post defender and does a decent job of finishing putbacks. Kanter struggles, however, when he posts up and when he catches the ball while rolling to the rim.



Kanter lacks finesse, and he hasn't yet learned the moves (or perhaps gained the coordination) to catch the ball and then take it to the basket. On the block, Kanter resorts to trying to bull his way to the rim, which leads to offensive fouls and other turnovers. When he rolls to the rim, Kanter seems to need an extra dribble to reach the hoop, and that extra bounce gives defenders time to bother Kanter's shots. He can improve by becoming more aware of help defenders and not taking an extra dribble when they're near; Kanter also needs to develop a better touch around the basket. This would allow him to shoot from a few steps farther back instead of always needing to dribble as close as possible to the rim.


COURTESY OF SEBASTIAN PRUITI
Markieff Morris seems like Kanter's basketball mirror image. Morris' biggest strengths are posting up and spotting up on offense. He struggles, however, on defense, especially when he defends the post. In those situations, Morris is just in the 10th percentile in terms of PPP allowed.



Morris' biggest defensive shortcoming is that he fouls too much. According to Synergy, Morris fouls 20.9 percent of the time when he defends the block. Morris tends to be jumpy on defense. He falls for pump fakes and makes it easy for offensive players to get him off balance and out of position. Smarter offensive bigs are using this to draw fouls against Morris. Second, Morris reaches in too much. Yes, big men are expected to be physical when fighting for position, but once an offensive player has caught the ball in the post, putting a hand on him is a foul. Morris keeps his hands on his man too long, and it leads to excess fouls.


COURTESY OF SEBASTIAN PRUITI
If Bismack Biyombo's chart looks familiar, that's because it's nearly identical to Kanter's, except Biyombo is slightly less effective in each category. Biyombo is at his best when he is putting back offensive rebounds and using his mobility to show against pick-and-roll offense. He struggles, however, with anything related to offense aside from putbacks, and Biyombo's PPP when posting up and rolling to the rim are in the NBA's bottom 10 percent.



Biyombo must work on the mechanics of his post game. For starters, he is way too upright. When Biyombo fights for position, he gets low and uses his lower body to create and occupy space. But once he catches the ball, Biyombo leaves his stance and becomes too straight. This makes it easy for defenders to nudge Biyombo away from the basket and out of scoring position. Biyombo's inability to gain ground in the post forces him to take some incredibly difficult shots and leads to a low efficiency rating.


COURTESY OF SEBASTIAN PRUITI
Gustavo Ayon is an interesting player. In many important categories, his numbers look impressive. While most of the big men we've mentioned are specialists who excel in one area or another, Ayon has a more complete game. He plays the pick-and-roll well and he's a decent post player. On defense, Ayon isn't great — nor is he terrible. But Ayon has one glaring weakness, and that is his inability to score off of offensive rebounds.



Ayon is incredibly active on the offensive glass. He does a great job of putting himself in position to get a hand on every shot that comes off the rim. The problem is that Ayon usually only gets one hand on the ball, so he tries to tip it back in. This prevents him from ever gaining full control of the ball, and it keeps him from converting putbacks at a high rate. If Ayon can rebound with both hands, he might get his fingers on fewer balls, but he will be more accurate with the putback attempts he does get, and will also be able to kick the ball out, reset the offense, and give his team extra possessions.

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The Malice at the Palace

By: timbersfan, 1:15 AM GMT on March 01, 2012

"I think a lot of us made a lot of selfish decisions that day. I made a selfish decision to stop trying to break it up and to confront Lindsey Hunter and Richard Hamilton. That was my selfish decision. Ron made a selfish decision by going into the stands. We all made selfish decisions, but at the same time, we were protecting each other. It's kind of hard to see if that's right or wrong."

— Stephen Jackson

The images are just as striking almost a decade later. A cup splashes off Ron Artest in the closing moments of a blowout win against the Detroit Pistons. He leaps into the stands at the Palace of Auburn Hills and into sports infamy. Mayhem follows. Players fight fans, fans fight players, a chair is thrown, bottles are tossed — in seconds, the invisible wall that separates athletes and spectators is demolished; the social contract of arena behavior is left in shreds.

What happened that night went well beyond nearly $10 million in forfeited paychecks and 146 games lost in suspensions. The melee transformed the Pacers from a Finals contender into a fringe playoff team and, eventually, a hopeless lottery case. Artest commenced a bizarre journey that took him from being one of the country's most loathed athletes to Metta World Peace. The careers of Stephen Jackson and Jermaine O'Neal were forever tainted by split-second decisions that no human could have possibly premeditated. The media debated security, fan behavior, and the tenuous relationship between players and spectators for weeks. It represented the NBA's worst nightmare: confirmation of the broad-stroke stereotype that its athletes were spoiled thugs.

"There were roughly half a dozen elements that caused that brawl to happen," says Mark Montieth, who covered the Pacers for the Indianapolis Star. "If Artest doesn't make that hard foul on Ben Wallace, it doesn't happen. If Ben Wallace doesn't react the way he did, it doesn't happen. If the referees control the situation, it doesn't happen. If Artest doesn't go lay down on that scorer's table, it doesn't happen. If the fan doesn't throw the beverage, it doesn't happen. There was a continuation there, a succession of things. You take away any one of them and the whole thing doesn't happen."

We interviewed as many of the participants and witnesses as we could from that night for this oral history — everyone below is listed with his or her job title on November 19, 2004. Or, as the most infamous night in NBA history would come to be known, "The Malice at the Palace."

The Statement Game

It was a little more than two weeks into the season, but this was a crucial game for both sides: Friday night on ESPN, their first meeting since the defending-champion Pistons had knocked Indiana out of an emotionally charged Eastern Conference finals that was best remembered for a vicious flagrant foul by Artest on Rip Hamilton in Game 6. Jermaine O'Neal and Jamaal Tinsley had played hurt in the deciding sixth game and Indiana had stewed all summer, believing it had the better team. Both sides had tinkered with their rosters — Detroit subtracting reserves Corliss Williamson, Mehmet Okur, and Mike James and adding Antonio McDyess, Carlos Delfino, and Derrick Coleman; Indiana trading Al Harrington and adding Stephen Jackson — but the bad blood persisted.

Jermaine O'Neal (forward, Pacers): We didn't even know how good we were. We had won 61 games off pure talent. In this league, it's about maturity, experience, talent, and we felt like we had all of that going into that year. We really did.

Anthony Johnson (guard, Pacers): We basically kept the same team [from the 2004 conference finals] and probably were even better.1

Darvin Ham (forward, Pistons): It was an intense rivalry between us and Indiana. Rick Carlisle, who was coaching the Pacers at the time, had just left us. We both had similar playing styles.2

Mike Breen (that night's play-by-play commentator for ESPN): It was one of the early-season marquee matchups.

O'Neal: We did not like each other. It was one of those old-school Knicks-Bulls rivalries I used to always see on TV and see the guys getting into it, little pushes and stuff like that. That's how we viewed it.

Scot Pollard (center, Pacers): When you play somebody in the preseason, the regular season, the playoffs, you start to develop a rivalry. That's just how it is. When I was in Sacramento, it was the same thing with the Lakers. You play each other six, seven times a year or more, you're going to start getting familiar with those guys, you're going to start having some bad blood.

O'Neal: We felt like they were in our way. We were younger. We were better. We were more talented. We knew we were good — we had the best record at the time and they were defending champions. They were saying, "We're the top dogs. We're the last ship until the ship sinks. Y'all gotta come through us." And that's what type of rivalry it was.

Stephen Jackson


Stephen Jackson's interview on the Pacers-Pistons brawl of 2004.

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Mark Montieth: Ron had been playing well. If you look at his stats for the first seven or so games that season, he was playing great: averaging over 20 points and shooting the best 3-point percentage of his career. Against Detroit that night, he had like 17 points in the first half. He was hitting 3s. They were just dominating.3

The Pistons pulled within five points in the fourth quarter, then missed their next 10 field goals. Indiana eventually put the game away with consecutive 3s from Austin Croshere and Stephen Jackson. But the game had become increasingly chippy. With 6:43 remaining, Rip Hamilton elbowed Jamaal Tinsley in the back after a defensive rebound — the Pacers bench erupted, and not without reason; it could have easily been called a flagrant foul. Then, with 1:25 remaining, trailing by 11 points, Wallace knocked Artest into the basket support while blocking his layup (no foul was called). There were just 57 seconds remaining when Jackson stepped to the line and hit two free throws to give Indiana a 97-82 lead.

Sekou Smith (NBA writer, Indianapolis Star): With just under three minutes to play, Mark [Montieth] leaned over to me and said, "Man, these fouls are getting harder and harder." He just kept saying the refs have to get control of the game.

Stephen Jackson (guard/forward, Pacers): [Toward] the end of the game, I recall somebody on the team told Ron, "You can get one now." I heard it. I think somebody was shooting a free throw. Somebody said to Ron, "You can get one now," meaning you can lay a foul on somebody who he had beef with in the game.

O'Neal: I remember guys talking about that. I had just gotten taken out of the game maybe two or three minutes before that. We had just blown them out. You could see there was animosity.

Mike Brown (assistant coach, Pacers): You could see it start to get a little testy between Ron and Ben. There was a foul at one end, another foul, and then a borderline foul and problems beyond the foul. The game was out of hand. I was hoping the officials were going to kick both players out.

Mark Boyle (radio play-by-play, Pacers): There was no reason for those guys to be out there. I was surprised. It was an intense game — a bitter rivalry. But that game had been decided.4

Larry Brown (head coach, Pistons): I don't think the game was so far out of hand that you're going to embarrass a player by putting him in for 45 seconds.

Montieth: Reggie Miller did not play. Anthony Johnson did not play. Scot Pollard did not play. Those guys were all in street clothes. Give Carlisle a pass — they had a short bench that night.

Jackson: Ben was the wrong person [to foul] because, if I'm not mistaken, his brother had just passed and he was going through some issues.5 I was guarding Ben, I let him score. I was trying to let the clock run out. And Ron just came from out of nowhere and just clobbered him. I'm like, "What the hell is going on?" I had no clue that was about to happen. When that happened, everything just happened so fast, man.

Boyle: Ronnie fouled Ben under the basket and then Ben shoved Ronnie and then Ronnie backed away and the thing kind of drifted over to the press table.

Ben Wallace (forward/center, Pistons): He told me he was going to hit me, and he did it. That was just one of those things. It happened in the heat of the battle.6

Larry Brown: Everybody in our league takes hard fouls. There's a time and place for them. Maybe you put a guy on the line and don't let him shoot a layup late in the game to make him earn it from the free throw line. But when the game's over, I don't think many guys in our league are going out trying to hurt somebody. That was kind of unusual and I think that's maybe why Ben reacted the way he did.7


ALLEN EINSTEIN/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES
The Scorer's Table

Multiple players from both teams kept pulling an enraged Wallace away from Artest, who eventually (and inexplicably) decided to lie on the scorer's table as everything settled down. The slowness of the response — Wallace looming, teammates shoving, and referees debating — allowed the incident to escalate.

Donnie Walsh (CEO and president, Pacers): Ronnie did try to get away from it because he had been told, "If you see yourself getting too excited, disengage and get yourself out of it and get your thoughts together." That's why he went down and laid down on the table. It was so he wouldn't get all excited and do something wrong.

Tom Wilson (CEO of the Detroit Pistons and Palace Sports and Entertainment): When he laid on the scorer's table, it took the natural barriers away. There's nothing between you and the crowd. Normally, there's the player's bench. Or you'd have to climb over chairs or climb over the scoring table — it requires that instant that keeps you from doing something crazy or gives people a chance to grab you.

Montieth: In a way, he provoked it passively by lying down on that table. He picked up a set of radio headphones like he was going to talk to people back home. He was clowning around a bit too much. In his mind, he was saying, "Look, I'm not doing anything here. I'm trying to be good." It didn't work out that way.

Boyle: We had a headset out because we were anticipating bringing a player over for a postgame interview. We had known Ronnie for a while — there was no way we were going to put an open mic in front of Ron Artest in that situation. The mic wasn't live.

Wilson: It was almost like an "I'm so cool" thing to sort of disassociate yourself and act above everything. Which I think is how the crowd took it.

Boyle: We had maybe half a dozen assistant coaches, a bunch of guys who were there because the coach liked them or owed someone a favor. That was typical in those days, those real large coaching staffs. When Ronnie was lying on the table, one of the assistants, a young guy named Chad Forcier, is rubbing his stomach like Ron is his pet dog and I'm thinking, Why aren't these guys getting this guy out of here?

Montieth: Artest would put on the headphones and Reggie [Miller] would take them off and put them down. Reggie did a really good job of trying to keep the situation under control and stay after Artest.

Boyle: We had guys on that team that were jaw-jackers. Stephen Jackson was looking for somebody to fight. He was jacking it up. Ronnie was lying on the table. Ben's not one to back away. It was just the wrong mix of guys.

Mike Brown: Nobody was holding the Piston players back. The one guy that I did know and had a pretty good relationship with was Ben. I went over and I tried to grab him and talk to him. His nickname was Debo, so I tried to pull a nickname from the past out. I was like, "Debo, Debo, it's not worth it. Go back. Debo. Come on." He kind of slowed down and I finally got him to a point where he stopped.

Jackson: The biggest thing that upset me — after we were trying to break up Ben and Ron, a lot of [Ben's] teammates were still talking. I'm over trying to help and break it up and I'm standing next to Rick Carlisle and I see Rip Hamilton and Lindsey Hunter, I hear them talking and I'm thinking, OK. They ain't trying to break it up. They're still talking. Let me try and go see what they want to do.

Hunter: I was trying to stop Rip because Rip was like 140 pounds and that's my guy, my little brother. Like, "Rip, sit down. Get out the way before you get hurt out here." And Derrick Coleman is like, "Come on, let's get these guys out [of here]." So I walk out there and that's when Stephen walked up and started saying stuff. And, listen, I box. I'm too old to be fighting or whatever, and I'm like, "I'm not fitting to fight out here in front of all these people." But I've been boxing for nine, 10 years, so it wasn't a big deal to me.

Jackson: I was in fight mode at the time. I'm like, "Y'all being real disrespectful, man. We're trying to break this up. So if y'all wanna fight, I'll give you what you're looking for." It was just a whole bunch of noise, just trash talk.8

Hunter: In a situation like that, you want to protect your teammates and yourself. I'm looking to make sure nobody's going to hit anybody from behind. I just remember kind of smirking, like, "Jacko, you know you don't want to fight in front of all these people." And we kind of squared off and looked at each other and it didn't escalate into anything. People don't know that Rip is a fierce competitor and Rip just goes over the top, man. He was real emotional.

Jackson: Me and Rip are close buddies, real good friends. But at the time, the emotions were so high. They were upset 'cuz they were getting dragged. We were beating them by [15 points]. They were real upset, so they were kind of egging it on like they wanted it. So I said at that time, "If you want it, you can get it."

Boyle: Tommy Nunez Jr. was one of the three officials, a very small guy. He was in there frantically trying to separate guys. Ron Garretson looked like he was going to soil himself, and the third referee that no one ever remembers was Tim Donaghy.9

Tim Donaghy (NBA official): As long as [Artest and Wallace] were away from each other, we didn't think it would escalate.

Smith: Garretson is at midcourt when the craziness starts. He goes from the middle of the floor at midcourt to backing up all the way to the opposite side of the sidelines away from where all the action [between Artest and Wallace] is going on at the scorer's table.

Donaghy: After we tried to break it up and knew that wasn't possible, we tried to just step back and view what was going on, so that when we started the game back up, we'd have an idea of who needed to be ejected and what actions we were going to take.

Jackson: They did a terrible job of [making] whoever was ejected go to the locker room. They did a horrible job of that. They did a horrible job of policing the whole thing.

Montieth: People complain about referees like Joey Crawford and [his] quick whistle. I guarantee if Joey Crawford was working that game, it wouldn't have happened because he would have controlled it. He would have called technicals and gotten people out of there.

Ben Wallace: It's hard to say, "I wouldn't do this again," or, "I wouldn't do that," because in a similar situation, you don't know how you'll react. It was a unique situation with so many things that happened so fast.10

Jim Gray (sideline reporter, ESPN): The Pistons were the problem. It was the Pistons who initiated this, the Pistons fans and Wallace were the guys who were the aggressors here.

Jackson: I definitely wish we did a better job containing Ron, letting him get on the scorer's table, letting him put on the headphones. I think the responsibility fell on all of us as a team. If I could go back, I would have huddled our team up and we would have stood right there in front of that bench and kept our composure and thought about the big picture.

The Splash

A full 90 seconds after Wallace had shoved Artest, Artest remained lying on the scorer's table as Detroit fans yelled obscenities at him. The 10 players who had been playing (O'Neal, Artest, Jackson, Tinsley, and Fred Jones for Indiana; Ben Wallace, Rasheed Wallace, Hamilton, Hunter, and Smush Parker for Detroit) and coaches from both teams huddled at midcourt — the concern was Wallace, who couldn't be calmed down — with everyone else staying near their respective benches. For whatever reason, nobody ever pulled Artest off that table. A fed-up Wallace finally decided to throw an armband in Artest's direction.

Mike Brown: Ben wasn't going toward Ron anymore, but he takes [the armband] and kind of flicks it under my arm at Ron. When that happens, I turn to look and see where it goes and obviously it doesn't hit Ron — but it kind of opens up the floodgates.

Gray: I was sitting maybe two or three feet away from Ron on that press row. I said, "Ron, don't leave, I want you for the end of the game [for an interview]." He said OK. It couldn't have been more than 20 seconds later that something came flying and hit him on his chest.

Bob "Slick" Leonard (radio analyst, Pacers): I had my hand on Ron when the big splash of beer came from behind us.

Mike Brown: You talk about horseshoes. [The fan] couldn't have gotten any luckier when he threw the cup of beer or Coke or whatever.

John Green (the fan who lobbed a drink at Artest): I never intended to hit anyone. The day I threw the cup I forgot about the laws of physics. I hope that no one ever throws anything at The Palace again.11

Ron Artest (forward, Pacers): I was lying down when I got hit with a liquid — ice and glass on my chest and on my face. After that, it was self-defense.12

Jackson: It's hard for any man to take something thrown at his face and not to retaliate.

Gray: He immediately got up and went on that table and jumped over the radio people.

Wilson: It truly is one of those things that happens simultaneously at the speed of light and as slow as it can possibly be. You're kind of like, "Nooooooooo."

Boyle: Instinctively or reflexively, I did step up and Ronnie trampled right over me. I fractured five vertebrae. The thing I laugh about now is my wife says to me, "If you could have stopped Ronnie from going into the stands, none of this would have happened." I say, "Well, Jesus, if I could have stopped Ron from going into the stands, I would be playing in the NFL." My partner, Slick Leonard, was smarter than me — he moved out of the line of fire.13

Leonard: Mark got in his way and [Artest] ran right over him. When I saw that, I said, "Let's go back to the press room until this thing's over with."

Mike Brown: I leaped to grab [Artest]. It was just a reaction because I knew right away nothing good's going to happen if he goes into the stands. I didn't get him and it was just natural for me to keep chasing him. I don't know how I made it into the stands, but I was in the stands.

CLICK HERE FOR PART 2


ALLEN EINSTEIN/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES
The Melee

Artest charged into the stands to grab the offending cup thrower, pushed over the wrong fan (Michael Ryan), then stood over him and shook him with both hands. The fan who actually DID throw the cup, John Green, grabbed Artest from behind and tried to put him in a headlock. Another fan whipped a beer at Artest at close range, spraying Stephen Jackson, who retaliated with a wild punch. Meanwhile, Ben Wallace's brother, David, just missed tagging Indiana's Fred Jones with a haymaker, as players and coaches from both teams surged into the fray as peacemakers. Hall of Famer Bill Walton, who was announcing the game for ESPN, would later call the melee "the lowest point for me in 30 years with the NBA." Here's how many of the principals remember this sequence.

Ham: All hell broke loose.

Auburn Hills Police Chief Doreen E. Olko: We have zillions of security plans for the Palace, for all kinds of things. But none included a player going up in the stands. That just is not something anybody foresaw.

Michael Ryan (fan): [Artest] was on top of me, pummeling me. He asked me, "Did you do it?" I said, "No, man. No!"14

Montieth: A lot of people will tell you that Artest went into the stands and started slugging fans. Well, he didn't; he went into the stands and grabbed the wrong person — the one who he thought threw the beverage — grabbed him and said, "Did you throw that?" But he didn't hit the guy.

Mike Brown: Next thing you know, I see Jack up there in the stands.

Jackson: People don't understand how it feels to be with a guy who you call your teammate and you're with more than your family during the course of a season. How do you expect me not to go help him, even though he's wrong at the time? Going in the stands is totally not right. As a youngster, you learn to be there for your teammates, but you're never taught to go into the stands. I never thought I would be in a situation where I would have to go into the stands and actually help my teammate fight fans. But at that time, there's no way I could have lived with myself knowing that my teammate is in the stands fighting and I'm not helping him.

Montieth: [Artest] got hit from behind by Ben Wallace's brother, if I remember right. And he threw that halfhearted punch.

David Wallace (Ben Wallace's brother): I just got caught up in the heat of the moment. When you don't have time to think about something, there's not always a thought process involved.15

O'Neal: I had my own personal security guard that traveled with us. He was side-by-side protecting me. I look in the stands and I see people whaling off on players. I'm trying to get across the scorer's table to get over there to help, and my security guy is holding me down. We turn around and people are trying to hit us on the floor. The first person I saw was [teammate] Fred Jones. Somebody was whaling on him from behind.

Jackson: My initial reaction was to go grab Ron. But as soon as I hopped up [into the stands], another guy threw a beer in his face. My reaction was to retaliate. I don't regret being there for my teammate. But I regret going in the stands and fighting fans. It was totally wrong, but you don't think about that when somebody you call your brother is in harm's way. The only thing you're thinking about is getting out there and helping him. That's the definition of a teammate, being together, being there for your teammate. And like Tim Duncan says, I'm the ultimate teammate. A lot of people just think I was being a thug in going in there. My whole thought was, my teammate is in the stands fighting and I'm going to be there for him. I knew as soon as I took the first step to go into the stands that there was going to be consequences behind it, no question. But I can deal with those consequences knowing that my teammate is here alive and healthy, [rather] than me standing on the court watching him, worrying about my career and money and he's sitting over there bleeding to death.

Mike Brown: I was getting hit while I was in the stands. Ron had grabbed the wrong guy, and the guy that actually threw the cup was hitting me from behind because I went to grab Ron to try and get Ron out of there. It was pure chaos.

Chris McCosky (Pistons beat writer, Detroit News): I remember trying to stop Jamaal Tinsley from going into the stands, and he went through me like I was butter. It was a pretty failed attempt on my part.

George Blaha (radio and television play-by-play, Pistons): Rick Mahorn, who does radio, was in the center of press row and went up to make sure that the gals, one of our official scorekeepers, wasn't injured — and that one of our longtime statisticians, who is physically impaired a little bit, didn't get hurt. I saw Ricky taking care of business.

Mahorn (radio analyst, Pistons): You do what you gotta do sometimes in life.

Larry Brown: My young son was a ball boy. Derrick Coleman kind of took care of him and kind of took care of me, kept me next to him. I've been with a lot of pretty tough guys in the league. He's probably one of the toughest I've ever been around. Then I saw Rasheed trying to get everybody to stop. He tried to get after Stephen and Jermaine and actually went into the stands to try and calm things down.

Blaha: Rasheed's really a cerebral guy. He's always been looking out for everybody's best interest. That does not surprise me in the least. He's certainly a misunderstood guy and, in my opinion, a great guy.

Smith: There were only those old security guards. There was no security to keep people from jumping over that little rail and getting down to the floor. The craziness from that night is, the players on the teams had stopped fighting each other. It was the fans and the Pacers.

Jim Mynsberge (Auburn Hills deputy chief): There were only three police officers in the arena to handle things. They did a great job with what they had.

O'Neal: There was no security. You're talking about one of the largest arenas in the NBA and you're talking about fans that were upset because, one, we had just drilled their team, and two, I wouldn't say 22,000 people are all bad people — but it was a large group in there that was literally trying to hurt us.

Rick Carlisle (head coach, Pacers): I felt like I was fighting for my life out there.16

Ham: Myself, Antonio McDyess, and Tayshaun Prince, we were just standing there in disbelief. We had a couple of vet guys, Derrick Coleman, Elden Campbell, who left the sidelines — not to be hostile, but to try and break stuff up. It was amazing just to see no control. You would think they would have had security swarming the building.

Wilson: Our staff, which is pretty well trained, went after them immediately to try and get them back on the floor. They were trying to grab Jermaine O'Neal, and you have to give them a lot of credit because these are normal-sized individuals who are in most cases 50, 55, 65 years old who are risking themselves against athletes who are incensed. I remember one guy named Mel, who was probably 60, wrapped around O'Neal's waist and being tossed around like a rag doll.

Melvin Kendziorski (usher, the Palace): He was one of the guys I tried to hold back. He objected to it, I guess, and kind of grabbed me and twisted me around and threw me over the scorer's table. It was like, "Wow. What just happened?" He threw me like a rag doll. He's a pretty big guy. I had back and neck injuries and had to be treated for quite a while.

Mike Brown: It was a lot scarier being in the middle of it because everywhere you turned, you felt like you were going to have to fight. There were thousands of people against 20 people. That probably wasn't the case — 99.9999 percent of the people there were just as scared and just as appalled as you were — but it seemed like everybody was against you.

Artest remained in the stands for 40 seconds, eventually getting pulled toward Indiana's bench. As the other peacemakers tried to separate fans and players, the situation didn't seem anywhere close to settling down — if anything, it seemed to be moving in a more perilous direction.17

Joe Dumars (general manager, Pistons): It's the only time in 10 years I ever got up with a minute or two [left in a game] to get up and walk down the stairs. I was so frustrated with the way we had played, so frustrated that they had manhandled us that night. We got up with two minutes to go. When we got to the locker room, I heard all this commotion and was wondering what was happening.

John Hammond (assistant general manager, Pistons): I remember like yesterday saying to Joe, "Hey, Joe, something either really good just happened or something really bad just happened." I thought something miraculous happened on the floor and that we had just won the game.

Dumars: The commotion completely caught me off guard. Loud screaming, you could tell something was going on in a major way.

Hammond: Joe and I walk into the locker room, the TV's on, and we're looking at what happened on the floor. They're showing the replays already. We were kind of in shock and amazement.

David Stern (NBA commissioner, who was watching the game on TV): I said, "Holy [mouths a swear word]." And then I called [then deputy commissioner] Russ [Granik] and said, "Are you watching our 'blank' game?" He said no. I said, "Well, turn our 'blank' game on, you're not gonna believe it."18

"After we calmed down, [Artest] looked at me like, 'Jack, you think we going to get in trouble?' Jamaal Tinsley fell out laughing. I said, 'Are you serious, bro? Trouble? Ron, we'll be lucky if we have a freaking job.' That lets me know he wasn't in his right mind, to ask that question." —Stephen Jackson
Chuck Person (special assistant to the CEO/president of basketball operations, Pacers): After we were up 20, I left my seat and went and sat in the back. All I hear is someone running back saying, "Hey, Chuck, Ron ran up into the stands." I go out onto the court and it was just total chaos and pandemonium. I went to Coach Carlisle and told him we need to get the players off the floor and he said, "The game's not over yet." I said, "Well, the players are in danger."

Donaghy: It just got to the point where the game wasn't going to continue. We just stood back and at the appropriate time made an exit there because [the referees] didn't feel safe.

Larry Brown: Most fights in our league just happen and they're over, but this thing started to gain momentum as the situation evolved. It was miserable just being out there, being a part of it, having young people see what was going on. It was something you just don't want to be a part of, and hopefully it'll never happen again.

Donaghy: It was just mayhem, to the point where you actually feared for your life. We didn't know at that point if somebody was going to pull a gun or a knife. Fans were coming out onto the floor and challenging players to fights right out on the floor. It was at a level that I've never seen before.

Breen: It was horrible on the other side, because the fans were coming down toward the altercation. But the fans on our side of the court [where they were broadcasting the game] were not. As it continued, now some of the fans on our side started to come down, and that's when I was thinking, Oh my goodness. This could be the most disastrous fight in the history of sports.

Wilson: Right in front of me are these two guys in Piston jerseys, [they] kind of walked up to the Pacers bench at the side of the court.

The two fans were named Alvin "A.J." Shackleford and Charlie Haddad. They brazenly approached Artest, who had finally been pulled out of the stands and was wandering aimlessly toward the Pacers bench. The parties briefly sized one another up. Artest punched Shackleford, and the blow also knocked over Haddad. As Haddad got up, O'Neal took a running start and reared back to punch him, but slipped on liquid on the court as he delivered the blow. It ended up being a glancing punch.

Pollard: Some of the fans, they get down on the court and are saying, "I'm going to go punch this guy. I'm going to go punch this guy." Then they get close and they're like, "Wow. I can't reach his face."19

Gray: That one guy would have gotten killed if Jermaine O'Neal would have hit him. He was lucky he slipped.

Jackson: I didn't see it, but you could hear it. Out of all the noise in the arena, you still heard that punch.

Wilson: For that one moment you're thinking, My God. He's going to kill this guy.

Pollard: That guy he tried to hit is lucky. There's not a question in my mind that there's a fan out there alive right now because my friend slipped on beer or whatever it was and missed that punch. It's good that he did, because he'd be in trouble or maybe be in jail right now.

O'Neal: When I did it, when he hit the ground, everybody just kind of cleared out. All of a sudden, it wasn't fun and games. It wasn't "OK, let's hurt the Pacers." The people that were around us, they started to protect themselves. That's what I was happy about. I don't look at it that I'm happy that I slipped. I know a lot of people say that, but I'm never just trying to hurt somebody. But in that case, I'm just trying to protect myself and my teammates.

Jonathan Bender (forward, Pacers): My whole thing was to get in front of Jermaine and keep everybody at peace, knowing you've only got so many security guards up against 16,000 people running at you. I was just wary of the fact if somebody ran up and looked like they were going to cause me some harm, I was going to protect myself.

Charlie Haddad (the fan O'Neal punched): I barely remember the night.20

O'Neal: Nobody knows this — the Pistons security had just told that man to leave the building before that even happened. Nobody knows that that same guy threatened Yao Ming.21 People don't know that. People don't know some of the bad scenarios of the people who were caught up in that situation. But they know everything about the players. That man had been plotting to start fights against players so he could get paid. That's a fact.


AP PHOTO/DUANE BURLESON
The Exit Strategy

The sight of fans being punched by Jackson and O'Neal enraged Pistons fans even further — they kept booing and throwing things on the court. Everyone soon realized that Indiana's players and coaches needed to be hustled toward the locker room as soon as possible. Unfortunately, that meant escorting them through the tunnel … right past many of those fuming fans. The other problem was Artest, who Breen said had "a look in his eye that's very scary right now." In one of the most unlikely moments of the night, NBA power broker William Wesley (a.k.a. "Worldwide Wes") left his courtside seat to pull Artest away from Haddad and Shackleford.

Steve Angel (cameraman, ESPN): I saw one person out of the corner of my eye to the left of my frame leaving and it was Artest. So I just stayed with him. He looked very bewildered, like, "What's going on here?" Like he'd snapped, basically.

Person: I knew Ron was a guy who would probably need a little more help getting stabilized and getting him off the court. That's why I went to him. I think he had basically blacked out — he didn't know where he was. I had to get his attention first and get him to focus on who was talking to him. And I made eye contact with him and he basically stabilized himself.

Artest: I didn't expect Ben Wallace to react as he did, and I never had beer thrown in my face before. Nobody ever just threw anything at me — with the exception of a few times — and nobody ever just came up to me and threw beer in my face.22

Breen: They were finally able to get [Artest] onto the other side of the court. He turned around and he had a look in his eyes like he was gone. He had completely lost it. That's what the look said to me, that he was in a bad place. His mind was somewhere else and he had that crazed look.

Jalen Rose23 (forward, Toronto Raptors): My guy Wes, who seems like he's always in the right place at the right time, is a front-row season-ticket holder for the Pistons. He was the one trying to calm down Ron Artest.

William Wesley: I saw a situation developing that I didn't think would escalate, but once I realized that it was escalating, I decided to be part of the solution instead of the problem.

Angel: The only time I felt I was about to get hurt was when a policeman popped his pepper spray container and started shaking it up. Reggie Miller was pleading with him, "Please don't. My suit costs x-hundred dollars."

O'Neal: [The police] are nowhere to be found for the first 10 minutes and then come in and try to pepper spray us.

Pollard: There was no control. This wasn't a game anymore. This was about these fans. They don't know the rules. They're not going to listen to a referee pulling them apart. A whole street mentality takes over. The fans are not part of the family, the NBA family. Even though you're fighting against these guys on the court, they're still in the other team's jerseys. You're not trying to kill anybody. But the fans don't know that, and you don't know what they're thinking. That changed the whole scenario.

Larry Brown: I just remember standing at halfcourt and being kind of helpless. I did try to get to the microphone [to tell the fans to calm down], but there was so much going on and there were so many things on my mind. I just felt sick to my stomach to see what transpired.

Person: He ended up putting the microphone down and walking off the court because it got so ugly.

Breen: I felt like we were out there for an hour waiting for them to get the players off the court. Every time it appeared they had everything under control, another fight broke out. When the fans were able to get on the court — and not just one or two, there were a number of them because security was so worried about the scene in the stands — that's when it was like, "Wow." I'm not blaming the security, but they just didn't know how to deal with it.

Jackson: I knew we had to get out of this arena before all these guys in the nosebleed seats got down to our section. That's the felons, the guys that really don't care about losing anything. If they come down there, somebody's going to really get hurt.

Person: It felt like we were trapped in a gladiator-type scene where the fans were the lions and we were just trying to escape with our lives. That's how it felt. That there was no exit. That you had to fight your way out.

One of the enduring images of the melee was Jackson defiantly storming through the tunnel, flashing his Pacers jersey and screaming at the fans, totally unafraid as people dumped drinks on him. O'Neal took the experience a little more personally, lunging for a fan who had tossed a drink his way before getting pulled away by Wesley and others. Another Pistons fan threw a chair in the general vicinity of a few exiting Pacers. Jamaal Tinsley left the court through the tunnel and returned holding a dustpan over his head, but was turned away before inflicting any damage. It seemed improbable that every Pacers player and coach would make it through the tunnel, but they did.

Jackson: When I was walking off, they were throwing things at me. I was like, "Go ahead and throw it. Do what you have to do." I wasn't really worried about my safety because I knew I could protect myself.

Donaghy: Exiting the court was very scary because so many things were flying out of the stands: coins, chairs, different forms of liquid.

Breen: There were chairs flying through and people taking pretty hard objects and just winging them at people's heads. It's amazing that there was nobody seriously hurt. Absolutely amazing.

Bryant Jackson (fan who threw a chair at the exiting Pacers): I, Bryant Jackson, have six kids. I try to do what's right … I got caught up in something I wish I hadn't got caught up in.24

O'Neal: People are spitting. Objects are being thrown from the stands — brooms, the pan things that sweep the trash up, chairs. And for what? If we get hit in the head and we die, then what was the purpose of that? It was a heated rivalry; as much as I didn't like the Pistons, I always respected coming there to play. We knew what we were going to get from the time we came on the bus and came out to warm up. Even pregame warm-ups, it was just mayhem. You get all the fans yelling and screaming. That's what makes sports sports. You've got to love that. But beyond that, are we really being hated because we play basketball or play for an opposing rivalry team? That's how deep it was.

Breen: There were a bunch of people right above where the Pacers were going out. And there was this one young woman who was very nicely dressed in the midst of it. I remember thinking, Oh, this poor woman. In the midst of this mob mentality, I hope she's going to be OK. And as I'm saying that in my head, she pulls out a bottle, a full water bottle, and throws it at point-blank range at the Pacers going off the floor. I couldn't believe it. Even this nicely dressed woman who seemed so out of place in the mob, she just got sucked into the whole mob mentality and it showed you how scary it could be.

Larry Brown: Every one of those [Pistons] brought their wives and kids to games, and you never want to have kids see their dads involved in a situation like that.

Ham: My wife and my little boys were there. My little boy Donovan, they showed him crying.

Breen: He couldn't have been any more than 4 or 5. He was crying and his older brother, who wasn't that much older, had his brother cradled in his arms, kind of like patting his head, saying, "It's going to be OK. It's going to be OK." And the little boy was just so upset. It was horrible to see the boy like that, but it was also touching to see his older brother. It just showed you the raw emotion of the whole thing.

Ham: [Donovan] was distraught — he thought the NBA was over forever. I explained to him what happened and he ended up being OK. But I saw a lot of little kids frightened, some crying, some just had the look of shock on their faces.

Blaha: Bill Laimbeer and I were broadcasting the game down by the Pistons bench. Everything happened on the other end of press row. And the reason I wasn't particularly shook up about it is because Bill Laimbeer didn't seem to be particularly bothered by it. He was kind of nonplussed by the whole thing.

Mike Brown: I don't remember how I got from the stands back onto the floor. But everybody was throwing stuff. I literally felt like there were 22 people fighting 20,000 people. I know that wasn't the case, but it was the scariest moment I've ever been a part of in my life. Next thing I know, we're back in the locker room and my clothes are soaked, ripped. Anybody who says they're not scared in my opinion is lying.

Person: Luckily, we got through the mob of people, got back to the locker room safely.

Back in the Locker Room

After Indiana's players and coaches made it back to their locker room, Detroit's players and coaches remained on the floor, milling around in disbelief and wondering what to do next. The game was officially called off with 45.9 seconds remaining. Final score: Indiana 97, Detroit 82.

Jackson: When we got in the locker room, Ron said this: "Man, I didn't know we had this many real n----- on our team." We had a lot of guys who came up hard, that beat the odds. I was out of high school. Jermaine was out of high school. Jonathan Bender. Jamaal Tinsley had a hard life. Ron had a hard life. A lot of us had similar situations, so a lot of us really didn't think at the time. But I don't ever expect him or anyone else to say thank you for being there for him. That's something that I chose to do as me being my own man.

O'Neal: It was a very heated locker room. Guys' nerves were terribly bad.

Jackson: Rick is like, "Everybody calm down. Everybody calm down." Everybody was still kind of in awe. I remember Jermaine just jumped up; he looked like he had turned into the Incredible Hulk. He said, "Next time we fighting, don't you MF's grab us!" And Rick jumped up and got just as big as Jermaine and said, "We were just trying to help!" And so it ended up looking like the team and the coaches were about to fight. That's what it seemed like.

O'Neal: We had to fight to get into the locker room. Not literally fight, but pushing and moving people to get into the locker room. We had no security to help us out. I was walking through there and we're getting grabbed and basically they were trying to push us through — Chuck and some other coaches — but our arms were down. The way they were holding our arms down and everything was just hitting us in the face, that was the discussion. I was upset, you know? Just allow me to protect myself.

Jackson: Mike Brown had got hit in the mouth, his mouth was bleeding. Once we realized coach got punched, too, we were like, "We're in this together. Everybody calm down."

O'Neal: I can't imagine what [Rick] was going through. I can't imagine the position he was in. I just remember me and Rick getting into a heated conversation. And I have a lot of respect for Rick. I love him. He's one of my most favorite people in the world.

Jackson: After that, Rick was like, "Let's get on the bus and get out of here."

David Craig (athletic trainer, Pacers): I treated several people — the one who might have gotten hurt the worst was a guy named Dan Dyrek [Indiana's physical therapy consultant]. Dan got hit in the face. I believe somebody threw something as he walked out.

Boyle: I had a big gash open over my head, which was nothing, it was superficial. But those forehead cuts really bleed. Ronnie was standing right next to me and he said, "Mark, what happened to you?" I said to Ronnie, "You trampled me." He said, "Oh, oh. I didn't even know. I'm very sorry." And he was sorry. Ronnie was a sweetheart of a guy. He still is.

Mike Brown: I know my clothes were messed up, I can't remember if I was cut under my eye. I wouldn't be surprised if I was. As soon as I could, I called my wife because she was scared to death because she saw me go up in the stands. I needed to make sure she knew I was OK.

Smith: In [Detroit's] players' family lounge, Ben Wallace's family and Rip Hamilton's friends and a bunch of other people's friends were there. Ben's family were basically big, giant dudes. It was the weirdest thing walking by, watching that room full of people watch the replay of what had just gone on. You know how somebody is watching a boxing match and everybody makes noise when a dude swings and misses or swings and connects? The whole room in there just erupted watching the replay and watching Ben's brother swing and miss on Fred Jones. It was the only time that night that I remember laughing.25

Jackson: After we calmed down, [Artest] looked at me like, "Jack, you think we going to get in trouble?" Jamaal Tinsley fell out laughing. I said, "Are you serious, bro? Trouble? Ron, we'll be lucky if we have a freaking job." That lets me know he wasn't in his right mind, to ask that question.

Pollard: That's 100 percent true. We laughed our asses off about that. "Yeah, Ron. Yeah, there are going to be some problems, buddy. You hit a fan." I couldn't believe it. He was in shock that what he had just done was bad. I don't know what his mentality is like on the inside, but outside looking in, you can sit there and say, "Wow. That's trippy that somebody can go through that type of experience and wonder if there's going to be repercussions."

The night wasn't over for the Pacers. They still had to get out of the arena without anyone on the team being arrested by the late-arriving police.

Olko: I was on vacation in California. My phone started ringing off the hook. Both friends and family members were calling. "Turn on your TV. There's something happening at the Palace." So of course I turned on my TV and got back on the phone to call my deputy police chief — he was speeding and said, "I'm not at the Palace yet. I'm almost there. I'll call in a couple of minutes." Because the Palace is such a safe venue, we only [had] a handful of officers there.

O'Neal: They come in [to Indiana's locker room] and try to arrest us, the players. And all the stuff the people are out there doing, I didn't see anyone being handcuffed and taken out of there. That was a whole other conversation and argument and craziness.

"I actually think [Stern] took it light on us, because he could have easily kicked us out the league. This is my opinion. Taking $3 million was harsh, but I'd rather give that $3 million up and still have my job than keep the $3 million and be kicked out the league." —Stephen Jackson
Mike Brown: This fellow says, "You guys got to stay in here. The police are going to arrest two players and a coach." They were talking about me because the guy said I was punching him from behind in the stands. I was going from almost getting my behind kicked by 20,000 people to getting arrested. It's like, "Wow. This is not happening."

O'Neal: We said, "No, we're not going nowhere. We're going back to Indiana. We're not coming with you. Talk to my lawyer." That's how we had to talk to them. I was one of the very first people they came after. I'm like, "What is this? What are y'all talking about? No, I'm not going with you." I don't understand. There's people out there throwing damn near sledgehammers at us from God knows where hitting us in the face and body and everything. There's blood on us. We're bleeding.

Gray: They were trying to arrest Artest. Kevin O'Neill really did an unbelievable job that night. He dealt with the police and they rushed [Artest] out on the bus.

Kevin O'Neill (assistant coach, Pacers): I did do that. It was nothing. They were wondering where Ronnie was. Ronnie was already on the bus, headed out, and that's all it was.

Gray: The police went out to the bus and tried to get him off, and they were told he wasn't coming off.

Olko: Our major focus was getting the guy that threw the chair. That was the only felony case. We played the video and got it up on the Internet. To our surprise, we had somebody call and tip us off as to who he was, and we arrested him and he pled guilty. There was not a lot of consideration to keeping Artest.

Mike Brown: Somebody from the police department says, "Look, we're going to get you guys out of here as soon as we can. We want some of these [fans] to leave, so we need you guys to sit tight. We're not going to arrest anybody right now because it's just not a safe enough environment for that to happen. We'll review the video and get back to everybody at a later date."

Jackson: The best, crazy part of the night was when we got on the bus. We were so riled up. We felt like not only did we win the game, but we won the fight. We felt like we just stole Detroit's heart at the time. Until we got home and we saw those fines and suspensions — [then] reality set in.

Boyle: We got on the plane, and by then, my back's starting to stiffen up. So the trainer says take off your shirt, I'll strap some ice, just walk up and down the aisle and try to stay loose for a while. We didn't know it was fractured. So I'm walking up and down the aisle and Ronnie says, "Mark, what happened to you?" I said, "Ronnie, we already had this conversation. You don't remember?" he said, "Yeah, yeah, yeah. I remember, sorry." He seemed so unaffected by the whole thing.

Gray: I think [Artest] thought he was just defending himself and it was self-defense. He had said that Ben Wallace had called to apologize. Ben Wallace and [Pistons public-relations executive] Matt Dobek and the Pistons denied that. But [Artest] said it several times.26

Daniel Artest (Ron Artest's brother): I talked to Ron like 10 minutes after everything happened. It was just like a regular conversation. He said, "They threw something at me, so I went into the stands and handled it." The way we were talking, he didn't think the league was going to come down hard on him. We thought he would probably miss some games, like five games at the most.

CLICK HERE FOR PART 3


AP PHOTO/DUANE BURLESON
The Aftermath

The league acted swiftly the next day, with David Stern releasing a statement that started, "The events at last night's game were shocking, repulsive, and inexcusable — a humiliation for everyone associated with the NBA. This demonstrates why our players must not enter the stands whatever the provocation or poisonous behavior of people attending the games. Our investigation is ongoing and I expect it to be completed by tomorrow evening." Eventually, Stern suspended nine players without pay for a total of 146 games, costing them nearly $10 million in salaries (with Artest taking the biggest hit: $4.995 million). Counting the 13 playoff games he missed, Artest's 86-game suspension remains the longest non-drug-related one in NBA history. But it was the league's image that took the biggest hit. Big changes would come — swiftly — to the league's alcohol policy and the policing of the barriers between players and fans. As Stern told the AP one year after the melee, his league learned the following lessons: "No. 1, players can't go into the stands. They need to leave that to security and not get into vigilantism. No. 2, fans have to be held accountable because they can't do anything they want just by virtue of buying a ticket. No. 3, we need to continue to review and update our procedures on security and crowd control."

Smith: The next morning, we're sitting at breakfast and trying to make sense of it. My foot was tapping on the floor when we were eating breakfast. It was crazy. You still had nerves the next morning even after it happened. I'll never forget that.

Walsh: It was the next day [when he talked to Artest]. I think we had a game the next day after that. He said, "I didn't hit anybody out there, not until I got back down on the court and these guys were coming at me."27

Boyle: Nobody had any idea how serious the consequences were going to be.

Montieth: [Pacers team president] Larry Bird said he was guessing Artest would be given 10 games given the stuff he had witnessed throughout his career. Then, they got word from the league office that Stern was really going to come down and it would be serious. Then Bird thought, I guess it's going to be about 30 games. But he never thought that it would be the entire season.

Larry Bird: There were a lot of bad mistakes made that night, and Ronnie and the Indiana Pacers took the brunt of [the punishment].28

Stern: In this instance, the barrier that separates the fans from the court had been breached. The incident at the Palace was about both the accessibility of our players to fans and unacceptable player behavior. We needed to reinforce that there are boundaries in our games and reassert the expectation of appropriate conduct for fans attending as well as for players in exhibiting self-control and professionalism. The significant player suspensions and permanent exclusion of those fans involved from future Pistons games were necessary responses as part of larger efforts to guarantee the well-being of our fans and players in all of our arenas.

Billy Hunter (executive director, National Basketball Players Association): I thought what they were imposing was quite extreme. I'm not at all justifying or condoning the fact that the brawl occurred and Ron and Stephen found their way in the stands. That can't be tolerated. That's not good for the game. But I was concerned as to how harsh the sanctions were.

Jackson: I actually think [Stern] took it light on us, because he could have easily kicked us out the league. This is my opinion. Taking $3 million was harsh, but I'd rather give that $3 million up and still have my job than keep the $3 million and be kicked out the league.

Hunter: We went to arbitration [and successfully got O'Neal's suspension reduced from 25 games to 15]. The evidence became quite clear that his involvement pretty much ended on the court and it was not as egregious as Steve and Ron's foray into the stands.

O'Neal: I never even told my daughter what happened — she found out at school. One day she came home and figured it out and said, "Dad, are you suspended for fighting?" That was hard for me. It was hard for me to have that conversation with my daughter. It was hard for me to go to the Boys & Girls Club, which I was very close with in Indianapolis, St. Vincent's Hospital, talking to the people at St. Vincent Hospital. It's hard for me as a leader of a community. To have these conversations and see the effect that not just the fight itself had on our team, but the perception that it had on the community. A lot of people don't even know that I won all of my court cases.29 I got reinstated. Every case — civil, criminal, and suspension from the league — I won all of those.

Daniel Artest: [Ron] wasn't even really bothered about [missing the season]. He just got in a gym and started working out. I was with him the whole time. It was me, Ron, James Jones, this other [Pacer] named John Edwards. Every day. Whatever frustration Ron had, he didn't show it at all.30

Artest: I still don't believe I should have lost that much money. I would still like to have a million or something back. I ain't the one who started it and I lost almost $7 million in investments and a couple of commercials and I didn't even start it.31

[+] Enlarge

AP PHOTO/CARLOS OSORIO
On December 8, Oakland County prosecutors charged five Indiana players (O'Neal, Artest, Jackson, David Harrison, and Anthony Johnson) and five fans (John Green,32 William Paulson, Bryant Jackson, John Ackerman, and David Wallace) with assault and battery. Months of legal haggling followed. The players eventually pleaded no contest; only Green ended up serving jail time (30 days); everyone else received fines, probation, and community service sentences. All five fans were banned from attending Pistons games. Said prosecutor David Gorcyca, "I handled Nathaniel Abraham, supposedly the youngest murder defendant in history. I handled Jack Kevorkian. Yet this case, when it's all said and done, this garnered more media attention worldwide than all of those others combined."

Olko: I got asked questions like how many investigators I had on it. Well, one. We were dealing with other things going on in the community. Where should I invest my resources? On the millionaires with misdemeanor cases?

McCosky: The coverage of it went on for months, and you would think people actually died or whatnot. People kind of lost sight of how it started and who was actually involved and who was a peacemaker. It just became another ugly mark on Detroit.

O'Neal: [Everyone] decided to talk about the negative things. I honestly believe that's why the dress code came into play. Because all of a sudden now the league is "out of control." I watched the analysts, the so-called analysts, on national TV say the NBA is too hip-hoppish. And it really blew me away that supposed analysts would even first of all say that. Your choice of music doesn't dictate who you are as a person. Right after the brawl, the dress code came into play.

Olko: One surprising thing that happened was how much flak we got from the public. People from Detroit were angry that we didn't arrest the Pacers. Indianapolis people said we only prosecuted Pacer players because we were partial to the Detroit team — which is just goofy. Again, misdemeanor assaults.

Ham: I think [the media] twisted it. Out-of-control NBA players were at the forefront of the story as opposed to fan behavior. [Fans] talk about a player can't shoot or can't dribble, that's one thing. But I've seen things in the past when fans start talking about a player's kids, their wives — to even cross the line furthermore, to throw something, I don't think that particular part of the story was addressed properly or as extensive as these "wild black guys playing in the NBA." It's unfortunate, but that's the society we live in.

Meanwhile, the Pacers were facing two separate issues: how to keep their team focused for a 2005 playoff run without Artest, and what to do with Artest going forward. Artest seemed weirdly at peace with what happened, much more concerned with staying in shape and working on his new hip-hop album. The Pacers and Pistons met again in the second round of the 2005 playoffs, with Detroit prevailing in six games and eventually losing to San Antonio in seven games in the Finals. The following preseason, Artest and Bird appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated and made it seem like everything was hunky-dory. It wasn't.

Montieth: People say the brawl is what caused the demise of the Pacers. I disagree; they put the team back together the following year except for Reggie Miller retiring. To me, what led to the downturn is Ron Artest making that trade demand [in December 2005].

O'Neal: Whatever else issues Ron particularly had — and he had some issues there — I don't know what his reasoning was. He never came to me and told me. I'm sure Stephen did what he did to protect. I did what I did to protect. When you see someone want to be traded after that, you kind of have some feelings about that.

Walsh: A lot of the players stood up for Ronnie [during the melee]. Jermaine got suspended, Jack got suspended. A lot of guys got punished. When he stood up and said he wanted to be traded, that really put the team in a whole different situation. They felt like he wanted to walk out of there after he had really hurt the team.

Jackson: Yeah, I felt betrayed when Ron asked to be traded. I had lost $3 million. It kind of felt like, "OK, we put our careers and stuff on the line for you and you want to leave us?" We had a great team that year. We were actually the best team in the league. So it kind of hurt.

Walsh: I told [Ron], "We'll sit down on Monday and talk about this." That's all I said to him. But then he got up on Sunday and [asked for a trade] again. So when I met with him on Monday, I said, "Look, I'm going to trade you," and that's what we ended up doing.

The Pacers placed Artest on the inactive list and then on January 25, 2006, traded him to Sacramento for Peja Stojakovic. Total number of games Artest played for Indiana after the brawl: 16.

O'Neal: You're put in a position where you're compromising your career. You're compromising your livelihood and how your family lives, and then the sole reason all that happens suddenly doesn't want to be there no more. Nobody knows about the back-and-forth. Getting put in a room and sitting in a room for hours. Getting rebooked to go to jail. And this is during the season. Our team is flying to Detroit for hearings and all kinds of stuff. We can't even go to Toronto. We've got to get worker permits to go there. Nobody knows about all that stuff.

Jackson: At the end of the day, that was [Ron's] decision. We're still all blessed to be in the NBA and still have jobs. And one monkey don't stop no show. That was our whole attitude. That we can get it done with him or we can get it done without him.

O'Neal: After the brawl, we had a lot of issues off the court, situations, and it just didn't feel right no more. It didn't feel right. It got to a point where you almost wanted a change. Donnie Walsh, I'm sure he felt the same way. That's why he went to New York.

Rose: I'm a Detroit native. The black mark it left on Detroit was, from a national perspective, just the same old hyperbole that that's typical Detroit. From a Pacer standpoint, we went from a team that played in the 2000 Finals — that the fans were able to embrace and the fans appreciated not only because we played good basketball, but we were also pretty responsible citizens — to a place where the fan base wasn't as supportive. It really showed once the team went from being a top-tier team to a marginal team. They stopped showing up at all. And then there were so many incidents that happened off the floor with players, to the point where they had to start making changes.

O'Neal: In the end, it wasn't about basketball no more. It didn't feel good. It didn't feel good playing the games. It just felt like a city that was divided. You had people here on this side that's really behind us, and another side that really wasn't.

The Reflections

The 2005-06 Pacers lost in the first round to New Jersey, then missed the playoffs for the next four years, gaining notoriety mostly for their legal problems — particularly those involving Jackson (who was arrested for an incident outside a strip club in October '06) and teammate Shawne Williams (arrested for marijuana possession in 2007). The Pacers traded Jackson to Golden State in 2007, traded O'Neal to Toronto in 2008, and bought out Tinsley's contract in 2009 after keeping him away from practices and games for months. They also made an avowed commitment to "character guys," rebuilding through the draft with players like Danny Granger, Paul George, and Tyler Hansbrough. For the first time in years, Indiana fans were excited about the Pacers again. But it was a long six years — and the team's attendance suffered dramatically.

Meanwhile, Rick Carlisle won a championship with the 2011 Mavericks, one year after Artest won a title with the Lakers and apologized to Pacers executives and his former teammates as one of his first acts after Game 7 of the 2010 Finals. As O'Neal would say later, "When your team is not together, you can never win. Those apologies came for a reason." Even if Artest (now Metta World Peace) moved on, not everyone else can say the same.

Pollard: It's like a dream, a bad dream, where the more I look at it in my mind, it's like a flashback where it's kind of hazy and a dream. You're kind of going, "Wow. Did that really happen?"

O'Neal: As bad as it looked on TV, it was at least 20 times worse in person.

Mike Brown: Watching the tape does not do the incident justice. It was a very, very, very scary moment. It's why when stuff gets a little chippy on the floor, if an official has to kick a guy out, I just kind of bite my tongue. If it happens, it happens. Hopefully they're doing it in the best interest of the game.

O'Neal: I told my lawyers, I told the jury, and I told the judge — I said, "What would you do if you were put in that position? What would I do with my kids and my wife if I was hit in the head and killed by a flying chair that they were throwing? Who was going to tell that story? What would the story look like then?" I was put in a position as the leader of the team to protect by any means necessary when we're talking about something that has nothing to do with basketball. That had nothing to do with basketball.

"I don't know if I could ever apologize to the city of Indianapolis and the state of Indiana for that enough. I don't know if there's enough apologies in the world to give to that city. That city meant a lot to me. It meant a lot to me. It still means a lot to me." —Jermaine O'Neal
Walsh: It was like watching a horror scene unfold and you couldn't stop it. It broke our team up and then we never could get it back together again.

Gray: It's just amazing how the snap of a finger can change the direction of an entire franchise's fortune and reverberate for years.

Jackson: The person who I have more respect for since then is Ben. We make it a point to shake hands and speak before games now. I respect Ben. Ben was not wrong at all for what he did. Ron did something that only a moron would do. Something real selfish. Ben just protected himself, and for Ben's part, he had a lot going on at the time. That was the wrong person to foul, let alone the biggest dude on the court.

Ben Wallace: It was an unfortunate event that hopefully everybody has learned from.

Anthony Johnson (guard, Pacers): It really tore apart a great team. A whole season, a talented team, just went down the drain.33

Jackson: We would have won a championship that year, man. We had the best team, best young team. We had a Hall of Famer in Reggie Miller. We had every piece to the puzzle, great coaches, great team, great owner, great general manager. And everything was working. So I think a lot of guys are still bitter, like, "Dang, that was my chance to win a championship and Ron was real selfish to do that."

Mike Brown: That squashed all hopes and aspirations and dreams that I've had individually and I know our team had, once all those suspensions and all of that stuff got handed down.34

O'Neal: I honestly believe that we had an opportunity to not only win one championship, but to win multiple championships with the way that team was built.35

Pollard: [The Pacers] are still trying to recover. There is nobody in the world that can convince me that it is anything other than the brawl that set the organization back by a lot.

Walsh: You could call me on New Year's Eve and ask me about it, and it would bring me down 100 percent. It's not a subject I love talking about.

Adam Silver (now the NBA's deputy commissioner): The melee in Detroit had a profound and far-reaching impact on the NBA's image — well beyond the particular teams and players involved that night. But for the Pacers, the negativity lingered. The incident seemingly broke the community's deep bond with the team, and it took years to restore that connection.

O'Neal: I don't know if I could ever apologize to the city of Indianapolis and the state of Indiana for that enough. I don't know if there's enough apologies in the world to give to that city. That city meant a lot to me. It still means a lot to me. For them to go through what they went through on a national scene and the embarrassment it brought to the city and my community and my organization, I apologize for. If there's anything you can get across, please get that across. I don't know if people understand that the people that were there from that regime, from the brawl, could not shake it. We couldn't shake that whole thing. It seemed like the team was fractured.

Larry Brown: That team, Indiana, never recovered. I think it had a big effect on our guys. I really believe a lot of our guys were trying to end it and not let it get out of hand. Unfortunately, there were two teams involved, so it's a stigma on everybody. Not only the two teams, but the league in general. It was just terrible to be a part of that.

O'Neal: I felt like if I didn't leave — and it was one of the most difficult decisions that I had to make — then that organization would never be free of it. I've lived in that environment [in Indiana] where you can walk into a restaurant and there's so much love there that you get ready to pay your bill and your bill is paid already. Or anywhere you go, there's just so much love. I've seen that part. Those people, it's one of those hardworking small towns where people go to work every day and then they come home and turn their TVs on and watch those games because those games are a part of their lives. And they kind of live through that with all the tough times that they are going through. Indiana is one of the hardest-hit unemployment states in America. So, these people are going through a lot, and having to deal with that type of stuff is hard. It was a very unhappy situation, I could tell, for everybody — we needed to start over. I didn't want to [leave] because I always wanted to finish my career there. That's why I'm extremely proud of what they're doing this year, because now the fans have something to be happy about again.

The Punishments

Ron Artest: Suspended for 73 regular-season games and 13 postseason games. He was charged with misdemeanor assault and battery.
Stephen Jackson: Suspended for 30 games and charged with misdemeanor assault and battery.
Jermaine O'Neal: Suspended for 25 games, a penalty reduced through arbitration to 15 games, and charged with two counts of misdemeanor assault and battery.
Anthony Johnson: Suspended five games and charged with misdemeanor assault and battery.
David Harrison: Charged with misdemeanor assault and battery.36
Ben Wallace: Suspended six games.
Chauncey Billups: Suspended one game.
Reggie Miller: Suspended one game.
Elden Campbell: Suspended one game.
Derrick Coleman: Suspended one game.
John Green: Convicted of misdemeanor assault and battery and sentenced to 30 days in jail and two years' probation.
Charlie Haddad: Filed a civil suit against Anthony Johnson, O'Neal, and the Pacers. O'Neal was ordered to pay $1,686.50 in restitution to Haddad, who pleaded no contest to violating a local ordinance against entering a performance space and received a sentence of two years' probation, 100 hours of community service, and 10 straight weekends in a county work program.
David Wallace: Sentenced to a year of probation and community service.
Bryant Jackson: Pleaded no contest to one count of felony assault and one count of misdemeanor assault and battery. He was sentenced to probation for two years and ordered to pay $6,000 in restitution.
Nearly everyone who was involved in or a witness to the brawl has changed jobs, and Ron Artest, of course, changed his name to Metta World Peace. Here are the current new jobs of those who have moved on and were interviewed for this story or heavily involved: Artest (Los Angeles Lakers), Mike Brown (head coach, Lakers), Chuck Person (assistant coach, Lakers), Stephen Jackson (Milwaukee Bucks), Jermaine O'Neal (Boston Celtics), James Jones (Miami Heat), Jamaal Tinsley (Utah Jazz), Darvin Ham (assistant coach, Lakers), Larry Brown (retired for now), Tim Donaghy (disgraced referee), Scot Pollard (retired), Jonathan Bender (retired), Rasheed Wallace (retired), Donnie Walsh (consultant, New York Knicks), John Hammond (general manager, Bucks), Lindsey Hunter (scout, Phoenix Suns), Kevin O'Neill (men's basketball coach, USC), David G. Gorcyca (attorney, criminal defense, civil litigation), Sekou Smith (NBA.com), Tom Wilson (Ilitch Holdings Inc.).

The following declined multiple interview requests for this article: former Pacer players Metta World Peace, Reggie Miller, Jamaal Tinsley, Austin Croshere, and Anthony Johnson; former ESPN analyst Bill Walton; and Chad Forcier. An interview request for Rasheed Wallace, made through his agent, was not answered. Richard Hamilton (now a Chicago Bull), through a team spokesman, declined to be interviewed. The NBA refused interview requests for Ron Garretson and Tommy Nunez Jr., the two other officials who worked the game and are still employed by the league.

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