timbersfan's WunderBlog

The Weekend Never Starts Around Here: The MLS Almanac

By: timbersfan, 11:58 PM GMT on April 26, 2014

There’s always a game on. A few years back, the Guardian ran a tongue-in-cheek preemptive campaign to “Stop Football” during what, at the time, was quaintly referred to as the offseason. If you follow MLS, the idea of an offseason is just adorable, but a rather moot concept according to the non-FIFA calendar under which the league operates. It means I’m simultaneously enjoying the fresh-cut-grass optimism/denial of a new season while mentally distancing myself from my team’s impending relegation over in England. To give you a sense of my hideous cultural confusion, my circadian rhythms are verklempt, like.

So as a public service to similar sufferers who don’t know how to feel at any given moment of the MLS season, after a month of it, here’s my attempt at an MLS almanac to guide you through the phases of the season.

March: The Awakening

Good month to prune, to encourage growth, to breed animals; have dental work, peer anxiously in mirror at faded Florida training camp tan; sign random Honduran national team reserve.

MLS does not have a winter schedule like the rest of soccer. Now and again it contemplates one, but then it notes the weather in Toronto and stops contemplating it.

During the last MLS Cup week, there was a warning about certain parts of the country being so cold that venturing outside might result in the water in your eyes freezing. For all the pressure FIFA puts on MLS about having its season match the traditional arc of fall to spring, there are enormous logistical difficulties to fair scheduling during winter. Even by March, when the season kicks off, it will often see cold-weather teams sent on tours to sunnier climes, or playing their first couple of home games in alternative, covered venues. (March means Montreal kicking the ball among the pile of rugs that is the Big O’s artificial turf.)

There’s a staggered element to the schedule right from the start, and yes, it affects the standard of play — after winter, Toronto’s BMO Field looks like no-man’s-land in the Somme. Move that a couple of months earlier and it gets even uglier.

March is also when the ghost of the decent team that earned the right to compete two seasons earlier get spanked by cheerful midseason Mexican sides in the CONCACAF Champions League. The Galaxy in particular have been perennial competitors at this stage of the competition over the past few years, and the resultant stop-start scheduling has created the sensation that their domestic season never starts until it’s halfway over.

April: The False Peaking


Good month to cut hair, to encourage growth; breed animals; graft or pollinate; lend the underperforming draft class to USL Pro subsidiary; claim that it’s “still early season.”

This time of year, we see the strange phenomenon of “false peaking.” It’s why even before the Sounders ended the unbeaten start to FC Dallas’s season at the weekend, long-standing Dallas fans weren’t getting carried away by their start to 2014. Around this time last year, Dallas were at the top of the standings, alongside Montreal Impact. By season’s end, Dallas had missed the playoffs and parted company with their coach, while the Impact scraped into the playoffs and crashed straight out, in a storm of red cards and Italian cursing.

So, don’t look at the current standings. That said, do look at the current standings, because for every coach who’s currently claiming, “It’s early yet” to explain why his side hasn’t got a win (yes, you, Caleb Porter and Mike Petke), generally projecting the air of a mechanic tinkering with a sputtering engine that will soon be in turbo mode, there’ll be another still asserting that the playoffs are “a realistic possibility” in July, when they’re … just not. See Olsen, Ben, in 2013.

May: The Expanding

Good month to dry stone wall; to check drainage ditches; to announce South Dakota expansion team.

Near enough to the promise of summer tournaments, close enough to the end of hostilities in Europe, May is the perfect month to introduce another MLS franchise, replete with instant fans and a Photoshopped rendering of the proposed downtown stadium on the site of the existing contemporary art museum. It’s a time of intense optimism, projections, and mildly fudged figures.

As for May, in actual league play, May is May. Too close to the start, yet to go through the distorting filter of the dog days of summer — May is May.

June: The Vanishing

Good month to destroy pests and weeds; quit smoking; go camping; confidently claim, “He’s ready,” while doubtfully eyeing a 5-year-old academy kid; sign another Honduran reserve.

This is the month where the sweet science of building a deep squad on a salary cap meets one of the true joys of summer/winter scheduling: tournament play. If it’s not a World Cup, it’s a Gold Cup. Imagine a team, having had a decent start to the season, having done the hard work to identify an undervalued Central American who turns out to be the attacking playmaker their otherwise pedestrian squad needed. Then they find out he is now joining his national team in what will inevitably be an unlikely deep run in whatever competition they’re playing in, during which he will twang his Achilles.

In the three-month absence, his MLS side will play a $45,000 squad member from the 18th round of the 2012 draft, and the goals will dry up, prompting thundering editorials about the helpless strikers, penned by the likes of me.

July: The Lamparding


Good month to prune to discourage growth; castrate animals; drift listlessly around humid stadiums; go to the one game you’ll attend this year; mention that, “Every time I come here, you see more and more people, and it’s definitely somewhere I’d like to play at some stage in my career.”

If it’s July, it must mean a ridiculously crowded schedule of glamour exhibition games between European giants at big stadiums around the country. If you’re the L.A. Galaxy, whose schedule consists of seven separate teams playing in four separate time zones, in 17 different competitions (three of which are fictional), this may also be a month where you play a couple games against one of those teams, to “build the brand.” That the weary brand can’t remember its own name at this point is secondary to something to do with demographics and trajectories.

This is also the month when the enthusiastic GM your team appointed in February appears to be literally melting before your eyes. New York provided the perfect example in 2012, when Chris Heck scheduled a game for 2 p.m. on a July Wednesday as “an experiment.” Having tried to paper the stadium with summer campers, Heck then got to avoid eye contact with Thierry Henry, as the Frenchman led his side out in 101-degree temperatures — which the campers had largely, sensibly avoided — in one of the sadder sights I’ve seen. Heck was gone in about a minute.

It’s also the time of year when high-pressure teams like Kansas City wish they didn’t have to run all the damned time.

Also this month, when the moon is over Biloxi, Frank Lampard will claim to be interested in moving to MLS. He may be in a press conference or a darkened bedroom in Chingford, Essex, at the time, but he will do it. Every year. See also: Drogba, Didier; Ballack, Michael.

August: The Don Henley–ing


Good month to cut hay; to plant below ground crops; mistime your run to the playoffs; sign a designated player to upset the balance of your squad; endure headlines saying, “Football’s back!”

There’s always one. August is that month where people start saying things like, “Can anyone stop Columbus right now?” Despite knowing, deep down, that someone can and will. Not that I’m singling out Columbus per se, but this is always the time of year when one team seems to start clicking and winning game after game — just too far out from the playoffs. A couple years back, it was indeed Columbus, with the inspired signings of Federico Higuaín and Jairo Arrieta, that started doing all kinds of damage. Last year, it was Mauro Rosales plopping free kick after free kick onto Eddie Johnson’s head for Seattle. Which conveniently brings us to …

The big-name signing. For two weeks in August, one set of MLS supporters will have one of their happiest fortnights as fans. Twitter rumors will rumble; a photo of said player in a team jersey will emerge. There will be an expectation that they’re going to win everything, fanned by the likes of me, and a huge sense of anticipation for a home debut by an exhausted player coming off a season in Europe/a tournament/an injury/the mother of all hangovers.

That player will hobble off the bench to play 10 minutes, during which he’ll introduce himself to his teammates (marketing commitments having prevented the niceties before then), and do nothing else. Then the coach will attempt to introduce this trequartista/roving enganche/equilateral triangulist into the bog-standard 4-4-2 that got his team to fourth, and the wheels will come off. The boys of summer will have gone, just in time for the Premier League to come back on with blanket coverage everywhere.

September: The Stumbling

A good month to can, pickle, or make sauerkraut; to set posts or pour concrete; to start the long, slow skid to fifth place on the last day.

If August is when a team gets hot, September is when a couple of draws will bring on the dawning realization that there’s still long enough left to miss the playoffs. It’s around this time a flailing coach will start shuffling personnel and formations, as the Galaxy and Houston glide past them on their way to … it doesn’t really matter what playoff spot, does it? See: Impact, Montreal.

October: The Dynamoving


Good month to wean animals or children; mend barns; make soup; be Houston Dynamo.

Every year, Dominic Kinnear wakes up around July, potters round the house a bit, sends his polo shirts out to get pressed, yawns, goes for a light jog, and starts picking up points.

By October, his Houston Dynamo side, who’ve been hovering around the middle of the East all year, will have picked up just enough of these points to have guaranteed a playoff spot without particularly impressing or depressing anyone. Will Bruin will start scoring goals, Brad Davis will start finding heads with every cross, Oscar Boniek García will return from injury (see June) and start running rings round opponents who’d forgotten him, and the Dynamo will make the playoffs.

A wolf will appear in the west. A blood moon will rise, and an Eastern empire will fall. The Dynamo will make the playoffs.

At this point of the year, the almanac’s reliability ends, owing to how “anything can happen in the playoffs,” but hopefully this guide means you can experience all the delightful phases of the MLS season without thinking they signal the end of days. Unless Rafa Márquez comes back.


Bendita Camino: Why I Love Atletico Madrid

By: timbersfan, 11:57 PM GMT on April 26, 2014

I ambled into a random bar near the center of the Spanish capital on September 18, 2005, looking to catch Atletico Madrid, which was hosting Barcelona at Vicente Calderon Stadium in a Sunday nightcap.

There was a television bolted in the upper-left corner of the room, and rarely did eyes stray from it. It was standing room only in this old man’s bar. There were men who were born during the Spanish Civil War; men who were born to parents who lived through the war; almost everyone inside was alive during Franco’s reign. It was like stumbling into a house of worship on a holy day. Everyone knew why they were there.

Samuel Eto’o put Barcelona up early with a simple finish, but Fernando Torres equalized with a powerful header. Mateja Kezman snuck free at the back post to give Atletico a 2-1 lead, and Ronaldinho commanded the ball like it was his Westminster show dog, putting that result in consistent jeopardy. Down to 10 men for the last third of the match, Atletico defended and survived.

The game was raw, it was rollicking, and it blended the passion and skill exhibited at the highest level of La Liga, the kind that can wrap you in an incomparable soccer hug if you catch it at the right time. At the final whistle, most of the elderly Spaniards seemed to exhale and say “muy bien” at the same time. If I didn’t order a beer during the proceedings, it was because beer wasn’t the point — a remarkable thing to say at any point in time about any cerveceria in Madrid. I left flushed with the excitement of a child departing a roller coaster for the first time.


Two weeks later, I was credentialed for my first match at the Calderon by a soccer magazine on its last legs. Derby night against Real Madrid. The energy outside the stadium was electric, an enormous party replete with cops in riot gear, drunk fans, and vendors selling the dignity in suffering. Inside, the Atletico fans unfurled a banner of a cartoon David Beckham looking back — ostensibly at a camera — in a doggy-style pose. I’m not sure if the banner’s theme had more to do with sodomy or sex as a metaphor for economic inequality, and that’s probably the point.


Raul, the iconic Real Madrid striker who started out as a youth player with Atletico, won a penalty a few minutes in. Ronaldo (the Brazilian one) converted. They might as well have just canceled the rest of the match. Real Madrid won 3-0, still relatively early in a string of 25 consecutive undefeated matches against little brother. The narrative continued unabated: El Pupas (the jinxed ones, as Atletico were known) remained jinxed, dominated by their neighbors, Europe’s most successful club. When Ronaldo was injured later in the match, items fans threw on the field included coins, a suckling pig’s head, and an apple, which Beckham took a bite of before spitting it out.

A few weeks later, I was back at the Calderon. Atletico was hosting Villarreal. Atletico went up in the fifth minute and remained in control most of the night. If Atleti wanted to be taken seriously, this was a match they had to win. On the game’s last play, Diego Forlan, who five years later would lead Atletico to second-tier European glory, equalized with a header off a set piece. A fan who sat in front of the media section and smelled of weed went nuts. The scene was perversely endearing, a final primer on everything I needed to know about what I was getting into. This grown man gesticulating wildly, imploring foreign journalists to take note of his tormented story, brought me closer. I stared at the name on the fan’s jersey and remembered John Motson’s voice in the video game for the 1998 World Cup.

“Ki-ko. Ki-ko. Ki-ko.”

I had a frame of reference for my teenage self. I had just witnessed a win dissolve into the night, like a final-page plot twist as surprising as it was expected. Atletico fans were into their team in a special way, literally and commercially dubbed bendita aficion (“blessed fans”). I had already experienced derby defeat live.

If my choice of club to support needed any validation, I found it in my first favorite YouTube video, a short film in Spanish that features a Real Madrid fan and Roberto Carlos look-alike terrorizing a bus full of Atletico fans as the derby plays over the radio.

Eventually the RC3 clone meets his fate: He’s clad in red and white while forced to sing “ole ole ole, Cholo Simeone,” a nod to Diego Simeone, the former Atletico midfielder and current manager/mastermind. The video is awash with overused crosstown rivalry stereotypes — rich versus poor, spoiled versus dignified, white versus tan — but it’s effective and funny if you’re into Atletico Madrid revenge fantasy porn.

In the video’s climactic sequence, the look-alike tries to lead the Atleti fans in a resounding chorus of “Ro-ber-to Car-los, la la la la la la,” threatening the bus while conducting with a knife. He even breaks the celebration instructions into sections.

“You guys sing the ‘Ro-ber-to Car-los,’ and then you guys follow up with the ‘la la la la la la.’”


I used to think I became an Atletico fan because of their checkered history, or because their fans could give a sermon on valor at a moment’s notice, or because the team reminded me so much of the Mets. That’s not really the point.

You can take the opportunity to study or live abroad and, without realizing it, treat the experience as a nice time capsule from a fun period: Madrid has amazing nightlife. The Prado is huge. Real Madrid is great; they finished first/second while I was there, winning/losing/drawing against Barcelona. Or, your travels can be part of your road to self-definition. There isn’t a right way, but people generally pick one.

My study-abroad experience wasn’t better or worse than any of my friends. They saw more of Prague, I saw more of Maxi Rodriguez. But the soccer gave me a reason to leave a part of myself there, and to actually go back and live for a while.

Accepting a history of humiliation actually paves an easier path to respect across cultures, whether meeting people outside of other Spanish soccer stadiums or infiltrating groups of expat Spaniards in New York. In a league traditionally dominated by two teams, if I say “Soy del Atleti“ (“I support Atleti”), I’m making it abundantly clear that I chose to follow a team from 10th to seventh to fourth to fourth to ninth to seventh to fifth to third to (currently) first, with two Europa League titles and last year’s streak-busting Copa del Rey triumph over Real Madrid sprinkled in. I have followed along as they sold Torres, Rodriguez, Sergio Aguero, Forlan, David de Gea, and Falcao, with more likely on their way out. Against the backdrop of arguably the richest fat-cat rivalry in sports, investing in Spanish soccer’s historically tortured upper middle class is hard work.

My Atletico fandom endures because when I was presented with the opportunity to take my first paid vacation after college, I used it to go back to Spain. And I made sure to bring a couple of friends to a match, to share with them some of what I’d experienced. I could have saved money. I could have gone to the Caribbean. I went to the Calderon.

I wanted to build on my experiences on a sun-scorched afternoon, watching Atletico take on Levante. The match wasn’t much until early in the second half, when Torres brought about a cathartic release with a beautifully curled strike. And then it happened, from everyone in the crowd.

“Fer-nan-do Tor-res, la la la la la la.”

And it continued, loud and unified.

Torres, an Atleti fan as a kid, raised on homegrown heartbreak, was on his way to Liverpool. His shot against Levante would be his last goal scored at home for Atletico. But the moment is seared into my consciousness because of the serenade, which shifted in my mind from pain-derived satire (a Real Madrid fan on a bus conducting a chorus at knifepoint) to a moment of actual bliss.

Having already once tousled his glorious hair while watching his former team celebrate, Torres returns today with Chelsea to observe a different reality, one characterized by playing the counter, applying just the right amount of ball pressure, combining well in tight spaces, defending narrowly and with depth, seeking the right shape, and capitalizing on opportunities.

Atletico’s strikers are the past (David Villa) and present (Diego Costa) of the Spanish national team. Costa is clinical and terrifying moving forward, ranking second in La Liga in goals scored. Thibaut Courtois, on loan from Chelsea, is an indefatigable Belgian spider monkey in goal, stopping everything in sight, twice if need be. The best reason I’ve heard as to why Courtois is allowed to play against Chelsea is that Atletico, like the fraternity from Old School, is surprisingly good at paperwork.

In front of Courtois is a four-man back line — two Brazilians, a Uruguayan enforcer, and a gallant Spanish right back — that has been together since 2011. Anonymous and impressive, they’ve helped to define Simeone’s tenure as Manager in Black. Watching him forcefully bark out instructions while roaming the sideline with meticulously slicked-back hair is like seeing soccer’s counterpoint to early ’90s Pat Riley.


Then there’s the midfield prodigy whose second name translates to “resurrection.” He leads La Liga with 13 assists and his nickname (Koke) rhymes with the Spanish word for “touch” (“toque”), which is perfect, if cheesy. Their other flanker, Arda Turan, is the type of player, relentless in relentlessness, whose play helps others believe. You don’t mess with Turan; he keeps an emotional barometer in his beard. Tiago made waves for comparing Atletico to Robin Hood. And the captain? Gabi? He’s spent most of his youth and pro career in the Atletico system. He was there for “Fernando Torres, la la la la la la” and part of the match that mesmerized me at the cerveceria.

Gabi probably remembers the club that celebrated its centennial by serving loads of paella to fans and playing the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” And that’s just it. The club defined by “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” the club that increased ticket sales after getting relegated, is on the cusp of what feels like everything: first in La Liga with a Champions League semifinal set to kick off, a claim at the title of world’s best club possibly in the offing.

Journeys are the best.


Premier League Takeaways: New Everton, Old Arsenal, and Jozy Altidore Becomes Suddenl

By: timbersfan, 11:57 PM GMT on April 26, 2014

Another week, another shocking result in the Premier League, as the teams enter the home stretch, approach the sharp end of the season, and otherwise cliché their way toward season’s end on May 11. This weekend had lots of results we all expected and one we really, really didn’t. So, as we look for some takeaways, there’s really only one place to start.

The Adventures of Jose and Jozy

The idea that Jozy Altidore might materially impact that race for the Premier League title is patently insane. Altidore hadn’t played a minute of Premier League football in almost a month for Sunderland, and really, it was no more than he deserved. He’s had exactly one goal and one assist all year for a team that, before last week, seemed certain to be relegated. But there he was on Saturday, slipping/falling/getting kinda maybe fouled in a moment that set fire to any remaining title hopes Chelsea were clinging to. (The penalty, rather poetically, was converted by Liverpool loanee Fabio Borini.)


The penalty gave an incredibly unlikely lifeline to Sunderland in their quest to not drift away into the ether of the championship. And while it’s not exactly Clint Dempsey for Fulham, if Sunderland do manage to stay up, it will be impossible to overstate the importance of that goal.

For Chelsea, Jose Mourinho’s home unbeaten streak ends at a whopping 77 games. And he was not happy about it. As is always the case with Mourinho, he took about 16 seconds to turn the focus of the narrative from the game to his postgame comments, engaging in his typical (although not particularly inaccurate) blaming of referees. But it’s hard to escape that, in the last six Premier League games, Chelsea have now lost to Sunderland at home and Aston Villa and Crystal Palace on the road. Win any one of those three matches and they’d be within striking distance of the top; win two of them, and they’d have attained that mythical status of “controlling their own destiny.”

As it is, Chelsea will have to wait for next year in the Premier League, where astoundingly there’s at least a chance they’ll meet Sunderland again.

The New Normal

The two Liverpool-based teams notched unsurprising victories this weekend, with Liverpool beating Norwich City 3-2 and Everton topping Manchester United 2-0. That, in and of itself, is pretty darn shocking. For Liverpool, Brendan Rodgers tweaked the tactical system to terrific effect yet again. With no Daniel Sturridge and Jordan Henderson suspended, Steven Gerrard once again played at the base of the midfield, this time with Joe Allen and Lucas ahead of him. Philippe Coutinho, and new, new, new, great young English hope of the season Raheem Sterling (who’s taken the mantle from Ross Barkley and Andros Townsend) played off Suárez. Like everything Rodgers does these days, it worked, with Sterling notching two goals and this gorgeous assist to Suárez:


That they let in two goals is just another curious case of Liverpool being Liverpool at this point (or is it Liverpool: Being: Liverpool?). Liverpool are what they are: an incredibly open, incredibly entertaining, high-octane team. And they’re probably going to win the league.

Their crosstown rivals also put in a ho-hum day at the office to this weekend. And it speaks volumes that the team they casually dispatched 2-0 was Manchester United. There was no fanfare, there were no tense moments. Just Everton coolly and calmly putting down a team that wasn’t as good as they are. Much as they did against Arsenal, Everton was happy to let United have the ball for long periods of the game and then whack them with beautifully constructed counterattacks. According to Squawka.com, United had 55 percent of possession, but obviously they didn’t use it nearly as well.


Really, though, neither Liverpool’s high-adrenaline win nor Everton’s more mundane performance are particularly notable. And that in itself just shows how far the alignment of planets has shifted over the course of this Premier League season.

The Old Normal

Arsenal finally had both Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Özil fit enough to start, and they did awesome Ramsey and Özil–type things like this.

And for approximately the 7,352nd time, Arsene Wenger and Arsenal nation wondered what if. What if they had been healthy the whole season? What if either player had a viable backup who wasn’t Jack Wilshere? What if Arsenal had just a little bit more? Meet the new Arsenal, same as the old Arsenal.

The Defenders of Midtable

Liverpool are trying to prove that defense is not, in fact, what wins championships. But further down in the table, West Ham Crystal Palace are proving that, while that may be true, defense is crucially important to avoiding relegation. Noted 19th-century football specialist Sam Allardyce at West Ham and noted Premier League Lannister Tony Pulis (Crystal Palace’s boss) have taken Championship League–caliber teams and turned them into midtable Premier League success stories. And each team could have important spoiler roles left to play over the end of the season.

West Ham will close this year’s season with a trip to Manchester City. And while City aren’t terribly likely to catch Liverpool, they are the only team left for whom it’s at least possible. They need to win out, which means breaking Big Sam’s defense on the final day of the season.

The Lannister-led Crystal Palace have an even more influential run in. Having already taken a broadsword to Everton’s Champion’s League hopes last week, they host Manchester City and Liverpool over the next two weeks before finishing their season against Fulham, who will be locked in the death grip of a relegation battle.

Realistically, if the Premier League title has any drama left in it on the final day of the season, it will be because Chelsea get a result against Liverpool next weekend, and Crystal Palace visit their own version of the Red Wedding upon Liverpool a week after that. Thus ends your obligatory Grantland Game of Thrones referencing.


The Designated Player: A Tale of Two Red Bulls Seasons, and News on the Soccer Stadiu

By: timbersfan, 11:56 PM GMT on April 26, 2014

The Only Way Is Up (or Down) for Red Bulls

New York Red Bulls did what they’ve been threatening to do all season, and hammered a team 4-0 on Wednesday night. Houston Dynamo were the hapless victims — thanks to a master class by Thierry Henry, and Houston’s own continuing woes in front of goal (319 minutes without scoring, as it stands).

A couple weeks ago, before a 1-0 defeat at RFK Stadium, I’d asked one of the regular fan reps for the Red Bulls whether the team’s run of draws since that opening-day loss was an unbeaten run or a winless streak. He sensibly avoided the question, not just because either take could be true, but because the Red Bulls have been so patchy this season that it’s hard to identify what’s the norm and what’s the aberration.

On the plus side, the attacking movement has begun to show some pleasing invention. When I asked Dax McCarty last week what the team had done to improve things since the D.C. game, he said, “Just keeping running attacking patterns in practice.” The hope being that the finishing would come to reward the more sophisticated approach play.

New York got their breakthrough win (the first of the season, seven games in) against Philadelphia last Wednesday, though not without some pretty-play-no-goal passages at the beginning of the game. At the time, I tweeted something to the effect of New York attacks all ending like The Sopranos: baroque buildups and then a sudden cut to nothingness, leaving puzzled fans picking over the footage and pondering the significance of Tim Cahill leaving the scene in a Members Only jacket.

New York got the goal eventually against Philadelphia, with Henry dismissively shrugging the ball home to open the scoring. On Wednesday he was at it again …

And there’s the negative. For all that the Red Bulls are built on familiarity, keeping the core of the Supporters’ Shield–winning 2013 team together, and for all that they worry about pretty buildup play, their defense is built on roller skates.

On Wednesday, they got away with it because Houston’s woeful attack was worse. (They were missing Brad Davis.) And, of course, the Red Bulls have a great last line of defense in goalkeeper Luis Robles, who bailed out his side repeatedly, en route to their first shutout of the year. But the four men in front of Robles gave him a hell of a lot of bailing to do. Poor touches, miscommunication, needless giveaways — all present in abundance. The Dynamo could have been at least level after 10 minutes of the second half.

The common wisdom in New York is that if there’s to be a third designated player arriving after the World Cup this summer, he needs to be of the “creative attacking midfielder” variety, and there’s certainly a case for that, for all the continued efforts of Peguy Luyindula to square-peg his way through that particular round hole in the roster. But with Ibrahim Sekagya and Armando Lozano looking shaky in the heart of defense, alongside a Jamison Olave short of his previous high standards, there’s a case for getting the back line right first.

As it is, though, the Red Bulls have now won two in a row. Or they were beaten two games ago. Depends how you look at it.

This House Is Not a Home

One of the more unfortunate sights of last year was the playoff weekend that saw games in New England and Seattle taking place on clearly marked-out football fields — a throwback to the visual dissonance of early MLS, pre-soccer-specific stadium days. In some ways, it looked jarring to see soccer being played on the kind of markings that used to tell us exactly how far out David Beckham was taking his free kicks from when he first arrived.

With Red Bull Arena, Sporting Park, and Houston’s plans for their new BBVA Compass home, it seemed we were seeing a new paradigm for soccer-specific stadiums in the league, an impression reinforced with the league being publicly insistent on teams having stadium deals in place before expansion deals would be offered.

But other than the Earthquakes breaking ground last year, we’ve seen a lot more Photoshop renderings than hard hats of late. And this week, the news has seemed decidedly retrograde on the stadium front.

First there was the news that Atlanta had been awarded a franchise, in a stadium share with the Falcons, involving a “draping” system to temporarily lower the capacity.

At least they know they have a stadium on its way. Monday’s announcement from New York City FC that they’d open play at Yankee Stadium next season came as no surprise, but contained no definitive news on progress for a dedicated, soccer-specific stadium. City fans may not have to contend with gridiron markings, but the sight lines are hardly ideal for soccer in many of the seats.

As the fallout from the City announcement was being picked over, Orlando quietly confirmed they would play the entirety of their expansion season at the Citrus Bowl next year, while waiting for their own downtown, soccer-specific stadium to be completed in 2016. Add in the prospective purchasers of Chivas USA being tasked with building a stadium in L.A., and David Beckham facing coordinated opposition to his favored site in Miami, and we’re entering some interesting times for the rapid-expansion narrative in MLS.

The teenage league may be going through a growth spurt, but until the infrastructure catches up, flicking through a cross-section of televised games over the next couple of years might suggest the teenager is still wearing hand-me-downs.


nba first round

By: timbersfan, 10:55 PM GMT on April 25, 2014




33 Burning Questions From Round 1
From the Wizards to the Warriors, there are all kinds of issues that need to be addressed in these NBA playoffs

Now THIS is a Round 1, my friends. Do you realize road teams have won 10 of 19 playoff games so far? Do you realize we’ve had 297 officiating controversies already? Do you realize three 50-win coaches are in real danger of getting canned within the next 10 days? Do you realize we have an 8-seed beating a 1-seed and a 7-seed beating a 2-seed? Do you realize Indiana is slapping together the Mother of All NBA Swoons? Do you realize LaMarcus Aldridge is morphing into some insane cross of young Kevin McHale, older Karl Malone, in-his-prime Buddha Edwards, and peak Kevin Garnett? Do you realize a Wizards-Clippers Finals is in play? Repeat: Do you realize a Wizards-Clippers Finals is in play????? And that the odds are only 65-to-1 right now??? And that it’s actually a good bet at those odds??????????? WHAT IS HAPPENING?????????

Without further ado, let’s tackle 33 burning questions from Round 1.

Q: Could the Wizards really make the Eastern Conference finals despite whiffing on 2013’s no. 3 overall pick (Otto Porter) and 2011’s no. 6 overall pick (Jan Vesely)?

Let’s flip that around. The Wizards could make the Eastern Conference finals because they didn’t whiff on 2010’s no. 1 overall pick (John Wall) and 2012’s no. 3 overall pick (Bradley Beal). They also flipped 2008’s first-rounder (JaVale McGee) into Nene, who is practically breaking the 2014 Defensive Player of the Year trophy over Joakim Noah’s head right now. They turned Vesely and next year’s first-rounder into Professor Andre Miller and Marcin Gortat, two veterans who made an impact. And Trevor Ariza wouldn’t be thriving without young Porter breathing down his neck. Fine, that’s not true. There’s been no neck-breathing whatsoever. Everything else is true. I can’t imagine having next year’s Atrocious GM Summit without Ernie Grunfeld, but we might be headed that way. This is bittersweet. I can’t lie.

(Wait, someone just reminded me that Ernie traded the no. 5 pick in 2009 for Mike Miller and Randy Foye, which means he whiffed on three top-six lottery picks in five years. According to the Atrocious GM Summit rulebook, the “David Kahn Corollary” says that at least three top-six whiffs in five years earns you an automatic invite. So, Ernie is coming back no matter what happens! I’m glad we settled this.)

Q: Can the Wizards really make the Eastern finals when their fans are sending emails during playoff games like, “I’d like to report an attempted murder — Randy Wittman is trying to kill me”?

My buddy House (lifelong Washington fan) sent that one during Game 2, somewhere around the same time Wittman decided, “I know Andre Miller destroyed the Bulls in Game 1, but I’m playing him only nine minutes tonight and that’s that.” And it’s not like things got better. During overtime, right before the Wiz nearly blew a six-point lead in the final 40 seconds, House and I had this exchange:

Me: “How many offensive rebounds do you have to give up before Wittman puts Gortat in for Booker?”

House: “Infinity. Infinity offensive rebounds.”

The good news for Wizards fans: Just in the past decade, Alvin Gentry and Mike Brown coached in Round 3; Flip Saunders took two different teams to Round 3; and Scott Brooks made two conference finals and the actual Finals. Don’t those four guys make you feel a little better about Randy Wittman?

The NBA isn’t complicated — to blow a series when you have a more talented team, you’d need an offensive game plan that’s two steps below rudimentary, no defensive mind-set whatsoever, a slew of head-scratching rotation decisions, an overall emphasis on aggressively sloppy play, a stubborn refusal to change anything that’s not working, a lack of recognition for basic stuff like “That guy is headed for 40 points again, maybe we try something different defensively,” and the confidence to keep making terrible game-management choices in the final minute without learning from the previous game’s terrible game-management choices. Basically, you’d have to do everything that Kevin McHale is doing in the Houston-Portland series. When you have a talented team going against the limited Bulls in Round 1 and the disintegrating Pacers in Round 2? You can survive Randy Wittman. Who’s having a decent series, by the way.

(In Round 3 against Miami? You probably can’t survive Randy Wittman. But at that point, we would have already had the greatest Washington basketball moment in 35 years, right? That reminds me … )

Q: Can the Wizards really make the Eastern Conference finals when they’re the Washington Wizards?

Now THIS is an obstacle. Since they lost Game 5 of the 1979 Finals to Seattle (R.I.P.), here’s your Washington basketball history in fewer than 90 words without mentioning that (a) they missed the playoffs 22 times in 35 years, and (b) they won only two playoff series total: Kwame over Pau; C-Webb for Mitch; Sheed for Strickland; Rip for Stackhouse; Gilbert vs. Jarvaris; $100 million for Juwan; the Rubio/Curry pick for Miller and Foye; Kenny Green one pick over Karl Malone; Wes Unseld, then Ernie Grunfeld; MJ ruining LaBradford Smith; past-their-primes Bernard, Moses and MJ; Andray Blatche’s extension/amnesty; top-12 picks on Hot Plate Williams, Muggsy Bogues, Tom Hammonds and Jared Jeffries; top-six picks on Vesely, Porter, Cal Cheaney and Mel Turpin; Gheorghe Muresan AND Manute Bol; and again, Kenny Green ONE PICK BEFORE KARL MALONE.

My favorite Wizards fact: Since Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes left the franchise in 1981, they haven’t employed a single player whose jersey could be retired. Not one! That’s impossible!

My second favorite Wizards fact: I sent House the last two graphs and he wrote back, “You forgot about Ike Austin for Ben Wallace. And Mark Price’s foot. And Gheorge’s pituitary gland … I’ll have more later.” I didn’t hear from him for another 24 hours.

My third favorite Wizards fact: Out of the blue, House emailed me the next day, “I forgot about Rex Chapman’s thumb and Jahidi White’s belly. Seriously, you should put that in.” The Washington Bullets-Slash-Wizards, everybody!

Q: Wait, you never answered … can the Wizards really make the 2014 Eastern Conference finals?

On ABC last Sunday, I picked a Miami-Washington Eastern finals two days after predicting Washington could become “this year’s Memphis” on the B.S. Report. So yes, I’m a believer. What looks more ridiculous on paper: the Wizards making Round 3, Nene becoming the league’s most unstoppable scoring center, or me finally hitting one of my predictions? It’s destiny!!! We’re intertwined! Speaking of Nene …

Q: Nene is lighting up Joakim Noah!!! LIGHTING HIM UP!!! Also, am I on drugs right now?

You’re not on drugs; you’re fine. Nobody ever doubted Nene’s talent, as evidenced by his earning more than $86 million since 2006 (with another $39 million guaranteed through 2016) despite never averaging 15 points or eight rebounds in any season. He’s been the first-team center on the NBA’s All-Perplexing Career team for years and years, a frustrating talent who sleepwalks through some Orlando game on a Tuesday night, then eviscerates Miami for 30 points just 24 hours later. When I attended the 2012 Summer Olympics, I wasn’t remotely surprised to see Nene mailing in the Brazil games, just like I wasn’t surprised to see him taking it to Noah in Games 1 and 2. That’s why he’s Nene. When he gives a crap? That’s when you want him on your team.

Over everything else, you gotta love how HARD Washington is playing: You have Beal and Wall trying to make names for themselves, Ariza and Gortat playing for new contracts, and Nene taking the Noah matchup personally for whatever reason. Yes, yes, yes. They can make the Eastern finals. And by the way? They were 60-to-1 to win the East just one week ago. If the Wizards make the 2014 Finals and Cousin Sal and I buy a 10-acre compound in Hawaii just two weeks later, I swear, there’s no correlation whatsoever.

Q: What’s more unrealistic, the Wizards making the 2014 Eastern finals or Kevin Love signing with the Wizards in the summer of 2015?

Every Wizards fan right now … Hold on, we need some music!

Q: If Phil Jackson learned the triangle offense from Tex Winter, then who was Scott Brooks’s mentor for Oklahoma City’s “Clogged Toilet” offense? Was it just Mike Brown, or were Vinny Del Negro and Mike Woodson involved as well?

Here’s my working theory: Early in Brooks’s playing career, he played in Minnesota for Jimmy Rodgers, the longtime Celtics assistant and honorary head coach of the Ghastly 1980s NBA Permafro Team (a.k.a. The Jack Sikma All-Stars). Rodgers had already failed as K.C. Jones’s replacement in Boston, where he got fired after two years partly for running the same Clogged Toilet offense that K.C. had perfected. During K.C.’s last Celtics season, the Celtics ran the same dump-it-to-Larry-on-the-right-post crunch-time play 575 straight times in the 1988 playoffs. It didn’t matter if the Legend was double-teamed, triple-teamed, quadruple-teamed … we were still running that play because we had no other plays.

So Jimmy learned from the Clogged Toilet master. And eventually, Brooks learned from Jimmy, so it’s something of a Clogged Toilet coaching tree. But every time I see OKC barely getting KD the ball 35 feet from the basket — or even better, taking 15 seconds to post him up on the low block, followed by KD dribbling back behind the 3-point line as soon as he gets it — I always picture K.C. Jones and Jimmy Rodgers nodding proudly. You need a great plunger when you run the Clogged Toilet: K.C. and Jimmy had Bird; Mike Brown had LeBron; and Brooks has Durant.

Q: Thanks to Nick in Anchorage, Alaska, for this one: “Is there anyway Grantland can produce a ‘Steve Kerr is starting to favor this coaching position’ wheel of probability graphic or gauge that updates in real time, perhaps located on the top of the home page? This first round of playoff games would have the needle bouncing all over: NY, IND, GS, IND, HOU, OKC, HOU, HOU, HOU… (Sound effects and Steve Kerr quotes optional).”

Sounds too complicated for us — we can’t even figure out how to run head shots of our writers that don’t look like mugshots. But couldn’t the Kerr Wheel operate like ESPN.com’s lottery machine, with the odds being updated in real time and every “result” playing off those percentages? OKC blows Game 3 in Memphis … uh-oh, there’s a new leader on the Kerr Wheel! My take hasn’t wavered for three weeks: If Brooks, McHale and Mark Jackson can’t get out of Round 1, they’re goners. So that’s potentially four open jobs, and we haven’t even mentioned the Lakers or Pacers yet.

(My percentages for the Kerr Wheel before Friday’s games, factoring in things like “best chance to win a title,” “most enticing franchise player,” “most assets,” “most livable city,” “deepest pockets,” “team that makes the most sense for a California kid who went to college in Arizona and lives in San Diego,” “team that employs Phil Jackson” and “team that isn’t in Utah or Cleveland”: New York: 40% … G-State: 20% … Houston: 20% … Lakers: 10% … OKC: 5% … Indiana: 4.4% … Cleveland: 0.5% … Utah: 0.1%.)

Q: Are Boston fans allowed to make fun of McHale mangling this Portland series after he helped the Celtics win three titles, clotheslined Rambis, costarred on the greatest NBA team of all time (the ’86 Celts), played on a broken foot in the 1987 Finals, made a cameo on Cheers, got his no. 32 retired, and traded KG to Boston in 2007 over accepting a slightly better deal from the Lakers?

Nope. Not allowed.

Q: More riveting battle — Tony Allen doing everything possible to shut down Kevin Durant, or Patrick Beverley doing everything possible to shut down Damian Lillard?

That’s a tie. Everyone wins. But we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention one incredible replay during Game 1’s overtime — Lillard beating Beverley, then Beverley refusing to give up and leaping over Lillard to block his floater from behind — that made me feel like we were watching one of those action-packed lightweight fights when they’re throwing so many punches that the CompuBox guy basically says, “I give up.” What a great moment. I love watching those guys going at it. Beverley and Allen (when he’s 100 percent healthy, like he is right now) share the same lovable quality: They have an ongoing fearlessness that just isn’t common for NBA players. It’s almost like watching a special teams gunner in football — they keep giving up their bodies, flying around like maniacs and doing whatever it takes to make the tackle (or in this case, defend the scorer). They don’t know any other way to play. It’s all or nothing.

Q: Dirk and Duncan battled in a playoff series in 2001 and now they’re doing it again in 2014 — is that a record gap for playoff battles for two players?

Nope — according to NBA Countdown ace Alvin Anol, Duncan and Steve Nash hold the unofficial record thanks to their 1998 battle that nobody remembers (Phoenix vs. San Antonio) and their 2013 battle that everyone blocked out of their mind (San Antonio sweeping the Lakers). That’s a 15-year playoff gap! Dirk and Duncan hold the record if you narrow it to “Had to be the best guy on that playoff team.” Since we’re here, I can’t believe I assumed (like so many others) that San Antonio would roll over Dallas and forgot the following things: too much history, too much Carlisle (here’s a good summary of his Jedi mind trick in Game 2), too much pride, too much Dirk, too much Cubes, too much Texas, too much Devin Harris, too much Joey Crawford. It’s going six or seven. You’ve been here before, and you’ll be here again.

Q: The Heat are still the league’s best team, they still have the league’s best player, and they’re still going for a historic three-peat … and yet they’re something like the 27th most relevant story line right now. What happened?

It’s a combination of Heat fatigue (four solid years of people endlessly dissecting them), their glaringly obvious on/off switch (which they tried to keep to “off” for both Charlotte games), their undeniably bored crowds (is there a worse playoff game to watch on TV, from an atmosphere standpoint, than Miami when they’re heavily favored at home?), all the other terrific story lines (covered and overcovered in this column), and the inevitability of the Heat making a fourth straight Finals (thanks to the East collapsing around them). If Shonda Rhimes were writing the Heat’s three-peat season, she’d be sprucing things up by having Bob McAdoo plan Erik Spoelstra’s assassination, Siohvaughn Funches-Wade frame Gabrielle Union for a hit-and-run, and Chris Andersen finding out about LeBron’s affair with Michelle Obama and demanding $10 million cash by Wednesday. But real life is boring.

Q: If GM Doc and Coach Doc were two separate people, would they be feuding right now?

The odds would be dropping with every Jared Dudley DNP. Remember, GM Doc cashed in his best trade assets (Eric Bledsoe and Caron Butler’s expiring) for two perimeter guys (Dudley and J.J. Redick) on a defensively challenged team loaded with perimeter guys. By February, Redick was injured, Dudley had fallen out of favor, Bledsoe had become an emerging star, and the Clips didn’t have a juicy expiring to trade for a backup big like Brandon Bass, Spencer Hawes, Anderson Varejao or whomever. Coach Doc hates GM Doc almost as much as Actor George Clooney hates Director George Clooney.

Q: If Doc Rivers fought Jermaine O’Neal in Game 2, would that have been the greatest moment of 2014?

No — Pero Antic fighting David West would have been the greatest moment of 2014.

But I’m glad this came up. Once upon a time, the Celtics paid O’Neal $12 million over two years to be their backup big man. O’Neal played 24 games in 2011, then disappeared because of knee and wrist injuries. During the ensuing six-month lockout, he never bothered to get surgery for his left wrist — for reasons that remain unclear — then reinjured it two months into the lockout season. What happened next? He opted for season-ending surgery over, you know, playing in a little pain because that’s what you’re supposed to do when you make $6 million a year. The Celtics felt betrayed — and that’s being kind — but chose not to make it an issue publicly. After Ryan Hollins (yikes) and Greg Stiemsma (double yikes) had to play real minutes in the 2012 Eastern Conference finals (with Boston barely losing to Miami), and O’Neal complained that summer that he didn’t like being frozen out of Boston’s offense, that bitterness festered even more. I’d bet anything that Doc sees O’Neal miraculously flying around like he’s seven years younger in this Warriors-Clips series and thinks to himself, That’s the guy who quit on me two years ago. Could you blame him?

(In other words, don’t rule out Al Attles–Mike Riordan, The Sequel. Just know that Doc would need to charge the court and hit O’Neal over the head with a chair to beat out this 1993 Suns-Knicks donnybrook as “The Craziest Fight Involving Doc Rivers.” Also, you’ll never forgive yourself if you don’t click on those two links. I’ll wait.)

Q: Where does Pero Antic rank in the “NBA Players Who Should Absolutely Be Cast As the Bad Guy in a Hollywood Movie” power rankings?

I have it ranked like this …

3. Nik Pekovic: There’s an 81 percent chance he already fought Liam Neeson in one of the Taken movies, so he might be disqualified.

2. Chris Kaman: Nobody ever listened to me about casting Kaman as the killer in a Saw movie or a Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake, but isn’t there still time to make a low-budget horror movie about an aging NBA center who slowly loses his mind on a lottery team, snaps after a DNP and becomes L.A.’s most feared serial killer since Richard “The Night Stalker” Ramirez?

1. Antic: Whether he’s the head henchman in the Road House remake, Teddy KGB’s main bodyguard in Rounders 2, the head bad guy in Taken 3 … I really don’t care. If Pero Antic doesn’t have an IMDb page within three months, we’ve all failed.

Q: Is Chris Paul better than you think, worse than you think or exactly what you think?

Because it’s the Internet and people have to come up with stuff to talk about every day, you knew this list would start glowing in neon the moment Chris looked shaky in a playoff game …

Andrew Bynum: 10
Deron Williams: 4
Marvin Williams: 3
Channing Frye: 2
Chris Paul: 2
Andrew Bogut: 1
Ray Felton: 1

What happened? He helped blow Game 1 on Saturday, and naturally “What has Chris Paul ever won?” became a thing. So here’s a quick story: The following morning, Steve Nash dropped into our NBA Countdown vortex to shoot a few segments with us. During our preshow meeting, I mentioned that Paul was getting criticized for his Game 1 performance, and asked if it might affect someone even as good as Paul if something like “What has he ever won?” morphed into a national story line. What happened? Nash made a face and said, “Chris is the best point guard in the league, it’s not even close. When you have the ball in your hands all the time, you’re going to make mistakes sometimes.”

(The answer: Actually, Chris Paul is better than you think — as you saw last night, when he masterfully fouled Steph Curry on the game’s deciding play in a way that was never, ever, EVER getting called.)

Q: Will we ever figure out what happened to the 2014 Pacers? (Marc Stein)

It’s almost more fun NOT knowing. But I think we know. Here’s the pie-chart breakdown …

30 PERCENT: Pat Riley named it “The Disease of Me,” a chemistry-killing toxin that afflicts certain teams after they’ve hit it big. Once you start winning, everyone wants more money, more shots, more attention, more everything. What’s weird about the Pacers: This happened BEFORE they hit it big. It’s like they created a new strain called The Preemptive Disease of Me. But you know the nuts and bolts by now: Lance Stephenson thought he was an All-Star, Paul George thought he was a superstar, Danny Granger disappeared, the big guys stopped getting the ball … before you knew it, a selfless team started thinking selfishly.

20 PERCENT: Wore down because the starting five played too many minutes. In particular, George Hill looks dead tired and Hibbert actually might be dead.

10 PERCENT: No superstar scorer to stop the slide and say, “It’s OK, everybody, I got this.”

20 PERCENT: Actually, they had Lance Stephenson saying, “It’s OK, everybody, I got this.” And that’s even worse.

20 PERCENT: Are we sure they were ever that good? Last season, they won 49 games and had a plus-4 point differential in a lousy conference. They beat the Hawks in six and the Knicks in six, then took a tired Miami team to seven … and got blown out in Game 7. This year, they started out 16-1 with a cream puff schedule, won 33 of their first 40 against an East-heavy schedule, then stumbled to a 23-19 finish over their last 42. And as soon as they felt even a little adversity, they acted like Chris Christie right after the bridge scandal broke.

I’d say we overrated these guys except for one thing: From October 2011 through January 2013, Indiana’s starting five was consistently better than anyone else’s five. That was the single best thing about their team. It’s gone. And so is their chemistry. You know what was striking about last night’s Atlanta loss, other than that it’s absolutely unf’ingbelievable that THESE Pacers could blow a series to THESE Hawks? The Indiana guys look like they hate playing with each other — they’re interacting like divorced parents who just ran into each other at their son’s youth soccer game. It’s crazy. Yet another reason why I think I’m going to be drinking Bloody Marys in Washington, D.C., on Memorial Day weekend. With extra horseradish.

Q: But seriously … has there ever been anything like this Pacers collapse? In NBA history?

Not even close. We’ve seen short-window collapses, but never a three-month-long WTF extravaganza like this one. The Pacers were 33-7. That’s a 67-win pace! If they blow this Atlanta series, they’ll be the first team mentioned anytime a really good NBA team goes into an inexplicable swoon. Basically, they’ll be to inexplicable swoons what the ’72 Lakers are to winning streaks, the ’80 Hawks are to cocaine and the ’02 Blazers are to jail.

Q: Is Roy Hibbert tradable, sort of untradable, or totally untradable?

Working against Hibbert …

• He’s guaranteed $30.4 million combined over the next two seasons.

• He turned into Hasheem Thabeet about 10 weeks ago. Couldn’t Thabeet match Hibbert’s production since February 4 if he played 29 minutes a game? You’re telling me 8.6 points, 5.2 rebounds and 1.8 blocks and 39 percent shooting isn’t doable for Thabeet?

• He’s failing the Stat Test AND the Eye Test. He’s running like someone put razor blades in his Nikes. He’s a split-second slow on every rebound, every contested shot and every second-chance leap. During Game 1, Kyle Korver jumped over his right shoulder and pulled a rebound away from him. Kyle Korver! Roy Hibbert is 7-foot-2! What happened????

• I may or may not have gotten into a “Would you rather start a team with Drunk Vin Baker circa 2001 or Sober Roy Hibbert circa 2014?” argument this week. (The answer, clearly, is Drunk Vin Baker. Come on.)

• The Law of Mutombo tells us this: You never know when a tall center is about to lose it, but when they lose it, you know right away. Artis Gilmore gained the nickname “Rigor Artis” in the mid-’80s. Shaq turned into Mummified Shaq somewhere between Phoenix and Cleveland. Dikembe was kicking ass and wagging fingers right until the 2001 Finals, when Shaq turned him into a lumbering, uncoordinated, elbow-laden mass of uselessness. Even if Hibbert is only 27, what if this wasn’t a slump? What if the Law of Mutombo struck him early?

Working for Hibbert …

• He’s only 27. Artis and Shaq lost it in their mid-thirties. Mutombo lost it somewhere between 35 and 49. Kareem lost it at 42. Yao and Ralph Sampson lost it before 30, but only because of injuries. To our knowledge, Hibbert isn’t injured. Could he be worn down? Maybe a little depressed? Maybe a little bummed out by the Bynum signing? Maybe he’s not working hard enough off the court (as has been rumored)?

• Too many teams value (and overvalue) advanced metrics, which means at least two or three teams would value Hibbert’s rim protection numbers. If he’s standing in front of the rim and you’re driving to the basket, it’s hard to score. You just need to put him in that specific situation, and not situations like “chasing Antic out to the 3-point line” or “trying to catch Anthony Davis sprinting down the court.”

• You take a flyer on him in Year 1, and if it doesn’t work out, you have a big expiring in Year 2. Wouldn’t Charlotte and Dallas do this tomorrow? Wouldn’t the Celtics sniff around? Wouldn’t OKC have to consider something with Hibbert and Kendrick Perkins’s expiring as the principals? I refuse to believe he’s untradable. We were just celebrating him two months ago!

My conclusion: Yes, people will trade for Hibbert. (And yes, it says something about our fascination with 7-footers that I spent this much time writing about Hibbert and no time whatsoever writing about the equally horrendous George Hill.) But I liked how a reader named Trent in Indy summed up the Hibbert issue …

“You know when you drive your car and hear a weird sound, but ignore it? Then you hear it again louder, but you ignore it because you’re really busy? Then you hear it constantly, but you are now worried about the potentially big expense that might be represented by that sound, so you ignore it still? Then your car won’t start, so you take it to the shop and find out it’s even worse than you’d imagined, and so many expensive things are wrong with your car that you decide to fix the bare minimum of the problems in order to sell the piece of crap and make it someone else’s problem? That’s Roy Hibbert.”

Q: If the Pacers get bounced in Round 1, can you predict Lance Stephenson’s next team and next contract?

The Lakers. Two years, $17 million. No, I’m not trolling Lakers fans. I actually believe this one.

Q: Can you win the NBA title if you’re jacking up more than 25 3s a game?

History says no. In the 21st century, these were the best “high volume” 3-point-shooting teams that made a conference finals.

2012 Spurs (lost WC finals): 132-for-317, 41.6% (14 games)
2003 Mavs (lost WC finals): 184-for-463, 39.7% (20 games)
2011 Mavs (won Finals): 184-for-467, 39.4% (21 games)
2006 Suns (lost WC finals): 184-for-470, 39.1% (20 games)
2013 Heat (won Finals): 177-for-465, 38.1% (23 games)
2013 Spurs (lost Finals): 165-for-437, 37.8% (21 games)
2010 Magic (lost EC finals): 138-for-377, 36.6% (14 games)
2009 Magic (lost Finals): 201-for-559, 36.0% (24 games)

Of those eight: Only the ’06 Suns and ’12 Spurs averaged nine-plus made 3s, and only the ’10 Magic averaged more than 25 3s (26.9 to be exact). None of those teams made the Finals. And the two high-volume teams that won titles also had Hall of Fame creators who scored consistently on isolation plays (LeBron and Dirk). Can you win the title when you’re relying too heavily on 3s? Is that strategy this generation’s version of the run-and-gun Nuggets/Spurs/Blazers of the 1980s — effective for the regular season, increasingly ineffective in the postseason as the defenses get better and better? Houston’s carefree, bombs-away approach seemed so refreshing during the season and so dangerously reckless in the playoffs (at least so far). Same for the Knicks last spring.

Then again, the Blazers jacked up 50 3s in those first two Houston games.

Then again, that’s the point — they won because LaMarcus Aldridge was playing out of his mind, not because of the 50 3s. That reminds me …

Q: Did you know that, since 1985, only MJ, Magic, Shaq, Kobe, Iverson, T-Mac and Aldridge have scored 42-plus points in back-to-back playoff games?

I just furrowed my brow. You know what I loved about Aldridge’s explosion in those first two games, other than that Houston is paying a combined $30 million to Dwight Howard and Omer Asik next season and neither of them can guard Aldridge right now? He brought the midrange game back. Oh, wait, 200,000 other people on the Internet made that point already? Lemme tweak it: He reminded everyone that, even if long 2s are the Dorkapalooza community’s least favorite shot, everything slows down in the playoffs, defenses ratchet it up, and suddenly there aren’t as many open 3s and layups anymore. But you know what’s available? LONG TWOS! So when you have a big guy who can make them, it’s kind of an advantage.


Um … right?

(Crap, I just inspired a 2015 Sloan Conference paper called “Why Simmons Was Totally Wrong About the Added Value of Long 2s in Playoff Games.”)

Q: What’s crazier — that only three rookies cracked a 10-man rotation for a 2014 playoff team, or that those three rookies are Mason Plumlee, Steven Adams and Cody Zeller?

At some point, we’re going to need a computer to simulate a seven-game series between the 2000 Draft All-Stars and the 2013 Draft All-Stars to officially figure out the worst draft of all time.

Q: Can you remember any coach playing the “It’s Us Against Them!” strategy better than Mark Jackson?

Can’t you hear him in the locker room with this Clippers series slipping away? They’re trying to break us apart! They don’t respect what we have! The only people who matter are the people in this locker room! You don’t play for the owners, you don’t play for the media, you play for each other! And it’s working! I feel sorry for Jackson’s replacement; you know he’s going to be treated like the evil stepmother who ruined mom’s marriage. Regardless, I thoroughly enjoy the Mark Jackson era — he’s the first NBA coach to model his entire coaching style after 40 years of sports movie speeches on YouTube. Yes, that might be part of the problem, too. But anytime someone can lose two assistants AFTER the All-Star break and flip it to their advantage, you know they’re good.


Q: When Jeff Van Gundy takes five solid minutes during a Warriors-Clippers playoff game to defend Jackson’s coaching, point out his successes and call out the Warriors ownership and Jerry West for not sticking up for Jackson, he knows that we know he’s buddies with Jackson and worked with him on ABC and ESPN for years and years … right?

Yup. He knows. He was just being a good friend. I was just disappointed that it cut into the chances of Steve Javie breaking down the clear path foul for the 19th time.

Q: What point did the TNT guys make in Round 1 that you wish you’d thought of yourself?

Trust me, it wasn’t any of Shaq’s points about Dwight Howard. I loved when Charles and Kenny started joking about how KG hung around so long that he actually lost his nickname. Charles said something like, “You know it’s over because we’re just calling him ‘Kevin Garnett’ now.” I loved that one. It’s always a little sad when the nicknames get retired before the actual player retires.

Q: Is anyone on Miami better at basketball than they were a year ago?

Um … James Jones?

Q: Why do the Basketball Gods hate Al Jefferson so much?

Unclear. Kept getting injured in Boston. Blew out his knee in Minnesota right when his career was taking off. Got Kahnnnnnnnnned in the 2009 draft. Traded to Utah in 2010, right before the Deron Williams–Jerry Sloan situation blew up. Finally finds happiness in Charlotte, lucks out with a terrific coach, submits an All-NBA season (I voted for him for second team) … and right as he’s about to kick Miami’s ass for a few playoff games, he hurts his foot. If Big Al belonged to a Game of Thrones family, it would definitely be the Starks.

Q: You’re a sportswriter on the Internet — why haven’t you attacked James Harden yet? Didn’t you get the memo? It’s Attack James Harden Week.

Put it this way — I watched him take terrible 3s, shoot himself out of ice-cold stretches and treat defense like a nuisance for six solid months. You know what my reaction was? I voted for him for first-team All-NBA. He’s the league’s streakiest superstar. During the 2013-14 season, Harden did the following things …

• Missed 14 of 17 shots against Phoenix (including 0-for-10 from 3), then dropped 34 on Golden State two nights later.

• Missed seven of nine shots against Memphis, only he finished with 27 points because he made 22 of 25 FT’s.

• Went 2-for-9 against OKC, finished with eight points … and exploded for 38, 37 and 38 the next three games, respectively.

• Threw up 41, 10 and six with six steals against Portland just six weeks ago.

• From Game 70 through Game 81, he averaged 28.1 ppg, 8.3 apg, 5.1 rpg, 1.9 spg, 44-37-89% splits and made 10.5 of 11.8 FTA. Repeat: Harden MADE 126 free throws in 12 games.

• Starred in the viral sensation “James Harden, Defensive Juggernaut” — an 11-minute clip devoted to every terrible defensive play he made this season.

And now, it took only two playoff stink bombs for Harden to replace Russell Westbrook as the NBA’s most polarizing star. Really, he’s just another 90/10 star, as described in this 2012 Finals column — we appreciate Harden’s 90 percent (the good stuff) and tolerate the 10 percent (the annoying stuff), but occasionally, the 10 percent completely overpowers the 90 percent. That’s what happened in Game 1 and Game 2. Doesn’t make him a playoff choker. At least not yet. Harden’s history says he’ll go off in Game 3. That’s what streaky scorers do.

Q: Hey, Paul Pierce … I can’t remember, why did they bring you there? And what do you do again?

Q: How much pot should Boston fans smoke during Brooklyn’s playoff games to trick themselves into thinking that Pierce and KG still play for the Celtics?

You don’t need a ton — you just need to time it right for the beginning of the fourth quarter, right after the TV timeout at the 10-minute mark, to guarantee the THC kicks in during crunch time. Also, don’t forget to turn down the “COLOR” on your TV until it removes the color of everyone’s uniforms. THIS IS WHY THEY BROUGHT ME TO GRANTLAND! THIS IS WHAT I DO!!!!!

Q: What’s the best wager for a 2014 Finals matchup right now just from the standpoint of getting great odds?

You can still grab Spurs-Heat at +260 (which means you’d bet $100 to win $260) — that was my preseason pick and my pre-playoffs pick, and it’s still my pick because we’ve learned too many times that you can never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, EVER lose faith in the Spurs just because they stumbled for a second in Round 1. But from an odds standpoint? You gotta love Heat-Grizzlies at +2100. If Memphis gets by OKC, it’ll have the Clippers next, then probably the winner of Spurs-Blazers. Both winnable, right? The Grizzlies have had “The Look” (trademark: Mike Lombardi for a few weeks now) — they’re tough, they’re playoff-proven, they can get stops, and most important, they know who they are. And their four best players are playing REALLY well right now; they’re like the Bizarro Pacers in that respect. I would not be even remotely surprised if Jalen and I were eating Gus’s Fried Chicken in mid-June.

(FYI: If you put $100 down on a Wizards-Grizzlies Finals at 300-to-1 odds, you’d win $30,000 if it happened. Just throwing it out there.)

Q: It’s a bad sign for Brooks that Russell Westbrook’s brother tweeted during Game 3 that OKC needs a new coach, right?

It’s certainly not a GOOD sign. Another not-so-great sign: Our ESPN comrade Brian Windhorst tweeting during Game 3, “Grizzlies know all of OKC’s plays. When the 1st option is taken away the Thunder just shut down their offense.” Well, that sounds like a problem. You know what else was a problem? My reaction to that tweet was, “The Thunder have plays?” Either way, we’ve clearly hit a fork-in-the-road moment for OKC’s franchise — similar to Miami falling behind 2-1 in the East semis to Indy, soaking in all the “They might be done” buzz, then laying the smack down (and then some) with LeBron and Wade’s otherworldly 70-27-15 combo game. Even though Wade was brilliant in that game, that was also the day when LeBron gently grabbed the steering wheel from Wade (and never relinquished it). I love watching Durant and Westbrook, but Westbrook’s overcompetitiveness — the trait you want 99 percent of the time — actually hurts Oklahoma City because he’s saying “I GOT THIS!” way too much.

Put it this way: At some point, Michael Jordan never had to worry about Scottie Pippen saying, “Hey, everybody, I got this!” When you have the greatest and most efficient scorer of an entire generation — and that’s Durant right now, by every calculation — do you really want one of his teammates saying “I got this!” just as frequently? It’s starting to feel more and more like Durant and Westbrook might need their own teams. But that’s the best thing about Game 4: They could flip that narrative with one monster game in Memphis. Do they have their own everyone-needs-to-shut-the-eff-up 70-27-15 lurking in them? Welcome to this weekend’s most fascinating subplot … well, other than Indiana having basketball’s first-ever collective nervous breakdown. 


BILL SIMMONS is the editor-in-chief of Grantland and the author of the New York Times no. 1 best seller The Book of Basketball. For every Simmons column and podcast, log on to Grantland.

B.S. Report: Joe House APRIL 25, 2014
33 Burning Questions From Round 1 APRIL 25, 2014
B.S. Report: J-Bug and Bill’s Dad APRIL 22, 2014
B.S. Report: Zach Lowe APRIL 18, 2014
The World’s Most Exclusive Club APRIL 17, 2014



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barca doom

By: timbersfan, 10:52 PM GMT on April 25, 2014




The FC Barcelona Doom Metric
Quantifying the fall of soccer’s most beloved club

Earlier this week, during a raid in the port city of Alicante, Spanish police confiscated a batch of hallucinogenic chocolates that had been molded into the shape of the FC Barcelona crest. The chocolates, which were allegedly laced with marijuana and mushrooms, had been disguised as soccer-themed candies by the only person arrested in the operation, a master confectioner nicknamed “Willy Wonka.” The incident gave rise to a whole host of significant questions. For instance: Isn’t “Willy Wonka” pretty much the only possible nickname for any master confectioner freelancing in black-market drug work? Was there even a fallback option for this guy? Is “master confectioner baking controlled substances into candy products” the topic heading of basically the shallowest nickname pool known to humanity? Is the phrase “my candy guy, Willy Wonka” inevitably followed by a bemused chorus of “which one?” at drug-kingpin summits? How does the fraternal organization of master confectioners keep its narcotics mailers straight?

Anyway, as drug operas go, the downfall of Willy Wonka was maybe a few rails shy of Scarface. Where FC Barcelona was concerned, though, it felt portentous. For a half-decade and more, Barça’s tiki-taka soccer has been celebrated for — just listing some traits — evading capture, holding (the ball), and giving fans a sweet, relaxing, mildly psychedelic experience. This season, though, and especially in the last few weeks, soccer’s mellow darlings have cruised into uptight weather. It’s not hard to picture Xavi stirring a vat of bubbling cocoa butter while Iniesta peeks between the blinds at some ominously approaching red and blue lights.

What happened? In April, Barça lost three games in a row for the first time since 2003,1 were knocked out of the Champions League by their lesser Spanish rivals Atletico Madrid, lost to their blood enemies Real Madrid in the final of the Copa del Rey, dropped a league match to Granada (“the club your grandparents forgot about”), found themselves flirting with third place in La Liga, got hit with a 14-month transfer ban for breaking rules in signing foreign youth players, and watched Lionel Messi lapse into what almost felt like a normal human slump. While all this was happening, political infighting within the club’s board surged to Hilary Mantel–novel temperatures, the coach became a lame duck, and content providers around the world trampled over each other to get “Is this the end for the Barcelona dynasty?” content out.2

Well, is it? And if so, who’s to blame? Let’s take this point by point.


You could confidently date the arrival of Barcelona as the defining club of this soccer era to the moment in April 2007 when the 19-year-old Leo Messi scored this goal against Getafe. (How long ago was April 2007, by the way? Frank Rijkaard was the Barça coach. I’m pretty sure that means Tutankhamun was the pharaoh of Egypt.) Not only was it a work of physical genius in its own right, it was a near-perfect re-creation of the most famous goal ever scored by Messi’s fellow Argentine Diego Maradona; it was one of those moments in sports when sheer unlikelihood creates the impression of magic. Barça didn’t win the title that year, but there was already something about them that seemed supernaturally touched — the way they donated the space on the front of their jerseys to UNICEF, the way Messi had overcome a growth-hormone deficiency to become the world’s most promising young player. Their admittedly self-serving motto, “More than a club,” seemed hard to deny; you couldn’t classify them in the same group with any other soccer team. They were different.

Over the next seven years, Messi did something magical about twice a week. He scored 73 goals in 60 appearances in 2011-12, won 14 trophies in four years under Pep Guardiola, took home every individual award in soccer, and became, by a huge margin, the most adored player in the European game. Which is why this season has been such a shock: Nagged by injury3 and doubts about his ability to mesh with high-profile Brazilian signing Neymar, Messi has averaged less than a goal a game for the first time in three seasons. Before his winner against Athletic Bilbao last weekend, Messi had gone seven games without scoring a non-penalty goal, and that stretch included those key losses to Atleti and Real in the Champions League and Copa del Rey. So: Is Messi, at 26, in decline? Is it time for Barça to move him and build the squad around the younger, hotter, and more Rufio-from-Hook-resembling Neymar?

Verdict: Are you joking? You are joking. Messi has scored 39 goals in 42 games this season. He netted two the day he returned from the hamstring injury. And do you realize how ridiculous “he hadn’t scored a non-penalty goal for seven games until his winner against Athletic” is as the definition of a slump? Messi has been the best player in the world for the length of the 2010s. It is way, way, way too early to write him off.

Rating: 0 of 10 adorable Argentine teddy bears



Since signing with Barça for €57 million last summer, Neymar and his interesting hair have managed just 15 goals in 40 appearances. They’ve also spawned a prosecutorial investigation into the legality of his transfer fee that’s already taken down the club’s president.4 Maybe most troubling of all, he just sort of doesn’t look like a dude who would be comfortable playing second fiddle to Messi. (I know, #analysis, but if you think that sort of consideration isn’t the unacknowledged fuel behind a ton of forum debate, I have some hard evidence that Alex Ferguson isn’t actually an alcoholic to sell you.) He’s got slender bones and a pronounced cock-of-the-walk quality, like someone the Three Musketeers would realize they respected only after they’d already killed him.

Verdict: I’m not totally sold on Neymar as the future of European soccer, but he’s searingly talented and he’s trying to break into a club that — with its still-intact La Masia contingent — is not always accessible to outsiders. The critique that he’s been stifled by having to play in a system designed around Messi is in no sense a reason to dump Messi, but there might be enough truth to it to warrant giving him another season.

Rating: 2 of 10 horrorcore Daniel Boone faux-hawks

The Relentless March of Time

I first predicted the end of Barcelona in May 2011. Since then, the Catalans have won La Liga twice, a Copa del Rey, a Champions League title, and a FIFA Club World Cup; the Spanish national team, which features a core of Barcelona players, won Euro 2012. So there is a certain amount of evidence that I don’t know anything whatsoever. On the other hand, it was at least not plausible three full seasons ago to worry that time and wear were catching up to Barça’s midfield and defense. As of today, Xavi is 34, Carles Puyol is 36, Dani Alves is 30, and even some of Blaugrana’s younger players — say, the 29-year-old Andres Iniesta — have logged so many kilometers on deep runs into club and national-team competitions that their cartilage is nostalgic for music their parents grew up with. Is Barcelona just too old to compete?

Verdict: It’s complicated! Neither of tiki-taka’s twin pistons, Xavi and Iniesta, has been in peak form this season, and for Barça, a weary Xavi is worse than a red card. On the other hand, most of the squad isn’t old at all (Busquets, 25; Pique, 27; Fabregas, 26; Song, 26; Neymar, 22; et al.) and there’s a phalanx of eager 23-year-olds ready to bounce into war at a nod from the manager. It’s less the case that time has decimated the club than that time and a sometimes-wack transfer policy have left it a little unbalanced.

Rating: 4 of 10 winged hourglasses



OK, they were never going to replace Pep Guardiola. But Gerardo “Tata” Martino’s tactics have irked Barça socios in pretty predictable ways. He hasn’t shown Guardiola’s flair for cultivating youth players (weird, since Guardiola used to manage the youth team). He’s worn out the senior players by giving them too many minutes; he makes confusing substitutions. He’s willing to move away from tiki-taka if he thinks maybe holding the ball only 84 percent of the time and occasionally attempting a seven-yard pass gives his team the best chance to win. He’s reached into the club’s DNA and emerged with nothing but damp forearms, and all the while, he just stands there in the technical area, visibly not being Pep Guardiola, I mean audaciously just existing as a human being who probably wouldn’t even answer if you addressed him as “Pep”; it’s maddening. Is Tata to blame for the club’s disastrous April?

Verdict: It doesn’t matter, because he’s going to be fired no matter what happens, and that may ultimately be the biggest problem here. Part of what Guardiola gave Barça during his tenure was a respite from the sandstorm of manager panic that seems to assail just about every top club just about all the time. Every year until Guardiola announced he was leaving, they knew he would be running the team the next season, which meant not just freedom from some vaguely defined “distraction” but freedom from ego clashes and jockeying for influence over the direction of the team. But while Guardiola came in to the Barça job as an untouchable saint, Martino has been, from the very beginning, just a regular schlub in the office, and that, more than his tactics, has hurt the squad’s focus.

Actually, you could make the case that Martino’s tactics have been not so bad, because the weird thing is that Barça actually looked good as a counterattacking club. They beat Rayo Vallecano 4-0 early in the season while holding the ball less than their opponent, which is a little like saying the ’27 Yankees thrived playing small ball, or that yes, of course Brad Pitt looked better after the acid attack. It was only after sustained complaints about the direction of the club’s style that Martino tacked back toward Xaviball. And that was right around when everything started to go wrong.

Sub-verdict: Sports are extremely ridiculous.

Rating: 7 of 10 waterfowl plodding forward on crutches

The Board

I’m not even sure how to describe the Barcelona board in the wake of club president Sandro Rosell’s resignation over the Neymar transfer. It’s sort of like … well, remember your middle school lunchroom? Now set that on Westeros.

Verdict: Spanish businessmen do not always mean it when they tell each other they are friends.

Rating: 35 of 10 blood-spattered copies of Sweet Valley High: Wrong Kind of Girl

The Transfer Ban

It’s been suspended pending appeal, so the club will be able to sign new players this summer. But in general, breaking the rules on signing overseas youth players 10 separate times is kind of a dick move if you’re selling your brand as the embodiment of liberal enlightenment. You make your motto “More than a club,” you have to act with a certain uprightness. Probably why Real Madrid went with “Will cheat to win” instead.

Verdict: Uncertain, depending on the appeal. At least the club will be able to sign new players this summer to (1) shore up the defense, and (2) replace Puyol and goalkeeper Victor Valdes, who both want out after this year. On the other hand, I’m not sure this is the panacea some people are implying, given that the new players will be bought by many of the same inebriated burghers who crafted this mess in the first place.

Rating: ? of 10 flamboyant midfielders who have somehow failed to recapture the form they displayed with Dinamo Minsk last season

An Eroding Sense of Identity in a World That Doesn’t Care

In 2007, when Messi scored his wondergoal against Getafe, Barcelona was one of the last big European clubs to refuse corporate shirt sponsorship. Instead of taking a huge payday to shill for some fly-by-match-fixing betting site, the club donated the space on the front of its jerseys to UNICEF, which, even in the most worldly interpretation, was the kind of PR boost you couldn’t buy. Then, in 2010, it turned out you could buy it, and Barça accepted a €150 million deal with the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science, and Community Development — basically a fig-leaf transaction whereby the Qatari government purchased the club’s moral aura to help with its World Cup bid.5 Now, with new abuses in Qatar’s labor market coming to light seemingly every day, and as many as 1,200 Indian and Nepalese migrant workers already dead in World Cup construction, we’re watching a strange phenomenon play out at the Camp Nou every week: Soccer’s most admired club, which self-consciously stands for freedom and liberation, is advertising its ties to the worst offender in the sport.

Verdict: It’s not as though having a Qatar Foundation logo on the front of your shirt makes you run slower. But I’m not convinced that the increasing air of cynicism around Barcelona has no practical effect. The club’s golden era was special in part because it involved players who seemed to understand and believe in what FC Barcelona stood for. You can sneer at this, but that shared belief was at least partly the basis of the teamwork that made the club so formidable. Well, what does Barcelona stand for now? Having UNICEF on your shirt doesn’t make you league champions — but having it, then selling it, then watching as the hypocrisy of your club’s dealings is exposed gradually year over year? That has to make you at least a tiny bit more selfish, a tiny bit less willing to give yourself up to the cause. I’m talking about slivers of percents, maybe just the effect of enemy crowds chanting a fraction louder. But soccer at a high level is often decided by slivers of percents.

Rating: 3 of 10 long, slow sighs at the fallenness of the world


What’s happened to Barça, in other words, and also of course, has more to do with a complex interplay of factors than with any one cause.6 What you see, running down a list like this, is that, given the opportunity to buy new players, the chance to start over with a new coach next season, Messi’s impending return to form, etc., the on-pitch stuff still has a chance to be OK. It’s the other component of the Barcelona dynasty that may be lost forever. I mean the sense that the club isn’t just like everyone else. 


BRIAN PHILLIPS is a staff writer for Grantland.

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By: timbersfan, 8:39 AM GMT on April 25, 2014

Polarising Players: Wayne Rooney

By Iain Macintosh | April 22, 2014 8:00:27 PM PDT
As part of the build-up to the World Cup, ESPN FC presents a series of features on players who have divided opinion throughout their careers. It began with a look at Cristiano Ronaldo and continues with a profile of Wayne Rooney, arguably the most dominant English player of his generation.

"There's only one Wayne Rooney," sang England supporters once upon a time. Would that it were true. Sadly, for those lingering Anglo-Saxon hopes of summer glory, it has long been the case that there are in fact two Wayne Rooneys.

The first is the block-headed, shark-eyed man-child who burst onto the scene in 2002, whipping home a match-winning 30-yard shot past Arsenal's David Seaman. The Rooney who ripped through the 2004 European Championship like a tornado, laying waste to Switzerland and Croatia. The Rooney who took to every game like a child chasing daylight, desperate to get one more kick, one more goal, one more rush of adrenaline before the sun went down and his mother called him home for tea.

That Wayne Rooney was a once-in-a-generation player, a hybrid with the traditional English values of grit, application and sweaty underwear allied to the touch and technique of a rampant South American forward. He always seemed like something far more brutal than Paul Gascoigne. Where Gascoigne played, Rooney fought. Where Gascoigne grinned, Rooney grimaced. But they both shared the ability to dominate a game and to force their own agenda on the day.

And then came the other Rooney. A less agreeable sort altogether. A sulky, surly young man with a crimson face, huffing and puffing as the game escaped him. The Rooney who plodded through the 2010 World Cup and then returned to Old Trafford with all the control and morale of a particularly sad clown in particularly long shoes. No longer the effervescent street kid, now there was a haughtiness that seemed wholly out of place.

A transfer request was handed in because he didn't feel his Manchester United team-mates were good enough for him. It was withdrawn when his wages were doubled. Another transfer request was alleged (by Sir Alex Ferguson, no less) to have followed when the calibre of his team-mates was improved and suddenly he couldn't get a regular game. The patience of the United supporters began to wear thin.

When Rooney signed a new contract in 2014, there was little celebration; more a grudging acceptance that it was something that had to be done lest he walk away and join Chelsea for free.

"There was a genuine affection for Rooney before that first transfer request,' says lifelong United fan Nick Poole from Salford. "He was a scouser, but he was still seen as one of us, one of those players who really 'got' what United was all about."

Poole, who blogs and tweets about United's young prospects under the name @ManUnitedYouth, has no doubt as to what changed.

"After apparently trying to move to City and then Chelsea, he's tagged himself as a mercenary. It says a lot that even after 10 years and over 200 goals his departure would only cause any real consternation now if he left for a serious rival."

Rooney has always been a hard player to quantify. A prodigious scorer when deployed as a striker, he is also prone to deserting his post, clattering back into his own half to help retrieve possession. You can usually tell Rooney's state of mind by seeing where he is on the pitch. If he's on the shoulder of the last defender, he's happy and settled. If he's helping at right-back, he's livid.

"Personally, I've always seen Rooney as a second striker who likes to roam," says football executive and former scout Tor-Kristian Karlsen. "He comes deep to pick up the ball and get involved. With the energy he possesses, you cannot put him in a straitjacket, and you need to profit from his desire to get involved. That said, it doesn't mean he cannot be effective in other roles too. I'd probably prefer to see him as a central midfielder than a centre-forward."

Karlsen, who spent two years as sporting director and then CEO of AS Monaco, believes there would have been no shortage of suitors had Rooney wanted to play abroad.

"All the top clubs on the continent would have tried to sign him, had he been made available. But as the marriage has stayed reasonably happy, there was never any real chance of a foreign club buying him."

There have been, however, some dramatic swings in form. Prior to the last World Cup, Rooney hit 26 goals in 32 league appearances, forcing England manager Fabio Capello to move him further forwards. After his joyless summer exertions, rumoured to have been caused by the knowledge that a UK tabloid was about to humiliate him, he was a different player. A significantly worse player, in fact. He scored only a single goal, a penalty, in the remainder of 2010.

During the 2011-12 campaign, he was restored again and hit 27 goals in 34 league games. Yet the following year brought another slump. Just 12 goals in the league and a series of patchier and patchier performances, culminating in a horrible display at Upton Park in April that saw him substituted early, but not as early as he perhaps deserved.

Rooney's international record is profoundly underwhelming. After the shock and awe of 2004, his appearances on the largest stages were notable for his struggles with injuries and indiscipline. Arriving in Germany in 2006, still recovering from a toe injury, he was dismissed against Portugal when he used that toe, and the rest of the foot, to stamp on Ricardo Carvalho’s most tender regions.

In 2008, he was the mainstay of a team that repeatedly spurned chances to qualify for the European Championship. Then came the nadir of 2010 when it seemed that perhaps it wasn't even Rooney at all but a lookalike coaxed in from a nearby pub.

Rooney's utterly needless red card in the build-up to the 2012 European Championship saw him suspended for the first two games. When he arrived in the third game, he was clearly less than match-fit, though he did score a tap-in against Ukraine. It is 10 years since his heyday, and by thunder, it feels it.

"It seems churlish after all those goals, trophies and memorable moments, but it's hard not to be a little disappointed," says Poole. "Rooney has become a very good player, but not a truly great one; a fine 'numbers' player, consistently doing well in terms of goals and assists, but one who rarely provides genuine thrills or takes over a game. Somewhere along the way, perhaps due to lifestyle or burn-out, he's lost a step. The dynamism and adventure has dimmed; he's never quite become the creative fulcrum of the team. He could still be extremely effective as a relatively orthodox centre-forward, but you can't help thinking that's something of a waste when you think back to the teenager we saw terrorising defences a decade ago."

Somewhere underneath the clammy skin and hair plugs, there's no doubt that hulking teenage warrior still lurks, his pilot light still blazing within. His former manager at Man United, David Moyes, would be the first to agree that we haven't seen enough of the real Rooney this season. But if England are to have any hope of success this summer, that original Rooney will need to make himself known.

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By: timbersfan, 8:37 AM GMT on April 25, 2014

Polarising players: Luis Suarez

By Richard Jolly | April 23, 2014 6:57:49 AM PDT
As part of the build-up to the World Cup, ESPN FC presents a series of features on players who have divided opinion throughout their careers. It began with a look at Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney and continues with a profile of Luis Suarez, Uruguay's top star who has had quite a share of controversial moments in the past four years.

Luis Suarez is divisive. It comes naturally to him. He splits defences with piercing bursts, sharp turns that leave opponents running one way while he darts the other, and moments of incredible audacity. He polarises opinion like few other players in Liverpool’s storied history. His actions have prompted a flurry of apologies from Anfield and induced gasps of wonder.

He has defeated opponents almost single-handedly with a series of improbable strikes and denied them [in Ghana’s case in 2010] a World Cup semifinal place with a piece of spontaneous goalkeeping. He has wound them up, fallen down at the hint of contact, been found guilty of racially abusing one [Patrice Evra] and bitten two [Branislav Ivanovic and Otman Bakkal]. He has become the target for visiting crowds, whose chants have ranged from the offensive to the more lighthearted.

And yet the unusual thing about one of football’s great controversialists is the unanimity surrounding him. Excellence on the field is the surest method of securing sporting rehabilitation and it is impossible to deny Liverpool’s goal-a-game forward has had a superlative season. His reputation is in the process of reconstruction and he is the odds-on favourite to be named Footballer of the Year. It marks a remarkable turnaround after starting the season under a cloud while serving a suspension for biting Chelsea’s Ivanovic.

But that isn't the only bit of major controversy that Suarez has incited over the years. The first is the simplest to assess. His extra-time handball to deny Ghana’s Dominic Adiyiah a winner in the 2010 World Cup quarterfinal led to him being labelled a cheat. But, as Asamoah Gyan, who missed the subsequent penalty, said three months later: “If it was me, I would have done the same thing. He made himself a hero in his country.”

ESPN’s Uruguayan commentator Jorge Ramos believes Suarez has no case to answer. “He sacrificed himself for the team,” he told ESPN FC. “Whoever doesn’t understand that, doesn’t understand football.”

If the outcry was loudest in England, Ramos believes Suarez’s accusers were being hypocritical. “The British press criticised him for that,” he added. “Did you see how you won the 1966 World Cup? Have a look at the tapes.” [This is a reference to Jack Charlton’s handball on the line in the semifinal against Portugal, which wasn’t punished with a red card, although the penalty was scored by Eusebio, as England won 2-1.]

A recurring theme is the difference between Uruguayan and English attitudes. Suarez’s propensity to go to ground is a case in point. “There is always a cultural difference between you and us, between Uruguayans and British,” Ramos said. “When we were kids, we were taught you have to win. We always thought you had to be smarter than the opponent.”

For his compatriots, inducing a foul was an achievement. While Suarez was accused of diving against Manchester City on April 13 which, had referee Mark Clattenburg agreed, could have brought him a red card, the signs are that he is staying on his feet more. Indeed, that may have cost Liverpool another penalty in their 3-0 win over Manchester United in March.

Ramos added: “He is learning that in the country that you go to, you have to do what they do. That proves how smart he is.” His worry, he said, is that similarly honest behaviour could cost Uruguay in this summer’s World Cup.

The collision of Anglo-Saxon and Uruguayan values has been a regular theme. There have been times when, apart from the vocal Liverpool fans, Gus Poyet, now Sunderland manager but then in charge of Brighton, has been a lone voice in his compatriot’s corner. One such case was the 2011 incident involving United’s Patrice Evra, which brought Suarez an eight-game ban when the FA found him guilty of racial abuse.

The South American perspective is that Suarez is an agent provocateur, but not a racist. Ramos explained: “I can tell you he grew up with children with other skin colours and it was never a problem. For us, speaking as a Uruguayan, it is very common to go on the field and tell the opponent, ‘you have a fat belly’ or ‘you are a sissy’ or ‘your wife is betraying you with someone else.' He made a reference to the colour of his skin, but not with the intention of being racist.”

However, Ramos conceded: “It is one thing how you say it, and another how it is received.”

Suarez’s most recent brush with infamy came a year ago, when he bit Ivanovic. This time, Ramos believes, notoriety proved beneficial. “The British press and the world press showed him how wrong he was,” he said. “He needed some teaching that you cannot go over the line.”

Suarez was a repeat offender, biting PSV Eindhoven’s Bakkal in his Ajax days. “At that period, nobody was able to make the point that he could not do those things,” Ramos said.

The common belief is that a ferocious will to win has taken Suarez over the edge. Ramos describes Suarez as a nice guy, a family man and a grounded character. When he crosses the line, however, his competitive instincts are awakened.

“What you see in the games, you see in training,” Liverpool left-back Jose Enrique said. “He is completely the same. He tries for every ball, he tries everything. He is quite annoying.”

That determination may account for Suarez’s renaissance. “He is a role model of how to survive,” Ramos said.

While Brendan Rodgers has described his top scorer as mentally the strongest player he has managed, Ramos said it is a trait that dates back to his first club.

“He used to miss many goals for the Nacional team, sometimes open goals, so the Nacional fans used to boo him,” Ramos said. “He never quit, he trained and he proved how mentally strong he is.”

There is a parallel with his Liverpool career, even if the Anfield public have never turned on their idol. Suarez’s first 18 months on Merseyside were notable for some erratic finishing, veering between the wondrous and the wayward. Now he is more clinical and more prolific.

It is a reason why Steven Gerrard described him as the finest player he has lined up alongside. Suarez, with his constant quest for improvement, has had a transformative impact, both for his club and, along with two other world-class strikers, in his country. “You used to see shirts from Real Madrid and Barcelona,” Ramos said. “Now you go to Montevideo and you see shirts of Suarez, [Edinson] Cavani and [Diego] Forlan. They have changed things for the kids. They are role models.”

There are reasons why Suarez’s reputation matters in his homeland; why, perhaps, they are defensive about their most famous export. “We are a little country of 3 million people,” Ramos said. “Football and meat are what we sell.” Suarez sells, too: he deals in goals and headlines. He is hero to millions, villain to similar numbers.

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Updated: 8:39 AM GMT on April 25, 2014



By: timbersfan, 8:32 AM GMT on April 25, 2014




The Rookie
Brad Stevens’s educational first year in Boston, in focus

Some seasons ended last week. Some seasons ended badly. Some seasons ended badly, but in such a way that people actually rejoiced in how badly they ended. This is great fodder for barroom debate and talk-radio rhetoric. This was extraordinarily weird for the people whose livelihoods depend on having not too many seasons end badly, because that is how careers end badly. This was an extraordinarily weird time to coach, say, the Boston Celtics.

“There’s a couple different ways to look at it,” said Brad Stevens, after Boston had lost its last game of the season, badly, to the Washington Wizards on April 16. The Wizards, as they say, were “playoff-bound.” (Well, you would only say that if you were a sportswriter of the long-dead variety. Anyway, the Wizards are continuing to prosper, John Wall being one of the league’s great growth stocks at the moment.) The Celtics were … incredibly not.

“Are you going to get better in your role, or are you going to expand your role?” Stevens continued. “What I mean by that is: Are you going to get better at what you do well, or are you going to get better at some other things that make you, give you the chance instead of being the eighth guy to be the fifth? Or instead of being the fifth to be the third?”

The topic of tanking was delicately broached, in the context of Stevens’s building a team during a season after which almost everyone on the roster would be legitimate trade bait.

“They have a lot to play for. I think everything matters,” he said. “We talk about that as a team. That’s kind of the rallying cry going into the offseason: Every little thing you do matters … We’re all shooting for something, and every single day and every single effort you put into it matters toward achieving it. This is really not fun, to lose. We’ve had our moments of tasting winning against some good teams. We had our moments of letting some games get away, and you hope to learn from all of those and not let the bad things happen again.”

All season long, with one portion of his fan base frustrated by losing, and another (alas, larger) portion of his fan base delighted by it — because it meant a chance in the Joel Embiid/Julius Randle/WhoeverTheHellIItIs PowerBall Sweepstakes on May 20 — but with a remarkably substantial portion of fans still showing up for home games, Stevens remained as patient and as outwardly calm as could be. His head was so level you could bowl on it. He managed his young team without Rajon Rondo, and with him, however briefly. You could see the improvement in rookies like Phil Pressey, a feisty tumbleweed of a guard, and Kelly Olynyk, a lanky 7-footer with a lovely outside touch.

“The players see his work ethic, they see his integrity, and they see his intelligence, so I think he’s earned the respect of the team in a really difficult situation this year. And I know he’s going to get better,” said Danny Ainge, the Celtics president of basketball operations. “He’ll be better next year, and he’ll be better the next year. He’s a sponge.”

“When you first get the job,” Stevens said, “the tradition and the history kind of overwhelm you. But once you get into the job, it’s a job. What did impact me was the support this team has, not just in the city, but all over the country as we go into different venues. These fans are amazing. I’m not just saying that to say it. This is a unique fan base. And I told our guys that demands unique attention to detail. I kind of know how gripping it all is when on Opening Day, I’m on the road, and my wife calls me and my son comes home from school and says, ‘Turn on the Red Sox. It’s Opening Day.’ And we’ve been here since August.”

Stevens and this lot won 25 games — one in the dying seconds against Miami, a season highlight — and that was just fine with some of the people who kept showing up. This is a strange place for Stevens to be. Your future prospects depend on winning. Your whole professional being is geared to winning. And a great number of your team’s devoted followers are overjoyed about your losses. “The one thing that they never really did was splinter,” Stevens said. “Things like this [season] can splinter you pretty easily, and they stayed together pretty well, as far as standing up for one another, and being a team, and not pointing blame. It’s been a pretty good group from that regard, and that gives you a chance to improve.”

Said Stevens: “You don’t have that much time. I think the best thing I learned is that it’s not fun to not win, but it doesn’t define who you are or how you go about your business. So, one of the things that I’m probably most happy about with our team is that they didn’t change, necessarily, who they were. They didn’t let the losing, or the multiple losses, affect them or their approach. I hope that I was the same way … The part I felt most comfortable [with] was in the game, once we got used to the timeouts, and the 24-second clock.”

That’s probably the way you cope with it, if you’re a career coach who is only 37, and who has been a roaring success throughout your life. That is the way you cope with your first year in the NBA, where so very much is so very different, a strange world in which, yes, you can actually win for losing.


It is still hard to fathom how successful Brad Stevens was at Butler University, where his teams made two national championship games in a row, and where, in 2010, his Bulldogs came within the width of the rim of winning it all. Gordon Hayward’s half-court shot — and it was a shot, not a heave — rattled out against Duke and the tournament lost what would have been the one shining moment to outshine all the other shining moments. At Butler, he was a ludicrous 166-49 in six seasons. Last season, Butler’s first without Stevens since 2000, when he walked out of a job with Eli Lilly and showed up in the Butler basketball office as an unpaid assistant, Butler was 14-17. He won 11 more games than that with the Celtics.

“The biggest surprise to me,” he said, a few days before the season ended, “was the lack of practice time, and how little practice time you had in the preseason to get ready for the season. That’s the biggest difference that I can see, beyond the level of the talent and the 48-minute game and the 24-second clock and the obvious things.”

The perspective of the game accelerates as you move from a place like Butler to a place like Boston. So much of coaching college basketball involves teaching average players to be better. In the NBA, almost everyone you coach is as good as the best players you had in college, especially at a place like Butler, which was not exactly a Kentuckyish career fair on its best days. This is about making talented people — most of whom know how talented they are, and some of whom are positively delusional on the subject — realize and surpass limitations that many of them have never had to acknowledge before. (No, that killer crossover that stunned the IUPUI point guard is not going to work against Russell Westbrook. Or, in Stevens’s case, the scheme that befuddled Michigan State is going to fail against the Miami Heat because LeBron James is simply going to jump over it.) And you have to do it over 82 games wedged into seven months. Some people — like, say, former New Jersey Nets coach John Calipari — never catch up.

“You have to adjust,” Stevens said. “I feel like a teacher. You want to come up with your daily plan or your weekly plan for your professional teaching and those type of things, and you just have to expedite it all. You have to really adjust that clock, and you have to do it in different ways. You can’t do it in physical five-on-five situations all the time. Like, if we were to practice today, we wouldn’t have 10 guys. You’ve got to be able to do it in film, in walk-through. You’ve got to be able to do it by putting two coaches in it.”

He was, in every way, as much of a rookie as Pressey and Olynyk were, learning his new job while he was trying to teach them theirs, and all of it occurring on a learning curve shoved into hyperdrive. “The thing I love about rookies is trying to prove something every day. They’re trying to prove they belong,” he says. “It’s the intensity with which they go about their business.”

The last game the Celtics won at home was not quite a week before the last one they lost, which was also the last one they played. They came from behind on April 11 and beat the, yes, playoff-bound Charlotte Bobcats, 106-103, in a game in which Phil Pressey’s energy was the conspicuous engine behind the rally. He is a legacy; his father, Paul Pressey, was the player for whom Don Nelson invented the position of “point forward” with the Milwaukee Bucks. Pressey is shorter than his father; at 5-foot-11, he is a traditional point guard. Against Charlotte, he scored 10 points and rang up 13 assists in 39 minutes, and he finished the season more strongly than he began it as he filled in for Rondo, who pretty much lost the year to a knee injury. At one point against Charlotte, Pressey poked the ball loose, dove to the floor for it, and got Olynyk a layup, which set the arena on its ear. If this was tanking, let us make the most of it.

Due to Rondo’s unavailability, Pressey — whose early years were spent playing AAU ball in Boston, as well as at nearby Cushing Academy — has drawn his coach’s attention more closely than would most undrafted free agents. “He’s a bit of a riverboat gambler,” Stevens said. For himself, Pressey has watched his rookie coach learn the job as he learned his.

“It’s pretty neat, because he’s learning on the fly the same as me,” Pressey said. “I really feel like we have a good connection because, sometimes, he’s calling a play, and I’m calling a play at the same time. Since day one, he’s improved. A lot of the college rules are different from the NBA and, even though he studied on it, out-of-bounds plays he’s gotten better, defense he’s gotten better. He watches more film than I’ve ever seen. He has no choice but to get better every single day.”

Pressey is expendable this offseason, as is every player on the Celtics roster, as Ainge seeks to rebuild in a hurry. Central to that, of course, will be whatever player it is that pops out of the claw machine in the lottery, which was why it was possible, in this very strange first year of Brad Stevens’s professional career, that the Celtics could win for losing. 


CHARLES P. PIERCE is a staff writer for Grantland and the author of Idiot America. He writes regularly for Esquire, is the lead writer for Esquire.com's Politics blog, and is a frequent guest on NPR.

The Rookie APRIL 24, 2014
Mistakes Were Made APRIL 9, 2014
Forever Young MARCH 31, 2014
Vote Hoiberg MARCH 24, 2014
The Pride of the SWAC MARCH 17, 2014



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timbers schedule 2014

By: timbersfan, 8:25 AM GMT on April 25, 2014

3/8 7:30PM PST
MLS Regular Season
at Providence Park Portland 1 - 1 Philadelphia
3/16 12:00PM PDT
MLS Regular Season
at Providence Park Portland 1 - 1 Chicago
3/22 3:00PM PDT
MLS Regular Season
at Dick's Sporting Goods Park Colorado 2 - 0 Portland
3/29 5:30PM PDT
MLS Regular Season
at Toyota Stadium FC Dallas 2 - 1 Portland
April, 2014

Date Home Team Away Team
4/5 12:00PM PDT
MLS Regular Season
at Providence Park Portland 4 - 4 Seattle
4/12 7:30PM PDT
MLS Regular Season
at Providence Park Portland 1 - 1 Chivas USA
4/19 6:30PM PDT
MLS Regular Season
at Rio Tinto Stadium Real Salt Lake 1 - 0 Portland
4/27 12:00PM PDT
MLS Regular Season
at BBVA Compass Stadium Houston vs Portland
Watch on KPTV
Click the "Fly Alaska" button to receive 10% off your flight to this match on Alaska Airlines (promo code: EC4728)
May, 2014

Date Home Team Away Team
5/3 7:30PM PDT
MLS Regular Season
at Providence Park Portland vs D.C. United
Presented by TriMet
5/11 11:30AM PDT
MLS Regular Season
at Providence Park Portland vs Los Angeles
Watch on NBC Sports Network
Presented by adidas
5/17 7:30PM PDT
MLS Regular Season
at Providence Park Portland vs Columbus
5/24 4:00PM PDT
MLS Regular Season
at Red Bull Arena New York vs Portland
Click the "Fly Alaska" button to receive 10% off your flight to this match on Alaska Airlines (promo code: EC4728)
5/28 7:30PM PDT
MLS Regular Season
at StubHub Center Chivas USA vs Portland
Watch on KPTV
Click the "Fly Alaska" button to receive 10% off your flight to this match on Alaska Airlines (promo code: EC4728)
June, 2014

Date Home Team Away Team
6/1 6:00PM PDT
MLS Regular Season
at Providence Park Portland vs Vancouver
6/7 7:00PM PDT
MLS Regular Season
at Rio Tinto Stadium Real Salt Lake vs Portland
Click the "Fly Alaska" button to receive 10% off your flight to this match on Alaska Airlines (promo code: EC4728)
6/11 7:00PM PDT
MLS Regular Season
at Providence Park Portland vs FC Dallas
Watch on ESPN2
6/27 8:00PM PDT
MLS Regular Season
at Providence Park Portland vs Sporting KC
Watch on KPTV
Presented by CenturyLink
July, 2014

Date Home Team Away Team
7/4 8:00PM PDT
MLS Regular Season
at StubHub Center Los Angeles vs Portland
Watch on NBC Sports Network
Click the "Fly Alaska" button to receive 10% off your flight to this match on Alaska Airlines (promo code: EC4728)
7/13 7:00PM PDT
MLS Regular Season
at CenturyLink Field Seattle vs Portland
Watch on ESPN2
Click the "Fly Alaska" button to receive 10% off your flight to this match on Alaska Airlines (promo code: EC4728)
7/18 8:00PM PDT
MLS Regular Season
at Providence Park Portland vs Colorado
Watch on NBC Sports Network
Presented by Daimler
7/27 5:00PM PDT
MLS Regular Season
at Stade Saputo Montreal vs Portland
Click the "Fly Alaska" button to book your flight to this match on Alaska Airlines
August, 2014

Date Home Team Away Team
8/2 11:30AM PDT
MLS Regular Season
at StubHub Center Los Angeles vs Portland
Watch on NBC
Click the "Fly Alaska" button to receive 10% off your flight to this match on Alaska Airlines (promo code: EC4728)
8/6 6:30PM PDT
International Friendly
at Providence Park MLS All-Stars vs FC Bayern Munich
2014 AT&T MLS All-Star Game
8/9 7:30PM PDT
MLS Regular Season
at Providence Park Portland vs Chivas USA
Watch on KPTV
Presented by KeyBank
8/16 4:30PM PDT
MLS Regular Season
at Gillette Stadium New England vs Portland
Watch on KPTV
Click the "Fly Alaska" button to receive 10% off your flight to this match on Alaska Airlines (promo code: EC4728)
8/24 2:00PM PDT
MLS Regular Season
at Providence Park Portland vs Seattle
Watch on ESPN2
Presented by Parklane Mattresses
8/30 7:30PM PDT
MLS Regular Season
at BC Place Vancouver vs Portland
Watch on KPTV
Click the "Fly Alaska" button to receive 10% off your flight to this match on Alaska Airlines (promo code: EC4728)
September, 2014

Date Home Team Away Team
9/7 2:00PM PDT
MLS Regular Season
at Providence Park Portland vs San Jose
Watch on ESPN2
Presented by Prograss
9/13 6:00PM PDT
MLS Regular Season
at Dick's Sporting Goods Park Colorado vs Portland
Watch on KPDX
Click the "Fly Alaska" button to receive 10% off your flight to this match on Alaska Airlines (promo code: EC4728)
9/20 2:00PM PDT
MLS Regular Season
at Providence Park Portland vs Vancouver
Watch on NBC Sports Network
9/27 10:00AM PDT
MLS Regular Season
at BMO Field Toronto FC vs Portland
Click the "Fly Alaska" button to book your flight to this match on Alaska Airlines
October, 2014

Date Home Team Away Team
10/4 8:00PM PDT
MLS Regular Season
at Buck Shaw Stadium San Jose vs Portland
Watch on NBC Sports Network
Click the "Fly Alaska" button to receive 10% off your flight to this match on Alaska Airlines (promo code: EC4728)
10/8 7:30PM PDT
MLS Regular Season
at Providence Park Portland vs San Jose
10/17 7:00PM PDT
MLS Regular Season
at Providence Park Portland vs Real Salt Lake
Watch on NBC Sports Network
10/25 5:30PM PDT
MLS Regular Season
at Toyota Stadium FC Dallas vs Portland
Click the "Fly Alaska" button to receive 10% off your flight to this match on Alaska Airlines (promo code: EC4728)
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bs club

By: timbersfan, 11:40 AM GMT on April 18, 2014


The World’s Most Exclusive Club
Plenty of rich people can buy a plane or an island, but only 30 of them can say they own an NBA franchise

There’s a great scene in North Dallas Forty, from all the way back in 1979, when the owner of a fictional football team is watching practice with business associates. He worries aloud about his team’s playoff chances, so one of them responds, “Christ, you make more with your manufacturing division in one week than you do on this goddamned football team in the whole year, even if they DO win.”

And the owner laughs and says, “That’s true … but my manufacturing division never got the cover of Time magazine.”

That says everything you ever wanted to know about owning a sports franchise. Every winter, Forbes diligently determines the “value” of every NBA team using common-sense variables,1 only we’re dealing in a world without common sense. As I predicted on Friday, hedge-fund billionaires Marc Lasry and Wes Edens agreed to purchase the Milwaukee Bucks for $550 million on Wednesday. Forbes recently pegged the Bucks at $405 million, so the magazine was off by 36 percent. Thirty-six percent! That probably goes for every evaluation on that list.

Meanwhile, Milwaukee made history Wednesday by breaking the NBA purchase-price record while also serving as our new floor for “here’s the lowest number anyone is getting for a 2014 NBA franchise.” What did Lasry and Edens agree to purchase? A small-market team, no franchise star, no state-of-the-art arena, a 25-year legacy of losing (save for 2001), apathetic and tortured fans, Larry Sanders’s entire TMZ archive, O.J. Mayo’s buffet bills, black-sheep brother status in the local sports scene … I mean, they basically landed the Greek Freak, a top-three lottery pick, some revenue-sharing money and a chance to tell people they own an NBA team while secretly hoping they don’t ask “Which one?”

But you can’t rationally assess the “value” of anything when ego is involved. What’s the value of sitting courtside as everyone watches YOUR team? What’s the value of having an NBA superstar laughing at your jokes, treating you like you’re the president and pretending you’re his buddy? What’s the value of walking into a restaurant in Italy and telling the maître d’, “I’m the owner of the Los Angeles Lakers, I’d like a table”? What’s the value of having a potential business partner say to you, “Hey, I heard you own the NBA team that has Durant and Westbrook”?

What’s the value of having a real chance of being handed the Larry O’Brien Trophy – as you’re being watched by 20 million people, as you’re surrounded by famous athletes, as you’re about to be covered in champagne — before you begin screaming in delight and waving the trophy in the air?

What’s the value of walking down the street, having a fan nervously approach you … and then watching tears well in his eyes as he graciously thanks you for saving his team?

I don’t know how you can “assess” that stuff. Did you know who Josh Harris was five years ago? What about Vivek Ranadivé or Joe Lacob? Purchase an NBA franchise and you’re joining the most exclusive of rich guy clubs — you can sit courtside, puff out your chest and feel super, duper, duper, duper rich. Of course, those intangibles aren’t nearly as enjoyable if you’re losing money. To paraphrase something a league official told me recently, Once these guys buy a team, they don’t want to keep writing checks after they already wrote THE check. Even losing a million dollars in one season really bothers them. These are competitive guys that are used to making money. Everyone forgets that part.

So that was the conundrum: NBA teams are clearly ego purchases, but rich guys hate losing money … and that’s about ego, too. In 2010 and 2011, six NBA franchises sold or changed hands, and another four were practically thrown on Craigslist.2 That’s one-third of the league. A steady stream of billionaires crunched numbers and came to the same conclusion: Unless it’s a killer market, the NBA isn’t a good investment. During 2011’s lockout, Philly sold for a measly $280 million as the league frantically looked for a New Orleans buyer (and didn’t find one).

Everything flipped in December of that year, after the NBA negotiated an owner-favorable collective bargaining agreement (and then some) that included a 50-50 revenue split, shorter long-term deals and a more punitive luxury tax system, as well as a pay-per-view event in which David Stern and Adam Silver poured Dom Perignon on each other’s heads and danced over the ruins of Billy Hunter’s career. Fine, I made that last one up. From there, everything kept breaking the NBA’s way. In no particular order …

• The economy rebounded (at least in rich guy circles).

• LeBron became the league’s most famous and talented superstar since MJ, right as we suddenly had the deepest pool of under-27 stars in 20-plus years.

• The 2013 Finals went down as one of the greatest Finals ever, followed by a LeBron-Durant rivalry emerging that could and should carry the rest of the decade.

• Americans stopped caring about PEDs and started worrying about concussions right when everyone should have started worrying about PEDs in basketball (a sport that rarely has any concussions).

• The YouTube/broadband/iPad/GIF/Instagram/Twitter era turned basketball into a 24/7  fan experience — just the ideal sport for the Internet era, the kind of league in which your buddies email you a bizarre Kobe Bryant tweet, an endearing Spurs team selfie and a ridiculous Blake Griffin dunk GIF in the span of three hours (and by the way, that happened to me yesterday).

• A new multimedia rights deal is coming soon … and it’s going to easily double the current deal.

(Repeat: easily double it.)

And I didn’t even mention basketball grabbing the no. 2 spot behind soccer as the world’s most popular sport. I’m not sure when it happened, but it happened. Buy an NBA franchise in 2014 and deep down, you’re thinking about stuff like, I wonder if fans from 250 countries will be paying for League Pass 20 years from now? Throw in the other breaks and that’s how you end up climbing from here …

June 2011: Detroit, $325 million
October 2011: Philly, $280 million
June 2012: New Orleans, $338 million
October 2012: Memphis, $377 million

To here …

May 2013: Sacramento, $534 million
April 2014: Milwaukee, $550 million

Even if the NBA didn’t always favor leaguewide democracy like the NFL does, it’s definitely heading that way. Just look at Oklahoma City, one of the league’s tiniest markets. Fans around the world buy Durant’s Thunder jersey, follow his tweets, click on his Instagram photos and watch his 40-point explosions … and it wouldn’t matter if he were playing for Oklahoma City, New York or East Bumfart. Every time OKC plays in Los Angeles, I find myself astounded by the number of Durant and Westbrook jerseys floating around. Kids in Southern California wearing Oklahoma City jerseys??? What???

The SuperSonics’ still-indefensible Oklahoma City move inadvertently changed the business of basketball, proving the right star (or stars) could transform a team in the smallest market into a marquee juggernaut. We wondered if that was true during LeBron’s aborted prime in Cleveland, but Durant and Westbrook eliminated any and all doubts. It doesn’t really matter where they play, just like it doesn’t really matter where Anthony Davis plays, and it doesn’t really matter who drafts Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker.

The OKC hijacking also created the league’s first extortion city — Seattle, the NBA’s version of L.A.’s Potemkin NFL franchise. These days, the mere threat of Sonics 2.0 can get a state-of-the-art arena built in other markets and bump up bidding wars by $100 million–$125 million. It’s hard to call multibillionaires “tragic” figures, but frustrated kajillionaires Steve Ballmer and Chris Hansen are the greatest owners the NBA never had. They made a shockingly lavish offer for the Kings (nearly $800 million if you added everything up)3 and the biggest offer for the Bucks (more than $600 million, from what I heard). Two committed billionaires desperately trying to bring the NBA back to a passionate market, willing to spend their own money on an arena and knowing they can fill every suite and courtside seat … and they can’t get a team? Incredible.

Ballmer and Hansen deserve praise for resisting the temptation to pull an OKC — in other words, they could have pretended to save the Bucks, waited a year or two, then stabbed Milwaukee in the back like Clay Bennett and Aubrey McClendon shanked Seattle. Maybe they knew Herb Kohl, a former politician who has spent his life dealing with chicanery, would sniff that ploy out. Senator Kohl never wanted to be remembered as The Guy Who Killed Basketball in Milwaukee. Instead, he’ll be remembered for the following things other than, you know, being a senator:

A. Buying the Bucks for $18 million in 1985, then selling them for a record $550 million only 29 years later. That’s incredible.

B. Presiding over a 26-year run from 1989 to 2004 in which the Bucks had only ONE memorable team and may have even left the league for a couple of years without anyone noticing. Also incredible.

C. Heroically keeping the Bucks in Milwaukee … even though they were a threat to leave Milwaukee because he did such a poor job owning them, but still.

D. Generously donating $100 million to the city of Milwaukee on his way out, either for a new arena or as an apology for his last 39 free-agent signings (it’s unclear).

Did you ever think the Bucks sale would turn into a feel-good story? Remember, 30 months ago nobody on the planet wanted New Orleans. This month, we had multiple bidders chasing the league’s worst team — as many as six, according to my sources — with the winners prevailing thanks to deep pockets and a pledge to keep the Bucks in Milwaukee (even earmarking an extra $100 million towards a new arena). So the league flipped its supply-and-demand situation: Right now, it has a slew of potential buyers and nobody for sale. This has never, ever, EVER happened before.

In general, the disparity between the haves and the have-nots seems to be closing fast. Milwaukee fetched $100 million more than Golden State four years ago. The belatedly appreciated Spurs drew a 10.4 rating for 2013’s Finals against Miami, comparable to Lakers-Celtics in 2010 (10.6) and nearly 150 percent higher than Cavs-Spurs in 2007. And what about Dwight Howard jumping from the Lakers to the Rockets? Would that have ever happened 10 years ago? It doesn’t matter where you play anymore. Stars are more likely to gravitate toward great owners and great situations than great cities. That’s a good thing.

So, are 30 franchises enough? The NBA could command $800 million easily for Seattle’s expansion team — awarding about $27 million to each owner — but there’s concern within Adam Silver’s circles that there isn’t quite enough talent to support a 31st team. Did you follow Tankapalooza 2014? If you watched the Lakers defend pick-and-rolls with Bob Sacre and Kendall Marshall, or you ever uttered the words, “I kind of like Henry Sims,” you know what I mean. We don’t need MORE basketball teams, at least anytime soon. That means Seattle will remain Extortion Ground Zero for the foreseeable future.

Speaking of Silver, I liked how he handled a legitimately complicated situation.4 Within two weeks of becoming commissioner, Silver pressured the Bucks to settle its arena situation by 2017. But these weren’t the same life-or-death stakes like in Sacramento: Without the Kings, Sacramento would have transformed into Just Another City In California; without the Bucks, everyone in Milwaukee would move on to the Packers, Brewers and Marquette basketball without blinking. That’s a big difference. Silver also had the Seattle kajillionaires lurking, and he never knew if the 79-year-old Kohl might change his mind. Remember, Kohl splurged for O.J. Mayo, Zaza Pachulia and Gary Neal last summer. All bets are off with that guy.

At some point, Lasry and Edens entered the picture. Lasry is the CEO of Avenue Capital; Edens is the cofounder of Fortress Investment Group. They kept everything eerily quiet; even on Thursday night, one day before I wrote that they were probably getting the team, there wasn’t a single Google result about them pursuing any sports franchises. (Believe me, I looked.) Personally, I enjoyed these guys because their names make them sound like lead singers of a soft rock band from the early ’80s that definitely would have toured with Kenny Loggins and Christopher Cross. Kohl liked them, too. You know the rest.

So, if Milwaukee is worth $550 million, then what’s everyone else worth? I spent the past 10 days asking various People Who Know Things that question. The consensus: Both the Lakers and Knicks would fetch Dodgers money (more than $2 billion, easy). It would take something in the $1.7 billion range just to grab Jerry Reinsdorf’s attention for a Chicago conversation, or for Donald Sterling to string you along for the Clippers before turning you down. Mark Cuban (Dallas), Micky Arison (Miami) and Wyc Grousbeck (Boston) aren’t listening unless the conversation starts at $1.3 billion. And Lacob and Harris would double their Warriors and Sixers investments from four years ago. Easily.

You know what’s amazing? Bennett and McClendon could sell Oklahoma City for $850 million–$900 million right now, if only because they have two of the league’s biggest assets: Jeremy Lamb and Steven Adams. (Sorry, I had to.) But can you put a price on sitting courtside for Thunder games in the Finals as The Guy Who Owns The Team With Durant And Westbrook? Again, what’s that worth? It makes the dynasty-crushing Harden trade and OKC’s refusal to pay the luxury tax even more infuriating — on the one hand, they’re pinching pennies, and on the other hand, they could triple their investment tomorrow. God, this makes me ornery. They don’t deserve Durant.

The consensus dark horse for “The Next Team To Quietly Get Shopped”? None other than the Pistons, purchased by Tom Gores just three years ago for the belated steal of $325 million. Gores kept living in Beverly Hills over moving back to Michigan, allowed the Joe Dumars era to degenerate into a debacle, and generally acts like one of those eBay buyers who keeps forgetting to give you feedback. Even if he’s not shopping the Pistons, there’s a general belief that he wouldn’t hate the idea of flipping them, doubling his investment and never thinking about Josh Smith or Brandon Jennings again. If Gores makes John Calipari a Phil Jackson–type offer to run everything — and by the way, don’t rule this out — that would be a fancy way of saying, “We’re briefly relevant again. I’m ready to sell!”

Then again, Gores would be insane to sell right now. In case you missed it, the Bucks and Kings just commanded a combined $1.085 billion on the open market without anyone knowing how high the next media-rights deal might climb.


If you pretend the NBA is an exclusive beach on Turks and Caicos, it makes more sense. Let’s say it’s the single best beach in the world, and it can only hold 30 houses. Let’s say some of the houses are bigger and prettier than others, only all of them have the same gorgeous ocean view. And let’s say all 30 owners feel strongly that their investments will keep improving, barring a collapsed stock market or an unforeseen weather catastrophe, of course. Does it really matter if you bought one of the ugliest houses on that beach? Don’t you just want to crack the 30? You can always knock the house down and build a better one … right?

That’s the National Basketball Association in 2014. Who wants to be on the hottest beach? What will you pay? How bad do you want it? Get one of those 30 houses and you can invite your friends down for the weekend, show them around, make them drinks and eventually head out to your deck. And you can look out and watch the sun slowly setting, and you can hear the water splash, and you can hear your friends tell you, “I love the view, it’s spectacular.” Because right now, it is.

For these evaluations, Forbes relies on categories like revenue, operating income, debt/value, player expenses, gate receipts, wins-to–player cost ratio, revenue per fan, metro area population, value of the market, value of the stadium and value of the brand, then cooks everything together into a franchise value stew. ^
Purchased in 2010 and 2011: Charlotte, Brooklyn, Golden State, Washington, Detroit and Philly. Shopped: Sacramento, Minnesota, New Orleans and Memphis. ^
The offer: $420 million for 72 percent of the team, a $115 million relocation fee (to be divided by the other 29 owners) and $200 million for repaid bonds toward a new Seattle arena (along with the $80 million they had already spent on land). ^
Full confession: I’m an unabashed Adam supporter. He’s an exceptionally smart guy and a big basketball fan, and he treats everyone around him with respect — unlike, say, other people who have run the NBA in the past 30 years. ^


zl awards

By: timbersfan, 12:10 AM GMT on April 17, 2014

NBA Awards Season
Another year of basketball is just about in the books, so here is a look at one man’s ballot

Another overlong regular season is about over, meaning it’s time to pause ahead of the playoffs and hand out the NBA’s annual awards. Three notes on the choices that follow:

• Mr. Simmons has seen to it that I have a real ballot for the first time. These choices come straight off said official ballot. They count. That is scary.

• As always, I’ve weighed every piece of information available — basic and advanced statistics of all stripes, extensive film-watching, team success, roster construction, and conversations with some of my favorite sources across the league.

• Availability matters, to a point. Once a player misses 20 games, it becomes hard to choose that player over a roughly equivalent guy who played the whole season.

With those bits of context out of the way …

Most Valuable Player

1. Kevin Durant
2. LeBron James
3. Stephen Curry
4. Joakim Noah
5. Blake Griffin

This isn’t a blowout, nor a case of voter fatigue. The notion that Durant has propped up a lesser supporting cast in comparison to LeBron is overblown. The numbers mostly favor Durant, but you can find some, including ESPN’s new real plus/minus, that identify James as the league’s best player. And LeBron, when fully engaged, is indeed still the best player on earth. Peak LeBron is a more disruptive defender — fearsome on the ball, stronger in the post, capable of elite rim protection. Durant is the better shooter, but LeBron with the ball in his hands can bend defenses in more varied and severe ways. A LeBron post-up is probably the league’s most dangerous play — a vehicle for LeBron to bash his way to the rim, read layers of responding help defense, and fire bullet passes that zoom ahead of those help rotations.

Durant is the NBA’s most polished scorer, but he’s not in LeBron’s league as a passer, and he remains mostly an outside-in creator. The Thunder’s vanilla offense and spacing issues place artificial limits on the variety in Durant’s game, and the guy is still just 25. Still, he has been better than James this season. The Thunder leaned upon Durant to soak up a larger share of the team’s possessions than ever before, and Durant somehow maintained his ludicrous efficiency — 50 percent from the floor, 40 percent from 3-point range, and nearly 90 percent from the line. He improved on the pick-and-roll, blowing away his previous career-best passing numbers. Durant was uneven in the clutch by his standards, but some of that falls on Scott Brooks, and Durant still nailed a pile of big buckets. He will become just the eighth player to put up a player efficiency rating of 30 or higher in a single season.1

Durant was a better defender than James this season, an unexpected turn. He can still lunge himself out of position in help-and-recover situations, but his giant wingspan and effort level make up for a lot of those spacing hiccups. He’s a menace closing out on shooters, and forget about scoring on him one-on-one; opponents have shot just 28 percent in isolations against Durant this season, per Synergy Sports.

LeBron’s defense has slipped, likely because he’s coasting. He hasn’t been as steady closing out on shooters; opponents have routinely blown by him for drives into the teeth of Miami’s defense. He hasn’t challenged shots at the rim with the same viciousness, or tracked his own assignment off the ball with the same care. And yet: He’s shooting 57 percent, with a player efficiency rating just shy of the magical 30 mark.

Goddamn, these two guys are great. But Durant has been better.

Atlanta Hawks v Minnesota Timberwolves

MVP Also-Rans

Filling the rest of the ballot is an arduous task. Kevin Love and Dirk Nowitzki were the two most painful omissions, and it’s easy to make a case for either as worthy of a spot.

Leaving them off while including Curry was especially difficult. Curry, Love, and Nowitzki all present the same basic case: “Our offense dies without me.” All three are minus defenders.

But Curry is easier to hide on defense. He’s little, and defends far from the rim — the most important terrain. He had Andrew Bogut behind him (before losing him to a rib injury), and the presence of Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala allows the Warriors more flexibility in shifting Curry around to the least threatening opposing perimeter player. Love and Nowitzki are both better defensively than their reputations might suggest, but Nowitzki has lost a step, and hiding an uneven big-man defender is just harder.

More to the point: The Warriors have scored 109.7 points per 100 possessions when Curry plays and 93.2 when he sits, per NBA.com. The first number would lead the league. The second would fall 3.5 points behind Philadelphia’s pathetic offense. Opponents have outscored Golden State by 5.5 points per 100 possessions when Curry sits. He’s the best shooter in the league, and though he can still fling some crazy highlight-seeking passes at bad moments, Curry has proven a clever distributor.

The story of Golden State’s season is that it hasn’t found any workable alternative to “just give Curry the ball and let him do stuff,” and yet it somehow still doesn’t give Curry the ball enough. He is the offense, as currently constructed. James Harden has had a similar season in Houston, but the Rockets have another star to rely upon in Dwight Howard.

Minnesota’s scoring drop-off when Love sits is nearly as dramatic as the Curry Cliff. The Mavs’ offense sustains well in comparison when Dirk hits the bench: 110.3 points per 100 possessions with Dirk on the floor, and a very healthy 106.3 when he rests. It’s easy to read that and argue Dirk is less “valuable” than Curry and Love. But those numbers really highlight the importance of coaching and roster construction, and the impossibility of disentangling individual player achievement from those variables.

Rick Carlisle, a Coach of the Year candidate again, has long lifted Dirk early in the first and third quarters. The strategy allows for more rest, but it also engineers creative staggering into the Dallas rotation in which the rest of the starters soldier on without Dirk, and then Dirk returns to carry bench-heavy units.

The Warriors and Wolves, on the other hand, have been Exhibits A and B in the case against sending out five-man bench units and expecting those lineups to score against competent defenses. The Curry Cliff and Love Letdown wouldn’t be as severe if Mark Jackson and Rick Adelman distributed minutes the way Carlisle does.

Adelman often tried to avoid all-bench lineups by using Love and Nikola Pekovic as solo starters, Dirk-style. The 2013-14 version of Love might be the trickiest MVP candidate of the last half-decade. People talk about the Wolves like they are some colossal disappointment, and they indeed have choked away close games at an almost unprecedented rate. But they’re 40-41, not 30-50. Pekovic has missed 27 games. Ronny Turiaf has missed more than half the season. Chase Budinger never recovered from his meniscus injury. J.J. Barea was mostly awful, Ricky Rubio is shooting 38 percent and can’t have the ball in crunch time, and Adelman didn’t discover Gorgui Dieng until it was too late.

Minnesota is not some super-talented juggernaut Love has undercut with selfish play, bad defense, and bricky clutch shooting. The Wolves are a so-so team playing .500 ball in a loaded conference. They rank as an average defensive team despite all the hand-wringing over their interior softness.

What would their record be playing an Eastern Conference schedule, with Tom Thibodeau as head coach? Love has been their only workable crunch-time option. He’s 14-of-33 in the last three minutes of close games;2 only eight of the 36 other players who have attempted at least 25 such shots have hit a higher percentage, and the rest of the Wolves are 18-of-59 combined.

Other teams scrap entire defensive schemes to account for the shooting Love and Nowitzki bring from the power forward spot, and Curry’s lethal combination of pick-and-roll work and long-range bombing. They will never do that for Joakim Noah’s high-post passing. Curry and Nowitzki are two of the game’s most terrifying crunch-time weapons, though Nowitzki had a clutch slump this season; Noah has trouble creating his own shot.

Love bears some responsibility for Minnesota’s crunch-time failures. He’s just 8-of-16 at the line in those close situations, and an ugly 1-of-6 if you zoom in on the last minute.3 He offers zero rim protection, he’s uneven against the pick-and-roll, and he boxes out instead of contesting shots in the paint. He is always admiring his jump shots while his man leaks out behind him. Love is still something of a “get my numbers” guy, though he mostly plays hard.

Noah was not a candidate for a ballot spot before the Bulls swapped Luol Deng for nothing of present value, and the Bulls’ offense has remained terrible even as they’ve gone 34-15 since that deal.4 Noah has reached a new level as Chicago’s two-way emergency centerpiece in the absence of Deng and Derrick Rose. The post-trade numbers are staggering:

Noah on floor: 103.4 points per 100 possessions; 95.2 points allowed.

Noah on bench: 95.7 points per 100 possessions; 103.4 points allowed.

Chicago has been an average offense with Noah on the floor since the Deng deal, and when you play defense like the Bulls, average offense is enough. The Noah effect on offense isn’t nearly as strong without D.J. Augustin’s extra dose of shooting on the floor, but it sustains on defense almost regardless of who else is around him; Chicago basically slips only when Carlos Boozer and Augustin play together, per NBA.com.

The Deng trade should have killed this team. Noah has saved it on both ends. He is an inspiration.

Griffin snags the last spot for keeping the Clippers humming during the 20 games Chris Paul missed. The Clips’ schedule was pretty easy during Paul’s prolonged absence, and they’ve yet to prove they can defend at a high level against good NBA offenses. But Griffin has rounded out his game on both ends.

Apologies to: Nowitzki, Love, Harden, Howard, CP3, Anthony Davis, Carmelo Anthony, Al Jefferson, Goran Dragic, LaMarcus Aldridge, DeMarcus Cousins, Kyle Lowry, John Wall, Tony Parker, and Tim Duncan.

Detroit Pistons v Chicago Bulls

Defensive Player of the Year

1. Joakim Noah
2. Roy Hibbert
3. Paul George

Hibbert remains a fine choice. Indiana’s collapse over the last month does not erase what it did early in the season, even if the bad stuff is more fresh in our minds. The Pacers still top the league in points allowed per possession, and opponents have hit just 41.5 percent of shots near the rim when Hibbert is close to both the basket and the shooter — the lowest mark among all major rotation big men, per SportVU tracking data. That number hasn’t budged during the Pacers’ slump. Hibbert remains the game’s best rim protector.

His rebounding is a punch line, but Indiana is second overall in defensive rebounding rate, and the Pacers snare just about the same percentage of boards regardless of whether Hibbert is on the floor. There is value in taking up space and boxing out, even if you can’t jump. Hibbert’s drop-off has mostly come on offense, but his defense has definitely slipped — enough to swing the award to Noah. Hibbert has looked slower, and more cautious in challenging shots in the floater range. He merely swipes at shooters, almost as if he knows he doesn’t have the juice to summon Verticality Mode, challenge the shot, and then turn for a rebound.

His rebounding issues have reached a new level over the last month, and they have infected the team. The Pacers rank just 14th in defensive rebounding rate since March 1, and in their last 15 games, they’ve rebounded much better when Hibbert hits the bench.

Noah doesn’t spook players into wild floaters the way Hibbert does, but he’s fast and maniacally precise about timing and positioning. He will make you shoot over his outstretched arms, and when he’s done altering your shot he’s going to turn, knock the hell out of someone, and make sure Chicago grabs the rebound. He does not mess up in pick-and-roll coverage — ever. He does not allow little-guy ball handlers a path to the rim on switches. He is one step ahead reading plays, always moving around to bother cutters and invade passing lanes.

Availability delivers the third spot to George. Other players have been better, especially Iguodala and Bogut in Golden State. But George has played 800 more minutes than Iguodala and about 1,100 more than Bogut, and he has been a rock on the wing for Indiana — slithering through picks on and off the ball, closing out like a demon, and poking away steals.

Apologies to: Howard, Davis, Durant, DeAndre Jordan, Serge Ibaka, Tim Duncan, Amir Johnson, Taj Gibson, Cousins, Chris Bosh, Marc Gasol, Shawn Marion.

Los Angeles Lakers v Chicago Bulls

Sixth Man of the Year

1. Taj Gibson
2. Manu Ginobili
3. Markieff Morris

The omission of Jamal Crawford was difficult. He leads all realistic candidates in scoring, he’s getting to the line at a career-best rate, and he’s bumped up his passing numbers after a dip last season. He has proven versatile enough to start or come off the bench depending on the health of the roster. There would be no issue with him winning the award; these candidates are all pretty close.

Clippers fans will surely point to Ginobili’s inclusion and wonder what happened to the whole availability thing; Ginobili has logged just 1,506 minutes, 500 fewer than Crawford, in 66 games. But Ginobili has been so good as to require an adjustment in the weights for each criterion. He has the highest PER among all candidates, and his per-minute numbers are in line with his Hall of Fame prime: 20 points, 7 assists, 5 rebounds, and 1.6 steals per 36 minutes. Yowza.

The Spurs are always great, but they transform into a super-team whenever Ginobili takes the floor. San Antonio has outscored opponents by five points per 100 possessions with Ginobili on the pine, and an unthinkable 13.4 points per 100 possessions when he plays. The Spurs with Manu are basically the 1996 Bulls, but just a hair better. He would have logged at least 100 or 200 more minutes had the Spurs not been blowing teams away so badly.

It’s tempting to chalk all this up to San Antonio’s overall depth rather than to Ginobili, but Manu is the engine. Pick your favorite key San Antonio reserve — Boris Diaw, Patty Mills, Marco Belinelli — and you’ll find they shoot loads better with Ginobili on the floor. The reverse doesn’t really apply, either.

San Antonio relies on constant motion, smart passing, and all of its players being able to make reads in the moment. Ginobili is an injection of all that makes the Spurs go, with a special dose of unpredictability every team needs to keep opponents anxious. He remains a rugged and smart defender, always underrated on that end. Crawford has tried hard and picked up some aspects of Doc Rivers’s scheme, but he remains a glaring defensive liability.

Availability doesn’t kick Ginobili off the ballot, but it does prevent him from winning. Gibson has played 300 more minutes than Crawford and 800 more than Ginobili, and he hasn’t missed a game. (Crawford has missed 13.) He’s not as tall or long as Noah, and not quite as strong a rim protector and post defender. But he’s mobile, he blocks shots, and he’s always in the right place. The Gibson-Noah duo might be the league’s scariest front line, and they pair up in closing lineups that have absolutely blitzed the league in fourth quarters.

Gibson has emerged as a decent post threat and even draws occasional double-teams. He’s not a great one-on-one scorer, but every bit counts for Chicago.

Apologies to: Crawford, Augustin, Mills, Belinelli, Alec Burks, Reggie Jackson, Vince Carter, Dion Waiters, Rodney Stuckey, Nick Young, Chris Andersen, Ramon Sessions, Tyreke Evans.

San Antonio Spurs v Golden State Warriors

Coach of the Year

1. Gregg Popovich
2. Tom Thibodeau
3. Jeff Hornacek

Popovich in this category has become what Michael Jordan was to the MVP: very clearly the best at his job, to the point that awarding another person will look silly in retrospect. The alleged weak spot in Pop’s candidacy is the notion that he’s doing the same thing he always does — that the Spurs are a story of continuity, rendering the “of the year” clause inapplicable.

That’s bogus. Coaching is a year-round job. It is about continuity — establishing principles, finding players who fit those principles, and constantly tweaking them as reality intrudes. Pop and his coaches famously have a retreat each offseason, gathering at some secret place to drink wine, watch tape, and talk about both big ideas and little things the Spurs might do in the coming season.

The Spurs are constantly evolving. They have revolutionized the concept of what an NBA playing rotation might look like. They have gone big and small, experimented with different starting lineups, awoken Mills, tinkered over the years with their defensive system, and allowed Kawhi Leonard to stretch himself. Depth and the perfection of their whirring side-to-side offense allowed San Antonio to weather an injury wave that hit almost half the roster in the middle of the season.

It is the NBA’s best team, again. Having stars willing to take below-market deals has helped Popovich and R.C. Buford construct an ultra-deep roster, but Popovich is always steps ahead of his colleagues.

Thibodeau’s defensive system has been a guarantee of stinginess, and he has cobbled together a functioning offense with spare parts. The Bulls have squeezed out just enough points, even during a precipitous one-year decline for Boozer.

The entire league underestimated the talent level in Phoenix, but Hornacek has maximized it. His go-go style fits the Goran Dragic–Eric Bledsoe pairing, and the team’s shot selection reflects a smart hoops mind. He’s encouraged Markieff Morris to take a step in on offense, leveraged the gravitational power of Channing Frye’s shooting, and survived the Gerald Green adventure. The defense isn’t great, but Phoenix under Hornacek and assistant Mike Longabardi will make you earn it.

Apologies to: Carlisle, Terry Stotts, Steve Clifford, Dwane Casey, Jason Kidd, Rivers, Dave Joerger, Erik Spoelstra, Frank Vogel.

Most Delusional Knicks-Related Quote of the Year

1. Amar’e Stoudemire: “On paper, we might be the best team in the league.”
2. James Dolan: “I think this team can win a championship.”
3. Mike Woodson: Andrea Bargnani is “a big piece of the puzzle.”

Seriously, these quotes make Brandon Jennings’s “Bucks in six” declaration last season look sane. Congrats, Amar’e! A Mike Woodson Chia Goatee is in the mail.

Phoenix Suns v Dallas Mavericks

Most Improved Player

1. Goran Dragic
2. DeMarcus Cousins
3. Markieff Morris

No one has any clue what to do with this award, which is both fun — make up your own criteria! — and agonizing. My first pass ended with about 60 semi-plausible candidates, which I narrowed to about 25, and then finally to these three. This ballot leaves off any number of deserving guys: Gerald Green, Lance Stephenson, Anthony Davis, DeMar DeRozan, DeAndre Jordan, D.J. Augustin, Jodie Meeks, Alec Burks, Terrence Ross, Terrence Jones, Miles Plumlee, and many more. Give it to any of ’em. I really don’t care.

I gravitate toward the “who saw that coming?” factor. You could see Stephenson after last season’s playoffs blossoming into an all-around force with some maddening tendencies (and a PER below the league’s average, by the way). DeRozan last season started dishing passes he hadn’t spotted before. You knew Davis would make a leap, and that DeAndre “Bill Russell” Jordan would put up numbers if given more minutes. Green is really doing an extended version of his half-season run in New Jersey, only with more 3s and a bit more off-the-dribble freedom. Augustin, almost out of the league six months go, is a souped-up version of what he was during more promising times in Charlotte.

Dragic emerging mid-career as a first option shooting 50 percent from the floor and 40 percent from deep counts as more of a surprise. Phoenix’s fast pace helps, and Dragic will happily tell you that running the pick-and-roll with an elite shooting big like Frye is a dream. But he has thrived as a scorer in just about all contexts, he’s still dishing dimes, and he’s getting to the line more.

Having Bledsoe around to soak up some of the off-the-bounce burden is nice, but Dragic has shot better when Bledsoe sits, and the team’s offense nosedives when Bledsoe runs the point without Dragic.5

Cousins has gone under the radar as a candidate for this award. His PER is up six points, a massive jump into the league’s top five. He’s shooting better, hoarding rebounds, and getting to the line like a madman. And for the first time, we’re seeing evidence Cousins might one day become a plus defender — if he isn’t already. The Kings have been better on that end when Cousins is on the floor, and various advanced statistical systems both public and private are spitting out very good things about his defense. He’s tough to move in the post, and he’s getting better at making ball handlers fret about shoot-or-pass choices when they penetrate his paint. The Kings are actually allowing fewer fast-break points when Cousins plays, which seems impossible given how much he whines.

The bad habits are still there — the complaining, the dumb technicals, the lazy reaching. But those reaches produce a ton of steals, and Cousins has settled into a scheme that mostly asks him to sag back into the paint in the style of Hibbert and Noah.

As for Morris, his PER is also up nearly six points, and he has somehow turned into an efficient scorer after shooting 40 percent last year — and an embarrassing 42 percent on 2-pointers. He’s up to 50 percent on 2s this season, with a refined post-up game. Morris can shoot over guys with a soft touch, but if he thinks he can do better, he’ll face up, put the ball on the floor, and attack the rim. The Phoenix offense has taken off whenever Hornacek has paired Morris and Frye.

He doesn’t move the needle on defense and has size issues against some post behemoths, but Morris barely looked like a rotation player at times last season. Now he’s a legit Sixth Man of the Year candidate. That’s a leap.

Apologies to: Everyone listed above, Shaun Livingston, Lowry, Mills, Mirza Teletovic, Timofey Mozgov, Andre Drummond, Draymond Green, George, Kendall Marshall, Mike Conley, Khris Middleton, Isaiah Thomas, Burks, and others.

Orlando Magic v Washington Wizards

Rookie of the Year

1. Victor Oladipo
2. Michael Carter-Williams
3. Mason Plumlee

What a crap fest. The “race” puts guys posting inefficient numbers in big roles on awful teams against players posting decent numbers in smaller roles on better teams. And some of the latter group barely played until the last quarter of the season, making it hard to consider them. Sorry, Gorgui Dieng!

Carter-Williams has better counting stats than Oladipo, but the gap is small, and mostly due to Carter-Williams logging a few more minutes and Philly piling up six more possessions per game than Orlando. One of them plays for a team so terrible, I’m not really sure any statistic in either direction matters.

Amid that context, Carter-Williams has had a historically bad shooting season. He’s just a couple of misses from becoming the seventh player ever to attempt at least 100 3s while shooting worse than 25 percent from deep and 40 percent overall. Like most string bean rookie point guards, he has been bad on defense and had trouble negotiating picks; Philly has somehow been worse defensively with MCW on the floor, per NBA.com. They’ve been better on offense, but “better” still amounts to “worst in the league.”

Oladipo is a bulldog with long arms, and he has predictably fared better on defense. Real plus/minus paints him as a positive on that end, he can check multiple positions, and he has generated steals without gambling irresponsibly. The Magic have allowed six fewer points per 100 possessions when Oladipo plays. Those numbers are noisy, but it’s tough to find much evidence Oladipo is a big negative on defense.

He’s been turnover-prone on offense, but he has shot better than Carter-Williams from just about everywhere, and his midrange pull-up looks promising. Playing with at least a few quality veterans boosts that efficiency, but plop him on a roster as bad as Philly’s, and his counting numbers would likely be at least as good as MCW’s — with better defense. Oladipo has also played in 10 more games, which counts on the margins.

Plumlee would have won the award had Brooklyn given him extended minutes from jump street, but the Nets didn’t, and he’s more than 1,000 minutes behind the two front-runners. Plumlee has been a mini-Drummond, dunking everything in sight, doing the verticality thing at the rim, and sometimes getting a bit lost defending the pick-and-roll.

Trey Burke was the toughest omission, and he may well be deserving of a ballot spot. The Jazz have barely resembled a pro basketball team without Burke’s steady hand. But he has been almost as bricky as Carter-Williams, probably a bit worse on defense, and he’s not yet a threat to get to the rim or the foul line.

Halfhearted apologies to: Matthew Dellavedova, Nick Calathes, Steven Adams, Kelly Olynyk, Tim Hardaway Jr.

There are still a few more awards to hand out, including Executive of the Year and the three All-NBA teams, but I’m going down to the final buzzer with those. Stay tuned.


nba bag 3

By: timbersfan, 5:14 AM GMT on April 12, 2014



NBA Mailbag: This Is the End
The league is at a fever pitch, and the only way for Bill Simmons to survive it is to empty his inbox

I know, I know … we’re two days late with the weekly NBA bag again. In my defense, my entire life revolves around the free-falling Celtics, Chad Ford’s Big Board 8.0 and endless conversations about Wiggins, Jabari and Embiid right now.

Do you realize that, on Tuesday, May 20, your buddy Bill will appear on a one-hour NBA Countdown show that happens to include the live 2014 NBA draft lottery results?

Do you realize they’re also having me do the NBA draft with Rece Davis, Jay Bilas and Jalen Rose again?

Do you realize that ESPN is expecting me to be coherent for both of these live events?

It’s like a science experiment. Maybe they’re trying to get my head to explode so they can wipe my contract off the ESPN books. It’s the next best thing to using their amnesty on me. As for this particular column, as always, these are actual emails from actual readers.

Q: Can you fire up the “SIMMONS FOR GM” campaign again, my friend? This team needs new blood, and what better way for the new ownership group to show the community that things will be different than bringing in a guy who will make changes, 100 percent guaranteed? How about it, Simmons? I don’t want to have to cheer for the Seattle Bucks, man. Do they even have deer there?
—Jake Klipp, Milwaukee

SG: Don’t worry, you won’t have to cheer for the Seattle Bucks. As I tweeted last weekend, the Seattle guys (Steve Ballmer and Chris Hansen) aren’t getting the team — even though they were willing to go higher than anyone else, they dropped out because Herb Kohl (the longtime Bucks owner and a fearless champion of mediocre basketball) wouldn’t sell them the franchise unless they agreed to keep it in Milwaukee. The guys who thought they had it as recently as two days ago? Hedge-fund billionaires Marc Lasry and Wes Edens, who slid under the radar this entire time and thought they landed the Bucks with an offer in the $550 million range (slightly more than Vivek Ranadivé paid for the equally unappealing Kings). As recently as Wednesday, Lasry and Edens were expecting the NBA to vote on their bid at next week’s Board of Governors meeting.

So … what happened? Apparently there’s been a late flurry of offers from at least two other parties — not the Seattle guys — and now, incredibly, the price might be climbing and/or Kohl might be wavering to see if he should play this out longer. I thought I had this story nailed two days ago; now, I’m not sure. Will Lasry and Edens land the Bucks? Will someone else swoop in? What promises will be made to Adam Silver, who has demanded a new arena in Milwaukee by 2017 at the latest … or else? And can the Bucks and Kings really go for a combined $1.1 billion or more???? Good Lord! My money is still on Lasry and Edens, but I can’t believe this process is still dragging along. You know, kind of like the Bucks.

(Sadly, I’m pulling myself out of the running for the GM job that I wouldn’t have gotten, anyway. Unless they give me the Phil Jackson deal — $60 million over five years, you get to stay in L.A. — I’m out. And I have 13 fewer rings than Phil Jackson. I don’t think it’s happening.)

Q: How have you missed one of the best F.U. mode stories in recent memory? The Bulls trade Joakim Noah’s best friend on the team (Luol Deng) in an effort to avoid the luxury tax, but with Joakim’s possible incentives for earning all NBA first team honors, he could bump the Bulls up and over into the luxury tax. As a Bulls fan, nothing would make me happier.
—Zach, Lemont

SG: You’re right! I was already voting for Noah for first-team All-NBA anyway; now I’m voting for him in all caps. In the words of the great philosopher Rasheed Wallace, “CTC!” Cut that check, Reinsdorfs! That’s karma paying you back for the Deng trade in the form of a luxury tax spinal tap.

Since we’re here, I have to fill out my NBA awards ballot by April 17. Congrats in advance, Gregg Popovich (Coach of the Year); Victor Oladipo (Rookie of the Year, if only because I can’t vote for someone who lost 26 straight games); Gerald Green (Most Improved); Taj Gibson (Sixth Man); and Noah a second time (Defensive Player of the Year). MVP and All-NBA were a little more complicated, so I’m hashing them out here.

My top five for MVP: (1) Kevin Durant, (2) LeBron James, (3) Blake Griffin, (4) Joakim Noah, (5) Dirk Nowitzki.

Thoughts: I care far too much about MVP voting and even devoted a swollen chapter in my NBA book to the league’s worst injustices ever. On paper, giving an MVP vote to someone who isn’t actually the league’s best player — like Barkley over MJ in 1993, or Malone over MJ in 1997, or West over Reed in 1970, or even Nash over Kobe in 2006 — is one of the 12 best ways to make me irrationally angry. If you’re the best player, you’re the best player. There shouldn’t be any qualifiers or caveats.

But here’s the difference with 2014 Durant: For six solid months, a pissed-off Durant in fifth gear night after night after night has been better than LeBron Shifting Gears Depending On The Night. That’s a fact. And 2014 Durant is better than 1993 Barkley or 1997 Malone was, and 2014 LeBron isn’t as consistently dominant as 1993 MJ or 1997 MJ. Also a fact. Throw in Durant’s unbelievable offensive burden, Westbrook’s injuries, Scott Brooks’s bizarre coaching and OKC’s up-and-down supporting cast (Ibaka excluded) and it’s no contest. Please, if you’re reading this 10 years from now or 50 years from now, you need to understand — we didn’t get bored of voting for LeBron, and we didn’t briefly lose our minds. Let me know if you saw someone else average 35 a game with something in the neighborhood of 50-40-90 splits for four solid months, with the amount of attention defenses were giving him, no less. Incredible. Amazing. And he’s only 25. Can he get 10 percent better? Jesus.

As for everyone else — Blake is clearly 3, Noah is clearly 4, and that no. 5 spot could easily slide to James Harden, Stephen Curry, Paul George or even Goran Dragic. If Dallas wins 50-plus games and makes the playoffs (in play), I’m voting for Dirk — 22 a night, 50-40-90 splits, the crunch-time stuff, the leadership, the intangibles. Other than Jae Crowder, everyone in Dallas’s nine-man rotation had more value four years ago. Right now, Monta Ellis and Vince Carter are overachieving. Think about that. You win 50-plus with THAT team — in the West, no less — and you’re getting my no. 5 spot.

First-Team All-NBA: Durant, LeBron, Noah, Chris Paul, Harden.

Second-Team All-NBA: George, Griffin, Dwight Howard, Curry, Dragic.

Third-Team All-NBA: Kevin Love, Nowitzki, Al Jefferson, Kyle Lowry, Tony Parker.

Thoughts: Durant/LeBron/Noah/Harden are unassailable first-team picks … CP3 nearly lost his first-team spot to Curry for missing 19 games, but he’s such a better defensive player that it evened out … Curry’s having a better offensive season than Derrick Rose did in 2011, in case you were wondering … Dragic and Lowry had dramatic week-to-week impacts on playoff teams that weren’t that talented … you could talk me into Big Al over Dwight after three drinks, maybe even two and a half … Parker gets the Token Spur spot over Duncan (yes, we have to have a Token Spur spot) … sorry, Tim Duncan … sorry, Mike Conley, you were my seventh guard … sorry, Anthony Davis, you’re a year away … sorry, Damian Lillard, you make Steph Curry look like Andre Iguodala defensively … and I couldn’t demote Paul George because of a prolonged offensive slump and give that spot to Love, who’s in a permanent slump defensively and might miss going .500 for the sixth straight year.

The good news for Love: He won yet another Mokeski Award as the league’s best white guy this season. That’s his third in four years! Hold the trophy high, Mr. Love.

Q: So who was the LVP for the 2013-14 season?
—B.S., Los Angeles

SG: Fine, I wrote that one. They wouldn’t let us vote on this, but here’s how my ballot would have looked.

1. Josh Smith: Helped get a first-year coach and a once-great GM fired (it’s coming); drained Detroit’s salary cap; is completely and totally untradable; probably launched somewhere between 700 and 750 truly reprehensible shots; enraged the advanced metrics nerds; nearly broke the SportVU cameras and Goldsberry’s shot charts; sucked the life out of Detroit’s fan base; was disowned by the no. 1 Defender of All Lefties (Jalen Rose); couldn’t have been less fun to watch. Did I miss anything? Oh, wait — his old team (the Hawks) played better without him. And he achieved the advanced metrics triple crown, with his PER dropping from 17.7 to 14.1, his win shares per 48 minutes dropping from .075 to .021, and his sulks per 48 minutes skyrocketing from 8.2 to 14.8. If the LVP trophy changed sizes depending on the season, then Josh Smith’s 2014 season is a 40-pounder. He did everything short of getting arrested. The good news — we still have five days to go.

2. Raymond Felton: He’s gotta be in disbelief right now. What else did Ray Felton have to do? He was the league’s worst starting point guard, by every conceivable calculation, and somehow became untradable even with a cheap contract. He single-handedly derailed New York’s slash-and-kick offense by being unable to slash or kick. He seemed to actually gain weight during the season, which is always funny because these guys play sports for a living — I mean, you REALLY have to eat to gain weight when you’re an NBA starter. He became involved in an embarrassing gun scandal that stole some NY Post headlines and saw his wife making crazy accusations about him. And if that weren’t bad enough, New York’s mid-December deal for Kyle Lowry fell through … and the Raptors immediately took off and eventually made the playoffs. Find me the one Knicks fan who likes Ray Felton right now. Seriously, I’ll wait.

3. Andrew Bynum: Forced a trade from Cleveland by hijacking a practice and shooting every time he got the ball, even if he was past the 3-point line. The Bulls acquired him and immediately waived him. Eventually, Indiana signed him and went into an inexplicable tailspin — even without Bynum playing — almost like he spiritually infected the team like Sayid got spiritually infected during the final season of Lost. You know when they call someone like Derek Fisher a “veteran leader”? Bynum might be a “veteran cancer.”

4. Larry Sanders: He’s like Bizarro Hakeem in 1993, in that he just slapped together a career LVP year, only he can’t even crack the top three. Nightclub fights, a PETA scandal, a marijuana suspension, a $44 million extension that hasn’t even kicked in yet (and Milwaukee is already regretting), a near fight in the locker room with Gary Neal, severe regression on the court, and even last week’s bizarre marijuana-should-be-legal defense that murdered his trade value. (Hold on, I have to hug a sobbing Zach Lowe again. I’ll be right back.) The good news: When you’re gunning for the worst record in basketball, you want 2014 Larry Sanders on your team. So he wasn’t THAT unvaluable.

5. Kobe Bryant: If only for Jedi mind tricking his team into a L-U-D-I-C-R-O-U-S $48.5 million contract extension when he knew his body wasn’t anywhere close to being what it was. (And as soon as he came back, he broke down again.) At least he led the young guys by example on and off the court — oh wait, nobody’s seen him for four months. Keep getting dem checks, Kobe.

Q: Is Lebron going to be in Eff you mode for the playoffs after KD wins the MVP?
—Michael Cleary, Tappan

SG: The brief history of MVP Eff You Mode: 1993 (MJ pays back Barkley in the 1993 Finals); 1995 (Hakeem demolishes Robinson and the Spurs in the Western finals); 1997 (MJ throws up the basketball equivalent of a 10-7 boxing round over Malone in the Finals); 2001 (Shaq eviscerates Iverson’s Sixers and basically turns Dikembe Mutombo’s career into something else). All four times, you had the league’s alpha dog taking it personally that someone else got their stomach scratched. Will LeBron take Durant’s MVP personally? And will Durant take it personally that LeBron took Durant’s MVP personally? For this and many other reasons, we might need a Heat-Thunder Finals.

Q: I’m a big OKC fan and watch most of their games. The way that teams guard Kevin Durant is unlike anything I have ever seen. He is basically denied the ball from the moment he crosses halfcourt. Against the Rockets on Friday, he was denied by two people at certain points during the game. Have you ever seen another player guarded like this?
—Kevin Gill, Richmond

SG: Please add that entire paragraph to KD’s 2014 MVP files. By the way, I’m pretty sure nobody would defend Durant that way if Harden still played for OKC. I’m almost positive. (I know, I know.)

Q: I just read the following headline, “Mason Plumlee blocks LeBron James’ dunk attempt in final seconds, Nets complete season sweep of Heat.” Here’s a fun game: making up absurd yet more believable headlines from the NBA. Like – “JR Smith mortally stabs teammate during 4th quarter timeout.”
—Ben, Fairview, UT

SG: I wouldn’t believe that one. But I absolutely WOULD believe …

“Felton fined 25K for eating BBQ on Knicks bench during final home game”

“Third assistant coach leaves Warriors as Jackson maintains everything is fine”

“Parsons vows that flying back and forth to film The Bachelor won’t affect him in the Finals”

“Boozer looks forward to playing with toupee in playoffs”

“Paul George categorically denies appearing in Teen Mom’s latest sex tape”

“Fourth assistant coach quits Warriors, changes name, enters FBI witness protection program as Jackson maintains everything is fine”

“Gasol admits giving himself vertigo as last-ditch effort to stop playing for D’Antoni”

“Details still scarce after Waiters-Irving fistfight at charity event”

“Heat-Nets tensions rise after Pierce and Garnett give Wade’s ex-wife courtside seats for Game 3”

Q: Part of me wants to believe Mark Jackson made a hyper-aggressive “Nobody Believes In Us” play by firing his staff – artificially inflating their “Nobody Believes In Us” stock. The other nagging part remembers his public squabbling with Bogut and that the Warriors are masters in surgical heartbreak. Which is it? Also please regard this suddenly relevantly placed photo.
—Andrew Carr, Brooklyn

SG: Jackson is playing it perfectly — he knows his players like him, so he’s preaching the whole “the media is against us, our fans don’t believe in us, our owners don’t believe in me … guys, NOBODY BELIEVES IN US BUT THE GUYS IN THIS LOCKER ROOM!!!!!” routine. It might even work. By the way, that photo was high comedy.

Q: A friend of mine “Stan” married this crazy lady “Tina”. They were engaged for a year when Stan took the ring back because she was nuts but decided to give it back to her a year later. So I explain this situation to a friend and she names Tina the Re-Fiance and it instantly becomes the term of choice to describe her among our circle. Upon hearing of Mike Brown’s re-hiring by the Cavs my girlfriend turns to me and deadpans “Well we have The Drive, The Catch, The Fumble, The Decision….now we have The Re-Coach.” Ladies and gentlemen, your 2014 Cllllllllleveland Cavaliers!
—CD, Cleveland, OH

SG: A few readers reminded me of this one … in my 2009 NBA book, I created a 12-man “Wine Cellar” team around the premise, “Aliens just invaded Earth and we have a time machine — we can grab any 12 players from any of their ‘vintage’ years, pull them into the current year and battle the aliens with them.” So greats like 1986 Bird, 1985 Magic and 1992 Jordan were involved. (And yes, 2014 Durant needs to be included whenever I write the next edition of this book.) But the coaches of that Wine Cellar team? 2007 Gregg Popovich, 1988 Rick Pitino (pulled from college to spearhead our killer second-team press), 1977 Willis Reed (big-man coach and our enforcer, just in case the aliens start a bench-clearing brawl), 2006 Mike D’Antoni (my words: “offensive guru”), and 2009 Mike Brown (my words: “defensive guru”). This is in print and everything. (The lesson, as always: I’m an idiot.)

Q: Remember this? You wrote …

“THE WHATEVER-THE-HELL-U2’S-LAST-ALBUM-WAS-CALLED AWARD FOR ‘MOST ABRUPT END TO A PHENOMENAL RUN’ — To the Duncan-era Spurs: Four titles, 13 straight 50-win seasons (I’m including the stupid lockout season) and a boatload of fantastic memories. OK, not really. But we got to watch Duncan (the best power forward ever), Ginobili (the best international guard ever if you’re not counting Nash, and you shouldn’t, since Canada isn’t really ‘international’), Parker (who perfected the celebrity relationship), Popovich (the best coach of the past 15 years), and two really fun rivalries (Spurs-Suns, Spurs-Mavs). Look, you can’t stay on top for more than a decade without getting a top-three lottery pick or having Chris Wallace trade you a top-three lottery pick. That’s just the way this league works. So hold your head up high, Spurs. Fantastic run. When players are bawling in their locker room because they finally beat you (like Nash did after Game 4), you know you accomplished something great. And you did.”

That’s dated May, 2010.
—Bernie, Washington, D.C.

SG: The lesson, as always: I’m REALLY an idiot.

Q: Any thoughts on the NBA creating the equivalent to a Senior Tour for older players? With well documented retirement planning issues, wouldn’t this be a no brainer? Players would have to be retired for at least two years. Could Michael dunk on Patrick Ewing at 50? How much would Shawn Kemp or Antione Walker take to play in this league? 100K a year?
—Sherif Elmazi, Hong Kong

SG: I stumbled upon the answer to this question during my All-Star Weekend podcast with Dirk Nowitzki. We’d been talking about how long Dirk could play, conceivably, and whether he could spend his late thirties and early forties spreading the floor as a late-career Sam Perkins–type weapon for a contender. And Dirk said that it wasn’t about the still-being-able-to-play part, but the doing-everything-it-takes-to-be-able-to-play part.

That’s the part we always forget, as well as the most illuminating part of Steve Nash’s The Finish Line series for Grantland. When they get older, WE don’t realize how much it takes for THEM to play. So even if the Senior Tour is a fantastic idea on paper, the amount of work it would take for ex-players with crazy NBA miles on them already to play basketball regularly, stay relatively healthy, avoid debilitating injuries … it’s just not realistic.

(Unless we make all PEDs legal. Then? Totally realistic!)

Q: So another Wednesday has come and gone without an NBA Mailbag from the Sports Guy as we were all promised. I wonder what other job somebody could have where you could promises with no intention of keeping them..WAIT A MINUTE. THE PRESIDENT. BILL YOU SHOULD BE PRESIDENT!
—Aaron, Arvada, CO

SG: I didn’t know whether to go with “Too soon” or “Words hurt” for this answer.

Q: No Wednesday mailbag again. There’s not a day goes by I don’t feel regret. Not because I’m in here, because you think I should. I look back on the way I was then: a young, stupid kid who committed that terrible crime. I want to talk to him. I want to try to talk some sense to him, tell him the way things are. But I can’t. That kid’s long gone, and this old man is all that’s left. I got to live with that. Rehabilitated? It’s just a bullshit word. So you go on and stamp your form, sonny, and stop wasting my time. Because to tell you the truth, I don’t give a shit. But I’ll read it anyway when it comes out.
—Ted Yates, Denver

SG: And you’re reading it right now! See, this all worked out. You didn’t even have to crawl through 500 yards of shit-smelling foulness the likes of which you couldn’t imagine to get here.

Q: Just read your Letterman column. If you want to show the differences between Letterman and Jimmy Fallon, just show people the video of Dave interviewing Paris Hilton in 2007.
—Jake, Fort Bragg

SG: An all-timer.

Q: Where does The Undertaker’s loss to Brock Lesnar at WM rank on the Levels of Losing scale? I’m thinking it has to be either “Stomach Punch” or “Wait, This Wasn’t the Plan.”
—Tom, Simi Valley

SG: That was definitely a “Wait, This Wasn’t the Plan” loss, but with a little “Stomach Punch” thrown in — not just that he lost, but that he lost to LESNAR. Someone who isn’t even a full-timer! I’m in the “Roman Reigns should have ended Taker’s streak” camp. And not just because I bought a ton of Roman Reigns stock — he’s the Anthony Davis of the WWE right now.

Q: What’s your opinion on Rondo and Boston’s 1st round pick for Kyrie?
—William Demitro, Chicago

SG: I just hung up the phone on William Demitro. Slammed it down, actually. You’re not getting my top-five pick unless it’s for Kyrie straight up. And even then, I’m not that excited. Do I really want to give up Jabari, Wiggins or Embiid for someone who’s giving off major Steve Francis/Steph Marbury fumes? And then I have to throw in Rondo, too? Even the New Orleans GM wouldn’t do that! (Thinking.) You’re right, he’d totally do that. But I’d trade Rondo for whatever and pursue Kyrie in a separate deal.

Here’s the problem with trading Rondo — he’s never re-signing in Sacramento, Detroit, Milwaukee, Cleveland or wherever. None of those teams are overpaying to rent Rondo for a year. Boston’s best chance on decent value: If Houston flames out in Round 1, maybe send Rondo there for Jeremy Lin’s expiring deal, Chandler Parsons and Houston’s first-rounder. I can’t see them doing better, especially with how Rondo has looked lately — he’s been their best tanking asset down the stretch, hands down. Nobody else comes close. Shitty attitude, sloppy ballhandling, horrific defense, inexplicable decision-making, ugly shooting … he’s doing it all. Down the stretch, it’s like he studied tape of the game Tony threw in Blue Chips, then said, “I’m gonna throw in Brandon Jennings’s shot selection for good measure.” If we get the no. 1 pick, they should retire Rondo’s number next October.

Q: As a Brooklyn Nets and New York Football Giants fan, I have a quick parallel for you …

Tom Terrific — Jaunary 30, 2008

King James — April 8, 2014

These clips pretty much confirm that the Nets will beat the Heat in the greatest playoff series of all time. All that’s left is who’s gonna play the roles of Eli and Tyree in a Hill-Laettner kind of play?
—Eli, Chatham, NJ

SG: I vote for Paul Pierce as Eli/Hill and and Joe Johnson as Tyree/Laettner. Also, I vote that I start drinking for the rest of this mailbag. JESUS. I clicked on that stupid Tom Terrific clip thinking it was something with Tom Seaver. It’s becoming increasingly clear that I will never get over that game.

Q: With the NBA regular season winding down, my gambling side is rearing its ugly face. Give me your best bets/longshots for the playoffs.
—Gavin, Omaha

SG: Don’t you want to get in early on Helmet Catch II, Gavin? Take Brooklyn +1200 to win the East. Actually, parlay that with +500 on me FedExing three days of dog poop to Eli from Chatham. I’m rattled.

Q: Uhm, OK, Mitch Richmond is a nice player and a super person, but can you explain why Maurice Cheeks is not in the Hall of Fame? Can you really retire as the all-time leader in a statistical category (which is now gaining more favor among stat-heads) and be passed over for Mitch Richmond?
—Adam Jones, Austin, TX

SG: Forget Cheeks — Richmond getting in over Sidney Moncrief and Paul Westphal was dumbfounding. It’s not even close. I covered the Westphal/Moncrief résumés in my book, but here’s a quick recap.

Westphal: best player on a Finals team (’76 Suns); sixth man on a champ (’74 Celts); three first-team All-NBAs and one second-team All-NBA during a super-competitive era (1977-80); five-time All-Star and an especially fun All-Star Game performer; traded straight-up for DENNIS JOHNSON in their primes; heroic performance in one of the greatest games ever (Game 5, ’76 Finals, triple OT); edged Doug Collins as the starting 2-guard on the White Guys Who Played Like Black Guys team; goes down as the league’s best 2-guard from ’76 through ’80 (22.5 PPG, 5.6 APG, 52% FG, 21.7 PER, five playoff series wins); career cut short by injury; ranked 78th all time in my book.

Moncrief: best player on a perennial contender (Nellie’s Bucks); one first-team All-NBA, four second-team All-NBAs, five All-Stars; two Defensive Player of the Year Awards; NEVER TRADED; iconic SI cover in college; if he never blew out his knee, he’s the best all-around guard of the 1980s (and that might have been true, anyway); a more polished, less combustible version of DJ; the league’s best 2-guard from ’82 through ’86 (21.0 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 4.7 APG, 50% FG, 20.5 PER, six playoff series wins); ranked 72nd in my book.

Richmond: third-best player on the entertaining Run TMC Warriors (two second-round appearances); three second-team All-NBAs, six All-Stars (including an MVP); averaged 23 a game with 46% FG for 11 solid years; traded for BILLY OWENS right before he hit his prime, then C-Webb right after he hit his prime; peaked from 1994 to ’98 (23.7 PPG, 45% FG, 41% 3FG, 19.2 PER, one playoff appearance, 0 playoff series wins); didn’t age well despite never suffering a major injury; hung on for a ring with the 2002 Lakers (never played); in his prime, went 211-306 over seven years with the Kings (never finishing over .500); not ranked in the top 100 in my book.

I was there for all three guys: I didn’t even think it was close. Even the “don’t blame Richmond for being stuck on bad Kings teams” case doesn’t totally work because the advanced numbers for Westphal and Moncrief were better; at their peaks, they were just more relevant than Richmond in every conceivable way. Richmond also peaked during a weak era for 2-guards: Jordan skipped two seasons; Latrell Sprewell flamed out; and Reggie Lewis and Drazen Petrovic passed away before their primes. I just don’t see it. There seems to be some major recency bias here. (And for the record — Alonzo Mourning didn’t make my top 100 either.) And since we’re here, Kevin Johnson should have made it over Richmond, too.

Q: I saw in the headlines today that Joe Dumars intends to resign. Any ideas how he can break the news to his friends, family, and co-workers all at once?
—Ryan Mathis, Spokane, WA

SG: I think I have one!

Q: When I watch Kevin Durant play, it always reminds me of something that I can never quite put my finger on. The other night it hit me: the smoke monster on Lost! Can we call him “Smoke?”
—Scott Herbst, Chicago

SG: I think you’re late both with the nickname push and the pop-culture reference. (Wait, what? I dropped a Lost reference 2,000 words ago? You’re right, my bad.) But I went to Wednesday’s Clips-OKC game, in which Westbrook looked like RUSSELL THE BADASS ATHLETE/FREAK/DYNAMO/FORCE OF NATURE guy for the first time in 11 months. Durant dropped a quiet 27, including a backbreaking double step-back 3 that was right out of Larry Legend’s playbook for dagger 3s. And this was an average Durant game. He was fine. This season, his “fine” is an A-minus. Anyway, when you see this dude in person, you never feel like he needs a nickname. He’s just KD. He’s one of the 10 natural wonders of the world right now — a 6-foot-11 scoring machine with absolutely no historical parallel. It’s like saying, “I just went to the Grand Canyon — it wasn’t memorable enough, we need to nickname that thing!”

Q: A few weeks ago I sent an email about the Thunder trading Westbrook—–
—Mark Bova, San Diego

SG: Stop it. Nobody’s allowed to send me a “Thunder trading Westbrook” email. That team might NEVER make another risky megadeal after the Harden unbacle. I say unbacle because it was worse than a debacle — a debacle insinuates that we had a bacle, and that the bacle could be turned back on to become a rebacle. An unbacle speaks for itself. The Thunder got unbacled with that trade. And they might win the title, anyway! After giving up a first-team All-NBA guard for nobody who will have a meaningful 2014 playoff moment for them! Maybe they’re emulating Detroit’s 2003 Darko-over-Carmelo strategy. Technically, that one worked, too.

Q: So what are the chances of Kevin Love throwing his jersey either into the stands or on the floor once the last Timberwolves game happens?
—Michael, Atlanta

SG: I’d say +200. And I’d parlay it with -150 odds of “Minnesota blowing an eight-point lead in the last three minutes of Game 82.” By the way, when the season ends, can someone wake up Rick Adelman from his winter hibernation and tell him that it’s time to go home? And wake him up gently … he’s been asleep for the past five months. Thanks in advance.

Q: What’s the best-case scenario for Washington in the playoffs and going forward? Is there a worse GM-Coach pairing in the league than Grunfeld-Wittman? Wait, is there a worse head coach in the history of the league than Randy Wittman? He’s coached over 500 games and has a winning percentage of .362. How do we get rid of these guys!?
—Martín, Washington, D.C.

SG: Your Wittman stat stunned me, so I had to look it up. Exactly 57 NBA coaches have lost at least 300 games. Only one of those coaches also won at least 70 percent of his total games (Phil Jackson); four more won at least 60 percent (Red Auerbach, Pat Riley, Gregg Popovich and Jerry Sloan); 26 more won at least 50 percent; 14 more won at least 45 percent; nine more won at least 40 percent; and only three won less than 40 percent. Those three coaches?

Tom Nissalke: 248-391, .388 winning percentage
Wes Unseld: 202-345, .369 winning percentage
Randy Wittman: 187-329, .362 winning percentage

That’s right, the two least competent coaches of the 300-Loss Club passed through the Washington basketball vortex! How is that even possible???

Q: What is your favorite part of this amazing to watch Suns team ?
A. Gerald Green and his crow hop step back 3s
B. the dragon and his insane finishes
C. PJ Tucker looking like he’ll kill a man with his bare hands
Or d. Plumdog millionaire

SG: I vote for (E) the relentlessness of that Dragic-Bledsoe combo, and (F) all the times Dick Stockton will get the Morris twins confused if TNT sticks him on a Phoenix playoff series. But I loved the “Plumdog Millionaire” joke — it’s an urban dictionary term (not flattering), it’s a gin cocktail recipe, and now, it’s the go-to headline for all Grantland pieces about the Plumlees. I love the Plumdog Millionaires!

Q: What if I told you nine years ago that the star of Fever Pitch would successfully host The Tonight Show, while the perceived next-in-line found himself stuck on a fledgling cable TV talk show and embarrassing himself hosting the MTV Movie Awards? “The Joke’s On You” – 8pm Friday night, only on ESPN.
—Billy Bahnsen, Patchogue, NY

SG: And that’s preceded on Thursday by 30 for 30: Bad Boys (ESPN, 8 p.m., if you like basketball and don’t enjoy this one I would find it startling) and Grantland’s Bad Boys Remix (ESPN, 10 p.m.), with me, Jalen, Isiah and Doug Collins doing a “postgame show” of sorts. Just carve out those three hours, please.

Q: Stole this question from a Reddit thread – would you give up any one of the Celtic’s championships with Larry Bird for the number one pick in the 1997 draft (aka Tim Duncan)?
—Nate, Grayslake, IL

SG: I’d consider giving up the 1981 title because beating Philly was the real championship that year, and because CBS TAPE-DELAYED THE GAME WHEN WE WON THE TITLE. That’s a 100 percent true story. My dad had to wake me up at like 1:30 in the morning so I could see us celebrate three hours after we celebrated. Now the NBA has billionaires dropping $550 million on a 14-win Bucks team that doesn’t have an arena. We’ve come a long way, everybody.

Here’s the thing, though: If the Celtics landed Duncan, he would have despised playing for Rick Pitino as much as everyone else did, and he would have fled for Orlando three years later. He’s even said as much. And in a weird way, that would have been worse than losing the ’97 lottery. So I’ll keep the 1981 title, thanks.

Q: I feel like I’m taking crazy pills with this whole Blake-Griffin-getting-in-fights thing. Analysts consistently praise him for staying so calm as people tussle with him night after night (Jon Barry during the Denver game being the latest example). What’s the one constant in all of Blake Griffin’s scuffles??? BLAKE GRIFFIN!! THE GUY WHO’S BEEN DIVORCED 12 TIMES PROBABLY IS PLAYING A ROLE IN THE FAILED MARRIAGES!!!! WHY DOESN’T ANYONE GET ON GRIFFIN’S CASE FOR INSTIGATING 6 FIGHTS A WEEK?
—Ben Ginsburg, Los Angeles

SG: Just in the past three weeks alone, I’ve gotten emails comparing Blake to the forever-picked-on Daniel LaRusso, the token troublemaker on every Real Housewives season, and the token contestant on every Bachelor season who gets hated on by the other women and blamed for not being there for “the right reasons.” And frankly, all of those comparisons helped his MVP case in my mind — I nearly bumped him to no. 2. Jalen and I covered this topic extensively in our 20-part “Bill and Jalen’s 2014 NBA Playoffs Preview,” which premieres on Grantland on Monday. Please clear three-plus hours off your schedule in advance.

Q: So I’m taking the escalator down to the car park in a shopping mall in Belgrade, Serbia, and I notice a movie advertisement, and I see “Bill Simmons, Grantland”…wait, what…had to doublecheck that, so I actually went back up, and back down, and took a photo as proof…this is your quote, translated to Serbian – “The best war movie since “Saving Private Ryan–Bill Simmons, Grantland”…you’re now officially plugging Lone Survivor for the Serbian market, whether you were aware of it or not!

Congratulations, I guess.
—Milos, Belgrade, Serbia

SG: And that’s not even the greatest mailbag photo since Saving Private Ryan. I can top it right now.

Q: I just saw a guy on Charlie Villanueva’s instagram that got two tattoos commemorating Charlie’s time in a Pistons uniform. Is that the worst tattoo idea since Jax got Stassi’s name tattooed on his arm? Also, can one of your stat geeks get me some hard info on like points per dollar or minutes per dollar on that disaster? I’d say the advanced metrics will likely indicate that was the worst contract in NBA History. Thankfully, we went out and did the same thing again last summer so we can have the same conversation with Brandon Jennings and Josh Smith in a couple years, Deeeeeeeetroit basketball!!!
—Ryan Dempsey, Detroit

SG: Here’s the Instagram photo …

My top five thoughts about that picture:

1. !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


3. I love the look on Charlie’s face almost as much as I love my two children. It’s 45 percent “I love this guy!” and 55 percent “Can you believe this? Seriously, can you believe this? I can’t believe this. He’s watched me, right?”

4. How did the guy decide that he needed TWO tattoos to own the Villanueva/Piston fan/tattoo corner that nobody knew existed? Did he get the first one, then think, I don’t know, I still feel like someone might leapfrog me here? Was he going to keep going until he realized that Charlie is going to be out of basketball soon? Was he worried about the amnesty possibilities? Why isn’t there more information on the Internet about this? Why do we even have an Internet if we can’t properly cover this story????

5. If only there were a YouTube clip that made me as happy as that Instagram photo.

Q: You watch House of Cards, right? I don’t think Kevin Spacey ever threw a baseball before Season 2, Episode 6
—Braxton, Columbus

SG: Good God, it’s the YouTube version of that Instagram photo!

Incredible! Kevin Spacey makes Ray Kinsella’s dad in Field of Dreams look like Michael Wacha. Hold on, I want to watch that clip 25 more times. Let’s just end the mailbag.

Q: Leading up to the NCAA championship, all the talk was about John Calipari and how great he is. Why did it take so long for Kevin Ollie to become a hot coaching candidate linked to the NBA? I mean, he inherited a team that was losing players and led them to a championship in LESS THAN TWO YEARS. Am I crazy? This is like when a buddy of yours says, “Yo, you should come to the party, my fiancee is inviting some of her friends too, and they’re hot, especially Megan.” Then you show up to the party, and you start talking to Megan, because you should, (after all she’s the touted one), but then you meet her friend Emma, and you start thinking to yourself, “shouldn’t I be talking to Emma?” I mean, yeah Megan is hot, but isn’t Emma just, better? Full disclosure, I was thinking of Megan Fox and Emma Stone when I chose those names.
—Kaustubh, Mountain View

SG: Yup, these are my readers.


BILL SIMMONS is the editor-in-chief of Grantland and the author of the New York Times no. 1 best seller The Book of Basketball. For every Simmons column and podcast, log on to Grantland.

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usmnt kit

By: timbersfan, 5:29 AM GMT on April 10, 2014


Get the Declaration of Independence Tattooed on Your Face: Haim Is in a Nike Ad for U.S. Soccer

APRIL 2, 2014

Kevin Lincoln: Ryan, after seeing Nike’s promotional photos of the Haim girls — Little, Middle, and Boss Haim, I believe their birth names are — wearing the new United States men’s national team jerseys, exactly how patriotic do you feel?

Ryan O’Hanlon: On a scale of Soviet spy to Kenny Powers, I feel like I’m crossing the Delaware with George Washington, except we’re in an amphibious vehicle painted like a bald eagle, and instead of heading into battle, we’re on our way to create a not-quite-universal health-care system. Does it make you want to memorize the Declaration of Independence?

Lincoln: It makes me want to get the Declaration of Independence tattooed on my face backwards so I can read it when I look in the mirror. It makes me feel like a little bird being mouth-fed by Ben Franklin. And, as a person of Jewish descent, I think this might be a high point in the tribe’s sporting history — up there with Benny Feilhaber’s volley in the 2007 Gold Cup and that brief time I thought Aaron Rodgers was Jewish. But it does raise a question: As someone who knows a lot about the USMNT, what the hell do you think is going on here?

O’Hanlon: Did you know that the patriarch of the Haim family played professional soccer in Israel? Also, did you know his name is name Mordechai? Mordechai! He apparently “remains an energetic drummer,” and just generally seems like someone I’d want to befriend. But as for your question: They must be soccer fans, right? Or, they must at least have some tenuous connection with the sport through Papa Mordechai. Someone knows someone, someone makes a call, and etc. It’s not like a person at Nike was just, out of nowhere, like, “You know who we should really get to model this new kit? The Haim sisters.” Even though I kind of hope that did happen, and that person was Michael Bradley.

Lincoln: As much as I love the idea of Phil Knight and Jurgen Klinsmann meeting for a cup of chai and being like, “‘The Wire’ is all sorts of good,” I think you’re right. I’m just surprised Clint Dempsey’s rap career wasn’t enough music for the USMNT to ride and die on. But that being said: Whoever’s idea it was, somehow, it happened … and now one of the Haims is Kobe-sneering at me from Nike’s military-industrial-complex website. So clearly, there was a thought that, hey, maybe Haim will make people like American soccer. Or at least sell jerseys. But like — at this point, only a couple months out from the World Cup, do you think the U.S. needs a Haim-size bump in profile and support?

O’Hanlon: I don’t know, they seem like a band — young, semi-upscale, and hipster-in-comparison-to-the-rest-of-the-country — that profiles in the same broad-strokes way as the soccer fan in America does. So, getting Haim to pose in your jersey — and who knows, maybe it was the other way around, and Haim went to Nike — seems more like a way to reinforce an image, rather than bring in any sizable fan bump. If they wanted that, they should’ve put a jersey on Eric Church.

Lincoln: Correct me if I’m wrong, but it feels as though the upswing in soccer fandom here hasn’t exactly resulted in American soccer players becoming titans of sport. Like, our most famous guys are still Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey. Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley are kind of well known, but, put them next to Nick Young — or even Kent Bazemore, although maybe that has to do with me living in L.A. and being legally insane — and they’re probably going to get out–Q Scored. Featuring Haim, or Eric Church, or pretty much anyone who’s been on SNL, can’t possibly hurt, can it?

O’Hanlon: Yeah, for as protective of itself as the American soccer world can seem, the more popular American soccer is, the better it is for American soccer. If someone’s wearing a U.S. soccer jersey — whether it’s my mom or 2 Chainz — that’s a good thing. If that someone is actually three somewhat popular Jewish-American sister musicians, even better. And if that someone is Nick Young and Kent Bazemore stuffed into a single Fabian Johnson jersey at the same damn time, then the World Cup is meaningless and ultimate success has already been achieved.

Lincoln: Now there’s a sentence I can see scratched into my flesh. Final task: We’re both Haim fans here. Pair three American soccer players with three different Days Are Gone songs.

O’Hanlon: Geoff Cameron is “If I Could Change Your Mind” because he is the best American field player in Europe, and somehow he might not be starting come the World Cup, so he should be singing this song to Klinsmann as often as possible. “Don’t Save Me” may have actually been written about Jermaine Jones, who really doesn’t need you if your love isn’t strong and will also be drinking beers with an American flag in hand, regardless. And “Running If You Call My Name” is the position anyone remotely concerned with American soccer should be taking toward Michael “Little, Middle, and Boss Haim” Bradley.

Lincoln: For the record: We were both listening to Haim during the writing of this. Check the Spotify history, haters.


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simmons nba mb

By: timbersfan, 11:28 AM GMT on April 05, 2014




Fixing the NBA Playoffs
Plus, all your questions answered in this week’s mailbag

I didn’t write an NBA Bag on Thursday because I knew David Letterman was stepping down. I wrote an NBA Bag because I’ve been doing mailbags ever since I started writing this column in 1997 … and only because I loved Letterman’s “Viewer Mail” gimmick. So thanks for that, and thanks for everything else, David Letterman. If you hadn’t passed through my life in my formative years, I’d probably be doing something else for a living. And I like doing this. For the record, every NBA Bag has a 5,000-word limit, and you can submit your questions here. As always, these are actual emails from actual readers.

Q: It’s Wednesday afternoon. What’s that mean? Time for a Bill Simmons NBA mailbag! Since you had taken off last week I thought there was no way in hell you’d skip this week too. But after multiple checks throughout the day, what do I find? No mailbag! What were you doing all day, finger popping your [deleted]?
—Brayden O, Pittsburgh, PA

SG: Wednesday’s mailbag got bumped for the “Above the Rim” 20-year appreciation piece that I wrote with Rafe and Sharp. Besides, April 9 is Finger Popping Your [Deleted] Day, not April 2.

—Ric D, Brooklyn

SG: This guy was so angry, he couldn’t even spell “basketball” correctly.

Q: Hey [deleted], it’s April 3rd now and we’ve all gone over weeks without an NBA bag. It’s bad enough you skipped last week (for the Action Hero column), but now you can’t follow through on a promise for one on the 2nd? Yup, that’s our Simmons.
—Nathan, Lewiston

SG: Fine, fine. I won’t make the mistake of pushing Wednesday’s NBA Bag to Friday ever again. Heard you loud and clear. Look at all these deleteds! I don’t want to be known as a [deleted] finger-popping [deleted] [deleted] anymore. I’ll even throw in an extra thousand words free of charge.

Q: Did you see Mark Cuban fire shots at NFL’s possibly expanding 18-game schedule? Would the NBA would ever go nuclear and attack the NFL over concussions? Ads showing NFL players laying on the field unconscious with tag lines like “The NBA, our players actually remember their careers” and “The NBA, watch the top athletes in the world — guilt free.” They could also go the political attack ad route and flash quotes from former NFL players that blamed the league for their decline in mental health. Pro leagues have playfully disparaged other sports before in promoting their own league, but would the NBA ever go this far?
—Nick, Hamilton, ONT

SG: Kudos to Nick for coming up with my favorite idea of 2014 — the NBA spending $25 million on attack ads specifically to wound the NFL’s credibility and give the NBA a competitive advantage. But why stop at concussions and 18-game schedules? I’d throw in stuff like, “The NBA, Where We Don’t Replace Our Refs For 25 Percent Of The Season With Random Dudes Off The Street,” and, “The NBA, Where Our Players Don’t End Up Committing Crimes Every Other Week.”

Can all the Talented Weirdos Who Make Elaborately Weird YouTube Clips make attack ads and put “GRANTLAND NBA/NFL ATTACK ADS” in the subject heading so we can binge-watch them? Also, even if it’s beefing down, why can’t we go after baseball, too? What about ads pushing the NBA as America’s new pastime with messages like …

“The NBA — Our Games Don’t Take Four Freaking Hours To Play.”

“The NBA — The Sport To Watch If You’re Not A White Guy Over 50 Years Old Who Needs Help Getting An Erection.”

“The NBA — Our Best Players Don’t Get Suspended For Using PEDs … Because We Give Them A Crazy Amount Of Heads-Up For Every Drug Test, But Still.”

Q: Something we’re not talking about with Miggy Cabrera’s contract extension: Mike Ilitch is 85 years old. What does he care? He’s going to be dead by the time this goes bad. So what’s the age limit for owners, so we can’t have some octogenerian shouting “YOLO” and signing another Anna Nicole Smith contract?
—Ian, New York

SG: (Cut to the 89 remaining Milwaukee Bucks fans nodding glumly.)

Q: Is Joakim Noah the first “Point Center” in NBA history?
—Ed C., Chicago

SG: This guy wants a word with you.

(And really, Bill Russell was the first point center — when Bob Cousy retired in 1963, the Celtics retooled their offense around Russell’s passing because they didn’t have a pure point guard. In the six post-Cousy years, Russell averaged five assists during an era when assists counted only if the scorer caught the pass and immediately scored. During Boston’s next two title seasons in ’64 and ’65, Russell finished seventh and fifth in the NBA in assists per game. To put that in perspective, Joakim Noah is 26th right now. And by the way, this is like the 58th-most impressive thing about Bill Russell’s career. So … yeah. Bill Russell. Not good enough for LeBron James’s Mount Rushmore.)

Q: I never thought a player personifying his city like Allen Iverson did with Philadelphia could be matched but then Brandon Jennings signed in Detroit. Is there a new sheriff in town? I don’t know what to think anymore.
—Tyler, Burnsville, MN

SG: I spent the last 10 minutes trying to figure out this email. Was Tyler complimenting Jennings or insulting him? I better check Jennings’s monthly splits. Let’s see …

Before the All-Star Break: 17.6 PPG, 8.1 APG, 38% FG, 78% FT, 36.2 MPG
After the All-Star Break: 11.7 PPG, 7.3 APG, 36.6% FG, 63% FT, 30.3 MPG

Yup, he was insulting him. (Thinking.) Wait, you can’t insult the Motor City! How dare you! We’re only 10 days away from Detroit Week on Grantland! The guys from Kiss want a word with you.

Q: On the list of fake injuries that helped a team lose games over the final stretch of the season for lottery purposes, where does Pau Gasol’s vertigo rank?
—Ethan, Goleta

SG: Come on, that’s a real injury! Who would ever make up “vertigo” as a reason to sit your best player? Even Sam Hinkie wouldn’t have thought of that. You should look at this another way: It’s a fact that Kobe Bryant could have returned five or six weeks ago, only the Lakers decided they’d be better off holding him out until next season — even if it meant costing him about 600 points that he needs toward Kareem’s scoring record. You gotta love the NBA, a league with a lottery system so screwed up that even Kobe — the most maniacally competitive player since Jordan — looks at the big picture and says, “You’re right, I shouldn’t play.” Hold this thought for later.

Q: Have we ever seen a “superstar” player have his on-court production affected by his off-court antics more negatively than Paul George, at least in this era? Ever since the stripper story (in February) and the recent “catfish” incident (in March) became public stories, his numbers and impact for Indiana dipped drastically. It’s not the Paul George we saw in the first half of the season, not the top 3 MVP candidate. I know this stuff is sensitive, but we can’t ignore it when evaluating a slumping Indiana.
—Connor Harrison, Gainesville, FL

SG: I’m answering only because my readers keep asking if the off-court stuff affected George (and, by extension, the Pacers). He’s also acknowledged this stuff publicly, which makes it fair game. But you know what really happened? I think he just regressed back to being a slightly less efficient version of Paul George.

George’s 19 playoff games last spring: 19.2 PPG, 43% FG, 33% 3FG, 73% FT, 14.6 FGA, 5.5 3FGA, and 6.7 FTA . Slightly fewer 3s, got to the line twice as much, everything else was on brand.

George’s 2013 hot streak (October 29 through December 31, 30 games): 23.8 PPG, 47% FG, 40% 3FG, 86% FT, 17.3 FGA, 6.6 3FGA, 5.8 FTA. And it happened: We thought, PAUL GEORGE IS MAKING THE LEAP!!!!!!

George’s shooting slump (January 25 through March 31, 33 games): 19.2 PPG, 37% FG, 32% 3FG, 87% FT, 16.5 FGA, 5.8 3FGA, 5.8 FTA. Even after you make the “extra shots” and “once he made the leap, every defense concentrated on stopping him” excuses, that’s a pretty dramatic dip from a two-month hot streak. Maybe he caught fire, drifted away from who he was and is, predictably cooled off … and now he doesn’t know what he is. If you’re not consistent enough to carry a superstar’s burden offensively, but you’re eminently overqualified to be a role player, then what are you? How do you handle it? He seems trapped between those two worlds right now.

From an eye-test standpoint, I thought George exhibited unusual confidence those first two months, taking and making hands-in-the-face, off-balance 3s right out of the Durant/Carmelo/T-Mac/Old-School Vince superstar playbook. But are we sure that’s who he is? What if he’s just an incredible athlete, an elite defender, an above-average 3-point shooter, an elite competitor, someone who isn’t remotely afraid of LeBron … and a streaky shooter who has his good stretches and his bad ones? What if there’s still another offensive leap for the 23-year-old George to make, only he’s one or two seasons away from making it? What does that mean for the Pacers in the short term?

Remember, he’s also playing without a slash-and-kick creator, and he’s playing for a contender that deliberately slows games down, limits possessions and relies on defense. Do I wish he went to the rack more over settling for jumpers? Absolutely. Young LeBron went to the line 10-plus times a game. Same for Young Wade, In-His-Prime Kobe, Young T-Mac (9.7 FGA in 2003) and Durant right now. George’s closest style dopplegänger is T-Mac, also a streaky scorer, but a more talented offensive player who got to the line whenever he wanted. George isn’t there yet. He’s a work in progress. And lately, he’s fallen into some bad habits — see Zach Lowe’s Indiana piece today — that have undeniably stilted his progress. The problem for Indiana is that Paul George is the guy from 10/29/13 to 12/31/13, but he’s also the guy from 1/25/14 to 3/31/14. They’re living in the same body. He’s not a finished product yet.

Q: Remember when the Celts were humming along towards a 2011 title run until a trade deadline deal sent Kendrick Perkins to Oklahoma City for Jeff Green and a pair of underwear? And how it made sense on paper but destroyed Boston’s team chemistry, killed Ubuntu, and shipped Rondo’s best friend all at the same time? Well remember when the Pacers were humming along towards a 2011 title run until a trade deadline deal sent Danny Granger to the Philadelphia 76ers for Evan Turner and a pair of underwear? What say you Sports Czar and King of body language?
—Mike, Chicago

SG: If I could create a pie chart of percentages explaining Indy’s pseudo-collapse, here’s what it would look like.

The Collective Slump (10%) — When’s the last time you watched anyone on the Pacers and said, “That guy’s playing great!” They’ve looked broken offensively for two solid months, for all the nuts-and-bolts reasons that Zach laid out today. Check out their post–All-Star break numbers. Yikes.

Identity Loss (25%) — Their play tailed off because they stopped pounding the ball inside, their defense slipped, their ball movement effectively disappeared, and they don’t get nearly enough easy baskets. David Aldridge’s last column:

“I just don’t know if we’re handling success and being out front the right way,” [David] West said. “When we don’t share the ball, we have 10, 15 possessions where we don’t make a single pass, and you’ve got four guys, or nine guys on the floor watching one guy, watching two guys, it’s on us.”

Whoa. It’s one thing for Hibbert to say stuff — he’s an outgoing guy and a reliably outspoken interview. He can’t help himself. He doesn’t give a shit. But for a cagey veteran like West to feed that stuff to Aldridge really says, Things are effed up now and I need to make it public because complaining about it privately hasn’t worked. And also — the concept of “handling success and being out front the right way” is a great one. Wasn’t that what derailed the mid-2000s Pistons? They won in 2004 and made the 2005 Finals because of defense, teamwork and consistency. When the ’06 Pistons ripped off that 37-5 start and sent four players to the All-Star Game, it was the worst thing that happened to them. They arrogantly developed an on/off switch that doomed them. Could that be happening here?

The Chemistry Thing (40%) — I’m the same guy who wrote a 700-page NBA book about the secret of basketball not having anything to do with basketball. So, yeah, I can’t help overanalyzing Indiana’s chemistry meltdown. Heading into the 2013-14 season, the Pacers were calibrated a certain way — grit and grind, defense first, stats don’t matter, the team is bigger than one person. Then they ripped off that early hot streak. Then George got some early MVP buzz. Then all the “THEY CAN BEAT MIAMI!” stuff started. Then the media started preaching the genius of Roy Hibbert’s verticality and pushing for Lance Stephenson to make the All-Star team. Then they signed Andrew Bynum (not exactly Gandhi in the clubhouse) and flipped Danny Granger (a beloved teammate) for Evan Turner (a 2014 free agent who hasn’t fit in).

So now you have 25 percent of your team playing for new deals, a star who’s getting prematurely compared to LeBron and Durant, a defensive anchor who thinks he’s Bill Russell, Lance thinking he’s an All-Star headed for a meaty extension, and a subtle behind-the-scenes chemistry downgrade from Granger to Turner/Bynum. And as soon as things started going south a little, shit drifted out into the public. Larry Bird calling out Frank Vogel. Hibbert and George arguing in front of reporters. All of Hibbert’s quotes. Teammates arguing on the bench during games. West saying what he said. That’s the sign of real dysfunction.

Lance Has This (25%) — I’m going mostly eye test here. Admittedly dangerous. But in my early ESPN.com days, I always joked that Tim Wakefield was the Steve Sanders of the Red Sox — in other words, you loved having him around, but you never wanted him involved in crucial plots. If you modernized that joke for 2014, you’d say that Lance Stephenson is the Saul Goodman of the Pacers — you love having him around, but you never wanted him involved in crucial plots. I don’t think AMC’s spinoff show with Saul will work, and I don’t think the Pacers can make the Finals by leaning on Lance this much.

Initially, the whole thing was cute — Vogel relying on Lance to assume a little of the playmaking burden. But then something dangerous happened. Lance started getting “You know who’s quietly the key to Indiana’s offense right now? LANCE STEPHENSON!” and “You know who’s really blossoming into a good player? LANCE STEPHENSON!” attention. When the All-Star buzz started, that seemed like the invisible turning point. And it’s not just the fancy high dribbles, the no-look passes, the post-dunk staredowns and all the other look-at-me stuff that doesn’t feel Pacers-ish.

The biggest Lance-related danger (for me, anyway): In close-and-late games, when Indiana needs someone to make a play, Lance invariably shifts into “I got this” mode. Trust me — you’re not winning four straight rounds if Lance Stephenson has the “I got this” green light. Forget about Miami in Round 3. Imagine a 2-2 series in Round 1 or Round 2, with Indy struggling to keep home-court advantage in Game 5 against some overachieving underdog … and Lance says, “Hold on, guys … I GOT THIS!” Does any Pacers fan feel good about that scenario?

Now, you can flip this the other way and say, “The 2003 Spurs won a title partly because Stephen Jackson had the balls to occasionally say, ‘I GOT THIS!’” His swagger (I hate that word, but still) really helped them. This is 100 percent true. It’s also 100 percent true that San Antonio allowed Captain Jack to leave that summer, and that they never acquired another “I GOT THIS!” guy. Gregg Popovich didn’t want to walk that tightrope again. But with the ghastly way Indy is playing offensively right now, they might not have a choice.

To be fair, second-half swoons don’t necessarily mean you’re finished. (The 1995 Rockets or 2010 Celtics, anyone?) And 49 of the last 60 Finals teams (dating back to 1984) had a top-two record in their conference, so history sides with Indy regrouping here. But when you’re built unconventionally — winning with defense, chemistry, depth and unselfishness, but without an elite offensive player — it’s tough to say “They’ll be fine” when their four biggest strengths vanished. And we DO have a precedent for the swoon to keep going — in Indiana, no less. Remember when the Pacers went into the 2003 All-Star break with the East’s best record, peaked at 37-15 … then belly-flopped to an 11-19 finish and got stunned by Boston in Round 1? Hold on, I need a Truth flashback.

So, this isn’t a media-created story line just because it’s March and we’re bored. Two months ago, I couldn’t imagine there not being a Round 3 Miami-Indiana slugfest without a major injury intervening. Now? I could absolutely see Brooklyn or Chicago toppling Indy in a Round 2 rock fight. It’s in play. Stay tuned.

Q: Dane Cook and Dennis Rodman starred in a f-ing movie together? How is Simon Sez not talked about more? I thought comcast was making an april fools joke when I saw it in the free movie section.
—Sam Whiteley, Portland

SG: That can’t be true. (Searching.) Wait a second … Dane Cook and Dennis Rodman starred in a f-ing movie together! Where was I? Did I block this out of my mind? And how can I re-block this out of my mind????

Q: I know it’s impossible. But, for argument’s sake, the Knicks grab the 8 seed, and then beat the Heat in the first round, would that be the greatest sports upset ever? Would USA-USSR 1980 finally be outdone?
—Mike, New York, NY

SG: Settle down. Besides, it wouldn’t even be the greatest NBA first-round upset ever.

Come on, you know how Knicks-Heat is playing out: The Knicks will steal Game 2 in Miami thanks to Carmelo scoring 39 and Miami forgetting to flick their on-off button to “on,” followed by a two-day stretch in which every Knicks fan does the math and says, “Wait, we have three home games left, we have MSG, we’ll have Phil in the house, we have Carmelo, WE CAN DO THIS!!!!!!!!!” And then, Miami will annihilate the Knicks in Games 3 and 4 as every Knicks fan remembers, “Oh yeah, we have Mike Woodson and the league’s worst backcourt, I totally forgot!”

Q: Could you see Kevin Ollie being the next coach of the Thunder if they crash and burn in the playoffs? In your podcast with Kevin “The Servant” Durant, he spoke very highly of Ollie as a leader.
—Ricardo, McAllen, TX

SG: Had the same thought as I watched Ollie coach his ass off last weekend, then abandoned that thought last night when I remembered that OKC can still make the 2014 Finals because they’re such a horrendous matchup for the Spurs. (Then again, that’s the coolest thing about the 2014 playoffs — there’s a little rock-paper-scissors action going on. Everyone has someone they don’t want to play.) Anyway, I asked Durant in that podcast if he believed in the whole “veteran leadership thing.” His answer …

“Most definitely. Kevin Ollie, he was a game-changer for us. He changed the whole culture, I think. He might not say it, but he changed the whole culture in Oklahoma City. Just his mind-set, his professionalism, every single day. And we all watched that and we wanted to be like that. It rubbed off on Russell, myself, Jeff Green, James Harden — and everyone that comes through now, that’s the standard you got to live up to, as a Thunder player, and it all started with Kevin Ollie.”

Now, I can’t see the Thunder changing coaches unless they get bounced in Round 1. Not because they’d be unhappy with Scott Brooks, but because they’re too friggin’ cheap to pay two coaches. But Ollie is a super-intriguing name to file away, especially if OKC doesn’t win the title in 2014 or 2015 and wants to avoid “The Decision II” (Durant in 2016). It all started with Kevin Ollie. Hmmmmmmmm.

Q: If your Celtics don’t win the lottery and have the 5-8 pick who would you not want the Celtics to take? Being a Timberwolves fan, I’m praying the Lakers don’t take Aaron Gordon. Super athletic but can’t shoot at all.
—Tommy H. Mankato, MN

SG: My top six right now, at this very moment and not counting the 730 other times I’ll change my mind before June: (1) Andrew Wiggins, (2) Jabari Parker, (3) Joel Embiid, (4) Aaron Gordon, (5) Julius Randle, (6) Dante Exum. After that, I’d be depressed that the Celtics didn’t get a top-six pick. And we disagree on Gordon — he’s Shawn Marion 2.0 with a dash of Blake and a dash of Kirilenko thrown in. I came around on Gordon the more I watched him. Crazy athletic, good hoops IQ, super-competitive. I’m in. By the way, Marion 2.0 is no joke — we just got 15 years and counting from the Matrix.

Q: Isn’t the perfect ending to Steve Nash’s video series to copy Amber Waves’ Dirk Diggler documentary complete with brooding shots of Nash walking through the streets of L.A. and watching sunsets? For Steve Nash, the future is something to look forward to, not to fear. He is a creative man of many interests: film, poetry, karate, music, dance…He is a man of passion and mystery. He is a man of lust. Now that’s an ending. I can even see Nash as Diggler in the scene with D’Antoni as Jack Horner where Nash talks about how great it is to work with a coach who gives him freedom to run the offense as he sees fit, then D’Antoni interrupts to say, “No, I don’t.”
—Todd Grube, Houston, TX

SG: Now that’s how you get in the mailbag. If you write a funny email that organically plugs a Grantland project while somehow incorporating Boogie Nights, you’re in.

Q: I’m ready for your annual trade value column. This is where you’re going to explain why Goran Dragic and his cap friendly salary and slashing style are more valuable than Damian Lillard and his eventual max contract and poor percentage at the rim. I’m going to get mad because Damian is my guy and I’ll think you’re an idiot. Then I’ll come to grips with the fact that you’re right, I’m a homer, and watching my Blazers crawl to the finish line while the Suns seem to not go away only verifies your point. I suppose that’s why you’re a necessary evil. I don’t have to like it though.
—Jake, Gold Beach, OR

SG: That was this month’s winner of the Backhanded Compliment Award. I don’t know when we’re seeing the annual Trade Value Column — if I wrote it right now, I’d end up putting Anthony Davis first, second and third. Might be better off waiting until the summer when I can’t overreact to everything. I love overreacting. It’s one of my weaknesses.

Q: I can’t think of a scenario where Frank Kaminsky isn’t at least useful in the NBA. Seven feet, can shoot it from anywhere, quick, good free throw shooter, good intangibles. I spent 30 minutes trying to find him in the top 100 NBA prospects, but could not. Am I missing something?
—David Moore, Charleston


(See, I love overreacting. But seriously … this guy couldn’t be an effective big off the bench for a contender? The Spurs couldn’t figure out how to use a 7-footer who shoots 3s, plays with his back to the basket and doesn’t do anything else? Watching Kaminsky dismantle Arizona like he was Pau circa 2006 whupping on Lithuania  in the World Basketball Championships or something — that was absolutely delightful. I loved it.)

Q: What would be the most IMPROBABLE BUT FUN thing that could happen in the 2014 NBA Playoffs?
1. “The Heat are swept in any round”
2. “Knicks enter as 8 seed and beat Indiana or Miami”
3. “Phoenix goes to the Conference Finals”
4. “It gets leaked that Prokhorov offered 5 hookers to each Net if they won the East.”

What are we missing?
—Mauricio, Santa Monica

SG: You missed the comedy of NBA TV getting stuck with every single Indiana-Charlotte game. Has that ever happened before? An entire series getting the NBA TV hammer?

Q: LeBron is currently 10/1 for MVP betting. Talk me out of this.
—Sean, Dublin

SG: One second.

Q: Who is the next NBA MVP not named Durant or LeBron? I suspect it’s Anthony Davis. He can dominate on both ends of the floor in a LeBron-esque manner, and is barely 21. Does he have the potential to carry a Pelicans team of the mid/late 2010s (with an inevitably weak supporting cast) the way LeBron did on the Cavs a decade earlier?
—James Newmyer, Prague

SG: Absolutely. Zach Lowe covered it on Tuesday. Davis is the safest bet. But let’s be clear — LeBron and Durant are owning the rest of this decade. Durant is JUST hitting the beginning of his prime, at age 25, and coming off this insane three-month stretch after Christmas (from 12/27 through 3/25):

42 Games, 39.3 MPG, 35.0 PPG, 7.4 RPG, 6.1 APG, 52% FG, 40% 3FG, 86% FT

That’s more than half a season! Are you kidding me?

I sucked it up and looked through every conceivable three-month stretch of Larry Legend’s career — he never caught fire like THAT. Not even during the last three months of the ’85 season, when the Legend basically averaged a 31-11-7 in the 50-40-90 range, with at least four or five buzzer-beaters and the famous 60-point game against the Hawks in New Orleans. By the way? He’s the greatest forward of all time. And Durant’s half-season streak tops any half-season streak Bird ever had. We’re four years away from wondering about the next MVP. At least. But to answer James’s question, the Brow is definitely the first pick. I’d also throw Blake Griffin, Steph Curry and Thon Maker in there. Thon Maker? Thon Maker.

Q: I almost died when I read the title of this TED talk: “Dan Gilbert: Why We Make Bad Decisions.” Unfortunately, it’s not the Cavs owner, just a namesake. But imagine if it were!
—Francois Aube, Montreal

SG: I think there’s still time.

Player A: 21.6 ppg, 6.4 APG, 41.7 fg%, 32.4 3-point%
Player B: 21.3 ppg, 8.9 APG, 42.8 fg%, 33.5 3-point%
Player C: 21.1 ppg, 6.2 APG, 42.8 fg%, 36.6 3-point%

Player A is Steve Francis Year 3.
Player B is Stephon Marbury Year 3.
Player C is Kyrie Irving Year 3.
—Kyle B., Indy

Q: Look at this.
Player A: 20.7 ppg, 6.4 apg, 1.3 spg, 3 tpg, 45.3 fg%, 35.4% 3fg.
Player B: 21.1 ppg, 6.3 apg, 3.6 rpg, 1.4 spg, 2.7 tpg, 42.8 fg%, 36.6 3fg%.

Player A is Isaiah Thomas. Player B is Kyrie Irving.
—Aamir Shakir, San Francisco

SG: My counter to Kyle and Aamir …

Player A: 21.1 ppg, 6.3 apg, 3.6 rpg, 43.1 FG%, 36.6 3FG%, 20.1 PER
Player B: 21.3 ppg, 6.9 apg, 3.3 rpg, 43.8 FG%, 29.1 3FG%, 21.6 PER

Player A? Kyrie. Player B? Devin Harris in 2009.

(YES! I just won the “Who Could Freak Cleveland Fans Out The Most With a Blind Player Comparison To Kyrie Irving” Contest!!!)

Q: What is your opinion on Vivek Ranadive’s “V Plan” to stop tanking?
—Lawrence Faulkner, Sacramento

SG: Put it this way — if I bought a small-market team, gave my polarizing young head case a massive extension, overpaid an injury-prone free agent to become the sixth power forward on my roster, told my local TV cameras to shoot my reactions as much as possible during our home games, then traded for one of the league’s worst contracts who doubled as the least popular player in the advanced metrics community at the time, I would not have the balls to call this “The B.S. Plan.” Just kidding, Vivek. But you might want to check the Internet.

Q: Could you please make sure that near the end of the NBA season you tease us with a breakdown of what your Entertaining-as-Hell Tournament would look like?
—Scott Scattergood, Korea

SG: I thought the lopsided 2013-14 NBA season vindicated the Entertaining As Hell Tournament premise. Right now, we’re headed for a 50-win Western team missing the playoffs (my guess: the Suns) as well as the reprehensible 35-win Knicks reprehensibly sneaking into the reprehensible no. 8 seed.

When the 2014 Suns can miss the playoffs and the Knicks can make it, we’re fundamentally doing something wrong. When the Sixers can blow 26 straight games, then win at home to break the streak as their mortified fans don’t know whether to cheer or cry, we’re fundamentally doing something wrong. When the 2014 Hawks say, We’d rather fall into the lottery than make the playoffs, we’re doing something fundamentally wrong. Such a frustrating season. I love watching 10 teams, tolerate maybe five others, and don’t want any part of the other 15.

OK, so here’s how the EAHT would play out if the season ended on Wednesday (before Thursday’s games). Remember, here’s the premise: The top seven seeds in each conference make the playoffs, then it’s a single-elimination tournament for the last two playoff spots.

First-Round Winners: No. 1 Memphis over no. 16 Milwaukee (“Welcome to Tru TV!”) … no. 2 Phoenix over no. 15 Philly (Sam Hinkie: “Hey, Thad and MCW, it’s OK to try in this one”) … no. 3 Minnesota over no. 14 Orlando (yes, ’Sota could absolutely blow this game) … no. 13 Boston over no. 4 Denver (OUR FIRST UPSET! LET’S GO CELTS! HERE WE GO GREEN!!!!!!!) … no. 5 New York over no. 12 Utah (with the Knicks nearly blowing a 22-point lead as every Knicks fan melts down on Twitter) … no. 11 Lakers over no. 6 Atlanta (17 assists for Nash, 35 points for Kobe) … no. 7 New Orleans over no. 10 Detroit (34 points, 19 rebounds and eight blocks for the Brow) … no. 8 Cleveland over no. 9 Sacramento (triple-OT!!!).

Lingering first-round thoughts: Can you really go wrong with a single-elimination tournament featuring Anthony Davis, Kevin Love, Rajon Rondo, Goran Dragic, Carmelo Anthony, Boogie Cousins, both Gasols, 40-year-old Steve Nash, the Celtics and Lakers jerseys, and a triple-OT game between Sacramento and Cleveland? And also, Kobe could have returned a month ago, only it made little sense for him to risk his aging body on a lottery team. But if he could win three win-or-go-homes to make the playoffs? That dude is coming back. Is the league more fun with Kobe playing or not playing? You tell me.

Second-Round Winners (re-seeding): No. 13 Boston over no. 1 Memphis (MASSIVE UPSET! BRAD STEVENS LOVES TOURNAMENTS!!!!! RONDO WITH A 17-19-16!!!!!!) … just kidding, no. 1 Memphis over no. 13 Boston (golf clap for the C’s) … no. 2 Suns over no. 11 Lakers (final score: 129-125, and I gotta admit, I came damned close to picking Kobe, Nash and Vertigo Pau) … no. 8 Cleveland over no. 3 Minnesota (here’s the textbook 2014 T-Wolves game in which they score 70 points in the first half, then blow a 15-point lead in the fourth quarter, choke the game away on a Dion Waiters Heat Check, then lose in the last 10 seconds because someone other than Kevin Love took the final shot, followed by Love taking his jersey off on the court and angrily flinging it into the stands as Rick Adelman turns maroon) … no. 7 New Orleans over no. 5 New York (38 points, 22 rebounds and eight blocks for the Brow!).

Lingering second-round thoughts: I really, really, really, really, really enjoyed pretending to watch all of those games. Look at what we accomplished already. We convinced Kobe to come back. We figured out a new and improved way for the Knicks and Timberwolves to torture their fans. We rewarded the Brow for turning into a franchise guy — now he has something to play for other than the lottery. Same for that goofy Cavs team that floundered for four months and needed a mini–Ewing Theory situation with Kyrie Irving to find itself. I like our Final Four. And we ended up with four spectacular second-round games. You’re enjoying this!

Final Four Winners: no. 1 Memphis over no. 8 Cleveland (too much Big Spain, too much Z-Bo, too much Mike Brown), and no. 7 New Orleans over no. 2 Phoenix (the Brow! The Brow! THE BROW!!!!!!!!!!!).

Lingering Final Four thoughts: This was beautiful. The Grizzlies earned a playoff spot they deserved anyway; they’re 29-12 since January 9. The Brow pulled a 1988 Danny Manning and single-handedly dragged his boys to glory. And we ended up with a better no. 8 seed than the freaking Knicks. The only downer: Phoenix got bumped from The Show. But hey, if you can’t fake-beat New Orleans at fake-home, then you don’t fake-deserve to make the fake-playoffs.

All right, so we found our last two playoff teams. Now what? The more I think about it, the more I think (a) the EAHT should end after three rounds (it doesn’t make sense to have a championship game), and (b) we should just dump conferences and go with an NBA Sweet 16 for the actual playoffs (like Kirk Goldsberry posted two weeks ago).

So, why not? Why wouldn’t we want an extra week of rest for the best playoff teams? What’s wrong with 14 single-elimination playoff games over one action-packed week? Why not open the door for a late-peaking team? Why avoid a scenario in which someone like Kobe says, “You know what? I’m coming back,” instead of, “There’s no reason for me to come back”?

And doesn’t re-seeding 1-through-16 for the actual playoffs, NCAA-style, make more sense than what we’re doing now? You’d still have your best team in each conference on opposite sides of the bracket, only someone like Indiana couldn’t be rewarded for hiccuping down the stretch. Instead of getting gift-wrapped the below-.500 Bobcats in Round 1, the Pacers now get Noah, Thibs and the Bulls. Good luck going on cruise control in THAT series.

How would the EAHT affect tanking? I’m throwing out my fourth different idea for this one … what if we blew up the lottery format and reinvented it with three tiers:

Worst Six Teams: 9 percent chance of winning
Worst Teams 7 through 12: 4 percent chance of winning
Worst Teams 13 through 16: 2 percent chance of winning

Wait, that’s only 86 percent. Hmmmmmmm … let’s give each of the 14 playoff teams 1 percent odds. That’s right, we’re putting everyone in! TRY TANKING NOW!!! We run the lottery for the first four picks, then the draft goes in reverse order of record from the fifth pick on. You really think Philly is casually blowing 26 straight under this revamped system?

Oh, and Adam Silver? You’re shopping your next slew of media rights packages right now to ESPN/ABC, Turner, Fox and everyone else, right? And you’re thinking about adding a third package that includes a Saturday-night regular-season bundle, right? Wouldn’t it make the most sense to combine that bundle with the Entertaining As Hell Tournament into a third, mack-daddy package? Conceivably, Disney would pay more for the same deal it already has; same for Turner and its current deal; then a third party comes in (Fox Sports? NBC? Maybe even … gulp … Google or Apple TV?) and grabs those Saturday-night games and the Entertaining As Hell Tournament? Thank you and please drive through. I’m turning everything over to the O’Jays.


BILL SIMMONS is the editor-in-chief of Grantland and the author of the New York Times no. 1 best seller The Book of Basketball. For every Simmons column and podcast, log on to Grantland.

Fixing the NBA Playoffs APRIL 4, 2014
An ‘Above the Rim’ Roundtable APRIL 2, 2014
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B.S. Report: Wesley Morris MARCH 28, 2014



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real Dortmund

By: timbersfan, 8:43 AM GMT on April 04, 2014

Three Things: Real Madrid vs. Borussia Dortmund

By Stephan Uersfeld | April 2, 2014 6:02:19 PM PDT
Gareth Bale's early goal set the tone as Real Madrid thumped Borussia Dortmund 3-0 at the Bernabeu. Here are three things from their Champions League quarterfinal first leg...

1. Real looking like favourites

They delivered. Again. They always deliver these days, at least in the Champions League. Two La Liga defeats in their last three games have put a lot of pressure on Real Madrid. And, really, Borussia Dortmund have not been the team that Los Blancos have been dreaming of over the past 12 months.

However, Madrid were out to kill their demons just like they had been in the last 16 in their tie against FC Schalke 04. Simply put, they were utterly brilliant.

Bale -- is he really worth the transfer fee? -- scored barely three minutes from the start: Karim Benzema to Daniel Carvajal (whose name resonates in the Bundesliga due to his stint at Leverkusen) to Bale. The Welshman, who will never win a World Cup, showed his sheer determination and poked the ball away for what was his third goal in his third game against a Bundesliga side.

Bale didn't have to do to BVB what he did to Schalke. Out for "La Decima," Los Blancos sat and waited and knew when to switch gears. They might have stormed the Dortmund goal in the opening 15 minutes but then, knowing they would get chances throughout the game, they sat and waited. And so it happened, Dortmund’s Henrik Mkhitaryan wasted a ball, and Isco was there to kill it off, from outside the box.

Set pieces, be it Cristiano Ronaldo or his mimic Bale, were stopped by Germany international Roman Weidenfeller and Dortmund, to their credit, did push and press.

Yet the Portuguese star delivered. Just like he always does. It had to be him, though he'd later limp off injured, who scored the final goal of the night when Luka Modric picked up a pass gone wrong, and set the Portugal international up for his 14th goal of the Champions League season.

Real Madrid delivered once again and when push comes to shove, they're the biggest threat to FC Bayern Munich in the Bavarians' hunt for a second consecutive Champions League crown.

2. No big deal for BVB?

It could have been a really busy month of April for Borussia Dortmund. Champions League, that old fairytale story which still needs a happy ending, the German Cup with the big match against Bayern in mid-May and the race for the second spot in Bundesliga. A match every three days and a match deciding Dortmund's future in every competition every single week.

On Wednesday, Borussia Dortmund decided on getting the job done by not getting the job done. In Madrid against one of the best teams in Europe, Borussia Dortmund always were a threat to the Real goal, until the final pass or the final move.

The 2013 Champions League finalists will surely exit the competition next week with their heads held up high. While all of Germany, and maybe even all of Europe, pushed Die Schwarzgelben into their role as number one competitors of Bayern Munich, Dortmund have not disappointed so far.

To get the job done does not mean to repeat the 2013 Champions League dream but to continue their growth and continue qualifying for the biggest European club competition. No club in Germany -- don’t mention Bayern, who are more or less playing in their own league -- has been able to consistently qualify for the Champions League in recent years. However, only the Champions League money and everything attached -- the international reputation, the sponsors, the players willing to join the club -- can guarantee years of competition in Bundelisga.

BVB may have failed in Madrid, and deservedly so, but their quarterfinal exit will allow Jurgen Klopp to focus his squad on the dominant target in the upcoming weeks: winning vital points to secure another try (and more money) next season.

Sitting eight points ahead of fifth-placed VfL Wolfsburg, Dortmund are up against Die Woelfe on Saturday and three points will keep BVB firmly in second and one step closer to a guaranteed UCL group stage spot.

Sometimes you don't need to win it all to improve and build that famous second beacon. Just keep improving. Little by little.

3. Cause for German concern?

The best league in the world? But Bayern Munich won the league earlier than every Bundesliga side has ever done! Bayer Leverkusen? Are you serious? Manchester United and Paris SG! FC Schalke 04? At least it was Real Madrid! But see how they play! Borussia Dortmund? For once, please stop moaning. The injured players! The players that left! Time does not change anything.

The Bundesliga have now gone winless in their seven most recent Champions League games. Bayern drew twice, Dortmund lost twice and so did Schalke); only Leverkusen have the advantage of Bayern and Dortmund at least winning their away games at Arsenal and St. Petersburg.

There is a dark cloud over German football and, so far, nobody has been able to identify it. But something is not right about the major sport in Germany. Uli Hoeness, the president of FC Bayern Munich, will spend time in prison in the next couple of months. The Germany national team, at least in Germany, has seemingly long lost its favourite status at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

Traditional clubs like Hamburger SV and VfB Stuttgart are battling to avoid the drop into the second division, while teams like Borussia Moenchengladbach, SC Freiburg, FSV Mainz 05 and SC Freiburg have in recent years shown that they are not able to compete both domestically and in the more modest Europa League.

Bayern Munich are the sole stellar team that can still convince the rest of the world that German football is on the rise. And their dominance of the Bundesliga, this season at least, puts all marketing efforts in danger.

Borussia Dortmund and a revived Schalke will have to turn things around for German football next season.

After all, one Bayern Munich will not be enough, not even for with seven Bayern Munich players representing Die Mannschaft at the World Cup.

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psg che

By: timbersfan, 8:42 AM GMT on April 04, 2014

Three Things: PSG vs. Chelsea

By Julien Laurens | April 2, 2014 5:29:16 PM PDT
Reaction to PSG's 3-1 win vs. Chelsea in the first leg of the Champions League quarterfinal.

1. Pastore is not finished

Football, eh! On one hand are Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Edinson Cavani and Ezequiel Lavezzi, with 65 goals between them this season. On the other is Javier Pastore, with one (yes one, un, uno) at Monaco back in February! Guess who got a massive goal in a Champions League quarterfinal first leg, against Chelsea, in added time? Indeed.

Pastore was the marquee signing of PSG's new Qatari owners two years ago, when he cost 42 million euros. He was 22 at the time, certainly a talent but totally unproven. He did lose his way a bit and struggled at times for form and confidence, but the talent was always there. It’s just that unlike usual world-class players who show it week in, week out, Pastore does so only on special occasions.

Such as at the Parc des Princes vs. Lyon in his first season, at the Camp Nou last season to almost put PSG through against Barcelona, at Monaco in a huge Ligue 1 clash a month ago and on Wednesday.

And what a way to score, too, tearing apart the Chelsea defence with some magical skills and finishing with a shot from his (wrong) left foot. Laurent Blanc often says that, at training, Pastore does things that even Zinedine Zidane could not do and there was a sense of that tonight.

It was a night to rise from a slumber and Pastore reminded the whole world that there is still some genius in him.

2. Ibra's English curse

It's now three goals in 16 games against English opposition for Ibrahimovic. Once again, the whole of Europe had its eyes on him and once again, he disappointed. The PSG leader, who had scored 41 goals in his past 36 games for club and country, simply didn’t respond to the expectations.

There was always a risk that he would try to do too much, to overplay. That’s what he does and that’s who he is. Sometimes it works, often it doesn’t. When Ibra wants to save the world, he usually fails, especially when he doesn’t need to.

PSG won without him on Wednesday and had he played his usual game, with more simplicity, the Parisians could maybe have won with even a bigger margin.

To top it all, he got injured halfway through the second half and left the pitch limping. The second leg takes place in just six days and there is already a question mark over his fitness.

To be fair, given his performance and that of his team, plus the fact that Chelsea will have to attack next week at Stamford Bridge, leaving Paris to counter, the absence of Ibrahimovic, meaning Cavani on his own up front, might actually be a good thing.

3. Tale of two coaches

Before the game, there were doubts about Laurent Blanc's tactical abilities against Jose Mourinho.

The latter is a master tactician, who has proved it in the past and has showed it again this season (at Manchester City for example). This is his ninth Champions League quarterfinal and he has never lost at this stage of the competition.

On the other hand, Blanc has never been special at tactics and lacks experience (only his second last-eight appearance). Jean-Louis Gasset, his assistant, is the main brain behind the team. During his time in charge of France and this season, Blanc was sometimes criticized for his poor tactical decisions.

However, tonight, the master was beaten by the student. Mourinho, from start to finish, got it wrong. Starting with Andre Schuerrle up front, as he did in August at Manchester United, was a mistake. The German struggled in that role and Chelsea had no presence in the box.

Even Mourinho’s changes in the second half made little sense. Fernando Torres came on for Schuerrle when Chelsea were lacking in midfield and the decision to bring on Frank Lampard for Oscar at 2-1 down, when there were spaces to counter PSG, was surprising.

On the other hand, Blanc was spot on. Lucas, on for Ibrahimovic, brought pace and energy to PSG and Pastore was his "coup de genie."

Tags:PSGChelseaChampions LeagueJose MourinhoJulien LaurensZlatan IbrahimovicLaurent BlancJavier PastoreEzequiel Lavezzi
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cl totw

By: timbersfan, 8:41 AM GMT on April 04, 2014

Champions League Team of the Week

By Martin Laurence, WhoScored.com | April 3, 2014 7:01:50 AM PDT
Having pulled off the surprise result of the round to reach the quarterfinals with a second-leg comeback against Olympiakos, Manchester United were out to prove the doubters wrong again, keeping holders Bayern Munich to a 1-1 draw at Old Trafford.

Elsewhere Real Madrid strengthened their credentials with a crushing 3-0 victory over Borussia Dortmund, while Chelsea left themselves a lot to do by conceding a late third in a 3-1 defeat to PSG. In the other game, a 1-1 stalemate between Barcelona and Atletico Madrid at Camp Nou sets up an intriguing second leg next week.

We look over the top performers from the quarterfinal first legs, analysing WhoScored.com's Champions League Team of the Week, with the best XI performers lining up in a 4-4-2 formation.

Goalkeeper: The fact that Dortmund’s Roman Weidenfeller makes the team of the week despite conceding three goals is perhaps the best indicator of Real Madrid's dominance at the Bernabeu. The German produced eight saves to ensure that Juergen Klopp's side weren't on the end of a battering, but last year's finalists still have a mountain to climb.

Right-back: An unlikely player of the week, Real Madrid's Dani Carvajal put in one of his strongest performances for Los Blancos to earn a rating of 9.2. The full-back produced eight tackles to help minimise Dortmund's threat out wide and picked up an assist for Gareth Bale's early strike -- one of three key passes on the night.

Left-back: David Alaba takes his place on the opposite side of the backline having put in a typically attacking performance from full-back for Bayern. No player attempted more crosses in the match (six), while the Austrian international also made three tackles and won a game-high of seven aerial duels.

Centre-back: The first centre-back to make the XI is United captain Nemanja Vidic, whose superb header from a Wayne Rooney corner early in the second half gave the hosts a shock lead. Elsewhere the Serbian completed 13 clearances to help keep Bayern at bay and maintained an excellent 94 percent pass accuracy over the 90 minutes.

Centre-back: The Inter-bound defender is joined at the back by Real Madrid's Pepe. The Portuguese put in a solid performance, with no player attempting more than his 80 passes, whilst completing a team high of four interceptions and winning three aerial duels.

Right midfield: Just pipping Gareth Bale into the place on the right, Neymar's goal ensured that Barcelona will still likely go into their second leg against Atletico as favourites. The Brazilian's intelligent run, found by a precise Iniesta through ball, and his neat finish capped a display that included five shots and a match high of seven successful dribbles.

Left midfield: Having equalled Lionel Messi’s record of scoring 14 goals in a single Champions League campaign with his strike against Dortmund, Cristiano Ronaldo claims the spot on the left. With the potential of four more games to play should Madrid reach the final he'll be confident of breaking that record, with four shots and four successful dribbles on Wednesday having helped Ronaldo garner a rating of 8.4.

Centre-midfield: We stay in Madrid to find the central midfield pairing in this week's XI, with Isco registering on the scoresheet at the Bernabeu. The young Spaniard completed the most dribbles in the match against Dortmund (five), created three chances for teammates and completed 95 percent of his 63 pass attempts before he was taken off in the 72nd minute.

Centre-midfield: Luka Modric completes a five-man Real Madrid contingent in the UCL TOTW this time around, with a familiarly impressive playmaker's display. The former Spurs man picked up an assist from a match high of four key passes, completed four dribbles and weighed in with three tackles and two interceptions to break up play in the middle of the park.

Striker: It's fair to say it wasn't a week for strikers in the Champions League, with no starting centre-forward on the scoresheet in the quarterfinal first legs. Wayne Rooney did pick up an assist and mustered two shots at goal against Bayern, and the Englishman created a further chance in a somewhat modest performance.

Striker: Lionel Messi joins the United man despite a subpar performance by his astronomical standards. The Argentinean did fire off five shots at goal and created three chances for teammates to pick up a rating of 7.3 but will certainly hope to play a more integral role in the second leg, with the tie against Atletico in the balance ahead of next week's showdown.

All statistics courtesy of WhoScored.com, where you can find yet more stats, including live in-game data and unique player and team ratings.

Tags:Champions Leaguechampions league team of the week
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barca transfer

By: timbersfan, 8:40 AM GMT on April 04, 2014

What the transfer ban might mean for Barcelona

By Dermot Corrigan | April 3, 2014 9:21:43 AM PDT
The two-window transfer ban imposed on Barcelona by FIFA on Wednesday morning looks set to have a huge effect on the club's future, both on and off the pitch.

In an immediate sense, Barca could well now enter next season without a senior goalkeeper and with little cover in central defence, while yet another administrative setback has thrown the future of the club's current president, Josep Maria Bartomeu, and his fellow board members right up into the air.

Barca quickly released a statement saying it would appeal to FIFA and then, if necessary, to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, but they are by no means certain to get the ban overturned -- and a summer without signings could have really serious and wide-ranging consequences for a club which has been stumbling from hurdle to hurdle this season.

Broken rules

Although the news that Barca -- as well as the Spanish football federation (RFEF) -- had been found guilty of several violations in relation to rules governing international transfers and registering foreign players broke on Wednesday morning, it still appears to have caught the club on the hop.

ESPNFC.com had reported over a year ago that this was coming down the line. In February 2013, the FIFA Transfer Matching System found that Barca had brought six players -- South Koreans Lee Seung-Woo, Jang Gyeolhee and Paik Seung-Ho; French youngster Theo Chendri; Nigerian-Dutch player Bobby Adekanye; and Cameroonian Patrice Sousia -- to the club in deals that did not fit with the governing body's recently tightened rules around European club's recruitment of "minor" players from all corners of the globe.

International youth transfers can now only take place if the player's parents have moved to another country for non-related reasons, if the player's home is less than 50 kilometres from the national border being crossed or if the move takes place within the European Union and the player is aged between 16 and 18.

According to FIFA's latest judgement, Barca have now broken these rules in 10 separate cases. The further four players named in the Spanish press are Japanese youngster Take Kubo, France’s Kayz Ruiz Atil, Guinean Abdoul Mazid Diallo and American Ben Lederman, who moved to Barcelona from California aged just 11 in 2011 along with his parents.

- Report: Barca hit with ban
- SN: Is Barca's ban fair?

But even as FIFA president Sepp Blatter maintained that the rules put in place to avoid exploitation and trafficking of young players must be followed by everyone, and the six kids were banned from playing for their Infantil and Cadete sides, Barca appeared to be confident that no punishment would be taken.

The club's argument appears to be based on the idea that Barca's famous La Masia academy provides excellent footballing and all-round education to the youngsters it brings in (including the likes of Lionel Messi in the past).

This argument was repeated again in its official statement reacting to the ban when it maintained that “FCB forms people before athletes, a fact that has not been considered by FIFA, which applies a penalty criterion that ignores the educational function of our training program.”

Such an approach from Barca's officials suggests they expected to receive special dispensation to sign young players, and looks likely to be the basis of their appeal to FIFA and CAS.

Furthermore, El Pais sources indicated that Barca could appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, using Chelsea's successful overturning of a ban relating to the Gael Kakuta transfer from Lens as a precedent.

Deals not already officially done

The Kakuta case looks quite different, however, and in that case Chelsea still ended up paying compensation to the player's former team.

Other clubs including Spanish lower-tier side Cadiz and Denmark's Midtjylland have seen appeals to CAS in similar cases fail, and FIFA's lengthy judgement shows how seriously the governing body are taking the issue. Barca's public optimism may well have less to do with their realistic hopes of overturning the ban and be more about playing for time in the hope they can at least make use of the summer's transfer window.

While FIFA have not yet confirmed when the ban would come into force, deals already agreed for German goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen -- reportedly already done for around 10 million euros -- and Croatian starlet Alen Halilovic, which Barca announced on their own website last week, are now open to question.

- Halilovic deal in doubt?

Deals can be agreed in advance, but only ratified during the official windows (July/August or in January) so if the ban does come into force, both deals will likely be postponed at best.

Ter Stegen's representative Gerd von Bruch has said that he and his client will have to wait and see what happens in the coming weeks. But Halilovic's lawyer Jean Louis Dupont, who played a leading role in the famous "Bosman case" which forced FIFA to change its transfer rules in the 1990s, is more forthright and believes his client's transfer will be sanctioned.

Jeepers keepers

In the case of Halilovic, an attacking midfielder who is soon to turn 18 and was slated to play for Barca B next season, a delay would not be a huge deal.

By contrast, the club’s goalkeeping situation is a huge immediate worry given that its two current senior goalkeepers, Victor Valdes and Jose Manuel Pinto, are both out of contract at the end of the current campaign.

Valdes has reportedly had contract offers from both Monaco and Manchester City but the serious knee injury he suffered just last week will likely have complicated any such deals.

Bartomeu has suggested the club would be happy for the 32-year-old, who is unlikely to play again until October, to stay at the Camp Nou for another year at least, and Valdes could now face even more pressure to remain. Still, the strong-willed Spanish international has shown no sign of changing his mind.

Pinto, 38, said after Tuesday's 1-1 Champions League that he had spoken to Blaugrana sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta about his future recently and suggested he would be happy to stay, but had not yet received any offer of a new deal.

Next in line are Oier Olazabal and Jordi Masip, who at 24 and 25 respectively would presumably have already made more a first-team impression if they were rated by the club’s coaches, but could well be needed now.

Pinto's agent may well have already received another phone call.

Aging defence

Summer 2014 was also supposed to be the time when Barca finally signed a new top-class centre-half, given that long-serving club captain Carles Puyol has said he will leave at the end of the season. Puyol, who turns 36 later this month, would surely be willing to postpone that decision to help his career-long club. But given the seriousness of the knee problems that have dogged him for two seasons now, he may not be of much use to the cause.

Bartomeu had also spoken recently of the potential for spending 120 million euros on a major squad reorganisation ahead of the 2014-15 campaign. As well as a new experienced centre-half, another right-back to replace Dani Alves, 30, was reportedly being considered. Home grown right-back Martin Montoya, 22, agreed to a new contract last week but has yet to make good on the promise shown as a teenager.

In midfield and attack the situation is not as serious, especially given Rafinha (Celta), Gerard Deulofeu (Everton) and Bojan Krkic (Ajax) are all due to return from loan spells this summer. However, currently injured Borussia Dortmund playmaker Ilkay Gundogan was reportedly this week still being considered as the long-term replacement for Xavi Hernandez, who is now 34.

Xavi's possible move to the MLS also looks a lot less likely given the current situation.

Institutional damage

Bartomeu's talk of the above "war chest" came during an event at which he was pushing a "yes" vote in next Saturday's referendum on the club's 600 million euro Camp Nou rebuild plans.

That project, first proposed by former president Sandro Rosell and now fully backed by his successor, is especially controversial given that partial naming rights would be sold to help pay the construction costs. Yet another institutional setback is unlikely to persuade the club's socios to back its current board. Should this weekend's vote be lost, pressure would rise again for a new presidential election in the summer.

Meanwhile, the court investigation into Neymar's arrival at the club last summer rumbles on in Madrid. There is also uncertainty around who will coach the team next season, with Gerardo Martino having a clause in his contract that could see him leave at the end of the current campaign and the Argentine regularly refusing to talk at all about his plans.

All in all, the timing of this transfer ban could not really have been any worse for Barcelona.

Tags:BarcelonaFIFAUEFAVictor ValdesNeymarSepp BlatterCarles PuyolDermot CorriganSandro RosellJosep Maria BartomeuMarc-Andre ter StegenAlen HalilovicJose Manuel Pinto
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wenger martinez

By: timbersfan, 8:39 AM GMT on April 04, 2014

Wenger and Martinez's battle for supremacy

By Richard Jolly | April 3, 2014 3:20:09 AM PDT
It was a different time: an age when foreigners still had a novelty value. As English football began to notice a world outside its borders in the mid-1990s, two of the first wave of imports to this insular island were stereotyped because of their nationality.

Arsene Wenger, hired as Arsenal manager in 1996, was branded “ Inspector Clouseau” by his new charges. Midfielder Roberto Martinez, like his Spanish compatriots Jesus Seba and Isidro Diaz, was a surprise signing for lowly Wigan in 1995; they were predictably nicknamed The Three Amigos.

Almost two decades later, Wenger and Martinez remain; though one has swapped his boots for a suit more befitting the manager he has become. As managers of Arsenal and Everton respectively, the pair now meet on Sunday, contesting fourth place in the Premier League while highlighting their remarkable longevity.

Plenty of players recruited overseas are happy to spend much of their playing days in the United Kingdom, and there are other Anglophile managers (particularly Jose Mourinho and Rafa Benitez), but none who have shown such staying power.

Wenger has topped 1,000 games at Arsenal; Martinez has passed 750 as a player and then manager for Wigan, Motherwell, Walsall, Swansea, Chester and now Everton. They are now part of the Premier League furniture.

Much has changed since the 1990s, not least the English diet -- Wenger famously had to introduce the Arsenal players to broccoli, while Martinez has reportedly searched in vain for a decent cup of coffee in Wigan -- but while assimilated, they still have a hint of the exotic.

These are defiantly different managers. Each has ignored the doubters to espouse a passing brand of football; each has transformed clubs, displaying the imagination and ability to implement his ideas. Wenger inherited George Graham’s “boring, boring Arsenal,” as the chant went, and turned them into England’s most attractive team; there was no distinct Swansea style until Martinez had the bravery to introduce a possession game in League One. [Distribution was his forte as a player -- indeed he bore a resemblance to Mikel Arteta -- so it was natural that this philosophy would shape his managerial life, too.]

They are aesthetes who are happy to ignore footballing orthodoxy, especially where goalscorers are concerned. Wenger converted a winger, Thierry Henry, into the Premier League’s greatest ever centre-forward. These days he defies suggestions he should sign a striker. Martinez happily persisted with a nonscoring one, Franco di Santo, for much of his time at Wigan, despite separate goal droughts of 25 and 17 games.

They have a shared fondness for technical players and a mutual aversion to destroyers -- at least in the second half of Wenger’s Arsenal career -- and their squads are overloaded with creative midfielders. Furthermore, their criteria for signing defenders tend to be different from those of many of their peers: hence, perhaps, Arsenal arrivals such as Pascal Cygan and Sebastien Squillaci; or Martinez’s moves for Adrian Lopez and Steven Caldwell. Each has had the odd hapless goalkeeper, too, as anyone who remembers Vladimir Stojkovic’s brief and ignominious Wigan career, or Richard Wright’s efforts for Arsenal in a 4-2 defeat to Charlton Athletic back in 2001, can testify.

Yet, while Wenger has started to spend on centre-backs in the last five years, it has often seemed that both prefer to use their money on constructive, rather that destructive, players. Crucially, too, neither pays prices over what their clubs can afford: Wenger’s net spend in 17 years at Arsenal is just 58 million pounds; Martinez is in the black during his time as Everton manager.

So these are two men who can read a balance sheet. Martinez has a diploma in business management; Wenger an economics degree. Perhaps it explains why, in a profession where many happily overspend, they are budget-conscious.

It is a reason why Martinez ought to fit the Arsenal ethos when Wenger eventually hangs up his oversized coat, presumably without ever fixing the malfunctioning zip. Like Borussia Dortmund’s Juergen Klopp, another potential successor, he plays an attractive style of football and enables his club to punch above its financial weight. Like Wenger, too, his default system is 4-2-3-1.

But this is where differences begin to become pronounced. The Arsenal manager’s tactics are sometimes deemed predictable, while Martinez turned unpredictability into an asset at Wigan, switching between 4-3-3 and 3-4-3 and once, remarkably, winning playing 2-3-2-3.

“Creative” is one of Martinez’s favourite words and, while the shape tends to stay the same, these days his creativity is displayed in the transfer market and in his use of substitutions. Two struck in Sunday’s 3-1 win at Fulham and goalscoring replacements figure prominently in the story of Everton’s season. Indeed one, Barcelona loanee Gerard Deulofeu, found the net in December’s 1-1 draw at the Emirates Stadium.

While both managers are proactive, focusing on their own sides rather than looking to halt opponents, Martinez can adapt swiftly to the requirements of individual games. Wenger displays such alchemy rather less often.

If it suggests Martinez has the sharper analytical brain, the Spaniard has also forged a reputation as the man with the capacity to outwit the best. Wenger’s crushing away defeats at Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea mean victories against Brendan Rodgers’ side, plus Tottenham, Borussia Dortmund and Napoli, tend to be overlooked. Yet Martinez is renowned more for winning the big matches. His scalps this season include Chelsea and Manchester United.

Two years ago, Wigan launched their improbably brilliant sprint to survival with victory at Anfield, and they followed it up by defeating United and winning 2-1 at Arsenal, just as a 3-2 triumph in 2010 effectively ended Wenger’s title hopes that year. Last season, despite a doomed fight for survival, his tactical excellence helped Wigan’s underdogs defeat Manchester City in the FA Cup final, which must go down as his greatest triumph.

Wenger has gone nine years without a trophy; Martinez only 11 months. But that may change, courtesy of the latest development in an entertaining rivalry. Wenger, who has had the advantage of always managing the fancied team, now leads 7-2 in their private battles, and Arsenal’s 4-1 win over Everton last month means Martinez will not retain the FA Cup. A victory by the same scoreline last May relegated Wigan and positioned Arsenal to qualify for the Champions League for the 16th successive season.

That, of course, is Wenger’s “trophy,” and while Martinez claimed actual silverware, his Wigan dropped out of the division, whereas the Frenchman’s Arsenal have always held on to their top-four spot. Now it is under threat from Martinez’s Everton. Four points behind, with a game in hand and at home in Sunday’s showdown, they are the rising force. The same might be said of their manager.

Martinez’s personal battle against Wenger may pit the future against the past, but the implications are immediate. It is about Champions League football and a question of which continental competition two of English football’s great Europeans may be seen in next season.

Tags:ArsenalEvertonEnglish Premier LeagueArsene WengerPremier Leagueroberto martinez
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By: timbersfan, 8:37 AM GMT on April 04, 2014

Aston Villa
Benteke's injury a massive blow for Villa

By Kevin Hughes | April 3, 2014 4:45:27 PM PDT
This should have been a routine preview of Villa's next match, against Fulham, on Saturday. Instead, the news of Christian Benteke's Achilles tendon injury, broken -- as many football stories are these days -- by Belgian journalist Kristof Terreur on Twitter. It has thrown a dark shadow over not only the weekend, but the remainder of Villa's season. The striker will also miss Belgium's World Cup campaign.

- Report: Benteke out of World Cup

Gossip flies around the Twittersphere with little regard for the truth at the best of times, but when it comes to Belgian football, however, Terreur is rarely, if ever, off target. Terreur has been a source of vital information regarding Benteke during what has been a turbulent nine or ten months; his latest update likely will have been delivered with a heavy heart. As it would have been received.

Villa confirmed the situation on their website n in the baldest of statements. The player sustained the injury in training and will be out for a minimum of six months. Little else is known at this stage. That Benteke was injured while training may lead some to speculate that the striker was on the wrong end of an over-enthusiastic tackle from a colleague, but the likelihood is it was from something innocuous. That is the particular cruelty of the Achilles tendon tear. Healthy athletes in the prime of their fitness can fall victim by taking an awkward step. It can be a non-contact injury.

This brings Benteke's season to the saddest of ends. For him personally, the last few months have been a genuine mixture of highs and lows, and some plodding middle ground. From his transfer request last summer, to the U-turn of signing a new contract, a blistering opening to the 2013-14 campaign with goals against Arsenal and Chelsea, a hip injury in September, which then ruled him out for the best part of two months, to an unconvincing return to action, during which the 23-year-old looked either out of form, disinterested, or half-fit -- or a combination of all three.

He was given Christmas off to recover from a knee injury and looked more like his old self once he'd scored against Arsenal in January. Still, in recent games a goal of the season contender was seen at home to Norwich -- a stunning overhead kick -- and a miss of the season contender at Old Trafford last Saturday. All in all, it hasn't been the second season everyone was expecting from Benteke, though he's still, by some margin, the club's top scorer with ten league goals in 26 games. He will have missed nearly a third of Villa's season. The only firm conclusion to be drawn is that Benteke is proof that footballers' careers, even those possessing an abundance of talent, do not simply progress on an uninterrupted upward trajectory.

He will undergo surgery and his rehabilitation will begin once he's served his time -- first in a plaster cast for two to three weeks, and then a further four to six in a 'boot'. He will recover, as many others have done before him, but this is an injury which cannot be rushed, hence Villa's 'six months minimum' timeframe; Benteke's team-mate Charles N'Zogbia ruptured his Achilles back in June, and hasn't played since.

It will be a tough and frequently lonely journey. I have first-hand experience with this injury and its capacity to drain the spirit. It will certainly be a challenging battle for Benteke, as he'll literally have to learn to re-educate his muscles to walk again and then build up gradually from there. He'll value the support of others at Villa who have suffered serious injuries of late: Jores Okore, Libor Kozak and Samir Carruthers as well as N'Zogbia -- and his physio will become his best friend. Mine just about put me back together, mentally and physically.

Unless his recovery is rapid, he'll still be in rehab when the 2014-15 season kicks off. That, in itself, is an example of how the injury has rewritten the immediate next chapter of the Benteke story. He was expected to be one of the stars of the summer's World Cup, and therefore the subject of increased interest from clubs attempting to prise him away from Villa. Whether any of the clubs who have had Benteke on their radar for the last 12 months will offer upwards of 25 million pounds for a player working his way back from a serious injury remains to be seen. Getting fit is now his overwhelming priority.

From Villa's point of view, the timing of the injury could have been better. There are still a handful of matches remaining, and relegation is not completely off the table. But the timing could certainly have been far worse; preferable in April rather than January, obviously. And if Villa, currently in a decent enough position, cannot garner the points required to stay up without their star player and top scorer, the rest of the squad will have to look at themselves, and not in the direction of their absent talisman.

What is does mean for Villa is an opportunity for someone else, and probably a change in formation. There is no-one in the squad capable of fulfilling the lone centre-forward role occupied by Benteke, or at least doing it as well. Kozak can, but he's injured too, of course. Grant Holt has the strength, but has demonstrated nothing during his loan spell to suggest he's able to step up and lead Villa's forward line.

Manager Paul Lambert is likely to pair Gabby Agbonlahor and Andreas Weimann, usually deployed as wide attackers on either side of Benteke, together as a front two, which suits both players better. That said, Agbonlahor is rated a doubt to face Fulham. Holt may be involved, and there's also the possibility -- remote, perhaps -- of the criminally underused Dane Nicklas Helenius to be given a chance.

This all stretches Villa's squad in other areas, notably the wide positions. It should guarantee a continued run for Marc Albrighton as well as opening the door again for Aleksandar Tonev, who re-emerged as a substitute against Manchester United after a spell out of the squad. Callum Robinson, who has been on the bench of late, may also get a taste of the Premier League.

Benteke's injury makes for a bad week, but Villa can't let it turn even worse by failing to take all three points against Fulham. The Londoners come to Villa Park bottom of the league table and ten points behind Lambert's team. A Villa victory would all but seal Fulham's fate, and all but secure another season of top-flight football for the hosts.

Tags:Aston VillaChristian BentekePremier Leagueaston villapaul lambert
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By: timbersfan, 11:37 AM GMT on April 03, 2014




The Northwestern Decision: An Explainer
Your burning questions, answered

Last week, the Chicago office of the National Labor Relations Board ruled that Northwestern football players are employees of the school with the right, if they choose, to form a union. This has been portrayed as a potentially revolutionary moment for college sports and as a major setback for the NCAA’s longtime commitment to not paying people. But what’s the real background here, and what does the ruling mean? Here’s a quick rundown.

OK, let’s begin at the beginning. This whole topic has gotten complicated in the last few years, but amateurism at least started out as a sincere ideal, right?

Not really, no! If you look back to the beginning of modern, organized sports, the hypocrisy becomes almost comically transparent. Take the rise of soccer in England as an example. Wealthy London gentlemen who had learned the game in upper-class boarding schools were not all that stoked, it turns out, when their teams started losing to working-class players from the industrial north. The gentlemen put their heads together and reasoned that if poor, talented athletes could make a living playing sports, then the proles could train full-time and become even more of a threat. But if the workers were forced to play for free, they’d have to squeeze practice in around 80-hour workweeks in the factories. Amazingly, the Old Etonians (no kidding, this was a powerful team in the 1880s) looked into their hearts and decided that paying players sullied the integrity of the sport.

Amateurism has never been about an ideal; it has always been about control. In the 19th century, it was used to control access to the game itself.1 In the 21st, in American college sports, it’s used to control the economy of the game, ensuring that profits go to the organizers rather than to the players whom fans are paying to watch. In both cases, it has more to do with class exploitation than with any remotely plausible argument about purity or values.

But college athletes get scholarships! What about education, the chance for personal growth and discovery, all the things the college experience is supposed to be about — doesn’t that stuff count for something?

Sure! It just doesn’t count for anything when it comes to the distribution of revenue from the massive entertainment industry that universities have erected around their sports programs. Let’s say, as a hypothetical, that you have a cousin/daughter/friend/niece named Julie. Bright kid. Fiddling around in her dorm room junior year, she invents a new kind of combustion engine that makes cars 50 times more fuel-efficient. It’s worth a billion dollars. Julie wants to sell it to GM, but — whoops — it turns out the university owns it and she gets nothing, because she’s on an engineering scholarship. Tough break, but Julie can’t really complain, right? Because at least she got the college experience.

Or say Julie has a brother named Max. Max writes a novel sophomore year that’s the biggest thing since Harry Potter. Months on the best-seller list, major movie deal, the works. Only Max not only can’t see a penny from his work — that all goes to the school; thanks, English scholarship! — he also makes the mistake of selling an autographed copy at a book fair. Boom, Max is banned from writing for a year. Not touching a pen will teach Max discipline, because Max obviously has character issues. Probably comes from a troubled home.

Now, if Max and Julie were your cousins/kids/friends/whatever, would you be OK with this deal for them? Of course not, right? In any area other than sports, where decades of rhetoric have beaten us down till we can’t see the obvious, you would say that someone who creates a product of enormous value from their own talent and hard work is entitled to many, if not all, of the rewards resulting from that product.2 You would say that any contract that worked like an athletic scholarship is padded-wallpaper insane.

This shouldn’t even be a political issue. It should be plain to conservatives and liberals alike — as it clearly would be, if you were thinking about your own career, or a loved one’s. But in sports, people committed to preserving the status quo will dragoon any noble-sounding B.S. they can into the argument, to make it seem as though the very, very simple reality here is somehow complex and multisided and nuanced. This makes it harder for the status quo to change.

The “But they’re getting an education!” line is just some noble-sounding B.S. Max and Julie can get an education and still get paid. A kid who cleans dorm bathrooms for spending money can get an education and still get paid. College athletes who make huge profits for their schools should be able to get an education and still get paid, too.

So the NLRB says Northwestern football players are employees who can choose to form a union. Why is this important?

For a few reasons, actually. First, it’s the biggest blow ever dealt to the NCAA’s self-serving amateurism rules. As blows go, it’s not quite fatal, but it’s at least staggering — picture a knight in shining armor getting clocked in the chest with a sledgehammer. It says that legally, the cheap façade that Northwestern football players are primarily seen by their university as young minds on an odyssey of learning is just that, a façade. It says that Northwestern football players are working for the school. It says that they’re thus entitled to some of the basic economic rights you and I take for granted, like the right to negotiate their compensation.3

What also matters, though, is the clarity of the explanation in the decision written by NLRB regional director Peter Sung Ohr. Ohr put aside the accumulated decades of fake idealism and rhetorical obfuscation and laid out the — again — really, really obvious facts:

• Players devote 50 to 60 hours per week to football-related work during the preseason. During the regular season, football takes up 40 to 50 hours per week.

• The university identifies, recruits, and admits scholarship players on the basis of their football ability, with academics at best a secondary concern.

• Scholarship players are possibly forbidden to miss football practice to attend class. (At least one player testified that they were; coaches disputed this; read into that whatever you want.)

• Players need permission from football coaches before they can take outside jobs. They are required to disclose detailed information about their cars to the athletic staff. They are restricted in what they can post on the Internet. They must submit their leases for coaches’ approval if they choose to live off campus.

• Players are not allowed to profit from their own images, but are required to sign away the rights to their names and likenesses to Northwestern and the Big Ten.4

• Just quoting this one directly from the report:

The football team’s handbook states that “when we travel, we are traveling for one reason: to WIN a football game. We will focus all of our energy on winning the game.” However, the players are permitted to spend two or three hours studying for their classes while traveling to a game as long as they, in the words of Head Coach Fitzgerald “get their mind right to get ready to play.”

• Northwestern football generated revenue of $235 million between 2003 and 2012.

That is not glee club, friends; that is a job, and if you’re defining it otherwise, you have an agenda. To have the case presented this starkly, and by a federal agency no less, is a powerful thing. As Patrick Vint wrote, it was as if Ohr had “not watched college football for one minute of his life, was told the basic premise for the sport’s existence and amateurism rules, and rejected all the inherent contradictions.”

So now that this ruling is official, the NCAA is going to do the right thing, yes?


No, but for real, though.

Absolutely, yes, if by “do the right thing” you mean “release a vacuous One Shining Moment montage of a statement protesting the NLRB decision while substituting gloppy language about ‘success in the classroom, on the field and in life’ for a basic comprehension of fact.”5 If that’s the right thing, give NCAA president Mark Emmert — whose 2011 pay package, incidentally, weighed in at around $1.7 million — the Nobel Prize right now.

Is unionization really the best solution for athletes?

Short of congressional legislation, which is not going to happen, can you think of anything that could change the system faster than the threat of the players refusing to play? A union would give players two things they currently lack: a mechanism to negotiate their own deals and leverage to exact concessions from their employers. It’s how the pros do it, and it’s the only solution I’ve seen that doesn’t depend on administrators just arbitrarily deciding to be less greedy.

Some of this kind of makes it seem like you’re not really prioritizing the classroom.

Here’s how much North Carolina prioritizes the classroom. Last week, Mary Willingham, a tutor turned whistleblower who spent 10 years working with Tar Heel athletes, released a paper she says was written by one such athlete for a course designed to help players meet academic eligibility requirements. Here’s the whole text:

On the evening of December Rosa Parks decided that she was going to sit in the white people section of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama. During this time blacks had to give up there seats to whites when more whites got on the bus. Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat. Her and the bus driver began to talk and the conversation went like this. “Let me have those front seats,” said the driver. She didn’t get up and told the driver that she was tired of giving her seat to white people. “I’m going to have you arrested,” said the driver. “You may do that,” Rosa Parks responded. Two white policemen came in and Rosa Parks asked them “why do you all push us around?” The police officer replied and said “I don’t know, but the law is the law, and you’re under arrest.

Again, that’s the entire paper. It was plagiarized. The player got an A-minus in the course.

If universities are serious about educating their big-sport athletes, then they’re letting them down, and letting them down systematically. But that’s the point of the Northwestern ruling: Schools are not primarily interested in educating players. The facts just don’t fit that interpretation. The schools are interested in profiting off their athletes’ talent. Almost as if — I don’t know, as if the players are really employees, and the student-athlete concept6 is a fiction used to make them work for free.

Wait, is amateurism actually about race?

That’s a very complicated question! Critiques of the college-sports system often incorporate metaphors of slavery. Taylor Branch, for instance, in his influential essay “The Shame of College Sports,”7 wrote that “to survey the scene — corporations and universities enriching themselves on the backs of uncompensated young men, whose status as ‘student-athletes’ deprives them of the right to due process guaranteed by the Constitution — is to catch the unmistakable whiff of the plantation.”8

This comparison gains force, obviously, from the fact that many of the best athletes in major college sports are black, while most of their coaches and administrators are white. And it’s easy to detect an element of (at best) latent racism in support for the current system. An ABC News–Washington Post poll released on March 23 found that white respondents opposed paying student-athletes by a 73-24 margin. Nonwhites supported it 51-46. That is a pretty grotesquely revealing split.

That said, though? It’s not necessary to see amateurism as sublimated racism to see that it’s wrong. It’s wrong because it’s unfair. It’s unfair in America in 2014, when, in my opinion, it has a strong racial component. It was also unfair in England in 1878, when everyone involved was a mustachioed white man named Gilbert.

Amateurism is about people with power controlling people with talent. It contorts to fit any number of agendas. If the slavery metaphor makes you uncomfortable, ask yourself whether you would like to spend the next few years working 50-hour weeks for room and board and the chance to sit in on some French classes while your boss made millions off your efforts. If not, you are against amateurism. It’s that simple.

Fine, but do we have to pay squash players? And what happens to athletes’ student status if they’re also employees? Can they be fired? What if some teams vote to unionize and some teams don’t? And what about tax implications? What about Title IX?

I have no idea! One of the neat strategies you’ll see the NCAA’s defenders deploy in the wake of the Northwestern ruling is to start throwing out a million practical questions that have yet to be resolved, as though, if you can’t immediately answer all of them, they must be totally impossible to solve. “I don’t know what happens to their meal cards!” you’re supposed to cry in this situation, throwing your hands up to the heavens. “Therefore change is futile and I have no choice but to agree that the student-athlete system is the key to success in the classroom, on the field, and in life!”

But this is ludicrous. Reform of a big organization like the NCAA is inevitably going to involve a lot of tough questions. Maybe Ultimate Frisbee at Middlebury isn’t a job in the same way basketball at Kentucky is. Maybe some provision will be necessary to make sure women’s sports are treated fairly. But you know what? People build multinational corporations and reasonably functional democracies. People deal with trickier problems than college-sports revenue distribution all the time. Raising objections as though the mere existence of practical difficulties shuts down the conversation is the stalling tactic of an exhausted debater. It’s the move of someone with nothing left to defend.

So but does this ruling mean college athletes are going to get paid?

At this point? Not even close. We could be in for years of appeals before this is even settled for Northwestern football players. Right now it has no force for anyone else, and the university is fighting it with all the moral passion of a 16-year-old whose parents just uninstalled his µTorrent.9 Even if it holds up, the NCAA’s own regulations would have to be gut-renovated before unionized, salaried players were deemed pure enough for the sacred turf of the Chick-fil-A Bowl.10 Plus, there’s a fun quirk in American labor law that exempts public schools from the NLRB’s jurisdiction. So while your basic tailgating meccas like Yale would be forced to comply, your lesser sports minnows — Alabama, Texas, Florida — would not.

This is why the language of this decision matters so much. The case for amateurism rests on a lot of Oz the Great and Powerful theatrics designed to distract your attention from what college sports actually is. But Ohr saw through all that; calmly and clinically, he explained the reality. The process, such as it is, will go on. Thanks to Ohr’s decision, though, the man behind the curtain is now standing in full view, with his thumb on his tongue, counting twenties.

The Football Association in England finally sanctioned professionalism in 1885, after a rift that nearly split the organization; however, players labored under draconian wage limits until 1961. ^
This is not a perfect metaphor, because Julie and Max are doing their creating in isolation, whereas college athletes need organized competitions to showcase their ability. But that’s a difference of degree, not of kind. In other words, the competition-organizing bodies should be entitled to some percentage of revenue, but that percentage is not 100. You could also argue that if a Julie-like scientist invented her engine in a university lab, rather than in her dorm room, the school might in fact own the patent. (This gets complicated.) But the Julie-like scientist in that scenario is presumably an employee who’s pretty well compensated for her work already — and if not, isn’t that seriously messed up? ^
Here’s a link to the full text of the ruling. ^
Image rights are also the central point of contention in former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon’s lawsuit against the NCAA, which goes to trial in June. O’Bannon noticed that it was kind of weird that while he was appearing in popular video games, someone else was making all the money. ^
The NLRB did not find that “the Northwestern football team may vote to be considered university employees”; it found that they are university employees. This is kind of a big difference. ^
Which, you might remember, was invented by the NCAA in the 1950s as a way to avoid paying worker’s comp to injured athletes. ^
The Atlantic, 2011. ^
Branch went on to argue that the better metaphor was perhaps colonialism: “a system imposed by well-meaning paternalists and rationalized with hoary sentiments about caring for the well-being of the colonized” that is nevertheless unjust. ^
Which divides about $7 million between the participating teams, by the way. ^

BRIAN PHILLIPS is a staff writer for Grantland.

The Northwestern Decision: An Explainer APRIL 1, 2014
#TrueDetectiveSeason2 MARCH 28, 2014
Today in Twitter Beefs: Andy Murray’s Mom vs. Yoko Ono MARCH 24, 2014
May the Best Team Win? MARCH 21, 2014
The End of Ivan and Andy MARCH 19, 2014



An ‘Above the Rim’ Roundtable

The Unbelievable Rise of Anthony Davis

‘Game of Thrones’ Is Back and Better Than Ever
Elsewhere ON THE WEB

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By: timbersfan, 8:40 AM GMT on April 03, 2014




Maester Class
‘Game of Thrones’ is back and it’s peaking. Just sit back and enjoy it.

Game of Thrones, television’s most consistent show, returns this Sunday night for its fourth season at the peak of its powers and popularity. A series that launched as an enormous, pricey gamble — how many characters? And she does what with the horse heart? — now swaggers like a front-running sure thing. More than 13 million people watched last year’s Red Wedding, in which slashed necks burbled like shaken bottles of champagne — and that’s not counting the untold millions who crashed the party via illegal downloads and “borrowed” HBO GO passwords. It’s the sort of swelling, fanatical audience HBO hasn’t achieved since the heyday of another violent show about warring clans, The Sopranos. And Thrones’ cultural footprint is only expanding. In the run-up to Sunday’s premiere, the cast and crew have been laying siege to the media with the vigor and relentlessness of Stannis Baratheon’s fleet sailing on King’s Landing. Here’s the cast lounging on the rocks on the cover of Vanity Fair; there they are unwinding at the beach on costar Lena Headey’s delightfully chill Instagram feed. Two weeks ago, HBO feted the series with a gala premiere at Lincoln Center followed by a lavish party at the American Museum of Natural History. At the former, the New York Philharmonic played “The Rains of Castamere” and an auditorium full of jaded media types gasped and cheered like Lannister teenagers. At the latter, Peter Dinklage and Alfie Allen gobbled sushi while society reporters hovered around them like flies. Winter may still be coming, but Game of Thrones appeared to be in full bloom.

With its Season 4 just days away, Game of Thrones has reached a saturation point reserved only for the best and most beloved of TV shows. These are the good times, the glory days, when crew and critics alike are flashing the same contented smiles. It’s the moment when the x-axis of audience anticipation and the y-axis of satisfaction cross like the sigil of House Bolton. For some series, this happens early in the run — think Lost after the first-season finale — for others, it occurs as a show’s story engine revs up in preparation for the final turn. With Breaking Bad gone and Mad Men exiting, Game of Thrones’ ascent feels especially significant: It’s now the last consensus show on the air, a pan-demographic Goliath that successfully juggles the adrenalized whomp of a summer blockbuster with the attention-demanding intricacy of a prestige drama. Even with the existence of those physical spoilers known as “books,” Thrones obsessives wouldn’t dare miss their Sunday-night trip to Westeros. It’s the sort of shared, albeit occasionally horrifying, experience that is becoming less and less common as our entertainment becomes increasingly more personalized.

In fact, there’s so much good feeling heading into this new season that it’s almost unsettling. As a critic — but more important in this case, as a fan — I feel like a Stark stuck listening to the best man’s speech and waiting for the music to change. How can a show built around so much carnage and strife be so uniformly celebrated and beloved? And how, by the old gods and the new, can it possibly stay that way?


Before we climb that wall, let’s dig down a bit. It’s no secret that TV shows receive the most attention when they begin and when they end. It’s a Darwinian binary that syncs up well with the fevered way we cover television these days — in which everything is The! Best! Ever! (unless it’s The Worst) — but doesn’t reflect the way we actually watch. Whether we binge in great gulps or limit ourselves to satisfying weekly sips, TV is best experienced as an ongoing relationship. It ought to be enjoyed in the moment as something much more than the sum total of a meet-cute and a breakup. This is especially relevant this week with the howling rage over the How I Met Your Mother finale threatening to drown out all discourse. The end of something shouldn’t define it, even if all our frustrations — and a good portion of the Internet — are loudly telling us otherwise.

And yet in 2014, even the humble network sitcom finds itself perched on the knife blade of opinion from week to week, forever at risk of falling, like a Dothraki from his horse, from favor to disgrace.1 There’s no universally agreed-upon term for when a series, like Game of Thrones, is at its peak. (If Jack Donaghy were still in charge of NBC — instead of current president Kenneth Parcell — he’d call it Reaganing. I’m partial to “shooting J.R.”) But there is a more noxious term for the exact opposite scenario, when a once-adored show either founders on the rocks of critical opinion or is stoned to death by a mob of exasperated former fans.

“Jumping the shark” owes its origin to Happy Days but its persistence to cynicism. The eagerness some have to identify the precise moment a show becomes irredeemable has never made any sense to me. It reeks of the sort of entrenched pessimism that makes genuine engagement impossible. It’s like watching Olympic skiing and rooting for the mountain. Besides, the thing that makes TV so unique and exciting is that, contrary to what the shark-jumpers would have you believe, it’s always in flux. The open-ended nature of TV production guarantees that even if your favorite show finds itself all at sea, there will always be a chance to right the ship.2

How does this apply to Game of Thrones? Well, on the one hand, it doesn’t, at least not exactly. The show remains unique, not only in its reach but in its — sorry, Ned Stark — execution. The comforting safety net of George R.R. Martin’s expansive novels allows showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss the luxury of devoting their energies to the sorts of niceties that bedevil more traditional producers, things like “pacing” and “structure.” Despite the enormous budget (the largest in TV), ever-expanding cast (ditto), and a far-flung plot that demands three separate crews filming in three disparate European cities (Belfast, Dubrovnik, and Reykjavik), the prevailing sensation of Game of Thrones is calm. Not the character-based calm that dominates other high-profile hours — Frank Underwood’s duplicity on House of Cards has to remain uncovered for at least another season; Alicia Florrick will be The Good Wife for the long haul — but the calm that comes only from a well-appointed train ride on tracks that have already been laid.

Because Benioff and Weiss know where they’re going, decisions that might sink lesser series — the season-long marginalization (and mutilation!) of Theon Greyjoy, for example — are met with patience, not fury.3 TV viewers are increasingly savvy, but also paranoid; we refer to our viewing choices as investments and balk when our money managers give off even the slightest whiff of doubt. The long arc of Martin’s story has freed Benioff and Weiss from those sorts of inquiries, but in the process it may also have unfairly diminished the magnitude of their achievement. The Red Wedding was truly shocking, a moment unlike any other in TV history. For fans demanding huge returns, it was the equivalent of a Publishers Clearing House novelty check with the long line of zeros written in dripping blood. Everything — and everyone — that went down in that castle had been painstakingly set up for more than two and a half seasons. Benioff and Weiss knew exactly what they were doing, taking particular delight in the way their audience — still scarred and shaking over what happened to Ned Stark in Season 1 — had only just recently begun to trust again.4 The real achievement of that stunning episode wasn’t the body count, it was the elegance and skill with which it was tallied.

Which is an important thing to remember, since no road map can cover everything. Eventually every traveler will hit the uncharted region marked “Here Be Monsters.” (Of course, in Westeros that could just be spray-painted over the entire continent.) For Game of Thrones, that time may be approaching sooner than we realize. The new season, like the one that preceded it, contains events from the third of Martin’s novels. There are two published books remaining for Benioff and Weiss to adapt. Martin insists the sixth novel in the series, The Winds of Winter, will be out relatively soon. This is tough to believe, as the gap between his books has begun yawning wider than the Shivering Sea: The first three novels were separated by roughly two years each; then there was a five year wait for Book 4, and it was six for Book 5. As a gesture of good faith, Martin recently posted a chapter from Winter on his website. Rather than instill hope, it had roughly the same effect as a finger being mailed to the family of a kidnap victim.

Benioff and Weiss have spoken of their series lasting seven seasons, which suggests an end date just three years away. It also suggests they don’t plan on respecting Martin’s glacial publishing schedule. It’s a fact of which Martin isn’t ignorant but one he seems hell-bent on ignoring. In the expansive Vanity Fair cover story, he expressed hope that HBO might consider pausing production should it run the risk of lapping his authorly endeavors.5 Some might read this as vain, but it struck me as sweetly naive. Until now, Martin has been indulged by Thrones, greeted and fawned over like a Maester and encouraged to contribute a teleplay each year. But the TV business cares about accuracy and creative vision only as long as they are profitable. The minute Martin’s imagination threatens to derail the money train, he’ll be tossed out along with it.

But would this necessarily be such a bad thing? Though I’ve not read a single page of Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire — I prefer to cover the work as a TV series first, a fact I’ll be repeating ad nauseam for the next 10 weeks — I’ve been warned by many who have that they’ve found them to offer significantly diminishing returns. Until now, Benioff and Weiss have been able to bolster their meandering epic with judicious mounds of red meat: a surprise beheading here, a savage castration there. But much of the big game has already been hunted. Though the remaining characters are still sprawled across two continents, Game of Thrones for the first time appears ready to contract rather than expand its scope. It’s a natural pivot for any long-running series, but it still seems surprising on a show so devoted to grandly clearing its throat. (Sorry, Cat Stark.) Even the new characters introduced early in Season 4 — including Pedro Pascal’s wonderfully slithery Prince Oberyn Martell — seem determined to thin the cast list rather than add to it. Who knows how many Red Weddings remain to shock us?6 What if Daenerys’s desert ramble starts to look less like this and more like this?

Should such a circumstance arise, I have total faith in Benioff and Weiss to do what generations of TV showrunners and scheming Lannisters have done before: adjust. After watching Sunday’s premiere — no spoilers to follow, I swear on the Sept — I was reminded of how the real pleasures of Game of Thrones derive not from the swords but from the people swinging them. To me, the early episodes of the season always evoke the first day of summer camp — not just because it’s muddy and the rich blond kids are acting like bullies, but because they provide a wonderful chance to catch up on old friends. Look, there’s Jaime Lannister all cleaned up and within stump’s reach of his beloved sister! Hey, Jon Snow and Samwell Tarly are reunited on the safe7 side of the wall! And get a load of Arya and the Hound, still enacting the best mismatched buddy comedy since Turner & Hooch! Why worry so much about the destination when the ale is flowing and the company’s so good?

Game of Thrones is an intensely modern show, both in form and content. But it’s worth noting how strongly it resists the sort of online hyper-dissection that can either carry a series aloft or tear it apart, limb by limb, like a starving mob in Flea Bottom. The show proceeds at its own stately pace, telling its own knotty story. Rather than be concerned that future seasons might mar the world that Martin, Benioff, and Weiss have painstakingly created, it’s probably healthier — for your sake and mine — to focus instead on the majesty of that world as it exists now. The night may well be dark and full of terrors, but rest easy: We’re still hours away from dusk.


ANDY GREENWALD is a staff writer for Grantland.

Maester Class APRIL 2, 2014
TV Check-in: ‘The Americans’ Remains at the Top of Its Excellent Spy Game in ‘The Deal’ MARCH 27, 2014
The Andy Greenwald Podcast: Bobby Moynihan MARCH 27, 2014
Washington, T.V. MARCH 26, 2014
The Andy Greenwald Podcast: Emmy Rossum of ‘Shameless’ MARCH 24, 2014



An ‘Above the Rim’ Roundtable

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By: timbersfan, 12:49 AM GMT on April 03, 2014




Building the Brow
It’s only a matter of time until Anthony Davis ascends to the NBA throne

It’s telling that the comparisons have mostly stopped. When Anthony Davis came into the league, with ridiculous arms and guard skills honed before a late growth spurt, everyone rushed to find his NBA analogue.

Kevin Garnett was a popular choice. Comparisons with Tim Duncan dominated the lead-up to Davis’s regular-season debut against San Antonio, even though Duncan as a rookie was older and stouter and he had a back-to-the-basket game that was historically great almost from the moment he entered the league.

Davis has murdered this parlor game. People around the league don’t know what to make of him anymore. They are just terrified, especially after having watched Davis average 30 points, 13.5 rebounds, and three blocks per game on 55 percent shooting over a 10-game stretch in March — a period during which he turned 21 freaking years old. He’s already fourth overall in Player Efficiency Rating, behind only LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Kevin Love. His game has so many elements on both ends of the floor, it’s going to take years for the Pelicans to figure out the optimal uses and roster construction for him. It’s hard to decide what someone is best at when the answer might be “everything.”

The race to surround him with the right talent, and to figure out his ideal positional use, is already on. The Pelicans will have only limited cap flexibility in each of the next two summers, and the Magic and Cavaliers can testify about the fragile and fleeting chance of surrounding a true superstar with the right pieces — especially since that superstar will likely take his team out of the lottery.1

“He is going to be his own player,” says Monty Williams, the team’s coach. “People try and think back to re-create another A.D., but he’s not like anyone we’ve ever seen.”

“I’m not sure he reminds me of anyone now,” says Dirk Nowitzki. “In my 16 years, I’ve never seen anyone like him.”

The new parlor game is to compare isolated parts of Davis’s game to their equivalents belonging to someone else. He’s so dangerous on the pick-and-roll, capable of snagging insane lobs and catching and dunking from the foul line without a dribble, that he sucks in defenders like Tyson Chandler and Dwight Howard — only Davis is also a 79 percent foul shooter. One opposing assistant coach says Davis is the first player since prime Rasheed Wallace who is fast and long enough to help off Nowitzki on a pick-and-pop, and then recover back to Nowitzki before the big German can release his deadly jumper. Another assistant offered up the comparison to a prime Cliff Robinson — a 6-foot-10 guy with elite outside-in ballhandling skills, only Davis, of course, has more potential in almost every other facet.

And the Pelicans? They’re trying to mold Davis into some unholy amalgam of Nowitzki, Hakeem Olajuwon, and whichever pick-and-roll smasher you prefer.

“He’s his own player,” says Kevin Hanson, the Pelicans’ player development coach, who works closely with Davis. “He’s got some Dirk, some KG, and some Hakeem. I don’t think we’re even going to see what he really is for at least a couple of years.”

Those goals aren’t crazy. Davis has a ton to learn on both ends, but he’s already so good that contemplating what he might become is an exercise in fanciful imagination. It is Homer Simpson conjuring the Land of Chocolate. LeBron’s decline is years away, but when it happens, I suspect we will have hearty debates about whether Davis or Kevin Durant is the world’s best player. There will likely be a day, during Durant’s mid-thirties, when Davis ascends to the throne as the NBA’s undisputed top player. We haven’t seen a big man with this kind of defensive potential enter the league since Howard. Throw in efficient scoring from all over the floor and you’ve got a league-altering monster.

The Offense

The Pelicans are building Davis’s offense piece by piece. They started with his jump shot last summer, helping him raise his release point above his head and make sure the ball comes off his right index finger, Hanson says.2 Davis is stronger than he was a year ago, but he’s still skinny; and he doesn’t have much of a back-to-the-basket game yet.

He’s quicker than almost every big man, so the Pelicans have encouraged him to broaden his face-up game. This way he can either launch a midrange jumper from the wing3 or drive to the basket. His first step draws heaps of fouls from reaching bigs who can’t keep up.

The Pelicans are wary that this approach could become predictable. Davis prefers to drive baseline, because there are fewer defenders that way and less danger of running into contact, Hanson says. They’d like him to drive toward the middle more, especially since doing so can draw the defense away from the Pelicans’ shooters. “He’s just not comfortable yet taking that initial hit in the middle,” Hanson says.

Having more shooters would help. Jrue Holiday is a solid 3-point shooter, but he has been out since early January. Ryan Anderson might be the league’s best 3-point-shooting power forward, but he’s missed almost the entire season. Even at full health, the Pelicans have mostly started a small forward who can’t shoot in Al-Farouq Aminu and a rotating collection of stiffs at center who mostly just foul and get in Davis’s way. Toss in Tyreke Evans, still a liability when he doesn’t have the ball, and Davis often struggles just to navigate the floor. He has no path to the rim when defenses overload on his rolls, as the Clippers do on this Evans-Davis pick-and-roll:

“What hurts him now,” Williams says, “is that we just don’t have guys who can shoot. We have to add shooting. When we put more shooting around him, he is going to be unguardable.” Davis mentions Anthony Morrow specifically as a guy with whom he enjoys playing, precisely because defenders can’t leave Morrow to crash down on his cuts.

The Pelicans envision Davis as the fulcrum of their offense in the mode of a prime Dirk. They want Davis to get the ball in the center of the foul line, face the defense, and operate from there with shooters around him.

The Mavs have always run a ton of pick-and-rolls for Nowitzki, and defenses early in his career countered by switching defenders. That left a little guy on him, but Nowitzki would continue rolling down the lane, where the second big-man defender along the baseline would switch onto him — a second switch, removing the size advantage the first one produced. Don Nelson and Avery Johnson taught Nowitzki to counter by stopping his roll at the foul line, trapping the little guy in a mismatch, Nowitzki says.

Nowitzki learned to do everything from that spot — shoot, drive, back down into post-ups, and dish to shooters. That’s what the Pelicans want for Davis. “We envision him being able to work from there similar to the way Dirk does,” Hanson says.

The speed is there. Kosta Koufos and his ilk can only foul and/or pray:

Davis so far is only comfortable using one-dribble moves. That single dribble often isn’t enough to get him all the way to the rim, or even into layup range, leaving him prone to the occasional awkward in-between shot:

Davis’s body on these plays looks like it’s almost moving too fast — like his feet are about to slide out from under him as he flings up these floaters. But Davis practices those shots, and he has such great touch that he can make them at rates a normal big couldn’t sniff. “He has the ability to make awkward shots,” Williams says. “For us, it’s weird. But for him, it’s natural. He’ll go left, jump off his left leg, and shoot it with his right hand. You can’t name a big in the history of the league who has that shot.”

His repertoire will be limited until he can nail the second and third dribble, and mastering that is Plan A for Hanson this summer. Quicker power forwards understand that if they can just slide with Davis for that one dribble, or at least stay attached to him, they’ll be able to contest whatever shot he’ll launch.4 About 94 percent of Davis’s shot attempts have come after either zero dribble or one, per SportVU data provided to Grantland.

Davis is still uneasy with contact. The first dribble is an escape mechanism; the second and third are bulldozers, and Davis just doesn’t have that in his game yet, coaches in both New Orleans and elsewhere say. The second dribble is also the countermove — the spin back in the other direction, say. “I’m very long and lengthy,” Davis says, “so I can usually get to the basket in one dribble. But if I can get to that second dribble, and get to my counters, guys can’t slide with me. That’s going to be huge for me.”

He’ll also have to hone his passing skills, and the Pelicans are letting him stretch a bit at the elbow, delivering dribble handoffs and searching out cutters à la Joakim Noah. But Davis’s assist numbers are middling for an offensive centerpiece, and passing on the move, with the defense in flux, is a skill that comes only with experience. “Passing is something you can’t really teach,” Hanson says.

The Defense

Davis will get all of this; he’s too good not to. It’s just going to take some time. Same goes on the other side, where Davis projects as a regular Defensive Player of the Year candidate. He’s a shot-blocking menace, even if New Orleans’s overall numbers don’t reflect his impact yet. The Pelicans are a bad defensive team, 25th in points allowed per possession, and that number has barely moved regardless of whether Davis is on the floor or the bench. Teams shoot more often, and more accurately, in the restricted area when Davis is on the court, per NBA.com.

It’s unclear if those numbers really say anything about Davis. Injuries have decimated New Orleans and removed a strong defender from the point of attack in Holiday. The other pieces brought in to defend either don’t do it well (the centers) or can’t shoot well enough to earn consistent playing time. The roster is young, and young teams are generally bad.

Davis has also spent about 70 percent of his time at power forward, and smart defenses will take him away from the rim by involving his man in a pick-and-roll high on the floor. He’s also had to chase around a lot of stretch power forwards, including Paul Pierce and Dorell Wright in recent games, and like a lot of young big men, he’s had trouble balancing perimeter defense with rim protection instincts. “But that’s beneficial for me,” Davis says. “I love that challenge. I loved guarding Paul Pierce.”

The nuances of NBA defense are hard. Pick-and-roll ball handlers blow by Davis surprisingly often5 when the Pelicans have him drop back to contain those ball handlers near the foul line. He has a tendency to turn his body almost completely sideways, parallel to the sideline, giving ball handlers an obvious driving lane:

Sometimes he’ll get caught in no-man’s-land, between dropping back and jumping out hard at a ball handler:

The Pelicans are aggressive defensively, and Williams asks his players to help and rotate around the floor more than most teams. Davis occasionally has trouble making those reads on the fly, leaving the next pass open.

Those are blips in the learning process. The dude is going to be a destroyer. He already blocks shots no one else approaches. He gets 3-point shooters on flying closeouts. He comes from off your television screen to nail a poor, unsuspecting spot-up shooter in transition. He’ll even tip unblockable shots one-on-one in the post. “He actually blocked one or two of my jumpers,” Nowitzki says. “That doesn’t happen very often.”

He terrifies ball handlers, and his long arms allow him to correct initial positioning mistakes. A typical example:

New Orleans errs in letting Dennis Schroder get to the middle on this side pick-and-roll, theoretically opening up both a path to the rim and a lane for Schroder to hit Paul Millsap on the roll. But Davis’s length in both directions spooks Schroder into taking the easiest and least efficient out.

Opposing teams have shot just 48 percent on shots near the basket when Davis is near both the shooter and the rim — a solid number, though a bit behind the very stingiest this season, per NBA.com.6

He’s alert, and getting smarter every day. He notices things on film the coaches don’t, Hanson says. “He’s so smart,” Hanson says. “He’ll see something else in the clip I didn’t see, and say something like, ‘Hey, Austin [Rivers] has to get through that screen up there.’ And I’ll say, ‘Hey, A.D., we’re not really talking about Austin right now.’”

Kelvin Sampson, Houston’s lead assistant, watched tape of the Pelicans defending side pick-and-rolls with some decoy action taking place on the other side of the floor. He wanted to see how Davis reacts when he’s not directly involved in the pick-and-roll — when he’s guarding the team’s other big man along the baseline: Would he fall for the decoy action and get distracted, or would he monitor the pick-and-roll and be ready to offer help near the basket?

Davis was ready, every time. “Most young guys just gravitate toward their man,” Sampson says. “But he was ready. His biggest strength is going to be that he has no weaknesses.”

The potential is there for Davis to be sort of a super–Chris Bosh — an undersize center who can stretch the floor, but, unlike Bosh, also offer elite rim protection. The Pellies have Anderson locked into a four-year contract, and though they’ve experimented in tiny doses with playing Anderson at small forward, he’s clearly a big man. He unlocks a lot of Williams’s offense, and opens driving lanes for the team’s guards.

The Pelicans have struggled horribly on defense when Davis and Anderson play together, but they’ve also scored at rates well above what the league’s best offenses produce. As Davis and the team mature, it’s appealing to see these guys as their own version of Miami — a smaller team that overwhelms with speed and shooting, and does just enough on defense to survive.

That won’t work every night, of course. Davis just isn’t big enough to check Marc Gasol, or even Robin Lopez. He weighs 225 pounds now, and Williams expects him to max out around 240 or so. But everything is a matter of resource allotment for a team close to the cap. The ideal center for Davis would offer bulk and rim protection on defense, and be versatile enough offensively to stay out of his way regardless of which element — the pick-and-roll, posting up, driving — Davis happens to be emphasizing that night.

Those guys are rare, and they’re generally taken. The Pelicans had a reasonable facsimile of one in Lopez, but they dealt him to open up cap space for Evans. The three-headed center they’ve deployed since Jason Smith’s injury just hasn’t been good enough, though the team has hope that Alexis Ajinca might work well around Davis.

Even if that ideal center were available, the Pelicans don’t have the resources to get him. They’re slated to have about $5 million or so in cap space in each of the next two summers, a small enough amount that they may just choose to stay over the cap and use the full midlevel exception.7 They owe Philly a first-round pick that will likely change hands this June, and the Evans and Eric Gordon contracts will be very hard to trade; Evans, of course, is on fire right now as a starter.

New Orleans won’t have real cap flexibility until the summer of 2016, when Gordon’s contract expires. Davis will probably be a free-agent draw by then, but he’ll also be starting his second contract in the 2016-17 season, which means the Pelicans will be well into the “on the clock” phase in convincing him to stay for a third deal.

If you can’t find that ideal center, at some point you have to decide between force-feeding lineups with Davis at power forward or leaning more toward smaller groups that will destroy teams offensively. Sometimes you just have to play your five best guys. Williams will use both sorts of lineups regardless, but right now, he says he leans toward Davis-Anderson as a rare pairing.

“I don’t think [Davis] is ever going to be a center,” Williams says. “I think he’s a power forward who will sometimes play center.” Davis says he doesn’t care about the positional designation, and that Anderson is strong enough to defend some low-post centers.

Some of the caution is about preserving Davis’s body. A lot of the bulkier centers who might bully Davis can’t actually score in the post; Davis could guard them fine, despite the size disadvantage. But that would take its toll. Perhaps New Orleans, when it becomes a playoff team, can slot Davis at center more often in the postseason.

The Pelicans will need a lot of wings to play that way; Miami can play small only because it gets rim protection from LeBron and Dwyane Wade. Aminu is the only New Orleans wing who can offer that, and he’s a free agent. So is Darius Miller, and Morrow will probably decline his player option. We still haven’t really seen if Holiday, Evans, and Gordon can work together, though Evans’s killer play of late as the undisputed lead dog suggests he needs the ball and good spacing to live up to his contract. Rivers has shown signs, particularly on defense, but to describe his play as “uneven” would be generous.

The Pelicans have time to sort out the roster, but only limited flexibility. But they have the most important ingredient in building a championship roster: a true blue superstar. The Brow has arrived.

10 Things I Like and Don’t Like

1. Russell Westbrook’s Defense

Westbrook’s defense has always leaned toward the hyperactive, but he’s crossed into borderline out-of-control territory at times since returning from injury. He’s leaping into passing lanes for steals he has no chance to get, jumping himself out of position before pick-and-rolls, gambling on those Rondo-style reach-around steals that leave him way behind the play, and generally hopping around like a madman.

Westbrook isn’t quite a minus defender, and hyperactivity is part of what makes him a force as a help defender and nabber of surprise steals. But he has never lived up to expectations that he might become a stopper, and when he veers off the rails, he can hurt Oklahoma City. He just needs to channel the aggression in the right way, at carefully selected times.

2. Dwyane Wade’s Touch Off the Glass

Wade is shooting 43 percent from midrange after back-to-back years of (barely) sub-40 work, and for a shaky shooter, the guy has a silky touch on bankers. He has a bit of the Dirk thing, where it almost seems the ball rolls down the glass instead of banging hard off of it.

3. Isaiah Thomas’s Continuous Up-and-Under

Thomas just finds new ways to delight. Lots of guys have up-and-under moves that are really robotic combinations of mini-moves. Thomas has one fluid up-and-under:

4. Ricky Rubio’s Blind Passes

It’s hard being a Wolves fan — the playoff drought, the past April losing streaks, the Kevin Love thing, even Rubio’s haphazard non-development. But the team plays such pleasing ball when it’s rolling, with all sorts of creative action for Love, and Rubio flinging passes like this:

I mean, Rubio’s face is buried in Donatas Motiejunas’s sweaty chest when he throws this bad boy.

5. Claiming Tip-ins

Claiming fouls is dignified, especially in the rare instances when a player is attempting to falsely claim a foul on behalf of a teammate. That’s sacrifice! Raising your hand to make sure the game scorer and the rest of the world know you were the one who really tipped that rebound in among a thicket of arms is undignified stat-hoggery, I say!

6. John Henson’s Foul Shooting

Henson is 20-of-63 from the line in 30 games since January 18. He’s down to 49.7 percent for the season, and he’s drawing fewer free throw attempts. This is a problem.

7. Kevin Love Fake Post-ups

That’s right: Minnesota’s getting two “likes” this week. It’s partly out of pity, but also because I so enjoy watching Love play offense under Rick Adelman. Case in point: this gorgeous counter to a classic Minny set:

The play starts with Love setting a screen and rumbling down the right block, where two players wait as screeners for him; Love even takes a screen from the first one. Those screeners are normally there to spring Love for a post-up on the left block — the opposite side of the floor from where he starts.

Love knows Houston might be sitting on that play, so he reverses course around a (kinda whiffed) Gorgui Dieng pin-down screen for an open 3. He misses, but that’s heady ball.

8. Utah’s Blue Jerseys

Blue jerseys are great. I love blue jerseys! Most of the good ones, including roadies for New York and Golden State, are a bright shade of royal blue. Utah goes a darker route, almost navy, and it stands out nicely. Just stop wearing those hideous green alternates, please.

9. Early Timeouts in the First and Third Quarters

They’re annoying at first, but a full timeout early in the first or third quarter brings the potential for a long stretch of continuous televised sports. The first and third quarters don’t feature those evil under-9:00 mandatory TV timeouts, so an early stoppage counts as the under-6:00 timeout and allows for the game to breathe. It’s about the little things, people.

10. Jeff Green’s Passing

The Thunder thought passing might end up among Green’s best NBA skills, but he just hasn’t advanced as a distributor, even when Boston used him almost as an alpha dog during Rajon Rondo’s recovery. He has assisted on just 8.3 percent of Boston baskets while on the floor, almost exactly his career average, and his assist numbers haven’t budged when Rondo hits the pine. (Note: That wasn’t the case last season, when Green dished more assists with Rondo sitting.)

Green hasn’t made a leap reading defenses and passing on the move. He’s improved other useful skills, but his lack of progress as a ball handler/distributor counts as a disappointment.


ZACH LOWE is a staff writer for Grantland.

The Lowe Post Podcast: Zach Lowe and Marc Stein APRIL 2, 2014
Q&A: Chandler Parsons on Playing D, Texas Hold ’Em, and Watching TV APRIL 2, 2014
Building the Brow APRIL 1, 2014
The Question of Kevin Love MARCH 28, 2014
The Western Conference Playoff Derby MARCH 27, 2014



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