Monday, March 31, 2014

Opening Day: The first sign of spring

On this day, the sun shines a little bit brighter in the sports world as Major League Baseball season gets underway in earnest.  Forget the games that were played in Australia earlier in March, or even last night’s game in San Diego between the Dodgers and Padres.  For most teams, today is the beginning of a 162-game endeavor which only ends with a championship for one team but on this day, everybody is equal. It’s a whole new season and on Major League Baseball opening day, we truly get the feeling that winter is a thing of the past and the spring has arrived.

There are games nationally televised throughout the day, and opening day has became a full day marathon of baseball and sports fans throughout the country campaign are sure to raise their sentiments that opening day should be a national holiday.  What’s so refreshing about opening day is that it’s a breath of fresh air.  Fans of teams with low expectations for the season get excited to see their team tied with everyone else in the standings, and those supporting contenders are looking forward to a season that may see their team having a parade in October.  But on opening day, everyone is the same.  Everyone is just excited that baseball season is here.

The sights and sounds of baseball return to remind us why we love the game.  The crackle of the bat connecting with the ball, 95-mile per hour fastballs zooming into the catcher’s glove for strike three, and the starting pitchers who have the day off sitting in the front row of the dugout spitting sunflower seeds taking in the action are all identifiable actions that baseball is back.

Sold out ballparks with hopeful fans are the symbols of everyone’s excitement for baseball again.  The first day of the regular season in all sports usually brings good vibes throughout the air, but it’s a little different in baseball.  While the first day is just one of 162, the reinvigorating energy on opening day in Major League Baseball for what’s to come in the summer and into the fall is unparalleled.

There are so many predictions to make, so many stories to keep an eye, and lots of intriguing players and teams primed for breakout seasons while others are sure to disappoint.  So when it all begins on opening day it’s when we can celebrate the great unknowns.  It makes for great conversation.  Who’s going to win the Cy Young awards, MVPs, Rookie of the year, and most importantly the world series? It’s all up for debate on opening day when it all gets started and since the regular season is just beginning, there is no wrong answer to any of those questions.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Best Postseason Tournament in Sports

In my opinion, the Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday after Selection Sunday are three of the slowest days on the sports calendar.  That’s because Selection Sunday is one of the most exciting days on the sports calendar.  Most of the major conference tournaments conclude on Selection Sunday, or the day before, and then we all see the bracket released in the evening.  Then all the ESPN analysts begin to break it down and by the end of the night it seems like a lot of people who lock in on the coverage are ready to fill out their brackets.  But then there are still three days before the tournament really gets underway in earnest.

The First Four play-in games on Tuesday and Wednesday are a tease in my mind because it’s just a small sampling of what’s to come.  But once Thursday comes and the first weekend arrives, there’s no slowing down.  There’s something about just taking in game after game in the NCAA tournament, wire-to-wire finishes, and the unpredictability of the entire tournament that is unlike another other postseason in sports.  Consider that there are probably lots of people all across the country that haven’t watched a second of college basketball all season but are sure to fill out a bracket.  That’s when you know people are hooked.

Usually my bracket never turns out as planned.  Rarely does my national champion come close to winning it all (sorry Louisville) and once the regional finals roll around it’s usually tough for me to even look at what I predicted without cringing.  But that too, is the beauty of the next three weeks. Once we get to that first Monday in April and nets are being cut down, I often feel a unique sense of reflection about the entire tournament.  

At the end of it all, usually I can say that the last three weeks of basketball were still exciting, still kept me on the edge of my seat, and still very much worth paying attention to regardless of how good or bad my picks turned out.  Isn't that what it’s really about anyway? The intensity level and quality of play are usually very high for the entire tournament and the games are riveting no matter who everyone’s picking.  The bracket busting runs from teams like Florida Gulf Coast and La Salle last year are really definitive of what the NCAA Tournament is and why it’s called March Madness and how can anyone not enjoy it?

The close competition and excitement of almost every game is unparalleled to any of the professional sports postseasons.  So it leaves us with no chance but to take in the next three weeks and think about that while watching.  Rarely do we see a postseason tournament that provides so much surprise and nail-biting finishes left and right.  But the time has come yet again and it’s time to enjoy it.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Go Ahead and Tank

Cody Zeller, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Kemba Walker, Gerald Henderson, DJ Augustin, Brandan Wright, Adam Morrison, Sean May, Raymond Felton, and Emeka Okafor.  What do they all have in common? That is a list of every single lottery pick the Charlotte Bobcats have ever made.

Stan Van Gundy says the draft should be eliminated.
His Magic team that went to the NBA Finals in 2009 was
built around Dwight Howard, a number one overall selection.
Much has been made recently about teams with little to no incentive to win games in the NBA and building their rosters to lose lots of games and accumulate ping-pong balls for the NBA Draft Lottery.  Tanking, as it’s commonly referred to, can be the only way towards the top of the NBA for some teams.  Some feel the need to change the way NBA Draft is structured in a way that doesn’t reward losing since the lottery is a weighted system and the teams with more losses have a higher percentage chance of getting the first overall pick.  Former NBA head coach Stan Van Gundy went as far as to say the NBA should eliminate the draft and allow rookies to enter the Association through free agency.  I’m writing this to say not so fast.

In most NBA Drafts, there are usually only one or two players whose ceiling is a superstar, face of the franchise kind of player.  In some cases there aren’t any players that fit this description.  So I feel as if the recent talk of modifying the NBA Draft to discourage tanking is rather unwarranted.  If a team is going to throw a whole season away, actively make their team worse during that season, for a 25% chance at getting the first overall pick in the NBA Draft why should anyone stop them? Mathematically they’re throwing a season for a 75% chance to not get the first pick in the draft.  For a team to tank and try so hard to get the first pick, those odds don’t seem too favorable.

One team will get lucky on lottery night.
Some years, the draft isn't deep enough
and teams that don't get lucky have to hope
they get lucky in the lottery in the future.
Look at all those Bobcats lottery picks.  One specifically worth highlighting is Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.  Kidd-Gilchrist clearly is not the biggest bust on that list.  But in the 2011-2012 season, a shortened one due to the lockout, the Charlotte Bobcats went 7-59 en route to the worst winning percentage in a single season in NBA history.  Charlotte entered the lottery with the 25% chance at the first pick in 2012, did not get the first pick, and missed out on perhaps the only player who has a superstar ceiling from that draft as they saw New Orleans select Anthony Davis first overall.  So Charlotte had a historically bad season and did not get a superstar player out of it.

In 2006, Charlotte selected Adam Morrison third overall.  If you look back at the 2006 draft by no means was it rife with superstars but Rudy Gay, Rajon Rondo, and Kyle Lowry were all taken after Morrison and all have proved themselves to be viable NBA starters.

The point is if teams want to tank, they better draft well.  In setting up for a horrific season by blowing up the roster, odds come lottery night are not going to be favorable regardless of how horrendous the past season was.  Then, even if it works out teams picking in the top three better find the right player, or they’ll find themselves right back in the top three the following season.

The 2006 and 2012 drafts for Charlotte are good examples of different flaws that lie within tanking.  In both drafts, they had a high pick, and both times came out without a superstar player.  In 2006, they were the third worst team in the NBA and picked in that third slot accordingly but drafted a bust.  In 2012, they were historically bad and did not get the first pick and wound up missing out on Davis, who might be the only sure thing from that draft.

So if a team is going to position themselves to lose as many games as possible why should anyone stop them? Sure there is a reward at the end of it all but it’s easy to just assume that the process is going to work.  Teams need luck in the lottery, and good talent evaluators in the front office to make the right picks for tanking to work neither of which is a guarantee.  So if tanking isn’t even a guarantee to improve a team long term, again, why stop it?

Look at last year’s draft.  Four of the top five picks are averaging significantly less than 20 minutes a game for their respective teams this year.  First overall pick Anthony Bennett averages 12.8 minutes a game for Cleveland.  The third pick, Otto Porter, averages 9.3 minutes a game for Washington.  Cody Zeller, Charlotte’s pick at fourth overall, plays 16.8 minutes a game and lastly Phoenix selected Alex Len fifth overall who averages 9.1 minutes per game this season.

Now all four players are rookies and maybe just need time to develop but drafted that highly should be making more of an immediate impact.  Take a look at the fifth player in the top five from last year’s draft, Victor Oladipo.  He’s playing 32 minutes a game for Orlando and could win the Rookie of the Year award this year.  Oladipo is the only player in last year’s top five that is playing like a top five pick.

If last year’s draft is every reason not to tank, then this year’s draft is every reason to tank.  A draft loaded with depth and maybe more than just one or two superstars is perhaps the reason why all the tanking talk is so rampant this time of year as the regular season begins to unwind.  But the suggestions that the current model needs to be changed aren’t really suggestions as much as they are exaggerations.

Adam Silver should not crumble under the
pressure of changing the format of the NBA Draft.
The classic example of a successful tank job is the Oklahoma City Thunder/Seattle SuperSonics who drafted Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden in three consecutive drafts.  Yes, a lot of losing went into drafting these three players.  But there was also a lot of luck through the lottery and the Oklahoma City/Seattle brass had to pick the right players for what they were trying to do and it happened to work out and so kudos to them for pulling it off because it’s easier said than done.

GMs prioritizing losing and a drop in attendance were some of the issues put in front of Adam Silver at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference regarding tanking.  The drop in attendance is really irrelevant.  It’s not like a team’s attendance was great prior to tanking and all of sudden their tank is ruining their high attendance marks.  The Sixers are a good example of that.  They are a team in full tank mode this season that draws terrible crowds, but hasn’t really consistently drawn good crowds since the Allen Iverson era. 

Maybe the fact that GMs prioritize losing is concerning for someone like Silver who just took over as NBA commissioner last month, but if I’m Silver, I’m saying go ahead and tank.  Charlotte got so tired of the lottery they went out and overpaid for Al Jefferson last summer and now may be a playoff team this year.  They went from terrible to now mediocre and will never be elite.

Tanking is risky a proposition.  It’s high risk-high reward.  The high reward part is getting the better of lots of GMs this season because of the depth of this year’s draft class.  But let’s not overlook the high risk part.  Sure, you might become the Oklahoma City Thunder.  But you might also become the Charlotte Bobcats.