Zach Bye: April 2011 Archives
Within the last few years I've gained interest in sports betting. Nothing crazy in terms of the amount of money wagered, as I usually get a similar thrill betting 10 or 20 bucks as others would from betting 100. Having constant interest throughout the games, a reliable tip or just a heavy hunch are usually my reasons for laying down hard-earned cash. Over the last few years I've picked up hints or tendencies in line movements, and correlations with certain teams and sports. A good example would be the NBA's Boston Celtics playing the second night of a back-to-back. The C's have one of the oldest starting lineups in the league, so while they won 56 of their 82 regular season games, 12 of their 26 losses came in the second game of those back to backs. That's a huge percentage, so you learn to stay away or play off of it. Another interesting example of betting trends came in late February the night after Melo was traded to the Knicks. The Nuggets were scheduled to play the Grizzlies, and you could see all of the general public's money was being tossed on Memphis. Usually with so much money being tossed on one team, Vegas's line of points given will adjust accordingly. But for some reason, the points stayed the exact same. You knew something was up. Vegas had a good idea that the Nuggets were going to come out strong with a point to prove, much like the passionate Cleveland Cavaliers team stormed out of the gate without LeBron at the start of the season winning four of their first seven games. So when my buddy said "Hey, lets load up on Memphis tonight," I knew better. Sure enough, the Nuggets played with a huge chip on their shoulder and pounded Memphis. Vegas is good…No, Vegas is great at what they do. I can't begin to tell you how many times, in the last three years, the over/under and spreads have hit by half points and single points. Just this past Friday night I bet the Spurs/Grizzlies over. I bet that the two teams combined score would be less than 189. The combined final score: 190. Meaningless foul shots, field goals, and solo home runs in the 9th inning of a blow out are all critical to Vegas (and me). So when I watched CBS's flagship show 60 minutes this past Sunday highlighting a notorious sports gambler in Vegas named Billy Walter, I was sucked in. Odd's makers literally call him the most feared man in Vegas sports betting history. Dude can't even make bets with most of the book keepers in town because he'll bend the house over. Walter has never had a losing year and bets over a million dollars on games depending on the day. Instead of making decisions based on the Vegas lines like you or I, Billy Walter makes his own lines, and Vegas will then adjust to Billy. I posted the video below that will blow your mind just how big this is. His home command center, his 18-man crew with code names that have all never met one another, and his 20 million dollar jet are all fascinating. Besides the known fact that 60 minutes can make any subject seem interesting, I know you'll love this video just because.
It was not even one week ago when I predicted to my buddy that Kobe Bryant would dunk right on someone one more time before he either retires or can no longer do it. Well Tuesday was that day, and Emeka Okafor was his victim. In spite of an "injured ankle", Kobe still flashed signs of his old self when he took off several feet out of the restricted circle, glided through the air, cocked it back, and brought the spike down on one of the best shot blockers in the NBA. Because he's getting up there in years and his legs have roughly a million miles on them, we don't get to see that side of Kobe much these days. At age 32, he's more likely to create some contact in the paint and draw the foul, possibly a 'And One', or simply stop short and pull up for a jumper. But I know you haven't forgotten about the Kobe who welcomed Yao Ming in the NBA with his first facial. The Kobe who dunked on the head of Ben Wallace during the preseason of his rookie year with the Lakers and knocked him on his can after he flew eight feet. You didn't forget about the Kobe Bryant who won the 1997 slam dunk contest, caught a 360 alley-oop on the Sixers, windmilled on the Knicks in the Garden with a puzzled Latrell Sprewell beneath him, and dunked over Dwight Howard while pretending to use D12′s torso as a blow-up doll (In my opinion it is one of the top five facial dunks I've ever seen). So on Tuesday, KB24 gave us that friendly reminder, similar to what Jordan would toss our way in 1998. That little, "Hey, I can still do this." Knowing Kobe's competitive and cut throat nature, it's probably closer to: "How %$@*! dare you doubt me!" Either which way, he reminded you, and possibly reminded himself. Check out the dunk again below, along with some of the best dunks of Kobe Bryant's career below that. Enjoy.
This video below is Kobe serving an unforgettable welcome to Dwight Howard into the NBA a few years back (The blow up doll reference. You'll understand when you see Kobe thrust). Later, Bryant would say that he "baptized" Howard. LOL!
The Spurs are officially on Amber Alert. Am I a fool for believing in San Antonio? Honestly, I feel like one. Their 61 regular season wins? Fool's gold. Where are those legs with the pep in their step? Aged overnight. Where's the defense that won four championships? Non existent. So far in this first round series with Memphis, the Spurs are nowhere to be found. But here's the worst part: I should have known. How is it that an eight seed is up 3-1 in the best of seven series over the second best regular season team in the league and nobody is baffled by it? I think deep in our minds we almost expected a collapse, but maybe not this early. And not against Memphis. What was so different about this Spurs team in 2011? It's basically the same nucleus, so why did I expect an older version of something that hasn't worked in years to be successful? Sure, that nucleus was healthy, but those once trusty pieces in San Antonio are now just crusty. The greatest power forward to ever play the game of basketball has already seen his best days. In a pivotal game four down 2-1, Tim Duncan went out and posted six points and seven rebounds in nearly 30 minutes of playing time. And the numbers aren't deceiving. Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol were owning him like they just paid the last bill of a lien. And his teammate Tony Parker, who not long ago was winning the NBA finals MVP, and considered widely to be a top point guard in the league, has been outplayed by Memphis guard Mike Conley. Parker's regular season average for turnovers have doubled in this first round against Memphis, and his assists have dropped over 30% since the start of the series. What happened to those key role players? Did DeJuan Blair even play Monday? Technically yes. Six minutes, two points. I thought he was the spark plug combination of strength and toughness? George Hill, who believe it or not received a vote from Bruce Bowen for sixth man of the year over Lamar Odom, had a truly amazing statistic Monday night against Memphis. In the plus/minus category, Hill was a -26! As in when Hill was on the floor, the four other guys he was playing with were outscored by the five Memphis players by 26 points. That's got to be the worst for any player in any series in these playoffs. To top it all off Richard Jefferson, who was thought at one point to be the essential offensive piece needed in San Antonio, managed to put up a zero in the scoring column over his 27 minutes of playing time. At the end of the regular season I was on the verge of reaching deep in my bag of nicknames and labeling the Spurs 'Old Hickory'…now I'm on the verge of labeling them just plain old. 2011 was supposed to be the revival year in San Antonio. The year that the Spurs would find their way back to the promised land. Instead of the promised land, the Spurs are wandering aimlessly in the proverbial playoff desert, one game removed from the off-season.
I was leaving my apartment during Dallas' comfortable 23 point fourth quarter lead in game 4 on Saturday afternoon and thought nothing of it. The game was over, right? And even if it wasn't over the last dude that would come save the day was Brandon Roy, right? It was merely 96 hours before that game when Roy was literally about to cry on the bench during a game where he registered a whopping eight minutes of playing time, had zero points, zero rebounds, zero assists and a turnover. This is coming from Portland's golden boy who averaged over 20 points a game for the two seasons before this one. But of course double knee surgeries make for a steep fall from grace. But Saturday B. Roy rose from the ashes like a Phoenix and absolutely Sargent Slaughtered the Mavs down the stretch. Meanwhile, I was in my car singing outloud to some old Beatles track, unknowingly missing out on history. So here for you…but more for me, are the condensed highlights of the Brandon Roy's Magical Mystery Tour fourth quarter performance to tie the best of seven series 2-2.
In an age when as soon as the horn goes off these players have camera's and microphones in your face, you capture some raw emotion. This interview below with Brandon Roy has all of that. You can see it and hear it in his voice how happy and possibly surprised he is. Check out his teammates and how happy they are for him. That's all I need to see actually. You can really judge someone's character when the other 11 guys who spend 200 days a year together, and want personal success of there own…the kind that Roy just had, are as happy for him as they were. My junior college coach Andre Cook used to say how much he loved when good things happen to good people. Here's a guy who's past year has been a living hell, and to play at that high of a level again is a story we all can love (minus fans of the Mavs).
This past week I was reading an article on Espn.com where the results of a study done by the University of Central Florida were released in which Major League Baseball was given a grade for racial diversity. While the grade MLB received was good as far as overall diversity, the percentage of African-American players dropped to 8.5% from 9.1% last season, the lowest since 2007. After reading this my wheels began turning. Why would the percentage of black American players be so low in a sport as popular as Major League Baseball? It's a bizarre percentage considering how the black athlete has dominated another major American sport like the NBA, whose player population is over 80% African-American. I have zero scientific evidence, or 'real' statistics to back up my own theory, but I think that a few of the following factors play a role in the current dynamics of professional sports.
The first component that popped in my head when thinking about this topic was where 80% of all Americans live: Metropolitan areas. Compact living in cities and suburbs are where it's at in 2011. You don't have to punch in too many google searches to see that more than half of the black population in the U.S. live in those cities. It's just a fact. To play the game of baseball, you need a few things, and space is one of them. What's lacking in major/populated cities? Of course, space. Yea, there are baseball fields here and there in major U.S. cities, but I don't think anyone would agree that they're commonplace. On the other hand, it seems like there's a basketball court on every corner, or at least a hoop. I think that hurts baseball among African-American city dwellers. Which brings me to the next point: What are the basic things you need to play a game of baseball? People and equipment. Even if you're doing the very basic 'catch' throwing back and forth, you need a baseball and gloves. These things cost money. I'm not reinventing the wheel when I say that incomes in the inner city are on the lower scale from a geographical standpoint. What percentage of kids age 15 and under own a baseball glove in inner cities? I played little league from the time I was seven or eight until I was 15, and never once was it free. The cost to play in the league, the cost for my gloves throughout the years and transportation to practice and games. If my mother was never able to pay for the cost, would I have ever in my life played in a real baseball game? It's just hitting me now that I never would have. I think back to that same time period when I wanted to play hockey in the worst way. I remember my mother hitting me with the crushing news that we didn't have the money to afford all of the equipment, even if it was purchased second-hand. Have I ever experienced playing in a real hockey game? No. It's not the exact same with inner city baseball, but I think there's a correlation. So what if inner city kids wanted to just play a baseball game on their own? Baseballs, gloves, bats, and 18 people, with limited space unfortunately it isn't practical. How many times have you drove down city streets and seen a baseball game? Even kids throwing the ball around? Compare that number to the amount of times you've seen a pickup basketball game taking place. And to me, this availability of the game (or lack of availability) is one of the major components as to why there are so few African-American professional baseball players. A kid in the inner city can walk to a basketball court by himself, bringing nothing with him besides the shoes on his feet and the shirt on his back (even that isn't necessary), play with the ball that's already being bounced, and be entertained for hours. Even if nobody else was on the court, he/she would just need a ball. Basketball hoops are everywhere. Inside and outside schools, in the parks, portables rolled into the street or backboards nailed to garages and trees. When I was younger I remember seeing a makeshift hoop in the form of a hard plastic basket for stocking foods with the bottom cut out of it, nailed to a tree on a side street in Schenectady, New York. My point is, a game like basketball is more accessible for someone with little resources. Even football can be played with just a ball and limited space. I used to play 2-on-2 football on a patch of grass no longer than 20 yards, and no wider than 15 yards. Unfortunately, you can't play 2-on-2 baseball with any type of replication of the real thing. Space, resources/equipment, and at least a dozen others willing to play don't strike me as components that are common in our American Cities. Without those components, it's far less likely for African-Americans living in those cities to be exposed to the game of baseball from an early age, be able to play often enough to become any good at it, and then outperform those living in suburbia who have played with those same resources for years.
Another explanation of why there are not more African-American Major League Baseball players is the lack of African-American Major League Baseball players. Silly sentence, but give me a second. Professional athletes in nearly every sport started at a very young age. A child or teen watches their favorite sport on television, looks up to these players like untouchable gods, slapping posters on their walls, playing as them in video games and rocking their jerseys. For a young African-American to turn on a game and not see another African-American players in baseball is discouraging. 8% is a very low number. If you calculate roughly 750 MLB players, that leaves 60 African-Americans! Not that a young black teen can't look up to a white player, or vice versa (as I have looked up to black players my whole life), but you can't tell me that not seeing someone from your own race helps baseball's situation. This is a sloppy example, but when I was eight or nine years old I remember loving pro wrestling and using my imagination to pretend I was a pro wrestler. Even though I loved certain wrestlers like Brett Hart and Diesel the most, because they had long hair I wouldn't pretend I was them. This is because in my mind I wasn't tricking myself enough in to thinking I actually was them. Instead, I unconsciously chose a white skinned, short-haired wrestler (The British Bulldog) as the man I would bounce around my living room emulating. And although this personal example isn't an exact replication, I don't believe it's that far off the deep end for an analogy. The lack of representation from African-Americans in pro baseball fuels further lack of representation. This is just one more component why, in my opinion, there are so few black Americans in Major League Baseball.
I thought further into why such a small number of African-Americans were in pro baseball and right or wrong, I began thinking on a smaller scale. Take the high school level into consideration. What sports see the most fans at their games? Basketball and football unquestionably. These two sports are the nations "glory" sports. Even when soccer teams or volleyball teams are great, they never can match the spectators from when the football or basketball teams are playing well. Imagine you're a young, black, above average athlete living in an inner city going to a basketball game and seeing 2,000 people pack into a gymnasium to watch the boys varsity team play. It would be hard for that young talent not to be drawn toward that glory that his older high school idols are receiving. This glory inspires kids and drives them to be in that position to receive it. I can remember one year in high school our baseball team was very good, and fun to watch. They made sectionals and I made the trip to a local stadium to support our team. Even in a playoff situation, the crowd was about half that of a Friday night football game with a very average football team. The praise and attention shown to the 'glory' sports encourages the very best athletes to chase that glory. Think over athletics in Brazil, Europe or Africa. Soccer is clearly king, with nearly every other sport taking a back seat. All the attention is funneled to soccer, and in turn the best athletes from those nations play soccer (Which in my opinion is why the U.S. was so late catching on to the world's game, because our best athletes were busy dunking basketballs and doing touchdown dances). When you break it down, I don't think it's a hard equation to understand.
Although these are just some of my own thoughts on why African-Americans take up only 8% of Major League Baseball, I don't for a second think that it's just that simple. I hadn't brought the topic up for one minute at work before everyone within earshot was voicing their opinion. The overall interest in the sport is dropping, the interest in new sports like soccer and lacrosse, and the slow pace of baseball were all suggestions thrown out there. I don't have the statistics or validation to say which is which. The television ratings for baseball have clearly been diving for some years now, so maybe it is just the overall falling popularity that only garners 8% of MLB players being African-American. Maybe it's the lack of space to play baseball where those African-Americans live. Maybe it's the economics of those inner cities. Maybe it's the lack of inspiration from other black Americans on the pro level. I'm not sure if we'll ever know, but what I do know is that there are a surplus of talented African-Americans out there waiting to be tapped into baseball. Hopefully MLB can get ahold of some answers to reverse the trend before it gets even worse.
Although it's early in the post-season, Dwight Howard has easily had the most dominant performances. I continue to be blown away by the development of this man who we used to call a 'kid' in what seems like yesterday. Just the other day I was saying that Derrick Rose was the human version of a 'create-a-player' from a video game at the point guard position, but Howard fits the same label. We've never seen a guy like Dwight. A 7-foot center who has the shoulders of The Incredible Hulk, hands the size of catchers mitt, the power of a bulldozer and can literally kiss the rim. We've seen centers sharing some of those attributes, but not all together. And you know what, there's other guys in this league who seem to have these physical tools too…the athletic 6'10-7′ players who are strong, can jump and have touch, but Howard links up his physical capabilities with his mental determination to do the things he does on a nightly basis. I've seen Darius Miles score 37 points in a game, Rashard Lewis go for 50 and Mike James put up 39, but the difference between these guys and the players we'll remember is breaking through the barrier of "capable" and actually performing at that high level every single night. And that's what separates the greats: The consistency. Dwight Howard has served as a pillar of consistency for seven years now and somehow is still getting better. This past week when Dwight earned his NBA record third consecutive Defensive Player of the Year Award, at the age of 25, Orlando Magic GM Otis Smith called D12 "…probably the most dominating player in history right now." And while I'm a bit confused whether Smith meant most dominant in the game 'right now' or in the 'history' of the league, I pretty much understand what he was saying…and I agree. Forget the small sample size of the combined 79 points and 38 rebounds Dwight posted through his first two playoff games against Atlanta (Which, by the way, was the first time a player had gone for at least 33 and 19 in his first two playoff games since Shaq did it 10 years ago), but rather peek at his entire seven-year career. Dwight Howard has amassed over 10,000 points, over 1,200 blocks and most impressive of all is the 7,287 rebounds he's yanked off the glass. I don't think we always properly acknowledge a feat in the moment it's being done but rather tend to reflect on it after the fact, but I'm here to tell you that you're enjoying or not enjoying one of the greatest careers in the history of basketball. Think of the other big men we hold dear in our hoop nostalgia. The Ewing's, Olajuwon's, Shaq's and Malone's of the world. Where will Dwight stack up to these centers, who over time, have become basketball gods? If D12 can attach some championships to his personal success, I think he'll be right near the top. If you look at Dwight Howard's rebounding numbers in his first seven years in the league and compare it to the first seven years of the four Hall of Famers I mentioned, I think you'd be surprised. Dwight has 10% more rebounds than Hakeem Olajuwon, 15% more than Karl Malone, and 24% more than Shaq. Oh, and Patrick Ewing? Through their first seven years Dwight has, literally, 2,000 more rebounds (30% higher rate of rebounding) than good 'ol 'double ice bags'. In between all the rebounding, Dwight squeezes in time to lead the NBA in double doubles (Sorry KLove!), is top five in blocks and second in the L in FG%. His moves have developed with the numbers as well. What used to be a one weapon arsenal of 'catch, dunk, repeat', is now full of spins, hooks and banks. I'm not sure how far this Orlando team will go in these playoffs, but I can name you the one guy that will show up and pull his weight and more. And who knows if Dwight's jersey will say 'Orlando' in the future, but wherever dude goes I'm sure he'll be squashing shots, overpowering defenses and doing his best to tear the rim from its bolts. Just judging from his continued committment to develop on both ends of the floor, combined with his willingness to learn from those same Hall of Famers (Ewing and Olajuwon), I'm sure you can tell I don't think this force is stopping anytime soon. And with a name like 'Superman', there's little room for slacking. Another superhero could have been talking about Howard when he said: "To infinity, and beyond!" Go Dwight.
For your viewing pleasure, here is the 10 "best" plays from D12 this season. Reminder, this is one season, not a career. (On the #1 play, check out the dude on the Philly bench in the suit react to his own teamate getting dunked on…halarious).
Amare Stoudemire did just about everything in his power to put the Knicks over the Celtics Sunday. And if it wasn't for that pesky 'Greatest shooter of all time' Ray Allen, it would have been enough. For most of the game Amare was the best player on the floor for either team. Dude was hitting his jumpers, blocking shots and hitting the glass. There were several moments where he literally made me say out loud: "Whoa". His ferocious driving dunk in traffic over Jermaine O'Neal in the fourth quarter has to be the top play in the early stages of these playoffs. His play served as a reminder of just how good he can be when he's active. I just hope the rest of his Knicks teammates took notice for their own sake. Down the stretch, when the ball wasn't in his hands, is when New York went wrong. STAT was in complete control of that game and why he wouldn't continue to get spoon fed the ball is beyond me. You could point at several different sources for blame, but the bottom line is it didn't get done. In the final minute and a half of the game, Melo went 0-2 and had two turnovers. Granted, for as many times at that happens I'm sure Melo will win you nearly the same amount of games, but it was a rough time to have a lapse in judgment to not feed the hot handed Amare. You have to imagine if Melo was having the kind of day Stoudemire was having, he'd be demanding the rock in crunch time. Why isn't that the case for Amare? Billups and Anthony combined to shoot 8 for 29 from the floor and Melo was a dismal 1-10 in the second half. Meanwhile, all five starters for Boston were in double figures. And of course Ray Ray hits another game winner. I'm not sure why we have a tendency to write guys off when they get into their 30′s but Ray is still killing kids at age 35. "Mr. Shuttlesworth" doesn't rely on his athleticism to maintain success, but rather his fundamentals. That same silky stroke still nets him over 16 ppg and just won a playoff game for Beantown. Both squads were extremely competitive Sunday and I can't envision either side backing down. I'm looking forward to round two between Amare and KG as they'll chew it out like two Doberman's inside the pit they call the paint. I hope you packed a lunch, because we may be here for a while. I can't see this series going any less than six games and more likely seven.
Even though the Knicks lost, Amare's move on KG and dunk over Jermain O'Neal deserves a second look…So here she be:
At long last the NBA Playoffs are here. All those 'big picture' questions about the Miami Heat, NY Knicks, Boston Celtics and LA Lakers we've been beating around for the last six months can finally be answered. The time for hype, speculation, doubt and jocking for seeds is behind us. Proof is in the pudding. Cream rises to the top. However you say it, it's time to play ball. My favorite part of the NBA playoffs is that there's little to no room for 'flukes'. By making it the best of seven series, you come out of the first round with the truly better team. In sports, unexplainable things take place. The Giants can beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl and VCU can make an epic run to the Final Four. But in a seven game series that Giants team would have to beat the Patriots three more times. After that many contests, you get a more realistic and consistent winner. Less Cinderella's, more proven squads. And for me, that's good, because I want to see the very best teams. And so should you. After watching the NBA as closely as I did this season, combined with the seven game series setup, I feel very comfortable correctly predicting seven of the eight playoff series. If I hit any less than six of these, I'll cut off my pinky toes. So here are my predictions, and a quick blurb why…
Chicago Bulls vs. Indiana Pacers
History has shown us that to be a winner in the NBA playoffs you need star power. The Indiana Pacers don't have it. The Chicago Bulls do. It sounds a bit elementary, but it's really the truth. The Bulls have the league's MVP in Derrick Rose, the likely Coach of the Year in Tom Thibodeau, a strong frontcourt to get dirty and a killer mentality. The Bulls beat the Pacers three different times this season, all coming by way of double digits. Pro rate the regular season right into the playoffs and that's likely what we'll be left with here. In actuality, the Pacers probably don't even deserve to be in the playoffs. They're a whole 8 games under .500 and by taking a peek at that roster it's not hard to tell that this series won't last long. Bulls sweep.
Miami Heat vs. Philadelphia 76ers
Doug Collins did an amazing job with the Sixers this season. But the run has to end and Miami will be happy to do it. The fact that the Heat won 12 of their last 14 and the Sixers dropped five of the last six doesn't bode well for my boy Collins. The boys in Philly picked up their game this year, especially Elton Brand playing like the old Clipper again averaging 15 and 8. But it won't be enough for a Miami team that's just been itching to say 'I told you so.' Philly may steal a game, but when the lights are on and Wade and James are focused, not Doug Collins or Elton Brand will save them. Heat take the series in five.
Orlando Magic vs. Atlanta Hawks
If the Hawks can get off to a good early start they have a shot, but that's a big 'if'. The Hawks are one of the worst rebounding teams in the league, so this matchup is going to be a tough one. Mainly because of this 7-foot ogre inside that happens to be the most athletic center in NBA history, happens to be the Defensive player of the year, happens to be second in the league in rebounding while averaging 23 points a contest. I know it's a new season, but judging by the way the Hawks showed up last year in the playoffs, I'm not a believer. I like their pieces individually. Horford and Josh Smith both have had great years, but they'll need more than that. Atlanta can't afford a playoff no-show for the second straight year from an overpaid Joe Johnson. Atlanta did win their season series and Orlando does seem to have some square pieces trying to fit into round holes (Gilbert Arenas, Hedo Turkoglu). That being said, I believe Orlando still has what it takes to get out of the first round and leave the Hawks stranded yet again. Orlando in six.
Boston Celtics vs. New York Knicks
The 'new' Knicks made basketball in the Empire state fun again. But fun never won a playoff series. I love the way the Knicks have been playing down the stretch, but as I've said for some time, the system is fundamentally broke. They're only two games over .500 and there's only four other teams in the L that give up more points. And although the Celtics have some serious issues of their own down low, they still have the number one defense in the league, and defense trumps most other variables. This, of all the first round series, is probably the most anticipated in terms of markets and star power. Both sides have serious doubts hovering over them as well, but in the end only one of these squads will have proved their point. The combination of experience, poise and mental toughness will get it done for Boston, even without Kendrick Perkins. That, and the reality that Boston still has Rajon Rondo, has me saying Celtics in seven.
Dallas Mavericks vs. Portland Trailblazers
This one is the toughest for me to call. I've seen Dallas look like the best team in the NBA at points during the season and I've seem them look like pathetic mental midgets. They've won their last four to close the season, lost the four before that, and have had similar stretches throughout the year. My main reason for doubting the Mavs though has nothing to do with this season. Past playoff performances have me doubting their toughness, both physically and mentally. From a Portland perspective, LaMarcus Aldridge will have to play at the All Star level he has all year if they're going to have a shot. I think the arrival of Gerald Wallace is having a bigger impact on this team than most acknowledge. His toughness and leadership has picked up whatever slack that Brandon Roy left (who's ppg average is now 13.9). The Blazers are a top 10 defensive team in the league, but oddly enough so are the Mavs. In the end, I think Dirk and his crew win this in seven.
San Antonio Spurs vs. Memphis Grizzlies
I keep hearing that Memphis is a scary team. What is scary though? Winning a game or two? Possibly, but the Spurs still have possibly the league's best coach and proven winners. I always say that things become redundant for a reason and just because it's a consistent truth doesn't mean that it's not well…still true. Answer me this, what do the Memphis grizzlies do well? Rebound? No. Score? No. Defend? No. Assist? No. You're not going to show up and beat the Spurs without your best player (Rudy Gay). Lets not forget that the Spurs won 60+ games this year. Little squeaky in the knees? Sure. But tell me this isn't a second round team and I'll scrunch my face in confusion and walk away. I give the Grizz one win, maybe two max. Spurs in 5.
Los Angeles Lakers vs. New Orleans Hornets
The Lakers: Too Big. Too Strong. Too long. Too tough. Too talented. Too proven. Period. I won't waste your time. Lakers in 5.
Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Denver Nuggets
This is the series I'm most looking forward too. Denver is playing so well since the Carmelo trade, winning 13 out of their last 18 games. They're playing together and they're playing hard. We've all heard the saying 'hard work beats talent when talent doesn't work hard'. But here's the thing, in the playoffs everyone is talented and everyone is playing harder than they have all season. When is the last time a team with zero All Stars advanced in the playoffs? That's a serious question. I can't think of it. Denver is a good team with a bunch of guys that are 7 out of 10′s. The Thunder on the other hand have two players that are perfect 10′s. Durant is a top five player in the league and I'd put Westbrook as a top 15. When talent is working hard, they win. Nene has had a great year in Denver and leads the league in field goal percentage, but I expect Serge Ibaka to cancel him out. I give the coaching edge to Denver's George Karl, but Scott Brooks has come into his own as well and has had significant time with this team. The 3-1 season series in favor of the Thunder gives some indication to how they stack up, but there's no telling how far Denver's momentum will take them. My call is OKC in seven.
As the NBA's regular season comes to a close this week, it's about that time to hand out the awards. I want to start 'at the back.' The most appreciated man out of the most underappreciated men. You can only have 5 basketball players from one team on the court at a specific time, so who's the top dog in the league of 32 teams who isn't one of the 'first five.' Who is the sixth man of the year? After seeing his picture you know who I'm talking about, but act like you didn't see it. Act like we we're playing a guessing game and you tried to come up with the player who fits these qualifications. This player in the 'Association' averages more rebounds per game than Amare Stoudemire while posting nearly the same points per game as Kevin Garnett? He has a better field goal percentage than Dirk, LeBron, Boozer, and Tim Duncan while averaging more assists per contest than Carmelo Anthony or Gerald Wallace. And, unlike all these players, he's never been an All-Star and doesn't start for his NBA team. Of course I'm talking about none other than the 'candy man' himself, Lamar Odom. My man is tied for the most games played in the league this year, because he hasn't missed a single game, for just the second time in his 11-year career. L.O. is also averaging the least amount of turnovers in that same 11-year stretch (1.7). Add all these factors together and you're left with the best player in the NBA coming off the bench. My college basketball coach used to say there's three things that a championship team must have. The first is natural talent with the willingness to do whatever it takes to win. The second is that the last player on your bench needs to work as hard, every day, as the best player on that team and remain as committed to the team concept. And thirdly, your sixth man has to have the ability to start on nearly every other team in the league. If that third component was a dictionary definition, there would have to be a picture of Lamar Odom. When he first came into the league out of the University of Rhode Island with the fourth pick to the Clippers, there were countless experts who predicted that this was a guy that would be an elite NBA player. A 6-10 athlete who can handle the rock, run the court and shoot from 3-point range has an unmeasurable upside. After all, in his first NBA game dude had 30 points and 12 rebounds. But over the years Odom showed that he wasn't wired to be a super star and would never be the best player on a legit contender. And though L.O. has never had a season where he didn't average double figures, we lowered our expectations of him. And believe it or not, that may have been what he needed. With Lamar, it seems that the less pressure he has, the better. It's no wonder that he's having one of his best NBA seasons the same year that he's started his second fewest games ever. Measure him up to the other sixth man of the year candidates and it's not even close. On ESPN.com a poll was held asking all ESPN basketball representatives to cast a vote for the best player off the pine this season. 32 of those 35 votes had Lamar Odom's name on them. One of the votes should count as a 'hanging chad' because it was cast by Bruce Bowen (former Spur) in favor of George Hill (Current Spur). The other 2 non-Odom votes went to Glen 'Big Baby' Davis. How? I'm not even sure. The 'Baby' averages less points, about 30% less rebounds, less than half Odom's assists and not even half of Odom's blocks. Mind you that's also on a team in a weaker Eastern Conference that doesn't have the team record of Odom's Lakers. This past week on the premier of the new show on E!, 'Khloe and Lamar' (Which was highly entertaining), it was made public just how dissapointed Odom was when he wasn't selected as an All-Star. Dude was clearly heartbroken. Well whatever pain he felt in being snubbed, it will surely have to be multiplied in positivity when he is presented the sixth man of the year award. You see, every team needs a sixth man. Every successful team needs a very good one. But a championship team…a championship team needs a Lamar Odom. Here's your due.
Oh, and if your wondering why I called Lamar Odom 'The Candy Man', check out this video. This dude is an addict…for Gluclose.
Whether its main stream sports talk, local publication, or the proverbial 'water cooler' chatter, everyone is talking about the Masters. And for good reason. I'll be honest, I'm not a big golf guy. I suppose I've always found the storylines of a Major somewhat interesting, and when Tiger was dominating I'd check it out here and there for clips lasting no longer than 10 or 15 minutes. But often times the low talking announcers, the peacefulness of the course and the overall 'spa like' feel of live golf often acted as a NyQuil of sorts on a Sunday afternoon. The 2011 Masters did not fit that mold. Instead, I'd describe the Masters in a word I've never used for it: Fun. I found myself torn during a few points in the afternoon flipping back and forth between golf on CBS and a battle between the Chicago Bulls and the Orlando Magic on ABC. Here I had Derrick Rose going off for 39 points while playing my favorite sport and somehow I kept getting sucked into watching guys I had never heard of play a sport I myself have played around 10 times. Oddly I loved every minute of it. In a way, the 2011 Masters had a first round March Madness feel to it in that nearly every other minute the camera was snapping to someone I had never heard of hitting a big shot to take the lead or an unfortunate stroke to either lose a lead or simply collapse. Just from listening to all the commentary after the event, it doesn't sound like golf had ever seen an entire day like that before. Somehow words like 'rapid' and 'energy' were attached to possibly the slowest sport outside of fishing. Tiger charging back and making a run made it that much more interesting. Originally that was the reason I was tuning in, to possibly watch history take place. After Woods nailed that eagle on the par 5 eighth, me and the buddy I was watching with were literally up off the couch. That my friends, was a first for me. The fist pump that followed was classic. I didn't plan on it, but I found myself rooting for him. And although he didn't end up having a strong back nine and finished tied for fourth, I watched history take place regardless. A piece of that history was watching Rory McIlroy fall apart. It was like watching a pigeon eat rice…pure implosion (I know that's a myth but I couldn't pass on the reference). You knew the kid was in trouble when he was practically chipping off a 'Welcome' mat in the front yard of one of those cottages. And when you didn't think it could get worse for the 21-year-old, he began pegging trees. I hope for his sake he comes back stronger and doesn't let this nightmarish meltdown kill his confidence moving forward. He seems like a really good kid. And is it just me or is there a serious lack of American talent on the tour? They kept showing the leaderboard graphic with the correlating national flag next to the name, and there were so many colors being represented it was like a gang filled prison yard (sponsored by Skittles). Just another reason to root for Tiger I guess. All in all I'm really glad I watched it. I learned a lot more about the game, and I've surprised myself by having legitimate interest in the next championship. Oh, and I almost forgot…A guy named Charl Schwartzel now owns a green jacket. I heard it's a big deal.
Derrick Rose is the real deal. And so are the Chicago Bulls. I watched Chicago play the Boston Celtics on Thursday night and what was on the screen was hard to ignore. Like reading a pop-up book, no matter how you looked at it, the content was in your face. The content of course says that the Celtics could not keep up with Derrick Rose and the rest of the Bulls. That the Celtics couldn't keep up probably has as much to do with the Celtics age, combined with the loss of Perkins, as it does Derrick Rose blossoming into the NBA's best player. It seems weird to even say it. And although the statement doesn't roll off the tip of my tongue, I can't dismiss it. His speed, athleticism and much improved jump shot has put the Bulls at the top spot in the Eastern conference after a win against Cleveland on Friday. Who saw this coming? We knew the Bulls would be solid, but I for one didn't expect them to be splitting or tying season series' with all the best teams in the league. If you remember during the preseason, the majority of predictions were Miami, Boston and Orlando toggling for the 'would-be' beast of the East. Speaking of preseason questions, remember the "who would you rather have: Derrick Rose or John Wall" question? That question now seems as silly as the old Kobe or TMac debate from the early 2000′s. Rose has separated himself in 2010/11 from other top tier guards such as Steve Nash, Tony Parker, and yes, Rajon Rondo. On Thursday night in Chicago, Rose made Rondo look like a workout cone. 30 points, 8 assists, 2 steals, 5 rebounds. On the other side of the box score, Rondo finished with a dismal 7 points, 6 assists and 5 boards. And the numbers aren't even as indicative as to how one-sided the battle really was. I made the statement during the game that Rajon Rondo used to be the most fun player to watch in this league. His unorthodox style of play and the things he'd do with the ball were so unique, but now I have to squint to even see a glimpse of that. What happened? Instead, it's now Rose who has taken my top spot of most entertaining players in the L. At certain points Thursday, Rose made the Celtics look like they were moving in slow motion. Have we ever seen a guy of Rose's size and stature have that mix of skill of athleticism? If so, who? Surely guys have been just as skilled, but not with Rose's ability to outrun a Corvette or hit his head on the shot clock. His physical gifts are that of a 'create-a-player' from a video game. A point guard from the future maybe. But #1 for Chicago is so much more than a highlight on SportsCenter. Rose has overachieved in his last 19 games, propelling the Bulls to 17 wins during the stretch. Within that time dude is averaging nearly 27 points and 7 assists. He accounts for roughly 40% of the Bulls offense and has been stepping up big on a defense ranked second in the entire NBA. Not bad for a kid who should be in his senior year of college. We'll need the next month to see if this Bulls team can come out of the tough, top-heavy conference when the lights are brightest. In the mean time I think they'll settle for giving Orlando, Boston and Miami nightmares.
I want to comment on a conversation I heard on my way into work Wednesday and again on my lunch break. The good folks on sports talk radio, both nationally and locally, were talking about the college basketball coaches poll and the lone vote that wasn't cast in favor of UConn being the nation's top team. The conversation is ridiculous on a couple of levels. First, the fact that Northern Arizona coach Mike Adras is in a position to vote for UConn as the nation's top team or not is unproductive. A coaches poll after the season? For what? For who? I'm still struggling to understand the purpose of the poll, because I was under the impression we just had a 68 team tournament to decide the national champion. Why would it matter to anyone where a coach thinks that a particular team ranks after the national championship? Secondly, why is there only 31 votes? Who are these 31 coaches, and why is the coach at Northern Arizona one of them? I'm of the belief that a post-season poll fundamentally contradicts the March Madness format. The time for people's opinions of who's better than who is up. There's a concrete system in place. We call it a playoff. The Northern Arizona coach had Ohio State as "his" number 1 team in the country because of their "body of work throught the season." Really? Why not just crown a regular season champ and call it a season then? Whether you think O-State would have beat Kentucky in a seven game series or not is taking your imagination too far. They didn't, end of discussion. Whoever is dealing with hypotheticals, please go play a video game where you can control the circumstances and results of your 'reality'. Al Gore didn't win the 2000 election, 2012 isn't our last year of existence and the Buckeyes didn't even reach the Elite Eight. Yes, having people vote on a post-season poll makes sense for college football. But the fact that it even makes sense proves (at least to me) that there is something wrong with the college football/BCS format of crowning a champion. What this entire conversation also shows me is that no matter what, people will never be happy. Certain groups and personalities will always be picking and prodding, no matter how good of a concept or result we have, in this case the NCAA tournament. The question: "Is this the best way to crown a national champion?" is tired. So give it a much needed rest.
Dennis Rodman. The name alone seems to carry its own connotation. If we were playing a word association game, what one word would come to your mind when you hear his name? Freak? Bizarre? Chances are that whatever word first popped into your frontal lobe, it was neither 'greatness' or 'legend.' This of course is a fault of his own, but in actuality Dennis Rodman fits all of these adjectives. Receiving "the call" to be inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame is the last and most powerful validation for a career that was probably outshined by all things non-basketball. Sure he kicked a cameraman and put piercings where they should never go, but what this dude did on the court is probably more freakish than anything he did off of it. I've heard people give props to Rodman saying that he was a great rebounder and then follow it with "but he couldn't shoot to save his life", or some like version diminishing him as a player. What most fail to realize is that when you do one thing as good as Rodman did rebounding, you don't have to do anything else. Most folks, especially the younger crowd like myself, don't fully comprehend how great of a rebounder and defender Rodman actually was. And lets start there, with the defense. Rodman was brought into the NBA originally because of his defensive capability, not just his rebounding. The Pistons plan was to throw him on the opposing team's best player and have his intensity and length cause fits, which it did. But go back and look how many boards Rodman averaged after his first two years in the L. About six, by no means staggering figures. But somehow in between 1990 and 1992, a beast was invented. A completely one-dimensional animal. Rodman's rebounding literally doubled as he went out on a nightly basis and averaged a mind-blowing 18.7 rebounds a game in 1991-92. If a guy has 18 rebounds in a game in today's game, chances are he led the entire NBA that night. This man Rodman did that over a 82 game season! Think about the giant chunk of a basketball game that is rebounding. You have to do it on both ends of the floor before you can ever score it. Rodman alleviated his Pistons and Bulls teams from ever worrying about it. Hustle? Heart? Those words have a direct translation: 'Rodman'. Dennis would study players in the film room too. Not like most guys who were trying to figure out how opponents were scoring, but to figure out where their misses were bouncing when they weren't scoring so he could gobble rebounds. But because Rodman was so out of his freaking mind, we first remember his two stints on Celebrity Apprentice and Celebrity Rehab before we remember his two stints as the NBA's defensive player of the year. I mean the dude got married…in Vegas…in a dress. It's my feeling that his antics, and his antics alone, that keep us from calling him the greatest rebounder to ever play this game. Even when 7-foot center Wilt Chamberlin was averaging an ungodly 25 rebounds a game against guys half his size in the 1960′s, he was never able to lead the league in rebounds for more than 4 years in a row. Rodman, on the other hand, was a 6-foot 8 forward and led the NBA in rebounds for a record seven straight seasons in the 1990′s when the game of basketball was far more developed across the board. It's my opinion that we'll never see it again. For as historic of a season that Kevin Love is having in Minnesota (And it is historic), Rodman did what Love is doing for nearly a decade! Put it like this, KLove, the best rebounder in the NBA, has had one game this season where he finished with 25 or more rebounds (31 against New York)…Rodman pulled down 25 or more boards 33 times! Since 1984, the next closest guy to that mark is Charles Barkley…with six games. Oh, and if you were wondering about where DRodman stacks up to Love's 30 board outing, he did that feat 5 different times. During one particular game, Rodman had 21 rebounds…in a half! 15 rebounds…in a quarter! The numbers are laughable. The dude just had a motor that wouldn't stop. It's hard to believe that his motor likely runs hotter for longer when he gets his party on. I remember being a kid at my grandmother's house hearing Rodman tell a story on late night TV about being unconscious in a hotel room after nearly overdosing, when his buddies thought it would be a good idea to cut open his stomach to let the drugs out, a theory that puzzles me to this day. Luckily Rodman says he woke up just as they were about to "save him". Remember Rodman calling that Miami morning show earlier this year claiming he wanted to talk about LeBron and the Heat only to find out he'd been up all night partying with some women and was more interested in his sexual encounter with her than talking on live radio? That's Dennis Rodman for you. All he did was live his life off of the court with the same reckless abandon that he did on it. He's clearly one of the strangest guys to ever walk the earth, let alone play professional sports. But all the crazy hair, bird flipping, and movies made with Steven Seagal will never interfere with my ability to judge him as baller first, bizarre second.
The best Dennis Rodman mix you'll find…
For the last few weeks I've just been waiting for Connecticut to lose. I can't really explain why, but I was never a true believer in this UConn team making a significant tournament run. I can think back to when I first watched UConn early in the season at the Maui tournament and thinking "Damn, this Kemba Walker is special". But after his scoring took a dip as the season went along and his team traded wins and losses throughout the regular season I just hopped off the wagon. Why wouldn't I? Jim Calhoun and his boys in blue and white were losing 7 of 11 games coming down the stretch in February and March. I submitted a short piece in the Times Union newspaper this past week saying that the fact that VCU was ever in a position to face the 'big dogs' of college hoops, let alone win, is fundamentally my favorite part of sports. And although it's not the same scale, the same goes for UConn. Who among us believed with their whole heart that UConn would have a chance to win the national championship? I look at the March Madness pool of 90+ people that I was in and only 14 thought that UConn would end up in Houston. Of those 14, only four have them in the championship. They're not David, but this isn't Goliath either. Even Saturday night against Kentucky, the Huskies were still beating the odds. If I had known ahead of time that UConn would have five more turnovers than the Wildcats, less than half the offensive rebounds, shoot 1-12 from three and that Kemba wouldn't score 20 points, I probably would have put the house on Calipari and Co… and again the Huskies would have had me looking for some place to live. To pile on the improbability, 56 points was the lowest total UConn has had in a win all season. Jim Calhoun and his Band of Brothers find ways to win. Period. If UConn beats Butler Monday night, take a good hard look at Calhoun and Kemba as they climb that ladder and snip their strip of nylon net, because it's likely the last time you see either of them at UConn.