The High School to College Jump Debate… Righting the Ship

March 1, 2011

Read the opposing argument from Babe Ruthless.

The NBA may be peaking in terms of popularity right now, but make no mistakes – it is an organization in very serious trouble.

The league has been hijacked by players, it is hemorrhaging money, and now the limited population of truly talented athletes in the league have all decided to migrate east, creating what is sure to be an extremely top-heavy NBA.

The league is enjoying a spike in popularity, but how long can that popularity be sustained? There are only so many superstars that are worth the media attention lavished on LeBron James and Dwayne Wade during this past off-season. Now that Carmelo Anthony has signed on with the Knicks, the only thing left for the talking heads in the sports world to talk about is, “Where will Chris Paul sign?

Things just aren’t like they used to be.

Comparisons to the “good ol’ days” often point to the fact that the league’s biggest stars from back in the day would have never teamed up to play on the same team. The notion that Magic would have taken his talents to Boston to team up with Byrd, or that Jordan would ever put on a Knicks uniform to share the same court with Ewing is just absurd. These were hyper-competitive athletes who wanted to share none of the glory.

There has clearly been a change in mentality between the stars of yesterday, and those of today. It has completely altered the climate of professional basketball.

That change has been the talent level of the B and C class talent.

Superstar talent may be comparable to the golden days, but supporting casts in the NBA are a shell of what they once were.

NBA Lite

Thanks to the miracle of NBA expansion, the league has officially reached its saturation point. The league has outgrown the boundaries that would have allowed it to remain competitive, and the limited pool of real NBA-worthy talent is not enough to stock the ocean that is the current NBA.

Talent is watered down to such a point now that the current NBA draft format (which is only two rounds to begin with) is completely irrelevant. With the exception of a small handful of lottery players, most of the draft class from each new season spends the first two to three years of their professional careers either in the D-league, or playing foreign ball. It is not until after some REAL development has taken place that a player (no matter how promising they might be) will actually get an opportunity to test their mettle in the big leagues.

Where in previous years a team might have three or four role players with genuine talent, the teams of today are lucky if they have one guy who can truly hold his own in helping to hoist the elite up.

So who can blame the athletes with REAL talent from wanting to team up?

Guys like LeBron James are no longer expected just to be great players, they are expected to act as mentors and trainers who must take on the responsibility of developing those players around them. They cannot focus solely on their game, because they have to make everyone else better.

The Cleveland Cavaliers and the Denver Nuggets are the perfect example of this fact. Before their superstar saviors came to town, they were the bottom-feeders of the league. While those superstar saviors were in town, they realized elevated levels of success, but nothing truly satisfying. Now that those superstar saviors are gone, they have sunk back into the depths of irrelevance.

They enjoyed a boost in winning percentages because they had a difference-maker on the court, but that boost was short-lived because those difference-makers didn’t want to have to do everything. While they want to be the best guy on the court, they don’t want to be the ONLY guy on the court. So they have sacrificed their shot at EXCLUSIVE glory so they can at least have a shot at glory.

Fixing the problem

The good news for NBA fans is that the upcoming CBA expiration provides the perfect opportunity to fix the league’s problems. Who would have thought that inspiration for that fix would come from the same organization blamed for the overhyped condition of sports in America today – ESPN?

Last weekend, analysts Jay Bilas and Hubert Davis, following one of their broadcasts, discussed a recommendation that was so well received that Michigan State’s head coach, Tom Izzo, has decided to propose it to the National Association of Basketball Coaches.

The recommendation was that the NBA should implement an ultimatum of sorts to prospective NBA draft entrants. For those who feel they are truly ready to make the immediate leap from high school into the pros, they deserve that opportunity. The one-year waiting period will be waived, and they can follow in the footsteps of Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, and several others who have gone on to superstardom.

For those who are not ready, though, they will have to commit to a THREE-year (as opposed to one) stint in college.

This is actually a brilliant proposal that would boost the level of play, not only for the NBA, but also for college basketball (although the benefits for the NCAA are irrelevant to the topic at hand today).

For starters, this would actually not be an unprecedented policy. In fact, it is exactly the same policy held by the MLB. Although the NFL does not offer an immediate entry into their ranks, they still require a three-year wait.

The greatest benefit that the NBA would realize is that it would no longer have to assume the responsibility of developing athletes who are SUPPOSED to be NBA-caliber talent. As evidenced by the current state of talent in the league, it is obvious that the league stinks at developing talent anyway. Why not let players grow-up in college, at someone else’s expense, so that when they DO join the professional ranks they do so as matured athletes who are ready to hit the ground running.

This elevation in entry-level talent coming into the league would help boost the level of competition across the board. Teams would be able to populate their rosters with a better class of athlete, and the support-starved stars of the game today will feel less pressure to take on the role of team savior.

The end result is that all of the teams in the league would get better. The depth of talent from the five starters to the pine-riders and the D-leaguers would make the game more competitive, and stars of the league might be more compelled to resume the competitive nature of their predecessors, staying put and striving for individual glory, rather than a shared piece of the ultimate prize.

This proposal, which is now being championed by one of the most respected coaches in basketball today, is one that will benefit the entire game of basketball. It will make the players better, and it will make the league better.

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The Best Coach Without A Title Debate… A Lifetime of Jazz, Concluded by the Blues

February 24, 2011

Read the opposing argument from Optimist Prime.

After 23 years, Jerry Sloan walked away from the Utah Jazz. Mid-season.

After 23 years, Sloan intimated that he just didn’t have the energy or the desire anymore, and that he knew “this was the time to move on.”

Translation – Jerry Sloan QUIT.

I don’t care that he coached the same team for 23 years, or that he won 1221 games. I also don’t care about his two Western Conference championships, or the Hall of Famers he’s coached, and I don’t care that he is one of only three coaches in the NBA with at least 15 consecutive winning seasons.

I don’t care about those things because none of them matter now. Why? Because Jerry Sloan is a quitter.

So tell me please, how can he be the greatest coach in sports without a title?

It is not like he left in the off-season, or even at the end of a contract because he was tired and ready for his golden years. There are no health issues that anyone is aware of, and no personal matters to attend to. He just decided at the end of a basketball game in the middle of the season that he was taking his things and going home.

He gave no warning, left his organization with no backup plan, and just walked away.

It may be harsh to call Sloan a quitter, but that’s exactly what I am doing, and I’ll say it again – Jerry Sloan cannot be the greatest head coach across sports without a title. Because he is a quitter.

Optimist Prime is going to portray Sloan as a legendary coach with a legendary tenure in the Jazz organization. But the only REAL accomplishment he ever showed was an ability to not get fired.

Owning the longest coaching tenure in sports with the same team does not make you great. In that “illustrious” tenure, which spanned 26 total seasons… the one that Optimist Prime will be raving about… how many times did he even SNIFF a shot at a championship? Twice, that’s it.

Think about the great AFC coaches of the NFL during the 1980s and 1990s. They were tasked with coaching in an inferior conference, loaded with inferior talent, against an NFC group that was better funded, and better skilled.

I’m talking about guys like Dan Reeves, and Marv Levy.

No matter how great of these coaches might have been, they simply did not have the weaponry to stack up against teams led by Joe Montana and Jerry Rice, or Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, and Michael Irvin.

But these were great coaches, and they had more comparative success in their shortened tenures than Sloan did over a much longer career.

Reeves coached for only 23 years, but won his conference four times. Levy managed to win four conference championships in only 17 seasons. Once again, Sloan boasts only two conference championships over a 26 year career.

While Sloan’s regular season W-L record is impressive, his playoff presence left much more to be desired. Over his career, he won only 98 playoff games, compared to 104 losses, for a playoff win percentage of .485 (that’s a losing record). Compare that to Reeves (.550), or Levy (.579).

If Sloan isn’t the greatest coach across sports without a title, is he at least the greatest coach in NBA history without a title? Once more, the answer is “no.”

That claim should belong to Don Nelson, who retired last season after 31 years in the NBA.

Nelson, a three-time NBA coach of the year, has won more games as an NBA coach than anyone else in league history. That puts him ahead of Phil Jackson, Pat Riley, Red Auerbach, and every other “great” to have coached in the league as far as wins go. But for all those victories, Nelson does not have a championship to his credit.

In fact, Jerry Sloan was never even the greatest coach in the league for a single season during his tenure, having never been recognized as Coach of the Year. While guys like Nelson, or even Mike Fratello (also without a championship) have managed to at least garner honors as the top coach within a single season, Sloan falls short of the mark yet again.

Make no mistake, Jerry Sloan had an impressive coaching career. But his legacy, highlighted only by endurance, and marred greatly by the manner in which he left the game, falls far short of the standards set by so many other great coaches out there never fortunate enough to win a championship.

I’m sorry, Mr. Sloan, but this is one more title you have failed to clinch.

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The Spurs Leading the Pack Debate Verdict

February 10, 2011

Read the opposing arguments from Loyal Homer and Babe Ruthless.

The San Antonio Spurs are off to one of the best starts in NBA history. And when you consider that their historical company has each gone on to win the championship in the respective seasons they started so strongly, it makes you wonder if the Spurs are destined for the same fate.

But we are not trying to gaze into a crystal ball, today.

This debate is not about whether the Spurs will win the NBA Finals, it is about whether they are the best team in the league. And based on what I have read from Babe Ruthless and Loyal Homer, it seems clear to me that the answer is – Yes, they are (congratulations to Loyal Homer)!

Babe Ruthless does raise some key questions about the Spurs performance to this point in the season. Specifically, he calls into doubt the Spurs record by pointing out that they have what many would consider an easy schedule. And while it is true that they have won the vast majority of those cupcake games, they have faltered when stepping onto the hardwood against steeper competition.

Although I can agree with that assessment, the exact same statement can be made about those other top tier teams that Babe Ruthless points to as challengers to the Spurs. The Boston Celtics have losses to the Dallas Mavericks, Orlando Magic, New Orleans Hornets, and Chicago Bulls, as well as the Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors. Likewise, the Heat have lost to the Celtics twice, the Mavs twice, and have also lost to the Magic, as well as Memphis and Indiana.

The same can be illustrated by dissecting the records of the Maverics, Magic, and every other team in the league. Each organization has played more than 50 games, and none are undefeated. And so the fact that the Spurs lost a couple of their 52 games played thus far to other good teams is just not enough evidence to refute their claim as the best in the NBA.

On the flip side, though, Loyal Homer points to some statistics that CANNOT be matched by any other teams in the league.

Only once so far this season have the Spurs lost consecutive games, and that was simply a two-game skid on the road against the Knicks, then in Boston against the Celtics (a very understandable couple of losses). And while those consecutive losses have not been repeated by the Spurs, one feat they have duplicated is following their losses up with a LONG series of consecutive wins.

It should also be noted that their schedule may on the surface appear to be one of the weaker in the league, but the actual average winning percentage of their opponents (.506) has statistically posed a tougher strength of schedule than what the Heat (.477), Celtics (.485), Magic (.493), Lakers (.479), and the Bulls (.482) have each faced.

In all reality, there are still plenty of games left in the season, and the fact that the Spurs have the best record in the NBA right now is no guarantee that they will win the Finals. But teams like the 2007 New England Patriots will tell you that the best team doesn’t always win the championship.

No one can look into a crystal ball and predict which team will win the championship, but you can look at the records and see who has been most dominant – the San Antonio Spurs.

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The Spurs Leading the Pack Debate

February 9, 2011

Read the opposing arguments from Loyal Homer and Babe Ruthless.

Well, another NFL season is officially in the books. For those of you now shifting your focus to basketball, let me get you up to speed on how the season has gone thus far…

The Denver Nuggets decided to trade, then not trade, then trade, then not trade Carmelo Anthony.

Cleveland Cavaliers fans were shocked when Zydrunas Ilgauskas and some other guys decided to play ball in Miami with the Heat.

Speaking of the Cavs, that team is plunging the depths of failure to find out just how deep rock-bottom really is. The Cavs are well on the way to becoming the worst team not only in NBA history, but in the entire history of American professional sports with a historic 25-game losing streak.

Finally, with the All-Star break looming on the horizon, the team leading the standings with the best record in the league is… (pause for dramatic effect)… the San Antonio Spurs.

Through the first half of the season, the Spurs have rocketed to an impressive record of 42-8, a full 4.5 games ahead of any other teams in the league. But with the experienced and team-oriented Boston Celtics, the superstar-laden Miami Heat, or the two-time reigning champion Los Angeles Lakers out there – Are the San Antonio Spurs REALLY the best team in basketball at the season midpoint?

According to Loyal Homer, the Spurs record is an indication of the fact that they are the best team in the league while Babe Ruthless feels the Spurs are not the best team, despite their current spot in the standings.

How do you measure the worth of a team? Let the arguments begin!

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The Miami Heat Playing As A Team Debate… There’s No “I” in Team, But There is in Win

January 27, 2011

Read the opposing argument from Loyal Homer.

Newsflash, America – the Miami Heat are not comprised of team players!

Did that shocking news revelation really just blow your mind… because it shouldn’t have. We all knew LeBron James and Dwyane Wade were never going to end the season first and second in the league in assists, but apparently there is a bit of an uproar that the Heat should be more “team-y.”

Criticism of Miami’s recent four game losing streak prompted Dwyane Wade to make comments defending his team’s unique strategy of letting star players loose to do their thing. Wade elaborates that the Heat are, “not [one of] these kinds of teams that need to play together.” And he is absolutely right! The Heat were designed to be a team of hired guns who keep the ball in the talented hands of their playmakers, then sit back and watch as LeBron, Wade, and Bosh do the rest. Why are people surprised when Wade makes a comment like this stating the obvious?

Playing to their Strengths

The Miami Heat currently sit atop the Southeast Division of the Eastern Conference of the NBA with a 31-13 record for a reason – they win games. The Heat have a core of explosive playmakers on offense that, when hot, are virtually unbeatable. Putting the ball in the hands of James, Wade, and Bosh has propelled them to success thus far throughout the season, so why abandon that game plan at the first sign of struggles? Letting James and Wade play their preferred type of game is simply playing to their strengths.

Asking the Heat to change their game to be more team oriented is like asking the Yankees to abandon an affinity for the longball in favor of National League style small ball. Obviously the team aspect of small ball works for some clubs, but the Yankees simply aren’t built with that type of game in mind. Ignoring this fact in favor of a more team friendly approach would be placing an arbitrary handicap on the Yankees. Just as no one would expect Albert Pujols or Alex Rodriguez to quit swinging for the fences at the first sign of a minor slump, no one should expect LeBron and Dwyane Wade to move the ball around at the first sign of struggle.

Rewarding Experience

Although it doesn’t sit well with those big on “team play,” letting LeBron and D-Wade hog the ball is a viable and effective offensive strategy. It was this same individual focused rewards strategy that turned around the Heat’s season after struggling out of the gate. Coach Erik Spolestra decided that when his players made big stops on defense they would have liberal doses of freedom on offense. This motivation technique, although controversial, yielded results. It helped the Heat to set franchise records as they won eight straight by double digit margins. This in turn helped them pull ahead of the Magic and take the top spot in the division.

Critics of this rewards system will point to the fact that the Heat still trail teams like Boston, and claim that it is a flawed strategy. It should be considered that the Heat have been playing in the only Eastern Conference division with two other teams with records above .500 (Atlanta 29-16 and Orlando 29-16) and are still winning. Similarly, they have a far superior road record (15-8) than other division leaders like Boston (12-7) and Chicago (10-10). The system works, despite all the naysayers who second guessed the players’ ability to coexist. The Heat’s 96-82 victory over the Charlotte Bobcats saw both James and Wade put up 30 plus point games, proving not only that they can coexist but dominate as well.

Harping on the fact that basketball is a team sport is, in this case, arbitrary rhetoric. True there are five men on the court wearing the same jersey, but each shot is taken by an individual. In Miami those individuals seem to be at their best while playing their own game. Dumping that strategy now would be foolish.

It’s a long season, and the Heat are a new team still working out the kinks. We have yet to see how the players will function in the post-season, but if its anything like the regular season has been thus far, the league should be prepared to handle an explosive offense with a unique style that is hard to handle.

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The Which Lockout Hurts More Debate… NBA Enjoys Fans Thanks to Fair Weather

January 19, 2011

Read the opposing argument from Optimist Prime.

I am just going to come right out on the record – 2011 could be a really lousy year for sports, ESPECIALLY if we have lockouts in both the NBA and the NFL.

There is little doubt that fans would miss the NFL more than they would the NBA. That is not intended as a slight against the NBA, but when you consider the relative popularity of each sport, the NFL is far and away the king. The loss of the NFL, a league where popularity supersedes the NBA, would correspondingly supersede the loss of the NBA.

But we are not arguing about the sport that would be MISSED the most if they both close up shop for part or all of the next season. We are arguing about which sport itself which has more to lose. In answer to that, there is also little doubt – this time it’s the NBA.

Think about it. The NFL is the undisputed champion when it comes to fan support. While the loss of the NFL will greatly impact fans, the clamor for its return will be equally as great. The moment a deal gets signed, and REAL NFL players once again take to the gridiron, fans will flood back in droves. The NFL would not skip a beat in fan support.

The NBA will not be so lucky.

The NBA’s popularity right now is not sustainable. The league has prospered thanks to media obsession and the celebrity of LeBron James. The circus of “The Decision,” as well as the media frenzy in trying to predict where LeBron will sign, has single-handedly fueled the NBA’s national relevance for the past three seasons.

I am not exaggerating. Since 2008, the biggest stories out of the NBA were all about whether LeBron’s latest comments or actions could be an indication of his intentions for the summer of 2010.

Then, once “The Decision” was announced, fans have continued to follow the NBA, because they wanted to A) see how LeBron and company performed in Miami, and B) boo him whenever he comes to town.

Whether good guy or villain, the NBA owes its relevance to LeBron James.

As soon as LeBron goes away, the media will stop caring, the fans will forget, and the league loses all relevance.

Why the difference? Because unlike the NFL, where parity guarantees that every team can contend for the post-season every year, the NBA is completely dominated by a very small handful of franchises, a reality that is demonstrated in several different ways.

Fan Attendance
Even “bad” teams in the NFL repeatedly sell out each of game. In fact, during the 2010 season, nine different franchises AVERAGED sellouts for the entire season, and 30 out of 32 teams averaged to sell AT LEAST 80 percent of their total tickets. Compare that with the NBA, where only seven teams are averaging sellouts for each home game, with nine of the teams in the league failing to even reach that 80 percent total.

Value
When Forbes published their list of the 50 most valuable sports franchises in the world last year, all 32 NFL franchises were on the list BEFORE a single NBA franchise was named, including the Buffalo Bills (33rd), Jacksonville Jaguars (37th), and Detroit Lions (38th). In fact, even the Formula One’s Ferrari Team (16th) is valued greater than any franchise the NBA has to offer. (In case you are wondering, the NBA barely even cracked the top 50, as its two most valuable franchises – the Los Angeles Lakers and the New York Knicks – checked in at 49 and 50, respectively).

What do these numbers mean? They mean that fans love the NFL more than the NBA. Even the perennial “losers” like Detroit, Cleveland, and Buffalo continue to generate greater revenue, and sell more tickets, than the very best of the NBA.

If NBA fans can’t even support their winners in the same manner as the NFL, what on earth is there to entice fans in Minneapolis or in Memphis to come back to the league once they’ve had a few months to forget that their teams stink?

Yes, the NFL would lose a TON of money while the players sit out, but the recovery would be exponentially faster than that of the NBA. It is not the immediacy of the lockout that these leagues need to fear, it is the long term ramifications. Between the NFL and the NBA, the road to recovery will be MUCH rockier for the hoopsters.

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The 2010 Sportsman of the Year Debate… Kobe by Default

December 27, 2010

Read the opposing arguments from Babe Ruthless, and Optimist Prime.

Well, 2010 was special year for sports fans!

Several very long-standing championship droughts ended, as the New Orleans Saints (43 year drought), Chicago Blackhawks (49 year drought), and the San Francisco Giants (56 year drought) each won championships in their respective leagues.

For those of us with a deep sense of national pride in our sports teams, the Men’s U.S. Hockey and Soccer teams treated us all to some of the most exciting and dramatic athletic performances of the year in the Winter Olympics and World Cup, respectively.

Speaking of soccer, 2010 will always be a special sports year to me as my alma mater, The University of Akron, won their first ever National Championship by claiming the College Cup in very exciting fashion over the Louisville Cardinals.

The year also had its share of goats.

LeBron James’ “Decision” proved to be a PR nightmare, Rex Ryan apparently has a foot “thing,” and we learned about everything from travel destinations to bathroom habits thanks to the incessant media bombardment of “Tiger Watch” and “Favre Watch.”

Like I said, 2010 was a special year.

But even with those spectacular performances and storylines, the task of naming a Sportsman of the Year is tricky. You see, despite the exciting performances that we were all treated to as fans, no one really separated themselves from the pack in terms of individual performances.

Sure, there are some obvious default options to look to. Drew Brees certainly became the face of the NFL in 2010 after leading the Saints to their first ever Super Bowl championship. Here’s the problem – I credit Sean Payton, not Drew Brees, with winning that game. While Brees had a remarkable season leading up to that Super Bowl, it is important to note that performance came in 2009, not 2010. So far this year Brees has played well, but Tom Brady and Michael Vick (along with several others) have been far more impressive.

Being quarterback of the championship NFL team is not enough on its own to earn the “Sportsman of the Year” crown.

Moving on to baseball, several pitchers tried to make cases for themselves. In the post-season, Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Tim Lincecum all pitched to historic levels. Halladay’s post-season no-hitter was the greatest individual performance, but Lee’s and Lincecum’s pitching had far more significant value for their teams.

All three pitched exceptionally well, but once again none separated themselves enough from the others to claim the title.

In golf, Phil Mickelson’s emotional victory at the Masters was the perfect start to the 2010 season, but Lefty proved unable to do anything more as the season played out. After winning his third Green Jacket, Mickelson could do no better than taking one more second place finish, and only six top-ten finishes on the year.

I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge Jimmie Johnson’s accomplishments in NASCAR this year, having won his FIFTH consecutive Sprint Cup Championship. He has become nothing less than a one-man dynasty, and is right now the single most dominant person in sports. The only reason I am hesitant in recognizing Johnson any further is that I am forced to now question the quality of his competition. With all due respect to his accomplishments, are his championships the result of Johnson being that good, or is it that the rest of the field is that bad?

By default, we are forced to look to the NBA to find our Sportsman of the year.

In the NBA, names like LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, Chris Bosh, Amar’e Stoudemire, and Carmelo Anthony dominated headlines. Free agency in 2010 was undeniably the biggest sports story of the year, overshadowing even the NBA Finals. But it is Kobe Bryant who should be recognized as the Sportsman of 2010.

This year, Bryant quietly led the Los Angeles Lakers to a second consecutive NBA Championship. I never thought I would use the words “Kobe Bryant” and “quietly” in the same sentence, but in a year where it seemed that LeBron James was the ONLY person being talked about in the NBA, Bryant proved definitively that his Lakers, not LeBron’s Cavaliers (or now the Miami Heat) were the absolute best in the game. He led the Lakers to a Western Conference-leading 57 wins, and unofficially resolved the “Kobe versus LeBron” debate. This year brought Bryant the fifth title in his career, and the 17th in the history of the Lakers’ franchise.

Bryant’s stability and leadership (I really can’t believe I am writing this…) carried the Lakers into the post-season and through the Finals. When all the world was enamored with the courtship of LeBron James, Bryant busied himself with winning a championship.

Through nothing but his phenomenal talent, Kobe Bryant continues to keep the Lakers as the team to beat in the NBA. No matter how great the Miami super-team may hope to be, they are still playing in Kobe’s league.

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