The High School to College Jump Debate Verdict

March 3, 2011

Read the opposing arguments from Babe Ruthless and Bleacher Fan.

I get teased for this a lot, but I have a great deal of respect and admiration for Michigan State head basketball coach institution Tom Izzo. He is a rare coach in college basketball, having taken six of his past 12 teams to the Final Four. He is also known as a coach who cares a great deal about graduating players. He is disciplined and tough, he doesn’t let players get away with stuff they should not. More than anything, he is fair. His players know his rules and standards, and they know the consequences of not living up to them (see Izzo dismissing two starts from this year’s team mid-season).

So when Tom Izzo stands up and says something is a good idea, it’s worth a listen. However, I had reservations about the idea of forcing high school kids to choose the NBA or three years of college at such a young age. It is a decision that has lasting impact and millions of dollars on the line… but it is made by a 17 or 18-year-old kid. Pressure anyone?

It is true that some of those kids do make good decisions. But, some don’t.

I understand the point Babe Ruthless is making about some of the most talented players in basketball being straight out of high school. But, just because a player is talented does not mean a player is great. There is a distinction. Many of the talented high school players the Babe lists off have taken years to evolve in the game because at the professional level a player needs beyond raw talent. They also, for example, must fully understand how to play effective basketball. They must be smart, and they must be good teammates to consistently win championships.

My point? For every Kobe Bryant there are 10 players like Darius Miles. Is that really good for the league? In reality, the NBA had to invent an entire developmental league – and even TITLE it as such – simply because the caliber of player that was entering the league was not ready to play basketball on a professional level. That proves there are a whole lot more players like Miles that need more seasoning to have a chance to cut it playing professional basketball.

The proposal on the table also isn’t quite as black and white and Babe Ruthless paints it. Players may choose when they are being recruited if they wish to enter the college ranks or attempt to make it in the NBA. But, if they choose college it is a three-year commitment. To me, this is not only prudent, but eminently reasonable.

Bleacher Fan wins this debate because he is sadly correct that supporting casts provide as much support as a 25-year-old bra. The overall quality of the talent in the NBA is down. Part of that is because of the expansion of the league over time diluting the talent pool. But a counteraction to that dilemma is to improve the quality of the players in the league. The NBA Development League has not, to this point, improved the overall quality of the NBA product. The reality is that college basketball is a better proving ground for great basketball talent, and the NBA is smart to back any proposal that feeds the league better players.

Given this construct, it is important to note that an obvious benefit is an overall improvement to the college game. These benefits are not the focus of this debate, as Bleacher Fan rightly states, but they are impossible to ignore.

Many of the college basketball teams that many of us have taken notice of at this stage of the season are playing well, in part, because their rosters are comprised of seniors. You bracketologists know that St. John’s, Purdue, Wisconsin, San Diego State, and many other schools have risen to the top of our minds because they have experienced players. A rule like the one Izzo is backing would promote the idea that more programs would have upperclassman, raising the overall quality of the college game AND improving the caliber of player in the professional game.

The proposal does not limit a player’s ability to earn money, as Babe Ruthless intimates. It gives them freedom – options – to choose which path they want. That doesn’t mean that pressure is non-existent. If a high school player wants to play professional ball, then pressure is part of the overall package – and if they are going to cut it, they can’t shy away.

Bottom line, Bleacher Fan has convinced me that this proposal is good for college basketball, and good for professional basketball – not to mention the players themselves. It’s a win-win.

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The High School to College Jump Debate

March 1, 2011

Read the opposing arguments from Babe Ruthless and Bleacher Fan.

The rule proposal is simple enough to understand. College basketball recruits would either have to commit to playing three seasons of college basketball, or they could just immediately to the NBA.

On the surface, this rule seems like a no brainer. Coaches like the idea, players seem to be okay with it, and legendary coach Tom Izzo is the one pushing this potential rule change up through the ranks. Done deal, right? Not so fast.

What kind of fair rule states a player – who has the physical ability to player professional basketball – cannot earn a living that way? A similar rule like this exists for college football and the NFL. But football and basketball are very different games. The counter argument is legit. Let’s find out exactly HOW legit.

Should college basketball recruits be forced to choose between playing three years of college ball or going straight to the professional ranks?

Babe Ruthless will argue the choice should be up to the player whenever they want to turn professional while Bleacher Fan believes the rules makes sense for all parties involved.

I get to judge. While I am a Tom Izzo fanboy, he is not a perfect human being, and this proposal has some serious questions marks in it. Convince me – is this potential rule fair?

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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 Tom Izzo Decision Debate

June 17, 2010

Read the opposing arguments from Sports Geek and Bleacher Fan.

For the past week we’ve watched the story involving Tom Izzo. One day we got the feeling that the courtship of Izzo by Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert was a desperate attempt by an owner to get a big name coach. Then, as time went on, the sentiment was that Izzo was actually going to take the job, and that Sports Geek was going to have Christmas in June (for those who don’t know, Sports Geek has a man-crush on Izzo and actually wrote a piece on him earlier this year). Finally, shortly before the NBA Finals game began Tuesday night, Izzo announced that he would bypass a chance to coach in the NBA and would become a “lifer” at Michigan State.

I don’t think many people were shocked at this decision, but TSD thinks there is some debate as to whether or not it was the right decision. That’s where Sports Geek and Bleacher Fan come in.

Sports Geek will argue that staying at East Lansing was a wise decision while Bleacher Fan will argue that Izzo is making a mistake by not taking the Cleveland job.

I’m looking forward to reading both of their arguments, as they both have tremendous insight to both the Cavs and the Spartans!

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The Tom Izzo Decision Debate… Izzo Isno Mercenary

June 17, 2010

Read the opposing argument from Bleacher Fan.

It has been well documented in this space that I am a fan of Tom Izzo. In fact, the other writers here at TSD poke relentless fun and me both in their articles and during production meetings because of it. For the record, I have no ties to Michigan State University or to Izzo personally. I do, however, have a great deal of healthy respect for the man. Simply, he is one of the best coaches ever in the history of college basketball. Exactly half of his teams have made the Final Four in the last 12 seasons. Twelve! Outside of John Wooden and Dean Smith – two legends – only Izzo has had more sustained, consistent success. It is a powerful and true statement.

It makes perfect sense for Izzo to stay put in East Lansing and continue building a program he has engineered to national prominence. Izzo is a practical coach; you see it in his decision making during games and his management of various personalities on this team. Even in recruiting. Some coaches go after the elite type players where academics are a question mark. Not Izzo. Izzo recruits players for four years. He expects that. It is a rarity, but a practicality, that college basketball is largely missing.

If a person is one of the best active coaches in college basketball, and has the opportunity to become one of the best in history, why would they potentially compromise that rare legacy based on twice the salary and a professional superstar’s silence?

As alluded to already, Izzo is in rarified air when it comes to the greatest college basketball coaches of all time.

John Wooden, one of my all-time favorites, coached at two universities in his entire career. Few remember his early days at Indiana State (1946-1948), but his legendary coaching days at UCLA from 1948-1975 are well documented. His level of sustained success as a coach in college basketball is thought to be unapproachable again. His ten national championships will likely never be repeated by any coach.

Dean Smith has the second most wins all time as a head coach in college basketball, and coach North Carolina into national prominence from 1961 to 1997. He won national championships 11 years apart, and was a regular winner of conference and regional tournaments. He is an institution in the state of North Carolina. His ability to stay in one spot and be successful, though, has extended his institution status well beyond the confines of a single state and promoted him to legend throughout basketball.

The reality is, Tom Izzo is in the conversation with these coaches. Part of the successful model Izzo is following by making the right decision to stay at Michigan State is coaching at one institution for a long period of time… like Wooden and Smith. He is still relatively young at 55 years of age, and has only been head coaching at Michigan State for 15 seasons. He will have ample opportunity to win additional championship and reach many more Final Fours. When all is said and done, Izzo will be in the conversation as one of the five best coaches in college basketball history. If he were to abandon this path to assured legendary status now, his accidental ambition would be compromised. The potential of coaching LeBron James and winning an NBA title simply is not worth that.

Another reason Izzo is smart for staying at MSU is because his style of coaching is far better suited for college basketball than professional basketball. Simply, the motivations for collegiate athletes and professional athletes (who often become mercenaries, bouncing from team to team for more money or playing time) are different.

College athletes do not have leverage with coaches. Coaches are in control and can punish, reward, inspire, and motivate accordingly. Izzo is a master at this. When he needed to bench his best player, point guard Kalin Lucas, early last season for not being the type of team leader the team needed, he did. He had every possible button to push at his disposal. In the professional ranks, can any of us imagine Izzo getting away with benching LeBron – either from the fans OR media OR players? If Izzo believes that is the right decision to make, in college he has the power to make it. In the NBA, a notoriously and frustratingly player’s league, he does not.

Professional athletes are mercenaries. Loyalty to team or cause takes a back seat to earning potential and contract value nearly every time. Rare is the case when professional basketball players turn down a big contract because they BELIEVE in what their team is doing. Izzo is the type of coach that must never be in a position where he has to convince a player to believe. Trust is important. Back to our previous analogy, would LeBron trust Izzo that sitting on the bench, healthy, is in the best interests of the team? No.

The NBA is full of players that demand more money or more playing time, and the Cleveland Cavaliers are no random exception to this obvious truth. The quality of character which Izzo pursues in the players he recruits would be a more difficult pursuit in the NBA. Izzo would simply be a coach in the NBA, not a coach and GM as he is in college. The difference is stark and no easy adjustment.

Despite Cavs’ owner Dan Gilbert’s best efforts, Izzo is not the type of coach to simply be plugged in to coach up professional assets. He’s an emotional person, he’s a believer. The NBA strips players and coaches of the idealism college basketball thrives on, and Tom Izzo has mastered. Yes, Izzo made the right decision by staying true to who he is as a person – a legendary college basketball coach in the making.

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The Tom Izzo Decision Debate… Izzo Izz NOT Making the Right Decision

June 17, 2010

Read the opposing argument from Sports Geek.

Tom Izzo is allegedly a great coach. Our very own Sports Geek even goes so far as to laud Izzo on his ability to coach up teams to perform better than their raw talent would otherwise dictate. Sports Geek also gushes worshipful praise upon Izzo’s hallowed visage for his ability to stay strong and find success, even when the odds appear to be against him.

Yet, when Izzo’s feet were held to the fire, he shied away from an opportunity to advance his career, nay, his legacy. This “legendary” coach, who has undeniably had success in college, just didn’t have the guts to take the leap to try and coach the “big boys” when the real pressure was on.

Why the sudden and apparent cowardice? Izzo could not get CONFIRMATION that LeBron James would be playing in Cleveland. If he had gotten that confirmation, he would be packing his bags for Lake Erie as you read this article. But since that guarantee was unavailable to him, he will instead remain a big fish in the little pond of college basketball.

Translation – Izzo just didn’t want to have to put forth the EFFORT of possibly having to rebuild a successful team in the NBA. Instead, this coach whose alleged greatness comes from his ability to build, coach up, and maintain a successful basketball program tucked tail and ran when the opportunity came for him to put his money where his mouth was.

Tom Izzo would rather “safely” coach college kids against the likes of Thad Matta, Ron Zook, and Fran McCaffery than he would test his mettle in coaching better, professional basketball players against better coaches like Phil Jackson, Doc Rivers, and Stan Van Gundy.

Sports Geek will argue that Izzo is one of the few coaches who has the unique opportunity to finish his career in the very place he started. He will also argue that NCAA coaches have not traditionally found success after attempting the transition to the pros. Both of those are feeble attempts to justify a decision to play it safe, rather than make a decision to challenge yourself to do something great.

And it is not like he would be coaching the New Jersey Nets.

Consider the situation that was presented to Tom Izzo.

On one hand, LeBron James stays with the Cleveland Cavaliers. In that case, Izzo inherits the best player in the NBA, on a championship-ready team, with the undying support of one of sports’ greatest fan bases and all for an owner who has publicly promised to do everything in his power to make the Cavaliers a championship team (which, in fairness, he has absolutely backed up).

That sounds like a pretty sweet deal to me.

On the other hand, LeBron James decides to leave Cleveland and play elsewhere. In that case, Izzo would STILL inherit a tremendous supporting cast that is just one superstar short of NBA championship contention. He would also STILL be coaching for a very passionate fan base, AND working for an owner who PROMISED a championship (note – that promise did not come only on the condition that LeBron stays in Cleveland).

As owner of the Cavaliers, Dan Gilbert has committed to winning a championship – no strings attached. If LeBron James leaves Cleveland, Gilbert would not just throw his hands up in the air with an attitude that “we tried our best” and then just pack it in and call it quits. Instead, if LeBron suits up elsewhere next season (and that is still a VERY big IF), Gilbert still has the means and the motivation to keep the Cavaliers in contention.

Let’s be real – LeBron James does not EQUAL a championship. Yes, his talent puts his team in a great position to PLAY for a championship, but in the 64-year history of the NBA there have been 64 different championship teams, and NONE of them included LeBron James.

Tom Izzo had an opportunity to do something that very few basketball coaches will ever find, and that is to coach in the NBA. The fact that other college coaches such as Rick Pitino and John Calipari failed to make the transition is poor and cowardly justification for Izzo not to try, especially when considering Pitino’s teams in New York and Boston, and Calipari’s New Jersey Nets, were nowhere NEAR as well-equipped as the Cavaliers for success, with or WITHOUT LeBron James.

Izzo had the opportunity to coach some of the most talented basketball players in the world on the game’s biggest stage – for a LUDICROUS salary – all of which would have been supported by an owner with some of the deepest pockets and arguably the most ambition in all of the NBA. And he turned it down. Why? Because he only has a CHANCE of having LeBron James on his team, rather than a guarantee.

No matter how successful Izzo may be in his future seasons at Michigan State, it will not compare with the success that he could have found in the NBA.

When you consider the qualities that have made Izzo a great coach for the Spartans, along with the opportunity that he was being presented with, it seemed to be a perfect fit.

Izzo made the wrong decision!

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The Overshadowing the NBA Finals Debate… Something Bigger Looms July 1

June 15, 2010

Read the opposing argument from Bleacher Fan.

There’s no doubt that the NBA Finals has been a resounding ratings winner, with Sunday night’s game averaging nearly 13 million viewers. I must admit that I have watched the majority of all five games thus far at this writing, and I think it’s been a heck-of-a series to this point.

But there’s something coming, and I am not referring to the earthquake that hit California last night. Free agency begins on July 1, and the buzz is building. It is clear that the first few days of free agency could drastically alter the landscape of the NBA.

Take a look at the sports news from yesterday. I know it was a travel day for the two teams, and I know there are only so many times you can talk about Andrew Bynum’s knee. But other than the Texas deciding to stay in the Big XII (or whatever it’s going to be called now), and the usual World Cup highlights, what did the main sports story revolve around yesterday? It centered on Sports Geek’s man-crush Tom Izzo and LeBron James, specifically about whether or not the two are going to meet (which they are not, according to the all-important “person familiar with the situation”). As I type this, it is in fact the third story on espn.com, behind the two I mentioned.

Look at some of the other issues that have popped up since the end of the regular season. Free agency has caused a huge wave of momentum to build, something that is going to come crashing down on July 1 – the day free agency officially begins. James has had an exclusive sit-down interview with Larry King. Even though I am not necessarily the biggest fan of James, I TIVOed the interview that night and watched it later. How about that so-called “free agent summit” that was to be held by the league’s top free agents? Among others, this was to include James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, and Joe Johnson. It’s gotten so ridiculous that Wade and Bosh can’t even have dinner together without getting heavily scrutinized. Even Wade and his son couldn’t enjoy courtside seats in Boston Sunday night without having a camera stuck in their face.

Some of the heaviest water cooler talk this summer hasn’t centered on the Finals. I try to talk with co-workers and friends the morning after one of the games, and that conversation quickly goes to one of them asking, “Where’s LeBron going to sign? New York? Chicago? LA? Stay in Cleveland? Come on Loyal Homer, tell me!”

You know how you go to the beach and you sit by the water of the Atlantic Ocean (sorry no trip to the oil-ravaged Gulf of Mexico!)? You enjoy the day, with temperatures in the 90s. There is not a cloud in the sky, and a plethora of scenery to enjoy(Editor’s Note: Whatever do you mean, Loyal Homer??)! You enjoy it, even though in the back of your mind you know that there’s an 80 percent chance of strong thunderstorms tomorrow. That’s what is happening with the Finals. Many of us are enjoying the show, knowing full well that there’s a cloud of free agency on the horizon.

And, for the record, I have not the slightest idea where LeBron James will end up!

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