Friday, June 27, 2014

The Beautiful Game

The NBA news of the week of the decade of the millennium is that LeBron and Carmelo have both opted out of their contracts with the Heat and Knicks, respectively. If you’ll all think back to a few months ago, when the Knicks didn’t make the playoffs, or a few weeks ago, when the Heat lost to the Spurs in the NBA Finals, you’ll understand why I have a hard time caring about two of the best players in the NBA both becoming free agents at the same time.

Because it doesn’t matter where LeBron goes, or where Carmelo goes, or if they become the Big Two and make a Decision to play together in [insert city here]. Put together all the great players you want, NBA owner looking to make a splash. Players don’t win championships – teams do. And as long as the Spurs are run by Gregg Popovich and RC Buford, they’ll always have the best team.

The Spurs should be the two-time defending NBA champions. They were a crazy Ray Allen three-pointer away from winning in six games last season (covered perfectly by Grantland grand poo bah Bill Simmons), and this year they took apart the Heat and its Big Three, winning in five games.

Did you know, that on the same day LeBron opted out of his contract, Tim Duncan exercised his 10.3M option with the Spurs? See if you can find the story on ESPN’s front page.

It’s in the headlines, eight stories down. Why isn’t it getting the same coverage as LeBron? Because just like the Spurs, it’s not flashy or attention grabbing. It’s just a good old fashioned team-first basketball mentality.

It’s fitting that the Spurs won the NBA Championship in 2014, the same year as the World Cup. No one comes as close to the Beautiful Game on the basketball court as San Antonio. A friend and I were talking about this the other day (well, texting about it, but that’s basically talking now): San Antonio is America’s version of a top-class futbol – yeah, I said it – program. Their roster is filled with players from different countries; those players all had essentially professional play experience by the time they got to the Spurs; the players are coached to play fluidly and think and not drilled to follow each play step by step; they are coached to do one-touch passing until they find the open player; the players are all team first.

Who are these players, and what is it about them that they are able to maintain this team first mentality through thick and thin? Let’s take a look at the Spurs roster, focusing on the players who saw extensive playing time during the playoffs.

Tony Parker – from Belgium, played minor league basketball in France from 1997-1999 and professionally in France from 1999-2001, 28th overall pick (2001)
Kawhi Leonard – from USA, played two years at San Diego State, 15th overall pick (2011)
Danny Green – from USA, played all four years at UNC, 46th overall pick (2009)
Boris Diaw – from France, played professionally in France 2000-03, 21st overall pick (2003)
Tim Duncan – from US Virgin Islands, played all four years at Wake Forest, 1st overall pick (1997)

Key Reserves:
Marco Belinelli – from Italy, played professional basketball in Italy from 2002-2007, 18th overall pick (2007)
Matt Bonner – from USA, played all four years at Florida, played professional basketball in Italy in 2003-04, 45th overall pick (2003)
Manu Ginobli – from Argentina, played professional basketball in Argentina from 1995-98, played professional basketball in Italy from 1998-2002, 57th overall pick (1999)
Patty Mills – from Australia, played two years at St. Mary’s (Calif.), played two games in the NBDL, professionally in Australia and China during the NBA lockout in 2011-12, 55th overall pick (2009)
Tiago Splitter – from Brazil, played professionally in Spain from 2000-10, 28th overall pick (2007)

Here’s what I notice from this group: players born in the USA are outnumbered, 7-3 (I’m including Duncan in the non-USA group). All 10 players had a minimum of two years playing basketball at least at a semi-pro (i.e. college) level, with the international players averaging approximately 3.0 years of playing in a professional league before reaching the NBA. The only player drafted in the top-10 in that entire group is Duncan (which makes the Spurs’ dynasty even more incredible, considering they are always going late in the NBA Draft).

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the players from overseas also played soccer growing up. I think that helps with the team first mentality. You’re not going to win in soccer if you play 1 v 11. In basketball, playing 1 v 5 is not advisable, yet it probably happens more often than not for those high school kids who are good enough to go right to the NBA. Then they go to college for that one year of “where will they go in the NBA Draft,” and then it’s off to the NBA. The biggest reason that you are seeing the Mercers and Lehighs beating big name schools in the NCAA Tournament is that they are teams, going against players.

Certainly LeBron and KD are exceptions (and exceptional), players who went straight to the NBA or played just one year in college and became superstars right out of the gate. Perhaps Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker will have the same kind of immediate success. I have my doubts, but I’ve been wrong before. Regardless, I’m already looking forward to watching the Spurs play. As Chris Bosh put it after the Spurs dominated the Heat in game four of the Finals, “They're playing beautiful basketball.”

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Flipping Out: Flip Saunders' Job Interview With Flip Saunders

Today we found out that Flip Saunders the GM of the Minnesota Timberwolves had hired a familiar name to coach the Timberwolves, a gentleman who coached the T-Wolves from 1995-2005 who goes by the name of…Flip Saunders.

Yes, you read that right. Flip Saunders the GM hired Flip Saunders to be the head coach, taking nepotism to a whole new level. Here is how I imagine the interview went.

GM Flip: Flip, thanks for coming in.

Coach Flip: Not a problem at all, Flip, thanks for the opportunity.

GM Flip: Flip, obviously you have heard some of the names that are on the short list for the Timberwolves job, including Florida’s Billy Donovan, Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, Iowa State’s Fred Hoiberg and former Knicks and Rockets coach and current ESPN commentator Jeff Van Gundy. Tell me why I should hire you instead of any of these other guys.

Coach Flip: That’s a great question, Flip, I’m glad you asked. I think if you look at my track record you’ll see a history of success. I took Minnesota to its first-ever playoff berth in 1996-97, my first full year as head coach, had 50 win seasons in 1999-2000 and 2001-02 and came thisclose to a trip to the NBA Finals in 2003-04. In fact, I took Minnesota to the playoffs eight-straight years while I was head coach.

GM Flip: Flip, I’m hearing a lot of past success, but as you well know, the NBA is a “what have you done for me lately” league, so what have you done lately?

Coach Flip: Very fair question, Flip. After I left the Timberwolves, I coached the Pistons for three seasons, setting a franchise record with 64 wins in 2005-06 and then recording back-to-back 50-win seasons in 2006-07 and 07-08. We made it to the Eastern Conference Finals all three years I was there, but just couldn’t quite get over the hump into the Finals.

GM Flip: Flip, if you were so successful in Detroit, why were you let go?

Coach Flip: Flip, it’s a question I have asked myself many, many times. To be honest, I’m not really sure. Then-GM Joe Dumars said the team needed a “new voice.” In my defense, they’ve had five new voices since I left and the team has had nowhere near the success that I had.

GM Flip: While I agree with you there, Flip, since you left Detroit you also haven’t had anywhere near the success that you had with either the Pistons or the Timberwolves. You went to Washington and won just 51 games over two-plus years. What happened there?

Coach Flip: I figured this would be brought up, Flip, and I appreciate your bluntness. That was a disappointing experience for me, both professionally and personally. We had to deal with locker room issues and injuries. Gilbert Arenas was the star of that team but he only ended up playing 32 games my first year and 21 my second, before he was traded to Orlando. Unfortunately other than Gilbert we did not have a lot of talent on that team, so I really didn’t have a lot to work with. I would argue that most of the blame would fall at the feet of the GM Ernie Grunfeld. I think he had set the roster so that it was Gilbert’s team but didn’t know Gilbert as well as he should have.

GM Flip: I’ve worked with Grunfeld myself, Flip, so I can certainly sympathize.

Coach Flip: Flip I can assure you that our relationship will be much stronger than what I had with Ernie.

GM Flip: I certainly hope so, Flip!

…awkward silence

GM Flip: Let’s get back to the question at hand, which is: why should I hire you?

Coach Flip: Sorry about that, Flip, I guess I got a little carried away.

GM Flip: Not at all, Flip, happens to us all.

…uncomfortable laughter

Coach Flip: What makes me a good coach and the right person for this job is how I deal with the people around me. I have coached young teams and veteran teams and have succeeded with both. I have coached young rising superstars and older cagey veterans, and have succeeded with both. In short, Flip, I am the man to coach the Timberwolves.

GM Flip: Well I certainly am intrigued with what you have to offer, Flip! If I were to hire you, what would be your first course of action?

Coach Flip: First things first, I would sell Kevin Love on Minnesota, hard. Priority number one has to be getting him re-signed.

GM Flip: Right answer, Flip! It’s like you’re in my head.

Coach Flip: I figured you were thinking the same thing, Flip!

GM Flip: Well, Flip, to be quite honest with you I already knew you were the man for this job before the interview even began. Something about you reminds me a little bit of me, and nothing you’ve said in this interview has dissuaded me from that opinion. Welcome back to the Timberwolves!

Coach Flip: That’s great, Flip, thanks so much! You won’t be disappointed. I have a feeling we will work very, very well together.

GM Flip: Couldn’t have said it better myself, Flip.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Why I'm Pulling For The NY Rangers In The Stanley Cup Finals

I am not a hockey fan. Growing up in Florida, we didn't do a whole lot with hockey. The Panthers had their run to the Stanley Cup Finals and then were swept right back into mediocrity by the Avalanche. Tampa Bay won the Cup a few years back, but let's be honest - who outside of Tampa really cares about Tampa teams?

I would watch the obligatory playoff game(s), I would crack the occasional (on the nose) "I turned on a fight and a hockey game broke out" joke, but that was the extent of my involvement with hockey. So I have no reason to pull for either team in the 2014 Finals. But I am a huge New York Rangers fan now. You might argue that it’s because I live in the NY area (I do), or because I have money on the game (I don’t), but it’s more than that. In fact, it’s Moore.

The three brothers Moore (Mark, Steve, Dominic) all grew up in Toronto, all attended Harvard, all played hockey for the Crimson (even overlapping for one year, 1999-2000), all went on to professional hockey careers, all saw their careers either shortened by bad luck, incredibly stupidity (not on their part) and heart break.

Mark was drafted by the Penguins in 1997, graduated from Harvard in 2000, went to Pittsburgh’s training camp and was sent to the minors. He was never able to make it to the Big Show, as he suffered a career-ending concussion when a teammate’s helmet collided with his chin during practice.

It seems unfair to label what happened to Steve as incredible stupidity, but I really can’t think of what else to call it. I don’t believe that what happened to him was malicious, it was just one of those “my name is Iniego Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die” situations that seems (seemed?) so prevalent in hockey. I’m referring, of course, to this:

Even I, non-hockey fan that I am, remember this incident. March 8, 2004, Todd Bertuzzi punched Steve in the back of the head and then essentially pushed Steve’s face into the ice. I don’t feel that Bertuzzi meant to hurt Steve any more than the hurt that is inflicted in a “normal” hockey fight. But it was just so stupid, so incredibly unthinking of Bertuzzi to hit a guy like that.

Steve suffered three fractured neck vertebrae, facial cuts and a concussion and Bertuzzi was suspended indefinitely, which basically became the rest of that season and all of next season as the NHL was locked out. In fact, Bertuzzi was suspended for 17 months…and missed only 20 games. He also lost out on approximately $900,000 in salary and endorsements.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said the victim suffered, among other things, "uncertainty, anxiety, stress and emotional pain for the…family." Wait, Bettman was actually referring to Bertuzzi in that quote? That was why he lifted the indefinite suspension?! Gary Bettman, everyone!

Again I don’t believe that Bertuzzi meant to cause the damage that he did. I think it was just a moronic action by someone who obviously wasn't giving the consequences of his actions even a first thought. I certainly hope that Bertuzzi feels guilty about what happened and thinks about it every day. But regardless, Steve’s career was over.

Dominic did not suffer any physical harm, but I would argue that of the three brothers, he was hit the hardest. He was drafted by the Rangers in 2003 and then went through seven trades and nine teams over the course of nine seasons. His college sweetheart, Katie, who played soccer at Harvard, traveled with him every step of the way. But then in 2012, Katie was diagnosed with cancer and Dominic stepped away from hockey altogether as she fought, and sadly lost, the good fight. ESPN’s Outside the Lines and Jeremy Schapp did a masterful job of telling the story. WARNING: when you watch this video, wherever you are, dust will attack your eyes. You will need tissues.

I know that the Rangers winning the Stanley Cup will not allow Mark or Steve to resume their hockey careers, or bring Katie back to Dominic. But for a family that seems to have suffered so much within and outside of the sport, it would be great if the sport could give something back to them. That is why I will be actively, and loudly, cheering on the Blueshirts.

First I gotta figure out how this sport works.

NOTE: Dominic started a foundation in his wife’s name to help patients and families deal with rare cancers:

Steve established a foundation that focuses on the prevention and treatment of concussions and other head/neck injuries:

Mark wrote a book about hockey entitled Saving The Game.