Tuesday, July 7, 2015

The Center of Attention

By Travis Stahl

Quick, who are the best running backs in the NFL right now?  Adrian Peterson, LeVeon Bell, LeSean McCoy and DeMarco Murray come to mind right off the top of my head.  Any of those guys have a Super Bowl ring?  Nope.  It used to be if you wanted to win a Super Bowl you needed to have a stud running back.  The same was true in basketball with the center position.  If you wanted to win an NBA title you needed to have a big, rim protecting center who could dominate the paint.  That's not the case anymore as the center position has become almost a novelty in the NBA now.

You want proof that the center position isn't all that important in today's NBA?  David Lee, Tiago Splitter, Joel Anthony, Tyson Chandler, Andrew Bynum, and Kendrick Perkins were the starting centers on the floor when their respective teams won the last eight NBA titles.  Any superstars jumping out at you there?  Those guys could be described as serviceable at best and Lee is actually more of a power forward.  The last true center to lead his team to a championship was Shaquille O'Neal with the Los Angeles Lakers in 2002 (Shaq was just a guy on the floor during the Miami title year of 2006).  Since that time the NBA game has changed and centers are no longer the focal building point when a team is trying to put together a contender.

The NBA is a perimeter game today.  The most valuable guys a team can collect are players who can shoot the three-pointer and play defense on the perimeter.  The Golden State Warriors just won a title by playing small with 6'8 Draymond Greene playing center for most of the game.  The Miami Heat won back-to-back titles the same way with a small, fast line-up that could get up and down the floor quickly and shoot threes.  Having a big, lumbering 7'0 center who stands in the paint and protects the rim is worthless now because nobody is shooting from there.  And if you do put somebody like that out on the floor the way Cleveland did with Timofey Mosgov then a team like Golden State will just put Greene in the line-up to pull your center away from the rim thus rendering him useless.

Look at the two "true" centers in the NBA right now.  Houston has Dwight Howard and Memphis has Marc Gasol.  Those are the only two superstar centers in the league right now.  Joakim Noah is very good, Nerlens Noel might get there someday and DeAndre Jordan is a liability to have on the floor late in games.  Other than that you have a bunch of power forwards masquerading as centers to make their teams quicker and more mobile on both ends of the court.  We see more and more now guys like Greg Monroe and Al Horford playing center because they move so well for big men and because they can stretch the floor.  There aren't a lot of back-to-the basket players coming into the NBA anymore so teams have moved away from that strategy and it is working.

I'm not saying players like Howard and Gasol don't have value because both of those guys add a lot to their teams.  But neither Houston or Memphis is going to win a title because of those guys.  If the Rockets or Grizzlies win titles it will be more about the guys playing around them.  Look at how teams like the Warriors, Spurs and Heat built title winning rosters.  They bring in as many guys as they can find like Danny Green, Ray Allen and Andre Iguodala to lock up on opponents defensively and knock down threes.  Those are the most valuable players in the league right now, guys who are in the 6'7 range with quick feet and a dead-eye shooting the ball.

Trends like this come and go and the teams that adjust the quickest are usually the ones who see the most success.  If you are one of those teams still trying to draft a guy like Kwame Brown because "we need a center to win" than you have missed the boat.  Minnesota just took Karl Anthony-Towns with the first pick in the draft.  KAT is 6'10 and can protect the rim but he is a mobile kid who can spot up and knock down a jumper.  He is more of a power forward than a center which is what teams want right now.  Obviously if more guys start coming into the league who fit the mold of a true center we will see things swing back the other direction.  Until that happens you don't need a great center to win titles though.

Monday, July 6, 2015

NBA Free Agency Round-Up

By Travis Stahl

I love how the NBA season ends.  We get the finals and then one week later is the draft.  Then, just one week after that free agency opens followed two days later by summer league games.  It's a pretty entertaining month to be an NBA fan.  This year was perhaps the most bizarre NBA free agency period I have ever seen.  Players now, and I know this seems strange to a lot of people, are mostly choosing to sign with other teams so they can try to win.  Weird right?  They are choosing winning over more money.  Some teams and players choose wisely.  Others were the Los Angeles Lakers and New York Knicks.  Get it?

Winners

Milwaukee Bucks - Greg Monroe had similar offers on the table from the Lakers and the Milwaukee Bucks.  Glitz and glamor vs. Cheese.  Monroe signed with Milwaukee.  Only two players in the last three years have averaged 15 points and 10 rebounds in all three season.  Monroe is one of them.  He will likely play center for the Bucks which isn't a bad thing because this team is great defensively and very long.  They gave the Bulls fits in the playoffs last year.  With Monroe on board now as a viable low-post scoring threat Milwaukee is poised to take the next step and could easily push Cleveland in the Eastern Conference Finals.

San Antonio Spurs - The kings of the Western Conference have never been a free agency destination.  That all changed this year with the addition of LaMarcus Aldridge.  Aldridge comes in to team with Tim Duncan, who remember, was the best player on the floor in that playoff series last year against the Clippers.  Plus, the Spurs have two guys in Europe who might be ready to make the jump over to the NBA this year.  Davis Bertans and Liveo Jean-Charles have been tearing it up overseas and could make the Spurs the deepest team in the league.

Cleveland Cavaliers - The Cavaliers didn't do anything fancy, just keep their own players.  Sometimes that's the most important thing to do, keep the band together.  The Cavaliers have paid dearly to keep Kevin Love and Iman Shumpert and they are still working on new deals for Tristin Thompson, J. R. Smith and LeBron James.  It's hard to imagine this team not in the finals again next year.

Losers

Los Angeles Lakers - Monroe?  Nope.  Aldridge?  Nope.  Once again the Lakers swung for the fences and came up empty.  Word on the street is that the Lakers are vastly behind the times in the basketball world.  They use no analytics, place no value on the three point shot and did not even talk about basketball in their first pitch to Aldridge.  Good work.  LA's consolation prize was they traded for Pacers center Roy Hibbert and his $15 million contract.  Somehow this team keeps working backwards.

New York Knicks - Monroe?  Hahahaha!  Aldridge?  Wouldn't even visit.  Like the Lakers, the Knicks are a dumpster fire right now.  Somehow they convinced Aaron Afflalo to come to town and then followed that up by signing Derrick Williams.  The Williams signing wouldn't be so bad if they didn't already have Carmelo Anthony and Krisaps Prozingis to play the exact same 3/4 position.  They really needed one of the Lopez twins to sign or even convince Tyson Chandler to come back to town.  No dice, the Knicks again proved what everybody already knows, nobody wants to play there.

Dallas Mavericks - For whatever reason the Mavericks really wanted center DeAndre Jordan.  So they gave him a max contract to essentially do the same thing that Chandler has been doing for half the money.  They then let Chandler walk to go sign in Phoenix.  Now they have Jordan who only rebounds and plays defense and who you can't have on the floor at the end of games because teams intentionally foul him to put him on the line to miss free throws.  This move does nothing to improve Dallas' chances of returning to the playoffs.

The world is a smaller place now.  It used to be that players wanted to go to the big-city teams for marketing purposes.  Now, with widespread media and social media a player can be in any city and have the same opportunities.  Kevin Durant doesn't seem to be missing out on ad money in Oklahoma City now does he?  That is where the Lakers and Knicks have fallen off.  Nobody is going to sign with them just based on their city of location, it doesn't work like that anymore and that is a great thing for the league.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

We Are So Messed Up

By Travis Stahl

Well, it has happened and I honestly don't know what the solution is.  The stupid people have won.  More specifically, the stupid people in the media have finally ruined professional athletes and coaches for us true fans of sports to enjoy.  Because we live in such a media saturated society players and coaches now know that whatever they say or do is going to be recorded or twisted or marketed in such a way it could ruin their career.  They are overly guarded in what they say and do and as a result as fans we don't get what we really want from these people, a connection.

I was listening to Colin Cowherd yesterday interview Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh.  I'm not a huge Cowherd fan, I think he can be abrasive at times.  But he wasn't yesterday with Harbaugh.  Instead, Cowherd was trying to be playful by asking Harbaugh some off the script questions.  For instance, Cowherd asked Harbaugh at what time of day was he in the best mood.  Cowherd then asked what Harbaugh's first thoughts were when he accepted the job at Michigan.  Harbaugh sounded like an automated robot program to refill your prescription at CVS.  Every answer was straight out of the can.  Cowherd cut the interview short when it became apparent Harbaugh had no intention of showing the world he was a real person.

And that is where we are with this media relationship with athletes.  Harbaugh has to be so guarded and careful of what he says that he just repeats the same lines over and over in every single interview.  Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson does the same thing.  "We're just looking to next week's game" is followed by "We just want to work hard and improve as a team."  Duh, we know that.  But we can't get anything else because if Russell comes out and says something like "On my day off I really like to microbrew my own beer in my garage" then the headline on social media and in the news will read "Alcoholic Russell Wilson drinks alone at home."  That's not reporting, that's called lying and it happens entirely too much.

As sports fans we want to know the coaches and players.  That's what makes us fans, that connection we can establish by hearing an athlete talk and give us bits of their personal life.  I loved it when Steph Curry had his daughter up there for those interviews during the NBA Finals.  I had no idea Curry was even married let along had kids.  It was a personal moment and that is what we want.  We want honesty and we want genuine answers and I can say without a doubt in my mind I don't know how to accomplish that.  How do we as a society stop making it about money and headlines and start making it about the passion of being a fan?

Because the world of sports is such big business maybe we can't unring this bell.  We see headlines about the crazy stuff New England Patriots tight-end Rob Gronkowski does all the time.  I like that stuff not because it's ESPN or Yahoo trying to sell a story but because that is who Gronk is, he's a fun guy who likes to go out and just live it up.  That is genuine.  I also realize the shoe goes on the other foot sometimes as well.  Athletes and coaches do a lot of dumb things to earn themselves some negative headlines.  That will never change.  But maybe if media starts focusing a little more on who these people are outside of sports and less time trying to trap them it would be more enjoyable for us all.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

It's Electric!

By Travis Stahl

You know what makes every word better?  Adding the word electric to it.  Guitar ... good. Electric guitar ... super cool.  Amish ... nice.  Electric Amish ... crazy awesome.  Football ... as good as it gets.  Electric football ... the greatest childhood game of all time.  Before video games became common practice we had the vibrating, buzzing goodness of electric football to entertain us for hours on end.

You remember electric football right?  The metal football field would vibrate when you turned it on and the little plastic players would vibrate around.  Each game came with the same plain red and white players and that weird yellow quarterbacky-kicker thing that nobody knew how to use.  If there were rules to electric football I don't know that anybody knew what they were.  This game was really a kid's first chance to design the plays of a football game.  You were the coach coming up with crazy running formations and blocking schemes to hopefully vibrate your running back who was holding a wadded up piece of cotton ball all the way to the end zone.

We would play electric football for hours growing up.  Those red and white players were no good for us, we needed to branch out.  Somehow (in the age of no internet) we found out how to order custom-painted players.  We had the Washington Redskins, Houston Oilers, Seattle Seahawks and New Orleans Saints.  Somehow we also had a few really old custom players from back in the early 70's from the Detroit Lions and Los Angeles Rams but I have no idea how those got in the mix.  My brother Wes and I would play electric football all day sometimes if it was raining outside.  Toby Harrison and I had a couple of all-day electric marathons as well.

I think about electric football sometimes and how much fun it was.  But I hadn't thought about it in a long time until I was at my parents house yesterday and my mom had found a plastic bag in the basement with all our old players in it.  I brought them home on the off chance Wes or I still had the field but we don't.  It probably was sold in a garage sale years ago.  To my surprise when I looked it up yesterday to see if you can still by a field there are several stores who sell electric football.  Although the cheapest version of the game at Walmart is $44 and some range as high as $120.  I have no idea if the game is still a popular seller or not but it took everything I had not to buy one.

Maybe someday I will buy one for my nephews when they are a little older.  Surely electric football can still have the same appeal to a younger generation of kids that it did for us.  What's not to like?  The players, the vibrating and the elaborate strategy made the game the most entertaining thing we had ever seen.  I still think electric football was better than a football video game any day.  Of course, the younger generation may disagree with me on that.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Bold NFL Predictions

By Travis Stahl

Just a friendly reminder, NFL teams will be in training camps in three weeks.  Three ... uh ... weeks.  Start the countdown.  Teams have been holding voluntary workouts but we are on the verge of the real deal.  Everybody opens the season with optimism in the NFL where a few lucky breaks can lead any team from worst to first.  That's what keeps the league so exciting and this year should be no different.  I'm never opposed to sticking my foot in my mouth, sometimes it's fun.  Let's walk out on that limb together with some bold predictions for the upcoming season.

1. Cincinnati running back Jeremy Hill will lead the NFL in rushing.
2. The Oakland Raiders will finish second in the AFC West and just miss out on a playoff spot.
3. Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee will win Comeback Player of the Year over Adrian Peterson.
4. The San Francisco 49ers will have the worst record in the NFC.
5. The Atlanta Falcons will have more wins than the Buccaneers and Saints combined.
6. Marcus Mariota will be a star for the Tennessee Titans and the team will just miss making the playoffs.
7. Redskins head coach Jay Gruden will be fired before the end of the season.
8. The Indianapolis Colts will face New England Patriots in an AFC Championship game rematch.
9. Ditto for the NFC with the Seahawks and Packers.
10. The Green Bay Packers will win the Super Bowl over the Colts.

There you have it, you can put it on the board as these predictions are worth betting the house on.  Let's be honest here, there isn't anything on this list that would shock any of us.  Again, that is what makes the NFL the most entertaining sporting event around right now.  Obviously, the league never shakes out quite how we think it's going to.  Injuries and player development play a big factor in just how good a team can be over the course of the season.  We might even see the makings of some of these predictions start to play themselves out in training camp.  We won't have long to wait now.

Monday, June 29, 2015

LeBron is About to Cash In

By Travis Stahl

I have a love/hate relationship with the media and Facebook these days.  Obviously we need some media coverage otherwise we would never know what is happening around the world.  My biggest issue is how things are branded.  You will see a headline on Facebook for a story that reads "Obama to Start Collecting Guns."  No he isn't.  Stop believing that stuff, it isn't true and you need hit in the head with a tack hammer if you think it's going to happen.  I was understandably bothered when I saw the headline last week that read "LeBron Opts Out of Contract."  Yeah?  So?  We knew this was going to happen last year.

When LeBron James returned to Cleveland last summer he signed a contract that would give him an opt out after one year with the Cavaliers.  LeBron did so not to give him the option to bolt and sign with another team as the headline would lead you to believe.  No, LeBron worked the deal this way for one simple reason and you know what it is ... money.  When LeBron signed with Cleveland the Cavs were limited on the amount of money they could offer him as part of the maximum deal.  Now that James has been there for a year they can offer him more money and James' new contract will also likely include another opt out next summer.  It's all about the money and is a very smart move on LeBron's part.

Next year James will play in Cleveland to the tune of $30 million a year.  Only Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant have ever earned that much money in one NBA season.  Then next summer the new TV money arrives and the salary cap increases significantly so LeBron will opt out again to sign a new one-year deal for the 2016-17 season.  That contract will probably make LeBron the first player ever to earn $40 million in a season.  That's right ... 4 and 0.  For one player.  That is an obscene amount of money.  I'm not sure there is anybody out there though who would argue that James isn't worth it.

While this is mostly about money there are a couple of other factors at play too.  First is Kevin Love who is an unrestricted free agent and can sign anywhere he wants.  LeBron wants him back with Cleveland.  LeBron isn't going to resign with Cleveland until he sees Love and Tristin Thompson are resigned by the Cavs also.  Then there is the matter of head coach David Blatt.  LeBron was openly critical and disrespectful of the coach during the NBA Finals.  That can't continue so either LeBron is going to have to come to terms with playing for Blatt or this is the time James forces the teams hand to find someone else.  We shall see.

The problem I had with the headline being shuffled around on media and Facebook was that it was misleading.  Yes, LeBron opted out of his contract.  No, it was not with the intent of leaving Cleveland.  But for shock value and to draw in readers it was decided to misrepresent what was going on.  There is no chance LeBron leaves the Cavaliers now, not with that kind of money on the table.  Plus, why would he leave a team that just reached the finals?  The answer is he wouldn't.  The moral of the story is don't take the headline away from a story and make assumptions.  Know the entirety of what is happening before flying off the handle.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Recapping the NBA Draft

By Travis Stahl

If you followed the NBA draft last night the way I did you had to be pretty excited throughout the first round.  Nobody pays attention during the second round because you can't make sense of anything.  But the first round was pretty exciting and the draft definitely had a couple of turns that thew teams off of what they thought was going to happen.  Some teams took advantage of the draft process and selected wisely.  Other teams were the Philadelphia 76ers.  Here are a few winners and losers from last night's draft.

Winners

New York Knicks - I know, Kristaps Porzingiz is a risky pick at No. 4.  He will either be a star or a flop depending on how well he is coached up.  But when the Knicks swung the trade to acquire Notre Dame guard Jerian Grant it changed the whole outlook on Porzingiz.  Grant is a player and at 6'5 he can handle either guard position in the NBA.  Porzingiz might be a few years away from being really good but at least with Grant on board now with Carmello Anthony if the Knicks can add one or two guys through free agency this team could be battling for a playoff spot in the weak East.

Miami Heat - To have Justise Winslow fall into their lap at No. 10 was a godsend for Miami.  Winslow is a man among boys physically and at 6'6 he can guard three positions out on the floor.  You always want to see guys go to places they can be successful and that is what happened here.  Winslow doesn't have to be the star to carry the team, all he has to do is hang around with Dewayne Wade and learn to contribute.

Houston Rockets - Houston wanted point guard Cameron Payne but he was off the board.  No problem as the Rockets grabbed Wisonsin small forward Sam Dekker instead.  Dekker can provide that scoring punch Red Nation was missing last year when they let Chandler Parsons go.  Even more impressive was the Rockets were able to grad Louisville enforcer Martezl Harrell in the second round.  Harrell isn't going to score but he is going to rebound and play defensive with the best of them and will be a huge asset off the bench.

Losers

Indiana Pacers - Payne and Trey Lyles were both still on the board when Indiana drafted Myles Turner out of Texas.  Turner is a raw talent who is 7'0 but has no offensive game what so ever.  He can rebound and look tall, that's about it.  For a team that could be right back in the playoff picture with a healthy Paul George it seemed like the Pacers would have grabbed a badly needed point guard or somebody who could score.  The last thing this team needs is another big man who hinders the flow of the offense.

Philadelphia 76ers - Just because Jahlil Okafor was still on the board does not mean you are required to draft him.  The 76ers have now drafted a center with their first pick for three years in a row as Okafor joins Nerlens Noel and Joel Embiid.  I know Embiid is still hurt but come on.  At some point you have to try to start winning.  Unless Philly has some bold new plan to start running a three-center offense I just don't get it.

Detroit Pistons - The Pistons fell in love with Arizona small forward Stanley Johnson early in their draft evaluations.  They thought Johnson would be there at pick No. 8 and he was.  But so was Winslow, who Detroit did not anticipate being on the board.  Instead of shifting gears and pouncing on the much more talented Winslow Detroit went ahead and picked Johnson anyway.  Maybe it will turn out for the best but when you pass up one guy who is clearly better than the other it just feels like another huge mistake in Detroit.

There is one huge advantage the NBA draft has over other sports.  In about two weeks we get to see all these guys in action with their new teams because summer league play is going to start.  If you have never followed summer league it's pretty exciting.  There is an Orlando league and a Las Vegas league.  It's a chance for rookies and other young players to get out on the court and start competing against NBA level talent.  The games are much more free flowly and really give guys a chance to show their skill set.