April 30, 2009


The Bulls have won! The Bulls have won! Oh my God! The most amazing, sensational, dramatic, heart-rending... exciting, thrilling playoff series in the history of professional basketball! Chicago has won Game 6 over the Celtics! Oh, excuse me for my use of exclamation points, but I have never, ever seen anything like it in history! I have never seen any series like this in my life! The Bulls have won 128-127 in 3 OTs to force a Game 7 in Boston!*

* If that paragraph sounds vaguely familiar, it's because it's cribbed (with a few substitutions, when necessary) from Cal radio announcer Joe Starkey's call of "The Play," the five-lateral end-of-game miracle that lifted Cal over Stanford in the 1982 Big Game. It's the only thing I could think of that can even begin to express how exhilarating this series has been.

Also, can we all just agree right now that any time someone is talking about this series -- and this should apply in perpetuity -- when he/she says "every game" that "except Game 3" is understood? Trust me, it'll be much easier that way.

What else is there to say? How many more superlatives can you come up with for a series that basically defies description? Every game is completely insane. Just when you think it can't get any better, it does. After Game 4, I was positive that there was no way the remaining games could be anywhere near as compelling as what had preceded them. At that point, it had been three instant classics out of four, and that in itself simply does not happen. What's occurred since is just totally unbelievable. And I don't use unbelievable to convey remarkable, which it certainly has been; I mean that I really cannot believe it. It's totally unprecedented. Two single-overtime games. A double OT. A triple OT. Titanic struggles decided by 2, 3, 3, 2, and 1 point. Every game has been exceptionally well-played, with virtually every player on both teams is playing his best basketball. Sure, there have been turnovers and mistakes, but I have never seen better, more consistent play, with different guys stepping at every turn. I know there's no title at stake, but taking that out of the equation, this is truly the best series I have ever seen, in any sport. It's utterly mind-blowing, and I am loving every single second of it.

I love that John Salmons came out chute for Game 6 completely on fire, and then carried the Bulls for the first two overtimes. I love that Kirk Hinrich took Rajon Rondo's cheap-shot scorer's-table fling, and actually looked like he was going to kick the crap out of him, charging at him like a fucking bad ass with murder in his eyes while Rondo retreated like the face-slapping sissy that he is. I love that Tyrus Thomas finally got some minutes in the fourth quarter, had a huge dunk that got waved off and immediately followed it with a second one that didn't. I love that after blowing a 10-point lead by going scoreless for 6:02 in the fourth, the Bulls rallied from an 8-point deficit with under three minutes to play. I love that Brad Miller made some huge shots -- 3-pointers, jumpers, and layups -- to both shut me up and keep the Bulls alive, and that he redeemed himself at the line by going 4-for-4 in the final 30 seconds of the 2nd and 3rd OTs. I love that Ben Gordon fouled out in the 1st overtime and the Bulls proved they could close out a game without having to run countless mind-numbing isolation plays for him. I love that despite getting burned numerous times in this series, Vinny Del Negro steadfastly refuses to foul in the closing seconds with a three-point lead, because it has consistently led to more overtimes. I love that Joakim Noah came up with a gigantic steal, coast-to-coast dunk, and go-ahead three-point play in the 3rd OT , had another huge game, and proved once and for all that he is an NBA player. And I love that after looking tentative and scared from the end of the fourth quarter through the first two extra sessions, Derrick Rose was huge at the end, scoring the Bulls' first four points of the 3rd overtime and digging deep for the game-clinching block.

But most of all, I love that there will be another game in this series.

April 29, 2009

Where (an) amazing (non-call) happens

As you may or may not know, I'm not a huge fan of Brad Miller's work (go here for some detailed evidence). But I'm not going to criticize him for missing the free-throw after getting smacked in the face by Rajon Rondo when he was allegedly non-flagrantly fouled in Game 5.*

* Seriously, I understand there is a somewhat different set of (unwritten) rules for the end of games, but c'mon. Miller was drilled in the face, and the ball was a good three feet out of Rondo's reach. I understand pocketing the whistle for ticky-tack stuff in the final moments of a game, but a 'flagrant foul' has to be called when a flagrant foul is committed, regardless of the clock situation. Otherwise, what's the point of having the rule in the first place? Those plays are obviously way more likely to occur with the game on the line, and a guy shouldn't be allowed to crack his opponent in the face without any additional repercussions just because the game is about to end.

Fouling without attempting to make a play on the ball is explicitly a flagrant. So is taking a full-on swing at someone's head. This play had both, but somehow a flagrant foul was not called. Ridiculous. Even Vinny Del Negro emerged from his netherworld of brainfarting illogic to plead the Bulls' case. Clearly the refs were too chickenshit to make the proper call in the Celtics' building, which is just awful.

And if you think this is just some Chicago-centric take, check out Henry Abbott's excellent piece on the subject. Or John Hollinger's.

Just about every player -- even the great ones -- has missed a crucial, late-game free throw, as there's no more pressure-filled situation in the NBA than going to the line in the final seconds of a close game. Especially in the playoffs. Virtually every player in this series has missed a crucial free-throw in one game or another, so I wasn't expecting the bloody-mouthed and bleary-eyed Miller to step up and nail a pair with the Bulls trailing 106-104 in OT. So when he missed the first, I was hardly surprised. Or angry.

What I was angry about -- and what I am going to criticize Miller for -- was his piss-poor effort when intentionally missing the second. His only responsibility in that situation is to hit the goddamn rim so that Tyrus Thomas and Joakim Noah have a chance at a putback, and he missed by a good three feet in both directions. Instead of just randomly whipping the ball off the backboard, which created a dead-ball situation by failing to draw iron, he should have been aiming for the junction between the back of the rim and the glass. Sure, there would have been a small chance that the ball would go in, but it almost certainly would have hit the rim. I don't know if Miller was still frustrated from missing the first free throw and/or the non-call of the flagrant, but his lack of effort when trying to miss cost the Bulls any chance of a game-tying tip-in.

But it wasn't Miller's shoddy effort there, or his first miss, or the absence of a flagrant foul call that cost the Bulls the game. And while I would've liked to see Tyrus Thomas play more than a paltry 25 seconds in the fourth quarter and overtime combined, that wasn't the culprit either.The Bulls simply didn't execute well enough late in the fourth quarter and overtime, and a pair of late Derrick Rose turnovers really hurt.

I do, however, think that the Del Negro's proclivity for using smaller lineups (Rose, Gordon, Hinrich, Salmons, and Noah/Miller) is playing right into the Celtics' hands. Boston's frontcourt depth has been decimated by injuries, meaning the Bulls' choosing to go small basically mitigates their biggest advantage. As my brother-in-law often laments, that's what happens when you hire a former guard as coach. Those guys still see the game from a little-man's perspective, and Del Negro often reverts to his smallest lineups in the game's biggest moments.

After Game 5 of what continues to be an indescribably great match-up, I am left to ponder something I never even considered as a possibility when the series began: Are the Bulls actually the better team? I think they could be, and they're at least as talented, given Boston's current state of disrepair. The four games that could have gone either way have been split 2-2, so I can't really even blame Del Negro's coaching all that much, or at least have to conclude that Doc Rivers has been nearly as bad. Still, it is Del Negro's job to have the team ready to play, which the Bulls clearly weren't in Game 3. If you reversed the coaching staffs, don't you think the Bulls would be ahead, even without home-court advantage? I do.

But while it would have been nice to take a 3-2 lead, dropping the game was probably the best thing for the Bulls' state of mind. Losing keeps the expectations low, and that's when this team plays its best basketball. And really, all of the pressure remains squarely on the Celtics. They really need to close it out in Chicago, because I guarantee they don't want to see a seventh game. Not only do the Celtics hope to get their old legs some rest before the next round of the playoffs, but they also know they were lucky to take 2-of-3 from the Bulls in Boston. If the series extends to Game 7, the Celtics' collective sphincter will be tighter than the inexplicable spiral on a Joakim Noah free throw.

And that's pretty damn tight.

April 27, 2009

What if the Bears had a draft and I wasn't disappointed?

As I touched on in my previous post, Sunday was a glorious day to be a Chicago sports fan. Even if you prefer the Sox (who lost) over the Cubs (who didn't), between the Bulls' game and the Bears' draft, there was still plenty to get excited about.

I found this year's draft especially satisfying. I mean, I really, really enjoyed myself. Why? Because the Bears did so few head-scratching, me-off-pissing things. I hadn't heard of all of the players they picked, but between ESPN.com, NFL.com, and the Bears' own website, I was able to get a pretty good sense of the all the draftees, and just about every selection was solid. What follows are my thoughts on each, a quote from somebody else, and my best/worst case Bears-player comparison:

Pick 68, Jarron Gilbert; 6'5¼", 288; DT, San Jose State; Scouts Inc. #60
The YouTube pool jumping, impressive as it is, has been way overplayed. But small school competition or not, he led the nation in tackles for loss. As an interior lineman. He appears to be a superior athlete, obviously, and the main knock against him is a questionable motor. Luckily, he is walking into a perfect situation. That is, he won't be on the field for every snap; as part of a four (Tommie Harris, Marcus Harrison, Anthony Adams) or five (Dusty Dvoracek) man rotation, he'll have to earn every rep, which will mean no plays off. If motivation is a problem -- which we don't even know that it is -- it will be taken care of by circumstances. I would be much more worried if he were on the other side of the ball, where rotation isn't part of the equation. And if he works out, he'll probably be moved outside to end in rushing situations. Like Bryan Robinson, only effective.

Best case: Jim Flanigan
Worst case: Russell Davis
Money quote: "Gilbert led the nation with 22 tackles for a loss. Had he played at USC, he would have been a first day pick." -- Mel Kiper Jr.

Pick 99, Juaquin Iglesias; 6'0⅞", 210; WR, Oklahoma; Scouts Inc. #111
Iglesias just missed getting mentioned twice in my draft preview column: once in my top-20 draft names,* before I decided just being foreign-sounding wasn't enough; and again when I talked about the Bears waiting to take a receiver. With that one, I figured that Iglesias would probably be gone before the Bears picked a second time. But he wasn't, and the Bears pulled the trigger.

* A few to add that I should have considered but somehow missed: Sen'Derrick Marks, Kaluka Maiava, Jasper Brinkley, Cornelius Ingram, Jarius Wynn, Brice McCain, Stryker Sulak, Stoney Woodson, and my favorite, Captain Munnerlyn.

Iglesias was one of the players I was pulling for with this pick, especially with my beloved Ramses Barden surprisingly already off the board. No, Iglesias is not blazingly fast, and, yes, he played in a high-scoring offense. But he was one of the reasons Oklahoma was so high scoring, putting his feet in the end zone 10 times last year. He's very solidly built for a receiver, and supposedly isn't afraid to mix it up. I'm just hoping that, unlike the last three Bears-drafted Oklahoma players -- Tommie Harris, Mark Bradley, and Dusty Dvoracek -- that Iglesias will be able to stay on the field. At least long enough for us to determine whether or not he can play.

Best case
: Marty Booker
Worst case: Dez White
Money quote: "Juaquin Iglesias was a solid pickup with the 99th overall selection. Some teams rated him in the second round." -- John Czarnecki, FoxSports.com

Pick 105, Henry Melton; 6'3", 280; DE, Texas; Scouts Inc. #227
And so ended my excitement about the Bears draft, at least temporarily. This seemed like a real reach to me (and Scouts Inc., apparently) as I had never even heard of Melton, while several other DE's that I am familiar with were still on the board. Players who were invited to the combine, and have names less insurance-adjustery.

But Melton is a somewhat interesting prospect. He scored 10 TDs as a freshman running back, so he is definitely an athlete. As shown at Texas' pro day, when he proved he can run (4.65 40) and jump (34.5" vertical, 10'1" broad). What we don't know about is tackling, making Melton indisputably a project, and a guy I would've felt much more comfortable with as a 6th- or 7th-round pick.

Best case
: Alex Brown
Worst case: Dan Bazuin, Claude Harriott, Michael Haynes, Karon Riley, Pat Riley, John Thierry. You get the idea.
Money quote: "He's an athlete with speed. He's got a great first move in the pass rush and really good explosion." -- NFL.com

Pick 119, D.J. Moore; 5'8⅞", 192; CB, Vanderbilt; Scouts Inc. #38
The Bears found a great value with the 19th pick of the 4th round; in Mel Kiper's first 2009 mock draft, he had Moore going with the 26th pick of the first round. He, Scouts Inc., and SI.com, among others, all agreed that Moore had no business being around so late in the draft.

The reason he was? Speed, or lack of it. Moore ran the 40 in the mid-4.5 range, which is not considered good enough. It's the exact reason that Nathan Vasher fell to the Bears in the 4th round. Ironically, if the productive-when-in-the-lineup Vasher were able to stay healthy, the Bears might not have felt the need to pull the trigger on Moore. Like Vasher, Moore has been an extreme ballhawk in college, with 12 INTs over the last two seasons. He's supposedly a great athlete (39.5" vertical), he's just not all that fast. But in the Bears system, which often has both safeties playing way off the line of scrimmage, elite speed at the corners isn't required.

Best case
: Donnell Woolford (thought I was gonna say Vasher, didncha?)
Worst case: Roosevelt Williams
Money quote: "All the skills to be a starting cornerback at the next level, and he should only get better." -- SI.com

Pick 140, Johnny Knox; 5'11½", 185; WR, Abilene Christian; Scouts Inc. #115
As the Bears came on the clock for this pick, I was thinking, "Please take Johnny Knox. Please take Johnny Knox. Please take Johnny Knox." Not only had I specifically mentioned Knox in my preview, but I was also hoping they wouldn't be putting all their eggs in Iglesias' basket. Mid-round receivers are no sure bet, and I was praying the Bears would be smart enough to grab more than one -- something I really regret not mentioning in my preview. Anyway, with the clock ticking down, I started thinking of the recent drafts in which the Bears took two receivers in the middle rounds -- the Justin Gage/Bobby Wade and D'Wayne Bates/Marty Booker combos immediately came to mind. In looking at the archives however, I discovered it had happened much more than I would have guessed. In the past 10 drafts leading up to this one -- and this includes the two times when they waited until the 7th round to take a second receiver -- the Bears had taken two or more receivers a whopping six times. Still, when Johnny Knox's name flashed on the board as their pick, I very nearly shit my pants. I mean, what are the odds, that late in the draft, that they'd actually take the guy I wanted? They're astronomical.

Knox has blinding (4.34 40) speed, and used it to score 30 TDs over the past two seasons. Granted, he probably didn't go against a single NFL-caliber defensive back in that time, but he was a worthwhile gamble having already taken the more-certain Iglesias. Plus, I love the name Johnny Knox, though it's marred by the existence of Johnny Knoxville. Nevertheless, Johnny Knox just sounds like a guy you can chuck the deep ball to. And hopefully Cutler will. And Knox will catch it.

Best case: Bernard Berrian
Worst case: Airese Currie
Money quote: "This blazer gives the Bears another deep threat in the passing game. Although Knox isn't a polished route-runner, his speed will allow the team to stretch the field with the deep ball." -- NFL.com

Pick 154, Marcus Freeman; 6'0⅝", 239; LB, Ohio State; Scouts Inc. #85
Another very solid pick, though I was hoping they'd grab an offensive lineman here. I know they signed three free agent linemen this offseason, but I think they should have used this pick to inject a little youth into the line. The O-Line represents nearly a quarter of your starters, and to totally ignore it for an entire draft is a mistake.

But although I was hoping for OT Jamon Meredith -- who the Packers took eight picks later -- I'm hopeful that Freeman will be a player. He was getting some first-round buzz coming into his senior season, which he spent hobbled by a bum ankle. While the bad wheel made him less productive than he'd been the year before (when he recorded 109 total tackles,) he still had 9.5 tackles-for-loss and 3.5 sacks. If he can stay healthy -- a big if, as he's already had a serious knee injury in addition to the ankle issues -- I think he could be the strong-side starter very soon.

Best case: Lance Briggs
Worst case: Michael Okwo
Money quote: "If it weren't for an ankle injury in his last year at Ohio State, Freeman would have gone much earlier. Instead, the Bears get a good value here with a fast and athletic outside linebacker." -- SportingNews.com

I'm going to pause right here, sum things up a bit, and then give short-shrift to the final three draftees, among whom one would be lucky to stick. As I see it, the Bears got great value on 5-of-6 picks. According to Scouts Inc., it was 4-of-6. If you remove the one pick I don't like (Melton), looking at the rest collectively the Bears selections are even more impressive. The average pick number of the non-Melton Bears was 116; the average Scouts Inc. ranking was 82. That means those five picks had an average grade that was a full round better than where they were selected. You've got to like that.

And it's not just Scouts Inc. that thought the Bears did well; Mel Kiper gave them the "Latecomer Award" in a post-draft summary, according to ESPN.com:
The Bears didn't make a single pick on Day 1. Then on Day 2, they got DT Jarron Gilbert, who is "one of the steals of the draft," WR Juaquin Iglesias, CB D.J. Moore, OLB Marcus Freeman, WR Johnny Knox and WR Derek Kinder. "They got guys who were really bargains." Kiper was impressed with what they did without a first-day pick.
Fellow ESPN analyst John Clayton said of the Bears:
Their picks were consistent and fit needs. Defensive ends Jarron Gilbert and Henry Melton have run the 40-yard dash in 4.8 seconds and will work with defensive line coach Rod Marinelli on the Bears' pass rush. D.J. Moore had received a higher grade than his fourth-round selection.
Todd McShay was a little less effusive in his praise, taking issue with both Iglesias and Knox, but added: "On the positive side, the Bears hit homers on Gilbert and Moore."

Clifton Brown of the Sporting News wrote of the Bears:
They added talent without having a first-round pick. Defensive tackle Jarron Gilbert could develop into a solid run-stopper, and wide receiver Juaquin Iglesias is a possession receiver for Cutler to try and build chemistry.
And finally, one more quote, this one from Kiper's post-draft chat:
Williamson,WV: What player drafted on the second day do you think has the most potential or brightest future?

Mel Kiper: Jarron Gilbert. Roy Millard. Mike Wallace. Rashad Johnson. Juaquin Iglesias. Mike Thomas. Kyle Moore. DJ Moore.
So in a non-Bears-related question, Kiper named his top eight second-day players, and three of them were Bears' draftees. That's phenomenal. I'm not saying that Kiper's the be-all, end-all, but it's certainly better to have people saying you did well rather than being up in arms over all your mistakes -- like the pundits have been about the Raiders. Which is especially interesting, because Angelo reportedly has said he wouldn't have traded out of the 2nd round had Michael Mitchell been available. The Raiders have drawn a ton of criticism for taking Mitchell -- a player some thought would go undrafted -- in the second round. It just goes to show you how razor-thin the margins are in the NFL draft; the Bears are currently being lauded for their astute selections, but Jerry Angelo was only saved from post-draft laughing-stock status by happenstance.

Okay, the final three selections:

Pick 190, Al Afalava; 5'10⅝", 213; S, Oregon State
A hard-hitting (check out this brutal -- and incorrectly flagged -- shot) in-the-box guy who seems ill-suited to the free safety vacancy the Bears currently have. Might be a beast on special teams though. And I love the fact that his entire name is A's alternating with consonants, and that it's very nearly a palindrome.

Best case
: Kevin Payne
Worst case: Ricky Parker
Money quote: "Afalava is a late-round sleeper because of his pure hitting ability. He will need to make his mark on special teams." -- SportingNews.com

Pick 246, Lance Louis; 6'2⅜", 303; TE, San Diego State
I like the idea behind this pick; converting the guard who converted from tight end back to tight end. If you want a drive-blocker at the position, which they need desperately as a complement to pass-catchers Greg Olsen and Desmond Clark, why not take a lineman with some speed (4.76 40)?

Best case
: Keith Jennings
Worst case: Bob Sapp
Money quote: "His combination of speed and strength impresses despite his lack of experience." -- NFL.com

Pick 251, Derek Kinder; 6'0⅛", 215; WR, Pittsburgh
If you haven't seen Kinder's block on this special teams play, you need to immediately. If he wants to make the team, there's going to have to be more where that came from. He was pretty productive as a pass catcher before a devastating knee injury, earning All-Big East first-team honors. The downside? He had a devastating knee injury.

Best case
: Wendell Davis
Worst case: Jamin Elliot
Money quote: "Kinder possesses NFL size and displayed a lot of skill in the past." -- SI.com

And that, you will be relieved to read, is it. I mentioned 65 paragraphs ago how much I relished this draft, and though much of my joy has been sapped writing this interminable entry, I want to touch on why. Yes, a big part of it was the Bears' uncharacteristically-savvy drafting. But the other aspect was something that I spoke of in the draft history I wrote a few weeks ago. Without any high round picks, there was essentially no way I could be disappointed. The bar for these mid-to-late round picks is set so low that all I can see are pleasant surprises. I don't have to be upset about a Cedric Benson or a Dan Bazuin because without the picks, there's no opportunity to flub.

So in case you wanted more upside to the Jay Cutler trade, there it is, as the Bears will again be without a 1st-round pick in 2010. And knowing Jerry Angelo, he'll probably trade down out of the 2nd round too. Since he clearly does his best work in the later rounds, it might be the best move. At least for my mental well-being.

April 26, 2009

I just had 12 heart attacks

Wow. What a sports day in Chicago.

The Cubs rout the Cards to avoid the sweep. The White Sox lost. The Bears had a draft I was actually very happy with (more on that to come). Oh yeah, and the Bulls also played. Ho-hum.

That Bulls game, an absolute must-win, was only one of the greatest, most exciting basketball games I've ever seen. The game was won and lost in my head about 37 different times. In chronological order:

WON: 0:16.6 remaining in regulation Bulls up by 2 and at the free-throw line.
LOST: 0:09.8 Tyrus Thomas only makes 1-of-2, and then Ray Allen hits an inexplicably wide-open 3 with under 10 seconds left. Sure it's only tied, but Boston has all the momentum.
WON: 0:00 Derrick Rose gets a decent look on a runner, which caroms off the rim and appears to be tantalizingly over the hoop. But instead of dropping through, it actually ends up well past the cylinder; the camera angle only made it seem like it had a chance.
LOST: 2:00 remaining, first OT Allen hits a jumper from in the lane to put the Bulls down 5.
WON: 0:26.6 Still trailing 107-105, John Salmons strips Paul Pierce and passes ahead to Kirk Hinrich, who draws a huge clear path foul, meaning two free throws and possession.
LOST: 0:21.0 Hinrich only converts 1-of-2, and then Ben Gordon's 18-footer rims out.
STILL ALIVE: 0:18.9 Pierce makes 1-of-2, and Gordon draws a shooting foul that sends him crashing to the court on a drive with 9.8 seconds remaining. In addition, Brad Miller fouled out to put Pierce at the line.
LOST: 0:09.0 Gordon misses first free throw, hits second. Allen then nails a pair to make it 110-107.
STILL ALIVE: 0:04.5 After Celtics fail to foul, Gordon hits a crazy off-balance fadeaway 3 and triumphantly grabs his crotch.
LOST: Celtics still have 4.5 seconds to work with.
STILL ALIVE: 0:00 With Hinrich defending against the drive, Rajon Rondo's 20-footer at the horn is way long.
WON: Bulls hold Boston scoreless for first 3:15 of second overtime.
UH-OH: 1:44 remaining, 2nd OT Up 112-110, Bulls miss chances to build the lead on three consecutive possessions. At 114-110, Gordon clanks an open 3, and Boston answers with a Big Baby Davis dunk.
WON: 1:25 Joakim Noah slams one home on a sweet bounce pass from Hinrich, and then blocks a Ray Allen shot. The teams trade misses, and Noah makes first of two to put Bulls up 117-112 with 35 seconds left.
UH-OH: 0:35.0 Noah misses second. Since the closing seconds of regulation, Bulls have split every pair of free throws they've had, going 4-for-8.
C'MON!: 0:27.3 With only one big in the game, Bulls can't rebound a Rondo miss, and Noah preposterously fouls as Pierce hits a putback. After he makes the free throw, the lead is down to 117-115.
UH-OH: Bulls run bizarre play taking the ball from mid-court, barely avoid a 5-second call, and can't connect on the inbounds to a double-teamed Salmons.
WON: 0:26.6 Salmons is "fouled" trying to corral the pass, makes 2-of-2 to put Bulls up 4.
UH-OH: 0:19.2 With Noah still the Bulls' lone frontcourt player, they fail to run down Allen's missed 3, and Pierce hits a wide open one after Salmons bites on a shot fake. Bulls lead 119-118.
WON: 0:00 Salmons hits a pair of free throws, then blocks Pierce's game-tying attempt and the horn mercifully sounds. Bulls win 121-118.

I seriously think my heart rate was at least 150 by the end. Just a total rollercoaster. There were so many heroes, it's basically impossible to single out one guy. Rose carried them for most of the fourth quarter, Gordon hit huge shots at the end of regulation and the first OT, and Salmons came alive in the overtimes, scoring 11 of his 20 after regulation and coming up with the game-ending block. Hinrich's D was rock-solid. Noah had some huge moments in the 2nd OT, and both he and Thomas had double-doubles and three blocks. Even my whipping boy Miller added 12 points.

The game was back-and-forth pretty much the whole way. The biggest swing came in the final three minutes of the third quarter, when the Bulls surrendered a 12-0 run to turn a 65-58 lead into a 70-65 deficit. At one point that I actually stopped watching because I was convinced I was jinxing the Bulls, and that they played better when I wasn't paying attention to them. So I followed the GameCast instead, before deciding it wasn't working when they fell behind in the first OT. I therefore give myself partial credit for them coming back to win.

So what does it mean for the rest of the series? Assuming the hammy Gordon tweaked during the game is OK -- which it might not be -- I still don't think the Bulls can win it. Even if they could somehow steal Game 5, they'd return to Chicago with everyone expecting them to win, and see Game 3 if you want to know how they fare under those conditions. No, this team is at its best when it can play the no-one-thinks-we-have-a-chance card. The lower the bar, the better they do. As soon as they feel some expectations, they turtle.

Even with the bed-crapping Game 3, the series has been unbelievably entertaining. The Bulls have played surprisingly well during crunch-time, when they consistently faltered during the season. They've shown heart, athleticism, toughness, smarts, and actual ability. The best part is, it's all been gravy; as my friend Adam mentioned in a text, it's really about next year anyway. Each game they play now makes them that much better in the future, and that's why I'm praying for seven.

Even if the Bulls did pull out Game 5, I'm certain they'd come back and lose in Chicago. So I don't see any way they can take the series in six, and I just don't think they can win a Game 7 in Boston. But I sure as hell would love to see them try.

April 24, 2009

Just call me Mel Kiper Jr. Jr.

Mel Kiper III just sounds too pretentious.

This is a draft preview of sorts. But since a huge chunk of the Bears' draft went to Denver, I want to add some final (yeah, right) thoughts about the Cutler trade. As a Bears' fan, I totally ignored the Broncos' perspective the first time around. The main point I should've made is that the deal will likely end up being good for both teams; as a generally strong-drafting organization, the Broncos should be able to find some legitimate players with the Bears' picks.

And that's part of the problem with analyzing the trade. Obviously, Cutler's performance, and whether he is able to lead the Bears to a championship, will play a huge part in how the trade is ultimately assessed in Chicago. However, another aspect of the analysis will misguidedly be based on the quality of the players the Broncos acquire with Bears' picks. Along with next year's 1st rounder, the Broncos get #18 and #84 overall this year; if they get guys like DE Will Smith (#18, 2004; 36.5 career sacks) and DB Ellis Hobbs (#84, 2005; 4-year starter, 27.7 yards per kick return with three TDs), then everyone will talk about how costly the trade was for the Bears. But if it's DE Erasmus James (#18, 2005; 5 career sacks) and DB Ben Kelly (#84, 2000; 13 career games, zero starts, zero interceptions) the consensus will be that the Bears made a great deal. Only that line of reasoning is inherently flawed.

First of all, just because the Broncos may end up drafting great players with the picks doesn't mean the Bears would have. In fact, if you follow them closely or read my primer on the their drafting, you know it's pretty unlikely the Bears would've found any impact players with those selections. And from the Bears' perspective, the value of the picks they gave up is fixed; it doesn't change based on what the Broncos do with them.

In 2000, the Packers gave up a 6th rounder (#185, DE Tim Watson) and DB Fred Vinson -- who never played another game in the NFL -- for Ahman Green and a 5th rounder (#151, WR Joey Jamison). Green made four consecutive Pro Bowls, had six 1,000 yard seasons, and scored 69 touchdowns for Green Bay. One of the great steals in NFL history.

Not so fast. A certain quarterback, one Tom Brady, didn't get drafted that year until pick #199, meaning he was still on the board when the Packers' formerly-held pick came up. Oh my God, what a horrible trade for Green Bay! Sure, they got a star running back, but they could've selected Tom Brady and won three Super Bowls!

Of course that's ridiculous. Because that's not -- or at least shouldn't be -- the way it works. When you are trading picks, you have already assigned value to them, and it's what they were worth that day that counts. The value isn't variable based on the players ultimately selected. From here on out from the Bears' end, all that matters is what Cutler does. The production of the players the Broncos select is relevant to the trade, but only on the Denver side. And so while it's up to Pat Bowlen's guys to make the deal look good for the Broncos, only Jay Cutler can make the Bears look bad.

Alright, on to the draft. You should know that my opinions on these guys are based almost entirely on what I have read; I have seen very few of these players in action, even on TV. I say that not to hedge, but so you can have some insight on my mode of assessment. I go mostly by scout/media consensus, college stats, and -- most prominently -- my general impressions of the player's name. Take J.P. Losman, for instance. When he came out, I knew nothing about him other than his name having bust all over it. First of all, J.P. is some robber baron industrialist aristocrat, not a leader of men in the most workmanlike team sport. Plus, the guy's name is "Loss Man" for crying out loud; let's just say that I didn't think that augured well for his future.

Here are Kiper's Top-25 picks from his latest mock draft, with my comments:

1. Detroit Lions: Matthew Stafford, QB, Georgia

Oh get off it Matthew. A quarterback should be Matt. If the Falcons QB went by Matthew Ryan, he wouldn't've done squat last year. And this is exactly the sort of thing that derailed Joey Harrington's career. So I'm not exactly sanguine about Matthew's prospects.

Plus, I don't think you should take a quarterback first overall when he's not the consensus #1 player in that draft. That's the difference between Tim Couch, David Carr, Alex Smith, JaMarcus Russell, et al and, say, Peyton Manning. For the Lions to reach for a quarterback when they have so many needs is a huge mistake. Select a player with a little more positional certainty, take a flyer on a QB later in the draft, and live with Culpepper or someone else for at least another year.

2. St. Louis Rams: Jason Smith, OT, Baylor

If Smith is lucky he'll turn out like another former-tight end-turned-left tackle named Jason, Peters, who just signed a huge deal with the Eagles. Peters played tight end throughout his college career at Arkansas, and I was in awe of him after seeing him as one of now-disgraced-receiver-but-then-QB Matt Jones' targets in an epic 7-OT win over Kentucky on ESPN in 2003. He was so gigantic. When I heard he was moving to tackle for the NFL and that he blistered the 40 -- relatively speaking, of course -- at the combine, I was praying the Bears would get him. Of course, the Bears passed on him several times in the late rounds and he went undrafted. With Smith projected to go this high, maybe NFL scouting departments have learned their lesson.

Smith has actually played tackle for the last two seasons, so he will be coming in much more experienced than Peters. But I doubt he's as good of an athlete, and I worry he's a little too finesse to succeed in the mean ol' NFL. His anonymous name would be more of a problem for me if he didn't play such an anonymous position.

3. Kansas City Chiefs: Tyson Jackson, DE, LSU

In recent years, LSU defensive linemen seem to have gotten a ton of hype, but not many of them have actually played well in the NFL. While it's still too early to tell about Glenn Dorsey -- who I liked last year -- Claude Wroten, Marcus Spears, Marquise Hill, and Chad Lavalais all failed to live up to their advance billing. I worry about Jackson's lack of sacks (just 8 over the last two seasons) and his supposed lack of quickness, but I like that both his names end with -son. In this case, I don't think that's enough.

4. Seattle Seahawks: Mark Sanchez, QB, USC

For a variety of reasons, none of the USC quarterbacks or recent vintage -- not even Carson Palmer -- have lived up to the hype. Sanchez looks to have a quick release, but his arm strength is supposedly not all that good. That would worry me if I were the 'Hawks. I do love the idea of any NFL player, and especially a QB, walking around with 'Sanchez' on the back of his jersey, as pro-football-reference.com says there's only been three so far in league history. There are eight Sanchezes currently in major league baseball.

5. Cleveland Browns: Aaron Curry, LB, Wake Forest

I knew nothing about him before writing this sentence. Holy shit though, he's a fucking tackling machine. He also never missed a game in his college career, and started all but one of them. Scouts Inc. has him as the #1 overall player in the draft, and looking at the numbers, I think I agree with them.

Incidentally, Scouts Inc. has Lord Matthew Stafford at #7.

6. Cincinnati Bengals: Andre Smith, OT, Alabama

With all that has been said about Smith -- things like this -- he has to be the biggest wild card in the draft. He was a dominant college player, winning the Outland Trophy, and if his antics drop him far enough, I think it'll be all the motivation he needs to become an All-Pro. But if he gets picked here or even higher, I worry that he will be too complacent, and end up being another Mike Williams. The colossal bust offensive lineman Mike Williams, not the titanic failure wide receiver Mike Williams.

7. Oakland Raiders: Eugene Monroe, OT, Virginia

The last first-round tackle named Eugene from the state of Virginia (Chung) didn't pan out, so I'm praying this guy doesn't either. At least I hope Chung was the last one.

8. Jacksonville Jaguars: Michael Crabtree, WR, Texas Tech

I would have thought that Crabtree was a surefire stud, and the potential #1 on my non-existent big board, but I don't trust any receiver who doesn't have a 40-time. And his "injury" concerns me; since the diagnosis supposedly came from NFL doctors, I can't say it's a subterfuge so he wouldn't have to run, but it did give him a convenient excuse, and it's definitely possible that he's stringing it out. Plus, I don't want a receiver with a bad foot anyway.

The name is gold, though, and the times I saw Crabtree play he looked totally unstoppable. But I thought the same thing about Mike Williams. The colossal bust wide receiver Mike Williams, not the titanic failure offensive lineman Mike Williams.

9. Green Bay Packers: B.J. Raji, DT, Boston College

Who? That's what I just said. But you gotta love an interior lineman who recorded 16 tackles-for-loss and eight sacks last season as a senior. Which came a year late because he was academically redshirted in 2007.

Busari Raji Jr. is his full name.

10. San Francisco 49ers: Jeremy Maclin, WR, Missouri

Love this guy's production and top-end speed. Decent size too, and a great name. Some durability questions (knee problems) that are a little scary, but I'd roll the dice.

11. Buffalo Bills: Brian Orakpo, DE/OLB, Texas

He looks like a monster, and had a great senior year. He's had some injury problems, though. And what seems to be an awkward-to-pronounce last name.

12. Denver Broncos: Robert Ayers, DE, Tennessee

Don't like the lack of production or the character issues. Add in the fact that he'll be 24 for his rookie season, and I'd stay away.

13. Washington Redskins: Brian Cushing, OLB, USC

That Cushing might be drafted ahead of Rey Maualuga blows my mind. Injury-prone and less productive. I guess some team's prefer his youth -- he is four days younger than Maualuga.

14. New Orleans Saints: Malcolm Jenkins, CB, Ohio State

What I like most about this guy is the fact that he'll play next season at age 21. Lots of room for growth, and he's already pretty damn good: three-time All-Big Ten selection and a first-team All-American. Has good size for a corner, but lacks great speed. Sounds like an affluent man's Charles Tillman.

15. Houston Texans: Aaron Maybin, DE, Penn State

Another guy I like for his youth, and 2o he led the Big Ten with 12 sacks. He'd be a real steal here -- he's #6 on Scouts Inc.'s big board -- and if the Texans get this guy to pair opposite Mario Williams, look out. Aaron and Florida Marlins' rookie Cameron are my litmus test for the last name Maybin. We'll see how they both work out.

16. San Diego Chargers: Michael Oher, OT, Mississippi

Seems like a reach. Plus his name sounds like it's from an Abbott and Costello routine:
Lou: So who did you draft in the first round?

Bud: Oher.

Lou: Oh her who? You drafted a dame? But women can't play.

Bud: No, Oher.

Lou: You drafted her because you owed her?

Bud: Oher.

Lou: What did you owe her?

Bud: No, you don't understand. Oher, Michael.

Lou: Whose Michael?

Bud: Oher.

Lou: What, the dame again?

Bud: No.

Lou: So did you owe her or not?

Bud: Yes.

Lou: Ah ha! I got it! You owed her, so you drafted her son? Whose son?

Bud: Ohers'.

Lou: I know hers, but who is he?

Bud: (shoots Lou in the face)

17. New York Jets: Percy Harvin, WR, Florida

Love the name. Percy Harvin. It kind of reminds me of Devin Hester, a player he resembles because no one really seems to know what position he'll play, and I'd bet that Harvin will have similar -- though lesser -- game-breaking skills.

18. Denver Broncos (from CHI): Chris "Beanie" Wells, RB, Ohio State

Like every Ohio State running back in my lifetime minus Eddie George, Wells will be a bust. Too slow. Although I did say the same thing about Eddie George himself. And Wells apparently used OSU's Pro Day to significantly improve on his combine 40 time of 4.59 seconds. But even with that nickname, I'm still not buying.

19. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Josh Freeman, QB, Kansas State

No idea what to make of this guy, but this seems to be a reach in hopes he'll be in the Roethlisberger/Flacco mold. I say meh. And his accountant/frat boy name ain't helping.

20. Detroit Lions (from DAL): Rey Maualuga, ILB, USC

Dropped because of a poor combine performance, the same infallible logic that made Chris Spielman a 2nd-round pick. Yeah, let's not pick a guy because he tweaked a hammy running the 40. Genius.

Maualuga is a much better value for the Lions here than Stafford will be at #1.

And not just because he has a far-superior sounding name to USC teammate Cushing, although that is part of it. One sounds like something soft, while the other screams Bad Ass Samoan and spells Ray with an e, dammit!

21. Philadelphia Eagles: Knowshon Moreno, RB, Georgia

They say he's too slow for a guy that's not very big, but I wouldn't bet against that name. It's just cooler than shit.

He was extremely productive in college, and impressed me with his athletic ability when I saw him. I would definitely take him over Wells. The reports on him sound remarkably similar to what they said about Emmitt Smith, and he turned out alright. Of course, Moreno won't have 42 All-Pros on his offensive line.

22. Minnesota Vikings: Kenny Britt, WR, Rutgers

For such a big target (nearly 6-3) with so many catches (87 last year), his 8 TDs weren't nearly enough for my taste. He's not the fastest guy, so if he's not going to be effective in the red zone, he's useless. Pass.

23. New England Patriots: Donald Brown, RB, Connecticut

Hey Kiper, this isn't the NBA. There's no way a guy from that school gets drafted in the first round. The 2,000 yard season is nice, but I can't believe a guy named Donald Brown is going to be the next great running back.

24. Atlanta Falcons: Vontae Davis, CB, Illinois

Like everything about this guy. Size, speed, name, state, everything. I only wish I'd actually seen him play. I'll still rate him a strong buy.

25. Miami Dolphins: Darrius Heyward-Bey, WR, Maryland

Finally. I've been waiting to get to this guy, because he was the player most-linked to the Bears when they were still picking 18, and I am convinced he'll be a bust. With all his tools and elite top-end speed, he somehow only had 13 TD catches (on 136 receptions) in three years. He is completely a creation of the combine/Pro Day process, and the wide receiver version of his former Terrapins' teammate Vernon Davis. Like Davis, he's all measurables and no production. Again, I've never even seen him on TV, but I will be shocked -- shocked -- if he ever does anything substantial.

26. Baltimore Ravens: Brandon Pettigrew, TE, Oklahoma State

A huge target and supposedly a very good blocker, but he's 24 and had zero TDs last year. 0. Incidentally, that's the number I'd assign to his chances of making an impact.

27. Indianapolis Colts: Peria Jerry, DT, Mississippi

The oddest, most feminine name I've heard in a while. Plus, I typed in Perry Jeria when I tried to google him, so now he's got two strikes against him. He allegedly appears very out-of-shape, and will be 25 by the time the season starts. Strike 3. And 4, actually.

28. Buffalo Bills (from PHI, which received from CAR): Phil Loadholt, OT, Oklahoma

Now that's a name for an offensive lineman. Loadholt. Love it. Supposedly he's so massive that he has poor agility and no balance, but I don't care. His name's fucking Phil Loadholt. It's at least as good as my previous-favorite offensive lineman name, D'Brickashaw Ferguson, and maybe even better. They should just put his bust in Canton right now, it's that much of a done deal.

29. New York Giants: Clay Matthews, OLB, USC

What's hilarious to me is that, yes, he's the son of 19-year (!) veteran Clay Matthews, but he's actually Clay Matthews III. I defy you to come up with a name more ill-suited to Roman numerals. It simply doesn't exist. Anyway, if he has even half the career his dad had, he will be a great pick here.

30. Tennessee Titans: Darius Butler, CB, Connecticut

Wait, another guy from UConn? I'm positive this is some bizarre Sidd Finch-level hoax. This guy even has a basketball-sounding name. To hell with you all.

31. Arizona Cardinals: Everette Brown, DE, Florida State

Sorry, I'm not even going to look at your numbers because of the feminine, French-inspired 'e' at the end of your first name. Bust.

32. Pittsburgh Steelers: Max Unger, C, Oregon

That Unger might be drafted before Cal C Alex Mack is a total travesty. Essentially everyone considered Mack the premier center in the Pac-10 for the last several years, and Scouts Inc. has Mack as #1 and Unger 3 for the position. I have no idea if Unger will end up being good, but I know that Mack is a stud.

So that's Kiper's first round. Before moving onto some Bears stuff, here are my Top-20 otherwise-unmentioned-in-this-post prospect names:
Asher Allen, CB, Georgia
Augustus Parrish, OT, Kent State
Bear Pascoe, TE, Fresno State
Darcel McBath, S, Texas Tech
Darius Passmore, WR, Marshall
Demonte' Bolden, DT, Tennessee
Ellis Lankster, CB, West Virginia
Emanuel Cook, S, South Carolina
Evander Hood, DT, Missouri
Glover Quin, S, New Mexico
Javon Ringer, RB, Michigan State
Jeremiah Johnson, RB, Oregon
Lardarius Webb, CB, Nicholls State
Louie Sakoda, K, Utah
(tie) Marlon Favorite, DT, LSU; Marlon Lucky, RB, Nebraska
Mohamed Massaquoi, WR, Georgia
Quan Cosby, WR, Texas
Tiquan Underwood, WR, Rutgers
Worrell Williams, LB, Cal

NOTE: Many of these are positionally dependent, such as Darius Passmore, which has to be the most apropos wide receiver name ever. Or Louie Sakoda, which would be terrible for anyone but a kicker.
As for the Bears, with everyone clamoring for them to take a receiver like Massaquoi at 49 -- their only pick among the first 98 selections -- I'm pretty convinced they will not. That's just Jerry Angelo's style, to flip a huge bird at everyone because he knows better. And while his blatant arrogance has worked once -- in '06, when everyone said they needed to fix the offense, and he used their first five picks on defense, including Danieal Manning and Devin Hester -- the consensus is usually correct, and flouting it merely antagonizes the fanbase.

So my guess is Angelo will ignore the position until later, using the tired "best player available" justification. There is an upside, however. If he waits until later to take a receiver, they might get the blazingly fast Johnny Knox from Abilene Christian (coincidentally Manning's school). Or he just might luck into my favorite name in the entire draft: Ramses Barden. Fucking Ramses Barden. A 6-foot-6 inch, 229-pound wide out from Cal-Poly who caught 78 TDs in his career but apparently is not nearly fast enough. But c'mon! Ramses Barden.

Now that's a name.

April 23, 2009

You call that an explanation?

Good news, everybody! This comes courtesy of the Trib's K.C. Johnson, in a story headed Vinny Del Negro explains his burning of timeouts:
"People are going to second-guess and first-guess," Del Negro said. "So what? I don't care. I'm the coach. I will make the decisions. That's the way it is."
Del Negro then added, "And thou shalt have no others before me. I am the Lord thy God."

Pertaining specifically to the final moments of Game 2, He said:
"In two or three seconds the ball is going to go to Derrick [Rose] because he's our fastest guy to get it up the court. We set up a play in the Celtics' timeout [with 12.3 seconds left]. We didn't execute it because the Celtics did a good job with their execution."
I'm not sure what's more frightening: that Del Negro thinks people are mad that he blew a timeout because it meant we were denied the chance to see one of his shitty plays, or that he doesn't seem to know that having a timeout to call would mean the Bulls could advance the ball to the front court.
Despite scoring 42 points, Ben Gordon sat on the bench for defensive purposes. If the Bulls had had a timeout, Gordon could have re-entered and the Bulls would have inbounded the ball at half-court.

"Yeah, it was tough to watch," Gordon said. "We definitely wish we would have reserved one of those timeouts."
Finally! Thank you, Ben. That is a totally reasonable thing to say: We definitely wish we would have reserved one of those timeouts. I feel much better.
If Paul Pierce had made both free throws Saturday instead of just one with 2.6 seconds left in regulation of Game 1, the Bulls would have trailed by one with no timeouts and again would have been forced to attempt a full-court desperation shot.
Yes, we know, K.C. That's what made Gordon's comment so reassuring.
"I would've liked to have one at the end," Del Negro said.
There, you said it. That's wasn't so hard, now was it? Oh Vinny! You have made me the happi-
"But sometimes you have to use them to stay in the game. When they're making runs or when we get the ball with 20 seconds left and we're down two, I want to make sure we get a good shot—especially with a young team."
OH, C'MON! I haven't heard anyone say that the timeout you called with 20 seconds left was a mistake; it's that you put yourself in a position where it was your last one. You know, you did have five others -- plus a pair of 20's -- in the game. Perhaps those could have been a bit more judiciously. And don't even get me started with your We're a young team bullshit. But still, even you have to admit that you have some regrets, right?
"Not at all. Not for a second."
Jesus Christ. Look, Vinny: You fucked up. Just say so. The game was getting out of hand, and we ended up burning all of them. I really wish we hadn't. I need to be more cognizant of holding onto them until the very end. That's all you'd have to say, and all would be forgiven. Instead, you make it seem like you know better than everyone else. Which includes every great baskeball coach in history, all of whom would at least try to save their timeouts for last-second situations, and would show some regret if they weren't able to. Nobody's ever thought, You know what? Burning all my timeouts before the end of the game, that's gonna be my strategy. People make mistakes, and sometimes circumstances dictate doing things that we later regret. To act like it's all a part of some master plan is incredibly arrogant and absurdly foolish. Not to mention totally disturbing for the Bulls' fanbase.

There is some good news -- and this time I mean it -- at the end of Johnson's story, in regards to a topic I brought up in my previous Bulls' post:
Further review: TV replays showed a deceiving angle, leading some to believe John Salmons' three-pointer swished through near the end of the third quarter. Instead, officials properly called an air ball and 24-second shot clock violation.
Thanks, K.C. It's good to know that I am not completely losing it, and at least a few other people thought the same thing I did.

One last thing: Not that he needs the plug, but if you haven't read Bill Simmons' article on the Bulls-Celtics series, you definitely should. It made me laugh out loud several times.

Go Bulls.

Are the Marlins a lock for the playoffs?

Yes, the Florida Marlins have essentially clinched a postseason berth. With a magic number that’s already down around 150, it’s time to get the champagne on ice.

Alright, that’s probably a bit strong. But based solely on their sizzling 11-1 start, the Marlins might be a lot closer to the playoffs than most of us would imagine.

And you know, I am not a Marlins’ fan. Sadly, I am a faithful (okay, faithless) Chicago Cubs’ backer, one who becomes infuriated any time someone mentions the tragedy of the Marlins’ post-championship dismantlings. I could stomach several decades of consecutive last-place, 100-loss finishes as long as they followed a World Series title. And yet I’m supposed to sympathize with the Marlins’ four diehards? Their team didn’t even exist when the ’84 Cubs crushed my tender, youthful soul.

Nonetheless, thanks to Larry Beinfest’s sublime machinations, the Marlins in their non-World Series years are never quite that bad anyway. In fact, during his tenure they have lost 90 games just once, in 2007 when they went 71-91 for his only last-place finish.

The man – or at least his scouting department – is just adept at spotting major-league ability at the minor-league level, a fact made apparent by his anal insertions on Cubs’ Jim Hendry. I really like Larry Beinfest, and am completely in awe of his ability to assemble talent. In fact, I think the Marlins might be on to something with their nostalgia-free, post-World Series, contributors-for-prospects swaps. With the almost instantaneous restocking, the last cycle resulted in a second title just six years later. And with this surprising start, the Marlins at least look like they might continue the once-every-six-years trend.

In order to sustain the pattern, the Marlins first have to make the playoffs, a possibility that seemed remote just a few weeks ago. Sure, they got some mention as a potential sleeper in spring training, but in a division with the World Series champion Phillies and the perennial preseason-favorite Mets, not many people gave them much of a shot of winning anything; even Baseball Prospectus typically-reliable PECOTA had them projected at 72-90. So while their start at least temporarily made some prognosticators look not all that prognostic, does it really say anything about their postseason chances?

Well luckily, with plenty of free time to investigate such things, I set out to examine every hot start in the divisional era. Since win-loss record isn’t entirely representative of a team’s quality – and using exactly 12 games to define a good start is a tad arbitrary – I decided to look at teams that began within a game of 11-1; that is, any team with 10 or more wins after 12 games. And here they are:

Click to enlarge
Eliminating the 1994 Braves – who I’m not really sure what to do with, as they were in position to win the wild card before the players’ strike cut the season short by about 50 games – there are 27 teams. 18 of them made the playoffs,* or a tidy two-thirds..

* The expanded 1981 postseason precipitated by the strike skew the results a little, but I figure that eight teams made the playoffs that year, the same number as now, so I’ll leave it be. Plus you could throw in those troubling ’94 Braves – who were probably a pretty good bet to make the postseason, seeing as how they did so every other year between 1991 and 2005 – and the star-crossed, worn-down-by-an-entire-(half)-season-of-playing-under-that-accursed-Chicago-sun 1969 Cubs, as both would have won the wild card had it existed those seasons. That would raise the playoff ‘qualifiers’ to 71.4% (20 of 28).

Finally, although there is some difference between the two leagues – the National League is 10-for-13 (or 12-for-14 if you apply my previously-explained wild-card ‘logic’) and the American is 8-for-14 – I think it’s better to look at them as a whole, because I can’t see why the NL would inherently be less volatile. While relative league strength certainly varies, adding a wild-card has had little impact on the overall numbers: 7-of-11 (63.6%) have made the playoffs since 1994, with 11-of-16 (68.8%) doing it before.

However, I still wasn’t satisfied and I still had too much time on my hands, so I approached this from a second, albeit similar, angle. In this go-round, I accounted for equally fasts start that might have been over a shorter duration, settling on teams that opened at least 8-1. A group which looks strikingly like this:

This time there are 29 teams, 28 if you again eliminate the ’94 Braves. The 18 postseason entrants mean a slightly worse rate, at 60.7%, but still pretty comparable.*** Again, there’s not much difference between the wild-card (7-of-10) and two-division eras (11-of-18, 61.1%), though the insignificant advantage has shifted to the former.

** Using the patented Mr. SKIA If There Had Been a Wild Card Method, 20 of 29 would have qualified for the playoffs, a more-congruous 69%.

Let’s spotlight the teams most similar to the Marlins, which I’m going to define as those that appear on both lists. There are exactly 20 (non-Braves) teams. 14 of them made the playoffs, including a wild-card era seven-of-nine (in a subtle tribute to the multi-talented Jeri Ryan.)

So what does all this mean for the Marlins’ chances? Well, of the six most recent teams from each list, three did not even make the playoffs; in fact, two of them finished with losing records. The worst team on either list – the 2005 Dodgers – went 61-89 the rest of the way; if the Marlins do that, they will finish (surprise!) 72-90.

But with such a limited recent sample size, I’m going to focus on the long-term trend instead, putting the Marlins’ chances at roughly 2-in-3 to make the playoffs. And since they are 2-for-2 when making the postseason, their World Series odds are looking much better than Vegas’ current 40-to-1.

Now do I actually think the Marlins will make the playoffs? No, probably not. They’d have to finish ahead of at least two – and possibly all three – of the Mets, Phillies, and Braves, and I’m not sure they’ll even top one of them. Their lineup has too many holes and their pitching staff too many question marks to make them even a moderate favorite, and their recent three-game slide might be a harbinger of things to come.

But I sure as hell wouldn’t bet against Larry Beinfest. He probably already has that champagne on ice.

April 20, 2009

Vinny venerates veterans

That hurts.

Tonight's Bulls-Celtics game was ripe for the stealing. Instead the Bulls, as they have done so often on the road this season, came up a little short and fell 118-115.

Much was made of today being the anniversary of Michael Jordan's 63 point game against the Celtics, and just like in that one, the Bulls were unable to capitalize on a sublime offensive explosion. For this game anyway, Ben Gordon was God, but even He wasn't enough to carry the Bulls to victory. Because, once again, coach Vinny Del Negro made some highly dubious decisions.

The first was giving Brad Miller extensive crunch-time minutes while leaving Tyrus Thomas glued to the bench. The dirty little secret of the critically-acclaimed midseason trade with Sacramento has been Del Negro's insistence on playing Miller the bulk of most fourth quarters to the detriment of a more productive player. While fellow acquisition John Salmons has been a revelation, Miller's impact has been highly overestimated and his play overrated. While he certainly hasn't been bad, Miller's rarely been anything more than serviceable, and is at his best when used in moderation. But Del Negro consistently trots him out there for major minutes in the fourth, sometimes at Joakim Noah's expense, but more often at Thomas'. I find this to be baffling.

In the stretch before the Sacramento trade, Thomas was beginning to show signs of being a player who was at his best in crunch time. Thomas was consistently coming up with big blocks or a three-point play when the Bulls needed a spark late, and his freakish athleticism often seemed to energize the entire team (though I will admit this effect is greater at home). Miller, meanwhile, often becomes a ref-disputing turnover machine in the fourth, and his demeanor is overwhelmingly negative. Yes, Miller is the more polished offensive player, but that doesn't necessarily make him more effective than Thomas. And on a night when Gordon provided all the offense the team needed in the closing moments, it would've been nice to have the Bulls' defensive game-changer on the floor down the stretch.

You know, the guy who had six blocked shots in his 20 minutes of play? Yeah him. Why on Earth would you have him glued to your bench in the fourth quarter? Especially coming off a game where Thomas scored six of the team's eight points in overtime, to keep him off the floor for so long is absurd.

To make it worse, this is how the fourth quarter began:
12:00 Boston, 88-87
11:45 Brad Miller lost ball (Eddie House steals)
11:33 Tyrus Thomas blocks Paul Pierce's layup
11:32 Eddie House offensive rebound
11:21 Glen Davis misses jumper
11:18 Eddie House offensive rebound
11:06 Kendrick Perkins makes 5-foot two point shot; Boston, 90-87
10:48 Ben Gordon misses 25-foot three point jumper
10:47 Glen Davis defensive rebound
10:27 Paul Pierce makes 14-foot two point shot; Boston 92-87
10:07 Kirk Hinrich lost ball (Rajon Rondo steals)
10:03 Rajon Rondo bad pass
09:51 Tyrus Thomas makes 19-foot jumper (Kirk Hinrich assists); Boston 92-89
09:32 Kendrick Perkins lost ball (Kirk Hinrich steals)
09:26 John Salmons makes driving layup; Boston 92-91
09:08 Paul Pierce misses layup
09:07 Tyrus Thomas defensive rebound
09:03 John Salmons misses 26-foot three point jumper
09:03 Chicago offensive rebound
09:03 Eddie House personal foul (Brad Miller draws the foul)
09:03 Joakim Noah enters the game for Tyrus Thomas
Courtesy of ESPN.com
By my count, that sequence contained six positive plays for the Bulls. Thomas made half of them: the block, hitting the jumper, and grabbing a defensive rebound (just for kicks, the other three were Hinrich steal, Salmon layup, and Miller drawing foul). There were four negative plays: Miller turnover, Gordon missed 3, Hinrich turnover, and Salmons missed 3. That's one by every Bulls player on the court except for Thomas. So half the positive plays, none of the negative. I can see why he'd be the one Vinny would yank and ultimately leave on the bench until just 12 seconds remained.

Which wouldn't have been quite so bad if Miller had, you know, actually done something with his PT. Here is every play in the fourth quarter that contains Brad Miller's name:
11:45 Brad Miller lost ball (Eddie House steals)
09:03 Eddie House personal foul (Brad Miller draws the foul)
07:52 Brad Miller misses 1-foot two point shot
06:56 Kirk Hinrich makes 22-foot three point jumper (Brad Miller assists)
04:18 Brad Miller misses 8-foot jumper
03:18 Brad Miller defensive rebound
02:55 Brad Miller defensive rebound
01:58 Brad Miller lost ball (Paul Pierce steals)
00:12 Kirk Hinrich enters the game for Brad Miller
Final 4th quarter line: 12 minutes, 0 points, 0-2 FG, 2 rebounds, 1 assist, 0 blocks, 0 steals, 2 turnovers.

I have to say, that doesn't seem very good to me. And then there's this: the Bulls allowed 6 offensive rebounds in the fourth, and all those second-chance points by Boston were ultimately the reason for their downfall. To recap: Miller 2 defensive rebounds, Boston 6 offensive. Miller's man, Kendrick Perkins had as many offensive rebounds (in the quarter) as Miller had defensive. So did 6-foot-1 (wink, wink) shooting guard Eddie House. House had a total of 11 offensive rebounds for the entire season. Suffice it to say, Miller did not exactly control the boards. But hey, he did assist on that 3-pointer! And the veteran leadership!

The second area where Vinny majorly boned his team was by blowing all his timeouts. There were two seconds left when Ray Allen hit his go-ahead 3. That is plenty of time to get off a decent shot in the NBA... provided you advance the ball to halfcourt. And the only way you can do that is with a timeout, which, incidentally, also gives you the opportunity to call and/or diagram a play, something many teams have found useful. Look, I understand that it was a close game and this is a young team. But Del Negro has to use his timeouts more judiciously. Especially after the exact same thing happened at the end of Game 1.

That's right. The Bulls also ran out of timeouts in the opener, and it very easily could have cost them that game too. Remember, when Pierce missed the potential go-ahead free throw, the Bulls were left to chuck a desperation three-quarters court shot at the end. That would have been the same shot if Pierce's freebie had gone in, because without a timeout they again would've been unable to advance the ball. I find it especially disheartening that the rookie coach did not learn from his mistake. It was bad enough the first time, but to repeat it? Totally inexcusable.

Finally, did anyone else notice that at the end of the third quarter, they waved off a Salmons 3 and instead called a shot clock violation? I had no doubt it should have been good, but no one on the Bulls even argued and so I have no idea WTF happened. The shot was clearly before the horn, so my assumption was that the horn malfunctioned. Only I went back on my DVR and watched the play repeatedly, and the shot appears totally legal. The possession began with 29.2 seconds remaining. Salmons releases the ball with about 5.6 left. The horn was either late or not properly captured by TNT's equipment, because it didn't become audible until under 4 seconds were left. But I don't care about the horn -- the shot clock didn't expire until 5.2, about a half-second after the ball left Salmons' hand. I know the time we see on the broadcast isn't official; still, I have to believe the unofficial clock is capable of accurately running down 24 seconds. And yet no one else seemed to notice or care. Is this but another example of Del Negro's dereliction of duty? Probably. Either that or some innocuous problem with TNT's broadcast. But I prefer the former.

April 18, 2009

Bulls win! AP sucks!

As I was happily reading the recap of the Bulls' thrilling overtime win in Game 1 of their series against the Celtics, I was jolted from my delirium by this:
Rondo hit a short jumper over Noah in the lane to give the Celtics a 96-95 lead, but Rose -- who missed four crucial foul shots down the stretch when Memphis lost the NCAA championship game last year -- put Chicago ahead on two free throws with 9.4 seconds left in regulation. (italics mine)
That would certainly make the story more compelling, wouldn't it? Had he missed all those free throws just a year ago, then hit two to put the Bulls ahead? What a bit of redemption! Only it never happened. The four missed free throws, that is. I read it and was instantly furious. HE MISSED ONE! DOUGLAS-ROBERTS MISSED THE REST, I screamed to no one in particular. And my memory was correct, as you can see here. With 1:15 remaining and Memphis leading 62-58, Chris Douglas-Roberts missed the front end of a one-and-one. Then with 16 seconds left and the lead down to 62-60, Douglas-Roberts missed two more. But Memphis rebounded the second miss, Rose got fouled with 10 seconds to go, and clanked the first before hitting the second.

While still maintaining some intrigue, the sentence very easily could have been Rose -- who missed a crucial foul shot down the stretch when Memphis lost the NCAA championship game last year -- put Chicago ahead on two free throws with 9.4 seconds left in regulation. Sure it might have been a little less compelling, but it would have been, you know, true. All they had to do was look at the box score -- for the game Rose was 3-for-4. But what's three additional missed free throws among friends?

In case you missed my previous diatribe against the AP, I'm not a huge fan of the organization. And I just could not let this gross inaccuracy stand. So I found a contact number, called, and got bounced around a bit before finally getting someone in sports, who said they'd "look into it." Fabulous. Perhaps you should have looked into it before putting the article on the wire.

Crap like this pisses me off to no end, because of the effect it has on the casual sports fan, who now comes away thinking, Man, I hadn't realized Rose choked so bad in that championship game. Yes, making 1-of-2 isn't exactly clutch, but it's nowhere near the choke job of missing four different times. I just want the AP would be a little more mindful of the influence they have, which might mean including some fact-checking. And I highly doubt their "looking into it" will actually involve correcting their mistake. Check to see if they have by clicking here. If they haven't, and you too would like to harass them, please call 212-621-1500 and ask for the sports desk. Power to the people. And Go Bulls.

April 16, 2009

Mr. SKIA's Quick-6 Picks

6. The Celtics without Kevin Garnett aren't as doomed as everyone thinks. Sure, it's difficult to see them getting past LeBron and the Cavs, but I still think they can take down the Magic. The Magic don't have a big-game performer the caliber of Paul Pierce, and no one in Orlando -- not even their Community Ambassador -- has had much success in the postseason. And yes, I'm willing to throw caution to the wind and actually bet against a Van Gundy in the postseason. I'm just that crazy.

5. The Cubs are in a little bit of trouble. Meltdown Badly is (predictably) already banged up, as are Aramis Ramirez and Geovany Soto. Derrek Lee appears so done that if this season were a movie, he'd be played by Bill Russell in a remarkably canny bit of stunt casting. And even if Rich Harden's inevitable date with DL-destiny is somehow delayed, it now seems unlikely that the Cubs will just run away with the division. That doesn't mean they can't still win it though, but with St. Louis playing some inspired ball early, I am even less optimistic than I was two weeks ago.

4. Perhaps this is just wishful thinking, but I don't see the Lakers as the lock for the Finals that everyone else seems to think they are. Then again, maybe that's just because I can't stand Kobe Bryant, and his failure is like sweet, sweet nectar to me. And if the Finals do come down to Lakers-Cavs, I will be rooting for Cleveland like I'm watching Major League.

3. With a record of 8-1, Larry Beinfest's Florida Marlins are starting to look like a viable longshot to continue their 1-World Series-title-every-6-years pattern. Which is somewhat better than the Cubs' 0-every-100.

2. Despite his abject failure as an NBA coach, Isiah Thomas will succeed at the college level. I don't even feel I need to start listing the host of successful college coaches who have bombed on the bench in the NBA, and none of them have had Thomas' pedigree, which is sure to help with recruiting. And that's what the college game is all about; luckily for Isiah, being a competent game tactician has little impact on success.

1. I really wish the Bears had some assets to give up in an Anquan Boldin trade. What's that? They do? You certainly wouldn't think so from the national rumor mill. Has anyone stopped to think that the Cardinals, who incidentally did win the NFC last year, might want established players instead of just picks? They're not rebuilding; in fact, with a 74-year-old quarterback, their window is rapidly closing, meaning they don't have time to wait for draftees to develop. I don't think it's far-fetched to think the Cards might consider a some combination of a Bears' defensive stalwart (perhaps Tommie Harris or Brian Urlacher, as the Trib's David Haugh has previously suggested), a promising young player (maybe Danieal Manning or Marcus Harrison), and their 2nd rounder. While I'd really hate to see Manning go, the Bears don't seem to trust him on defense, and with In in the fold perhaps Devin Hester could revert to being the greatest special teams' force in the history of the league and render Manning's contributions in that area moot. At 29, In is so much younger -- to say nothing of so much better -- than any of the Bears' free agent options, and the dynamic he'd add to the offense would be worth a steep price.

April 15, 2009

They called him Bruce

I don't want to turn this into the Blog of Death, but I would be remiss if I didn't mention two other sports figures who recently passed. The first got big headlines in the mainstream media, because Harry Kalas was one of their own. Kalas, by the way, attended my high school, which I had forgotten until I read one of his obituaries. I really only knew Kalas from his work for NFL Films, and I'm wondering if a voice exists that will be able to adequately follow Kalas and John Facenda.

The second was much more meaningful to me. Longtime college football coach Bruce Snyder succumbed to cancer after a 10-month battle. Snyder, best known for coaching a Jake Plummer-led Arizona State team to an undefeated regular season in 1996, was responsible for approximately 90% of the non-pot-related fun of my freshman year at UC-Berkeley in his role as Cal's head football coach. Coming off a 7-4-1 season in 1990 in which the Bears made only their second bowl appearance since 1958, the consensus for 1991 was that Cal might be able to match that success. Having come from Big 10 country -- where the only Pac-10 teams of relevance were UCLA and USC and maybe, on occasion, Washington -- I didn't really know what to expect from Cal football.

So when Cal scored 51 points in the first half of my first ever game, well, I officially became a huge Bruce Snyder fan. I remember thinking, "HOLY SHIT! They're going to score a hundred!" When they were at 79 points in the third, I really thought it. Alas, Snyder -- who had been playing reserves liberally throughout -- completely called off the dogs, and Cal hung on for an 86-24 season-opening win over Pacific. Needless to say, I was hooked. For life.

That year the Golden Bears exceeded all expectations, and 1991 would go down as one of the best in seasons in Cal history.* Led by QB Mike Pawlawski -- like Ron Jaworski before him, nicknamed the Polish Rifle -- the Bears would better the 40 point mark five times on the year. They topped USC for the first time in eons. And didn't just win against the Trojans, they annihilated them, opening up a 38-point lead before the scrubs allowed a pair of late touchdowns in a 52-30 win. With only a 24-17 loss to unbeaten Washington, the Bears looked like a sure bet to play in a major bowl. But despite a 9-1 record -- in those days, bowl bids went out before a team's final game -- they were ignored by the big boys and had to settle for the Florida Citrus, at the time a pseudo-big deal as a New Years' Day bowl.

* In reality, the 1991 season was almost identical to 2004. Both teams finished 10-2, but the similarities run much deeper than that. The 1991 team lost to eventual national champion Washington 24-17, ending the game unable to score from inside the Husky 10. In 2004, Cal lost to eventual national champion USC 23-17, failing to score from inside the Trojan 10 in the final seconds. For both teams, that would be their only loss going into bowl bids. I repeat. Both teams were up for bowl bids with just a single blemish, a nip-and-tuck, touchdown-or-less loss to an undefeated team ranked #1 or #2. But in 1991, Cal got screwed out of the Sugar Bowl, which instead opted for a three-loss Notre Dame squad. In 2004, the Bears got hosed out of the Rose Bowl, in favor of Texas. Like Cal, the Longhorns had but one loss, also at the hands of an unbeaten team. But Texas got shut out by #2 Oklahoma on a neutral site. Cal lost by 6 on the road to #1 USC.

Neither Cal team reacted well to its snub. The 1991 squad went out and laid an egg in the Big Game, getting steamrolled by Stanford 38-21. Meanwhile, in 2004, the Bears were pounded by Texas Tech 45-31 in the Holiday Bowl. Each loss served to validate the snubs -- and make the subsequent outrage seem unjustified -- but there is no doubt in my mind that both were truly great teams that deserved better. As college athletes -- kids, really -- they simply didn't respond well to the injustice perpetrated on them. Just like their fanbase.

Other than failing to show up for the Big Game following the bowl snub -- the major stain on Snyder's Cal resume was his inability to beat Stanford, against whom he went 0-4-1 -- the Bears played exceptionally well that season, capping it by demolishing Clemson 37-13 in the Booby Prize Bowl. They ended up #8 in the AP poll and #7 in the coaches', their highest final rankings since 1950.

Unfortunately, 1991 would be Snyder's last with the Bears, as he left for the greener pastures of Arizona State when Cal refused to pony up the big bucks to keep him. That ushered in a dismal era of Cal football -- with a single promising season of Steve Mariucci breaking up the dregs of Keith Gilbertson and Tom Holmoe-led teams -- before Jeff Tedford mercifully came aboard.

So I only had that one year with Snyder, and I don't have any personal anecdotes about him or anything. Though when he left I remember thinking, We'll still be good, we've got all those guys coming back. But despite the return of Russell White, Sean Dawkins, and a host of defensive standouts, the Bears slumped to 4-7 in 1992 under Gilbertson's direction. And the dream was over; between the time Snyder left and Tedford showed up, Cal enjoyed only one winning season (1993). I'm not certain that Snyder could have built the program into a semi-power the way Tedford has, but it sure looked like he was breaking through. Instead, we all had to watch the team crumble, and I was left wondering What if.

Bruce Snyder was 69, more than 10 years younger than Bobby Bowden and Joe Paterno. Last season could have been his 22nd in Berkeley, and I wonder if he ever missed us as much as we missed him. And I want to thank Coach Snyder for some unbelievable wins and one of the best years of my life. Go Bears.

April 14, 2009

The Bird

I never got to see Mark Fidrych pitch. I wasn't quite 3 years old when he burst onto the scene, and I didn't get into baseball until 1981, the year after Fidrych toed the rubber for the last time in the majors. So I'm a little surprised at how effected I've been by his passing.

I never got to see Mark Fidrych pitch, and yet I feel like I did when my boyhood idol, Walter Payton, died. While I watched virtually every play of the tail end of Sweetness' exceptional career, my most enduring early memory of Fidrych is being unable to ascertain if he and Larry Bird were the same person. Seriously. I knew of a gangly ex-pitcher who was nicknamed The Bird, and then there's a similarly-gangly and identically-permed guy on the Celtics with 'Bird' on the back of the jersey, and I honestly thought, Maybe he plays basketball now instead of pitching.

I never got to see Mark Fidrych pitch, but he still had an enormous impact on my baseball fandom. I would see old clips of him -- usually on This Week in Baseball, I think -- and be totally mesmerized by his coolness. I was an overly-self-conscious kid, and here was this guy who clearly didn't give a shit what anyone thought of him. And it wasn't even Screw you, I'm a big-league pitcher, I can do whatever I want; I don't think The Bird ever once considered how someone else would view his eccentricities. Or that people would even notice for that matter. Which made him something entirely unique. He was so secure that he could just be himself, be a true individual, in a game that lionizes conformity. How fucking cool was that?

I never got to see Mark Fidrych pitch, but there is no doubt he was a true legend of my youth. His imprint on baseball survived deep into the 80's, and in those succeeding years any time a player showed some quirkiness -- like, for instance, flaky Cubs' hurler Steve Trout -- the Bird comparisons were inevitable. But none of the others ever had even a thimbleful of Fidrych's overflowing carefree awesomeness. Or his ability.

I never got to see Mark Fidrych pitch, and it's mostly because he pitched far too much at far too young an age. Which tragically turned him into the very definition of flash in the pan -- think Mark Prior, only with effervescence and charisma instead of robotic indifference. And if what Dusty Baker did to Prior's golden arm was abusive, I don't even know how to classify what Tigers' manager Ralph Houk did. Under Houk's not-so-watchful eye, in the first 13 starts of his career Fidrych recorded 12 complete games -- three of them 11 innings -- and totaled 120.1 IP. Pitch counts are not available for that era, but The Bird faced 464 batters in that span, and even if we take a very conservative 3.5 pitches per plate appearance, he would have thrown 125 pitches per start. At 3.8 pitches/PA -- last year's average -- that number climbs to 136. Either way, I think it's safe to assume that he routinely topped the 140 pitch mark. In his Age 21 season. Fidrych's career was like a sugar fix, and it was all just such a waste, and so upsetting as a fan of the game.

I never got to see Mark Fidrych pitch, and now his life has ended way too soon, just like his playing days. The Bird should have been pitching well into the 90's, let alone the 80's, but instead he made just 27 starts after his sensational rookie year in 1976. Rather than captivating kids from multiple generations, his all-to-brief career meant that only a precious few were able to call The Bird their own. Thousands of ballplayers have come and gone since Fidrych made his debut, but how many of them have made such an indelible impression on the public consciousness? How many had virtually everybody rooting for them, even the opposing team's fans? The Bird was such an extraordinary character, so likeable and so talented, that it's doubtful we will ever see anything even remotely resembling him again.

All of which makes me overwhelmingly sad that I never got to see Mark Fidrych pitch.

April 13, 2009

My Veracious Post

Sorry for the lack of updates; I've been out of town since Thursday.

ESPN.com has posted their writers' MVP choice, which you can view here. The aggregate ballot yielded these results:
1. LeBron James
2. Dwyane Wade
3. Kobe Bryant
4. Dwight Howard
5. Chris Paul
Not horrible. The right guy wins, and the right guy finishes second. Which is good, because for basically the entire first half, we were sold a bill of goods that said MVP was a two-man race between LeBron and Bryant. As ridiculous as it sounds, early season buzz often carries more weight than full-season performance. In this case especially, that would be a travesty, because Wade clearly had a better season than Bryant. For starters, look at these per-game averages:
Points: Wade 30.2 (1), Bryant 27.0 (3)
FGA: Wade 21.9 (1), Bryant 21.2 (2)
FGM: Wade 10.8 (1), Bryant 9.8 (2)
FTA: Wade 9.8 (3), Bryant 6.9 (12)
FTM: Wade 7.5 (2), Bryant 5.9 (11)

NBA rank in parentheses; rank among shooting guards in bold italics.
So Wade averages a full three points more; while he shoots with greater frequency, it's by less than one shot per game. Meaning that he's been a more efficient scorer than Kobe, thanks to his higher field goal percentage and free throw rate, which negates a substantially lower free throw percentage:
FG%: Wade .491 (2), Bryant .467 (8)
FT%: Bryant .858 (8), Wade .765 (25)
TS%: Wade .574 (11), Bryant .561 (22)

TS% (True Shooting Percentage) calculates what a player’s shooting percentage would be after accounting for free throws and 3-pointers.
So that's the scoring. As for ballhandling, Wade is far superior:
Assists: Wade 7.5 (1), Bryant 4.9 (5)
Turnovers: Bryant 2.6 (35), Wade 3.4 (38)
A/T: Wade 2.17 (9), Bryant 1.89 (14)
The assists numbers are kind of surprising; yes, Wade has the ball in his hands more -- hence the turnovers -- but Bryant's teammates are much more proficient scorers. Perhaps Bryant isn't the amazingly unselfish player we all thought he was... Anyway, then there's defense:
Steals: Wade 2.19 (2), Bryant 1.46 (12)
Blocks: Wade 1.34 (16), Bryant 0.46 (69)
Now steals and blocks are just a fraction of the defensive picture; it's possible, perhaps likely, that Bryant is the better on-the-ball defender. But Wade's the superior game-changer, forcing turnovers and blocking shots at a phenomenal rate for someone his size. Here are just a few of the players Wade has out-blocked this year:
Chris Bosh
Erick Dampier
Joel Przybilla
Pau Gasol
LaMarcus Aldridge
Even if we go to blocks per 48 minutes, negating Wade's playing-time-based advantage over a lot of the field, he's still 34th with 1.67. Bryant's mark of 0.61 is good for 80th.

What about intangibles? The old "Well, if you took (Player A) off (Team B), they'd be in the lottery," doesn't really work for me; that's basically true of all the MVP candidates. At the same time, each candidate's situation is different, and that simply must be acknowledged. Yes, Bryant's team has the far superior record. But how much extra credit should he get simply because he has better teammates? The more reasonable thing to do is to envision how their respective teams would be if the two switched places. I'm guessing the Heat would be about .500 (they are currently 42-38) and the Lakers would be on pace for about 65 wins (as of now, they're 64-17). Okay, that's hardly scientific. But if we use John Hollinger's PER, which essentially measures a player's per-minute statistical production, Bryant has two teammates among the top-25 most effective players in the NBA -- Pau Gasol (14th) and Andrew Bynum (24th).* Wade's highest ranked teammate? #82, Michael Beasley. Beasley, by the way, is a rookie.

* Yes, Bynum has missed about 40% of the season. But Wade would've killed for 50 games with a player the caliber of Andrew Bynum. And don't give me Jermaine O'Neal and/or Shawn Marion. This isn't 2004. Plus, look at their own PERs: Wade has the second best mark in the league at 30.40. Bryant is fifth at 24.51.

Finally, a little plus-minus action, courtesy of 82games.com. With Wade on the court, the Heat are +3.0 points per 100 possessions; when he's off they're at -11.9, making him a +14.9 overall. Bryant's numbers are +11.4 when he's on the court -- which is superb -- but a still-respectable -1.1 with him off, giving him a lower overall net of +12.5.

All of which would seem to give Wade a pretty good case for the MVP, not just second place, right? Wrong. Remember Wade's +14.9 net points/per 100 possessions? You should, it was just four sentences ago. Well, LeBron's number is an insane +21.1. LeBron also edges Wade in PER, with a remarkable 31.79, which also happens to be the highest mark any player not named Michael Jordan has ever reached for a single season, and a mere 0.10 off of MJ's best. Just a historically great season.

In this comparison, the team record could be used to separate them because the supporting casts are pretty equal. Zydrunas Ilgauskas' 57th-best PER leads LeBron's Cav teammates. And if you do the trade positions thing, I think Wade could lead the Cavs to maybe 50 wins -- they have 66 under LeBron -- and I have no doubt that LeBron could will the Heat to at least 55. And while there's no way for me to prove that, you can't disprove it either.

So this is what my own MVP ballot would look like:

1. LeBron James
2. Dwyane Wade
3. Dwight Howard
4. Chris Paul
5. Kobe Bryant

More to come tomorrow.