June 30, 2009

Visual AIDS: A Recap of CDR Radio 59

Featuring host Scott Aukerman and guests Paul F. Tompkins and Todd Glass, with a surprise visit from August Lindt.

June 29, 2009

Sure the draft sucked. Will the Bulls?

Despite nearly 5,000 words last week acknowledging my inevitable disappointment in the Bulls' draft, I was still somehow still disappointed by the Bulls' draft. (They chose forwards James Johnson and Taj Gibson if, unlike me, your happiness and optimistic world view weren't hanging in the balance as they selected.)

My main issue with Johnson is that he's a tweener. At 6-foot-8, 260-pounds, there should be no doubt that he is a power forward. Instead, there's this (from K.C. Johnson of the Trib):
"Johnson, who played point guard in high school, reiterated his preference to play small forward despite playing power forward at Wake Forest."
I'm sorry, because I know the guy (allegedly) has a black belt in karate and some mixed martial arts fights to his credit, but he sounds like a wuss. His bulk makes his relative lack of height irrelevant, and he should be an absolute beast down low. Instead he wants to freelance on the wing. I'd call that the path of least resistance, as fighting for position in the post is much harder than standing at the 3-point line and firing up jumpers. He sounds a lot like Rodney Rogers, coincidentally another Wake Forest guy. Rogers was a decent enough NBA player, but with his size and skill he should have been a force of nature. Instead, he was content to let others do the banging down low, and spent most of his career avoiding contact. Unfortunately, Rogers would appear to be Johnson's ceiling. On the other end of the similarity spectrum? Marcus Fizer. That's generally not a good thing.

Gibson is a 214-pound twig of a defensive specialist who's a shade under 6-10. He's also a bit of a tweener, and I'm guessing the Bulls envision him playing some center when they go small, one of Vinny Del Negro's go-to moves as the Bulls coach. At 26 overall in a week draft, expectations won't be very high, and its doubtful he cracks the rotation in the early going, because while he is USC's all-time leader in blocked shots, his offensive game is a work-in-progress. But at 24, how much progress does he have left?

And that's my issue with both guys. They seem to have low ceilings. Johnson is already 22, just six months younger than incumbent power forward Tyrus Thomas, who will be entering his fourth year. At 24, Gibson is probably done growing as a player. At a juncture in the draft when they should've been rolling the dice, the Bulls played it safe.

Neither player will be as good as DeJuan Blair. Bad knees and all.

Seeing how far short-but-bruising power forward Blair dropped, I thought maybe there really is something severely wrong with his knees, to the point that they will hinder him as a player, even if he manages to avoid a catastrophic injury. But then he landed in San Antonio and I thought, 'Nope. Getting picked by RC Buford and the Spurs guaranteed that Blair will be a stud, because that's exactly what the Spurs do, get good players that everyone else passed on (see: Parker, Tony; Ginobili, Manu; Scola, Luis.) Next year fans around the country will wonder how in the world this guy wasn't a first round pick. If Blair had ended up virtually anywhere else, I might have had some doubts, but getting picked by the Spurs definitively exterminated them. It doesn't matter how many supposedly undersized power forwards come into the league and succeed; general managers around the NBA still haven't learned.

But as a result of the draft, I have learned the following about the Bulls:

1. Despite the presence of Tim Thomas and Jerome James, the Bulls realized they didn't have a backup power forward on the roster.

Before the draft, Tyrus Thomas was really the Bulls' only power forward, unless you count Joakim Noah, who happens to be their starting center. James career is likely over, as he was awful to begin with and now has a knee that DeJuan Blair wouldn't trade for. Tim Thomas got some run early on after being acquired from the Knicks, but seeing how little he played in the playoffs, I'm guessing another Bulls banishment (see: 2005) is in his future. He's not exactly the kind of influence you want around your young players. James and Thomas -- both under contract for one more season, at about $6 million apiece -- are nothing more than salary-cap fodder that the Bulls will try to mix-and-match in different deals.

Knowing this, the Bulls took two 4s, regardless of Johnson's stated preferences. Which, by the way, the team must've learned about during the draft-vetting process. At least we hope.

2. The Bulls have no plans to trade Kirk Hinrich.

Unless they are confident they can get a decent backup point guard in return, they almost have to hold onto Hinrich. Hinrich could be a very useful sixth man, as he can be plugged in at either guard spot. While we'd all like him to be a better shooter, he can be a great glue guy. 10 mil a season is a lot to pay for some glue though.

Unless the Bulls are planning on giving Lindsey Hunter 8-10 minutes per game spelling Derrick Rose, Hinrich almost has to stay, as he's the only other guy on the roster who can play the point. If the Bulls would've wanted to shed Hinrich, they would have picked a young point guard instead of Gibson with that second pick. By not doing so, they have a lot less flexibility if they do decide to deal him, as they'd have to insist on a backup PG as part of the return package.

3. If anyone's on the trading block, it's Tyrus Thomas.

My initial thoughts immediately following the draft was that the Bulls were trying to replace Tyrus Thomas. Which they are. Just not with either of those two.

The Bulls likely have their eyes on a bigger prize -- Chris Bosh or Amare Stoudamire? -- and I'm sure Tyrus still has some decent value around the league. Packaged with one of the Bulls' many expiring contract -- or maybe in a sign-and-trade with Gordon -- he might actually bring back a pretty good 4 in return, and that player will need a backup, which is where Johnson and Gibson come in; if the Bulls are lucky, one of them will pan out.

But I am certain that if the Bulls trade Tyrus, that will be all the additional motivation he needs to be a star. I think he already is very close to making a leap. I hope the Bulls at least try giving him 35-40 minutes a game this upcoming season -- which would include playing him extensively in fourth quarters, Vinny -- to see what he can do, instead of flipping him just when he is beginning to show signs that he is putting it all together. Giving up on Tyrus at 22 would be the wrong move, just like jettisoning a 22-year-old Tyson Chandler was. Unless they can get a proven star in return, they should hang on to him.

4. Either they are certain they are going to re-sign Ben Gordon (anguished Nooooooooooo!) or they are planning on moving John Salmons to shooting guard.

After being a longtime supporter of Ben Gordon, I no longer am after this past season. Rose is undoubtedly the franchise's future, and he and Gordon are not a good fit together. In fact, given Gordon's ball-dominating proclivities, I believe he would be a retardant to Rose's development. While Gordon has the shooting ability you'd want to surround Rose with, the ideal running mate would be a taller, more-physical player who's not a defensive liability.

A guy kind of like John Salmons.

Granted, Salmons is not perfect either, as he tends to dominate the ball a bit too. But he and Rose together would give the Bulls some much-needed size in the backcourt, something they've lacked for the last several years. Salmons can shoot the 3 a bit, at a shade better than 41% over the last two seasons, and also provides a more economical option than Gordon. Plus, the drafting of Johnson might be proof that Salmons is penciled into the backcourt. If Salmons is out of the forward equation, Luol Deng would then be the only 3 on the roster, making Johnson's desire to play small forward more palatable to the Bulls.

If they don't re-sign Gordon, the Bulls might be left with a huge hole at shooting guard after this upcoming season, as Salmons has an opt-out. While others are dreaming about Dwyane Wade in a Bulls uniform come 2010, I have a more realistic target: Joe Johnson. At 6-7 with a good 3-point stroke, Johnson would be perfect with Rose. Plus, he can play on the ball or off, providing the Bulls additional flexibility. While I'd love Wade too, and there's no doubt he's the superior player to Johnson, I don't think the Bulls have any chance of signing him. Johnson should therefore be the target from the get-go, not the fallback position.

That's all dependent, of course, on the Bulls not re-signing Gordon. I'm hoping that all the Bulls' talk of wanting to keep Gordon is mere posturing, and they'll just back off when someone else (Pistons?) makes a big offer.

The last two off-seasons, I preferred Gordon to Deng. Gordon has one certifiable NBA skill: he can put the ball in the basket. However, he's a terrible ballhandler -- not a good thing for a guy who's maybe 6-1 -- and a resounding defensive zero. Deng, on the other hand, isn't exceptional in any area, but doesn't have any holes in his game, either. And this one of the hallmarks of a poor organization: that is, they look at a player and only see what he can't do, instead of the things he does well. The Bulls evaluate their players based on their weaknesses -- Gordon can't play defense, Tyrus has no post game, Noah's not strong enough -- and become blinded to their strengths. So the organization makes Deng the bigger priority, even though he doesn't do anything particularly well, because he doesn't have any major shortcomings. Meanwhile, Gordon is clearly the more valuable player.

But the fact is the Bulls already extended Deng, and with that contract he's not going anywhere. With Hinrich apparently here to stay as well, that's about $23 million per season. How much more money do they want to tie up in non-superstars? If they have any hope of luring a free agent, they can't have around $33 million a year committed to guys who would then be their 3rd, 4th, and 5th options at best. Remember, at some point Thomas, Noah, and even Rose himself are going to be up for extensions, too. You can't keep everyone, and given the guys they've already got under contract, Gordon has to be the odd man out. There's just not enough room and he's not a good fit. At some point they need to position themselves to actually get better. Keeping Gordon will ensure more first-round playoff mediocrity.

Of course, the Bulls might then be left empty handed at the 2 in 2010 if they are spurned by their free agent targets, but it's worth the risk. They aren't becoming one of the NBA's elite with Gordon starting. If he were willing to play for the mid-level and be a sixth-man extraordinaire, then he'd be a viable option. But Gordon doesn't seem to know his own limitations. While it's likely the belief that he can do anything that makes him such an assassin as a fourth-quarter scorer, it's also his downfall as a player.

5. The Bulls didn't believe there were any players left at #26, so they figured their best bet would be to go big.

There's an old adage about the NBA draft that goes something like, 'If you're going to make a mistake, do it with size.' I think this was the wrong strategy, because I would have rather they taken a risk with the pick, and go with someone with more upside than a 24-year-old four-and-a-half. If you don't believe the pick has much value, why go for low-ceiling player? The Bulls under John Paxson have proven to be risk averse. Which might be why they are still at the bottom of the playoff barrel after six years of Paxson and all those lottery picks.

6. Whoever's calling the shots, it doesn't seem like the Bulls philosophy has changed.

I assumed when John Paxson stepped aside and Gar Forman was named GM that Pax would still be calling the shots as executive vice president of basketball operations.

After the draft, I realized it doesn't matter.

The Bulls are still doing the exact same things. They picked two guys without a position. They lauded those players' strong family backgrounds. They went with what they considered to be the safest options. They ignored a superior player who better fit their needs. In short, it was business as usual.

If this draft marked the beginning of the Gar Forman Era, it appears to be indistinguishable from John Paxson's. But with free agency beginning today, I hope the Bulls make a break from their clear tendency to overvalue their players -- in the last few off-seasons alone, they have given ridiculous contracts to Hinrich, Deng, and Andres Nocioni -- and let Ben Gordon walk.

If they do, I just might forgive them for passing on DeJuan Blair.

June 27, 2009

The dope on Geo

Lost amid the Geovany Soto-loves-smokin'-the-bowl revelations is the fact that for the last three weeks, Soto has been been smokin' the ball.

The guy is on fire. Like the contents of his bong.

He's hotter than his one-hitter at a Cypress Hill concert.

He (has a slugging percentage that) is so fucking high right now!

Sorry. Anyway, here were Soto's numbers through June 3:


At that point, Lou Piniella decided that Soto needed "a mental break." In announcing that Soto would be out of the lineup for the next few games, Piniella also went out of his way to give his catcher a public vote of confidence:
"Obviously, Geo is my No. 1 catcher ... He came in to find out what my thinking was, and I told him I was giving him a little mental breather. Sometimes with a young player, opposed to fighting it, it's better to get him out of there for a few days."
Soto returned to the lineup on June 6. His numbers since:


While Soto's on-base percentage hasn't changed much,* his slugging percentage has practically tripled. His power, which was completely absent for the first two months of the season, has returned with a vengeance.

* This is mostly because Soto's walk rate has dropped dramatically, going from 1 every 6.74 plate appearances to 1 every 10.5 PA. When you're hitting the ball with as much authority as he is, relying on walks just to get yourself on base becomes a much less appealing option.

Can we be entirely certain that Lou's little hiatus led to Soto's rejuvenation? No, we can't. But I give managers (and coaches) a lot of shit for all the crap they do wrong. It's only fair to give them credit when they do something that goes so gloriously right.

So Lou Piniella, on behalf of Geovany Soto, this bud's for you.

June 25, 2009

Is there anything dumber...

Than the league deciding the order of the bottom of the draft by regular season record? How can the NBA champs not pick last? The Lakers should be picking at No. 30, right after the Magic. Then the rest of it can go by regular-season record.

They didn't want regular season record -- the one concrete way to evaluate teams that don't make the playoffs -- to determine the top of the draft, so they created the lottery. But then they use those same regular season records to order the playoff teams, when their playoff result is the much better indicator of their relative strength. I'm sorry David Stern, but that's just idiotic.

And, yes, I'm still pissed about the Bulls' picks. Still waitin' on that trade, Pax.

Taj Gibson? C'MON!

Well, the Bulls portion of the NBA draft is complete. They drafted two bigs. Neither of them was DeJuan Blair, despite him being available at both slots. Instead, the Bulls took James Johnson and Taj Gibson.

I'm hoping that Gibson is part of a trade, so I'll withhold judgment for the time being. But I'm none too pleased right now.

Bulls choose James Johnson

Not happy, but they're about to pick again and the amazingly still have a shot at DeJuan Blair. If you read my treatise below, since there's about a 50-50 chance of either making it, I wouldn't mind them grabbing Blair, despite the redundancy.

Also would be happy with Nick Calathes.

June 24, 2009

I don't feel a draft

The NBA draft, normally my second-favorite day of the year behind this one, is upon us. So why am I just a little blasé? Look where the Bulls have chosen overall in the last several years:

1, 4, 8, 2, 4, 2, 7, 3, 7, 2, 9, 1

That's 12 top-10 picks in the last 10 drafts, including eight in the top-5 and five in the top-2. All I could think after seeing all those picks was, Why the hell aren't they the best team in the league by now? If you, too, are wondering how they can barely be scraping into the playoffs, see below. In the meantime, let's focus briefly on the acute draft apathy from which I'm suffering.

While the Bulls do have two picks, Nos. 16 and 26, it's not easy to go from a decade of lottery dreams to a day of latter-half dregs. This makes me the least pumped up (most pumped down?) I've been since 2005, when the Bulls had no picks at all in the draft thanks mostly to the previous year's trade for Luol Deng. Alas, such is the price of (minimal) success. And the axing of Isiah Thomas. Even during the Bulls three-year playoff run from '05 - '07, they remained in the lottery thanks to GM John Paxson's annual pantsing of Thomas. Oh how we miss you Isiah.

Despite my ennui, I have paid enough attention to form two primary opinions as to what the Bulls' course of action should be:

1. If DeJuan Blair is on the board, take him.

Hell hath no fury like a Mr. SKIA who gets James Johnson or B.J. Mullens instead. Blair is exactly what the Bulls have been searching for up front: A tough, physical presence who will be immovable on the blocks. I'm almost hoping he won't be on the board, because I'm going to be devastated when he's there and they don't take him.

Sure, Blair's a little short, but in the last few years, we've seen several undersized power forwards (Paul Millsap, Carl Landry, Leon Powe) who dropped in the draft because of their height and went on to become very productive players. Another issue with Blair is the combination of his weight (excessive) and his knees (bad). He might eat his way out of the league, or his ACLs might explode, making him a bit of a risk. But it pisses me off that in the NBA, teams are constantly rolling the dice on unskilled and undeveloped "high-ceiling" prospects while shying away from guys that have a history of injuries. Aren't they both just risks? Why is one considered appealing and not the other?

Job security.

If a general manager drafts a player like DeMar DeRozan, the first thing out of his mouth will be, "He won't make an immediate impact, but we think he can be a star in this league." This effectively buys him several years. Even after three seasons of little production, the GM can always fall back on the curious case of Jermaine O'Neal: "We feel DeMar will break out this year. He's still only 22. In this league, young players often don't establish themselves until their fourth season. Or later. Look at Jermaine O'Neal. He didn't average more than five points a game until his fifth year, and the season after that he got the first of six All-Star berths." Ultimately, by the time we're absolutely positive a guy's a bust, so many years -- and successive drafts -- have passed that if the same GM is still on the job, it's just a distant part of his resume.

Contrast that to an injury risk. If Paxson takes Blair and in a season or two he blows out his knee, the uproar is instant. How could he have taken a guy with known health issues when so-and-so (one of the few players picked after Blair who will become productive) was still on the board? An injury is a much more immediate result than a failure to live up to potential, and so for a GM, a guy with bad knees is a much bigger risk than a project. Even if he's probably less of one for the franchise.

2. If you can't get into the top-10, don't package the two picks to move up in the draft.

Finding stars outside of the top-10 is difficult in any draft, let alone a horribly weak one like this year's. By my count, there are only three guys who would be surefire lottery picks in a normal year: Blake Griffin, Ricky Rubio, and Hasheem Thabeet. Maybe two others, Stephen Curry and Tyreke Evans. And that's really it.* In my view, there is a huge drop-off in talent after the top-5, which ESPN.com's research says is typical. That same research also shows a steep decline immediately after the top-10.

* I also really like Ty Lawson, too, but no NBA team seems to. He might still be around when the Bulls make their second pick, let alone the first.

The rumor is the Bulls have been looking to trade their two picks for New Jersey's 11th or possibly even Indiana's 13th. Doesn't that seem like way too steep of a price to pay to move up (at most) five slots? Just hold on to both picks. Please.

Take a look at the last eight** 16th picks: Marreese Speights, Nick Young, Rodney Carney, Joey Graham, Kirk Snyder, Troy Bell, Jiri Welsch, and Kirk Haston. God that's atrocious. But here are the 26th picks from those same drafts: George Hill, Aaron Brooks, Jordan Farmar, Jason Maxiell, Kevin Martin, Ndudi Ebi, John Salmons, and Samuel Dalembert. Is there any doubt that the latter group is better? You have one star (Martin), several starters and rotation guys, and one total misfire (Ebi). Among the 16's, Young has shown flashes, but only Speights has a shot at really becoming a player.

** Fine, I'll admit it: I went eight years deep and not 10 (as I originally intended) because nine years ago Hedo Turkoglu went 16th and 10 years ago it was Ron Artest. Which makes the crappiness of the pick look much less pronounced. Happy now?

Huh. I feel better already. I guess it's true what they say, confession really is good for the soul. So how about this: I sometimes manipulate information to support my argument. Uh-oh. Now I've gone to far

The point is, lower-half drafting is a crapshoot. If outside of the top-10 you have less than a 50-50 shot of finding a decent player, aren't you better off taking two shots at it? I have to believe that if they hold onto both picks, one of the selections will pan out.

Then again, I am an eternal optimist.

So who do I want? I'm hoping for Blair and Florida's Nick Calathes***, a 6-5 combo guard who could make both Kirk Hinrich and Ben Gordon -- especially Gordon, I hope -- expendable.

*** My dream scenario would be Blair and Lawson, but I doubt Lawson drops quite that far.

Of the players the Bulls are supposedly considering with their first pick, here's how I'd rank them:

1. DeJuan Blair (Pro: A young, low-post beast. Con: Appetite.)
2. Omri Casspi (Pro: Religious affiliation. Con: Know nothing else about him.)
3. B.J. Mullens (Pro: Size, youth. Con: Lack of production.)
4. James Johnson (Pro: Bulk. Con: A bit old at 22.)
5. Terrence Williams (Pro: Size in the backcourt. Con: He plays in the backcourt.)
6. Tyler Hansbrough (Pro: Ummm... Nickname? Con: He's gonna suck.)

Additionally, I like Earl Clark and Austin Daye more than any of them besides Blair, but supposedly neither is on the Bulls' radar.

With the second pick, after Calathes and all the guys (minus Psycho T) listed above, I guess I'd like two guys from North Carolina not named Hansbrough: Wayne Ellington and Danny Green.

So do I think the Bulls will do what I want? Well, they have gotten the player I've wanted for the last few years. Still, I think that's just a fluke. I'm pretty sure I'll be disappointed by the end of the night. That's ususally the way at work

I've taken a look at their last 10 drafts, dating back to 1999, when their run of lottery picks began. For each year I have who they took, who I wanted, the best combination of players available at each of their picks, and then some other notables. Each player's name is preceded by his draft position, with undrafted players represented with --. My commentary is also included, if that's what you're into.

Selected: 1 Elton Brand, 16 Ron Artest, 32 Michael Ruffin, 49 Lari Ketner
I wanted: Anyone but 4 Lamar Odom, 38 Laron Profit, 56 Tim Young
Best combination: 3 Baron Davis, 24 Andrei Kirilenko, 57 Manu Ginobili, -- Raja Bell
Other notables: 9 Shawn Marion, 18 James Posey, -- Chris Anderson

Going into the draft, nobody knew if the Bulls would take Brand, Odom, or Steve Francis. Brand was considered the safe pick, which in retrospect was dead on. Incidentally, Odom was thought to be more of a headcase/potential problem child than Francis, but the Bulls wanted to avoid any potential character issues regardless. Showing an uncanny grasp of their objective, they then took Artest with their second first-rounder.

Still, the Bulls actually did really well here. I'm not sure that Brand/Artest isn't a better combination than Davis/Kirilenko, and I can hardly fault them for missing Ginobili, as virtually everyone did -- twice -- and finding a guy like that is like picking a golden booger: sure it's great, but how the hell did it happen?

Selected: 4 Marcus Fizer, 8 Jamal Crawford, 24 Dalibor Bagaric, 32 A.J. Guyton, 33 Jake Voskuhl, 34 Khalid El-Amin
I wanted: 3 Darius Miles, 18 Quentin Richardson, 37 Eddie House
Best combination: 5 Mike Miller, 16 Hedo Turkoglu, 30 Marko Jaric, House, 38 Eduardo Najera, 43 Michael Redd
Other notables: 9 Joel Przybilla, 17 Desmond Mason, 21 Morris Peterson

A god-awful draft; when Przybilla and Mo Pete qualify as notables, you know it's bad. Here's the top 7: Kenyon Martin, Stromile Swift, Miles, Fizer, Miller, DerMarr Johnson, Chris Mihm. Just a horrible group of players, and of course the Bulls had more picks than ever.

I wanted Miles and Richardson because they were from Illinois (the state, not the school) and House because he had scored 137 points (It was only 61 -- Ed.) one night against Cal. With Miles off the board by the time the Bulls selected, I actually thought Fizer was a good pick. Sure, he replicated Brand a bit, but he could flat-out score.

No he couldn't.

Selected: 2 Tyson Chandler, 4 Eddy Curry, 29 Trenton Hassell, 44 Sean Lampley
I wanted: Chandler, 30 Gilbert Arenas
Best combination: 3 Pau Gasol, 10 Joe Johnson, Arenas, -- Jamario Moon
Other notables: 13 Richard Jefferson, 28 Tony Parker, 38 Mehmet Okur

On draft night, Jerry Krause shocked everyone by sending Brand to the Clippers for the No. 2 overall pick. He then chose Chandler before getting Curry with the Bulls' original pick. The move ultimately cost Krause his job, as the fans -- despite the six titles -- were perfectly willing to turn on him anyway, in part because Krause was unfairly blamed for breaking up the Bulls. While Jackson and Jordan had made it pretty obvious after the '98 Finals that they were both going to retire, they never made any official announcements. Instead, they intentionally dragged their feet so that Krause -- forced to make other plans knowing that neither would return -- would look like the bad guy, the one who broke up the best party in Chicago's history. Walking away might have brought a little animosity from the fans, so Jackson and Jordan turned Krause, who neither had much use for, into the man that forced them out.

Fans were more perfectly willing to buy Krause-as-parade-pisser for one reason: Jerry Krause is a slovenly fat man. People, despite an unwillingness to admit it, have definite biases towards the attractive, something Krause most certainly was not. I have no doubt that had Krause looked like Theo Epstein, he would still be one of the most beloved figures in Chicago. People can say they didn't like Krause because he was arrogant -- which he was, and rightfully so, I might add -- but it was his appearance that made his personality unacceptable.

Having said that, this draft was pretty much a disaster. Although I must admit I can at least see what Krause was thinking. With a pair of seven-footers -- one a mammoth low-post scorer with soft hands and the other a lithe and athletic defensive eraser -- the Bulls would be unstoppable up front. They could try the huge lineup of Crawford, Artest, Fizer, Chandler, and Curry and no one in the league would be able to match their size, speed, and strength.

Only a few things went horribly wrong:

1. The league tightened the rules on hand-checking and other contact, making it a guard-oriented game, and going small became a much more effective strategy than trying to pound the opponent with size.
2. The NBA finally decided to allow zone defense.
3. Chandler couldn't score to save his life.
4. Curry couldn't rebound.^
5. Or play defense.
6. Or try, really.

^ When asked what Curry could do to be a better rebounder, Bulls coach Scott Skiles once famously replied, "Jump." And I assure you that he wasn't joking. I can't speak to his practice habits, but I've never seen worse on-court effort than Curry's. Not only did he rarely jump for rebounds, Curry also missed out on several potential flat-footed ones because he wouldn't even lift his arms. Honestly. When you think raising your arms requires too much effort, now that's lazy.

In reality, Chandler and Curry were not perfect complements; instead they were one franchise-altering player tragically split into two guys. Chandler's boardwork, defense, and energy combined with Curry's size and low post scoring would've made for the best center of this era. But pairing these divergent skill sets together didn't work on either end. Curry's shortcomings (read: complete lack of effort) on the defensive end meant Chandler basically had to guard two guys, which obviously leaves one wide open, while Chandler's ineffectiveness on offense made Curry exceptionally easy to double.

While Paxson, Krause's replacement, was able to get a great return for Curry by bamboozling Isiah, he made a huge mistake in moving Chandler. The Ben Wallace signing -- which is supposed to have been mostly Jerry Reinsdorf's doing -- gave the Bulls two very similar, highly-paid offensively-limited, defense-oriented post players. With the Bulls eyeing the big raises Hinrich, Deng, and Gordon would be due, Chandler and his 5-year, $55-million contract were essentially given to the Hornets.^^

^^ The Bulls received P.J. Brown and J.R. Smith in return, after insisting they only get back guys who went by initials. Because of Smith's allegedly horrible practice habits -- a huge no-no in the Scott Skiles era -- he was immediately flipped to Denver in an equally terrible trade.

But there was no reason to ship out Chandler at a time when his value was at an all-time low. After signing that big-money extension, he had suffered through some mysterious health problems (Hiatal hernia? What the fuck is that?) in '05-'06 and basically had his worst season. But he was still just 23, and had improved in each of his first four years before regressing that year. And while Chandler and Wallace together would have been a little redundant, it's not like the Bulls were loaded in the front court. They certainly could've found reasonable minutes for both, at least in the short term. Shouldn't they have tried it for a year? Or at least a few months? It's not like Chandler's value could have dropped any lower. Additionally, they didn't need the cap space until the following season anyway, so there was no need to just give him away. The larger, mostly unspoken issue was that Skiles and Chandler didn't get along. In this case, the coach was chosen over the player.

Skiles was fired a less than a year and a half later.

The other thing I hated about this draft -- and really what I still find most inexcusable -- was the selection of Hassell over Arenas with the first pick of the second round. I loved Arenas, based mostly on a six-steal performance in a Final Four game that year as a sophomore, which was still considered young at that time. I couldn't believe that Arenas had somehow dropped out of the first round, and was livid that the Bulls failed to scoop him up in the second. If there was anything Krause should have been raked over the coals for, this is it.

And so I hated Trenton Hassell. His game was boring, and he had no offensive skill whatsoever. The worst part was, everyone else seemed to love him. I remember becoming enraged on multiple occasions on hearing radio announcers Neil Funk and Paxson, both of whom I liked very much, talk about what a steal Hassell was. Former coaches Bill Cartwright and Skiles were both big fans, showering him with much more playing time than his performance warranted. I didn't care about his supposedly good defense -- which earned him a lot of money in the leauge -- I couldn't stand Trenton Hassell. I even got to the point that I considered recruiting others to go to games with me just to heckle him, and I was going to make a sign that said Hassel's Hasslers. And no, I did not make up any part of that last sentence.

Selected: 2 Jay Williams, 30 Roger Mason Jr., 43 Lonny Baxter
I wanted: Williams, 44 Sam Clancy
Best combination: 9 Amare Stoudemire, 34 Carlos Boozer, -- Udonis Haslem
Other notables: 10 Caron Butler, 23 Tayshaun Prince, 26 John Salmons

I was never a huge Jason Williams fan at Duke, but he was quick as hell and showed flashes as a rookie. I don't think he got much of a fair shake with the team, as I believe that Crawford, ticked about potentially being replaced as the Bulls' lead guard, poisoned the locker room against him (with an assist from Jalen Rose.)

Still, given the crackdown on hand-checking, I think Williams would have been a great NBA player; his 26-point, 14-rebound, 13-assist triple double in the seventh game of his career was one of the most impressive performances by a rookie that I've ever seen. Williams had quickly become the face of one of basketball's keystone franchises, but really, how much satisfaction does that bring? Sure, he might've been young millionaire jetting across the country with his choice of beautiful young women in every city, but Jay Williams needed a thrill. So he got himself motorcycle, and within weeks he had set the Bulls franchise back several years, just as Len Bias' cocaine-related death did to the Celtics. Coincidentally, both were No. 2 overall selections.

Selected: 7 Kirk Hinrich, 36 Mario Austin, 45 Matt Bonner, 53 Tommy Smith
I wanted: 5 Dwyane Wade
Best combination: 18 David West, 47 Mo Williams, 51 Kyle Korver, -- Marquis Daniels
Other notables: 8 TJ Ford, 28 Leandro Barbosa, 29 Josh Howard

Everyone thought that the Bulls would get local kid Dwyane Wade at No. 7. I'd compare it to the pre-draft certainty that recently surrounded the Stephen Curry and New York. But instead of rumors of other teams' interest leaking out days before the draft (like has happened with the Knicks), the Heat's Pat Riley played it close to the vest and swung a surprising draft-day deal to move up to the No. 5 pick and steal Wade. I know I'm going out on a limb here, but that Pat Riley, he knows what he's doing.

With Wade off the board, I was pulling for Jarvis Hayes, who eventually went 1oth and hasn't been half the player that Hinrich is. Besides, with Williams accident coming just days before Paxson's first draft as GM, there was a palpable sense of urgency to fill that gaping hole at the point, Jamal Crawford's feelings be damned. Still, I wasn't happy with the Hinrich pick, and I remember saying to my friend Matt, "C'mon, Pax. You can't draft yourself."

The truth is, while Hinrich is definitely no Wade, he's probably been better than Paxson was. While he lacks Paxson's dead-eye marksmanship, he is much more physical and a far better defender. Then again... I'd still take Pax. That guy was a fucking assassin.

Selected: 3 Ben Gordon, 7 Luol Deng, 31 Jackson Vroman, 38 Chris Duhon
I wanted: 9 Andre Iguodala, 11 Andris Biedrins
Best combination: 5 Devin Harris, 15 Al Jefferson, Duhon, 43 Tervor Ariza
Other notables: 17 Josh Smith, 20 Jameer Nelson, 26 Kevin Martin

Though I hate Arizona, I often like their players, especially Iguodala, Arenas, and Hassan Adams. I supposed two-out-of-three ain't bad. I loved Iguodala's athleticism, but he was a very raw offensive player, which is probably why the Bulls opted for Deng.

I became a Biedrins fan when I read that he was this scrawny Russian kid who had recently fallen in love with weight lifting. By this point, I was tired of Curry's tiresome tiredness, and wanted the Bulls to nab another big man, but Paxson had targeted Gordon and Deng.

The Bulls got the pick they used on Deng because of Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver's penny-pinching, as he had a team near the salary cap and he didn't want to pay the rookie scale for the No. 7 pick. Phoenix got the Bulls' 2005 first-rounder (which ended up being 21st overall) in the exchange.

Despite not being Luol Deng's biggest fan, I have to admit that was a damn good deal for the Bulls.

Original picks: 21 (Nate Robinson) traded for Deng, 51 (Robert Whaley) traded in 2000 (!) for Bryce Drew (?)
Best combination: 30 David Lee, 57 Marcin Gortat
Other notables: 40 Monta Ellis, 50 Ryan Gomes, -- Kelenna Azubuike

Selected: 4 Tyrus Thomas, 13 Thabo Sefolosha, 46 (Dee Brown) traded in 2000 (!!) for Bryce Drew (??)^^^
I wanted: Thomas, 14 Ronnie Brewer
Best combination: 7 Brandon Roy, 21 Rajon Rondo, 47 Paul Millsap
Other notables: 2 LaMarcus Aldridge, 8 Rudy Gay, 49 Leon Powe

^^^ I'll just say it here, so it sinks in: Two 2nd rounders for Bryce Drew. Look, I realize that very few guys taken in the latter half of the first round, let alone the second, ever pan out. So finding a stud with a pick in the 40's or 50's is a major longshot. But still... If I had a handful of lottery tickets, I wouldn't just throw them away because the odds are bad. I'd at least wait until the drawing and check the numbers. That's what the Bulls should have done. Instead they traded two Mega-Million tickets for a lousy used scratch off.

Bulls originally had picks 2 (from Isiah) and 16, but made two separate draft-day deals. They were supposedly were torn between Aldridge and Thomas, but I feared they'd take eventual No. 3 pick Adam Morrison, because he fit the gym-rat profile that Paxson has an affinity for. I had misgivings about them all -- Aldridge: Soft, not very athletic; Morrison: Terrible defense, getting shot off against NBA athletes; Thomas: Name sounded like a bust.

ESPN.com's Chad Ford -- who to me is unequivically the best pre-draft source out there -- had the Bulls preferring Thomas, and I honestly don't remember who I wanted between him and Aldridge. I went with Thomas here because, despite what is perceived as a major gap in their production, I prefer him over Aldridge. In the eyes of many Bulls fans, the biggest misstep of Paxson's tenure has been swapping Aldridge-for-Thomas, but the main difference between the two is their respective playing time. Aldridge is undoubtedly the more polished offensive player, but most of his statistical advantages are simply the result of having gotten more minutes. Take a look at their career stats:

Aldridge: 15.4 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 1.4 apg, 0.7 steals, 1.1 blocks, 1.3 TO, .487 FG%, .764 FT%
Thomas: 7.7 ppg, 5 rpg, 0.9 apg, 0.8 steals, 1.3 blocks, 1.3 TO, .447 FG%, .724 FT%

Advantage, Aldridge, more or less across the board. But he has averaged 32 minutes per game, Thomas 20. Per 36 minutes played, the stats look like this:

Aldridge: 17.3 ppg, 7.6 rpg, 1.5 apg, 0.8 steals, 1.2 blocks, 1.5 TO
Thomas: 14 ppg, 9.0 rpg, 1.7 apg, 1.5 steals, 2.4 blocks, 2.4 TO

Granted, Thomas is still not much of a marksman, and the turnovers are a bit problematic. But he beats Aldridge everywhere else. Plus he's already made himself a much better shooter -- his free-throw shooting has gone from 60.6% his rookie year to 78.3% this past season, and he actually has a semi-effective jumper now -- and there is no doubt that he's much more of a game-changer defensively. Yes, Aldridge is two inches taller, but Thomas makes up for his relative lack of height with incredible hops, as he gets off the floor faster than anyone I've ever seen. Plus he's a year younger than Aldridge. At the end of the day, I would rather have Tyrus Thomas than LaMarcus Aldridge.

As for passing on Brandon Roy, that's another story.

Selected: 9 Joakim Noah, 49 Aaron Gray, 51 JamesOn Curry
I wanted: Noah, 48 Marc Gasol, 59 D.J. Strawberry
Best combination: 12 Thaddeus Young, 56 Ramon Sessions, -- Joel Anthony
Other notables: 10 Spencer Hawes, 15 Rodney Stuckey, 35 Glen Davis

This draft is most memorable because I really wanted Noah, and when he was still there at 9, I was convinced the Bulls would take Hawes instead. Noah's been pretty damn productive since Day 1, but like Thomas is often viewed as deficient because of his inadequate minutes. And I'm not sure if it's because of Noah's perceived flamboyance, but Bulls fans seemed to be very anxious to label him a bust. Given his exceptional performance in the playoffs, I have to assume all of that talk is now dead.

I wanted Gasol because I figured, Hey, he's Pau Gasol's brother, how bad can he be? Apparently the Lakers thought the same thing. With Strawberry I figured, Hey, he's Darryl Strawberry's son, how bad can he be? I also hoped I'd be able to see tiny clumps of cocaine drop out of his nose in HD.

Selected: 1 Derrick Rose, 39 Sonny Weems
I wanted: Rose, 40 Chris Douglas-Roberts
Best combination: Rose, 55 Goran Dragic
Other notables: 2 Michael Beasley, 5 Kevin Love, 10 Brook Lopez

After a season in which the Bulls seemed to go from Eastern Conference contenders-on-the-rise to zero-effort also-rans within a few weeks, they lucked into the No. 1 pick. I wanted Rose, but wouldn't have been unhappy with Beasley, either. My favorite player in the draft was Love, but not at No. 1. He was the guy I was pulling for before the Bulls, with only the ninth-worst record, won the lottery.

The Douglas-Roberts thing was based entirely on wanting to ease Rose's transition to Chicago. After DeAndre Jordan unexpectedly fell out of the first round, I wanted him badly but the Clippers snagged him at 35. I was never a big fan of CDR's game, though he probably was the best guy on the board at 39. Regardless, it's still way, way too early to judge this draft. Besides, the Bulls quickly traded Weems and a few future second-rounders to Portland for Turkish centerOmer Asik, who should make it to the NBA sometime in the next 14 years.

And that's about it, other than this: the mere writing of this entry has given me new-found enthusiasm for the 2009 NBA draft. Which only means I will be that much more crushed when the Bulls don't get DeJuan Blair.

But as I mentioned, I am an eternal optimist.

June 23, 2009

Mr. SKIA's missed ideas

Continuing the self-indulgent trend of yesterday's post, I wanted to clarify/revisit/amend some things from a few of my previous entries.

Kobe-LeBron II: Eclectic Group Says

I'm going to start by revisiting the Kobe-LeBron debate, because I heard a lot of grumbling about my post -- with much of it coming from non-Lakers fans, surprisingly -- and I'd like to re-state my position. In terms of what they've done in their careers, Kobe is the better player. If I were trying to define each's place in history, there's no doubt I'd rank Kobe higher in terms of the all-time greatest NBA players. Do I think that at the end of their careers, he'll still be higher? Probably not. Do I think Kobe is better than LeBron, at this very second? Hell no.

I want to first address this guy's opinion, as he was the only one with the decency to use the comments section of the site -- by commenting on the site, you can help make it appear that my blog has, you know, some actual readers -- instead of emailing me. Though you will notice that he rather conspicuously withheld his name. And no, it's not me, if that's what you're thinking. I'm not that desperate. Yet.
Anonymous said...

As a basketball player myself I would never categorize a man by the "titles" he has collected alone. Do I think Kobe is the best ever? No, Is he better that LeBron? Kobe's understanding, or the new token phrase "Basketball IQ" is better. The edge goes to Kobe until LeBron understands that patience and defense not haste or force lead to championships.

While I was hopeful I had an actual NBA player as a reader, I found out via Facebook that it's actually from a college friend who I played intramurals with. Nevertheless... Not categorizing a man by his titles alone? Good. Not thinking Kobe is the best ever? Better. The rest of it? Ya lost me.

There is no doubt that Kobe knows the game. But to say that his basketball IQ is better than LeBron's is taking it too far. LeBron has the greatly-superior court vision, and despite having lousier teammates, he actually tries to get them involved. Take a look at Pau Gasol's numbers against the Magic:

42.4 mpg, 18.6 ppg, 9.2 rpg, 36-60 FG (.600), 21-27 FT (.778)

Gasol was utterly unstoppable in the Finals, shooting at least 50% from the field in each of the five games. Quite simply, no one on the Magic could stay with him. And yet, despite playing heavy, heavy minutes, he averaged just 12 shots per game. Why?

Kobe Bryant.

Despite never hitting even 50% of his shots in any game during the Finals -- his best-shooting night came in Game 1, when he went 16-for-34 -- Kobe took a whopping 27 shots a night. That's 125% more attempts than Gasol, despite Gasol converting at a 40% better rate. And before you say that all of Kobe's shooting is what opened up the floor for Gasol, you should know that of the latter's 36 baskets, Kobe assisted on just 10 of them. If Kobe was drawing all this attention away from Gasol, shouldn't he have found him more than twice a game, especially considering that he was their primary ballhandler?

And if you don't like the statistical evidence, how about the anecdotal kind: If Kobe's basketball IQ is so high, how in the world could he go 1-on-3 at the end of regulation in Game 2? Once the triple team came, shouldn't he have found the open man -- excuse me, men -- instead of trying to do it all himself? This remains Kobe's main failing as a basketball player; that is, he is still too selfish.

I believe that LeBron is barely scratching the surface, but due to his practically limitless potential, he is already the superior player. There are certainly plenty of things he could do to improve as a basketball player, but I can't help but feel that the most important one is Get better teammates.

Meanwhile, Jody Oehler, host of Tucson's ESPN Radio 1490 The Fan's Happy Hour with Jody Oehler (you can download his podcasts here) and a notable non-Kobe fan, sent me a comprehensive email on the subject, championing Kobe's superiority. While I'm not going to reproduce it in its entirety, I'll try to summarize (and dispute) his main points.

1. Jody calls me out for discounting Kobe's early-career titles as largely the product of having been lucky enough to play with Shaquille O'Neil, while not similarly making an adjustment to LeBron's statistics because he hasn't had to sublimate any aspect of his game to accommodate a superstar teammate.

This is a very reasonable argument; surely some of LeBron's stats would have suffered had he played with Shaq at the peak of his dominance. But while his scoring likely would have gone down, wouldn't his assists have increased? Couldn't his shooting percentage have improved because he wouldn't've been drawing the defense's undivided attention? And it's worth noting that in both categories, LeBron already has sizeable advantages over Kobe. (Career assists: 6.7 to 4.6; FG% .471-.455.)

Jody also doubts, given all the hype he received, that LeBron could have accepted being a second banana out of high school. But I remember watching several of LeBron's games his rookie year, and he was extremely deferential to his teammates, almost to the point of excess. He was always looking to make the extra pass, even forgoing up breakaway dunks to dish to a trailing teammate, and appeared to want to avoid stepping on anyone's toes. So instead of being a hindrance to his transition to the NBA, I believe that playing with Shaq -- and having someone to deflect some of the immense pressure he surely felt -- would have made LeBron an even better player today.

But that's neither here nor there in terms of who is the better player right now. As I said, I believe to this point that Kobe has had the better career, and thus would rank higher than LeBron all-time. But I just can't accept that he's the better player now when the main piece of evidence is the championships. Especially because three of them have zero bearing on how they played this season. And yes, Kobe's team also won the 2009 NBA title, but that championship doesn't make him the best player this year any more than Paul Pierce's did last season.

2. Jody argues that Kobe Bryant's numbers have suffered because he's played virtually his entire career under Phil Jackson, who holds him accountable and forces him to play within a structured offensive system as opposed to kowtowing to his every whim the way Mike Brown appears to do with LeBron. While that has some merit, am I supposed to discount LeBron's value because he didn't have the misfortune of playing for the winningest coach in basketball history? While Jackson might have depressed Kobe's stats a bit, I believe that LeBron's perception as a winner has been harmed to a much greater degree by Brown's incompetent boobery.

Additionally, while Kobe's might've posted better numbers playing for Brown's Cavs, I have a hard time believing he'd have won 66 games with them. The Lakers record, post-Shaq and pre-Gasol, was 150-141 for a winning percentage of .515. That was mostly under Jackson, and it covers several of Kobe's prime years, beginning with his age 26 season. His supporting cast in that span included Lamar Odom, Caron Butler, Derek Fisher, and Andrew Bynum.

Meanwhile, Cleveland's record in the three seasons before this one (when LeBron allegedly got his own Gasol, the grossly-overrated and since-exposed Mo Williams) was 145-101, for a .589 winning percentage. LeBron was 21 when that stretch began, and his supporting cast included Zydrunas Ilgauskus, Drew Gooden, Larry Hughes, and Anderson Varejao. At a younger age he was able to carry similar teams to better records with a worse coach. So how could LeBron not be better now when he is just entering his prime and Kobe is leaving his?

3. Jody also takes me to task for my ludicrous Michael Jordan-to-random-50's-and-60's-Celtics-nobodies-who-have-more-rings-than-he-does comparison, which admittedly was a gross oversimplification, saying, "We are all operating under the assumption we are comparing apples to apples, not apples to steaming piles of shit."

Fair enough. At the same time, there is really no such thing as an apples-to-apples comparison because said apples are all in different baskets. Alright, perhaps that's taking the apples metaphor a little too far. But the head-to-head comparison based on team results is in itself problematic because the situations are not identical, resulting in problems of colinearity. That is, you cannot entirely separate any player from the contributions of his teammates because they are all interdependent. I don't think anyone would argue that LeBron's teammates are more skilled than Kobe's, so to use his lesser results as the primary indicator of his ability just seems wrong to me. Does anyone really believe that if LeBron was on the Lakers, they wouldn't have won the title? Or that Kobe on the Cavs would have brought a championship to Cleveland? I really, really hope not.

Jody loses me again when he says that championships are the one near-unanimous measuring stick in professional sports. I'll agree that's true when assessing a career -- LeBron will not join Kobe in the top-15 all-time if he remains titleless -- for a single-season I believe that it usually says very little. Jody says, "Until LeBron wins one, just one, he cannot be considered better than Kobe, or frankly much better than Dwyane Wade." Again, career-wise, yes. This season? I respectfully disagree.

Jody, if you feel I misrepresented your point of view in any way, please let me know. But for the love of God, man, I beseech you to do it in the comments section.

Derrek Lee, Option 3

In my Derrek Lee is making me look like an idiot post from yesterday, I neglected something that should have been an important part of the analysis. Instead of just healed injury and fluky hot streak, there was a third possibility for Lee's resurgence: that he might just be hitting more fly balls, which would in all probability lead to more homers.

So here are Lee's ground ball to fly ball ratios, beginning with 2005, the season he hit 46 homers.

2005 0.66
2006 0.73
2007 0.71
2008 0.81

And this year? After pretty much rising steadily for the past few seasons, Lee's 2009 GB/FB stands at 0.58. That represents the lowest mark of his career. To put it another way, he is hitting more flyballs than ever. Since his doubles rate has fallen off much less precipitously than his home run rate -- after hitting 50 in 2005, he hit 43 and 41 in his first two full seasons back -- maybe his power never really left, and this recent surge is simply the result of a concerted effort to hit more flyballs.

More Cutler debate: What if Kyle is great?

In my fervor to convince everyone not to judge the Jay Cutler trade based on the players the Broncos acquire with the Bears' picks, I wrote the following:
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.
Well that's just super. Only I forgot one thing: Kyle Orton, who showed some flashes last year, can make the Bears look absolutely terrible.

What if Orton -- playing with a much more skilled receiving corps than he had with the Bears -- puts up better stats than Cutler? Even worse, what happens if the Bears miss the postseason while Orton leads the Broncos to the playoffs? Or, perish the thought, the Super Bowl? Obviously that is a nightmare scenario for the Bears' brass. Because if they gave up Orton, two first rounders, and a third to get a quarterback who is actually worse, it might spell the end of the Jerry Angelo Era.

While I don't think it'll happen, that's almost enough to get me to root for Kyle Orton's Broncos.

June 22, 2009

Mr. Sports Know-It-Mostly

Amid the abundance of good feelings associated with the Cubs' heart-pounding four-game winning streak, you can count on me to urinate all over your Cornflakes. Per Cubs.com's Carrie Muskat:
The Cubs' overworked bullpen got a fresh arm Sunday when the team recalled right-hander Kevin Hart from Triple-A Iowa and placed Angel Guzman on the 15-day disabled list.

Guzman's right triceps had been tender, and he reported to Wrigley Field on Sunday with some tightness. Although the right-hander only needs five or six days to recover from the strain, the team felt it was better to be safe and give him 15 days.
Wow, Angel Guzman is hurt? Who would've guessed?

Me, that's who, suckers. In last week's post decrying the Cubs' eight-man bullpen, I hypothesized that Angel Guzman might be the Cubs' mysterious tender-armed reliever, and chastised Lou Piniella for using him excessively. Turns out my theory was correct.

After missing a full week of action, Guzman returned on June 17, going two innings and throwing 34 pitches -- his second-highest total of the season -- in a 4-1 loss to the White Sox. Sure the guy's been sidelined for a week and has an injury list longer than Luis Gonzalez's neck, but the only way to find out if he's really hurt is to push him beyond any reasonable limits. That seriously has to have been the thinking. The only alternative is just as frightening: that is, that there was no thinking at all.

After Guzman threw another two innings on Saturday, his right triceps decided it could no longer resist the siren song of the disabled list, and like the swallows of San Juan Capistrano, Angel Guzman returned to his familiar summer destination, where he was no doubt feted with a hero's welcome.

Wait a second. Overworked bullpen? Really? Look, I know Muskat's a shill for the Cubs, but c'mon. Coming into Sunday's games, the bullpen's 189.1 innings meant it was the 15th-most worked in the 16-team National League. Even if they'd been used 20% more -- that is, logged a total of 227.1 IP -- Cubs relievers still wouldn't crack the top-5 in innings. Not to mention that the pen's paltry workload is divvied up among a ludicrous seven pitchers.

Huh? Seven pitchers, you say. What about all that 8-man-bullpen-based bitching you did last week? Well last Tuesday, in a move with little fanfare, the Cubs finally succumbed to reason and trimmed one of the bullpen's numerous fifth wheels, moving Jason Waddell to the disabled list with a horribly gruesome non-injurious injury. Or if you prefer the Cubs' phrasing, "for evaluation and treatment of a non-baseball-related medical issue." To which they might have added, "Which we made up as an excuse to promote Jake Fox."

So in one fell swoop, the Cubs rectified of two of their more boneheaded decisions: going with a 13-man pitching staff, and optioning Jake Fox to Iowa.* But amazingly, they were not done making rational moves.

* Incidentally, the Cubs had to create an injury to someone in order to bring Fox up because league rules stipulate that a player optioned to the minors can't be recalled for 10 days unless someone on the major league roster is placed on the disabled list. Fox had only been down six days.

In what had to be the most shocking development of all, before Friday's opener against the Indians, Lou Piniella told the Trib:
"We have to find a place for [Fox], so we're going to put him at third base."
Now you might remember a certain blogger advocating giving Fox a shot at third. Quoth Mr. SKIA:
Sure, Fox might be a complete disaster at third. But what's the worst thing that could happen? They'd lose games 8-7 instead of 2-1?
Yes, the Cubs unknowingly heeded my advice. But then, in Fox's first game at the hot corner, they openly defied me. Instead of losing, the Cubs actually won. By a score of 8-7.

I mention these things -- Guzman's disabling, Fox's thirding, the coincidental scoring -- not to set a record for most times linking to my own posts nor to pat myself on my so-richly-deserving-of-a-pat back, but rather to temper this news: Derrek Lee is currently making me look like an idiot.

You may recall this extensive entry, where I summarized the reasons that Lee was a contract albatross. Or this one, where (in item No. 5) I not only say he is done, but compare him to 75-year-old Bill Russell in the process. And yet here are Derrek Lee's numbers since May 1 (through Sunday):


Damn, that's impressive, you might be thinking. But look at what he's done since June 11:


A .789 slugging percentage? Yes, I suppose that's adequate. So how is Lee doing it? My belief that he was done wasn't even really based on his April -- the second of the aforementioned posts was made on April 16 -- although he did have a god-awful first month:


I was going more off of the way he played last season, but combined with his start this year, it looked pretty bleak. From May 1, 2008 to April 30 of this season -- that is, a full calendar year -- Lee posted these stats:


While not downright horrible, for a first baseman with two years (counting this one) remaining on a 5-year, $65 million contract, that's pretty damn shitty. So where did Lee's sudden explosion come from? While I'd love to draw some Jerod Morris-level attention to my little blog and scream "STEROIDS!!!" from the mountaintops, at this point that would be both intellectually lazy and somewhat unfair.

Therefore, I'm going to suggest two possibilities. The first is that Lee's wrist, which he broke in April 2006, is finally healed. The injury seemed to sap him of most of his power: In 2005 Lee belted 46 homers in 691 plate appearances for a home run rate of 6.7%; in his first 1577 PAs following the injury -- from June 2006 through April of this year -- he hit just 48 more, for a rate of 3.0%.

That's a precipitous decline. And now, he's hit 10 homers in 154 PAs since May 1, increasing his rate back up to 6.5%. Still, if his resurgence was spurred by a recovery from injury, wouldn't we have seen a gradual climb to his former levels, and not a quantum leap? While I'm no physiologist, I would think that'd be true. But human biomechanics are so sophisticated -- and hitting a baseball moving at 90-plus miles per hour requires so much precision -- that I have to at least consider the possibility that having a wrist at anything less than 100% could be enough to completely derail a player's power stroke.

Still, three years for it to heal? Doesn't that seems excessive? But suppose he came back too soon. He returned to action in June, just two months later, before landing back on the DL for another month in late July. It's possible that rushing it only prolonged the injury's effects. Plus, just from my own experience, I can say that wrists are maddeningly slow to heal. A while back, I collided with a heavy-set woman at first base in a softball game -- it sounds like the setup for a joke, but it's not -- and screwed up my wrist in breaking my fall. Seriously though, I bounced off her like a SuperBall and she barely moved. I can't say for certain that she even noticed. Anyway, it's been nearly two years and my wrist still isn't the same.

The other possibility? Well, this is a 135 at-bat sample size we're talking about. It's feasible Lee's approximate skill level is that of a league-average hitter, and he's just currently enjoying an insane hot streak, as league average players sometimes do. This stretch, for one, immediately popped in my head:


Those numbers are from the beginning of Chris Shelton's 2006 season. Following the sizzling start, Shelton's numbers fell off so precipitously that, unbelievably, he was in the minors by the end of July. Within a small sample size, even average (or in Shelton's case, below average) hitters can put up eye-popping numbers. Cubs fans won't want to hear it, but that's potentially the case with Lee.

So which one is it, healed wrist or fluky hot streak? I'd lean towards the latter, but let's be honest: Don't we all just hope it continues? And for me, it's win-win. Either Lee reverts back to his mediocre form and proves that he was, in fact, done, or he continues to hit everything in sight and carries the Cubs back into the postseason.

The real question is, would I rather have the Cubs make the playoffs, or would I prefer to be right? Well, let's put it this way: there's a reason the name of this site isn't Mr. Hopes-the-Cubs-Win-It-All.

June 18, 2009

A final PEDantic post

My previous post on Sammy Sosa gave rise to the following comment:
Damon said...
You've got a lot of free time on your hands. This problem is easily fixed. Require all players to take steroids. Then we won't have to hear all this complaining about who is cheating.
Yes, Damon, I do have a lot of time on my hands. What gave it away? Was it the constant references to how many hours I spend on my entries' minutiae, or the frequent allusions to my unemployment?

But I digress, as that's not why I quoted Damon anyway. Rather, his cheeky solution touches on an important point. While I mentioned in the post that "I once vowed never to blog about steroids," I didn't go into why. Well the reason is that I can't stand all of the holier-than-thou hand-wringing that the subject matter elicits.

My opinion, in general: Who the fuck cares? These guys -- be it Sosa, Manny Ramirez, Alex Rodriguez, or Barry Bonds -- haven't violated the sanctity of the game any more than Gaylord Perry or Phil and Joe Niekro did when they were doctoring up the ball. Remember how charming "If you ain't cheatin', you ain't tryin'," used to be? Perry and Phil Niekro are in the Hall of Fame, fer chrissakes. And even calling most PED-users "cheaters" is iffy at best; up through 2002, there was no explicit policy in baseball banning the use of performance enhancers, and until 2005, those testing positive for the first time weren't even suspended.

Now I'm not saying we should fling open the doors to the Hall of Fame to any and all PED-suspects, but if the powers that be in baseball didn't seem to mind them much, why should we?

Most people (read: sports writers and commentators) claim to mind because they believe the numbers are no longer pure, that statistics from the so-called Steroid Era are completely out of whack with the rest of baseball history. They want to immolate all PED suspects because eight of the top-13 home run seasons of the modern (post-1900) era came in the nine-year window from 1998 to 2006. But ten of the top-12 RBI seasons occurred during a nine-year window between 1930 and 1938, and I don't recall that fraud Lou Gehrig's exhumed remains being dragged in front of Henry Waxman and his fellow Congressional attention-seekers.

The reality is that baseball stats have always varied wildly from generation to generation. In 1968, the batting average for the entire American League was .237, with Carl Yastrzemski (.301) the only hitter who topped .290. In 1930, the average National League batter hit .303; only 11 players that qualified for the batting title had an average worse than Yastrzemski's .301. But I doubt that anyone would argue that Yastrzemski would have been the 12th-worst National Leaguer in 1930. The fact that he would have been negative-9 notwithstanding.

Also in 1930, teams averaged 5.55 runs scored per game; in 1968 it was 3.42. Of the 17 lowest-scoring seasons in baseball history, 13 occurred between 1904 and 1919; the other four came from 1967 to 1972. Bob Gibson's 1.12 ERA in 1968 is spoken of in the most reverent tones. But Gibson's adjusted ERA+ that year -- that is, his ERA adjusted for his home ballpark and normalized against the rest of his league -- ranks sixth in the modern era, behind three seasons of recent vintage, no less: Pedro Martinez's '00 and Greg Maddux's '94 and '95. Just to give you an idea of how dominant Pedro was in 2000, his ERA was 1.74 when the league average was 4.92; the second-best ERA -- posted, coincidentally, by acclaimed-PED-user/perennial-PED-denier Roger Clemens -- was 3.70, 112.64% worse than Pedro's. Meanwhile in '68, the NL ERA was a hair below 3, and seven pitchers finished within 112.64% of Gibson's mark. And yet it is the 1.12 that (somewhat undeservedly) evokes the awe.

The numbers have always fluctuated, and the years have never been created equal. So if the numbers are not inviolable -- and we really have no idea how PEDs actually affect a player's statistics anyway -- exactly where does all the media outrage come from?

Virtually every sportswriter is just a sports fan. Sure, they all claim to be objective, but in their hearts they are fans, which is why they got into writing about sports in the first place. And during McGwire and Sosa's 1998 pursuit of the home run record, these sportswriters raved about the amazing achievements of Big Mac and Slammin' Sammy, composing pieces laced with a childlike wonderment that bordered on hero worship. In truth, they couldn't help themselves; they were sports fans, and they were in awe. Just like the rest of us.

Well now these glowing stories -- inconveniently archived on the internet -- look a tad ridiculous. And all these sportswriters aren't happy about what they perceive as having been played for fools, as at the very least their inability to stay objective -- that is, avoid getting swept up in home run hysteria -- has been fully exposed. In order to exact some revenge, the media manufactures a rallying cry (the beloved Sanctity of the Record Book) and are then free to demonize the same players they once lionized, creating the ultra-diabolical lion-demon hybrid in the process.

Should the average fan care about PED use? I guess that's up to him or her to decide. I know that for me, seeing Sosa's numbers from 1998 to 2001 doesn't elicit the same giddiness it did six or seven years ago, in part because they serve as a reminder of my naivete. But beyond that, I don't really give a shit. The record book hasn't been sullied by the presence of the Steroid Era players, as long as we keep their accomplishments in the proper context. A little perspective is all we need, but the sports media's hysterics make that increasingly difficult. Which is why, on this subject, I try to ignore them.

Barry Bonds' name doesn't need to be stricken from the top of the home run list; just because he topped Hank Aaron doesn't mean we are obligated to consider him the better home run hitter. Aaron once passed Babe Ruth in the record book, but in the minds of most fans, he never displaced the Bambino as the greatest home run hitter of all time. Because as much as baseball is statistic-driven, it is still very much subjective. We are allowed to decide for ourselves who we think are the best players; we aren't forced into some blind adherence to the record book hierarchy. If you want to say that Hank Aaron is the true home run king because Barry Bonds was rubbing god-knows-what on his god-knows-where, more power to you. Me? I'll still take the Babe, thank you very much. Do you know that in two different seasons (1920 and 1927), he hit more home runs than any other American League team? Now those are some numbers with a little sanctity.

June 17, 2009

Sammy Sosa's Sad Sack Saga

In what has to be the least surprising news since Lindsay Lohan's death -- Wait, that still hasn't happened yet? Don't worry, it will soon -- Sammy Sosa is a steroids user.

I should mention that I once vowed never to blog about steroids, but since this is so intimately intertwined with the Cubs, I felt obligated to post. Anyway, the only thing even remotely shocking about these developments is not that Sosa used PEDs, but that there's actual scientific proof of it. Given his staunch, pseudo-broken-English denials when testifying in front of Congress a few years back, I wouldn't have thought there would be a positive test -- one that he was certainly aware of at that time -- which could irrefutably contradict his claims. I guess he really believed Bud Selig and Donald Fehr when they assured the players that the testing from 2003 was completely anonymous. For all of Sosa's missteps, trusting a used car salesman and a union head has got to be the most egregious.

Of course, as obvious as Sosa's steroid use seems in retrospect, at the time (late '90s to early '00s) I really thought Sosa was clean. And I think it goes beyond my Cubs' fan-related bias, as I thought Mark McGwire's only transgression was the (at the time legal) androstenedione spotted in his locker.* I'm pretty certain I wasn't the only one, either. It's kind of hard to explain, but even though it wasn't that long ago, it just seems like it was a completely different world. Remember, the acronym PED, so ubiquitous now, didn't even exist back then. As fans, we were all just a lot more naive and a whole lot less jaded. Following those guys -- from watching the majestic 500-foot bombs to looking at their eye-popping numbers -- was just good-old-fashioned, giggle-inducing fun. I guess it's possible that because we knew we were witnessing history, we didn't even want to consider that it might be somehow tainted. Because with Sosa's ridiculously pumped up physique, any blindness almost had to have been willful.

* As I was thinking about the McGwire andro incident, I came up with the theory that it just might have been a set-up, McGwire's contrived way of allaying steroid suspicions by getting 'caught' using something legal. It turns out, I'm not the first one to suspect that, as it's on his goddamn Wikipedia page. Really cracked that case, I did.

So if Sosa's 130 pounds of additional muscle weren't enough, should his statistics have been? Take a look at the progression of Sosa's home run rate (that is, the percentage of his plate appearances that resulted in a home run) up through 1997, his age 28 season:

That appears to be perfectly normal. Conventional baseball wisdom says that a player will generally progress to a peak between ages 26 and 28, and then regress back. So we might have expected Sosa's career graph to have ended up looking something like this:

Instead it looks like this:

Here they are together, because I've already wasted seven hours doing graphs and another 13 minutes won't make a difference:

Clearly, he must have been using something, right? His home runs spiked noticeably in his Age 29 season, reaching a level he had never come close to attaining, and he more or less stayed there for four years. That just doesn't happen.

At least that's what I thought.

In doing the research for this post, I assumed that I would find some nice, parabolic career home-run progressions for the presumably clean members of the 500-home run club, those whose playing days were over before the so-called Steroid Era began. I intended to compare Sosa not to some theoretical career path, but rather to the men surround him on the all-time home run list. To the predictable performance arc of say, Willie Mays:

Hmm. Okay, Hank Aaron:

What is that, an EKG? How about Frank Robinson:

Jesus Christ. Alright, last try. Harmon Killebrew:

** Note: I only charted the players' age 20-39 seasons, and eliminated years with fewer than 200 plate appearances.
While I guess Killebrew's kind of trends in the right direction, it's still not really close. The fact is, not one great power hitter that I looked at had an archetypal career progression. Because the expected performance curve is just the average of thousands of batters throughout major league history, and there's going to be all kinds of variation within the members of that group. Sammy Sosa's variation turned out to be substance-aided. If I knew nothing about how much muscle mass he gained during his career and I learned of his positive test, I would look at his numbers and think, Well, duh. Of course he did steroids. But I would think the exact same thing if I were shown Aaron's graph. His home run rate went up throughout his mid- and late-30's for crying out loud.

I suppose the graphic differentiation between the user and the clean players isn't in the arc, but rather the very height his line attains. When I put them all together, it becomes more apparent which line -- the one that starts the lowest and reaches the highest -- is Sosa's. It just isn't nearly as obvious as I thought it would be.

I'm going to end with something I wrote about five years ago, as it seems apropos today:
I was working for the Cubs in 2001, and for the October 2nd matchup against Cincinnati, my Crowd Management assignment was in the upper deck. Sammy Sosa had gone homerless in the previous three games, and remained stuck on 59 for the season. I desperately wanted Sammy to hit 60, so much so that each of his at-bats had become excruciating for me. With one more home run, he would become the first player in baseball history to hit 60 three times.**

** An achievement that will never be matched. Considering only one active player (Barry Bonds) has even one 60-homer season and he’s 67 years old, it’s highly unlikely that anyone will come close in the post-steroids era. There have been a total of only eight 60-homer seasons in baseball history; Sosa owns the third, fifth and sixth best single-season marks. Despite this, Sosa never led the league in any of those three seasons; he lost out to Mark McGwire in 1998 and 1999 (70-66 and 65-63, respectively) and to Bonds in 2001 (73-64). In fact, the only home run title of his career came in 2000, when he hit 50 to edge Bonds by a single dinger.

As baseball fans, we were a lot more naïve back then. While the rumors about Sosa (and McGwire and Bonds) using performance-enhancing drugs were somewhat widespread, I think most people believed they were clean, that they just worked exceptionally hard in the weight room during the offseason. It seems ridiculous now, in a time when it’s generally accepted that virtually everyone putting up huge power numbers was using something. I guess part of it was wanting to believe that jaw-dropping achievements could be realized through hard work, but as time goes by it becomes more and more apparent that what these guys did could not have been accomplished naturally.

Anyway, Sosa had been putting up such ridiculous stats year in and year out that I wanted him to have something to cement his place in baseball history. Each of his previous 60-homer seasons had been trumped by McGwire and this year he was lagging far behind Bonds’ record-breaking pace. But if he could just hit 60 again, he would always and forever be the first to have done it three times.

The pre-game was interminable; I thought the stupid game would never start. When Sosa finally stepped to the plate in the bottom of the first, the crowd gave him a warm ovation and then got very quiet. As Sammy settled into the batters’ box, everything stopped for me, although I made sure to keep moving; as far as my Crowd Management superiors were concerned, Moving = Working. Not moving was just about the worst thing you could do, other than act like a fan. That meant no cheering, yelling, heckling, or even watching the game.

Any time the bat hits the ball, at that very instant there is almost total silence in the ballpark; it takes a split-second for people to react to what’s happening, and so there is an anticipatory hush. If you were to slow down the soundtrack of a park when a home run is hit, I’d surmise that you could often hear a single fan react a moment before the rest of the crowd joins in. On the night of October 2nd, 2001, I was that fan. As soon as Sammy made contact with that 3-1 pitch, I knew it was gone. Amidst pin-dropping silence, I yelled “OH YEAHHHHHH!!!” So much for Crowd Management protocol; on this night, I was witness to history and couldn’t help myself.
And with these latest developments, Sammy Sosa has irrevocably done what I thought he did on that night nearly eight year ago -- he has cemented his place in baseball history.

June 16, 2009

Kobe Bryant's rank! One man's opinion

I hate Kobe Bryant. Have I mentioned that before? I hate reading about how great he is. I hate anything that insinuates he's the next Michael Jordan. I hate hearing -- mostly from delusional Lakers' fans -- that Kobe is better than LeBron James, a chorus that will only grow louder with Kobe winning his fourth ring.* However, as much as I dislike Bryant, I am forced to admit that this title has propelled him to another level, and he now has to be considered one of the top players of all-time. The question is, exactly how high up the list is he?

* Allow me to dispel the notion that Kobe is better than LeBron right here, right now. The argument is not that Kobe is a more accomplished basketball player than LeBron -- there is no doubt that he is, as he's been playing longer and thus has had more time to accomplish things -- but that he is currently a better basketball player. This is a complete and utter crock of shit.

First off, let's tackle the Kobe's-team-won argument sure to be in vogue with the pro-Kobe set. Look, as much as one player can dominate a game, basketball is still a team sport. Aside from limiting his turnovers, what more could LeBron James have done to beat the Magic? Here are Kobe and LeBron's relevant averages in their respective Magic series:
Kobe: 32.4 points, .430 FG% , .360 3pt%, .841 FT%, 5.6 rebounds, 7.4 assists, 1.4 steals, 1.4 blocks, 3.2 turnovers

LeBron: 38.5 points, .487 FG%, .297 3pt%, .745 FT%, 8.3 rebounds, 8 assists, 1.2 steals, 1.2 blocks, 4.2 turnovers
LeBron's only substantial deficit is in free throw shooting, which he more than made up for by by getting to the line nearly twice as often as Kobe (15.7 attempts per game versus 8.8). This -- and his 57-point edge in field goal percentage -- allowed him to average six more points despite taking slightly fewer shots per game.

What was the difference then? Teammates. Kobe's are simply much, much better.

Underserved All-Star bids notwithstanding, Mo Williams, LeBron's undisputed No. 2 -- and I mean that figuratively, as he played like total shit against the Magic -- would be no better than than fourth-best player on the Lakers, behind Kobe, Pau Gasol, and Lamar Odom, and he might also be below Trevor Ariza, Andrew Bynum and maybe even Derek Fisher. Anderson Varejao might not crack the Lakers front-court rotation, but he was the Cavs #1 big, averaging nearly 30 minutes per game against Orlando, a number limited only by his inability to stay out of foul trouble.

The Lakers without Kobe would still be a playoff-caliber squad. Certainly not world-beaters, but no slouches, either. Without LeBron, the Cavs would be one of the worst teams in the league. And that -- and not some personal failing -- is why their teams had such disparate playoff results.

Secondly, the rings. Are Tom Sanders and Jim Loscutoff (who?) better than Michael Jordan? Well, as members of those great Red Auerbach Celtics teams those two won eight and seven championships, respectively, to Jordan's six. Sure, some whacked-out stathead will claim that both men -- with their career scoring averages in the single digits -- merely had the good fortune to have been teamed with several Hall-of-Famers, and should be placed a notch or two below Jordan, but that's poppycock. More rings = better player.

Perhaps that logic might be a tad problematic.

Kobe now has four rings, LeBron zero. Which not only tells us very little about how they played this year, but also reinforces the notion that not all situations are created equal. Had LeBron played his early 20's with an in-his-prime Shaquille O'Neil, don't you think he'd have earned a handful of titles too? Remember, Shaq was the Finals MVP for each of Kobe's first three championships.
Because a player can't control his teammates, judging a career by the number of rings is largely a fool's errand. To say that LeBron is the lesser player because Kobe had already been on three NBA championship teams by the time he was LeBron's age would be as ridiculous as judging them solely by their career averages through their age 24 seasons for scoring. (Advantage LeBron, 27.5-21.5.). Or rebounding. (Lebron leads 7.0-5.0.) Or assists. (LeBron again, 6.7-4.2) Or field goal percentage... aw, you get the picture.

Finally -- and I'm cutting this short because I'm probably boring the hell out of anyone who's still reading (and I kind of covered it here to boot) -- LeBron's season blew Kobe's away. He won one more game (66 vs. 65) with a team that was far worse. His combination of numbers -- 28.4 ppg, 7.6 rpg, 7.2 apg, 1.7 steals, 1.2 blocks, 3.0 TO, .489 FG%, .344 3pt%, .780 FT% in 37.7 minutes -- tops anything that Kobe has ever done statistically, nevermind what he did this year. Kobe has never shot better than .469 in a single season, his career high for rebounds per game is 6.3, his best assist average is 6.0, and his high in blocks is 1.0. And none of those marks came in the same season, let alone this year. The only area where Kobe has an advantage is in free-throw shooting. But this year, even though Kobe shot 85.6% from the line, LeBron actually had more made free throws per game (7.3 vs 5.9) because he got to the stripe at a significantly higher rate.

For the record, Kobe's numbers for the season: 26.8 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 4.9 apg, 1.5 steals, 0.5 blocks, 2.6 TO, .467 FG%, .351 3pt%, .856 FT% in 36.1 minutes. Nothing to scoff at, certainly. But LeBron had the better statistical season, and he carried lesser teammates to a better record. That makes him the better player.

Now that was a long aside. What was this post supposed to be about, anyway? Oh yeah, Kobe's place in history. Unfortunately, I think I'm going to have to continue this later, as I just heard the totally shocking news Sammy Sosa used steroids. It looks like I've got a little somber bloggin' to do.