Bulls Get Freakish Athletes With Tons of Upside

The best answer any fan ought to give when asked how his or her team performed on draft day is, “Ask me in a couple of years.” I was excited about the drafting of Cade McNown by the Bears and thought the Bulls’ draft day trade of Elton Brand for Tyson Chandler would be great in the long run. Meanwhile, I thought Brian Urlacher was a decent yet unsexy pick and Kirk Hinrich would be a permanent NBA sixth man at best when they were drafted. It goes to show you that (1) draft day conventional wisdom turns into regular season and postseason bunk pretty quickly and (2) I’m an idiot. With that, here’s my knee-jerk reaction to last night’s NBA Draft that will be worthless by the end of this Fourth of July weekend.

A couple of days ago, I made the argument for the Bulls to take Brandon Roy (who I still believe will be the Rookie of the Year even while being stuck with the dysfunctional Trailblazers) while acknowledging that I’d be fine with either LaMarcus Aldridge or Tyrus Thomas. The Bulls ended up picking Aldridge with the #2 pick and then going through a convoluted trade with Portland where the Bulls gave him plus a future second rounder up for Thomas and Viktor Khryapa, who I had never heard of before last night. Considering that most teams had both Aldridge and Thomas rated pretty equally, John Paxson made a slick move since he was able to get the guy he obviously wanted along with another asset off of the bench. That trade made absolutely no sense from Portland’s standpoint – Aldridge would have fallen to them at #4 since Adam Morrison was practically guaranteed to go to Michael Jordan’s new regime in Charlotte, yet the Blazers ended up giving away their first round draft pick from 2004. Great fleece job here by Paxson.

Even though I pushed for Roy, the Thomas pick makes a lot more sense when coupled with the trade with the Sixers for their pick at #13, Thabo Sefolosha. Granted, the only footage I have ever seen of this guy was the reel ESPN put up last night after his name was called up and I don’t know any more about his game than what Stephen A. Smith had screamed into his microphone. Still, Sefolosha’s physical attributes certainly fit into what the Bulls need at shooting guard (assuming that this guy can play at 2), so if he’s as good as the international scouts say he is, particularly as a perimeter defender, he’s going to part of a great guard rotation with Hinrich and Ben Gordon. The only thing I’m frightened of is that he is supposedly the best basketball player ever to come out of Switzerland, which means we’re guaranteed Chris “YWML” Berman will be cracking jokes about Sefolosha’s neutrality for years. At the very least, the Bulls are now going to be an extremely deep team from the 1 through 4 spots.

That leaves Bulls to address the opening at center through either free agency or a trade. Joel Przybilla, Nene, and Nazr Mohammed are the reasonable free agent prospects with a small hope for Ben Wallace (although as great of a defensive player as he is, watching brick 3 out of every 4 free throws in the playoffs this year was disheartening). With such an important hole to fill, the offseason is nowhere near over for the Bulls front office.

The one thing that is for certain after last night’s NBA Draft is that John Paxson will no longer receive the backhanded compliment that he always makes the smart pick that’s a sure thing (translation: he didn’t have the cajones to select a “risky” player that might turn into a huge star). Thomas was unquestionably the riskiest of the consensus top six players heading into last night and Sefolosha is someone few people have seen in person, so it’s clear that Paxson made his picks based on the high ceiling as opposed to the floor. Ask me in a couple years about how the Bulls did in the 2006 draft.

Other NBA Draft Thoughts:

1) Where’s My TNT? – Add my name to the list of the multitudes of NBA fans that really want to see the NBA Draft telecast head back to TNT from ESPN. Jay Bilas and Greg Anthony are fine commentators (and I did enjoy Dan Patrick and David Stern exchanging good-natured insults with each in other in the middle of the first round, culminating with Patrick announcing to viewers and the crowd at Madison Square Garden that he always liked NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue better), but all of the dogs in my neighborhood starting barking simultaneously when ESPN went to a split-screen with Stephen A. Smith and Dick Vitale. I need my Charles Barkley analysis of the Knicks draft picks (we’ll just have to settle for the New York Post view, where Isiah Thomas’ level of ineptitude continues to amaze the masses by picking a projected second round pick at #20). I’ve said it before that the TNT NBA studio crew is the best in all of sports and with the ridiculous suits, entourages, and trades that occur on draft night, they are the perfect match for this event.

2) Illini Pride – I know I’m completely biased here, but James Augustine and Dee Brown should have both been drafted a bit higher than #41 and #46, respectively. This year certainly didn’t match the school pride Illini Nation had last summer when Deron Williams went at #3 and Luther Head jumped into the first round. The consolation here is that both James and Dee went to teams that they’ll fit in with well (what I mean is that neither of them ended up with the Knicks). Augustine will be playing along side emerging superstar Dwight Howard to provide an imposing frontline. At the same time, Brown is going to be paired up with Williams again in Utah, which means Illinois fans can party like it’s 2005 everytime the Jazz step on the floor. James and Dee are the two winningest players in the history of the University of Illinois, yet it was Patrick O’Bryant (about as Irish as Shaquille O’Neal), a Bradley center no one had heard of before the Braves’ Sweet Sixteen run, that ended up being a lottery pick. Such is life in the NBA Draft.

(UPDATE: Deadspin, which is edited by Illinois alum Will Leitch, has a nice take on the reunion of Dee and Deron.)

R-O-Y Spells Rookie of the Year for the Bulls

When the Bulls were ousted from the NBA Playoffs this year, I pointed out that this would be a pivotal summer for the franchise, starting off with who they chose with the #2 pick of the NBA Draft tomorrow night. My general thoughts haven’t changed much since then, although what I’d like to see the Bulls do has become more clear in my mind. Here’s how I would react regarding the most likely picks for the Bulls:

1) Good: Tyrus Thomas – Best athlete in the draft and should be a terrific shot blocker. Of course, he isn’t very polished on the offensive side, which makes me wonder if he’s just another version of Tyson Chandler (which we don’t need). Thomas is the very definition of “upside”, so he wouldn’t be a bad pick for the Bulls, but he’s not going to contribute very much next season for a team that needs someone to step in right away to help them in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

2) Better: LaMarcus Aldridge – He has got both offensive and defensive skills in the post and is a true big man, which the Bulls have a dire need for. The question is whether he’s going to be able to bulk up where he can withstand an 82-game regular season plus the postseason. As with Thomas, Aldridge is more of a project as opposed to providing immediate help.

3) Best: Brandon Roy – The conventional wisdom is that the Bulls need to draft for size first and foremost because that’s their biggest need. That’s also the same logic the Portland Trailblazers used for their own #2 pick in 1984 in choosing Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan. Look, I’m not saying that Roy will become anything close to MJ, but in my opinion, he’s the best basketball player in this draft. When you’ve got the #2 draft pick, you need to take the best player available regardless of position. If you don’t and fall into the trap of being obsessed with filling a need at a particular position, you can get burned and, in basketball more than any other sport, the franchise will be set back for years.

The Bulls also have more of a need at shooting guard than most people think. Ben Gordon has great offensive skills but is a few inches too short for the 2-guard position and is weak on defense. A number of people have suggested that Luol Deng can move over from small forward to shooting guard, yet it’s not the best course of action to have him switch to an unnatural position. Since the Bulls first won the NBA Championship in 1991, having a gamebreaker at shooting guard is essential to winning it all (look at Dwyane Wade this season). Brandon Roy is the complete package on offense and defense while having the potential to be that 2-guard star. I’d rather take him at #2 and then look for a big man with the #16 pick or through free agency.

4) Even Better Than the Best: Trade for Kevin Garnett – I know that this is highly unlikely, but if the Bulls can parlay the #2 pick plus their pick at #16 and, say, Deng or Gordon to Minnesota for Kevin Garnett, they need to pull the trigger. As much as the average fan might harbor fantasies of the upside of this youthful Bulls team, the fact remains that old teams with veteran stars win championships. While champions might have a couple of key players or even leaders that are relatively young (i.e. Wade’s Heat and the Lakers three-peat under Kobe Bryant), it’s impossible to win it all without veteran stars. Look at every NBA champ going back to the Celtics, Lakers, and Pistons in the ’80s, the Bulls and Rockets in the ’90s, and everyone who has won in this decade – they were all veteran-laden teams with at least two bona fide superstars.

At the same time, as much as I enjoyed the Bulls run this season, I still believe that they are farther away than a lot of people believe around here. Remember, they went from being a #4 seed with homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs in 2005 to barely making it into the playoffs as a #7 seed in 2006. Yet, for some reason, a lot of Chicagoans seem to be under the mistaken impression that the Bulls somehow improved last season. Garnett would give the Bulls the ability to make a huge leap to the upper echelon of the Eastern Conference.

5) Very, Very Bad and Radioactive: Adam Morrison – The popular favorite of those that fail to realize that college basketball is an entirely different animal than pro basketball. I have no doubt that he can be a fine jumpshooter at the pro level, but he’s an atrocious defensive player, which does not fit into the Bulls system at all. Plus, just because Morrison is white doesn’t mean that he’s Larry Bird.

All in all, if the Bulls end up with Thomas or Aldridge, I will completely understand and just thank Isiah Thomas again for his assistance. John Paxson picking Brandon Roy or a trading for Kevin Garnett, however, would make me an extremely happy man. If the Bulls end up with someone outside of those listed above, such as Andrea Bargnani (the supposed Italian Dirk Nowitzki) or Rudy Gay, I’m not exactly sure what I’ll do. Paxson has proven to be a solid drafter in the past with Kirk Hinrich (I hated that pick when it was made with my anti-Kansas bias, but it goes to show you that what you thought of a guy as a college player should have no bearing on who you want for your pro team… as long as it’s not J.J. Redick), Ben Gordon, and Luol Deng, so I’ve got a pretty positive feeling that the Bulls will be better off no matter which direction the franchise takes. In any case, I should be back after draft night with a recap.

Other NBA Draft articles of note:

Paxson Sweet on No. 16 Pick (Chicago Tribune) – With a weak draft, the Bulls could end up with as much value at #16 as they can get at #2 (although the Chronicles of Redick are lurking dangerously in this territory).

This Draft Has Officially Driven Me Insane (Blog-a-Bull) – The confusion of this dedicated Bulls blogger is a pretty good reflection of fans in the know.

The Death of That Nasty Word, ‘Potential’ (Sporting News) – With the NBA instituting a new minimum age requirement for entering into draft, Tyrus Thomas might be the last of the “upside” guys.

(Update: Every “expert” I’ve seen out there seems to think that it would be crazy for the Bulls to take Roy over a big man with the exception of the one guy – Bill Simmons.  Once again, the Sports Guy is the voice of reason.)

Land-o-Links – 6/23/2006

It's been an amazing week all around.  Here are some links for the weekend:

1) Ozzie Apologizes to Every Homosexual (Jay the Joke) – Ozzie Guillen correctly apologizes for using the f-bomb and then proceeds with a 4-minute long diatribe on how Jay Mariotti is still a "piece of shit."  This is absolutely well worth listening to in its entirety.

2) Guillen, Duncan Feud Over Plunking (Chicago Tribune) – During any other week with any other manager, an order to bean the son of the pitching coach of the opposing team would be the topic #1 around here.

3) A League of Their Own (Boston Globe) – Indy Transplant and I went to the White Sox-Cardinals game last night (Sox won 1-0 with their only hit being a Jim Thome homer, which was simply magnificent) and had a discussion on how much better the American League has been compared to the National League.  Sure enough, the Red Sox came out today with simulated stats showing that the record of an American League team playing a National League schedule would improve by 10 games over the entire regular season.

What's interesting to me is that the reputations of leagues and conferences in all of the major sports have completely switched around from when I was growing up.  The National League seemed to have all of the best players in the game back in the 1980s but it now seems to be the place where, as Bill Simmons claims, old pitchers from the AL such as Pedro Martinez and Roger Clemens go to spend their twilight years since the competition is so much easier.  Meanwhile, the days where the NBA Championship was really won during the grudge matches between the Bulls, Pistons, Knicks, Cavs, and Pacers in the Eastern Conference are now gone with the Western Conference now boasting teams which don't make the playoffs that could probably be top seeds if they were in the East (notwithstanding Miami's victory this past week).  Finally, in the NFL, I grew up wondering if I would ever see the AFC win a Super Bowl (the NFC was victorious in 13 straight Super Bowls, a streak that was broken by the Broncos beating the Packers in glorious fashion in Super Bowl XXXII), which seems laughable now.  To this day, I have a knee-jerk negative reaction whenever I hear someone say how bad the NFC is, but I then pull back and have to remind myself how that person is right.

4) Knicks End Year of Disharmony (New York Times) – If he hasn't already, Greg Oden needs to hire a real estate agent in Chicago pronto.  I love you, Isiah.

And finally… 

5) Limited Action Figures of B.I.G., Public Enemy Coming This Fall (AllHipHop.com) – I can fulfill my dreams of Biggie Smalls putting the smack down on C-3PO.

Beaming Up the Big Ten Channel

As I noted yesterday, the Big Ten has entered into a deal with Fox and DirecTV to launch the Big Ten Channel in August 2007. After reviewing the details of this network coupled with the conference's new agreement with ABC/ESPN (which in and of itself also improved the conference's exposure), I believe the Big Ten has made a great deal both financially for its member institutions and in terms of exposure for its fans across the nation.The key element of this deal, from my perspective, is that DirecTV is going to be carrying the channel nationally on its Total Choice tier (the equivalent of basic cable) as opposed to the premium sports tier (which subscribers need to pay extra for a la HBO or Showtime). That means every DirecTV subscriber in the country will receive the network. Considering that NBA TV, ESPNU, and CSTV are all on the premium sports tier, this new deal is indicative of how powerful the Big Ten Conference is on its own.

How does this change things for the average Big Ten fan? The largest item is that there will no longer be the syndicated ESPN Plus package for football and basketball games on local television stations – all of those games will be moved to the new Big Ten Channel. There are some pluses and minuses to this. On the positive end, all of those previously locally televised games will become national telecasts with, at the very least, respect to DirecTV.

The potential problems stem from the prospect of the Big Ten Channel first, not having those games available to those that do not have cable and second, for those without DirecTV, not being able to get onto basic cable in, at minimum, its home team markets in the Midwest and Northeast. For instance, if the Big Ten Channel isn't able to get onto the basic tier of service on Comcast Cable in Chicago, Illinois fans and other Big Ten alums in the Windy City will be shut out from a significant portion of their teams' telecasts. I'm a DirecTV subscriber (and I absolutely recommend it 110% over Comcast – if at all possible, get the dish) so it won't affect me personally, but it will not be a positive change if the average Big Ten fan either has no access or has to pay extra for access to games that were previously provided for free over-the-air. Getting onto the basic cable systems in the Big Ten home media markets is essential (any carriage outside of that would be gravy).

The network is a significantly positive development for the fans living outside of their favorite team's home market since those that are DirecTV subscribers will get access to games that they previously had to pay extra for on ESPN Full Court. Thus, this won't only benefit the Illini fan living in Florida, but also the Ohio State fan living in the heart of Big Ten Country in Chicago or Indianapolis. This also means that I'll be able to watch every single Big Ten football and basketball game from the comforts of my leather sofa, which means that I'm probably not going to be moving away from my television much from September through March. (Note: my appetite for Big Ten sports is so insatiable that I end up watching most Northwestern games, who play something that vaguely resembles basketball, just to tide me over between Illini games and other big conference matchups).

With all of the hub-bub regarding the new network, it's easy to forget that the Big Ten also significantly improved their deal with ABC/ESPN, with every ABC regional football game being broadcast nationally on one of the ESPN networks in the markets where the ABC affiliate isn't showing the Big Ten game along with more basketball telecasts on ESPN with a new nationally televised Thursday night game that's in addition to Super Tuesday (hooray for more games not involving Duke or UNC). That means that the Big Ten has increased the number of nationally televised football and basketball games on both ABC and, most importantly, the worldwide leader of ESPN.

On top of all that, there's the monetary aspect of the deal. Sources from Iowa and Michigan State report that each school is expected to receive an additional $7.5 million in revenue in the first year for the Big Ten Channel alone. Keep in mind that this figure doesn't even include the Big Ten's separate contracts with ABC/ESPN and CBS for men's basketball games (the old television contracts are expected to give the Big Ten $6.4 million in 2006, which is a number that should go up with the new ABC/ESPN contract). That means the Big Ten is looking at upwards of $14 million per year in television revenue for each school. To put this in perspective, Notre Dame, which is the standard-bearer when it comes to money and college sports, made $6.43 million per year in its deal that ended in 2004 with NBC (figures for the current Notre Dame/NBC deal are unavailable, but the annual rights fees in the contract ending in 2004 were actually lower than the first deal signed between the two entities in the 1990s). (Update: Other reports pegged the amount of the Notre Dame/NBC deal at $9 million per year).

These numbers mean two things: (1) the Big Ten has put itself into position to be the most financially dominant conference in the country, if it wasn't already and (2) expansion of the conference will almost certainly not happen unless that new member is named Notre Dame. I suggested a few months ago that if the Irish continued to balk at the prospect of joining the Big Ten, the conference ought to look at Syracuse as a potential 12th member. With this new deal, however, it will take a new member to provide upwards of $14 million per year in additional revenue just for the current schools to make the same amount of money with 12 teams as they had with 11 teams. Even with additional money from the creation of a Big Ten football championship game, I doubt that anyone other than Notre Dame could possibly provide the additional revenue that would make expansion worth it for the conference.

There are certainly risks from taking content that networks would surely pay a lot of money for in-house, but the Big Ten is the one conference that overcome such negative prospects. The Big Ten's home base of markets that includes Chicago, Detroit, and Philadelphia is the largest and strongest out of any other conference while its alums are spread widely from the Michigan and Penn State grads on the East Coast to the Illinois and Wisconsin expats in the Sun Belt and West Coast. All in all, this looks to be a great deal for the Big Ten and reaffirms it as the preeminent conference in college sports.

Other thoughts from across the nation on the Big Ten Channel:

1) A Look at the Big Ten Channel (IlliniBoard)

2) Big Ten Network is Set Up with Fox (New York Times)

3) Big Ten Gambles on TV Channel (Chicago Tribune)

4) A Big Ten Channel Would Be A Big Boon (Sporting News)

5) Will Cable Outlets View Big Ten Channel as Must-Carry TV? (Capital Times)

6) Big Ten Creates its Own Network (SportsBiz)

And finally…

7) Big Ten Network Unfortunately to Include Northwestern, Purdue and Minnesota Games (Sports Pickle)

Land-o-Links – 6/21/2006

What an evening! Mark Cuban got fined $250,000, Dwyane Wade lived up to the Michael Corleone analogy Shaq dropped a few months ago (where Kobe Bryant is Sonny and Penny Hardaway is Fredo), the White Sox hammered in 20 runs on the Cardinals, and Ozzie Guillen turned a new rookie into a sacrificial lamb in yet another beanball war. On top of that, there was such a plethora of fantastic news that I just had to post some more links for today:

1) Guillen Has Choice Words for Mariotti (Chicago Tribune) – How those in professional sports feel about Jay Mariotti.

2) Jay the Joke – How all of the rest of us feel about Jay Mariotti (actually, Ozzie summed it up pretty well above, but the detail on this blog is a public service to society as a whole).

3) YWML Suddenly Huge With 13-Year-Olds (Deadspin) – Frequent Deadspin readers will understand why this is such a ridiculously hilarious development. For those that need a refresher course, just consult your friendly Wikipedia.

4) Nine Lives, Still Intact (Hartford Courant) – The life of Lewis the Cat was spared by a Connecticut judge yesterday, although he'll be on house arrest for the rest of eternity. We in the legal field call this "The Martha Stewart Treatment" (celebrities get all of the breaks).

5) Big Ten Creates Another Revenue Channel (The Wizard of Odds) – All Big Ten, all the time. You had me at hello.

And finally…

6) Career Suicide (Siberia, Minnesota) – There are some things that you see and you can't unsee them.

Land-o-Links – 6/20/2006

Huge sports night is on tap with Game 6 of the NBA Finals and White Sox vs. Cardinals. Until then, here are today's links:

1) Cursing (Blog Maverick) – I vacillate between sincerely respecting Mark Cuban's passion for life on the one hand and wondering how someone who still can't properly use "your" versus "you're" can become one of the richest people in the world on the other hand.

By the way, Chicago quite possibly has the most boring set of sports team owners anywhere. Jerry Reinsdorf is a noted recluse, the Tribune Company is a faceless corporation, the McCaskey family hasn't appeared anywhere since hiring Jerry Angelo to run the Bears, and Bill Wirtz is too busy peddling bottles of booze to realize that he also owns a hockey team. In contrast, take a look at Dallas. If Tom Hicks, who as owner of the Texas Rangers signed A-Rod to a contract worth a quarter of a billion dollars, lived in any other city, he would be considered that nutty, crazy, and wacky guy that is always trying to get his name into the paper. However, he's only a distant third on the insanity scale in Dallas behind Cuban and Jerry Jones. Just a random observation.

(Update: Cuban actually sounds somewhat rational in his latest post regarding whether the NBA is rigged. The lack of proper punctuation, however, is still there.)

(2nd Update: Bill Simmons reiterates his theory on NBA referee assignments.)

2) Let Us Now Read From the Book of Dwyane (Deadspin) – I'm really just linking to this because of the picture. Although I picked the Mavericks to win the NBA Finals and I still believe that they will pull out the last two games in Dallas, I have to admit that I have a man crush on Dwyane Wade. He's real and he's spectacular.

3) Capitalist Rap (Forbes) – 50 Cent is obviously selling a whole lot of that purple stuff. He also performed a Don King-style fleecing of Mike Tyson.

4) No Hugs for Piven at Wrigley (Chicago Tribune) – A nice treat for all of those fathers that spent the day with their kids at the Cubs game on Sunday.

And finally…

5) Business Dreams Turn Sour (Chicagoist) – Forget about the increase in gang activity. There's now been an uptick in illicit lemonade stand trafficking. It looks like the South Side has followed me to Naperville.

Land-o-Links – 6/16/2006

My extra time to kill this afternoon means that all of you get an extra Land-o-Links before the weekend. In anticipation of the cornucopia of sports riches with the U.S. Open (although it looks like Tiger Woods won't make cut), NBA Finals (this series has gone from appearing to be dead at 10 pm on Tuesday to becoming something closer to the classic matchup that I had originally predicted), and interleague baseball (I actually have to cheer for the Cubs this weekend since they are playing the Tigers) over the next couple of days, here is some reading material to give your Friday a boost:

1) The FKS Guide to Dating Other Heterosexual Men (F.K.S.) – Brilliantly funny stuff from a highly recommended blog written by a frequent Deadspin commenter.

2) Missy Elliot Bio-Pic Being Produced by Actor Robert De Niro (AllHipHop.com) – Young Don Corleone, Jake LaMotta, Jack Byrnes… and Missy Elliot.

3) Dan Rather Considering Offer From Mark Cuban (New York Times) – Looks like the Mavericks are getting desperate for some more help to contain Dwyane Wade.

4) Fans to Manage Minor League Team for Second Half (ESPN.com) – Somehow, this seems completely appropriate for the land of Woodfield.

And finally but unfortunately…

5) Jordan an NBA Owner – Again (Chicago Tribune) – Nooooooooooooooooooo!!!!!!!!!!!!!

On that note, I'm off to recall better times by watching my Michael Jordan DVD collection, which includes Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals that ended with his last and most famous shot ever. That's right, that was the final shot of his career. MJ did not play another game in anything other than a Bulls uniform after that moment. I'm serious, folks.

Land-o-Links – 6/15/2006

I almost crashed my car earlier this week when I heard the new Jay-Z/Beyonce song, where Jigga's opening line is, "I used to run the bases like Juan Pierre." Well, judging by how well he has played this season, we can note that Juan Pierre also used to run the bases like Juan Pierre but doesn't do so anymore. As your resident White Sox fan, I'm pleading mea culpa to my misguided remarks before the season that I would rather take Pierre over Scott Podsednik as a leadoff man. Alas, this brings up an important question – is it more impressive that Jay-Z name-drops Pierre in a song or that Scotty Pods is married to a Playboy Playmate? Feel free to leave your comments on this issue as well as today's links:

1) Celebrity Sports Fan Rankings (ESPN.com) – Speaking of Jay-Z, Hova as partial-owner of the Nets comes in at #6 on this list. Our Chicago reps are Bill Murray (the one guy I really wish was a fellow Sox fan is #9 for the Cubs), Eddie Vedder (interesting choice for the Bulls at #11), Jim Belushi (really stretching the definition of celebrity at #29 for the Blackhawks), George Wendt (a shame that he is ranked lower than the less talented Belushi brother at #35 for the Bears) and Da Mayor himself, Richard Daley (appropriate comment by ESPN at #43 for the White Sox). Overall, it's a pretty legit list, although the stunning choice for the Yankees (whom after the Lakers, should have had the pick of the litter in star power) gave me that vomit-in-the-back-of-the-throat taste in my mouth while Jon Bon Jovi and Usher were not given their proper due whatsoever here.

(Update: Also, where is Lil' Jon?)

2) Jay-Z Shelves Cristal at 40/40 Club, Urges Boycott (AllHipHop.com) – Once again speaking of Jay-Z and following up on a report from last week, our Roc-A-Fella Records founder doesn't care for the French, either.

3) Bush Received Weapons Cache From King of Jordan (The Smoking Gun) – Complete list of gifts from foreign leaders to President Bush during 2004. I didn't realize Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia was such a huge Cowboys fan.

4) At Tribune, a Call for a Split (New York Times) – Maybe the Cubs will be sold after all.

5) Sox Pitcher Dismissed After Miss (Chicago Sun-Times) – After Suge Knight, Ozzie Guillen is the last person in the world that you want to cross.

And finally…

6) How Much is Your Blog Worth? (Business Opportunities Weblog) (submitted by Minneapolis Red Sox) – For all of my fellow bloggers out there, be sure to check out how much your blog is worth based on your Technorati link count and the AOL-Weblogs deal. If you would like to pay the current market value of $5,645.40 for Frank the Tank's Slant, please contact me ASAP. I'm nothing if not a capitalist.

(Photo from Atlanta Thrashers.com)

Oh Lord, Stanley: A Modest Proposal to Save the NHL

Poor National Hockey League. The ratings for this year's Stanley Cup Finals have been breaking all kinds of records for futility, from losing head-to-head matchups with women's college softball and a baseball game that rained out (in St. Louis, a better than average hockey town, the ratings for game 1 were so low that it wasn't even registered by Nielsen) to narrowly avoiding the worst rating in the history of prime time network television on Saturday. (To put this size of this abyss into perspective, the Stanley Cup Finals on NBC on Saturday drew approximately 1.3 million viewers. In comparison, "Emily's Reasons Why Not", which was cancelled before the credits starting rolling on its only episode, drew 6.2 million viewers.) While it's not surprising that there has been low interest in a series featuring two small markets (one of them being Canadian) coming off of a shut-down season, it's pretty sad to observe the NHL and the proud game of hockey taking such a beating.

As my three or four regular readers have probably noticed, I haven't written more than the occasional blip about hockey. That's because personally, I've never been much of an NHL fan (I'll explain the reason for this later in this post), and therein lies evidence of a major problem: if a person, such as myself, who devotes the majority of his television time to watching sports events of all stripes can't sustain much interest in the NHL, the hopes to attract a larger audience beyond hardcore hockey fans will be almost impossible.

The thing is, my non-NHL fan status has nothing to do with an aversion to hockey as a sport overall. In fact, I'll grant anyone the argument that hockey is the most exciting of the four "major" sports to watch live. I've been to plently of Blackhawks games (back when they actually fielded teams consisting of players that weren't Canadian Junior League rejects) along with being an Illini hockey regular and loved every moment of those experiences. Even more importantly, EA Sports NHL Hockey is neck-and-neck with Madden as the best sports video game for Playstation 2. (Sidenote: Back in college, my buddy Danny M and I made the greatest create-your-own athlete in the history of video games, which was a hockey player named "Ass Whooper". To give you a mental picture of what he looked like, he was essentially Shaq on ice skates. We actually got the Whooper to check a referee through the glass in the middle of a game, which was certainly the pinnacle of my video gaming career.) It's a fast-paced game with tons of hitting – what's not to love, right?

The NHL's problem over the past few decades, though, is that it has been a poorly run from the top league level all the way down to local franchises. While David Stern has been a brilliant commissioner of the NBA to turn that league into an international phenomenon and the NFL has had great stewards in Pete Rozelle and Paul Tagliabue (the entrenchment of baseball in the American psyche has allowed Major League Baseball to survive under the ineptitude of Bud Selig), the NHL has suffered from terrible vision and leadership from Gary Bettman, which is the death knell for a league that doesn't have the built-in interest of basketball, football, or baseball.

Therefore, here's my plan for what the NHL needs to do in order to even have a chance in this fragmented sports world:

1) Get Back on ESPN Somehow – This might not even be possible as ESPN has figured out that cheap softball and poker programming is killing the NHL in the ratings. Still, as long as the NHL doesn't receive exposure from the Worldwide Leader in Sports, where the lack of games on the ESPN family of networks has trickled down to only cursory coverage of the league on SportsCenter, it's going to continue to die a slow death. Coverage on OLN, which is in approximately 30 million fewer homes than ESPN, is not going to work for if the NHL ever wants to be considered a "major" sport again.

2) Sell the Franchises in Chicago and Boston to Owners That Care – The Blackhawks and Bruins are two Original Six franchises dripping with history and tradition and located in huge media markets that have fanatical sports fans. They ought to be the teams that the NHL can count on to bring more attention to its product. Yet, they have been saddled with quite possibly the two worst owners in all of sports with Bill Wirtz in Chicago and Jeremy Jacobs in Boston (when ESPN.com called upon readers to write in letters regarding the worst owners in sports, Jacobs and Wirtz were respectively the #1 and #3 vote-getters).

Without question, Bill Wirtz is the biggest reason as to why I never became more than a less-than-casual Hawks fan. While I have been watching multitudes of White Sox, Bears, Bulls, and Cubs games for as long as I can remember, I was never exposed to Hawks games in my formative years. That's simply because I couldn't be exposed to them even by accident. Not only do the Hawks, to this day, not broadcast its home games on television under the guise of "protecting its season ticket holders" (funny, having 162 Cubs games over-the-air on WGN didn't exactly hamper their season ticket base), but they were one of the first franchises in any sport to completely move all of their local broadcasts to cable. That wasn't good for me since my family, like the majority of families up until the late-1980s, didn't subscribe to cable at all. Therefore, the only hockey games I ever saw on television up until I was a teenager were the NHL All-Star Games, which featured no checking and 17-14 scores.

Adding on to that is when the Hawks finally looked as though it would breakthrough in the early-1990s with stars in their primes such as Jeremy Roenick, Ed Belfour, and Chris Chelios (peaking with a Stanley Cup Finals appearance in 1992), Wirtz did everything in his power to drive those players away. As a result, the Blackhawks have made the NHL playoffs only once since 1998 (this isn't even counting the fact that they haven't won the Stanley Cup since 1961, which is the longest championship drought of any franchise in hockey). Not only that, this is in the midst of the diluting of NHL going through expansion overkill, which brings up the following point.

3) Contraction of the NHL Back to True Hockey Cities – Back in the day, the Blackhawks would play the Original Six teams along with the Blues and old North Stars (when they were in Minnesota) for a majority of their games throughout the season. Now, as opposed to having a schedule filled with dates against the New York Rangers and Toronto Maple Leafs, Hawks fans get to see plently of insomnia-curing tilts with Columbus and Nashville.

Back in the early-1990s, the fashionable thing for all sports leagues to do was to look southward and westward for fast-growing markets as expansion and relocation targets. I'll grant that there were a number of open markets that were too large for the NHL to ignore, such as the San Francisco Bay Area, Dallas, and Atlanta. However, the league's obsession with new-wave warm-weather towns such as Nashville, Raleigh, and Tampa led it to abandon a number of cold-weather towns in Canada and, for a period of time, Minnesota (an absolutely crazy move since Minnesota is the only place in the United States where its residents' obsession with hockey is on par with Canada – the North Star State is to hockey as Indiana is to basketball) that were passionate about hockey. What looked like great moves to growing markets turned out to be a removal of the game from the areas where people care about it the most.

From my view, there are six teams that should easily be axed: Columbus, Nashville, Carolina, Tampa Bay, Florida, and Anaheim. We could probably cut it down even more, but I believe that the remaining 24 teams keeps the most desirable markets, franchises, and rivalries.

4) Realign, Forget About Geography, and Bring Back the Wacky Names – The next step after contraction is realignment. While geography ought to still be a factor in placing teams in conferences and divisions, the NHL should bring back an important part of its history. Despite the fact that Chris Berman annoyingly insists upon calling the NFC North the "Norris Division" every single freakin' week during the NFL season, the pre-1993 NHL names for its conferences and divisions which gave no references to geographic locations were a unique aspect of the game that should have never been eliminated.

Here is how I envision a new NHL:


Adams Division: Montreal, Boston, Toronto, Ottawa, Buffalo, Atlanta (gets the nod over Florida only because of Lil' Jon)

Patrick Division: New York Rangers, New York Islanders, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Washington, Pittsburgh


Norris Division: Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, Minnesota, Colorado, Dallas

Smythe Division: Los Angeles, San Jose, Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver, Phoenix (the Coyotes need to stick around as long as Wayne Gretzky has a stake in that franchise)

5) Reemphasize Rivalries by Returning to Unbalanced Schedules and the Divisional Playoff Format – It wasn't too long ago that the Blackhawks-Red Wings rivalry was considered to be the fiercest and most important intercity rivalry on the Chicago sports landscape – even more than Bears-Packers or Cubs-Cardinals. These days, however, a random Bulls game against the Grizzlies attracts more attention than what is arguably the NHL's greatest rivalry. A large reason for this occurring (besides the Blackhawks supremely sucking at the same time that the Red Wings have been putting together championship teams) is that the NHL made the decision at the time that it renamed and realigned its divisions geographically that teams would play "balanced" schedules that pared down the number of intradivision games along with eliminating the divisional semifinals and finals from the first two rounds of the playoffs and going to a straight seeding of all teams in each conference irrespective of divisions.

So, we now have a situation where the best thing that the NHL had going for it – great rivalries – is now deemphasized to the point that it's hardly registers any interest to the average sports fan anymore. Therefore, I'm proposing that the NHL brings back unbalanced schedules where each team would play those outside of its division only twice (once at home and once on the road) while having the rest of its schedule filled with intradivision matchups. This would then make it fair to also go back to the divisional playoff format, where rivalries truly come to fruition. Imagine if the Bears played the Packers or the Yankees played the Red Sox in the playoffs every season. That's essentially what the NHL used to have and it could have it again.

The NHL should give up on its hopes that it will ever come close to the NFL, Major League Baseball, NBA, college basketball, college football, or NASCAR in terms of national interest. There's absolutely no reason, however, for such a historically-rich league to get beaten in the ratings by fishing shows, the WNBA, and John Stamos TV pilots. The sports world will be a lot better off if the NHL can get back on its feet to be a respectable league once more.

Dick Vitale is on Suicide Watch


When J.J. Redick gets arrested for a DUI, an emergency post with his mugshot is not just warranted, but necessary.

(Photo from Deadspin)

(Update: In a classic case of being careful for what you wish for, there's speculation that Redick would drop down in the NBA Draft to where the Bulls might take him with their second pick at #16. Now I'm on the suicide watch.)