Land-o-Links for 5/19/2009

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It’s been a very long time since a Land-o-Links post, so here you go:

1.  What If I Don’t Want a Big Mac? (Blog-a-Bull) – An entertaining comparison of all of the current Bulls with various McDonald’s menu items.  Truer words have never been spoken about the McRib.  On a related note, there have been some suggestions out there that the Bulls ought to go after Carlos Boozer.  Now, is Boozer a better low post player than anyone else in Chicago at this time?  Yes.  However, is it worth crushing the Bulls’ salary cap space for Boozer and give up the chance to go after either Amare Stoudemire or Chris Bosh? NO, NO, NO, NO, NOOOOOOOO!!!  (If you ask politely, I’ll tell you how I really feel.)

2.  It’s Not You, It’s Jazz and the NBA (ESPN.com) – Paul Shirley examines why some of his friends haven’t been paying attention to the NBA (as judged by a survey of his poker buddies where only 3 of 8 knew all of the teams that had made the playoffs) by presenting an interesting corrollary between pro basketball and jazz, where the improvisation involved in both the game and style of music, making them relatively abstract, might make it difficult to be appreciated by those that haven’t played either.  As someone that did spend most of the first part of my life playing both organized basketball and trombone in jazz bands, I completely understand where he’s coming from, where both forms deal with a base structure but require a lot of improv within them.  There are two problems that I have with Shirley’s argument, though.  First, Shirley implies that part of the issue is that people need to have played basketball and jazz to be fully appreciative of each, but the thing is that a whole lot more people have played basketball in America compared to football and baseball.  Case in point, when was the last time that you’ve seen a pick-up baseball game in the park?  That never happens, yet you’ll find basketball hoops on urban playgrounds, suburban driveways, and rural farmhouses – if anything, it’s the most widely played sport across socioeconomic lines by a significant margin.  Second, I think that the fact that Shirley lives in Kansas City, which doesn’t have an NBA team, has much to do with his friends’ supposed ignorance of the NBA.  If you went to Portland or Salt Lake City, the average sports fan in those places would likely be more hardpressed to name the teams that make the baseball playoffs in any given year simply because they aren’t following baseball all season without having a hometown team to follow.  Frankly, the NFL is probably the only sport where you can use a standard where you can assume that the average sports fan knows where every team might be in the standings.

If I were to apply the “abstract jazz” issue to any sport, it would definitely be hockey.  In basketball, even if a casual sports fan or someone that never watches sports at all doesn’t understand how to run a pick-and-roll or properly box out an opposing player, that person can ultimately watch LeBron James and realize that he’s able to get the ball into a basket at a higher level than the other players on the court.  However, if you watch a hockey game that involves Sidney Crosby, he will make amazing moves that no one else in the world can do yet he’ll fail to score on such moves 9 out of 10 times.  So, it’s very difficult for someone that hasn’t played hockey (please note that everything that I know about hockey moves and formations is based on the 3000 hours that I spent playing EA Sports NHL ’98 back in college) to understand why a certain move or play is impressive or not – the relative lack of scoring in hockey almost de facto makes it abstract.

3. NHL’s Story a Regional One (Sports Media Watch) – Digging a little deeper into hockey, Sports Media Watch notes what most people know already, which is that the NHL has shown an ability to draw fans within its local markets but continues to struggle on the national level.  What drives me insane about Gary Bettman and the NHL’s leadership is that they know that they face a stacked deck compared to the other sports leagues yet make decisions that compound the league’s problems.  Case in point was last Thursday night, where the NHL had two game 7s (Detroit-Anaheim and Boston-Carolina), with each of them featuring a large market Original Six team.  This should have been one of those magical nights of hockey (particularly when the Bruins-Hurricanes game went into overtime) that would have drawn in a plethora of casual fans.  However, in the infinite wisdom of the NHL, the nation would only see the Red Wings-Ducks game in its entirety on Versus and if you wanted to see all of the Bruins-Hurricanes game, you had to shell out $79 for a pay-per-view feed.  If the part of the purpose of the NHL moving to Versus was that the network had a commitment to show more hockey, WTF is the league doing scheduling two game 7s at the same time?!  Meanwhile, the NBA had two game 6s going on that same evening and those games had staggered start times so that they could be a featured doubleheader on ESPN.  Say what you will about David Stern and the NBA, but that entity knows what it’s supposed to be doing on the television front in order to maximize its audience better than anyone else in sports.  It would be great if the NHL could get someone that would take into account the lessons of the NBA… wait a second… Bettman was David Stern’s right-hand man for over a decade prior to being named NHL commissioner?  Jeez – it’s not a good sign if a league would consider Bug Selig to be an upgrade.

4.  Lost, “The Incident”: The Men Behind the Curtain (What’s Alan Watching) – I’ll be putting up a Lost season finale post eventually (since the premiere of its final season won’t be coming until January 2010, meaning there’s time to mull everything over and with all the various storylines, we may need every moment to process it all), but in the meantime, please go over to Alan Sepinwell’s Lost analysis.  It’s a shame that I only stumbled onto Sepinwall’s blog this year since it’s now the first place that I turn to after each Lost episode – he puts up extremely well-written posts even with a short time constraint while the numerous commenters are generally pretty good (which is tough to find with respect to Lost blogs, where one segment of people get way too technical on one end and the other group on the opposite end consists of complete dolts).

And finally…

5.  Annals of Innovation: How David Beats Goliath (The New Yorker) –  While Paul Shirley compares basketball to jazz, Malcolm Gladwell draws a line between how lesser talented basketball teams’ use of the press provides insight into how underdogs are able to win wars.  Fascinating reading as always from Gladwell, who might be unparalleled at this time in terms of non-fiction writing, although I’ll quibble at a technical level with the long-term effectiveness of the press through an entire 48 minute game.  I understand the argument that it’s a disruptive tool that can shake the opposing team.  However, the press is by far the most tiring type of play that you can employ in the game, meaning that a team would need incredibly in-shape athletes to execute it over an entire contest.  Of course, if you had such in-shape athletes, that would mean that you’re a “Goliath” instead of a “David”, which eliminates the efficacy of using that strategy in the first place.  At the same time, once you get to the higher levels of organized basketball, any decent coach can draw up a press break that can often result in a wide-open layup on the other end of the court (since the press, which uses double-teams, will always end up leaving at least one player open).  Still, Gladwell sets forth a great game plan for how an underdog in any walk of life can beat the favorite: disrupt the opponent and take it out of its comfort zone.  The reason why not everyone does this?  Well, that disruption almost always takes a whole lot more hard work than just going through “conventional warfare”.  So, it really does come down to effort.

On tonight’s agenda: Game 2 of Hawks-Wings, Game 1 of Lakers-Nuggets, and, one of my favorite not-on-the-field sports events of the year, the NBA Draft Lottery.  Frank the Tank’s couch is definitely where amazing happens.

(Image from Cavalcade of Awesome)

Chillin’ Like a Villain: That’s Entertainment

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It happens in every single great basketball matchup – one team’s fan base ordains one player on the opposing team as the villain.  For Boston Celtics fans, they immediately latched onto the haterade for Joakim Noah at the beginning of what has turned out to be an epic series with the Bulls.  It took a few games for Bulls fans to coalesce around a single Celtics villain, though.  Last week, my money would have been on Eddie House, who just grates on me on a personal level if only because he kicks out his legs like a buffoon when he takes a jumpshot.  However, the events that transpired in games 5 and 6 of this first round series has catapulted Rajon Rondo into an illustrious club of Villains of the Bulls, which includes John Starks, Reggie Miller, James Posey, and, of course, my least favorite athlete of all-time by a landslide margin, Bill Laimbeer.  As I mentioned in my post the other day, my respect for Rondo had grown exponentially over the first four games of the series as he led a Celtics team depleted by injuries with the most consistent play of any player on either team.  In game 5, though, Rondo was involved in two plays that caused Bulls players to get stitched up, including the controversial hard foul at the end of the game on Brad Miller that many people thought was a flagrant foul.  (It wasn’t just Bulls fans – even Charles Barkley, who was the master of hard fouls, immediately thought that it was a flagrant.)  Personally, I thought that it was a flagrant foul as it’s defined by the NBA rule book, but there were a whole lot more reasons as to why the Bulls lost that game (i.e. failure to close out the game in regulation with an 11-point lead late in the 4th quarter, letting Paul Pierce prance to the exact same spot on the left side of the free throw line where he apparently can swish jumpshots blindfolded, etc.) and I didn’t think that Rondo had any malicious intent.  So, while most Bulls fans seemed comfortable in making Rondo as Chicago’s new Public Enemy Number One after game 5 (and the United Center crowd admirably let him know it by booing him mercilessly every time that he touched the ball in game 6), I still reserved some judgment on the young Boston point guard since I have been so impressed with his overall leadership skills in the series and he appeared to be the quiet and humble type like his opposing counterpart of Derrick Rose.

However, when Rondo tossed Kirk Hinrich into the scorer’s table in game 6, I finally came to the conclusion with the rest of Bulls fans that he’s a straight-out thug.  He might be a thug with actual basketball skills like Reggie Miller (and unlike Bill Laimbeer), but he’s still a thug.  It was amazing to me that Rondo would do such an idiotic move when ESPN and every sports media outlet in the country had already put him under such intense scrutiny.  (It was almost equally amazing by how quick Captain Kirk was ready to throw down.)  Congratulations, Rajon Rondo – you’ve guaranteed yourself a lifetime of catcalls every time that you step in the City of Chicago.

As for the series overall, it’s a bit premature to put this in the “greatest series of all-time” category in the annals of NBA history.  In just Bulls history alone, is this really a better series than the Bulls-Knicks and Bulls-Pistons battles of the early-90s, or the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals against the Pacers that also went to 7 games?  Those were games featuring numerous Hall of Famers on the floor such as Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Patrick Ewing, Isiah Thomas, and Reggie Miller all at full strength.  The Celtics’ battles with the Lakers and Pistons in the late-80’s were also all classics with guys like Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabaar, and Larry Bird on the floor in crunch time.  So, I’m not going to be so quick to grant this “greatest ever” status since arguably the best player on either team, Kevin Garnett, has been reduced to scowling like Tony Montana on the bench.  However, for pure entertainment value, this series is definitely off the charts.  I’d compare this to watching five buzzer beater first round NCAA Tournament games(with one blowout mixed in) all in a row – the quality of basketball might not be at a peak level compared to what we might see in, say, a potential Cavs-Lakers NBA Finals, but the back-and-forth nature of the games keeps you fixated at the edge of your seat.  So, if you’re a casual sports fan that wants to see intense games that go down to the wire, this series has been a boon.  At this point, I have no clue what’s going to happen in game 7.  I seriously didn’t believe that there could possibly be another overtime game after game 5, yet game 6 ended up giving basketball fans three overtime periods. (Joakim Noah’s steal and dunk (in the process posterizing and fouling out Paul Pierce) and Derrick Rose’s block on Rondo in the third overtime of game 6 are easily the most memorable Bulls moments in the post-MJ era.)  Chances are that game 7 is going to be just entertaining – I can’t imagine it being any other way after how everything has gone up to this point.  (One bit of advice to Vinny Del Negro: when the Bulls have the last possession in regulation or overtime to win or tie the game, GET THE BALL IN DERRICK ROSE’S HANDS FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THINGS HOLY!!!  That is all.)  Enjoy the weekend and GO BULLS!!!

(Image from Chicago Tribune)

No KG? It’s a Little Bit Rosier for the Bulls

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Last night, when the Bulls got locked into the seventh-seed position in the Eastern Conference for a first round matchup with the defending champion second-seed Celtics, I was pretty sure that we would have been witnessing a Boston sweep. Of course, this was assuming that Kevin Garnett (even a 50% healthy one) would be on the floor. With today’s announcement that KG will likely be sitting out of the entire playoffs, though, the Bulls’ loss to Toronto on Wednesday night (which prevented them from moving up to the sixth-seed) now looks fortuitous since they get a banged-up Boston team having to play the third-seed Magic and a healthy Dwight Howard. Granted, I still think that the Celtics have a substantial upper-hand since Paul Pierce will still be the best player on the floor and Ray Allen is what Ben Gordon could be if you added a heavy dose of consistency, but this has at least turned a series that was a virtually guaranteed sweep 24 hours ago into a scrum that could reasonably go up to 6 or 7 games.

The Bulls’ best chance to be competitive is to use their relative athleticism to push the tempo against a half-court-oriented Celtics offense and downgraded KG-less defense. This would be similar to the method employed by Scott Skiles’ Bulls team that swept the Heat (who happened to be that season’s defending champs) in the 2007 playoffs, albeit Vinny Del Negro’s group has better offensive weapons counterbalanced by a significantly worse defensive unit. After having a little bit of a lull in January and February, Derrick Rose has been rejuvenated in March and April (to the point where the point guard winning the Rookie of the Year is the biggest lock out of any of this year’s NBA individual awards) and John Paxson’s trade for John Salmons and Brad Miller has been a relative success. I’ll admit to having known virtually nothing about Salmons when he got sent over by the Kings (and I watch a lot of basketball), but his cockeyed jump-shot has grown on me to the point where his apparent recent injury issue has me much concerned than the fact that Luol Deng has been shut down. Salmons is one of a rare breed in the NBA: he’s a solid contributor and scorer that’s getting paid commensurate with the value he provides to the team. This means that he’ll be getting a Deng-like overpayment by the Bulls or some other team after next season (see also Kirk Hinrich and Ben Wallace). Regardless, I can’t believe that I’m writing that the health of some guy that I thought was the name of an entrée at Red Lobster a couple of months ago will end up swinging a game or two for the Bulls one way or the other against the defending champs, but it sure looks that way.

I still say that the Celtics will take the Bulls in 6 games (as opposed to 4 if Garnett were playing), although I also envision Derrick Rose having a couple of games that will serve the general public notice of his phenomenal skills (to the extent that it doesn’t know already) at the most difficult position to play in as a rookie in sports outside of quarterback. While D-Rose won’t put on a performance on par with Michael Jordan dropping 63 points in the old Boston Garden in the 1986 playoffs (against a Celtics team that would go on to win the NBA title that year), which led Larry Bird to famously proclaim that MJ was “God disguised as a basketball player” (and if Basketball Jesus makes a statement of that nature, you know it to be true), I think that it’s great that young point guard is going to get some playoff experience right away against a veteran club. From the moment that the Bulls won the NBA lottery last year, the focus of the organization has been to build around Rose to create a legitimate championship contender two or three years down the road. Outside of having Vinny Del Negro as coach (unfortunately, it’s 99% likely that we’re stuck with him for at least another season – I’m sure I’ll be posting a long overdue rant on this subject sooner rather than later), the Bulls are at least on the ascent where they should be set up nicely when the all-important 2010 free agent class hits the open market. Until then, I’ll enjoy some playoff basketball back in Chicago after a one-year hiatus.

(Image from Sports Illustrated)

The NBA Finals That We All Wanted (Outside of Detroit and San Antonio)

The ABC/ESPN hype machine has gotten the Celtics-Lakers NBA Finals matchup that it has been craving since the day it took away the league television contract from NBC six years ago. (The worst thing about the network move was that the glorious John Tesh theme song was mothballed in favor of a rotation of music “stars” that has gotten progressively worse over the years, culminating in the horrific current opening that stars Tim McGraw and Def Leppard. For as much as the ESPN empire bashes us over the head with pop culture references, they seem to have confused the highly urbanized NBA audience with a group of carnies from Decatur. This might also be planting the seeds of another sick ploy by the television conglomerate to jam NASCAR cross-promotions down our throats.) I’ll be honest with you – I’ve been craving this matchup, too. It’s not that I have any personal affinity for either of these teams, but I couldn’t take another NBA Finals involving the Pistons (unequivocally my least favorite pro sports franchise after the Packers) and the Spurs (a team that I know I ought to like as a pure basketball fan, but they annoy me in an irrational manner). Plus, as a sports fan in general, I’ve come to appreciate the rekindling of storied rivalries at the highest level since people can’t bank on it anymore with increased parity in all of the sports leagues. Back when I was a little kid, the Celtics and Lakers playing in the NBA Finals was considered a common occurrence, so the fact that it has been 21 years since they last met for the championship (a series that I remember clearly) is the latest in a long line of historical moments that have reminded me that I’m not really young anymore. What’s unique about the Celtics-Lakers rivalry is that it isn’t based on geography or conference/division affiliation like almost every other sports rivalry, such as the general New York vs. Boston/Philadelphia or Chicago vs. Detroit/Green Bay/St. Louis matchups (note that Cowboys-Redskins is still a divisional rivalry), but instead on excellence where they have met on the final stage with incredible frequency for a three decade stretch of time. The closest comparison might be Notre Dame-USC, but even then, they have only played one game where the teams were ranked #1 and #2 (this occurred in 1988, which was the last time the Irish won a national championship).

Of course, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird aren’t going to have much effect on this series. I was very excited about the prospect of the Celtics-Lakers matchup at the beginning of the NBA Playoffs, but over the past few weeks, it’s been looking more and more like this series can’t possibly live up to the hype. Hopefully, I’m wrong and this will push out to seven games, since that would be a transcendent sports moment. However, the Lakers look dominant right now and they disposed of the Spurs (who I think would beat the Celtics head-to-head) in five. There’s little indication that L.A. wouldn’t be able to dispose of Boston in the same number of games, so I’ll avoid the typical conservative commentator prediction of a six-game series and say that the Lakers will win 4-1 (I foresee a split of the first 2 games in Boston and then the Lakers rattling off 3 straight at the Staples Center).

Kobe Bryant continues to play out of his mind (the yahoo portion of the Bulls fan base that didn’t want to give up guys like Kirk Hinrich, Ben Gordon and/or Luol Deng for this guy last fall continue to look horrible) and will clearly be the best player on the floor (which you could say no matter who the Lakers are playing). I love Kevin Garnett as one of my favorite athletes that hasn’t played for a Chicago team or the Illini (although he’s a native Chicagoan), but he can’t necessarily take over a game the way Kobe can. At the end of the day, Paul Pierce is going to be the one that needs to match Kobe shot-for-shot while the rest of the Celtics have to hold down Pau Gasol and the balance of the torrid Lakers offense – that’s going to be a whole lot tougher than the one-man-LeBron-show that took Boston to the brink of elimination or the Pistons club that could only utilize Chauncey Billups in limited fashion.

At the same time, the Lakers have a monster coaching advantage in Phil Jackson over Doc Rivers. For the Phil-haters out there, particularly from Boston, that discount his accomplishments since his championships came with the Michael Jordan/Scottie Pippen Bulls and the Kobe/Shaq Lakers, I would like to point out that Red Auerbach never won a championship without Bill Russell in an era when power forwards rarely cracked 5’10”. I’m not sure why this never gets mentioned. Granted, I’m a bit biased here since I grew up as a Bulls fanatic and Phil was at the helm of the teams that provided me with probably the most memorable sports moments of my life. However, he should always deserve credit for getting the max out of that franchise in the 1990s. As much as I love Mike Ditka (to the point where I have this autographed photo in my basement), the ’85 Bears ended up being the ultimate one-hit wonder in sports history instead of the becoming the first championship team in a dynasty that should have lasted for the rest of the 1980s (Bill Walsh’s 49ers teams ended up filling that space) due to a lot of internal squabbling and personality clashes (many of which were caused by Ditka himself, much less the case of him not being able to solve them). In contrast, the ‘90s Bulls were able to achieve success even when they had a murder’s row of Godzilla-sized egos – MJ was a cold-hearted competitor to the extreme, Scottie was always a Toni Kukoc-last-shot-play from snapping, most of the rest of the team was perpetually at odds with Jerry Reinsdorf and Jerry Krause about their contracts, and there was that slightly-off personality known as Dennis Rodman during the second three-peat. The fact that Phil put those guys into line for six championships (along with three more rings with Lakers teams that were nearly as ego-filled) is a testament to his ability to coach in the modern NBA.

Meanwhile, Phil’s well-known soft skills in managing personalities and digging into players’ psyches are complemented by what I believe is an underrated substantive skill: I don’t know of a basketball coach at any level that has ever managed rotations of players better than Phil. Phil would often take MJ out of regular season games relatively early, yet the Bulls rarely collapsed because he got key bench players substantive playing team with Scottie Pippen running the second unit. This paid off massively in the postseason since (a) MJ was always healthy because he wasn’t unnecessarily put through max minutes early in the season and (b) the bench players often came up huge as a result of not just being in there at garbage time, which is why reserves such as John Paxson, Bobby Hansen and Steve Kerr live on in Chicago sports lore with key baskets in championship clinching games. Phil has done the same thing with the Lakers by regularly removing Kobe early and giving the second unit quality minutes with Lamar Odom running the offense. That means that Kobe and the rest of the starters are fresher (and already younger) than an older tapped-to-the-brink Celtics team and Luke Son-of-a-Bastard Walton or someone else of that nature will be primed to make a number of clutch shots in the series when Kobe is double or triple teamed. On the other side of the floor, Doc Rivers is acknowledged to have one of the most inconsistent rotations in the NBA (guys will play 30 minutes one game and then get DNPs for two weeks straight), which is a severe disadvantage when the Celtics are much more banged-up and can’t really depend on their stars to go 48 minutes every night.

Like I’ve said before, the basketball fan in me hopes that I’m wrong and that this becomes an NBA Finals that lives up to the hype. However, the basketball analyst in me believes that this will be a pretty easy stretch for a significantly superior Lakers team.

(Image from Sportslifer’s Weblog)