A Weekend in Portland

Two weeks ago, I bought tickets to see the Portland Sea Dogs’ Friday night contest against the Trenton Thunder. My forecast of the rotation placed Henry Owens, Red Sox uber-prospect, on the mound that night.

I did not predict the forecast, however. A rain-out and postponed game meant that the other Sea Dogs lefty Mickey Pena took the hill on a frigid, 37-degree night. At the ballpark with my family, we sat in arctic conditions and watched the polar opposite of a pitcher’s duel.

A final score of 14-10, with more than 30 hits, saw the Sea Dogs blow a late lead and give up six runs between the eighth and ninth.

I was happy, kind of. My whole family had gone, so that was fun, and my spectacular sister Sarah played the cute, young girl baseball fan card and snagged us a Mookie Betts-signed baseball.

But, as we drove home on I-95, I grumbled that if Henry Owens was on the mound it would’ve been quick up-and-down innings.

Owens is heralded as the next great Pitcher for the Boston Red Sox – Portland’s parent club. He tossed a six-inning, rain-shortened no hitter on Portland’s first night in action.

I woke up Saturday morning feeling slightly dissatisfied. That feeling persisted all throughout the day. I called friends, but they were either working or planning on spending our last day of April break working on a Chemistry lab.

I decided I was going to drive to Portland and buy game-day tickets anyway. I ended up even convincing my Dad to come with me.

To someone that lives in Miami or Cincinnati or San Diego, game-day purchases of tickets may seem the height of normal, but around these here parts – Red Sox Nation – driving somewhere to buy tickets sans a plan was a guaranteed waste of gas money – unless, of course, you don’t mind getting gouged by ticket hawkers.

By the time Dad and I got to the ticket booth, it was 15 minutes prior to the 1 o’clock game. I approached the window and asked for the best seats they had, expecting little. I had looked the night before as a guess and saw that the best two seats they had together were about 30 rows back in the bleachers behind the plate.

The attendant handed me two tickets for “Row B” – one row behind home plate. Directly behind the dish. For $20. I could yell at someone and they would hear me.

So many reasons to love minor league baseball.

The tall, lanky kid from California warmed up for the top of the first and my anticipation grew. Shouts from around the stadium, “Let’s get ‘em Owens!” were interspersed with conversational buzz about what we’d see from him today. He was facing a decent lineup from Trenton, including First Baseman Kyle Roller, who had hit two home runs off the lefty Pena on the Friday before when I was there.

Playing in the game that day were three Red Sox prospects I have written about before that could be on their way to the major league club and impact performance: Owens, Second Baseman Mookie Betts, and Catcher Blake Swihart.

So I was all settled in, ready to be dazzled by Henry Owens brilliance. One thing I didn’t account for: the weather (gloomy clouds) was reflected upon the diamond.

Owens got shellacked. He gave up three runs in the first on 31 excruciating pitches. His fastball hovered around 89-90 miles per hour (mph), but he occasionally hit 92 on the gun. His 77 mph change-up kept hitters off-balance and a devastating 69 mph curveball produced swings and misses…eventually.

Owens didn’t get his first swing-and-miss until the third inning – by the time he had given up five runs. The command of his off-speed stuff was incredible, locating extremely well, but his fastball was less sure. He threw 57 strikes over 90 pitches. But, when Owens missed, he missed badly up in the zone. He paid dearly. Trenton’s top player – the New York Yankees top prospect – Catcher Gary Sanchez drove in three, including a homer off Owens over the Mini-Monster in left. It wasn’t as if they were bloop singles and the occasional solid contact, all of the hits Owens gave up came off ringing cracks of the bat.

The positive is that Owens’ pace is quick. He could throw three accurate pitches before Daisuke Matsuzaka could toss in one ill-aimed gyroball.

In five innings, Owens gave up six runs on nine hits and three walks, striking out just four. He was saddled with his first loss of the season.

As it ended up, Owens wasn’t the story of the day. Mookie Betts impressed on both sides of the ball. He reached base for his 54th straight contest. He went 1-for-5 Sunday, but the lone hit was a wall-ball double that drove in one. He is batting .405 on the season.

Watching him at the plate, he has so much patience. On Friday he battled in the late innings in a tie ballgame with a Thunder Reliever and, on the 11th pitch of the at bat, he produced an RBI single up the middle. He has a quick bat and in the eleven at bats I saw him in, he didn’t get fooled on one pitch. Not only on offense, but on defense he impressed as well. In the top of the 8th, in a one-run game with a runner on first, Trenton DH Robert Refsnyder connected solidly on an offer from Portland Pitcher Jose Valdez.

It appeared to be sailing towards the gap in right-center when a glove rose into the frame. Leaping up to snare the liner was Mookie Betts. As soon as he secured the out, he withdrew the ball from his glove and rifled to first. Before his feet touched the ground, the ball skipped on the dirt and was snared by Travis Shaw, the Portland first basemen and doubled off the runner.

Mookie bounced up from the crumpled heap assumed his position at second base; he did not react to his incredible play or the partial standing ovation he received. That is the most athletic play I have ever seen in person. Mookie Betts will be special. If the Sox can find a spot for him – second is currently filled by Dustin Pedroia, who has a 7-year contract – he can contribute at the big league level.

As for Blake Swihart, he turned in a mixed performance. He swung at his first offering of the afternoon, grounding weakly to short. The next two at-bats he went deep (five and seven pitches, respectively) grounding out in the first and smacking a hard-hit single to right in the latter. However, for his last AB of the day he went down on three pitches with two very off-balance swings at off-speed stuff.

The one thing I did not predict was Trenton Thunder Closer Branden Pinder.

To give you some perspective: the hardest anyone threw that weekend was 93, and it was one pitch uncorked by Portland Reliever Jose Valdez.

This guy hit 95 with ease. He had a devastating slider at 85 mph and a slippery change-up that looked like a fastball, but slowed to 83 mph. He attacked the zone (10 strikes on 12 pitches) and blew away the best Portland had to offer. He reduced Mookie Betts to cookie crumbles for the final out of the game. His low arm slot could be a problem as he throws across his body a bit, but the Yankees could be more aggressive since he’s a reliever.

So while Friday night didn’t go the way I expected, I was glad that Owens didn’t pitch. It brought me back a second day to watch even more baseball at a great venue for an incredible price. Looking at numbers and drawing conclusions from analytics is a fine part of baseball – one that may overwhelm the casual observer. But from those numbers and abbreviations, nothing stands to the eye-test. Sitting in a park and watching a pitcher work or seeing a hitter work a count.

Even if you’re not into analyzing baseball and like watching a game because it’s entertaining, there’s nothing quite like getting into the ballpark and sitting down, ready for the game to begin.

And even if the prize prospect you’re going to watch doesn’t have the best game, you may be pleasantly surprised by someone else. I’m watching you guys, Mookie Betts and Branden Pinder.

2014 NBA Playoff Predictions

The 2013-14 NBA Playoffs started last week and I’m here to predict what will happen throughout the postseason. I wrote this column before the playoffs started, but elected to keep with tradition and publish on Monday. I haven’t re-written any part of the article, but here’s to hoping that Indiana can win the next four in a row, because I picked them winning in five.

I have written about the flaws in the postseason for both NBA and NHL here, last year, and will write about conference re-alignment sometime in the near future, but, for now, here are my predictions for these wild NBA playoffs.

First Round:

Eastern Conference: 

Indiana Pacers (#1) vs. Atlanta Hawks (#8)

The Indiana Pacers soap-opera of a season was geared specifically toward earning the number-one seed and they did it. To say they got an easy matchup in the first-round is a huge understatement. This Hawks team (38-44) is playing without its best player, All-Star Center Al Horford, so they’re a depleted team with a sub-.500 record. However, they did beat Indiana IN INDIANA 107-88 just two weeks ago. Was Indiana just coasting then? They’ve complained, for sure.

Indiana hasn’t faced “adversity” like they’ve claimed. They’ve hit a rough patch. You can bet that Larry Legend will make his way down from the box to the locker room and give them a pep-talk. This team is too talented to lose the series, but it’s entirely possible that Atlanta will heat up from beyond the arc for at least one game with Point Guard Jeff Teague doing damage against the Pacers defensively weak backcourt.

Prediction: Pacers in 5

Miami Heat (#2) vs. Charlotte Bobcats (#7)

You know how Disney writes movies engineered to have you root for one party and proactively dislike the other?

Remember Toy Story? Good, keep that in mind.

The Bobcats are better than they’ve been in years. Kemba has played well and Big Al Jefferson can pop off for 40 points and 20 rebounds on any given night. Their team defense has even improved to be in the top-half of all NBA teams.

Not even Disney could write a story where Big Al wins. Literally. They’ve tried. They didn’t let Big Al win.

"Okay...I took off LeBron's arm. Wait, what do you mean we'll still lose?"

“Okay…I took off LeBron’s arm. Wait, what do you mean we’ll still lose?”

The Miami Heat have the best player in the world and they’ll get Dwyane Wade back for the playoffs and the schedule of never having back-to-back games suits him. They’re the reigning champions and even if Jordan in his prime came back to lead the Bobcats, they couldn’t win this series.

Prediction: Heat in 4

Toronto Raptors (#3) vs. Brooklyn Nets (#6)

The fact that the Nets are a six-seed is garbage. Bill Simmons talks about the Basketball Gods and they should punish Mikhail and his bunch for tanking into this spot. This roster, the richest in NBA history, has the average age of a octogenarian convention so they rested guys. They’re so old that if Uncle Drew was real, he’d get offered a max deal by Brooklyn – who looks to monopolize on age.

"Do you think this disguise can smuggle me out of Cleveland?"

“Do you think this disguise can smuggle me out of Cleveland?”

Makes sense, right? Except that this story is the one that no one mentioned when they discussed tanking. The Nets have tanked their way to a great seed and are much more talented than sixth-seed in the East suggests. Also, bringing in Jason Terry, Paul Pierce, and Kevin Garnett may have created something of a 2011 Miami Heat early season where players just aren’t used to playing with each other.

Now that they’ve had enough time to acclimate, small-ball aficionados (Paul Pierce at the 4, whaaat?!) will run this young team out of the playoffs. That’s because they’re rested legs who know how to win. Especially if Shaun Livingston keeps on keeping on as he’s been lately with his good knees and two-way talent.

No doubt that there’s talent on this Toronto team, but the streakiness of Terrence Ross and Joe Johnson’s domination of DeMar DeRozan points to a quick exit for the team from Drake’s home town.

Prediction: Nets in 5

Chicago Bulls (#4) vs. Washington Wizards (#5)

The Chicago Bulls are in the playoffs. In 2011 you would’ve said that made sense, and they probably did it as the one-seed. In 2014 you’d be half-right. They’re in, but they’re sure not the one seed. This is a team that traded arguably it’s second-best player (Luol Deng) to Cleveland mid-season and seemed to be tanking for the draft while watching their former-MVP Derrick Rose hobble around on Professor Lockhart mended legs.

The Bulls are tenacious defensively and are led by Center Joakim Noah and Coach Tom Thibodeau. This could mean that the experience on their roster could overwhelm the Wizards, whose experience leaves a lot to be desired. John Wall will have a more difficult time dribble-driving on this tight Chicago defensive front and the interior presence of Nene and Gortat could be thwarted by the physicality of Carlos Boozer and Noah. Sixth Man of the year candidate Taj Gibson keeps Chicago fresh when Washington has to resort to Al Harrington for offensive output and will limit him effectively.

If Chicago can make Washington a jump-shooting team only (and the Wiz do love to shoot jumpers), then the Bulls will dispatch Washington easily.

Prediction: Bulls in 6

Western Conference: 

San Antonio Spurs (#1) vs. Dallas Mavericks (#8)

The Dallas Mavericks entire organization and fan base and any dog that wears a costume of the team for weird Christmas photos had this reaction when they realized earning the 8-seed meant they had to play the Spurs:

😦

Really. The Spurs have swept them both the past two years in the playoffs, including, ESPN Stats and Info tells me, that they’ve lit-up Dallas D for 115 points per 100 possessions. If you’re new to basketball analytics: that’s a lot of points. Even though Rick Carlisle has done a phenomenal job at the helm of Dallas this season (beating out a great Phoenix team with a patchwork squad) that can’t save them. Also, RIP to Monta’ Ellis’ under-ratedly great season. His near-40 point increase in Field Goal percentage on three less shots per game, along with his ability overall to be a teammate, doesn’t mean a thing because Kawhi Leonard shuts him down like a Senior blonde, cheerleader girl does to an awkward, pimply Freshman guy. This doesn’t end up like the movies where the dude gets to kiss her once, either. It’s Stone-Cold Steve Austin rejection.

Prediction: Spurs in 4

Oklahoma City Thunder (#2) vs. Memphis Grizzlies (#7)

This is an interesting clash of ideologies. The Grizz slow the tempo down and lob it into their two big men – Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph – who dominate the post. On the other side, Oklahoma City runs more than a track team and every rebound they get, they outlet into a transition bucket it seems at least 50% of the time. Oklahoma City was ousted last year by Memphis, but that was after Patrick Beverley took out Russell Westbrook and he was lost for the entire series.

This series, however, is different. The weakest part of the Thunder’s game is their perimeter defense, but unfortunately for Memphis, they aren’t equipped to take advantage as Conley is a pass-first, dribble-drive guy and the team doesn’t shoot well from beyond the arc. There’s something to be said about having Derek Fisher and Caron Butler play crunch minutes for a championship contender, but as long as they produce, they have the legs to carry them through the post-season.

The best shot the Grizzlies have is to get Ibaka in foul trouble and then pick on Kendrick Perkins (hahaha, defense.) and Nick Collison down low.

BUUUUT, Kevin Durant is the best scorer in the game and Memphis relies on their defense and slow tempo to win games. There’s no scenario in which Memphis gets the bear off their back to win this series.

Prediction: OKC in 5

Los Angeles Clippers (#3) vs. Golden State Warriors (#6)

The fun part about this series is that they genuinely don’t like each other. Jermaine O’Neal storming the Clips locker-room to try and fight Blake Griffin back in March (O’Neal, not Bieber) makes this series as entertaining as you’d expect from two franchises near Hollywood.

The Warriors are interesting. They exemplify the basketball axiom of, “Live by the Trey, Die by the Trey.” They lose on their home court to Minnesota, Denver, and Charlotte, but win on the road against Oklahoma City, Phoenix, and Houston.

The biggest problem will be the size-advantage that Los Angeles holds. They have Blake Griffin – who discovered he has handles this year – as well as DeAndre Jordan, who’s developing nicely. Plus Glen Davis, who came over from Orlando at the mid-season sign deadline after being amnestied. The Warriors will be without Andrew Bogut, a guy whose presence is invaluable when designed to flush driving guards out of the lane. That means Golden State, who is already out-coached with Mark Jackson taking on NBA Champ Doc Rivers – will have to play Jermaine O’Neal serious minutes along with David “Defensive Liability” Lee against a solid front-court.  Then again, each team is an entire defensive liablity, these games will be as street-ball as it gets, with each team doing their best 1990s UNLV Runnin’ Rebs impersonation of “Let them hit a two, let’s hope we drain a three.”

But, like I said previously, Golden State can swing it’s mood so quickly. If Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry heat up, they could own this series from beyond the arc. But chances are, the three ball can’t come through for them every night. The games will be high-scoring for sure, but the Clippers have the pieces to put together a complete series.

Prediction: Clippers in 7

Houston Rockets (#4) vs. Portland Trail Blazers (#5)

Dwight Howard drops a match on a tank of propane every time the Rockets play the Blazers because BOOM! he goes off. Robin Lopez, better at defending than flashy big man LaMarcus Aldridge, gets owned down on the block. Omer Asik can do damage off the bench for Houston, as well, and while Terrence Jones is neither skilled nor big enough to cover Aldridge on the block, the rotations they use will be enough to take care off him.

The Houston Rockets would seem to have an advantage on the perimeter as well as James Harden is the best 2-Guard in the league, but Portland may have an advantage there. Skilled defender Wesley Matthews may be able to contain Harden, they’re both 6-foot-5 220-pounds, but Harden is a horrendous defender. Matthews can take Harden to the block and create more points that Harden will be able to generate with Matthews guarding him.

This series will be a very even one between two similar teams, but overall it’ll be Houston walking off their home court after the last game headed on to the Conference Semi-Finals.

 Prediction: Houston in 7

 

Conference Semi-Finals:

Eastern Conference: 

Indiana Pacers (#1) vs. Chicago Bulls (#4)

These teams are very similar in the fact that they are both anchored by an All-Star Center – Noah for the Bulls, Hibbert for the Pacers – and are defensive first squads that, at times, have trouble scoring. The Bulls have seen a re-emergence from former lottery pick Point Guard D.J. Augustin, but it won’t be enough. The Pacers defend the pick-and-roll well, which creates problems for the pick-happy team of Chicago.

The Pacers a dysfunctional bunch, that’s for sure, but if there was a favorable draw for the second-round, it’d be the team that has the same – if not more – trouble scoring. The Indiana Pacers rank 22nd in Offensive Efficiency in the NBA this season with a 101.5, while the Bulls rank 28th – ahead of only Orlando and Philadelphia – at 99.3. This series will be a grinder series with plenty of block shots and low Field Goal percentages. These two teams were the top two in Defensive Efficiency Rating during the regular season with Indiana (96.7) taking a slight edge over Chicago (97.8).

Prediction: Pacers in 5

Miami Heat (#2) vs. Brooklyn Nets (#6)

This series pits two teams together who have played each other four times over the course of the regular season. Brooklyn’s three regulation wins have come by a total of three points. But, Brooklyn has proved they can hang with Miami in a close game (88-87 win in Miami April 8th) or in a shoot-out (101-100 win at home November 1st). They even play at a similar pace – Miami 93.3 and Brooklyn 93.7 over the course of the game.

Obviously Miami has the Big Three and are the favorite to win the series, because, well, when you have the world’s best player with good sidekicks like Dwyane Wade and undervalued Chris Bosh, then you get the benefit of any series forecast.

The biggest thing that Brooklyn brings to the table is the fresh, veteran legs – usually that seems like an oxymoron, but it’s not for the Nets, who have rested Kevin Garnett to the point of not using him at all. The Nets veteran presence are fresh and angry. The Miami Heat have back-to-back champions on their roster, yes, but remember that the Nets do, too. Jason Terry was an important part of 2011 Dallas that beat Miami in the Finals. Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett were brought over from the Celtics in the off-season and they mean a lot to the Nets psyche – to enter the series unfazed by Miami is huge. If this were Toronto or Washington – two young teams, inexperienced – they would have a difficult time playing against this vaunted team, but the Nets will be unfazed. Terry, Pierce, and Garnett being former champions complements nicely with their role players who have tasted victory, but have been unable to swallow. Andrei Kirilenko, veteran swingman, made it to the Conference Finals once, and Joe Johnson has never advanced past the second round.

Statistically, Miami holds the advantage in Offensive Efficiency Rating (109.0 to 104.4) and Defensive Efficiency Rating (102.9 to 104.9), but there’s something to be said about one team having the other team’s calling card. This roster, especially with Pierce at the four, is built to take advantage of Miami’s deficiencies. Shaun Livingston – who has been playing incredible basketball as of late – will force the Heat to pause at who guards whom. The Nets have three legitimate threats to score in Livingston, Pierce, and Johnson. Does Miami put physicality on the finesse of Johnson? Do they put the bigger James on Pierce and test his old-man strength?

The Nets have proven they can win in Miami. They’ve done it four out of four times. Where’s the reason to think they won’t do it four out of seven times?

Mikhail and the Nets will win the series and send sympathy flowers From Russia, With Love.

Prediction:  Nets in 7

Western Conference: 

San Antonio Spurs (#1) vs. Houston Rockets (#4)

Listening to Zach Lowe of Grantland on his Podcast last week, “The Lowe Post”, he had guest R.C. Buford on. He’s the San Antonio Spurs General Manager and he shared a story that will prove to be telling in this series. At the end of each season, Coach Gregg Popovich and the staff go to a lodge somewhere and spend five days there, just looking at basketball tapes. They work nearly 18-hour days as they scour film. At that time, anyone can throw out any idea or suggest any rotation or scheme. This is why Popovich is the greatest coach in the league. He spends so much time preparing and he is never caught without a plan.

At the end of last season, Buford said they watched Games 6 and 7 of the Finals to “get it out of their systems” but you should believe Popovich will have that in his mind on replay whenever he steps on the court for a playoff match-up. And when Pop gets mad, you should never – talk to him, for one – but also never pick against him in a series of seven.

The Spurs will create lanes for First-Team All-Pro Tony Parker to drive, they’ll shoot corner 3’s with volume and success. They’ll give the ball to Tim Duncan, and he’ll be more than able to work in the post against Dwight Howard. Neither Terrence Jones nor Omer Asik are good enough second-options to inflict any real damage upon the Spurs, so this series will stretch San Antonio, but not too badly.

Prediction: Spurs in 6

Oklahoma City Thunder (#2) vs. Los Angeles Clippers (#3)

Oklahoma City plays in a college-like atmosphere where the fans are rabid and the stadium is blued-out at every home game. Los Angeles – the Clippers, that is – have been the second-rate team in their own building for the better part of thirty years. That won’t be the deciding factor in the series, but it is worthy of note.

Los Angeles is strong at the 1, 4, and 5 with Chris Paul – the third-best player in the league – Blake Griffin – a top-10 player in the league – and DeAndre Jordan – a man whose game has improved immensely this season and is a defensive force. Oklahoma City is strong at the 1, 3, and 4. They, like the Thunder, have a top-3 player in Kevin Durant who can score from anywhere doing anything. (Really, I think he could get buckets blind-folded, turned around if the right person was guarding him.) They have a good, athletic Point Guard and a stretch five that can shoot, block shots, and rebound in Serge Ibaka.

Both of these teams love to push the ball. The Clippers rank 10th in the league at pace, and the Thunder rank 12th. They’re evenly matched as the Clippers are the most offensively efficient team in the NBA (109.4) to OKC’s 108.1 – but Oklahoma City plays better defense.

No doubt this series will be an entertaining one, but the absence of Los Angeles defense will prove to be the difference.

Prediction: Thunder in 6

 

Conference Finals:

Eastern Conference: 

Indiana Pacers (#1) vs. Brooklyn Nets (#6)

I’ve trusted Indiana against significantly weaker opponents (Atlanta, Chicago) but are they trustworthy in the third-round against an opponent that can score?

I’ve trusted Brooklyn against strong opponents (Toronto, Miami) but will they have enough left in those old, tired legs by the third-round against an opponent that plays shut-down defense?

There are other factors including, “Will Indiana as a team spontaneously implode if, on team dinner night, Roy Hibbert gets cut in line for the chicken parm by Paul George?”

How about David West, who rooms with Hibbert?

"I called FIRST shower!"

“I called FIRST shower!”

Assuming that Larry Bird’s pep-talk (that will be a little threatening, right?) can unite this team into a team that can flip over the table and stomp on dreams, the Pacers should have the better position going into this series.

The magic powder that Brooklyn has used against Miami apparently doesn’t work against Indiana. The Pacers are 4-0 against them on the season, including beating the Nets whilst on the February skid that saw the Pacers lose to the 76ers.

Not only that, it’s not as if the Nets lost by one, like they did to Miami. They’ve lost by 5, 15, 17, and 1.

Indiana’s stellar team defense and their containment of Joe Johnson, who has the ability to do this, is key.

Screenshot 2014-04-21 07.29.45

 

 

The Nets, just coming off a grueling series with Miami, will face mighty struggles against a re-energized, re-focused Indiana Pacers team.

It’ll be a scrap as Conference Finals games always are, but it’s the Pacers series to lose.

Prediction: Pacers in 7

Western Conference: 

San Antonio Spurs (#1) vs. Oklahoma City Thunder (#2)

This is how it’s supposed to be. The two best teams from the conference coming together for a final time. This will be the most exciting series of the playoffs (including the Finals) because it pits old vs. new, Father Time vs. Up-And-Coming, slow tempo vs. fast-break for days.

This series, no matter who wins, will be a schoolyard battle between two kids who don’t like each other and turn recess into a heavyweight bout. There will be blood, on both sides, but it’s the side that gets up that will win.

Who will that side be?

There’s the argument that Oklahoma City’s youth and endurance and athleticism will be too much physicality for the Spurs. That Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook will tirelessly run-run-run the Spurs back to Texas.

There’s also the argument that Gregg Popovich is a genius (not an argument, fact) and that his absurdly efficient team can play nary a player over 30 minutes per game while blowing teams out and earning the top record in the NBA. That means age could be nullified as a factor because the Spurs have never fallen to pundits who have said, “The window is closed.” And they’ve been saying that for years.

The Spurs do have Tony Parker and San Antonio’s floor general is one of just two players averaging at least 20 points and seven assists per game on 50 percent shooting. That the other is a guy named LeBron. Huh. Good company. Not that Russell Westbrook is a bum, he’s not, and his effectiveness is unquestionably valuable, so that position is a stalemate.

Where Oklahoma City will win the series is by limiting the corner 3 that the Spurs love to let fly so often. Danny Green, the San Antonio swingman, will be guarded by terrifically tenacious Thabo Sefalosha on the perimeter and the Thunder have done a great job all year at limiting the trey ball.

Where San Antonio will win the series is by pounding the ball inside to Tim Duncan. If the Spurs can get Serge Ibaka in foul trouble at all, and he goes out, Tim Duncan will run rampant over the defensive “efforts” made by Kendrick Perkins and roughshod through Tommy-point-seeking Nick Collison. Also, Kawhi Leonard, other than LeBron, is the best defender against Kevin Durant in the NBA, so that gives San Antonio hope. But not much. Iceburg Slim Shootin’ It From the Suburbs, as Jalen Rose likes to say, will still drop 30 per game, hoping to get his team back to the Finals.

And that’s a hope that Coach Pop won’t be denied after watching Ray Allen hit that corner 3 that he loves so dearly, with Tim Duncan not on the floor last season. Coach Pop will not let his team lose.

Prediction: Spurs in 7

 

NBA Finals:

Eastern Conference: 

San Antonio Spurs (#1) vs. Indiana Pacers (#1)

If you’re thinking, “Wow Sam, you really went out bold and predicted that two number-one seeds would make the NBA Finals, huh?” you would be right. I did pick the conference’s two top-seeds to make the Finals. Perhaps it’s because they’re the best two teams.

To give a position by position breakdown, let’s determine the winner of the NBA’s most coveted title.

PG: Tony Parker > George Hill; Parker is First-Team All-NBA, Hill is not. Strong advantage Spurs.

SG: Lance Stephenson > Danny Green; Stephenson has triple-double potential every night, but could explode mentally during a game. Danny Green is a legitimate outside threat, but Stephenson is athletic enough to guard the perimeter.

SF:  Paul George > Kawhi Leonard; Leonard will have a much easier time defending George than he will Iceburg Slim, so that bodes well, but people have lost sight of how good Paul George is. Pablo S. Torre’s ESPN the Mag feature on him displayed what George can really do. This is a more even category than some might realize, but it’s still advantage Indiana.

PF: Tim Duncan > David West; is it okay to give to “Greater Than” symbols to Tim Duncan? Duncan is possibly the best four to ever play the game. He can pass, he can shoot, he can rebound; Tim Duncan has fought Father Time and won, David West shouldn’t be a problem.

C: Roy Hibbert = Tiago Splitter; Hold up! “Sam, you’re making All-Star 7-foot-2 Hibbert equal to TIAGO?! WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!” Once you calm down, I’d like to point out that Hibbert can just disappear for some games. He’ll get out-muscled on the boards or get in early foul trouble – a nasty penchant of his. San Antonio’s big man is having the best season of his three-year career. He’s averaging 10.5 points and six rebounds on 59.2 percent shooting in just 24.1 minutes per game. While Splitter isn’t the most skilled of shot contesters, he’s one of the best help defenders San Antonio has.

So after all this, it’s tied 2-2-1.

Coach: Gregg Popovich > Frank Vogel; The man has four championships in five tries, Coach Pop is one of – if not the – best coaches to sit the bench of all-time. He’ll have his team geared up to go when the ball is rolled out.

Prediction: Spurs in 6

Prediction: Even though the Spurs win the title, Coach Popovich still scoffs in the media’s general direction.

"Yes, we won the title. Please stop asking."

“Yes, we won the title. Please stop asking.”

 

A Bite To Eat: Compensation for Student-Athletes

Last Monday, University of Connecticut Huskies defeated the Kentucky Wildcats 60-54 in the NCAA Tournament Championship to bring UConn their second title in four years.

Leading the charge was Senior Guard Shabazz Napier. Being a four-year college athlete, and an old man by NBA standards at 23 years-old, doesn’t help his draft stock. But something says he wasn’t ready to leave the collegiate level just yet when he was interviewed by reporters after the game.

After winning the championship and the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player award, Napier used his fifteen minutes to address something he feels very strongly about: compensating college student-athletes.

Compensating the so-called “student-athletes” has become an oft-debated topic because there appears to be no straight-forward solution. From the biting satire of Jon Stewart to the thoughtful, analytical perspective of Pablo S. Torre, it’s an issue that’s gaining traction.

I used to be against compensation.

I was against it mainly because, as a high school senior, I am looking ahead at college and seeing a mountain of debt payments and financial obligation. If you give money to the athletes through a stipend – no matter how small – it affects Mr. Regular American and their ability to get a better education. For every $2000 (the most common suggested figure) that a University gives out to an athlete, it’s taking away $2000 or more from a potential student.

An average school in college’s Big Ten Conference awards more than 280 scholarships annually, ESPN found. Essentially, for an average Big Ten school, they now have $560,000 less in financial aid if they pay the stipend. Committing that money elsewhere other than to their students who can’t run quickly or throw a long bomb is irresponsible. It decreases the credibility of that University because it puts athletics over academics in our society which already has enough problems doing that. $2000 per year is a lot of money – it could decide a child’s future in college – and to take that from a regular student to give to an athlete is absurd.

I used to be of the opinion that since student-athletes were getting incredible educational opportunities for free through their scholarships and that was enough.

But, getting a great education isn’t always the case. Take the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Consistently rated as a top-five public school in the nation by US News and World Reports as well as Forbes, athletes that attend UNC should feel blessed to do so. I used to think, “With that scholarship, they get to go there for free, get an amazing education, and play football.” I justified football as an ultra-intense, yet financially rewarding work study. A work study that paid for your whole education.

UNC created fake classes for athletes, termed “paper classes,” which required no attendance and a mere 10-sentence paper at the end of the semester. This one received an A-. This wouldn’t pass a high school Freshman English class.

If the students received a good education – IF – then I would have no problem with scholarships being their only financial aid, but UNC helps us know the education argument is bogus. The University cares about its students so little that they created fake classes so no one would know that they were fully taking advantage of these kids. They exploited them to make money by packing the stands for Saturday afternoon football. A scholarship is an agreement advantageous to both sides, and one of the sides was betraying the deal.

Schools are at fault here. ESPN only carries profit/revenue charts from 2008, but look at 29th-ranked North Carolina’s profits. $66,148,186. $66 million of revenue and they provided their students with paper classes. Student-athletes bring in every penny of that $66+ million for their school – it’s all off athletics. Kemba Walker single-handedly carried the UConn Huskies to the 2011 Championship and received nothing for it. We don’t know about his education, but if the possibility for other schools to run a UNC-like gambit, then the system is broken.

If a University pays a player to attend a University (by giving them a scholarship), yet does not provide them with an education, does that not mean the scholarship is a salary? Isn’t a salary for an employee? Does that not mean that the college paying the player for producing revenue is just an employer-employee relationship?

Earlier this month, the National Labor Relations board ruled that a group of Northwestern football players were employees of the university before they were students and therefore legalized the option to unionize. Working 50-60 hours per week on the football field, being forced to skip required classes because of their conflicts with football practice, and the revenue they bring to the university led to that decision.  That court decision has now set a precedent that many universities may now have to face.

The system of “student-athlete” is broken and it needs to be fixed.

Asking colleges to take money from their internal funds is wrong because it hurts regular students. Asking athlete’s to take a pay-cut is wrong because they may not be able to attend the college without a scholarship.

Initially my thought was to take the money from the 14-year, $10.8 billion deal between the NCAA and CBS and Turner Sports to broadcast the Men’s Hoops tournament. But, the NCAA expects more than $740 million to be distributed to its members annually through 2024. That money that the NCAA gives to the schools essentially goes toward the scholarships that the school can provide.

That same tournament that makes so much money for the NCAA helps the schools as well. TIME Magazine reports, “$639 million: Estimated value of the publicity and exposure Butler University received during the Indianapolis school’s run to the 2010 tournament final; after making it to the championship game [in 2010], applications to Butler increased 41%.”

So the schools are helped, the NCAA is helped…who helps the athlete who makes all this possible?

Even if we wanted to pay the players, how?

In 2011, ESPN’s Mark Schlabachfollowed the money from the turnstiles back to the universities in a comprehensive look at how a non-profit divvies up the money. Most of the wealth is put back into the colleges. Even as an organization, the NCAA takes only 4% – or $30.6 million – for all staff budgets and salaries. (“Only” being a loose term here.) The NCAA and the NFL are both 501 (c)(6) non-profit organizations so their money must be funneled back into the system. It would seem the money is being funneled.It would seem as if there’s no money left anywhere.

But wait. Maybe there is.

USA Today reports that the NCAA had nearly $872 million in total revenue in fiscal 2012, according to the financial statement, and nearly $801 million in total expenses. In 2011, it had nearly $846 million in revenue and $778 million in expenses.

The NCAA had nearly $72 million in surplus in 2012.

There’s the money! Why can’t we take the surplus and spread it to the programs in the NCAA – of which there are 1,281 – by giving them the surplus that they earned? The NCAA can even institute a weighted payment plan that rewards universities for their performance in the previous year’s season.

As of now, those surplus funds go towards, “the endowment fund. [It] has been designated as a quasi-endowment, which means the money is intended to be retained and invested, but unlike a permanent endowment, its principal can be spent. It was established in 2004 by the NCAA Executive Committee, a group of college presidents that oversees association-wide matters, primarily to protect against an event that could impact what is overwhelmingly the NCAA’s greatest revenue source: the Division I men’s basketball tournament” reports Steve Berkowitz.

The money is being placed into a program that insures the NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament won’t fail? What type of “event” could make it fail? 176 million people tuned into the 2012 tournament and the number is growing every year. That tourney was followed by 2013’s which averaged 10.7 million viewers throughout March and April, up 11 percent from 2012, and marking the most-watched NCAA Tourney since 1994. 2014 was even bigger. They do not need this pile of cash sitting around in a “quasi”-trust.

Putting the money into a quasi-trust is essentially taking the money away from the players for no good reason.

That is why giving the kid’s the surplus is the best option. It takes away from no one, it hinders no one’s bottom-line except positively for the kids! It’s a surplus for a reason! It gives the kids incentive: play well and there’ll be more revenue – more compensation – because of a larger surplus. It’s simple economics that everyday businesses use and the NCAA is a business!

How is it a business? They used to produce video games that clearly played on real teams with real players. When Pat White played for West Virginia University, he was an exciting, fast, triple-option oriented Quarterback. When I went to a friend’s house, I always used WVU and “Pat White” or – as the game dubbed him – QB #5. QB #5 had an eerily resemblance to White: left-handed, fast, the number…

"QB #5" and Pat White

“QB #5” and Pat White

That brings the Ed O’Bannon case in, where the NCAA took in even more profits than those surpluses and even more from the school in tee-shirt sales and video game production. There are no records available which give specific dollar amounts, but the fact that players whose likenesses were being used and players who helped contribute to the tournament received nothing.

As of May 8, 2012, men’s college basketball accounted for 78% of the NCAA revenue, according to Statistic Brain. No payment from any surplus is an egregious wrong that the NCAA is doing to its athletes.

UConn Huskie Shabazz Napier spoke to that in his interview.

“We do have hungry nights that we don’t have enough money to get food in,” Napier said in the interview. “Sometimes money is needed.” That is the struggle every college student must deal with. We shouldn’t dote on them just because they’re athletes, but we shouldn’t provide them a poor education and demand 50-60 hours per week without compensation either. College kids all have debt, all need food and a job and a car whether they play basketball or not.

Napier admits he doesn’t think it should be a large sum. “I don’t think you should stretch it out to hundreds of thousands of dollars for playing, because a lot of times guys don’t know how to handle themselves with money.” With that being said, the surplus of $72 million, spread among the 420,000 NCAA athletes would mean a small stipend on the table for these athletes, it makes sense. It takes away from no one and gives back to the athletes who make the sports spectacles possible. The one’s that we love so much and the one’s we spend hours watching.

If you don’t like the surplus option, there is another choice. What about allowing athletes to sign advertising deals and allow companies to sponsor them? It allows a kid to make revenue while costing an educational system nothing and using only his own name. Isn’t it an American principle that one should be able to make money off their actions and their name?

That would make the Johnny Manziel scandal of selling autographs or Terrelle Pryor’s bit about trading autographs for tattoos, obsolete. As it should be. Manziel made money off his own name and doing his own business with a private, third-party company. Why does the NCAA have to regulate that?

Uber-touted Freshmen Joel Embiid or Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker could have signed endorsement deals and made money this year without disrupting the flow of cash from NCAA to universities. Where is the harm in a business taking a risk on a young entrepreneur when it comes to an investment? That’s another American principle: a free market.

Endorsements encourage young players to behave as well as they play, so their marketability goes up, and gives them the chance to make money as well as play basketball for an esteemed college, building skills that they need to succeed in their future endeavors. Sounds exactly like any other college student. Maybe even a regular student could make money off an internship in the summer. College basketball players can’t even do that.

Give them the opportunity to guide their own destinies. Allow them to make money for themselves away from the NCAA, the only place that still touts these kids as amateurs. Let them live the American dream.

I used to think that paying collegiate athletes was a sham. Now I realize the real sham of some university’s saying they give these kids a free “education” in exchange for their services playing sports.

If it’s done in the right way, with the right funds, paying collegiate athletes is the right thing to do.

So while the gluttonous NCAA sits at the table and refuses to toss even the athletes some scraps, the rules need changing.

The student-athlete needs a bite to eat.

Smoked Out: Larry Sanders, Marijuana, and the NBA

Larry Sanders of the Milwaukee Bucks was smoked out Friday as the NBA handed down a suspension for five of the team’s last six games. Sanders’ crime is violating the “anti-aging” drug policy the NBA has in place. Sanders tested positive for use of marijuana. Like John Goodman said in The Big Lebowski, “This is what happens, Larry!”

In an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Sanders was diplomatic at first. He said all the right things including owning up that he let his team as well as his fans down. Sanders said, “I take full responsibility for my actions.” Milwaukee agreed. “Larry Sanders has a responsibility to every person in our organization and our fans,” the Bucks said in the news release. “We are all disappointed by the news of his suspension.”

Milwaukee recently signed Sanders to a 4-year $44 million contract.

Why is this story a story?

Here’s where it gets interesting. “In a lot of ways we’ve been deprived,” Sanders claims, according to the Journal Sentinel. This is a severe deviation from the normal media spot, apology, and recuperation of the image. “You can’t really label it with so many other drugs that people can be addicted to and have so many negative effects on your body and your family and your relationships and impairment. This is not the same thing.” It seems the positive test made Sanders think harder about his usage – and become more vocal.

Sanders adds, “The stigma is that it’s illegal” – no, Larry. It is illegal. Wisconsin’s legislation on adopting medicinal uses is still in the state congress. He continues, “I hate [the perception]. Once this becomes legal, this all will go away. But I understand for my work it’s a banned substance. I will deal with the consequences and I apologize again to my fans for that.”

So basically Larry Sanders is saying “for my work” – for the Association – it’s banned and I’m sorry they banned it. Sanders apology is very ho-hum until this point. Now, Sanders seems an advocate.

Sanders didn’t stop there, “I believe in marijuana and the medical side of it. I know what it is if I’m going to use it.” Then, he delivered the line of the interview, “I closely study marijuana.”

Hm. Really? Study it? If Sanders is merely a student, Cheech and Chong are National Honor Society members. The study and belief of medical marijuana does not make it right, but it does arouse questions.

Strategically, since the Seattle Supersonics no longer exist, Sanders’ next move should be to request a trade to the Denver Nuggets.

Since any likelihood of that is over, Sanders’ situation presents an interesting case. Pete Carroll, coach of Super Bowl Champion Seattle Seahawks, and New York Jets Corner Back Antonio Cromartie, have both advocated for its legalization and laud its medicinal abilities.

This societal collision with sports opens doors. If a player in Colorado were suspended for violating the league’s drug policy, does that mean that the legislation of the NBA supersedes the legislation of the state? Is the NBA saying their laws are bigger and more comprehensive than the state government?

The NBA, unlike the NFL, doesn’t qualify as a 501 (c)6 non-profit organization so it is a separate enterprise totally from the federal government and receives none of the same tax advantages that the NFL does. Therefore, the NBA establishing anti-drug policy is like any private company, or like scholarship qualifications. If you don’t have a 3.0 GPA, you can’t apply. You can be in school with a 2.9, but you can’t apply for the scholarship. Think of school like the state and the scholarship like the NBA.

Without debating the “facts” (contradictory and murky sourced as is) that always come up in legalization debates, the focus needs to be on the impending clash between sports rules and governmental rules.

Sanders – with his refusal to follow the standard code of denial, then relenting in apology until finally the story fades from public eye – has opened a door which leads down a dimly lit hallway. The hallway may contain false corridors and loose floorboards, but it must be navigated. Athletes may begin to feel that they can support anything they want – not just feel-good stories that help their ever-important “brand” – which their agents keep bringing up.

The NBA’s rules state that three positive tests for marijuana rewards the player with five court-side games on the bench in a suit rather than in the game. If the player fails a drug test by his or her work, is it up to the business to decide what measures to take against the player? Or, is it the government’s responsibility? Consumption and possession (both internal and external) are illegal in Wisconsin, which brings up the question if this is an issue for law enforcement. Furthermore, if the NBA declares a certain player is ineligible because he was caught with illegal substances, should law enforcement have the right to inflict further fines upon the individual because he violated state laws as well as work ones?

Sure, in America we give athletes all the preferential treatment, but shouldn’t something change?  It is understood that multi-national businesses with billions of dollars tied to athletes don’t want to see them spend half of a month (several of the teams oh so important games) tied up in legal battles, but where does the autocratic authority of a business end? For goodness’ sake, Donte’ Stallworth can drive drunk, kill a man, and only spend a 30-day sentence for it because of a “confidential financial settlement.” He was an athlete who could pay and, voila, he was out. It seems that athletes (and I’m not saying all, just the one’s that break the law) have been given longer and longer leashes of what is permissible and how to bend the law as of late.

Where does it end? And where do our nations laws begin?

The slight accosting that Sanders received from the NBA is like a one-day Xbox ban for a regular teenager. Even then it didn’t hurt the team. The Milwaukee Bucks, at 14-63, have the worst record in the NBA were eliminated from playoff contention seemingly in the preseason. If this was a star player on a team competing with the Heat or Spurs for the top seed in either conference, would the NBA have announced it’s findings? Would they have suspended the player? If so, for five whole, crucial games for a team like one that is competing? What happens when it’s not a low-level NBA underling on the league’s worst franchise?

Larry Sanders today might be a microcosm, but we have seen other lenience pledged towards athletes within the law, the punishment from the league has no real implications.

It doesn’t seem fair. It doesn’t seem right. Shouldn’t professional athletes have as much accountability as the rest of us?