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Unless you’ve been living under a rock during the past decade, any sports fan knows that Mixed Martial Arts has shifted from a fringe interest unfairly perceived as “human cockfighting” in the 90s, to an industry giant with tons of television exposure, and huge Pay Per View buyrates.
The UFC has done a great job of shifting their product into something adaptable to the mainstream, thanks in part to smart marketing, but also to changing the rules (timed rounds, weight classes, etc.) to make the sport more professional. And while I’m sure the hardcore MMA forum dwellers might disagree, from my vantage point, UFC President Dana White does a good job of signing fighters who will put on a good show.
Which brings us to UFC 97. The event took place this past Saturday, with a main event featuring dominant middleweight champion Anderson “The Spider” Silva looking to defend his title for a record ninth time against Thales Leites. Silva has a solid all-around game but is known best for his striking, while Leites’ strength is his Jiu-Jitsu. These kinds of “striker vs. submission specialist” matches have generally sparked some level of interest among fans and have been entertaining, but that was not the case on Saturday.
If MMA is like a game of chess, then Silva and Leites reached a strategic stalemate, one that was boring and understandably frustrating for those in attendance, and those who paid for the Pay Per View. Leites had no desire to take on Silva in a striking match, and frequently went to the ground to avoid getting hit. Understandably, Silva wanted no part of following Leites to the floor (which would have resulted in a Jiu-Jitsu contest), and thus the main event had very little action to write home about. Leites didn’t try very hard to engage Silva, who won via unanimous decision as the crowd booed. The fans at home showed the same level of discontent, complaining about the fight on MMA message boards.
To his credit, UFC President Dana White came out, and admitted it was a poor main event. “I can honestly tell you that I’ve never put on an event that I was embarrassed to be at until tonight. I want to publicly apologize to all the fans. I apologize. I personally apologize for what happened tonight. You guys know, this isn’t what the UFC was built on and this isn’t the way the fights usually go. Listen, any night you can have an off-night. When a guy is that talented and can literally end a fight whenever he wants to, wow. We’ve got to do something. Watching that was hard. That was tough to take. It was embarrassing, honestly. It was really and truly embarrassing.”
Before you can start to wonder how to prevent this sort of boring main event in the future, the first question needs to be asked: is MMA entertainment or competition? Obviously it’s a mix of the two, but finding a balance can be difficult. On a strategic level, Silva didn’t necessarily do anything “wrong”. He realized Leites wanted no part of engaging him, so he adapted his gameplan appropriately to ensure a win. Critics, reasonably, will say that we paid good money to see a fight, and we didn’t get it. But if Silva’s job is to win, and defend his title, it’s difficult to fault him for not risking that goal and his career in order to make the fans happier.
Generally, the result of this kind of fight is that the guilty party doesn’t get another high profile match for a while. One would think that when Dana White said, “We’ve got to do something”, he meant that Leites was given the biggest fight of his life, and didn’t “challenge” much at all as the challenger. So it would be easy enough to remedy the problem by pushing Leites down the card as punishment, until he puts together decisive wins and makes amends with the fans.
That being said, I think it would serve the UFC well to look at the inherent goals of the athletes in these fights, how they conflict with the entertainment aspect of the sport, and figure out a way to better punish inactivity. For example, UFC’s Japanese counterpart Pride FC (since purchased by UFC and discontinued) had a warning card system. If a fighter showed a lack of activity, it was at the referee’s discretion to pull out a card (much like in soccer), which would deduct 10% of the fighter’s purse for the night. Multiple cards could be pulled, and three would result in a disqualification.
I can’t think of a better way to give the fighters incentive to, well, fight. If fans are paying big money for their ticket, and those at home are paying money for the Pay Per View, why not give the athletes a financial stake in making it exciting too? Granted, this concept may not go over as well in America compared to Japan, where we have different perspectives on competition, honor, money and so on.
If you were in charge of the UFC, what would you do to “fix it”? Is there something beyond penalty cards that can ensure fans get their money’s worth? Or is it simply the responsibility of the promoter to put together the most entertaining fights possible? Should we even be bothering with trying to make MMA more “entertaining”, or does that mentality do a disservice to the competitive aspect of the sport? I’m interested to hear your thoughts.
The regular season is over, and the pressure is on. While we’ve known who the playoff teams were going to be for a few weeks now, the pairings and seeding were being juggled until the final day of the season. What is cool about the playoffs this year is that the conferences have very different compositions. The East has The Big Three (Cleveland, Boston, and Orlando) and Everyone Else, while the Western Conference has the Lakers and then seven teams of about equal quality, which should make for an unpredictable set of series out West. In an act of almost shocking egomania, I’m going to try to predict all eight matchups, including the ones in the unpredictable West. Since I’m an east coast guy (as a Jersey native, I get to spend my time objectively analyzing the playoffs, since I rarely have a personal investment thanks to the current state of the Nets), I’ll start with the Eastern Conference.
Cleveland (66-16) vs. Detroit (39-43)—Cleveland won season series 3-1
For Cleveland to win: They simply have to execute their game. LeBron and the Cavs bounced the Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals two years ago, and that was with a much weaker Cavs team squaring off against a much better version of Detroit. Since Tayshaun Prince is a capable one-on-one defender, I would expect LeBron to take more of a facilitator role, finding open teammates who can go after Detroit’s less talented defenders. Defensively, their toughest assignment is containing Detroit’s backcourt. Both Rodney Stuckey and Rip Hamilton are tough covers and move well without the ball, and no one in Cleveland’s backcourt is someone I would call a lock-down defender. Not that Stuckey and Hamilton can do it by themselves, but if Cleveland is confused while trying to find Hamilton coming off screens or slow in their rotations, it can open up things for the rest of Detroit’s players.
For Detroit to Win: It’s probably more reasonable to phrase this “For Detroit to have a shot.” For starters, Tayshaun Prince has to muster a once-in-a-lifetime performance guarding LeBron James. Not that anyone can possibly guard him one-on-one for a whole series, but Detroit can’t win double teaming him the whole way. LeBron is too willing of a passer and is surrounded by too many shooters to double team an entire series. A possible X-factor could be Rasheed Wallace. Cleveland’s bigs aren’t exceptional screen-roll defenders and like to play close to the basket as much as possible. If Wallace can get hot from the outside, it could drag Ilgauskus, Varejao, etc. away from the basket, where they are far less effective.
Prediction: This is not the rivalry of years past anymore. Cleveland is a complete team with a real supporting cast around the best player in the conference, and possibly the whole league. Detroit is a shell of its former self, having traded away their best player earlier in the year. Age is starting to catch up to their core. It’s not clear they have a real point guard, and their bench is thin and inexperienced. I expect the Palace to be half-full of Cavs fans. In short, I would be shocked if Detroit won a game this series, much less made a real fight out of it. Cleveland in 4
Boston (62-20) vs. Chicago (41-41)—Boston won season series 2-1
For Boston to win: Before the news about KG, I would have said, “not much.” Now, they’re probably in for a real fight without their emotional and defensive leader. Rajon Rondo needs to put the clamps on Derrick Rose. A lot of the Bulls’ offense is predicated on Rose creating havoc off the dribble, and I think Chicago will struggle in the half-court if Rondo can contain his penetration. Leon Powe and Big Baby Davis will handle the lion’s share of Garnett’s minutes, and they have to be very active on the boards. The Bulls frontcourt of Tyrus Thomas and Joakim Noah is athletic and bouncy, and the Bulls could make a series out of it if those two are able to generate a lot of offensive rebounds. The offense should be able to take care of itself even in the absence of Garnett; Leon Powe is actually not that big of a drop-off in terms of offensive efficiency.
For Chicago to win: Derrick Rose has got to find a way to make something happen against the league’s top defensive point guard. Even without Garnett, Boston is an elite defensive team in the half court, and if Rose can’t get by Rondo, then Chicago will really struggle to score. Although not much of a fast break team, the Bulls need to look to push the ball to avoid getting slogged down in a slow-paced game. John Salmons has to do some kind of LeBron James impersonation in forcing Paul Pierce to work on both ends of the floor. Salmons is actually a capable defender and a gifted scorer, and Pierce will be forced to do a lot of the heavy lifting on offense. If Salmons can somehow make that matchup a wash, or at least force Pierce to work really hard, it would go a long way in allowing Chicago to make a run at this.
Prediction: Although I doubt the Celtics go any further, I still think they have enough firepower and experience to get past the Bulls. I just don’t see a rookie point guard, even one as gifted as Rose, orchestrating the offense well enough against Rondo and the rest of that defense. While the Bulls might resemble the Hawks team that gave Boston fits last year (young, athletic, good shot blockers), the Bulls don’t have a player like Joe Johnson who can consistently generate his own offense. When the game slows down, I just don’t see how they’re going to score. I don’t think this Celtics team can repeat without Garnett, but they should be able to handle the Bulls. Boston in 6
Orlando (59-23) vs. Philadelphia (41-41)—Orlando won season series 3-0
For Orlando to win: Minimize mistakes. The Sixers do not have a chance in a conventional, half court game. They were able to give the Pistons a run for their money last year by forcing turnovers and scoring in transition; they’ll need a similar formula against the Magic. I’m sure Dwight Howard will be facing a lot of double-teams as Philly tries to strip the ball or induce offensive fouls, so it’ll be important for him to not force the issue too much. The Sixers actually have a nice cast of tough, defensive bigs (Dalembert, Ratliff, Evans), so Howard should focus on pounding the glass, drawing doubles, and kicking out. As long as Orlando is patient in executing their offense, they should be able to score without too much difficulty. And as the best defensive team in the league (or at least, the best according to defensive efficiency), they should have little difficulty handling the Sixers as long as things don’t get too wild.
For Philadelphia to win: This team is basically the same as last year’s squad, so we’re looking at a tough, athletic unit that forces a lot of turnovers and doesn’t have a single reliable shooter on the roster. It’ll be even more difficult than usual for them to score in the half court; most of their baskets come from drives to the basket, and the Magic have the league’s best defensive player protecting their rim. As such, they are going to have to gamble a ton on defense to generate steals and easy baskets. That means we should be seeing a healthy array of traps, full court pressure, double teams and anything else to force the Magic into making mistakes. The Sixers are going to have to be especially sharp on their rotations, as the Magic are full of elite 3-point shooters (Rashard Lewis, Hedo Turkoglu, etc.) and they can’t fall asleep while sending double-teams at Howard.
Prediction: I actually think Philadelphia matches up horribly against Orlando, though not for the reasons you’d think. More than any other team in the East, I think Philly has the personnel to handle Dwight Howard, but I just don’t see them getting anything going in the half court. This is one reason the Magic got Rafer Alston once Jameer Nelson went down. With a steady hand guiding the ship, a team like the Sixers is going to struggle to force the mistakes necessary for them to have a chance. As long as the Magic stay patient and disciplined, they should have little difficulty dispatching the Sixers. Orlando in 5
Atlanta (47-35) vs Miami (43-39)—Atlanta won season series 3-1
For Atlanta to win: Priority A through Z is obviously containing Dwayne Wade. Fortunately, the Hawks have a solid cast of perimeter defenders. Both Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams are excellent one-on-one defenders, and Josh Smith is among the best weak-side help defenders in the NBA. They have the luxury of switching on every screen-roll because so many of their players can defend multiple positions. They’ve been grooming Mario West as a defensive ace in the mold of Bruce Bowen; I expect him to see considerable minutes off the bench hounding Wade as well. If the combined efforts of these players are enough to contain Wade to some extent, the Hawks will be in excellent shape. Offensively, they do most of their damage with Joe Johnson, but I expect Mike Bibby to have a more pronounced role, as he’ll be guarded by rookie Mario Chalmers. Josh Smith and Al Horford need to exploit the slower front court of the Heat—it’s unrealistic for the Hawks guards to do all the work on offense since they’ll be expending so much effort guarding Wade.
For the Heat to win: Wade will have to be brilliant, but that’s almost a given. What will decide the series is if he gets any help. The Heat have two rookies who could provide a big lift. Mario Chalmers will be defended by Mike Bibby, who is the one exploitable player in the Hawks defense. In addition, Michael Beasley has started to emerge as a legitimate scoring threat alongside Wade. If these two players force the Hawks to defend Wade semi-honestly, it should give Wade enough freedom to abuse Atlanta’s defense. Jermaine O’Neal has got to have something left in the tank. He hasn’t exactly provided what the Heat expected when they traded for him at the deadline. He doesn’t need to provide much on offense, but he has to rebound and defend well. The Heat just don’t have enough depth up front to handle the Hawks bigs if JO doesn’t step up.
Prediction: I think this will be, by far, the most entertaining series in the Eastern Conference. Atlanta has made huge strides since taking Boston to the limit last year, so what remains to be seen is if Wade can rub any of his championship pedigree on his inexperienced teammates. While you can never count out a team that has Dwayne Wade on it, I think the Hawks are a far more complete team and have the tools defensively to make life hard on Wade. Especially if Phillips Arena is as loud and rowdy as last year, I don’t see Miami, who is counting heavily on two rookies, having the collective chops to win a game in Atlanta. Atlanta in 7
L.A. Lakers (65-17) vs Utah (48-34)—Lakers won season series 2-1
For L.A. to win: With Andrew Bynum back and looking pretty healthy, the Lakers giant, talented front line should abuse the Jazz’s undersized forwards. Kobe should be incredible as always, but he should be careful about pushing too hard. Utah is actually equipped with an array of great wing defenders, from the athletic (Ronnie Brewer) to the long (Andrei Kirilenko) to the physical (Matt Harpring). If the Lakers work inside out, taking advantage of Gasol and Bynum’s huge advantages, Kobe won’t have to work nearly as hard to generate his offense. Containing Deron Williams is the clear defensive objective, but unless the Lakers are willing to have Kobe expend a bunch of energy guarding him, no one else is really capable of sticking him solo. Utah has a lot of excellent floor spacers, especially Mehmet Okur and Kyle Korver, so the Lakers help-and-recover defense has to be excellent on Deron’s drive-and-kicks. The Lakers also must keep their composure on the road. Normally this wouldn’t be a problem for a team with Finals experience, but the Jazz are a dominant home team, and their fans are especially noisy and hostile.
For Utah to win: The Lakers have an overwhelming advantage at four of the five positions, while the only place where the Jazz have a clear edge is at point guard. As such, Deron Williams will have to play at an extremely high level for Utah to be competitive. Utah will also need to regain its physical nature from previous years—for some reason this team has not shown the toughness of typical Jerry Sloan teams, especially on the road. Okur and Boozer will have to find some way to be effective rebounders, because if the Lakers kill the Jazz on the glass, they have no shot. On offense, their best bet is to screen-roll Derek Fisher and Andrew Bynum to death. If Bynum isn’t 100% healthy or a little out of synch the Jazz should be able to take advantage, especially with the precision that Williams has with Boozer and Okur on that play.
Prediction: This series actually reminds me a lot of Boston-Atlanta. I think the Jazz will play tough, inspired basketball in front of their home crowds but will struggle to make the games in Los Angeles competitive. The gulf in talent between the two teams at every non-point guard position is too much for Utah to overcome, especially when you factor in the matchup problems that Gasol and Bynum create. While I expect the Jazz to win both Games 3 and 4 in Utah, I don’t think they have what it takes to win a game at Staples. L.A. in 6
Denver (54-28) vs New Orleans (49-33)—Season series tied 2-2
For Denver to win: Chauncy Billups, J.R. Smith, and Carmelo Anthony have to abuse their counterparts on the Hornets on offense. Smith and Anthony especially should be able to dominate Rasual Butler and Peja Stojakovic. Chris Paul has had his difficulties against big, physical guards in the past, so Billups may look to take Paul down on the block and post him up. In the front court, a lot of what the Nuggets want to do will depend on the health and ability of Tyson Chandler. If he’s there and ready to go, the Nuggets will be best served attacking the New Orleans wings off the dribble and forcing him to step up and help. If not, the Nuggets can isolate Nene and Kenyon Martin on overmatched players like Hilton Armstrong and Melvin Ely. Most of all, Billups needs to assert himself as the driver of the car. Even with him at the helm, Denver still occasionally reverts to its 1-on-5 offense of the old days, and with the Nuggets having so many positive matchups on offense, there is little excuse for not finding a good shot each trip down the floor.
For New Orleans to win: Tyson Chandler has to be healthy, for starters. His shot blocking, shot altering, and rebounding are too important for New Orleans defensively, and I think they will struggle to contain Nene if Chandler isn’t ready to go. Paul will have to find a way to abuse Billups. That’s easier said than done, but if Paul doesn’t frequently draw a second defender, the rest of the Hornets will struggle to score. James Posey has to be the same elite defender on Anthony he was during the Cavs and Lakers series from last year. Most of all, New Orleans has got to get some unexpected production from their reserves. They’ve been woefully thin all year long, and I don’t think they have what it takes to win solely on the back of their starters, especially with so many question marks surrounding Chandler.
Prediction: If it sounds like I don’t like the Hornets’ chances, it’s because I don’t. I think the Nuggets have enough talented defensive forwards to make things rough on David West, and I don’t think Chris Paul can do it by himself. After that, I’m struggling to find someone on their roster to give them enough of a lift. Contrast that to Denver, who’s very talented and deep and has a former Finals MVP directing traffic. If Tyson Chandler is at 100% and if James Posey can be the impact player he was last year, New Orleans could pull off the upset, but those are two huge “ifs.” I expect Denver to win without much difficulty. Denver in 5
San Antonio (54-28) vs Dallas (50-32)—Season series tied 2-2
For San Antonio to win: Tony Parker has got to abuse Jason Kidd, Jason Terry, or anyone else the Mavericks try to put in front of him. Dallas has no one capable of containing Parker off the dribble, nor do they have any imposing shot blockers. Especially with Ginobili out of the lineup, Parker will be responsible for generating the offense and getting the Spurs’ various shooters open. Of course, Tim Duncan is there as usual, although it’s unclear exactly how banged up he is. He’ll get his usual share of post feeds and screen-roll action. So offensively, the plan is pretty simple—Parker and Duncan have to attract enough attention to get players like Roger Mason, Matt Bonner, and Michael Finley open 3s. On defense, San Antonio is poorly equipped to handle the dribble penetration of Dallas, so Tim Duncan is going to have to do an especially good job blocking shots and defending the basket. I’m not sure what their plan for Dirk is—either Duncan guards him, or they slide Matt Bonner over to Erick Dampier, exposing the offensive glass, or they play a lot more of Kurt Thomas. In any case, they’ll have to make some sort of adjustment, because Matt Bonner is completely incapable of guarding Dirk in any meaningful way.
For Dallas to win: Josh Howard needs to have a huge series. With Bruce Bowen at the end of the road, the Spurs lack the stopper they used to have to contain elite wings. He’s been inconsistent and injured for much of the year, but this series provides him a great chance to get back on track. The Mavericks have to play flawless screen-roll defense; I think it starts with going underneath until Parker proves he can hit his jumper. If Tony is unable to consistently knock down his jumper (his one historic weakness), the Spurs will struggle to get good looks for their shooters. Dampier is going to have to be at least adequate defending Duncan one-on-one, as in previous years they leaned heavily on DeSagana Diop to defend Duncan, and he’s no longer with the team. The only other actual center on the Mavs is little-used Ryan Hollins, and if Damp gets into foul trouble, the Mavs don’t have a great plan for defending Duncan. On offense, the Mavs should have little difficulty getting what they want, because the Spurs lack a good answer for Dirk Nowitzki. The only player who can competently defend him is Tim Duncan, and the Spurs would prefer to avoid that because it drags Duncan away from the basket, where they need him to stop penetration and grab rebounds.
Prediction: Unfortunately for the Spurs, the untimely injury to Ginobili sinks whatever chance they had of making a deep post-season run. In addition, they have to face off against a healthy Mavericks team that really looked dominant down the home stretch of the season. I think it’s too much to ask for Tony Parker to create the entire offense out of whole cloth, which is what I think will have to happen for the Spurs to score. With Ginobili, this is a much different series, but without him I think the Spurs lack the overall talent to hang with Mavs. Dallas in 6
Portland (54-28) vs Houston (53-29)—Houston won season series 2-1
For Portland to win: Brandon Roy is going to have to be a leader in his first playoff series; his team is very young and lacks much meaningful post-season experience. To do that, he’ll have to find a way to be productive against top defenders Shane Battier and Ron Artest. While Portland is actually among the slowest-paced teams in the league, it might benefit them to get out and run more often than they do. Yao Ming often struggles with fatigue, which is more pronounced in fast-paced games. Joel Przybilla and Greg Oden will have to defend Yao while staying out of foul trouble; this is especially an issue for Oden, who has struggled with foul difficulty the entire season. I’ll be interested to see what Portland does with its rotation. Usually, teams tighten up their rotations and minutes, but Portland plays much deeper into their bench than any other playoff team. Does coach McMillan stick with his regular season plans, or does he follow the standard post-season logic? I think they need to dance with the girl that brought them, but if the moment proves too big for Portland’s younger reserves, they’ll have to go to a 7 or 8 man rotations, which might be outside of their comfort zone.
For Houston to win: Yao Ming needs to stay out of foul trouble and get some amount of rest throughout the game so he can play the entire 4th quarter. Houston has a lot of trouble generating quality shots when Yao isn’t in the game. While the subtraction of Tracy McGrady has clearly improved the Rockets, it has also left them without someone who can reliably generate his own offense. As such, they’ll need Yao to draw doubles and find open shooters. The Rockets need to minimize their bad shots. Often their perimeter players, especially Von Wafer and Ron Artest, take awful, rushed 3-pointers when they would be better off attacking the basket. Yao would be best served going right at Greg Oden, who hasn’t demonstrated he can guard and rebound without fouling. If Oden can’t stay in the game for 20 minutes, it puts a lot of pressure of Przybilla to defend Yao while staying in the game. Defensively, they have to make someone other than Roy beat them. This is true for any team with a singular star, but especially so in this case because the cast surrounding him is so young and inexperienced.
Prediction: While I think Portland is the superior team overall, I think Houston has the better match up. Houston is so aggressive defensively, and I don’t know if a young team can keep its composure when things are tough or shots aren’t falling. Since the officials in the playoffs often allow more contact, it favors any team that has Ron Artest on it. Basically, I think the young Blazers are a year away from making serious noise in the playoffs. This year will be more of a learning experience. Rockets in 6
I’m going to be enjoying my annual hibernation to watch every last playoff game, though I’ll probably come out of the woodwork to do this again once we have the semifinal matchups. That is, of course, if I don’t embarrass myself too badly with the predictions I laid out here. If Philly and Chicago are battling it out for a trip to the Eastern finals, I’m probably going to lay low for a while. Otherwise, come on back in a few weeks to check out my thoughts on the opening round, plus predictions for the conference semis.
With the regular season winding down and the actual season about to begin, it’s time to give out the NBA individual awards. Just like every other year, the most discussed award is the MVP. Of course, there are the usual debates about the other awards. How has Jerry Sloan not won Coach of the Year yet? How do you compare the defense of Dwight Howard (whose defensive rebounding and shot blocking show up heavily in the box score) to someone like Shane Battier, who does a lot of stuff that isn’t reflected statistically? Is it cool that someone like Jason Terry qualifies for 6th Man of the Year when he plays more minutes than the guy he is “backing up”? All very good questions. But the MVP is the most celebrated and often most controversial award. Part of the reason is that the “V”, value, is hard to quantify. Is it the most talented player? The best player on the team with the best record? How about someone who sparks a dramatic turnaround for an organization, or fulfills a unique role on a top team? All of these are used as arguments for different people every season, and there are no easy answers.
Take last year, for example. Kobe registered a tremendous season as usual, but I don’t think it was his best individual effort. For me, his most impressive season to date was the 2005-2006 campaign, where he dragged an otherwise below average team to 45 wins. Was Kobe only now the most valuable player because he had a better supporting cast? The real difficulty is in measuring his season against, say, that of Kevin Garnett (responsible for reversing the fortunes of a historic franchise) or Chris Paul (producing one of the best statistical seasons for a point guard ever, also saving basketball in New Orleans). All these players are clearly very valuable, although in different ways. Kobe was a deserving winner, but comparing his season to Garnett’s or Paul’s has a very “apples and oranges” feel to it.
Which brings us to this year’s contest. Kobe is again logging a fantastic season on a team that looks better than last year’s incarnation. If he was deserving of the award last year, he should be this year as well. Dwayne Wade was left for dead after an injury-plagued season for the league’s worst team last year, but he has responded with a season reminiscent of Kobe’s 05-06 effort. Chris Paul continues to be the league’s premier point guard, leading the league in steals and assists, 7th in the league in points per game, all the while shooting above 50% from the floor. Dwight Howard is the anchor for the league’s most efficient defense (points allowed per possession) while becoming only the 5th player in history to lead the league in both rebounds and blocks. And that’s before you get into some of the fringe candidates, like Chauncey Billups (turning a dysfunctional offense into a well-oiled machine for the second best team in the West) or Tony Parker (keeping the Spurs afloat in spite of numerous injuries to Ginobili and Duncan). Unfortunately for all these deserving players, people who in normal years would be worthy of the award, the MVP this year is LeBron James. It isn’t even close.
By nearly any metric, LeBron James has been the best, the most valuable, the most memorable, the most whatever, player in the league this year. For starters, the Cavs have the best overall record in the league, and LeBron leads the team in every statistical category. That’s points, assists, rebounds, steals, and blocks. People want to shower all the credit on Wade for carrying an average team, and while credit is due, I think it’s far more impressive to carry the class of the league.
LeBron’s all around game is without peer, and that’s further confirmed by the stats. He’s second in the league in points per game at 28.3 points per, only trailing Wade and his 30 points a contest. But LeBron is doing it much more efficiently, with an adjusted field goal percentage (that is, taking into account his more efficient 3-point shooting) at .530 to Wade’s .516. He averages 1.43 points per shot, good for 11th in the league (compared to Wade’s 1.37). He’s 9th in the league in assists per game and first among non-guards; the only non-point guard with more assists per game is Wade, who has an inferior assist-to-turnover ratio.
His rebounding numbers are also awesome, at 7.6 per. That’s good for 27th in the league and second among small forwards; the only small forward ahead of him is Gerald Wallace, who plays for the 4th worst rebounding team in the league (which is to say, it’s easier to grab rebounds when Boris Diaw is your power forward instead of Ben Wallace and Anderson Varejao). He’s 8th in the league in steals and 23rd in blocks. Basically, the stats back up what has been obvious all year long—that he’s the league’s most complete player and has been doing everything in leading the league’s best team.
Some people want to give Dwayne Wade the MVP for the one-man show down in Miami, and granted it has been amazing to watch. However, the previous years show that LeBron could do this as well, if asked. He led the ’07 Cavs to the finals with a starting lineup that featured Sasha Pavlovic and Larry Hughes. Last year, LeBron gave the Celtics the toughest test they faced during their championship run, much more difficult than the resistance the Lakers offered. LeBron has already proven his ability to get it done as a near-solo act. Think about it this way—if you replaced Dwayne Wade with LeBron James on the Miami Heat, wouldn’t the Heat be a large favorite Round 1 against the Atlanta Hawks? Yet, the Heat are considered to be the underdog going into the playoffs. I think that is telling.
Comparisons to other players quickly fall apart. Looking strictly at wins and losses, LeBron has done more with less around him than Kobe. The Orlando Magic don’t even run their crunch-time offense through Dwight Howard, and his poor free-throw shooting remains the Magic’s most pronounced Achilles Heel. Chris Paul plays with a legit All-Star in David West, yet his team has regressed, and advancing past the first round of the playoffs would be considered a huge accomplishment. These are over-simplifications to some extent, but they do mean something. Every other candidate has some weakness, some shortcoming to point out. What in the world could you possibly say against LeBron? He’s been the most dominant player on the most dominant team. He impacts every facet of the game. The idea that he could leave the Cavs in two years is putting the whole city of Cleveland on suicide watch. What else does this guy have to do?
One final little side note. As awesome as LeBron and the Cavs have been, if anything, they will be even better come playoff time. That is because LeBron only plays 37.7 minutes a game, which may sound like a lot but is a serious reduction from last year. And since LeBron is an indestructible force of nature, it’s safe to assume that number could creep up to, say, 47.5 minutes a game. If anything, the Cavs have been holding LeBron back from what he could do statistically if they weren’t concerned about saving his energy for the playoffs.
I’m a huge basketball fan, but I’m not really a fan of any specific team. I’m more like a fan of the game, or a fan of the NBA. That said, I’m thrilled with the season the Cavs have had and what it portents for the future. LeBron James is simply too good not to appear at the top of the standings every year, too exciting to be making early exits in the playoffs. Sometimes it takes a long time for people to accept certain things that, in retrospect, seem pretty obvious. Like how someone who came into the league so hyped could actually exceed the hype. Or how someone so young could be so gifted. Or how someone already so transcendent could just be scratching the surface of his potential. This year, LeBron James should be the NBA’s MVP. Ten years from now, you’ll look back at this season and wonder how it was ever even a question.
Upper Deck Blog has only been running for about a week now, but as soon as we launched, I made sure to mentally circle April 15th. I doubt I can do this day justice, but I’ll try my best.
Today marks the 62nd anniversary of Jackie Robinson taking his spot at first base at Ebbets Field on April 15th, 1947, shattering baseball’s color barrier. Sixteen years before Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Jackie pushed the sport and our country forward, far ahead of his time.
Looking at Mr. Robinson’s history, it’s amazing that someone could achieve so much good in so little time. We only had him with us for 53 years, but he accomplished a great deal in so many aspects of his life (most removed from the baseball diamond). His most famous quote, “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives” is inspirational, and at least from my perspective, slightly intimidating. The concept of your life having no meaning unless you influence other people for the better is a hard one to wrap your brain around, for sure.
It’s easy to almost dismiss outright, but then you remember that the man who said it:
Once you look at all these accomplishments and the impact they had on others, Mr. Robinson’s famous quote suddenly carries more meaning. “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives” serves as both a proverb and a challenge, with Jackie’s example leading the way for inspiration. My personal favorite Jackie Robinson moment is Game 2 of the 1972 World Series, where he was honored for the 25th Anniversary of breaking the color barrier. Rather than take the moment to bask in his own glory, Mr. Robinson expressed his wish to see a black manager in Major League Baseball. He would die but ten days later, but his wish would come true in 1975, when Frank Robinson became the manager of the Cleveland Indians.
Before this starts to sound too much like a middle school history report, I’ll point out that Jackie Robinson was good at baseball. Damn good. It’s often overlooked, given his other social accomplishments, but the guy could play. Stories of how he could control the pace of a game just by his presence on the basepaths are legendary; the pitcher would get distracted, Jackie would steal second, third, even home with equal parts precision and raw athletic ability.
Mr. Robinson won a Rookie of the Year award, an MVP award, was a six-time All Star, and won a World Series with the beloved 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers. He had a lifetime batting average of .311, with an on base percentage of .409, both phenomenal stats for his career. Consider that he only came to the majors at age 28, and you can only wonder what else he would have accomplished had he been let in earlier. Then again, it was his impact that allowed others to follow in his footsteps, having full, complete careers thanks to his efforts. It was too late for the likes of Josh Gibson or Satchel Paige (who did get to finally play in the majors at age 42, sadly we missed many prime years of his talent), but Jackie ensured future players would have that opportunity.
Fast forward to the modern era, and Jackie Robinson’s #42 is retired across all of Major League Baseball. Every park you go to, from Dodger Stadium to CitiField (and everywhere in between), players cannot wear his number, in tribute (Mariano Rivera is the one active exception, as his 42 was grandfathered in).
Today, all players will wear 42 to celebrate Jackie’s memory. A lot has been said about this issue, as players, sportswriters and fans alike wonder if having everyone wear it cheapens the significance. From my own personal point of view, I can say that despite being a huge Jackie Robinson fan (in case you couldn’t tell), I won’t wear a replica Dodgers 42 jersey. Can’t do it. I feel the weight and significance of what that symbolizes is too much to bear, and that it takes a special person who has “earned” the right to don that number. On a personal level, it feels like something sacred.
If it was up to me, I’d ask each team to pick one player or coach who they feel has earned the right to have the honor of wearing Jackie’s number on this day. That being said, I don’t think it’s something to get too hung up on. Today means far more than the numbers being worn by the players, and if a kid asks, “Why are all the players wearing 42 today?”, it serves a great reminder that leads to nothing but good and inspiration for the next generation.
On the subject of carrying on Mr. Robinson’s legacy, the Jackie Robinson Rotunda was dedicated at the new CitiField today. Jackie’s widow Rachel Robinson, Governor Paterson, and Senator Schumer were among those in attendance. The Rotunda will be the first part of the stadium you walk through before getting to the field itself, and is a fantastic tribute to Jackie and his life. I think of how important that “first baseball game” memory is for any child in America, and now for millions of kids, it’ll be, “I walked through the Jackie Robinson Rotunda and learned about who he was, and what he did.” I don’t mind telling you, I can’t get enough of the picture above, showing this unfolding before our eyes. On a personal level, I know it’ll be a reminder of the more important things in life, before and after each game I attend back home.
Welcome to the debut of our new weekly feature here at Upper Deck Blog: the Brag Photo of the Week. Nice, clean and simple, we’ll post a new photo every week of something cool in the building that is intended to make you very jealous.
Following up from my post last week about how Michael Jordan ruined my childhood, I just had to see this floor for myself before it got packed out. Down to the warehouse I went, with nothing more than a camera, a ladder and the memories of Jordan absolutely destroying the Knicks on this very floor.
The United Center floor is in one piece here, but these are currently being shipped out to be divided up for our Upper Deck Authenticated Michael Jordan game used floor product. For more details, click on the images above. Aside from providing a little piece of history to collectors, a portion of the proceeds will go to CharitaBulls as well.
Tomorrow: a very significant day for sports, and America as a whole.
Working at Upper Deck has its perks. Just ask Roger Fernandez. Shawne “Lights Out” Merriman came to our building today for a story in an upcoming ESPN Magazine issue about cool jobs in sports. This particular section in the feature will be all about Roger, and the team he manages here in the office.
The cool facts, stats and bios you see on the back of Upper Deck cards all go through Roger’s team for proofing, editing and accuracy confirmation. For each sport, they’ll use all official and reliable resources at their disposal to make sure the content is engaging, and all listed facts and statistics are correct.
For this shoot Roger did what he does best, weighing Merriman on a scale to make sure the stats are accurate. From my vantage point, “big” summed it up well enough.
For the best part of the shoot, Merriman was surrounded by a pile of Upper Deck cards, turning the tables on Roger as he did the proofing.
Just another day at the office out here in Carlsbad. I can tell you firsthand that Mr. Merriman is one big, athletic dude, with a remarkably nice attitude to match. Along with the rest of the San Diego community, we’ll be cheering on the Chargers this year: with “Lights Out” back to full health, it’s hunting season on opposing quarterbacks yet again here in America’s Finest City. Come for the weather, stay for the sacks.
Tomorrow: the debut of our Brag Photo of the Week!
We have some VERY cool things lined up for the blog starting on Monday, so before they get rolling, I wanted to tie up a bit of a loose end in regards to my Sabathia post from earlier in the week. Being a Mets fan who dislikes the Yankees, inevitably, I’m always asked to explain this attitude by my fellow Gothamites. Red Sox/Yankees hatred is easy enough to comprehend, but why would fellow New Yorkers cheer against a team that’s so iconic of our city and its history? Is it jealousy? That’s always the first assumption, but it runs a bit deeper than that.
This is the new Monument Park (and even I have to admit, they did a great job bringing it over to the new stadium). Do me a favor: click on the photo, and look at all those legendary players. Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Berra, Mantle, Maris, Donny Baseball, and so on. There’s something interesting about that list of sixteen great players though (the great Mr. Robinson removed, as his number is retired across the league). Take a moment, and see if you can figure it out. I’ll still be here.
Give up? Here’s a hint: go back, and count the number of legendary Yankee pitchers. Two. In the most storied franchise’s most storied history, only two pitchers were significant enough to be granted that honor. I should also point out that Guidry was recently added in 2003, so Whitey Ford was all alone out there for a very long time.
On the surface, this seems relatively insignificant. After all, the Yankees are known for their great hitters: guys like Ruth and Mantle whose moonshots were legendary. Which, ultimately, is my point. Since Ruth, the Yankees always have been, and always will be the Broadway feature with the marquee names. Come see the stars, watch a few go over the fence, let’s hear Sinatra sing while we make our way home.
Even the most educated, intelligent Yankee fan (my fiance is a good example of this rare creature) has to admit that there are many fans of the team who don’t pay attention to the intricacies of the game (like pitching and defense), and pay money for the biggest ticket in baseball to watch sluggers hit. Period. Big lights, big city, and everyone can understand and cheer for a home run. That’s the attraction. The stadium feels more like a mausoleum than a comfortable, warm home.
By comparison, would you like to know who our most iconic figure is? Seaver is wonderful, we all love Straw, Keith and Doc, but at the end of the day, we’re a goofy team in a big city with a history of futility. And to a man, we all love this guy:
Oddly enough, Colin Cowherd went on a rant regarding this very subject a few years back, on his ESPN Radio show:
Here’s what Mr. Cowherd doesn’t get, along with the majority of Yankee fans: we don’t take our team seriously, but we do take baseball seriously. Honestly, you guys are generally the opposite. Victory and adding to the championship rings is priority #1, and the rest is entirely secondary.
And to us, that’s a joyless existence when it comes to being a baseball fan. In the video above, Cowherd talks about how serious and historic the Yankees and their broadcasts are, the pomp and grandeur of it all, and how we need to be more like them. That’s kind of the point: to us, there’s no FUN in cheering for a team that has that sort of air about them. When your expectations are that high, and anything less than a World Series Championship is regarded as a failure (go ahead, ask Mr, Torre his feelings on that one), we’ll gladly take our team in Flushing, warts and all.
Admittedly, there is a generous amount of pretension in this attitude, but it comes from the right place. We moan and complain about the Seaver trade, the years of futility in the late 70s and early 80s, the wasted opportunities for what should have been more championships following 1986, Mo Vaughn and Robbie Alomar, Scott Kazmir for Victor Zambrano, Adam Wainwright throwing the perfect curveball that will haunt me in my nightmares forever as Beltran could do nothing but watch it fall for a strike and the pennant, and two of the most heartbreaking, soul crushing losses to end a season in sports history, in back-to-back years for extra sting. And we embrace having the worst season in baseball history back in 1962 (seriously, we were all very concerned when the Tigers got close to that 120 loss mark in 2003). We take all this punishment, and we keep coming back for more. Want to know why? Because deep down inside, we feel it makes us better than Yankees fans. We’ll roll with the punches, embrace our futility, and still support our team. No matter what.
By comparison, whenever anything goes wrong with the Yankees, you sense their fans are ready to jump off the bandwagon at any given moment. You should have seen the comments Yankee friends of mine back home were making on Facebook after the 0-2 start to the season. You’d swear the season was over, and you could tell they wanted nothing to do with baseball until the team started winning. To us, there’s no fun in that. I say it often, and I’ll repeat it here: if the Mets only win one more World Series in my lifetime and the Yankees win ten, that will be just fine with me. Because I’ll get more joy out of that one championship than the average Yankee fan would out of those ten combined. I’ll feel like we earned it. Yes, our payroll is gigantic too, but there’s no accounting for the emotional toll of our team’s failure and incompetence, historically speaking.
That’s what drives us: in the end, the suffering makes the success that much more meaningful. And it’s something Yankees fans will never experience, much less understand.
Next week: Thoughts on Tiger at the Masters, reflections on Jackie Robinson Day, and a sneak peek inside the Upper Deck building.
Yes, in case you were wondering, we have lots of cool stuff. I’m going to do my best to make you feel jealous.
Last night, I was watching a great game between the Angels and A’s, and I was telling my fiance all about this Adenhart kid who got the start. Top Angels prospect, good guy, finally getting his chance in the rotation where he’d probably stick for good (I had actually read about him in Baseball Prospectus 2009 a few days prior where they really talked up his potential, so the name was fresh in my mind).
And he delivered, throwing six innings of shutout baseball at the age of 22. Against an A’s lineup that featured veterans like Jason Giambi, Orlando Cabrera and Eric Chavez. Remarkable feat. In two bases loaded jams that would have intimidated most pitchers with his young age and limited big league experience, he kept his composure, and kept the scoreless performance going.
Tragically, only a few hours after that great start, Adenhart was killed in a hit-and-run accident, when a motorist ran a red light. Two others were killed, and another was seriously injured.
Such a sad story for a young athlete who showed maturity and composure far beyond his years. Following a poor big league debut last year, Adenhart was quick to point out that he was more disappointed in letting down his teammates, managers and coaches than anything else. When he got another opportunity yesterday, he made them proud.
My deepest sympathies go out to the Adenhart family, he was taken from them (and us) far too soon. Not much else can be said.