Thursday, March 29, 2007

The Resurgent Sixers

It makes me uneasy to discuss the next topic in some ways. I was really hoping that the Sixers would simply tank the season in order to bring on the Greg Oden era.

Naturally, the Sixers chose not to cooperate.

From February 26th to March 10th, the Sixers ripped off 7 straight wins that included wins over the Lakers and the Suns. Despite the beatings the Sixers took on Sunday March 18th against the Rockets and their March 20th whipping at the hands of Detroit, the hometown hoops team has a record of 8 wins and 4 losses for the month of March. That goes with their just below .500 record in February. What does this all mean? It means they're getting better as a team, somehow.

But how?

There are several theories being bandied about, with all of them having some truth to them that, when combined, probably best explain why the Sixers are playing better basketball.

I think it's fairly obvious at this point that the departure of Allen Iverson, while traumatic to a segment of the fan base, has been the jumping off point for the remaining players on the team to perform as an actual team rather than acting as Allen Iverson's support system.

No matter what Iverson does in Denver in the way of hanging offensive numbers, I firmly believe that Allen Iverson does not, in any way, make his teammates better through his self-centered style of play. To support this point, the Nuggets record since the Iverson trade is below .500 (22 wins, 25 losses), whereas, they were above .500 (13 wins, 9 losses) when he got there. Iverson is a great offensive scorer, but not a winner.

Alone, the mere absence of Allen Iverson does not explain the recent Sixer surge towards respectibility. For all of his selfish tendencies, Iverson is a tremendous talent and an offensive scoring machine. Somehow, Iverson's offensive output, while never replaceable, needs to be made up for in some way. Enter true point guard Andre Miller. Miller, part of the Iverson deal, has been exactly what the Sixers have truly lacked since Eric Snow got old right in front of our eyes and we realized he couldn't shoot....a real point guard. A point guard that runs the offense and looks to get other players involved. Miller has averaged 13 points, 7 assists, and 4 rebounds per game, which suggests that Miller is not only a good setup guy, but can score and help out on the boards when needed. His assist to turnover ratio is approximately 2.7:1, which is comparable to perrenial league MVP Steve Nash's ratio of 2.95:1. His floor leadership has helped immensely on a team which was getting perfectly content to watch Allen Iverson hoist an average of 25 shots per game (the less shot-needy Miller averages a measly 11 shots per game).

As Miller has asserted his game with the Sixers, the rest of the team has gotten in on the act. Andre Iguodala has made a transformation from talented slasher to well-rounded star in the making. He is averaging a shade less than 5 more points per game (from just above 15 ppg to just under 20 ppg) and approximately 2 more assists per game (from about 4.5 apg to just over 6 apg) since the Iverson trade. That Iguodala has more assists even with the departure of a scorer like Iverson is astonishing. It tells you that when Iverson scored, it was mostly in the form of drives where Iverson brought up the basketball and simply kept it and scored. Iguodala is not the only player who has seen his numbers increase since the Iverson deal. Kyle Korver's point output per game has increased as well as that of Sam Dalembert and Rodney Carney. This increased scoring activity amongst the young core of the team can only assist in the development of confidence that every NBA player needs in order to succeed.

So, yes, while it is painful to watch the young Sixers win games and continue to fritter away their opportunity to draft a talent like Greg Oden, it is also fun to watch the Sixers develop and function as a team.

From here, I simply hope the Sixers continue to develop their core players and draft wisely this upcoming draft. Specifically, I'd like a bigger body in the middle and/or a scoring option down on the low blocks in the form of a real power forward. They need to retain Andre Miller's services and keep with the philosophy that a true point guard is the best way to foster team play. It might also be wise to begin grooming a successor to the 31 year old Miller. Louis Williams may or may not be the answer (no pun intended), but they are going to need to find out.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The NCAA Tournament

The weather is starting to break, St. Patrick's day is this weekend, and the NCAA tournament begins this Thursday. Two out of three of those events I regard as very positive. I have very mixed feelings on the NCAA tournament. I think my feelings can be best distilled in two lists:

Five Reasons I really like the NCAA basketball tournament:

1.) Gives you something sports related to watch on TV while binge drinking during St. Patrick's day, which always seems to fall around the first few days of the tournament.

2.) Mindless sports gambling in the form of bracket pools. Filling out the brackets is always fun as you track the winners and losers through the first 4 days of the tournament.

3.) Upsets. The Cinderella team that enters the tournament and surprises the hell out of everyone. Think George Mason. Admit it: You love it, every year, when a snooty basketball oriented school like Duke gets beat by the likes of Coppin State.

4.) The NCAA basketball tournament is very American in the sense that all types of schools have a chance. I especially like spotlight on smaller colleges. Villanova, St. Joe's, Gonzaga, Santa Clara, Creighton, College of Charleston, Southern Illinois, etc. These are schools you never think about on the National level, in terms of college athletics, until the NCAA basketball tournament.

5.) Except for *maybe* the NBA Finals, the quality of play, in terms of pure basketball, is as good as it gets for the entire sport. I prefer to watch well coached college basketball players than watch well coached professional players everytime.

Five reasons I absolutely hate the NCAA basketball tournament:

1.) The personalities and writers that come out of the woodwork this time of year. Billy Packer is a bitter, loathesome human being, who is an unabashed apologist for the ACC conference. Dick Vitale's enthusiasm becomes an extreme annoyance when exposed to his broadcasting for prolonged periods of time. Why do I even know of a dork like Joe Lunardi, a self-appointed "bracketologist"?

2.) The complete non-event that is "selection Sunday". If people think the NFL draft is boring, they should get a load of the TV programming involved in simply selecting the teams to play in the tournament.

3.) How in the hell can anyone think they know something about all 64 teams in the field, let alone those teams that didn't make the tournament and may have deserved to? My point: it is impossible to handicap all of these games and the various potential permutations of games down the road in this tournament with any semblance of skill. I believe the tournament and bracket pools are all about luck and that annoys me. I think it is more likely to win a multi-million dollar lottery than it is to win a $10 bracket pool. Please note: I have never come close to winning a bracket pool, but that doesn't stop me from playing them.

4.) The entire tournament is insufferably long. They call it "March Madness", but the Championship game is always played in April. Are you telling me they can't get this whole thing done in two weeks? No way this tournament should be allowed to extend into April.

5.) If a player has even a modicum of success in NCAA tournament, they always seem a little too eager to declare for the professional draft, even if their game isn't ready.

I guess the overriding conclusions about the tournament is that it gives us something to get worked up over until baseball season starts and the winter sports playoffs start. Now if you'll excuse me, I have to fill out my bracket pools and buy beer for the weekend......

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Why We Really Hate Kobe Bryant

Last Friday, Kobe Bryant and his Los Angeles Lakers came to town and got dumped by the hometown Sixers. With Bryant's arrival into town, there were articles and the usual talk about why Sixers fans do not like Kobe Bryant. For example, the following is from the Associated Press' account of the game:

"Of course, the sometimes-boorish Sixers fans booed Bryant almost every time he touched the ball. The unforgiving crowd has never forgotten when Bryant proclaimed he was "coming to Philly to cut their hearts out," in the 2001 NBA finals."

I have heard this explanation before as to why the locals don't like Kobe Bryant and while that may be a small part of it, it is a gross generalization. I have a much simpler reason why the locals don't like him much here; Kobe, by all appearances, seems to be very much a contrived personality. His entire body of work over the course of his career has shown him to be a big phony. He always aspired to be the heir to Michael Jordan as a mainstream, cross-over cultural phenomenon, but in reality, he has behaved like a self-aggrandizing jackass.

Disliking Kobe is not a recent sentiment; in my opinion, it goes back to before the 2001 Finals. It goes all the way back to his draft year in 1996, when he stated that he wouldn't play for the then-Charlotte Hornets, who had drafted him. This was seen by many as a move to a big market where endorsements could be had rather than a decision based on basketball. It was considered an audacious move by a guy many thought was not immediately ready for the NBA at the time. Kobe's perceived arrogance about this entire situation rubbed a lot of people (including me) the wrong way.

Furthermore, many in the area wanted Kobe to go to one of the Big 5 schools. His father, Joe, was an assistant for LaSalle University at the time and many thought and hoped he would go to LaSalle because of that. We all know how this scenario ultimately worked out in Kobe's favor, but in '96, high schoolers going into the NBA was not as commonplace and many looked on the practice as bad for the player and the sport. Ten years after Kobe was drafted, the NBA mandated in 2006 that high school players must wait 1 year after their graduating class has finished high school to be eligible for the draft. You can debate the merit of this rule or high schoolers in the NBA, but what is not under debate is the impact many thought Kobe would have had for one of the Big 5 schools had he chosen to go to school for a year or two in Philadelphia. I still believe there is a segment of folks who still hold that against him.

It wasn't until then that you started to hear people on talk radio say things like "Kobe wasn't raised here, but in Italy" or "Kobe isn't from Philly, he's from Lower Merion"....essentially, a perjorative nod to Kobe's attending an upwardly mobile school like Lower Merion High as opposed to one of the more famous basketball city high schools like Simon Gratz. Furthermore, the scant playing time he received as a rookie seemed to justify many of these sentiments people believed about Kobe's not being ready for the NBA and would have been better served by going to college.

As time passed, and Kobe got progressively better during his NBA career, many believed his development has come as a result of the Lakers having a force such as Shaquille O'Neal as the centerpiece of the team. Many believed (and still believe) that the Lakers success at the end of the 90s and into the 2000s was more as a result of a motivated Shaquille O'Neal and not the mercurial Kobe Bryant. Kobe marched on, playing alongside O'Neal and garnering lucrative endorsement deals, shilling everything from McDonald's to Adidas. All the while, he maintained and cultivated a veneer of a squeaky clean superstar.

It was during the run of championships from 2000 - 2003 that Bryant began to complain about his own game being stifled with the offense going through Shaquille O'Neal. In a town like Philadelphia, whose fans observed the Lakers go through this tiff while winning championships, this sort of attitude does not go down well. It has been well publicized that no sports team has won since 1983 in Philly. It made people question what Kobe cared more about...his own statistics or winning championships. Caring more about one's own stats than a Championship is anathema in this town (unless your name is Allen Iverson).

In the eyes of Sixers fans, the argument about Kobe Bryant was always couched against what kind of player Bryant was compared to the very popular Allen Iverson. People wondered how Iverson might have developed differently if he had O'Neal to play with rather than the likes of Matt Geiger. In these comparisons, Bryant was universally perceived as the more physically gifted player, but it was obvious from the tone of the conversations that Bryant was not the more respected player of the two.

When Bryant made the "cut out their hearts" remark in 2001, I would argue he was already disliked by a big segment of the Philly sports populace. That remark just sort of sealed public opinion of Kobe that he was an "L.A. guy" and that he would never be a real "Philly guy" despite his stated affection for the area.

The alleged rape incident in Eagle, Colorade further sullied Bryant. Whether he actually did it or not is something only two people will ever know. What is part of the public record is that Bryant essentially talked out of school about Shaquille O'Neal paying off women to keep their liasons private and the whiny press conference he gave with his aggrieved wife at this side after the entire incident. Sometimes, in adversity, people say and do things they regret....I'm guessing Kobe regrets both of these incidents as both revealed him to be small and petty.

That he was additionally painted as a petulant, uncoachable whiner by Hall of Fame coach Phil Jackson in his book "The Last Season: A Team in Search of Its Soul" cemented and reinforced Kobe's perceived status as a prima donna.

With this body of public work from the talented, but tainted Kobe Bryant, it's amazing that more fans don't boo him when he comes to their town.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Extreme Makeover - Orange and Black Edition

The Flyers have been in full rebuilding mode. As such, I thought it necessary to make a few comments as to the progress of their rebuilding as it pertained to the recently passed trade deadline. The Flyers made several deals both before and at the trade deadline.

Peter Forsberg for Scottie Upshall, Ryan Parent, and two 2007 draft picks (1st and 3rd round): As I mentioned here, I knew there was no way Peter Forsberg was going to be with this team through the remainder of the season (he was traded by the Flyers on February 15th to Nashville) and let me also say there is no way Forsberg will sign here in free agency this summer. What Forsberg does next year will depend on his deformed foot, that defies all medical and podiatric science, and how the Nashville Predators fare with him in their lineup. Certainly, the Flyers don't owe Forsberg a damned thing....they have been patient and very supportive of Foppa as he went on an extended odyssey that extended from Arizona to Montreal to Sweden in order to find an adequate skate to fix his surgically repaired foot. They did not wig out on him last year when he played for Team Sweden after being out of the lineup leading up to the Olympics. The team could have rightfully challenged him for playing for his national team when he wasn't playing for the team that was paying his salary. As great as Forsberg was, ultimately, it will be better for the Flyers if they put Peter Forsberg in their past.

As for the Forsberg trade itself, I am not entirely in love with the deal. Scott Upshall could not uproot rookie Alexander Radulov for a job as one of the top six forwards and Nashville management felt so good about Upshall last year, they went out over the offseason and picked up JP Dumont. Clearly, the didn't believe he was ready for a full-time job in the NHL. Ryan Parent, the defenseman the Flyers got in the deal, struggles with back problems, but is apparently a big time d-man when he does play. And the draft picks are high picks, but they happen to be in this year's very thin draft. I think it was an ok deal, but fraught with risk and "what if" potential, much like Nashville's gamble on Peter Forsberg's foot and skate problems.

Kyle Calder for D Lasse Kukkonen and a 3rd round pick in the 2007 draft: I think that they got anything for perhaps the most overrated NHL forward I've ever seen is amazing. Kukkonen played on the same Karpat team as Joni Pitkanen as a Finnish junior player and was the captain of the team. If they got him for no other reason than to pal around with Joni Pitkanen, then I am ok with this deal. Pitkanen's play has regressed this year, and Coach John Stevens has described Pitkanen as a "loner" in the press, so this trade reeks of a security blanket for the enigmatic Pitkanen.

Calder, on the other hand, was probably the poster child for everything that has gone wrong with this team this year. He was traded for the immensely popular Michal Handzus in a deal I guess they had to make in order to make room for Jeff Carter and Michael Richards to get more ice time. It took Calder 28 games to score a goal in Philadelphia. He was known as a gritty player who put out a tough effort every night; he was not that way with any consistency in Philadelphia. The Flyers did offer him a contract, but you can assume they low balled him in an effort to get him on the cheap. Frankly, I'm glad he's gone; he made poor decisions with the puck, doesn't appear to be all that skilled, and I don't think he fits with current direction of the team.

Alexei Zhitnik for Braydon Coburn: I'm OK with this deal only because they got a good, young defenseman back and because I'm pretty confident they'll replace\upgrade Zhitnik's skill set\experience through free agency this summer. Coburn has a real good reputation as a skater and passer. He can be physical when necessary according to the scouting reports, but he apparently isn't much of a fighter (see: Coburn's ill-fated duel with Mike Rupp). Zhitnik lent credibility to a group of Flyers blueliners that sorely needed it when they acquired him earlier this year, but now, with the team going in a different direction, they did the right thing and found a panicky GM who needed a veteran defenseman.

A 2nd round pick for Martin Biron: This deal was a bit of a pleasant surprise for me. Not necessarily because of who they obtained, but the trade indicates that the Flyers have realized that they have a problem between the pipes. Esche is as good as gone and Antero Niitymaki has gone backwards in his development (not unlike fellow Finn Joni Pitkanen). Martin Biron was the starter in Buffalo before Ryan Miller was all but given the job by Buffalo management.

Personally, I was hoping the Flyers would sign a high profile goalie this summer, such as Jean-Sebastian Gigure or Jose Theodore (I refuse to believe the 2002 Vezina and Hart trophy winner is as bad he has gone in the last two years), but now they will get a look at a lower price, but possibly, just as talented alternative.

Overall: It seem interim GM Paul Holmgren did a nice job of moving pieces of the team that won't be part of the next Flyers team to get to the playoffs in a couple of years. The overall theme seemed to be getting young, unproven talent from teams that had young, unproven talent to spare, which is good, because the Flyers have too little of this type of talent at the AHL level currently. The only question is whether or not it's NHL ready talent or not.