Thursday, May 31, 2012

Trading a Star: Why OKC Needs to Trade Westbrook to Win


After watching the first two games of the 2012 Western Conference Finals, we can tell OKC is overmatched. They handled the Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Lakers in the first two rounds, but something is seriously lacking in a supremely talented Oklahoma City squad. Even though they have the best scorer in the game, three-time scoring champion Kevin Durant, they won’t be able to win a ring with the team they have now.

OKC has three scorers that need more shots per game than they can get. One of them needs to go in favor of a traditional point guard or scoring post presence. Kevin Durant has won the past three scoring titles in the NBA and has come up big in clutch situations in his young career – obviously he is the centerpiece to build the organization around. He isn’t going anywhere.

James Harden is the 2012 Sixth Man of the Year. He provides a well-rounded, low maintenance scoring threat that can go off for 30 points like he did against San Antonio on Tuesday. He compliments Kevin Durant nicely because of his ability to penetrate and kick as well as score and play lock down defense.

And then there’s Russell Westbrook. No question, he is one of the best players in the NBA right now. The two-time All-Star averaged nearly 24 points per game alongside the scoring champion, showing the amazing capability the guard has to score. But his style of play does not go well with Durant. Possession after possession, Westbrook pulls up for a quick free-throw line jump shot early in the shot clock and prevents development of team-oriented basketball. Even though he can (and has) made those shots, when it comes time for a deep playoff run those shots will inevitably stop falling. The lack of chemistry in passing shines through painfully. You know it’s bad when the announcers voice their annoyance at Westbrook’s repeated dribbling without purpose.

Looking at their counterpart in the Conference Finals, you can see exactly the power of chemistry and a well-built team. San Antonio has a near perfect blend of talent, experience, and team chemistry that led them to win their first ten games of the postseason. So who should the Thunder trade for?

The reality is they are in an excellent position. Russell Westbrook’s talent will command a top player in return, so they should be able to fill one – if not both – of their aforementioned needs (traditional point guard or scoring post presence) to become perennial championship threats.

Dwight Howard seems to want out of Orlando (again), he would certainly fit the bill and add another incredible defensive presence in the middle. David Lee from Golden State has been performing at a high level and a three team trade putting Lee in an OKC jersey could help. (Golden State probably doesn’t want Westbrook, a glorified version of recently traded Monta Ellis.) If New Orleans for could be convinced to trade their top pick in the draft for a deal involving Westbrook, Anthony Davis from Kentucky might not be a bad idea either.

In terms of the other approach, there are some point guards that could help get the Thunder over the hump. Deron Williams would be great, but he is being entertained by other teams that probably have more realistic chances of courting the premiere point guard on the market. John Wall would probably welcome a change of scenery from the losing culture of basketball at the nation’s capital. And Durant would love to help increase his already solid average of eight assists per game.

Other excellent options include free agent point guard Goran Dragic, who averages 18 and 8 in his 28 starts in 2012 as well as free agent Roy Hibbert, who gained national respect in the Pacers playoff run this year.

The Thunder have plenty of options, they just need to test the market for Westbrook. As good as he is, the Thunder will only be a Conference Final team with him on the roster.

(Note: You can also view this article on Bleacher Report here.)

Friday, May 25, 2012

Looking Ahead: NBA Western Conference Finals



Regardless who wins the 76ers/Celtics game tomorrow, the more interesting Conference Finals will not include Pierce or Iguodala against LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. The Spurs and Thunder will battle for the Western Conference spot in the NBA Finals beginning on Sunday, and that should prove to be the better series. Why?

Miami, Philadelphia, and Boston have all played inconsistently – and Philadelphia would have never even made it out of the first round if Derrick Rose didn’t get injured. Also, if the duo in South Beach plays anything like they played in the Conference semifinals it really shouldn’t be much of a competition.

On the other side, consistency and dominance has been the name of the game for the top teams in the Western Conference. The Spurs are on an 18-game winning streak, including two sweeps in the playoffs thus far (against Utah and the Clippers). They are playing as good as they have ever played, and really do not look like they have a weakness. Shooters, post players, defense, depth, experience – you name it, the Spurs got it.

The Thunder are equally as impressive, having swept a Dallas team that beat them in the playoffs just last year and handling a perennially playoff-savvy Lakers team. They, too, have no glaring weaknesses. Durant and Westbrook have combined to average over 50 points in the playoffs, James Harden is the Sixth Man of the Year for a good reason, and Perkins and Ibaka are two of the league’s best defensive big men. And with Derek Fisher providing veteran leadership off the bench, the Thunder have some depth and experience to go with some of the best talent in the NBA.

So, with those things in mind, who’s going to win? It will go six or seven games almost certainly, and although both teams matchup up very well, here’s why I am going to stick with my pick to make it to the NBA Finals:

Stars: Tim Duncan and Tony Parker vs. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook

The cornerstones of the Spurs success certainly have more experience, but at this point in their careers Durant and Westbrook are better players. You can look at the scoring numbers Durant and Westbrook have put up, but also keep in mind they have some playoff experience getting as far as they have the past two years. Durant creates matchup problems for the Spurs (like he does for most teams), and Tony Parker doesn’t have the quickness to keep up with Westbrook. Edge: Thunder

Defense

The Spurs defense has been excellent so far, but it is partially because they haven’t faced the star caliber of Durant and Westbrook in the playoffs. OKC has (see Kobe Bryant and Dirk Nowitzki). Defense begins in the paint and as solid as Duncan is, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins are elite post presences, as well. Ibaka is averaging nearly four blocks a game and Perkins shut down Andrew Bynum in the Conference Semifinals. Two post presences are better than one. Edge: Thunder

Experience

The Spurs are more playoff experienced than any team in the league. Their core of Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili has played for Greg Popovich for ten years. Duncan and Popovich go back to 1996. And although the gap between them and the Thunder has closed since last year, it isn’t a question who wins this battle. Edge: Spurs

Role Players

Manu Ginobili, Danny Green, and Boris Diaw provide the shooting, scoring, and defensive support the San Antonio stars need. On the other side, OKC has James Harden, Derek Fisher, and you can throw Nick Collison into that mix. The Spurs know what they’re getting from Ginobili on a nightly basis and Danny Green has stepped up, too. However, the veteran leadership Fisher provides for the Thunder on and off the court compliments their young stars nicely and James Harden would be a primary or secondary scorer on most other teams.
Edge: Thunder
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It remains to be seen how much experience plays a role in this series. This is how far the Thunder made it last season before losing to the eventual NBA champion Dallas Mavericks. The Spurs this year are probably better than the Mavs were last year, so it will be a greater challenge for Durant & Co. This will certainly be a thrilling series. The question is can OKC rise to the challenge or will the Spurs team effort continue rolling through the playoffs?

After Durant came through in the clutch against Los Angeles and Westbrook continues to make his (albeit annoying) pull-up, fast break jumpers, the underdogs can pull it off. In games that will come down to the wire, OKC’s star power will make a name for themselves in the playoffs. Series edge: Thunder

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Kobe vs. LeBron: A Comparison of Two NBA Greats


King James and the Black Mamba. Undoubtedly two of the greatest NBA players of all-time. If you are looking for a solid LeBron/Kobe comparison, you've come to the right place. Through this article, I will explain as objectively as possible why we can (and should) conclude that LeBron James is a better player than Kobe Bryant.

First, let’s look at regular statistics and season awards. LeBron has won three MVP awards, Kobe has won only one. This alone gives LeBron a big edge in their respective regular season performances.

Second, LeBron made an immediate impact in the NBA and transformed the Cavaliers, a perennially terrible team, into a legitimate title contender. He won Rookie of the Year award; Kobe averaged less than 8 PPG in his rookie season. Not to mention Kobe has played with All-Stars and Hall of Famers for most of his career.

Essentially all awards (NBA first team, etc.) that Kobe has more of can be attributed to his longer tenure in the league so those are a wash considering James is acquiring those awards at a comparable rate, if not faster. 

Now here is a side-by-side comparison of their career regular season per game averages:

Kobe Bryant
LeBron James
Points
25.4
27.6
Rebounds
5.3
7.2
Assists
4.7
6.9
Steals
1.5
1.7
Blocks
0.5
0.8
FG %
0.453
0.483
Statistics courtesy of basketball-reference.com

The stats speak for themselves.

Defensively, it’s not much of a comparison. LeBron can guard virtually every position on the floor. Admittedly, it may be easy to be mesmerized by Kobe’s 11 All-Defensive team awards but remember what his own coach, the legendary Phil Jackson, said about Bryant’s defense in Jackson’s book:  “The voters have been seduced by his remarkable athleticism and spectacular steals, but he hasn’t played sound, fundamental defense.” Over their respective careers, LeBron averages more defensive rebounds per game, steals per game, and blocks per game.

Kobe fans are eager to point out playoff performances, and before delving into the quality of LBJ and Kobe’s playoffs, let’s look at their playoff statistics:

Kobe Bryant
LeBron James
Points
25.6
28.1
Rebounds
5.1
8.5
Assists
4.7
6.9
Steals
1.4
1.7
Blocks
0.7
1.0
FG %
0.448
0.462
Statistics courtesy of basketball-reference.com

Just like in the regular season, LeBron is ahead in every single category.

As we all know, there is one main reason NBA fans and analysts do not unanimously agree that LeBron is better: NBA championships (or in LeBron's case, lack thereof).

As NBA great Chris Mullin pointed out, in order to win a championship all of the stars (literally and figuratively) have to align right. A championship is a team effort and Kobe has played with three great big men -- Shaq, Gasol, Bynum -- compared to LeBron, who has played with Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Joel Anthony.

Even if LeBron never wins a ring, you cannot default to Kobe as the greater player. Robert Horry has won seven titles and Karl Malone has won zero. No one in their right mind would say Horry is better. Derek Fisher has won five rings (and may get another this year), does that mean he is as good as Kobe and better than LeBron? And they are only a few examples. Adam Morrison has played in as many playoff games as he has won championships (2). There may be a correlation between championships and greatness, but a direct one? If so, the Celtics have the seven greatest players of all time – and Larry Bird isn’t one of them.

The reality is, as good as Wade and Bosh are, it is easier to succeed as a scorer when you have offensive role players and dominant post presences, which Bryant had. Look at the Spurs of the 00s and the original Big Three. The 2008 Celtics for example, had a great scorer (Pierce) and shooter (Allen) to complement some of the league’s best big men (Garnett and Perkins). LeBron has a big time scorer to compete with in Wade whereas Kobe has played with Gasol, Bynum, and O’Neal. 

Career player efficiency rating (PER) also helps give more of the story. Here is a comparison of Kobe and LeBron and players two have played with.

PER
PER
LeBron James
27.2
Shaquille O’Neal
26.4
Dwyane Wade
25.7
Kobe Bryant
23.4
Chris Bosh
20.9
Pau Gasol
21.9
Statistics courtesy of basketball-reference.com

James has the second highest PER all-time (behind Jordan), Shaq is third, and Kobe is 18th.

Dwelling on championships a little more (because that is really the only argument that can be made for Kobe), let’s look at Kobe’s five rings.

During the three-peat, he was the second best player on the team. Shaquille O’Neal was by far the greater player and perhaps the most dominant player of his era. To say that Kobe had “help” is an underestimation. He was playing with one of the greatest players of all-time and didn’t win a single Finals MVP award during the three-peat.

If LeBron had played with O’Neal in his prime, LBJ would have at least won three rings. Why would that tandem have been more successful? LeBron is a scorer and a facilitator. Kobe may make tough shots, but it’s because he chooses to take so many tough shots. LeBron generally seeks the best shot whether or not it’s him, and if he had Shaq down low, the duo would have been virtually unstoppable.

Kobe’s fourth ring in 2009 was the one he contributed most (and earned Finals MVP honors). His 2010 Finals MVP was merely by reputation – he performed abysmally. Without going into a complete analysis, just remember he shot 29.3% in the fourth quarter of those Finals. (LeBron shot 33.3% in the fourth quarter of the 2011 Finals.)

LeBron’s 2007 playoff domination was more impressive than any of Kobe’s during his rings. The Cavs may have lost to the Spurs in the Finals, but LeBron’s performances were some of the best the NBA has ever seen. He led a comeback in the Conference Finals against the Pistons when the Cavs were down 0-2. The most memorable one was when LeBron scored the final 25 points in a double overtime victory against the Pistons, one of the best defensive teams, no less. This list has that game as the fourth best playoff performance of all-time. While I would argue it should be higher, note Kobe doesn’t even sniff the top 10.

Keep in mind this incredible 2007 performance occurred when the second and third best players on the Cavaliers were Larry Hughes and Zydrunas Ilgauskas. Moral of the story: LeBron singlehandedly took the Cavaliers to the Finals. The season before he was in the league, they were 17-65. Compare that to Kobe, who was a primary (or secondary) option for most of his career. Again, LeBron (while on the Cavs) was the only sensible option. Teams tried to hone in on him and just about nobody could guard him. In Miami, he has to share shots with Wade and Bosh – but he still has great games. Look no further into the past than Game 4 of the 2012 Conference Semifinals against the Pacers. In one of the most important games in LeBron’s playoff career, down two games to one, he had a monster 40-18-9 game in a big win.

In terms of “clutchness,” there is more than just that double OT performance against the Pistons and his recent brilliance against the Pacers. Kobe is instinctually given the nod, but we need to look at the facts, not the GM polls. After all, GMs picked Kwame Brown, Sam Bowie, and Greg Oden over the likes of Tony Parker, Michael Jordan, and Kevin Durant.

According to Chasing 23LeBron shoots better (41%), than Kobe (26%), in the final 24 seconds of a playoff game (fourth quarter and overtime). The argument that Kobe has taken more shots when it counts doesn’t work, either. LeBron shoots a potential game-winning/tying shot once every 8.25 playoff games and Kobe shoots one every 8.68 games.

How about this shot to beat the Magic when the Cavs were down 2 points in the Conference Finals? LeBron has done his work in the clutch. There is no reason to choose Kobe over him when it matters “most.” In the playoffs, LeBron has made only two less game-tying/winning shots (5 total) than Kobe (7) in less than half as many attempts. Opposing defenses know LeBron is probably going to drive it down their throat and there is still nothing they can do about it. Kobe, on the other hand, does things like shoots 2 of 10 in the fourth quarter and then blames Pau.The reality is that The Myth of Playoff Kobe is just that: a myth.

Before Kobe/Laker Nation gets all over me, remember I started my article saying they are two of the greatest players of all time. LeBron’s “decision” and proclamation of winning title after title were stupid moves on his part, but as basketball fans we should realize we are watching one of the most amazing talents to ever to hit the basketball court. And yes, a talent greater than Kobe Bryant.


If you liked this comparison, check out our series of comparisons that includes: LeBron vs. Jordan, Jordan vs. Kobe, and Kobe vs. Duncan.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Aroldis Chapman: Taking Dominance to a New Level



The beginning of the 2012 baseball season has seen two highly hyped international players live up to expectations: Yu Darvish from Japan, and the Cuban left-hander Aroldis Chapman. Darvish, a starting pitcher for the Texas Rangers, has gotten his due attention, starting 6-1 with an impressive 2.60 ERA and 58 strikeouts in 52 IP. But Aroldis Chapman has flown somewhat under the radar, and when you hear what he has done so far, you may consider tuning in to some Cincinnati Reds baseball – or at least checking out his highlights on YouTube.

Chapman is known for his blistering fastball, which has been clocked at a major league record 105 MPH. It’s not like that speed is a one-time occurrence, either. In 2010 against the Orioles, Chapman threw 25 straight pitches over 100 MPH. And according to Fan Graphs, in 2012, he has thrown 355 fastballs at an average velocity of over 97 MPH.

If your jaw hasn’t dropped yet, get ready for his stats thus far in 2012: in 21.1 innings, Chapman has racked up 38 strikeouts, only 7 walks, and opposing teams are hitting 0.099 against him. He has allowed a mere 14 baserunners total. You’re probably wondering what his ERA is, right? Aroldis Chapman is sporting a clean 0.00 ERA. No earned runs. Zero, zip, zilch, nada. (He does have an unearned run, however.)

We may only be in mid-May, but you can see for yourself in his highlights – hitters barely even stand a chance against this guy. It’s surprising the catcher can even catch the ball. Chapman has nasty off-speed pitches, as well – if you can call a 93 MPH change-up “off-speed.” His 5:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio is incredible considering how hard he throws because understandably, it is difficult to control such high velocity pitches. Even the great Nolan Ryan was known for being “effectively wild.”

The only worry is that he goes the way of many of the other 100 MPH pitchers – and that’s to the disabled list. After all, he is testing the limits of the human body. As pointed out in this article, tests have shown that the “amount of torque needed to throw [just over 100 MPH] is greater than the amount of force the ulnar collateral ligament…can withstand before giving out.” If the arm speed a 100 MPH pitch requires could be held for just one second, a pitcher’s arm would spin around 24 times.

Although the rest of the league may be thinking otherwise, the Cincinnati Reds certainly hope their flame-throwing new lefty can remain healthy and help them compete with the Pujols-less Cardinals for the NL Central title.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

When the Giant Beard Goes Down



San Francisco Giants fans grew to love Brian Wilson, the flame-throwing right hander who was somewhat reminiscent of former Giant great, Robb Nen.  Over the past couple years, Wilson repeatedly got himself into jams in late inning situations, but he always seemed to get himself out – a major reason that announcer Duane Kuiper coined Giants baseball as “torture.”  And who doesn’t love a guy who wants to rage…right now!

Early this season when the Giants lost Wilson, the face of their “Fear the Beard” pitching staff, panic struck the organization and fan base. Once doctors said Wilson needed season-ending surgery, the question became: who would – or even could – step up? The Giants dominant pitching staff was being slowly torn apart. One of my personal favorites stepped up to the challenge, and someone who could throw in the mid to high 90s at least as often as Brian Wilson. Ironically, this right hander is similar to a fellow hard throwing, Dominican native, Felix Rodriguez. Rodriguez is the former Giants set-up man for none other than Robb Nen.

As of 2012, Santiago Casilla has been a member of the Giants’ bullpen for three years.  The 31 year old had a rocky start with the Giants, but has solidified himself over his tenure in San Francisco. He traded a small amount of velocity on his fastballs for accuracy, going from an average fastball of 97 MPH the year he joined the Giants to a current average speed of 94 MPH. This tradeoff worked excellently for Casilla, who stepped up to fill Brian Wilson's position as the Giants closer. Thus far, he has converted 10 of his 11 save opportunities. You are probably aware of my opinion on saves, but his 1.62 ERA backs up his success in those high pressure situations. And the Giants have a habit of playing close games, which puts even more pressure on San Francisco's late inning relievers like Casilla.

So while Giants struggle to get to the point where they are in a position to win ballgames, they can breathe easier when they do manage to pull ahead late in games. They are an undefeated 17-0 when leading after seven innings, and some credit can certainly be given to the early brilliance of Santiago Casilla.

Friday, May 18, 2012

The Rise of Roy Hibbert


Yesterday the Pacers big man helped his team, in the words of Stephen A. Smith, “punk” the Heat. Hibbert put up 19 points, 18 rebounds, and 5 blocked shots – numbers you expect from someone like a Shaq, Dwight Howard, or KG…not a man who needed to learn how to run properly not too long ago. But his ascent to this playoff performance is not as surprising as you may think. Hibbert models his game after his idol, Tim Duncan, the soul of the San Antonio team that quietly dominates their competition – and this year is no different for those Spurs, who have got off to a 6-0 playoff start after finishing the season on a 10 game winning streak.

Hibbert was a force in college, and many thought his game wouldn’t translate well to the NBA. (Then again, analysts said that about Kevin Durant, and look at where the three time scoring champ is now.) After leading Georgetown to multiple deep runs in the NCAA tournament and its first Big East title in nearly 20 years, the 7’2” center was drafted 17th overall in the 2008 NBA Draft by the Toronto Raptors. After being dealt to the Pacers for Jermaine O’Neal, Hibbert settled into the Pacers organization.

Rightfully so, there were concerns about how injury prone Hibbert would be in the NBA. Like mentioned earlier, he couldn’t run 5.0 MPH on a treadmill in college – yes, he was that uncoordinated. Recent history also shows a trend of issues with 7 footers, too – look no further than the downfall of Yao Ming and the injury-ridden career of Greg Oden. Why would Hibbert be any different? He attributes it to a “process…that depends on your work ethic,” and the results have paid dividends.

Aside from gaining the trust of his organization by playing in all but one game in each of the past three seasons, his 2012 performance garnered the respect of NBA fans who voted him to his first All-Star appearance. The Pacers, headed by 2011-12 NBA Executive of the Year Larry Bird, are the perfect fit for Hibbert who, this year, averaged 12.8 points per game, 8.8 rebounds per game, and 2.0 blocks per game. Those numbers become even more impressive considering he only played 30 minutes per game.

Roy Hibbert isn’t nearly as flashy as Dwight Howard or Andrew Bynum, but he gets the job done. His ambidexterity in the post allows for the creation of comfortable post shots from anywhere in the key. Like his idol, Hibbert is a key part to his team-oriented organization. While Hibbert has a long way to go before considerations can be made comparing him to Duncan, the Pacers and Spurs organizations are remarkably similar in their build around a quiet but confident big man. Neither team had a single player that averaged more than 20 points per game in the 2012 regular season, which is in stark contrast to the rest of the teams left in the playoffs, but they win game after game behind their big men.

It will remain to be seen if Hibbert can continue the upward trend he has been having for each of the past three seasons (where his points, rebounds, blocks, and minutes have all steadily increased), but if so, he can become a premiere NBA center. The Bleacher Report ranked Hibbert as the NBA’s sixth best big man at the beginning of this season. A deep playoff run and a solid start next year could put him into the mix with today’s household names like Bynum, Howard, and his idol, Tim Duncan.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

A Triple Crown Threat?




Josh Hamilton of the Texas Rangers has been putting up unbelievable numbers and his recent performance has been historic, hitting nine home runs in seven games. Yes, he averaged over one home run a game for a week’s worth of games. Oh by the way, that does include a four home run game – something that has only been done 15 times in baseball history. To put that in perspective, a perfect game has occurred more often (21 times) than a four home run game.

And as the New York Times pointed out, Hamilton has hit more home runs in 34 games than Bonds did in 41 games in Bonds’ record breaking 2001 season. Who knows? It is quite unlikely that Hamilton keeps up this pace, but he also is in the hunt for baseball’s triple crown, currently possessing an impressive .402 average along with 18 HR and 45 RBI (all AL league leading numbers).

It will be fun to see if he can keep putting up these numbers, and as you may guess from my opinion of Barry Bonds, I would be more than happy to see Bonds home run record broken. It’s even better rooting for a guy who has battled and overcome drug and alcohol addiction, knowing that his fame will continue to bring attention to these national issues.

Monday, May 14, 2012

What Round 1 Told Us About the Current State of Los Angeles Basketball



The Lakers and Clippers both played seven game opening round playoff series – and were part of the only two series to do so. In a fast paced season, that alone may impact their play in the conference semifinals. But their play on the court in Round 1 of the NBA Playoffs is what may be most worrisome. Let’s start with the Clippers team that has risen from the cellar of the NBA and then move to Kobe and his Lakers.

As you can read about in my playoff picks, I did not expect Lob City to advance past the Grizzlies. The lack of familiarity in the LAC team run by CP3, Blake & Co. is not their fault – it’s simply the result of a shortened season and the fact it’s their first season together. Undoubtedly, the duo is very talented – and that is what got them through Round 1. We all know what Griffin and Paul bring to the floor, but Nick Young can shoot, Kenyon Martin can still play, and they have a never-say-die attitude and will to win. In the fourth quarter of Game 7 against the Grizzlies, they went on 11-2 run. Sound familiar? It should, because they went on a 28-3 run to close out a historic Game 1 performance.

So now they move on to play San Antonio. Blake Griffin will meet his match in Tim Duncan, and Tony Parker can compete with Chris Paul. San Antonio is the precise opposite of Los Angeles – it seems like Duncan, Parker, and Popovich have been together forever.

San Antonio swept the Jazz quickly and quietly and should be well rested for LAC. Popovich shouldn’t need to motivate Duncan and Parker, because they have been there before. And for a number 1 seed to have no scorers in the regular season above 20 PPG, San Antonio knows how to make team-oriented basketball work.

The reality is the Clippers can compete with the aging Spurs certainly better than the Jazz, but ultimately the Spurs should outlast Lob City. It will be a fun series as talent meets experience, but for this round, experience will win.

Now how about the Lakers? I picked the Lakers to win in five games against Denver (as opposed to a sweep), mainly because Artest’s absence due to the suspension for this ugly hit on OKC’s James Harden. But I though Kobe, Bynum, and Pau could more than handle Artest’s brief hiatus. (Sorry, I can’t call him “World Peace” after that elbow.) They did, but it took a seven game roller coaster ride.

For the Pau-thetic effort Gasol put forth in Game 6 against the Nuggets in Round 1, his 23 and 17 performance in Game 7 showed that Game 6 was more of a fluke than the standard. Steve Blake was nailing threes at an unexpectedly high rate, Bynum has been performing at an impressive level, and Kobe is, well…Kobe. He was non-existent in the fourth quarter of Game 7 until the end, where he sealed the game with an impressive fade away three pointer. Yet somehow they managed to lose three of seven games to a Nuggets team with no prolific scorer and a big man who once tried dunking from the free throw line in a game. That is worrisome.

The DEN vs. LAL series certainly showed Artest, however crazy he may be, is an integral part of the Lakers gameplan. But they won’t be able to stop OKC. Ibaka and Perkins can shut down Gasol and Bynum, and at this point in their respective careers, Durant is a better scorer than Kobe. Plus, having the Sixth Man of the Year (James Harden) and Russell Westbrook just gives the Thunder more weapons than the defense led by Artest can handle. The only chance that the Lakers have is if the Thunder get off to a slow start because of their extended rest period from Round 1. Barring that or injuries like the Heat’s Chris Bosh suffered, OKC should advance and end Los Angeles' playoff run at the second round.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

“Saving” a Baseball Game



A save became an official statistic in baseball in 1969. Yet somehow all of the top 50 single season records in saves have occurred post-1990 and a significant portion came during the infamous steroid era, when players like Bonds and McGwire were shattering home run records left and right. How can this be?

First, looking at the definition of a save, Major League Baseball Rule 10.19 states that a save is recorded when a pitcher is the finishing pitcher in a game won by his team, records at least one out, and has satisfied one of the following conditions: 1) enters the game with a lead of no more than three runs and pitches for at least one inning, 2) enters the game with the potential tying run on base or is one of the first two batters he will face, or 3) pitches at least three innings.

One can imagine all of the possible permutations of possible save situations, but here is a good indicator of the evolution of the save, and naturally also the evolution of the closer. From 1960 to 2010, saves of more than one inning decreased by more than forty percent. Thus the workload per game on closers has diminished, allowing for more opportunities to accumulate saves.

This fact that closers have been pitching for increasingly less and less outs enables what Bradford Doolittle of the Kansas City Star called “a statistic creating a job." Francisco Rodriguez was able to amass 62 saves in 2008 in large part because he simply had so many opportunities to convert saves. Rodriguez’s 69 save opportunities in 2008 was nearly half of the total of games his team played during the entire season. That incredible number is due to the ability the Angels had during that year to put him in situations that weren’t really “saving” a game.

It may be difficult to comprehensively quantify the quality of K-Rod’s 2008 season, but this article shows that 08 was arguably Rodriguez’s worst season up to that point in his career. “Worst” for a dominating closer may insignificant, but achieving the incredible statistical record he did certainly in part was due to his increase in opportunities. He took advantage of the rule that a save can occur when a pitcher starts the ninth inning and his team is up by three runs.

After that season K-Rod was a free agent and, because of the record, commanded a lot of money. The Mets succumbed to Rodriguez, giving him a 3yr/$37 million contract. Since then, his velocity and numbers have declined and he is currently sporting a measly one year deal with the Brewers. That’s not to say Francisco Rodriguez wasn’t incredible prior to 2009, but his truly impressive saves were diluted by less impressive saves and his true ability was masked by the loopholes with the definition of a save.

Greats like Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman were nothing short of spectacular for their careers, which shouldn’t be affected by K-Rod’s record breaking season. But something needs to change the ability closers currently have to bolster their statistics and cashing in like Rodriguez did.

MLB should modify the definition of a save opportunity. Increasing the one out requirement to a two out requirement may help, but only five of Rodriguez’s 62 saves were one out outings. One out saves also can occur during intense situations where a truly gutty performance is required, and those are definitely worthy of a “save,” although Hall of Fame fireman Goose Gossage may disagree.

A small and simple fix would make a world of difference: change the three run rule to a two run rule. This takes care of the situation where a closer can get a save when he pitches one inning when he’s up by three runs. A good closer rarely allows base runners, therefore a three run lead is a generally insurmountable cushion – and nearly a guaranteed save. A two run rule would mean only one runner needs to reach base for a home run to tie the game.

A change of focus to ERA could also alleviate the problem of overrated closers, but that is unlikely to happen because one bad outing for a closer could damage his ERA significantly because he doesn’t pitch as many innings as a starter. Bottom line: MLB needs to change something before the 500 save club makes way to the 600 save club the way the 500 home run club lost its glory to the 600 home run club.

Monday, May 7, 2012

An All-Star Pegging a Teenager?




Cole Hamels made a statement by coming out and saying that he purposefully beaned 19 year old rookie Bryce Harper in yesterday’s game as a “welcome to the big leagues” message. MLB promptly handed out a fine and a five game suspension for Hamels’ acknowledgment that the apparently errant pitch was actually intentional. Fair?

Definitely, but it is because of Hamels’ stupidity in claiming he drilled Harper purposefully. Cole Hamels was idiotic enough to tell the media his act was premeditated. He should have kept it to himself and moved on. But, because he was dumb enough to outright claim he had intentionally hit Harper, MLB acted appropriately with a fine and suspension.

The truth is, pitchers have intentionally hit batters since the beginning of baseball for a variety of reasons. Whether it is a rival team’s slugger, payback for a previous home run, or just a pitcher hating the opposing batter, these premeditated pitches are a part of baseball. But you don’t tell the media, ‘yes, I did it to make a statement.’ Let the welt in Harper’s back do the talking.

The Nationals retaliated by hitting Hamels during Hamels’ later at bat, an equally justified act by baseball’s unwritten rules. As expected, the umpire warned both benches and made any more such pitches lead to an immediate ejection from the game. This is where it should have ended, and Hamels’ intention been left up to the court of public opinion.

Sadly it didn't. But let's not forget the teenage rookie Bryce Harper made a statement of his own, proceeding to steal home on a pickoff play just a couple batters after being hit. That garners respect, and shows Harper knows how to make it hurt for Hamels – but in a more baseball savvy way. After brushing off any problem with the intentional HBP, Harper took the high road and impressed the baseball world by showing he will let his game do the talking. And the kid has only played eight major league games.