Friday, May 30, 2008

Feel the Euro!

So we had a really silly icebreaker at work the other day where we went around the room and had to describe which car and fictional character best represents us. I wish I had the gall of my friend Eric who simply got up and walked out, but instead, I fumbled around for an answer. My answers were the typically lame answers that one would expect at an associate lunch at a law firm where everyone is simply trying to avoid saying anything memorable or interesting. I went with the Acura Integra that I drove for 11 years (because I'm sentimental and it was covered in Michigan stickers) and Jabba the Hutt (because I like to eat). In retrospect, I wish I simply would have said "Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs" and sat down to puzzled looks. I also wish I would have said that a Mazda Miata best represents me because it pretends to be European, but it really isn't. With that out of the way, a few random notes on the run-up to Euro '08:

1. England's hat-trick hero from the '66 World Cup Final Geoff Hurst is backing the Dutch. Nigel Powers would be most disappointed. Hurst's article is especially useful because the comments section contains a link to this outstanding piece by Simon Kuper about why he roots for the Dutch. It's hard to pick out one or two paragraphs that best convey the gist of the piece, so I implore you to read the whole thing, but here are a couple:

As a child I would arise each Saturday at 7am and race to the ground. The gates would still be locked, but my team-mates and I would rattle them until, at last, at about 8am, someone unlocked them. Then we would play on ASC's gravel pitch until our match kicked off. Afterwards we would hang around the ground hoping for a game with another team. Then we would go to someone's house to play football. When the football was rained off 'a time of bleak despair in the Kuper household' we would race to the ground anyway, where we would be taken to a hall to play indoors, or be shown videos of the 1974 and 1978 World Cups.

Almost all Dutch boys spent their youth much as I did. Of the 14 million people living in Holland in the Seventies, one million played football at clubs like ASC. No other country had a higher proportion of registered footballers. Franz Beckenbauer said he finally understood why Dutch players were so good when he flew over Holland in a helicopter and saw that it consisted chiefly of football grounds.

No wonder we all played. My parents paid ASC about £50 a year, and in return my brother and I were allowed virtually to live at the club. Twice a week we were trained by coaches who had completed long courses for the privilege. One had played professional football. We played on pitches obsessively watered and mowed by the local council. Dutch football, in fact, is a testament to Dutch social democracy...

Cruyff shaped all Dutch footballers: Gullit and Rijkaard who played with him, the Dutchmen who will appear at Euro 2000, and all of us at ASC. The main change he unwittingly effected in Leiden was to get us talking about football. Cruyff himself, when he later became a manager, was to complain: 'The moment you open your mouth to breathe, Dutch footballers say, `Yes, but... that was his own fault. Cruyff was the man who turned Dutch football into a sort of academic debating society. 'Football is a game you play with your head,' he once said. Other countries do not see it that way. I once asked Gullit to compare the English, the Italians and the Dutch. 'In a Dutch changing room,' he said, 'everyone thinks he knows best. In an Italian changing room everybody probably also thinks he knows best, but nobody dares to tell the manager. And in an English changing room, they just have a laugh.'

I have interviewed British chief executives, Argentine generals and Ukrainian mafiosi, but the most talkative people I know are Dutch footballers. You speak to them for an hour and a half, ask every question you can think of, and when you finally turn off the tape recorder they hold forth for another half hour. Sjaak Swart, who told me at the start of the interview that he had no time, said, when I finally managed to cut him short: 'Another cup of coffee, boy?' I will be rooting for the Dutch this month. And I know they are the most gifted team in the championship. But I expect them to lose. That is because the Dutch think that winning is beside the point...

To the Dutch, 'good football' is the passing, thinking, balletic game invented by Cruyff. The master himself has taken to saying that Holland 'really' won the World Cup of 1974, even though they lost in the final. How so? 'Well', says Cruyff, 'everyone still remembers the beautiful football Holland played, and that is a victory more enduring than mucky gauges like final scores.'

There is a famous quote by Edward Galeano to the effect of "show me how you play football and I'll tell you what that says about your nation." That couldn't be truer than it is with the Dutch. A small country in Northern Europe that both produced some of the greatest artists of the second millennium and a football culture that emphasizes playing well. A country that has to be obsessed with its use of space because of its population density (as well as the fact that the Netherlands are below sea level) produces a playing style that emphasizes the use of space on the pitch. I'm not sure that there are any US sports in which our playing style represents anything about our nation...other than the fact that we play our own games and that is emblematic of American exceptionalism. There is also nothing in the US that unifies us the way that playing football unifies the Dutch. The flip side of the coin would be that we are a heterodox culture where people can play whatever they want and find a thousand other people who made the same choices.

As pertaining to Euro '08, the irony is that the Dutch don't always play beautiful football anymore, which has led to sharp criticism in the Netherlands of national hero Marco van Basten. Van Basten is a Cruyff protege, so it's strange that he can't produce the same flowing style that Cruyff made famous. Part of me thinks that van Basten is limited by the fact that this generation of Dutch players just isn't as good as the three major generations that preceded it: the Cruyff-Neeskens-Krol-Rep generation, the Rijkaard-Guillit-van Basten-Koeman generation, and the Bergkamp-Stam-de Boer(s)-Davids generation. Dutch players aren't dominating the top European leagues the way they have in the past and the teams in the Eredivisie aren't making deep European runs. Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie are hurt all the time. Rafael van der Vaart is playing well, but he is doing so at Hamburg, a smaller club in the Bundesliga. No one on the backline can be described as a quality starter for a major club. The list of in-form Dutch stars for major clubs in the biggest European leagues is three names long: Edwin van der Sar, Ruud van Nistlerooy, and Wesley Sneijder.

Another part of me thinks that van Basten is to blame because he has betrayed the country's traditions. Dutch footballers are supposed to be interchangeable (or at least they were in the Clockwork Orange era). Van Basten's Dutch sides struggle to create goals against quality competition because there is no link between the midfield and the forward line. The team is too specialized. For the Dutch style to work, van Basten has to find midfielders to play box-to-box properly. In other words, he has to give Sneijder the right instructions and Sneijder has to play the month of his life for the Dutch to produce the great football for which they are famous. It's questionable whether van Basten even plays the Dutch style anymore, as he is apparently going to play a 4-2-3-1 as opposed to the 4-3-3. The new formation probably takes advantage of Sneijer and van der Vaart's talents better, but it might end up being too narrow.

2. Kudos to ESPN Classic for playing European Cup finals every night leading up to the tournament. I watched the '80 final on Wednesday night and the '84 Final last night. What strikes me watching these older games is that the players and the ball move much slower, but there is more space on the pitch for stars to operate. The '80 final was especially striking because West Germany and Belgium went back and forth at one another like a see saw. The game finished 2-1, but there were far more chances in that match than there are in a typical modern match, let alone a modern final. The last team to score two goals in regulation in a European Cup final was Denmark in 1992. Prior to 1996, every European Champion scored at least two regulation goals in the final (with the caveat that Italy won in 1968 after a 1-1 draw and then a 2-0 win in the replay). At present, the stakes are so high that managers emphasize minimizing risk above all other considerations.

3. Changing course from the Dutch love-in, I thought at the end of the 2006 World Cup that Germany would be the favorites in Euro '08 and I've seen nothing to change my mind. Michael Ballack rounding into form in the second half of the season is an ominous sign for Germany's rivals, especially with his history of producing for the national team. Mario Gomez was torrid for Stuttgart this year and given the Germans a second striker to play alongside Miroslav Klose (assuming that Gomez beats out the slumping Lucas Podolski for the spot). The Germans are not without questions. Jogi Low's system does push Ballack back a little bit too much. The German outside midfielders aren't especially imposing. Their keeper couldn't get off the bench ar Arsenal. Christoph Metzelder had an injury-plagued year at Real Madrid. Still, you'd have to think that a team that emphasizes fitness and a pressing style will have an advantage at altitude. The Germans also have an extremely easy group that will allow them to pace themselves at the start of the tournament.

4. I'll be very interested to see how Raymond Domenech picks France's team. France, more than any other team in the tournament, has a split between established veterans who are not in form (read: every French player at Barcelona) and young players who are in form, but aren't proven veterans at this level (Bafetimbi Gomis, Karim Benzema, and Samir Nasri). I'm hoping as a Dutch fan that France rolls out an homage to the 2000 European champions and flames out.

5. I'm also very interested to see how Cristiano Ronaldo plays when he is not surrounded by superior talent. Ronaldo had about as good a season as any club player in recent memory. Is he tired? Is he fat and happy? Is he supremely confident and ready to stamp himself as an international star as well as a club icon? Can he and Nani find proper hookers in Austria? Inquiring minds want to know.

6. If not for their history, Spain would be the favorites in this tournament. (When have we heard that before?) More than any other side, they have the greatest amount of in-form talent. Fernando Torres was arguably the best striker in Europe this season. Sergio Ramos and Iker Casillas were monumental for Real. Cesc Fabregas had a great season at Arsenal. Xavi and Andres Iniesta were possibly the sole players at Barcelona to give good accounts this season. Spain also has a manageable group, although matches against teams coached by Guus Hiddink and Otto Rehhagel are dangerous because well-coached teams can frustrate the Spanish.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

More on the Mets

I highly recommend Joe Sheehan's breakdown of the Mets' problems and Willie Randolph's responsibility for those problems.($) The short answer: Willie can be blamed somewhat for mishandling the Mets' bullpen and for Jose Reyes reaching a plateau as a good player, but not a great one. Willie cannot be blamed for the facts that: (1) the Mets have sunk a quarter of their payroll into Pedro Martinez, Carlos Delgado, and Moises Alou while getting nothing in return; and (2) the Mets' farm system has not produced prospects to cover for those spots. Those are both Omar Minaya issues. Perhaps Minaya isn't the genius he was portrayed to be when he, gasp, paid more money than anyone else in baseball to land players and thus assembled a roster of very good players who were mostly about to enter the decline phases of their careers.

Sheehan also makes a logical suggestion that, if it came true, would be the 100% wet dream for ESPN: Barry Bonds in left field for the Mets.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

A Few Thoughts on the Braves' Split with the Snakes

Overall, splitting four games with one of the two best teams in the NL isn't a bad result, especially in light of the fact that the Braves did not throw their ace in the series. (On the other hand, the D-Backs didn't throw Dan Haren.)

1. The most encouraging development from the weekend: the Braves hit Brandon Webb for the first time. Any fears that we might have that the Braves' lineup can feast on bad pitching, but cannot hit a quality hurler ought to be somewhat put to rest but the beating that they handed out to the best pitcher in the NL yesterday.

2. In contrast, the Braves couldn't do anything with Randy Johnson on Saturday, but I would expect that the 4 p.m. start time for the game had a lot to do with the Braves' struggles at the plate against the Unit. The combination of shadows and Johnson's delivery made hitting almost impossible. Jorge Campillo matched Johnson and looked very good for a second straight start before succumbing to a blister. Jeff Bennett threw two very painful innings after Campillo left. Bennett only allowed one run, but his apparent desire to walk the world, combined with a double play ball that he threw into center field, made that experience less than enjoyable.

3. Does anyone know if there is a stat for walk-off home runs? I wouldn't be shocked if Jeff Francoeur is right up there in that stat. The rational part of my brain says "there's no way to prove that someone is 'clutch'," but the shameless homer in me is convinced that Francoeur is the guy I want at the dish with the game on the line.

4. Blaine Boyer: 29.2 IP, 29 Ks, 6 BBs. Wow.

5. Please let Jo-Jo Reyes's terrible start on Friday night be a one-off. I don't want to start fretting about the bottom of the rotation any more than I have to. More importantly, I worry about the effects that a three homers allowed performance will have on the psyche of a guy who nibbled way too much last year.

6. Before we sign off, let's have a thought or two on our friends in Flushing. If the Braves are ever in a bidding war with the Mets over a player, Frank Wren might want to use the Mets' last two weeks as evidence that it's worthwhile to take a little less money to be in a market that doesn't hyperventilate when the team slips a couple games under .500 in May. The breathless updates on Willie Randolph's job status on a daily basis are vicarious fun for a Braves fan, as was Billy Wagner's outburst about his teammates not answering questions. Did anyone else notice that he was mostly calling out Latino players on the team? Is it possible that Omar Minaya has not created a post-racial clubhouse of bliss? And speaking of Minaya, was anyone else struck last week by the Mets' lack of the depth? They have the three established stars at the top of the lineup - Reyes, Wright, Beltran - along with a slumping first baseman (does anyone else think twice about giving a massive long-term deal to Mark Teixeira in light of Delgado's decline, as well as the Todd Helton experience for Colorado?) and Ryan Church. My question is this: has the Mets' farm system produced anything other than Wright and Reyes? Wouldn't one expect one of the richest teams in baseball to be able to surround its core players with cheap, talented youngsters? Players like Gregor Blanco or Kelly Johnson? Should I really be that concerned about the Mets' new revenue streams from Citi Field when that money will likely be blown on players on the downward slopes of their careers? In other words, even with more money, won't the Mets still be the Mets?

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Is there Something in the Water in Bristol?

Mark Schlabach has ranked the ten BCS Champions and magically puts the four SEC national champions in four of the bottom five spots. If Schlabach wasn't a former writer for the AJC, where he covered the UGA beat quite competently for several years, I'd be fulminating about his being biased against SEC teams. Instead, I simply think that he underrates the importance of strength of schedule and overrates rolling up big numbers in one or two games.

Take his treatment of 2004 USC and 2005 Texas, for example. The 2004 USC team was excellent, but they did have a number of close calls against pretty average opponents. The luster of that team comes from the beatdown they put on Oklahoma in the national title game, but in retrospect, is beating Oklahoma in a BCS game really that much of an accomplishment? In contrast, 2005 Texas was a more dominant team from start to finish. They blew out every opponent, save for an excellent Ohio State team (on the road, no less). They then beat much the same USC team (OK, USC's defense wasn't the same, but their offense was intact and even better than 2004) in Southern California. For my money, 2005 Texas is the only team in the past ten years that would give 2001 Miami a run for its money.

To test Schlabach's conclusions, I decided to take a look at Sagarin's rankings for the same time period and here's what the computer says:

1. 2001 Miami - 108.7, no losses, SOS of 27
2. 2005 Texas - 106.0, no losses, SOS of 13
3. 1999 Florida State - 102.1, no losses, SOS of 11
4. 2004 USC - 101.2, no losses, SOS of 7
5. 2000 Oklahoma - 99.35, no losses, SOS of 29
6. 1998 Tennessee - 98.5, no losses, SOS of 24
7. 2003 LSU - 96.3, one loss, SOS of 28
8. 2007 LSU - 92.4, two losses, SOS of 11
9. 2006 Florida - 91.9, one loss, SOS of 8
10. 2002 Ohio State - 87.8, no losses, SOS of 30

A few notes on the rankings: I used the Sagarin predictor, but Sagarin's site only explicitly lists out the predictor starting in 2001. I assume that the 1998-2000 rankings are the predictor because Sagarin only created his modified ranking at the behest of the BCS when he was told that he needed a ranking that did not take margin of victory into account. Also, the 2000 rankings were not updated after the bowl games, so Oklahoma is a little undervalued in the rankings.

And now, a few observations:

1. Schlabach isn't out on a limb when he puts the SEC national champions in the lower half. I thought that introducing an objective ranking set would reward SEC teams by putting a greater value on strength of schedule, but that was not the case. For instance, my initial thought was that Florida 2006 is analogous to USC 2004: two teams that played their best games in the national title game, covering for a number of close calls during the season. What I had not taken into account was how good 2004 USC's schedule was, as well as the fact that 2006 Florida had more close calls because of their weak offense. (2004 Auburn's SOS, in case you were wondering, was 60. That's why there wasn't more of an outcry at the Tigers not winning a share of the title.)

1a. Then again, the SEC has four national champs in the decade and no other conference has more than two, so screw everyone else.

2. The Big Ten is not good. It has only one national champion in the past decade and that champion is the lowest rated team on the list by a not-insignificant margin. The 2002 Bucks would be a 21-point underdog to 2001 Miami on a neutral field. Then again, the 2002 Bucks beat much of the 2001 Canes on a neutral field, so what do I know? Also, Sagarin ranks the '98 Buckeyes marginally ahead of Tennessee as the best team in the country, so Ohio State does have a saving grace.

3. If you're wondering where the best Georgia teams of the past decade would come in on the list, the 2002, 2003, and 2007 Dawgs all had Sagarin Predictor ratings of 89.

4. For comparison's sake, here are the ten teams as ranked by the power ratings on James Howell's site:

2004 USC - .963, SOS of .817
2001 Miami - .955, SOS of .688
2005 Texas - .951, SOS of .794
2000 Oklahoma - .934, SOS of .702
1998 Tennessee - .927, SOS of .716
2006 Florida - .924, SOS of .825
2002 Ohio State - .923, SOS of .730
1999 Florida State - .918, SOS of .724
2003 LSU - .896, SOS of .636
2007 LSU - .852, SOS of .775

For what it's worth, 1995 Nebraska scores a .941, which would put them 4th on this list. 1992 Alabama scores a .944, which would put them ahead of all of the SEC teams on this list. 1991 Washington, which is the one team I've seen since I started watching college football that would rank with the '95 Huskers, scores a .946. The last team to have a higher ranking than '04 USC according to Howell's rankings is '72 USC with a .964. '71 Nebraska scores a .985. '58 LSU scores a .976. I stopped looking once I got to World War II because I don't want to be an appeaser.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Random Thoughts on the Braves

1. It might be a little premature to label Jorge Campillo as the second coming of Sandy Koufax or even Jorge Sosa, but wow did he look good last night. Six innings, three hits, seven strikeouts, no walks. There are obvious sample size issues with looking at one start and there is also a concern that hitters will get the measure of Campillo once there is more tape of his pitches. That said, he looked really good last night. It wasn't just that he was getting people out. To my admittedly untrained eye, his pitches looked really good. He was locating everything on the corners, there was all sorts of movement, and he changed speeds nicely. With Chuck James having officially crapped out (the [hopefully] final tally for the year: seven homers allowed in 23 innings pitched), Campillo has an opportunity to wedge his way into the rotation.

2. The Braves have allowed 166 runs this year, which is the fewest in the NL. The next closest NL team in terms of run prevention are the D-Backs at 185. All hail Roger McDowell and a defense that eats up balls in play.

3. After spending a winter ripping Rich McKay and Don Waddell and defending Billy Knight on admittedly tenuous evidence, it's really nice to watch a properly run professional sports franchise. Take the Braves' centerfield situation. Our former centerfielder has a whopping .547 OPS at $18M per year. Our current centerfielder, whom I swear covers more ground that the current incarnation of Andruw Jones, has an .814 OPS and we're paying him peanuts. (One caveat to the Frank Wren love-in: Joey Devine, the pitcher the Braves traded to acquire Kotsay, has been lights out for the A's.) I've been afraid to say any nice things about Mark Kotsay because of his injury history, but now seems as a good a time as any to point out that he's another steal by the Braves' management.

4. Has anyone else found it odd that the Braves have copied the Hawks by being a much better team at home than on the road? A little split between home and road performance is to be expected, but 18-5 versus 6-16 is an awfully big disparity.

5. If the Braves look to improve the team in the trading market, the spots that seem to be ripe for improvement are the corner outfield spots, which ought to be the easiest spots to fill (next to adding bullpen depth, which the Braves won't need if Smoltz, Rafael Soriano, and Mike Gonzalez are all reasonably healthy). The Braves are a really weird team in that respect. They get excellent offensive production from the positions that are hardest to fill: shortstop, catcher, second base, and (to a lesser extent) centerfield. The Braves' lowest OPSs among regulars belong to Jeff Francoeur and Matt Diaz. Frank Wren would likely provoke riots in the northern suburbs if he replaced Francoeur, so left field seems like the one spot where the Braves might look to add a piece in June and July.

(One note: the Braves could obviously use additional starting pitching, but that's true for just about every team in baseball. The trade market for starters is a losing proposition because the demand far outstrips the supply. If Atlanta needs help in the rotation, it's far more likely to find it in the farm system. It's likely that the Braves are going to call on Richmond for help in August and September in light of the fact that Tom Glavine is probably going to wear down because he's old and Jair Jurrgens is probably going to wear down because he's young.)

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Picking over the Carcass

I don't have much to add to Phil Ball's post-mortem on Barca's dreadful season or Sid Lowe's evisceration of Barca's performance at the Bernabeu.

Ball and Lowe both deploy grade school analogies to describe this immature team, which is telling. The money graf from Phil:

In the end, of course, the enemy was within. The Dutchman's tendency to indulge certain players' reluctance to train hard, or their tendency to arrive back late from international matches, backfired in the end. As with a decent teacher who has knowledge and kindness to spare, the kids took advantage of the fact that the classroom discipline was nevertheless lacking. Two leagues and a Champions Cup notwithstanding, in the final analysis his president, Joan Laporta, pointed the finger in Rijkaard's direction last week, in a press conference which revealed a lack of self-criticism and a lot of cowardice - two qualities that this president will be remembered for, if he goes sooner rather than later.

Money graf from Sid:

Poor little Football Club Barcelona. It couldn't have been more embarrassing if Mrs Barcelona had joined his mittens with a length of string, tied his sensible shoes in great big girly bows, ironed a nice crease into the front of his trousers and packed a My Little Pony lunch box with cling film-wrapped ponging peanut butter sandwiches, an apple because it's good for you, a couple of cartons of Um Bongo and a note saying "Mummy Loves You". If she'd wiped his tearful, snotty-nosed face clean with spit on a hankie and theatrically waved goodbye at the school gates. Right in front of the cool kids.

I'll try to write more about the side when I get a chance, but here's my preliminary take on the carnage this summer. I'll divide the players into three groups:

Definitely staying:

Valdes (although a second keeper will be on the shopping list; Victor was not especially good this year)

Possibly going:

Dos Santos
Yaya Toure (but only because he might want to play with his brother; he was one of the heroes of this campaign)

Almost certainly going:


Note that the group of players who are almost certainly staying are almost all players who came up through the Barca youth system. Those guys all played hard from start to finish. The only product of the youth system who was questioned this year was Dos Santos because he doesn't like passing the ball and thus drew the ire of the crowd. He also has a father who is reputedly looking to move him along. Anyway, the transfer market giveth and taketh away. I'm looking forward to a summer of new players. Karim Benzema and Dimitar Berbatov, come on down!

Friday, May 09, 2008

One Hundred Cocktails for Roger McDowell

Behold the ranks of the Braves' pitching staff in the National League 1/5th of the way into the season:

Lowest ERA - 1st
Fewest Hits Allowed - 1st
Fewest Home Runs Allowed - 1st
Fewest Walks Allowed - 4th
Most Strikeouts - 8th
K/9 - 3rd
Lowest Opponent's Batting Average - 2nd
Lowest Opponent's On-base Percentage - 2nd
Lowest Opponent's Slugging Percentage - 1st
Lowest Opponent's OPS - 2nd
Lowest WHIP - 2nd
Most Quality Starts - 6th
VORP - 2nd
K/BB Ratio - 4th

And now for the caveats:

1. We are talking about a sample size of 33 games.

2. The Braves' schedule has been really easy in the first 20% of the season. Atlanta hasn't played the D-Backs, Cubs, or Cards, while almost one-quarter of the schedule has been against the last-place Nats.

And now for the...antonym of caveat? The Braves have pitched so well despite a flurry of injuries. The starting rotation coming out of spring was going to be Smoltz, Hudson, Glavine, Hampton, and Jurrjens. Smoltz has shoulder problems and has been moved to the bullpen. Glavine missed two weeks with a bad hamstring. Hampton is having all sorts of complications from...OK, the "Hampton has female parts" jokes have probably run their course at this stage, so we'll just say that Hampton hasn't thrown a pitch in anger in the majors this year and probably won't by the end of the year. Hudson and Jurrjens have carried the starting rotation. (A cautionary note on Jair: he's never thrown more than 142 innings before, so don't be surprised if he tires out at some point. The alternative is that he throws 225 innings and becomes a massive injury risk in 2009.)

The bullpen has also been a MASH unit. The projected closer and set-up man - Soriano and Moylan - have combined to throw fewer than ten innings. Soriano will be back at some unspecified point, while Moylan, like seemingly a third of all pitchers, is out for the year. (Have I mentioned that the injuries that pitchers suffer drive me up a wall? I feel like I can never commit to rooting for a pitcher because the moment that I do, he'll be on I-20 headed for Dr. Andrews' office.) The Braves have gotten good contributions from a host of relievers. To end on a really happy thought, picture a bullpen later in the year with Smoltz closing and Soriano and Mike Gonzalez setting up. The Acosta-Bennett-Ohman-Ring-Campillo collection that has done a credible job in the first 33 games would now all become depth. How good do the starters really have to be if the Braves can win every game in which they have a lead after six innings? I realize this is a little presumptuous thinking for a team that won its first one-run game of the season on May 8, but I guy can dream, can't he?

Thursday, May 08, 2008

If you don't have anything Nice to Say...

Then don't write about F.C. Barcelona right now. I've been meaning to write a post about the Blaugrana after the loss to Manchester United last week, but there is precious little to say other than invective about a team that has plainly quit on its coach. Barca gave a relatively good account of themselves against United, especially in dominating the midfield play in the two ties, but their same old bugaboo popped up: lots of possession and very few chances because the team have only one way to play. There was no variation to Barca's game and thus, they never really created a great chance in 180 minutes of football. The defense held out reasonably well, in no small part because Yaya Toure played well, but it wasn't enough.

The "effort" that Barca showed yesterday at the Bernabeu was positively shocking. Regardless of whether they had anything to play for, professionals wearing the Barca strip should never, ever, ever put in such an uncommitted performance against their arch-rivals. Yesterday's result transformed my feelings about Rijkaard and the players from disappointment to abject anger. Now, I want blood. Previously, I was OK with a limited clean-out of Rijkaard, Ronaldinho, Deco, Edmilson, and assorted other spare parts. Now, the list is longer. If I never see Rafa Marquez in a Barca strip again, that will be fine. Sadly, Samuel Eto'o has always been one of my favorite Barca players, but after he (likely) intentionally got a yellow card on Sunday so he would miss the trip to Madrid, I'm angry at him, as well. I'm certainly fine with Le Grande Sulk's immediate departure. If Henry wants to play whatever position he deems best and wants to be closer to his daughter, then Newcastle is ready when you are. Enjoy the northeast of England, you overpaid wanker.

Now I'm all worked up. You see why I didn't want to write about Barca for weeks?

One other thought: Carles Puyol is my favorite Barca player and he has acquitted himself well even as the club has gone in the shitter. That said, a player who captains a squad that quits cannot avoid all of the recriminations. Puyol couldn't hold the dressing room together. I might be expecting too much of the Captain, but even he looks worse at the end of this disaster.


John Hollinger's Take on Billy Knight

I don't have a lot to add to John Hollinger's evaluation of Billy Knight as a GM. OK, I actually do. A few bones to pick:

1. Blowing up the team:

Knight's most controversial move came shortly after he replaced Pete Babcock in 2003, when he made the decision to blow up the team's nucleus of Jason Terry, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Glenn Robinson and Theo Ratliff and start from scratch. Just for good measure, he whacked coach Terry Stotts, too.

I don't remember anyone saying "hey, let's keep together this nucleus of under performing, expensive players on the downward slopes of their careers." In what way was breaking up Babcock's dreadful collection a controversial move? And this argument is the weakest I've ever seen from Hollinger:

However, even with that, the brutal truth is that after five years, his team wasn't any better than the one he nuked.

Gee, would I rather have a roster full of good, cheap, young pieces are an expensive collection of malcontents who refuse to play defense? The Hawks' record might have been only two games better this year as compared to the 2002-3 team that Knight blew up, but the Hawks' trajectory and potential is much better.

2. Knight's Talent Acquisition

I can't argue with any of this:

In truth, his trades and free-agency moves probably would have allowed him to keep his job if his drafts hadn't been so horrible. However, his decisions to take Marvin Williams instead of Chris Paul and Shelden Williams instead of Brandon Roy squandered two of Atlanta's three top-five picks during his reign. Selecting Acie Law ahead of Rodney Stuckey in last year's draft looks like it might be a similar blunder. Offsetting all that was only one comparatively good move: taking high-schooler Josh Smith with the 17th pick in 2004.

And this is somewhat concerning:

Additionally, it's an opportunity for a new guy to clean up in areas in which Knight failed. For instance, the Hawks have had the rights to Danish-Australian forward David Andersen since 2002, but never have made any concerted effort to bring him over, even though he has been one of the best players in the Europe.

But this is simply not correct:

Along those same lines, Atlanta has had unusual trouble coming up with decent players to fill out the bench. Most notably, every attempt at adding a low-cost big man has been beyond disastrous. It was Knight who gave Atlantans the unholy trinity of John Edwards, Lorenzen Wright, and Esteban Batista, and believe it or not, each received a guaranteed, multiyear deal. Efforts at adding depth on the wings and in the backcourt didn't go much better.

What do you call signing Zaza Pachulia for four year and $16M?

I'm honestly a little surprised that Hollinger's shots at Knight aren't sharper. Hollinger is the best writer that has on the NBA and he pays special attention to the Hawks. The Knight epitaph should have been right in his wheel house, but a lot of his criticisms missed the mark.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

The Italian Larry Munson

Knight Raus!

For those of you who worried that the Hawks' strong showing in the playoffs would mean a lack of changes in the team's management in the off-season, fret no longer: Billy Knight has resigned. I have no inside information as to whether this was Knight's decision. If you asked me to speculate, I'd guess that Knight interpreted ownership's refusal to let him fire Mike Woodson as a vote of no confidence and elected to leave. It will be critical for ownership to replace Knight quickly because the team has some major decisions to make in terms of re-signing Josh Smith and Josh Childress.

Now that the book has closed on the Knight era, we can take a step back and evaluate his best and worst decisions.


1. Drafting Josh Smith with the #17 pick in the Draft. There's no way to get around it: getting a borderline all-star with a unique skill set outside of the lottery is a coup. The full value of this pick will be determined by whether Smith continues to round out his game (read: develop a slightly better handle and a more reliable jumper). And add in the fact that Smith is a local product, which makes him more exciting to the fan base.

2. Trading for Joe Johnson. At the end of the day, the Hawks gave up Boris Diaw, who had all of one good season in Phoenix before porking up, and two non-lottery first round picks. Knight was lucky that the lottery balls went the Hawks way last year, but in the final analysis, Knight acquired the lead scorer that the young players on the team desperately needed. The growth of the young players on the team would have been set back if they didn't have a primary scoring option to create open looks for them. For instance, Marvin Williams would be close to useless if defensive attention to Joe Johnson didn't create consistent open jumpers on the weak side of the court.

3. Signing Zaza Pachulia. This signing didn't look as good this year when Pachulia had given up on Mike Woodson and wasn't playing hard, but in 2005, the Hawks had a center getting them 12 points and eight boards per game for $4M. That's an absolute steal in the NBA. The Pachulia signing actually highlights an overall trait of Knight's that did not get enough attention: he avoided bad signings. The Hawks' playoff drought was as long as it was because Pete Babcock short-circuited the rebuilding process by putting together the Abdur-Rahim/Big Dog/Ratliff disaster of a team. He should have kept building young players through the Draft the way that Chicago did. Knight resisted the urge to cash in his good young players for "established veterans." He also resisted the urge to give huge deals to players like Eddy Curry and Samuel Dalembert when the conventional wisdom was that the Hawks desperately needed a center. Knight instead signed Zaza and got production close to what Curry and Dalembert created (at least initially) for a fraction of the cost.

(Note: I don't include the Al Horford draft pick because it seemed somewhat obvious at the time. Needless to say, I think that was also a good move.)


1. Drafting Marvin Williams. That pick is going to torture me every time I see Chris Paul play. This pick will be Knight's epitaph as the Hawks' GM, obscuring the fact that Knight did build a good roster.

2. Drafting Shelden Williams. Could the lesson be that Duke and Carolina players are overrated? Or at least Duke and Carolina players named "Williams?" I sure wasn't a fan of Jay Williams or Scott Williams.

3. Signing Speedy Claxton. Knight was a little unlucky that Speedy went from slightly brittle to totally broken, but this was a signing that proved to be an utter disaster. The Hawks' lack of depth can be attributed to decisions like this.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

The Celtics are Getting Amazing All over our Faces

We're down 48-26 early in the second half. The defense isn't terrible, although the defensive rebounding was a problem in the first quarter. Offensively, all of the problems the Hawks had in the first three games have been present in spades:

1. There is no apparent offensive structure. I'm a stuck record on this, but Mike Woodson either has no offensive system or the team is not listening. When the players are individually excellent, the team scores, but when the players aren't on, the offense does nothing to create easy shots. After Friday night, I was thinking that maybe defined offensive plays aren't a necessity in the NBA. The trigger for this thought, incidentally, was Steven Cohen on the World Soccer Daily podcast saying that Chelsea have played a little better with a coach who emphasizes tactics less. They're more able to have freedom to do what comes naturally. Today, we're seeing that the Hawks are not to the stage where they can score on the road without a little help.

2. Joe Johnson is the only guy who isn't awed by the stage. Josh Smith and Al Horford are both having John Starks-ian game sevens. We know that Horford can deliver on the big stage and Josh Smith played the best games of his Haws career in games three and four, so we know that these guys aren't shrinking violets when the tension increases.

3. Boston is a really good defensive team. They play well together. You have to like a roster that's built around three all-stars (one of whom is an outstanding defender), and defensive point guard, and a defensive center.

Marvin Williams just pulled one of the dirtiest open-court hits I've seen in recent memory. The Hawks did so much to send us off into the off-season with positive thoughts, but that's going to sully my memory somewhat. The sad thing is that Marvin is a clean player and on the biggest stage, he's created an impression around the country that he's not.

So where does this leave us? We shouldn't let the Hawks' big fat egg today obscure what they achieved in this series. The Hawks beat the best team in the NBA three times in the playoffs. Philips Arena became a series asset for the team, leading John Hollinger to write this after game six on Friday night:

Yet the Hawks' series-tying win may be only the second-biggest upset of the
night. While the media that covered the team all year looked around and thought,
"Where am I?" a towel-waving mob upped the Philips Arena decibel level to
heights never before seen in this building. Of the five arenas I've been to in
this postseason, Philips was easily the loudest -- a shocking turn of events for
a place that could have doubled as a mausoleum for much of the regular season.
A bevy of Atlantans will think of Hawks games as fun and exciting for the first time in ages. The market will be excited for opening night in November.

The Hawks showed that they can go toe-to-toe with a great team. The one aspect of this series that was consistent with the regular season was the fact that the Hawks were much better at home than on the road. The team looked like a team on the cusp of being a legitimate contender at home and the 13-69 Hawks of three years ago on the road. Atlanta is a young team full of players who get intimidated at hostile venues. For the team to take the next step, the solution might be between their ears, moreso than bringing in new players or a coach who can generate more easy shots. I hate psychological explanations, but this series has shown what happens when Josh Smith attacks the basket consistently or when Zaza Pachulia plays as hard as he did in 2005-6 as opposed to this regular season.

The most obvious roster issue to address, other than re-signing Josh Smith and Josh Childress, is to bring in a little more depth. Boston can roll in Sam Cassell, James Posey, Leon Powe, and Glen Davis for energy off the bench. The Hawks are limited to Josh Childress, Acie Law, and Zaza. The team needs to figure out whether it can rely on Law to play 20 quality minutes every night. He didn't do enough this year to show that he can, so next year has to be make-or-break for Acie. Zaza was not nearly as intense this year as he was in his first season as a Hawk. If he's active like Powe, then this is a different team. Ideally, the Hawks would find another big man for the bench, as well as a swing man who can score. There isn't a single bench player who I would call a significant offensive threat, other than Salim Stoudemire, whom Woodson does not trust.

Another issue for the Hawks to mull over in the off-season is this: have they really solved their point guard issues? Despite the youth of the team, the one guy who played as if he was intimidated by April and May basketball was Mike Bibby, who came in with the reputation as a clutch player. Bibby had two or fewer assists in five of the seven games. That's a significant concern.

The Hawks' dreadful performance today should not obscure the fact that the team made major strides in this series. We know that Joe Johnson can play like a superstar. We know that Josh Smith can be the complete player that we all hoped he can be. We know that Josh Childress can be a perfect complementary small forward. We would not have been able to say these things if Atlanta would have been swept like everyone predicted. The Celtics' crowd is signing "Nah nah nah nah hey hey hey goodbye" right now, but something tells me they wouldn't have been so happy if they knew at the start of the series that they would be doing so in the fourth quarter of a game seven.