SportsProf

(Hopefully) good sports essays and observations for good sports by a guy who tries (and can sometimes fail) to be a good sport.

Name:

Not much to tell.

Add to Technorati Favorites

Friday, December 29, 2006

The Arms Race

And we're not talking adjustable-rate mortgages here, either.

We're talking about this.

Barry Zito signs a 7-year deal with the San Francisco Giants for $18 million per year.

Wow!

The linked article in USA Today talks about the arms build-up that's taking place in the NL West. I'm sure that articles in New York papers are talking about how deep the Mets' problems are since they failed to sign Zito. My guess is that few are touting GM Omar Minaya's grasping onto the last buoy before drowning in the Sea of Insanity that has been free-agent signings this year. The Mets do deserve some praise for not taking the plunge that the Giants did. After all, this is Barry Zito we're talking about, a good hurler but not someone who has "Future Hall of Famer" written all over him.

Roy Oswalt must be scratching his head in Houston; the Astros got him for a relative bargain-basement price this past season. And I'd take him over Zito in a heartbeat.

Will Zito pan out? Will the Mets suffer because they didn't sign him? Is the money in baseball so good that owners will now toss it around with reckless abandon? How much money will Vernon Wells sign for after next season? $20 million per year? $22 million?

That's the thing about auctions. If only one team's interested, you're not going to fare so well. But if more than one is interested and they have a sense that they have to have you in their uniform, the sky could well be the limit. There's just no explaining why anyone would give Gary Matthews, Jr. $50 million over five years -- except for the frenzy of an auction process.

Is the Zito signing good for baseball? The Alfonso Soriano signing good? Are the best players going to get the most money, or are those fortunate enough to have their contracts come up at the right time -- when there's a perceived dearth of players who do what these available ones have shown, to a degree, that they can -- the ones who will make the most? My guess is that in the short-term it's the latter, and, if that's the case, the players' union and the players who get these lucrative contracts had better be careful what they wish for.

Because for signing for the most money -- regardless of whether the team has a chance to make the post-season -- these players have outed themselves as being out, first and foremost, for the bucks. Look, most pundits -- certain former players excepted -- can't put ourselves in the position of guys like Zito and Soriano. To us, all of this is Monopoly money, and we think that we'd take $3-$5 million a year less to play with a potential World Series contender like the Mets than an aging Giants team or a Cubs team that hasn't won anything since before the late Gerald Ford was born. Getting a World Series ring, playing on a champion and being remembered for making a contribution means a lot to people like us (it's hard to say how many would prefer being, say, David Eckstein -- with 2 World Series rings in tow -- to David Winfield).

But most players do not do this. They sign with this highest bidder, and it's hard to see them happy with perennial also-rans. Why would you sign with a team like the Cubs, which seldom has a chance?

If these men perform well, then it's money well spent. If they don't, they'll hear the boos, loudly and clearly, even from fans in cities without reputations for having the toughest fans. The front offices of the teams inking players to these huge contracts are putting their reputations on the line too. If Zito or Soriano fail to pan out, the guys who advocated their signings might be looking for work, sooner than later.

Action is usually viewed to be better than inaction, and the management writers offer that companies do make mistakes, that's part of their evolution and part of how managers learn, and that the alternative -- to do nothing -- usually isn't acceptable. You have to do something -- anything -- because that is the credo of the successful. Take a stand, make a move, and move forward.

Right now the Giants' pitching staff looks a lot better with Zito than the Mets' pitching staff looks without him. Right now the Mets' pitching staff has many question marks -- a recovering Pedro Martinez, an ancient Tommy Glavine, an aging (if not ancient) Orlando Hernandez, and a bunch of prospects (Maine, Pelphrey, Perez). Absent a stopper like Zito, and this team could struggle, no matter how good it's bullpen is.

But are the risks to which the Mets are now exposed worth a commitment of $136 million over 7 years to Zito? The Mets made a long commitment to Glavine which turned out okay (four years at $40 million, but Glavine was not spectacular) and are in the midst of one to an aging Billy Wagner (in the second year of a four-year deal) that looks a little wobbly (Wagner was beatable last season). Perhaps, in the end, they knew that they weren't as desperate as the Giants. They didn't have to have Zito, and there's usually a team that really has to have a guy if it's willing to pay him that much.

I'm not sure how much better Zito will make the Giants, and I am far from counting the Mets out. They still have some prospects to trade, and I imagine that they pull the trigger on a deal before spring training that brings a front-line pitcher to Shea Stadium come April.

It's just that this deal will cost the Mets a lot more than it might have once all the top free-agent pitchers signed their deals.

Meanwhile, guys like Zito and Soriano have helped paint the targets that are on their backs, and they'll be watched across the baseball nation. If they succeed, look for crazier contracts come next off-season. If they fail, look for a temporary market pull-back.

It will last, perhaps, one off-season.

If that.

Review of "Rocky Balboa"

I love the Rocky character, think that Rocky was a great movie and that Rocky II was a pretty good one too. Rocky III suffered a bit from some of the excesses of the 1980's, and Rocky IV tried and failed to win the Cold War. Rocky V simply didn't work -- at the end the main character punches out a former protege on the street in his old neighborhood. It seemed like the genre was finished, and that it went out not with a bang but with a backfire. I watch "Rocky" movies from time to time, and today I downloaded Bill Conti's thirtieth anniversary album of the "Rocky" themes just the other day. I also found myself saying "Yo, how you doin'" after I had seen the trailers on TV over the past couple of weeks for Rocky Balboa. My wife, who isn't a native Philadelphian, doesn't totally get the appeal. In Rocky terms, she thought I was getting "mentally irregular."

It's with this background and the background of having read the critics' thoughts about the movie that I went to see Rocky Balboa, the sixth and final installment in the series, a few days ago. The basic premise is that Adrian has died, Rocky really misses her, Paulie is older and still a pain, Mickey is long-since-deceased, and the Rock has an empty feeling in his life. He has a restaurant in South Philadelphia, a nice Italian place with good ambience where he entertains the guests with stories of his fights (Paulie, true to form, wonders aloud as to how good the Italian food can be if it's cooked by four Mexicans).

Rocky is empathic and kind, trying to bond with his yuppie son, a numbers cruncher who works in Philadelphia's newest office building, for a boss whom we'd like to throw a right cross at without any gloves on. Dad wants a warm relationship with his son, but the son is different and distant. Rocky befriends a single mom who bartends at the tappie that he used to frequent in the old days when he was a legbreaker for a second-rate loanshark. He employs the mom as a hostess and the son in the kitchen of Adrian's, and he offers free meals to the guy he knocked out in the first movie, Spider Rego, who has found God and quotes scripture and volunteers to wash dishes in the kichen.

There's a void, and the restaurant doesn't fill it. Rocky wants to fight again, and while he passes all of the medical tests, the Pennsylvania Boxing Commission declines his application for a license. They're concerned about his health, and they don't want to be responsible for a boxer in his late 50's.

But the handlers of the heavyweight champion, Mason "The Line" Dixon, played by light heavyweight champion Antonio Tarver, want him to fight an exhibition against their man, who is 33-0 with 30 knockouts but who can't draw fans because the list of contenders is weak and he hasn't been tested against any challenger. Dixon isn't a bad guy, but he's put in a no-win situation. Lose to Balboa and you ratify what they're saying about you. Beat him and you beat an old man.

Rocky's son asks him not to fight, saying that he's embarrasing him. Rocky and his son have a heart-to-heart chat on Walnut Street about challenging oneself and accepting personal responsibility for one's failures. He pointed out that he didn't let anyone talk to him while pointing a finger in his face (which the boss does in public in one of the opening scenes) and that when things didn't go well he rallied, he just didn't sit there and take it. Make no mistake, he loves his son, but he wants him to be himself and to achieve (and not say his difficulties arise solely because of the large shadow that Rocky casts).

In the end, everyone travels to Las Vegas for the Dixon fight, the fighters engage in a spirited contest, and Rocky emerges, bloodied but unbowed. The old guy acquitted himself very well, to the astonishment of the pundits. He finally purged the last pugilistic demon, the one that every boxer reportedly has within him, the urge to fight that one last fight. The first Rocky was about going the distance, and the last one shows that despite one's journey through life, sometimes all the travels in the world lead you back to the same, familiar place.

Still with the fire inside that says, "go the distance."

The neighborhood has changed, and while Rocky and Paulie have aged, they haven't changed all that much. Their comments are poignant, and Rocky's need to continue to make a contribution and difference, despite having lost his inspiration, his wife, Adrian, are very real. Hence the urge to fight that one last fight, to show that he's more relevant than simply a retired fighter that you can pose for a picture with if you patronize his restaurant.

I really liked the film, and perhaps it's because it's a "Philadelphia" thing. Friends where I live who are from northern New Jersey and New York don't understand it, but there's something about the underdog kid from the river wards with no family taking the "puncher's chance" that life has given him and making the most of it. The entire Rocky series isn't about "if onlys" and laments, it's about finding hope in the most trying of circumstances and bouncing back from adversity. In Rocky Balboa, that adversity isn't about losing to a heavyweight champion or having a corrupt accountant bankrupt the champ, but about personal loss and finding a sense of meaning.

Punchers may not always win the fight, but they always keep on coming, and they always have a chance. And that makes people like them, and films like this, compelling to watch.

Most of us haven't had a heavyweight champ break our nose, but we have had episodes in our lives where it feels like we've been slugged. That, to a degree, is what Rocky Balboa is all about. By making this film, Sylvester Stallone has closed out his series in a classy fashion.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

On the Philadelphia Eagles

Yes, I'm an Eagles fan, and I've tried over the years to avoid the mania and depression that seemingly comes with any winning streak and losing streak. For example, several years ago the hometown Birds lost their first two games at home -- to defending Super Bowl champ Tampa Bay and to the would-be Super Bowl champ New England Patriots -- only to have a great year and make it to the NFC Championship Game (only to lose at home to Carolina in a game that they were favored in). After those two losses, the fans wanted Andy Reid's head on a plate and wanted to start career back-up A.J. Feeley.

Fast forward to this season. The Birds were coming off a 6-10 season, and the bad fortune was attributed to a) Donovan McNabb's injuries, b) the bad team chemistry resulting from (i) Terrell Owens' personality disorder and (ii) McNabb's teammates' failure to stand up for their QB and take T.O. to the woodshed, where he should have a permanent seat and c) injuries to a host of other Eagles. Most of the faithful did lament the slide that resulted right after the team's Super Bowl appearance, and those faithful were split as to whether the team was any good or not. Many remained hopeful, especially after hearing good words spoken about the Birds in the world of the pundits and prognosticators before this season.

They got giddy after the first five games. True, there was the disappointing loss to the Giants, who the Eagles had all but finished off, but Donovan McNabb had the best first five games in a season of any QB in NFL history. The team was moving the ball well on offense, and the defensive line was getting great pressure on the other team's QB. Fast forward to right after Game 11, with McNabb already out because of a season-ending knee injury, the Birds' offense looking lackluster and being unable to run the ball, and the defense being woefully inept at trying to stop the run. During the skein in which they lost several games in a row, the fans were wondering aloud whether a) the rest of the league had caught up with Jim Johnson's defenses and b) Andy Reid was through in Philadelphia, unable to be a good-enough GM to win a Super Bowl or an innovative enough game coach to get the team over the hump. Speculation ran rampant regarding Bill Cowher and Jon Gruden, both of whom have won Super Bowls. The times were glum.

Fast forward to about 8:00 Christmas night, right around the time the Eagles vanquished the Cowboys in Dallas in a game where they put a licking on the hometown eleven and sent a message that the tough got going during a period in their schedule that was viewed as absolutely brutal at the season's outset. The convention wisdom out of the gate was that the Birds needed to win say five of their first seven to make the playoffs because they surely were going to have trouble down the home stretch. So what did they do? They won three consecutive division games on the road, something that hadn't been done in quite some time (when you take into account that they played those games consecutively).

Instead of being finished, the team rallied behind back-up QB Jeff Garcia. On offense, Andy Reid finally turned his "road grader"-sized offensive linemen loose, and those guys have proven that they can get a great surge and move the football on the ground. So much for the theories that they didn't have a good enough offensive line or a big enough running back to move the ball during crunch time. What they've proven is that they have both -- a huge and nimble OL and a special running back in Brian Westbrook, who isn't big but who plays huge. Andy Reid loosened up the reins on the playcalling, and it seems that in letting offensive coordinator Marty Mohrninweg make more calls, he's benefitting from an expert in the West Coast offense who had many good years in SF (okay, he flunked as a head coach in Detroit, but who has succeeded there?). On defense, Jim Johnson tinkered a bit with his coverages, the Eagles have blitzed more, rookie LB Omar Gaither has played well, and the defensive backfield has played with a lot more spunk, with back-up safety Quentin Mikell stepping up big over the past two weeks.

In short, while many teams are supposed to be fading, the Eagles have surged. Where will this all lead?

It's hard to say in the NFL, isn't it. Let's look at both ends of the continuum.

On the manic, "we can't do anything wrong" side, if the team beats Atlanta it will go into the playoffs riding a five-game winning streak. It will have a hot QB in Jeff Garcia, an unleashed offensive line and a rejuvenated defense that has figured out how to stop the run and whose DBs are playing their best football. They have a very able kicker in David Akers, and their coaching staff seemingly has worked on its mid-season kinks. At this end of the continuum, there is more than abundant optimism that the team can beat everyone in their path in the NFC and make it to the Super Bowl. Are the fans who are taking this view confident of a Super Bowl victory? No, not even these zealots will go that far -- the AFC has some very good teams. But the same way that the Steelers rose to the occasion with a rookie QB last year and won the whole thing, pro football fans on the eastern part of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania are wondering aloud, "why not us?" The NFL, unlike other leagues, has some room for miracle years. This scenario has Jeff Garcia as the 2006 version of Earl Morrall (with Garcia, though, primed to play in all playoff games because the injured starter won't return until next season).

On the depressive, "ah, come on, they're not that good" side of things, the argument is that the team isn't nearly as good as the five-game winning streak. Garcia has been hot, they'll conceded, but there's a reason that at 36 after failures in Cleveland and Detroit he ended up in the scrap heap in the off-season with only two teams interested in him. They'll contend that the other teams were more geared to stop Donovan McNabb, but now that there are many games' worth of film on Garcia, opponents will be able to figure him out. These folks aren't impressed with the recent surge in the Eagles' running game, arguments that the second-largest offensive line in the NFL is here to play big to stay. They'll still cast doubts about the receiving corps, the linebacking corps, the run defense and the lack of a big running back. The recent surge hasn't convinced them that the Eagles are all that good, and they'll argue that it's not that the Eagles are that good, it's that the rest of the NFC is that bad. These folks will expect a first-round playoff loss, even if the Eagles are hosting the game, and they'll be very afraid of the New York Giants, a talented team that can do damage if they put it all together.

So let's hit the ball right down the middle of the fairway, to mix in a golf metaphor during football season. Yes, the team is on a roll, and yes, West Coast offense veteran Jeff Garcia is reunited with the offensive coordinator who helped coach him to three Pro Bowls. The team is confident, the Brians (Westbrook and Dawkins) are having Pro Bowl years, and winning as many games in a row as they have is an impressive feat -- it begets confidence and the winning of more games, including playoff games. It may be, though, that Atlanta has something very much to play for on Sunday, and it could be that the Eagles get so giddy on their recent press clippings that the Falcons clip their wings and beat them on Sunday. If that were to happen, then you could be looking at "one and done", so fickle is the NFC. Several weeks ago people were arguing that Dallas was better than Chicago, even though the latter had a better record. Today, they're wondering about Dallas, Rex Grossman has played better in recent weeks and the Saints are getting good ink. On any given Sunday, the fates can change. . . dramatically.

The view here is that the Eagles are the team that people thought they were going into the season, albeit with a much different chemistry. The coaching staff has learned a lesson because of Donovan McNabb's injury that should make the team much better when he returns, that balance is the key to a good offense, that the offensive line can run block and do it well, and that defenses will be kept off balance if they aren't always figuring that Donovan is going to pass the ball. Garcia is playing great, and at 36 QBs aren't ancient the way almost every other position player save an occasional offensive lineman and punter or kicker is. The defense remains iffy. Rod Hood, who had a key sack late in the Dallas game, has not played well as the nickel back this year after an amazing season last year, and the strong safety position has been questionable with Michael Lewis and Sean Considine, although veteran back-up Quentin Mikell has played very well in recent weeks. The defensive line has been a question mark after their initial great first four weeks, and how well they and the linebacking corps play will dictate how far the Eagles go in the playoffs. The offense will score, but the question is whether the defense can keep the other team off the field.

My predictions are that the Eagles will beat Atlanta, host a playoff game, win that one and then go on the road and beat the Saints down there. They almost beat the Saints earlier in the year, and they'll figure out how to get it done this time. After that, well, it could be Chicago in Chicago. The Bears defense is that good, but it will all depend on which Eagles' team shows up.

Homer? Perhaps today. The Atlanta game is no sure thing and the Eagles could suffer from a letdown. That wouldn't surprise me, the tides in the NFL being what they are. Beating the Giants in the first round? Hardly a gimme game, that's for sure. The Giants will be motivated, but now Michael Strahan is out for the year, they're still banged up, and Eli Manning has a confidence problem. It's hard to see the Giants rebounding to make a playoff run, and I wouldn't be surprised if the Redskins beat them in D.C. this weekend to knock them out of the playoffs. So if it's not the Giants it could be Green Bay or someone else, and those 8-8 teams just aren't as good as the Eagles. As for the Saints, they are very good and very scary on offense, but it took a last-second field goal to beat the Eagles in the 'Dome earlier this season. The argument for the Eagles is that they are playing much better now than they were then, while the Saints comparatively haven't improved as much. That, in my book, gives the Eagles a victory on a David Akers' field goal. That could be a great game.

That's as far as I'll go now. The Eagles are playing well, and after prophecies of doomsday because of Donovan McNabb's injury and the absence of a running game and run defense, they seemingly have figured out a bunch of things. Whether that newfound wisdom leads to a deep playoff run remains to be seen.

But it's certainly a whole lot more fun to watch than the alternative.

The Eagles could be their neighbors 90 miles to the north, and the fans could have had a miserable Christmas, football-wise, at least.

Instead, they're on a tear, and tears are fun to watch.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

All Ivy Football Teams Named; Co-Champs Slighted

All Princeton and Yale did this year was share the Ivy football title. Harvard came in second. The Penn Quakers, pre-season co-favorites along with Penn, came in fourth, tied with Cornell. Here are the standings; you can look them up.

And here's the 2006 All-Ivy football team.

Joke city, if you ask me. Sorry to be harsh, but Princeton title, yet somehow garnered only 9 berths when you take together the first team, the second team and honorable mention nominations (five first-team and three second-team picks; one honorable mention). True, their QB, Jeff Terrell, who had a habit of rallying his team to victory in the fourth quarter, did get named the Ivies' player of the year. But, only 9 berths when compared to disappointing Penn's 18 (six first teamers, four second-teamers and 8 honorable mentions)? (Yale and Harvard had, to my count, 13 berths apiece; Harvard had six first-team berths, five-second teamers and two honorable mentions; Yale had five first-teamers, five second-teamers and three honorable mentions).

Sorry, Ivy voters, but you got it wrong. The Princeton team didn't propel itself to a championship without players doing great jobs -- first- and second-team all-Ivy jobs -- at many positions. Sorry, Ivy voters, but if Penn were that great and worthy of those 18 berths they would have gone undefeated and won the title. You did a bad job here, but the Tiger faithful have one undisputable fact going for them -- their team did it on the field, and they'd trade all of those post-season mentions for the title they earned and share with Yale.

At least you can't vote that away from them.

Who says that the lack of brains in college football is the exclusive franchise of the BCS patrons? For a league that's supposed to be pretty smart, the all-Ivy voting was anything but.

Bob Knight's Record-Breaking Quest

is drawning yawns from most parts of the hoops world.

Why?

Is it because Knight isn't a great coach?

Is it because Knight hasn't won a national title in 20 years?

Is it because Knight left Indiana after a series of tantrums and tarnished his image?

Is it because he's frequently been at war with the media?

Is it because he hasn't acted so stellarly at Texas Tech, either (witness the salad bar incident with the university's president)?

Is it because Dean Smith is beloved and respected while Knight is grudgingly respected?

I think the answers to all of the above questions are qualified yes's. Smith is a legend, a hero and a very good man. Knight is a legend, he's not a hero, and while he's a man with good intentions and high principles, he hasn't always acted like a gentleman. Smith is likeable; Knight is gruff and it's hard to determine when he's going to be kind and when he's going to be hard-nosed and sometimes cruel. You read a lot about the "Carolina Family" and how important it was to Coach Smith; his former players talk of him with reverence for what he contributed to their lives on and off the court. You don't hear the same type of talk about Coach Knight.

Which isn't to say that Knight's an awful person; far, far from it. On the moral and ethical coaching continuum, with Dean Smith on the one end and say Jerry Tarkanian on the other, Knight is very close to the Smith end (if not standing next to Coach Smith). He has graduated an outstanding percentage of his players, he recruits and plays within the rules, and he's an ethical man. Where he's fallen short is on his public outbursts, his lack of regard for his school's authority figures at times -- failing, in essence, to control his temper and his ego. And because the public has seen more of the visceral and angry Bob Knight, they aren't that interested in this record.

Is that a shame?

Perhaps, but I'm not sure. I'm a big college hoops fan and an admirer of Dean Smith. I've read his books and have learned much from them. I've respected Coach Knight's approach to the game -- he's an outstanding coach. It just doesn't seem that he's as avuncular and, well, humane, as, say, Smith, against whom in my mind all coaches will be measured. You can say without hestitation that you would have wanted your son to have played for Coach Smith; I'm not sure that as many people would say the same thing regarding Coach Knight.

Make no mistake about it, when the record is broken it will be a great accomplishment, applauded in Indiana and parts of Texas and perhaps even in the office tower at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, North Carolina.

But perhaps few other places. (Click here to see what I mean.)

And Michael Jordan Didn't Travel?

Phil Jackson is at it again, casting aspersions on both Shaq and Dwayne Wade, calling into question the former's work ethic and the latter's spin move.

Why is the head coach of an also-ran team casting these aspersions?

Is it because, perhaps, people are questioning whether a) he's that good a coach, b) whether it was his players and not him that made the teams or c) whether he's not even the second-best NBA coach ever, right behind Red Auerbach?

You can't blame these quotes on the omnipresence of the media -- Jackson actually said these things. Sometimes there's such a thing as being too successful, because there's a temptation to start to believe that everything you touch will turn into gold and that everything you say is prophetic. But the math guys will tell you that probability works in funny ways, and that even a guy who has won as many titles as Jackson has can't win all of the time or be right all of the time.

And right now he's not winning with the frequency with which he had become accustomed in Chicago with Michael Jordan and in Los Angeles with Shaq and Kobe.

And he sounds silly, too.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

The Giants-Saints Game

The New York Giants are in free fall.

I am an Eagles fan, yet I take no great glee in this. The Eagles looked to be in free fall after Donovan McNabb's injury, only to rally behind a good nucleus of players and their back-up QB, Jeff Garcia. The Giants unraveled today, but they will be back. Heck, the way the NFC has gone this year, at 7-8 they still have a shot of making the playoffs.

But they looked awful today. The hypothetical Giants fan had to be frustrated with Eli Manning's looking like a deer in the headlights, throwing balls behind receivers and generally looking like he had the confidence of the school math genius with the pocket protector looking to ask the head cheerleader out on a date, all while doing the asking in front of the entire football team. Reserve OT Bob Whitfield incurred two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties. At 35, it looks like the game has passed this once-feared offensive tackle by. The Giants should find someone else to take his spot next weekend; he's hurting them. Another offensive lineman, Shaun O'Hara, also got hit with an unsportsmanlike conduct flag.

This formidable team not only played poorly, it lost its composure.

The Giants missed tackles and couldn't stop the Saints, a team that looked like it was in mid-season form and whose coach, Sean Payton, seemed to push all the right buttons today. The only sign of weakness for the Saints -- their QB, Drew Brees, at 6' feet, might be a bit too short at times. I counted five or six passes that Giants' linemen batted down (and, yes, both teams WRs had severe cases of the drops, the Saints' in the first quarter and the Giants' the entire game). As for Manning, while he didn't look good, he had little help. Fox flashed a stat that showed that he was sacked, hit or hurried 16 times. It's hard to win when you're under that type of pressure.

Tom Coughlin probably will not survive this season, and neither will some of the players on the team. They will miss Tiki Barber, but they have to solve a leadership vacuum, especially on offense, where Manning hasn't seized the mantle and Plaxico Burress and Jeremy Shockey are distractions. They have missed OT Luke Pettigout and WR Amani Toomer, two very professional players. But it is time for others to grow up.

It was a painful game to watch today if you were looking for something out of the Giants. After last week's game against the Eagles, where, in the Meadowlands, they were outplayed and outcoached, you would have figured that they would have come together and rallied today, especially because they do have something to play for. Instead, they looked like a team early in its season, a team that had yet to come together. That's a bad sign for a team that is in the hunt for a playoff berth and now only has one game remaining in the season.

They should have played a lot better than they did. Their performance was, well, embarrassing.

Put simply, they didn't seem up for the game or that well-prepared. The Giants started the season 6-2, and now they have lost 6 of their last 7 games.

Yes, injuries played a part of this slide, as they lost a bunch of starters on defense (and LaVar Arrington remains out; Michael Strahan returned today, but he didn't look to be at full strength although he played well). But there's something else, something that runs deeper, a chemistry issue, and when you heard that word used in the context of the NFL, you hear it with regard to a team that's played poorly. And chemistry is not something that a front office normally can fix in a week.

They'll need the entire off-season, and it may take longer than that.

Make no mistake, the Giants are a talented football team that looked like a Super Bowl contender at mid-season. Perhaps they have one last run in them, a convincing win next Sunday and, who knows, with the weapons that they possess on offense they could scare people in the playoffs. But after their performance during the past 7 weeks, that prospect looks highly unlikely.

For right now, the only ones they're scaring are their fans.

Required Reading

Stephen A. Smith on the dismissal of the charges against the Duke lacrosse players.

Great writers aren't afraid to take a stand, aren't afraid to point out situations where their readers may be very uncomfortable. Stephen A. Smith has always been a forthright writer, and today is no exception. You may not always agree with him, but he writes prose with a punch that's designed for you to jiggle your morning coffee if not sometimes spill it and wake you up faster than you may like.

Read the whole thing and let me know what you think.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Do Philadelphia Fans Run Players Out of Town?

Bill Conlin's column in yesterday's Philadelphia Daily News is worth a read.

The debate about the legend of Allen Iverson continues. Is he really the best "little man" ever in the NBA? Or, as Conlin says, the most talented? Perhaps he's been one of the best, but I don't think he's the best ever. I don't know who is, but coming from the "purist" end of the hoops spectrum I'd have to think there's someone out there who performed better at the entire game, and not just scoring. The whole debate about Iverson reminds of a quote that I saw attributed to the Heat's Antoine Walker last year. When the former Kentucky star (and former Celtic) was asked why he shot so many threes, his reply was, "Because there aren't any fours." Why? Because that quote smacks of a disregard for form, for process, for screens, picks, rolls, playing help defense, taking the charge, finding the open man and doing all of the important little things that help teams win basketball games. A.I., like A.W., isn't about all of those things.

The article also takes a shot at the 76ers' front office, and rightfully so. Their drafts have been downright horrible, as has the team's inability to source fundamentally sound overseas talent. A.I. might not have been a leader or done much to help make is team better, but it's hard to do so when the talent really isn't there. That hasn't always been the case, but in defense of A.I. it's hard to win when the team makes drafting mistakes year in and year out.

Much of the discussion about Iverson now focuses on the impatience and frustrations of the Philadelphia fans, who stand accused of not embracing their stars properly and contributing to running them out of town because when the team isn't successful the fans blame the stars. I'm not sure that's really the case (even if former Temple coach John Chaney recently espoused it on Comcast Sportsnet's "Daily News Live" show). True, there might have been certain episodes which turned out to be unfortunate, but part of this legend stems from the time that Eagles' fans about 35 years ago booed, and threw snow balls at, Santa Claus. Stands to reason that if they tried to treat Saint Nick like the "Whack A Mole" you find at your local arcade, the Philadelphia fans are capable of anything.

Let's look at the three major teams in Philadelphia and see whether the premise is true that the fans create a culture of running players out of town and making it hard to win a title in the City of Brotherly Love:

1. Phillies. This whole discussion about the toughness of the fans, blaming the star and running players out of town started with the 1964 National League Rookie of the Year, a slugging third baseman named Richie Allen, who used a 40-ounce plus bat and whose batting-practice exploits of hitting home runs over the Coca-Cola sign that was perched atop the left-field bleachers at Connie Mack Stadium I vividly remember. Allen was a misunderstood player, the fans weren't that forgiving of him, but he was immature, too. The media was particularly tough then, but I think it took two to tango here. Allen wasn't blamed for the Phillies' collapse in 1964; manager Gene Mauch was. And, yes, there were racist elements to the frustrations that were vented about Allen, who had some great years in other cities, had injury problems, never found a home and never realized his Hall-of-Fame potential. He returned to Philadelphia later in his career, found love from the fans, turned out to be a pretty good guy. Make no mistake, there was vitriol here, but that doesn't mean that it was re-used over and over again. The Allen situation was bad, but I think it's hard to extrapolate from that chapter that a new form of behavior was born.

After all, the Phillies' fans didn't run would-be Hall of Fame pitcher Fergie Jenkins out of town (he was traded as a young player), and they were very supportive of the great teams that ran from '76 to '83. Did they embrace Von Hayes or Gregg Jefferies? No, but neither of those players, the latter a high-priced free agent and the former a hot prospect for whom the Phillies traded 5 players, produced well. Curt Schilling? Scott Rolen? Those players realized how flakey ownership was about fielding a winner in the city and wanted out (and most fans couldn't have blamed them one bit -- and both ended up playing on World Champions). Yes, I do think that the Phillies tried to turn the media against them, but they failed. Schilling is still viewed with reverence, and Rolen is viewed as one whom the team let get away for three bags of baseballs and an old golf cart that once was used to ferry relievers from the bullpen to the mound (Schilling was traded for the guys who comprised the barber shop quartet that sang the national anthem before the title game in the movie "Hoosiers").

2. Philadelphia Eagles. The history of the boobirds really emanates from this team and its quick demise from the team that won the NFL title in 1960 to, well, just a bad football team by the end of the 1960's. Despite the poor performance, the Birds still packed Penn's Franklin Field, where they spewed their venom on ownership and the team. Again, I have vivid memories of attending an Eagles-Cowboys contest at Franklin Field where Eagles TE Mike Ditka (at the end of his career) tussled with Cowboys DB Mike Gaechter and both were tossed from the contest. Joe Kuharich was the coach then, and the fans disliked him, chanting "Joe Must Go" at every opportunity. Did they run Kuharich and other Eagles' coaches out of town (Jerry Williams, Mike McCormack, etc.)? Perhaps. But did they run players out of town? Who would have known? Were any of them save OT Bobby Brown, who now is a Hall of Famer, that good? No, I think that was a pure meritocracy -- if you don't win, you get canned. The fans just added the punctuation mark to the conclusion (a resounding exclamation point) here -- those teams were terrible.

Fast forward to the 1980's, and there have been strange relationships with some players and teams. By and large, the Dick Vermeil teams were revered, both because of Vermeil's winning personality and for the way that team played the game. It was hard not to like the smooth efficiency of Wilbert Montgomery and Harold Carmichael, the energy of Ron Jaworski (which remains to this day), and the omnipresence of defensive players like Bill Bergey and Roynell Young. Moving forward to the Buddy Ryan years, yes, Randall Cunningham was an enigma and never got the full love of the fans, but it didn't appear that he received the full love of his teammates, either. He was a QB on a defense-dominated team who wasn't a good leader (and probably wasn't allowed to lead). True, the team emphasized defense to the point where Cunningham had little help on offense, but it also seemed to be the case that his teammates thought he was a flake, too. As for Reggie White, Clyde Simmons, Seth Joyner and Eric Allen, it's hard to say that the fans expected too much or ran these guys out of town. There are a few facts that are hard to escape: 1) those defenses were amazing and the players on them very much admired; 2) Buddy Ryan was a flawed head coach, a great defensive coach who either knew or cared little about offense; 3) the White/Cunningham teams won only one playoff game during their tenure in Philadelphia; and 4) the player departures had more to do with the front office than they did with the fans. It struck me that the fans liked those Ryan teams for their swagger, and to this day you see people wearing White and Cunningham jerseys.

Moving forward to the Rich Kotite/Ray Rhodes/Andy Reid years, again it's more of the dynamic of the free-agent market and the fact that players have much less worth (except quarterbacks) once they hit 30. Again, there is a peculiar relationship with Donovan McNabb, and that's unfortunate because he's an outstanding football player. My guess is that because he's built more like a linebacker, really isn't superman, doesn't throw the ball as fluidly as Tom Brady or Peyton Manning (and he also has lapses where his front leg is too straight and he throws the ball into the ground), didn't take T.O. to the woodshed and threw up during the final drive in the Super Bowl two years ago the fans haven't given him their unconditional fan love, even if they do like him (on the continuum of "Adored to Despised", call it the Dr. J/T.O. continuum, they'll rank McNabb about 3/4 of the way toward the Dr. J. end, but just beneath the bright line that says "beloved." "Beloved" were the likes of Richie Ashburn and Dr. J. Not even Mike Schmidt and Steve Carlton fall in that pantheon, and both were Hall of Famers. The former smiled little and the latter talked even less).

The failure to give McNabb "Ashburn-Erving" love is sad, because he's a tremendous football player, a prototype of players to come and by all accounts a really good guy (I, personally, am a huge fan and defend him to the NY fans who are prone to knock him, although much less so now because Eli Manning has frustrated them and because McNabb is hurt). McNabb wins games, but the Eagles have to learn the way Denver did that they can't just wait around for Donovan to save them. Instead of being grateful for Donovan's heroics, the fans get down on them when he can't win the game by himself each week. That's not fair. As for the T.O. situation, I'll bet that there are those in the Eagles' locker room who, based upon how well the team is united now and how well it has rallied since McNabb's injury, realize in a renewed fashion the importance of team chemistry and wish that they had taken a stand against #81's self-indulgent goofballism last season. Are they running McNabb out of town? Hardly, but they could love him a little more.

Others -- Brian Dawkins, Jeremiah Trotter, Troy Vincent, Jon Runyan, Brian Westbrook, to name a few -- garner a lot of respect for their contributions over the past decade. Dawkins, particularly after his effort against the Giants in the Meadowlands last Sunday, is getting a Hall of Fame buzz and is moving toward that Ashburn/Dr.J. end of the continuum (he's dazzling in his post-game comments not because he's an entertaining personality, but because he is thoughtful and collected -- he just looks and sounds like a great leader). Yes, you'll hear comments about Trotter's overunning plays or Westbrook's size, but those players have gotten and continue to get a lot of respect from the fans (they work hard and are honest about themselves and the team). Make no mistake, the fans can be critical, but it's because they care too much. They want to win so badly, so I'll analogize the attention they pay to their teams to the attention that you give to family members or co-workers you really care about -- you only are so demanding because you care so much. That scrutiny may not always be fair, but it's there because of the huge emotional investment.

3. 76ers. If the Eagles' fans started the reputation of how impossible Philadelphia fans can be, then the 76ers' fans have added to the mixture because of the team's tortured history (remember, the Phillies, with the exception of the watershed of the mid-70' to mid-80's have been almost universally bad relatively speaking), while the 76ers have had pockets of championships and good play). Remember, at times Philadelphia has been a baseball town (before the Buddy Ryan Eagles and before the baseball strike of 1994, although with Ryan Howard and Chase Utley the Phillies are rallying very well today) and a pro basketball town (the Dr. J era from the mid-to-late 1970's through the mid-1980's), as well as a football town (which it undoubtedly is today). It always has been a college basketball town, it's one of the best college basketball towns in America, and you could argue that from the early-to-mid 1950's through the early 1970's some of the best hoops in the country anywhere (save, of course, Tobacco Road and Westwood) were played in Philadelphia. True, migrations to the suburbs and the advent of numerous options on TV have made the Big 5 less compelling than it once was, but the interest is still there. At any rate, the excellence at the high-school level, the Big Five and, yes, even the legend of Wilt Chamberlain have galvanized Philadelphia's love for hoops and reputation as a hoops town.

That said, the 76ers haven't always enjoyed a lofty role within that reputation. They had one of the best NBA teams of all time in 1966-1967, where Wilt Chamberlain, Hal Greer, Billy Cunningham, Wali Jones, Chet Walker and Luke Jackson (and several others) finally were able to solve the riddle of Bill Russell's Boston Celtics and win an NBA title. But by that time 76ers' owner Ike Richman had died, Wilt had a spat with Richman's successor, Irv Kosloff, and the 76ers accommodated the native Philadelphian and sent him to the Lakers -- for Darrell Imhoff, Archie Clark and Jerry Chambers (and all we really remember is that Clark wore a headband and soonafter was shipped to the then-Baltimore Bullets for Fred "Mad Dog" Carter). Was Wilt "run out of town?" Probably not. True, he's more beloved today than he was when he played, but for all of his wonderful points Wilt wasn't always the easiest to deal with. On the one hand Philadelphia was his home (which he made a point of visiting after he left the city for good), but even while he played for the 76ers he lived in New York. It's hard to say that you've run people out of town when they didn't love the town that much in the first place (yes, you can psychoanalyze this point and say that had the city embraced Wilt more he would have loved it better, but there were those in the city he cared for deeply -- he just wanted something different).

Still, John Chaney's point lingers. Was Wilt blamed for the failures? Yes, he was, and the Philadelphia media was unforgiving. But if you look at the numbers and Wilt's performances against the Celtics, he was, most of the time, heroic, even in defeat. Sure, there could have been some less-than-superstar performances, but the Celtics during those years were the best teams of all time. Who wouldn't have had a bad performance or two? And no less of an expert than John Wooden has opined that had Chamberlain been on the Celtics, they would have won all of those titles too. Remember, also, that Red Auerbach tried to entice Wilt to attend college in the Boston area so that the Celtics could have garnered territorial rights to him (they existed in those days). Chaney's point, I believe, is true as to Wilt Chamberlain. He was big, he was a transcendant talent, and the 76ers won "only" one title during his tenure on the team. Rightly or wrongly (and I submit it's very wrongly), he gets blamed for the 76ers' running into a wall against the Celtics.

But George McGinnis? Moses Malone? Andrew Toney? Charles Barkley? Allen Iverson? Five "nos" in a row. McGinnis is hardly worth mention because while a cheeful guy he didn't "want it" badly enough and found himself traded for a consummate team player named Bobby Jones who played a great Pippin to Julius Erving's Jordan on the 76ers' team that won the title in '82-'83. McGinnis helped revive interest in a sport that had hit rock bottom in the '72-'73 season, where an unknown coach named Roy Rubin led the team to a 9-73 record. Remember Tom Van Arsdale? John Block? Manny Leaks? John Q. Trapp? Dennis Awtrey? You shouldn't. McGinnis showed up a few years after with some game and grit. He should get some credit for that, but his lack of intensity doomed him, not the fans.

Signing Moses Malone was the best thing then-76ers owner Harold Katz did after the 1981-1982 season, and the former Rockets' MVP was a class act in Philadelphia, insisting upon arrival that it was "Doc's team." Now, Doc enjoyed status (pre-Bird and Magic Johnson) as the preeminent player in the game and a great ambassador for the game, and Malone's deference was not only a smart and classy move, it was well-advised (it's hard to say that Carmelo Anthony currently deserves the same deference from Allen Iverson in Denver). Malone was a true battler inside, and he had a great season during the championship run. Thereafter, his skills seemed to have fallen off a bit, he tried to do too much inside, and Katz, thinking that he had great skills as a hoop owner because he signed Malone, figured he could tinker with the roster again and create a winner. The result was a series of disastrous trades that led to a) trading Malone for Jeff Ruland, who promptly blew out a knee and never materialized and b) trading the #1 pick in the draft (who turned out to be Brad Daugherty) to Cleveland for Roy Hinson (cognoscenti will remember that he played his college hoops at Rutgers and was a power forward, but not powerful enough to make memories for the hometown fans). Those trades marked many years of free-fall for the 76ers. But was Moses blamed for the demise after '82-'83? No, not at all. Harold Katz was.

As for Toney, his sad story remains a footnote to the post-career stories of the 1982-1983 76ers. He played his best games against the Celtics, earning himself the nickname "The Boston Strangler," and he was a great shooter. But he had a history of foot problems after that and tangled with Katz, whom, I believe, he hasn't forgiven to this day for the way he was treated. Again, we all felt his pain and were frustrated that he couldn't produce at the levels he did when he was at the top of his game. But he's looked upon fondly, far from being a cause of disappointment.

Charles Barkley was beloved to a large degree, but frustrating to a smaller but important one. On the one hand the "Round Mound of Rebound" played ball with the enthusiasm of a kid, treated everyone around him well, was nice to people in his neighborhood, was very quotable, played hard and made his team better. He also played for an owner, Katz, who by and large didn't know how to run a team. On the other hand, he had weight problems and didn't always take the best care of himself (even his good friend, Michael Jordan, had commented about what Charles might have been had he been more disciplined). So, was he blamed for the 76ers' not having more success? I think not. I think that the fans admired him for how far, at roughly 6'4" tall, he helped take the team. Frustrations, again, were vented at Katz, not at Barkley. Barkley asked to be traded because he wanted to play for a championship team, not because he didn't like the city or its fans, who still admire him to this day.

Okay, Allen Iverson, the Ultimate Lightning Rod, but a guy who brought the attention to himself with the way he plays (hard), carries himself (tough) and lives (hard). Every intellectually honest hoops fan will concede that A.I. plays very hard and very much cares about winning. But then those fans will differ as to whether Iverson was a cause of problems or a victim of front-office bungling. The debate will rage on, and, perhaps, yes, many fans tied the 76ers' frustrations to their best and most exciting player. Why? Because he didn't lead by example in terms of off-the-court activities (practice, weight room, etc.) and he really didn't seem to grasp the concept of the team game necessary to help sustain a perennial contender. He also seems to represent, rightly or wrongly, the SportsCenter generation of players who are more interested than making the highlight reel than on fast-breaking and help-defending their way to a 15-point win over the Spurs in San Antonio. Again, I realize that A.I. is more complicated than that, but that's certainly a perception of him. In the end, attendance was down and the 76ers were going nowhere. It was a once-bright play that had a long run but whose lustre had faded and needed a new beginning with some new cast members. So, did the fans contribute to A.I.'s departure? Yes, by stopping showing interest and by not always agreeing with their hard-to-love (but easy in ways to admire) superstar. Then again, A.I. contributed to his fate in Philadelphia too.

So, in the end, do the fans in Philadelphia make it any tougher on their teams to win games? The answer here is no, they do not. First, if the players are true pros, the attention of the fans shouldn't matter. Second, why is Philadelphia tougher than Boston or New York, the latter of which has more fans (and, last I checked, they're pretty tough too). Third, because of the championship drought, there's more pressure (at least in the fans' mind), but unless a player grew up in the area or has a great sense of history of it, that thought doesn't weigh much on their minds. Fourth, the fans do expect much from their stars (see Pat Burrell), but A-Rod got a ton of scrutiny in New York this year, and Eli Manning is feeling that heat now.

I think that the whole argument is overblown. Ownership sets the stage, and players win championships. The last time I checked, the only thing that fans have to do with those title teams is to buy tickets and watch the games.

The last time I checked, while fans get thanked for their support, no one gives them credit for management decisions, playcalling, the setting of a pick, the throwing of a gutsy 3-2 changeup on the road with the bases loaded in the bottom of the eighth, the decision to go for it on fourth-and-two or anything like that.

So, if that's the case, they shouldn't get the blame for when things don't go right, either.

In Philadelphia, New York or anywhere else.

The Hidden Story in A.I.'s Denver Debut

was that a player the 76ers couldn't develop or find a meaningful role for, John Salmons, had a triple double for Sacramento in the Kings victory over the Nuggets last night, scoring 21 points, garnering 11 boards and dishing 10 assists. Click here to read about the debut, where there's precious little coverage of Salmons.

That would be the true irony, that one of the laundry list of players the 76ers couldn't work in with Iverson, thought weren't worthy of Iverson or whom Iverson thought weren't worthy all of a sudden blossoms having left Philadelphia. What Iverson will do is much more predictable -- he'll take a lot of shots and score a lot of points, and the question will be whether his efforts propel his new team to greater heights or keep them where they are. There is only one true upside to Iverson now -- if he gets you a title.

Meanwhile, Salmons has many more years left in his career. Now let's not get too giddy over Salmons' prospects. He did have five years in Philadelphia where he had his moments but overall looked like an end-of-the-rotation player, and just because he's strung together a few good games doesn't mean that he's displacing Shaun Livingston on the prospect list of potential greats or Steve Nash on the All-Star team. It could be just that he's had a few good games in a row. Or it could be that he's starting to blossom after years of being kept under wraps under several different coaches and a system that emphasized one player's skills at the expense of the rest of his teammates.

Still, John Salmons bears watching. After all, Raja Bell was almost an afterthought in the 76ers' run to the NBA Finals in 2001 and blossomed after he left the City of Brotherly Love, if for no other reason he found teams and systems that appreciated his gifts as a true shooting guard. Bell was not heralded at all coming out of college; Salmons was a first-round pick with a reputation for being a gamer who makes his teammates better. They're two different types of players, yes, but there's no reason while Salmons cannot emerge as a good starter, either.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Lions' Fans Plan Protest Against

the NFL's version of Isiah Thomas.

Okay, so Matt Millen hasn't had all of the issues the Knicks' GM/Coach has had, but the team he's putting out on the field hasn't been good for years. (Come to think of it, when was the last time the Lions made serious noise in the NFL -- probably before most readers of this blog were born).

How long will the Ford family stay with Matt Millen?

How long will the Lions' fans let them?

If they keep buying tickets and enabling sellouts, what's the incentive for the Ford family to jettison their key man in the front office?

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The 76ers Yesterday on Allen Iverson

Here's the tune that "Owner" Ed Snider and GM Billy King, whose Armani looks suspiciously to have a teflon or kevlar coating, were singing yesterday:

Kumbaya my lord,
kumbaya
Kumbaya my lord, kumbaya
Kumbaya my lord, kumbaya
Oh lord, kumbaya

Someones singing lord, kumbaya
Someones singing lord, kumbaya
Someones singing lord, kumbaya
Oh lord, kumbayah

Someones laughing, lord, kumbaya
Someones laughing, lord, kumbaya
Someones laughing, lord, kumbaya
Oh lord, kumbaya

Someones crying, lord, kumbaya
Someones crying, lord, kumbaya
Someones crying, lord, kumbaya
Oh lord, kumbaya

Someones praying, lord, kumbaya
Someones praying, lord, kumbaya
Someones praying, lord, kumbaya
Oh lord, kumbaya

Someones sleeping, lord, kumbaya
Someones sleeping, lord, kumbaya
Someones sleeping, lord, kumbaya
Oh lord, kumbaya
Oh lord, kumbaya

Singing: Snider and King, for having traded their leading scorer;
Laughing: Denver fans, thinking that they're going to party with the league's #1 and #2 scorers;
Crying: Those 76ers fans who confused activity with achievement;
Praying: Comcast Corporation, a public company with two teams that are 0 for December;
Sleeping: (and well, too) Greg Oden at Ohio State, who enjoys college so much that he can think about whether to join this circus after his freshman year or stay in school.

But yesterday it was all sweetness and light. Snider praising Iverson, King thanking Iverson, Iverson thanking the 76ers. All you needed was a bow and some confectioner's sugar to dust off the top.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

This Just In About the 76ers

Chris Webber's thoughts on his team.

Profound.

Enlightening.

Glad to see that his University of Michigan education has rubbed off on him.

Could one of the principal reasons for Webber's conclusion be that the General Manager, a Duke graduate, was stupid enough to take on the contract of any aging power forward a few years back, on which the Sixers remain obligated for this year and next year at $21 million per year?

Your contract?

Because that's one of the first reasons I'd think of.

Or is it because Billy King has failed to find players from Europe that way almost every other good NBA team has?

Or is "Timeout" just throwing his teammates under the bus?

Or the quality of play in the league.

Read more to find out.

That is, if you still care about the NBA.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

The Circus Was in New York Last Night

And the guy who had a cameo in the notorious "Stop Snitching" video was at the center of it.

Read all about it here.

This has received a lot of coverage, and it will be interesting to see how the NBA responds -- to Anthony, to Mardy Collins of the Knicks who "started it," to Knicks' Coach Isiah Thomas (it's been questioned whether he instigated Collins' act) to the players on the floor for both teams at the time, all of whom were ejected.

The Knicks were once a storied franchise that featured Earl "The Pearl" Monroe, Dick Barnett, Willis Reed, Walt "Clyde" Frazier, Dave DeBusschere, Jerry Lucas, Cazzie Russell and Bill Bradley. Many Knick fans remember the teams from '70 and '73 as if it were only yesterday. Since then, they've had little to cheer about, save the Patrick Ewing years (and the one year they had a great shot at the title, 1997, it was a fight in the Eastern Finals that caused the suspensions of John Starks and Larry Johnson of the Knicks for Game 7 of that round, and the Miami Heat prevailed 4 games to 3).

So now the Knicks are in a free fall, lacking the talent, the ownership, the general management and the coaching to return to their glory days. Last night's episode was unfortunate, players lost their tempers, and a league that has been on a constant teeter-totter from negative to positive imagery found itself see-sawing back to its netherworld with this particular incident. The Nuggets played well and then their young star acted stupidly. Given the league's so-so public image and the commissioner's quest to have Stepford players and coaches, that young star will be given plenty of time to think about his sucker punch of the Knicks' Collins (who started the whole thing with his flagrant foul of Denver's J.R. Smith).

What happened to the days of Wilt and Russell, of Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Oscar Robertson and Earl the Pearl? What happened to the days of Kareem and Magic, the days of Bird, McHale and Parish, of Moses Malone and Dr. J? Even the days of Clyde the Glide, Hakeem, Patrick, Charles and, of course, Michael Jordan? What happened to the fundamentals, the quality of the product, the character of the league?

It may be that David Stern has elevated the NBA's profile and has increased the revenues of the owners. But, long-term, has he improved the quality of the product and the prospects of the league? Has he attacked symptoms through suspensions and dress codes, as opposed to root causes, such as the lack of fundamentals and of "quality" basketball? How strong is the NBA, merchandise aside?

Of course, we cannot say that last night's episode marks the end of the NBA as we know it. That would be unfair, and it's been two years since the awful Indiana-Detroit brawl. So it's not as if everyday players are trying to start a combined rugby match/Ultimate Fighting Match right after every jump ball. And it's not as though the players don't want to win and don't try hard. Most want to win very much and play hard and hurt.

But something is missing. Something is wrong.

And, thus far, the bright, articulate and successful David Stern either hasn't been able to see it or he hasn't been able to fix it.

And if he cannot, who can?

Princeton 61 Marshall 45

The Princeton Tigers hosted the Marshall Thundering Herd yesterday and pitched close to a perfect game, beating their visitors from West Virginia by 16 and holding them well below their season's scoring average of roughly 70 points per game. Marshall, with a 3-7 record, had stayed close (save a 19-point loss to #17 Memphis) to most of its opponents in the games it lost.

Not yesterday.

Despite trying to take advantage of their better athleticism by bodying up on defense, pressing and trapping, very little worked for the visitors. The host Tigers had a seven-point lead at the half and then proceeded to finish off a more veteran-laden team in a way that the Tigers had struggled to do with less athletic opponents (Lafayette, Lehigh) earlier this season.

Leading the way for the Tigers was junior forward Kyle Koncz, who scored 20 points on 4-8 shooting from behind the arc (and whose shooting stroke looked great). Also playing very steady games from the guard position were frosh guards Lincoln Gunn and Marcus Schroeder, both of whom played the entire game. The notes in the program indicated that going into the game, Schroeder was among the top 10 in Division I in minutes played per game at 38. He's a very strong, confident young point guard, and he ran the Tigers' offense well yesterday. The Tigers were only outrebounded 24-21 but fought for every loose ball, and they had 15 assists to only 8 turnovers while Marshall had 5 assists and 14 turnovers, hence the earlier comment about the "perfect game." Princeton shot 37.5% from behind the arc and got excellent play off the bench from senior guard Edwin Buffmire, who had 8 points.

Here is the box score. Here is a write-up of the game.

Observations:

1. I talked to a few long-time observers of Princeton basketball while I was entering Jadwin Gym. The first, a long-time fan well-versed in the Princeton program, said the thought that the team was very good. He also said that the freshmen guards were particularly impressive, given that former Tiger coach and Hall of Famer Pete Carril used to say that players in the Tigers' program didn't really show much value until 7 games into their sophomore seasons. The other observer said that the team will be very good next year, said the freshmen guards are very good and wondered, though, about how the team would fare against more physical teams (he included Marshall among that group). Like many observers, he had his doubts about the inside play of the Tigers, who aren't very tall. I have known this latter observer for years, and I respect his opinion greatly.

2. I wrote last year about "zing and oomph", about how at times last season that the Tigers didn't look fluid, that players didn't know what to do with the ball and by delaying their disposition of it once they got it, let the other team's defense catch up to them and stymie them. Yesterday afternoon, they looked fluid and sharp. There were only a few lapses, where they ran down the shot clock and took an off-balance shot or a player tried to go one on two, but 98% of the time the Tigers had a great sense of each other and moved the ball well. There was crisp passing, and there was good shooting.

3. The defense was outstanding -- lots of help, lots of hands, lots of plain-and-simple going after it. The same was true of rebounding. Princeton players crashed the boards on both ends and banged on the visitors very hard (the visitors were very physical, especially in the second half). It was an impressive display.

4. Schroeder is an exciting player, very strong. I recall a comment years ago that then-Penn coach Fran Dunphy made about the Steve Goodrich/Brian Earl/Gabe Lewullis teams and the point guard on those teams, current Northwestern assistant coach Mitch Henderson. Coach Dunphy said that he had nightmares about Mitch Henderson breaking his press, and it could well be that Schroeder will give Penn coach Glenn Miller nightmares about his ballhandling. Schroeder isn't as athletic as Henderson was (heck, no one in the past 25 years of Princeton hoops was/is as athletic as Henderson), but he is very good. The only concern is that he plays 38 minutes a game. Then again, there aren't that many games in the schedule and there are lots of timeouts in each game. Still, back-to-back games during the Ivy schedule will be a test.

5. Edwin Buffmire is a catalyst off the bench. He plays with great energy and helped pick the Tigers up when inserted into the game. He's an excellent sixth man, and as Coach Scott was quoted in "The Blue Ribbon Yearbook", he'd start if the Tigers could start "five guys who are 6'3"." He is fun to watch.

6. Soph C/F Michael Stritmatter, frosh center Zach Finley (with a nifty left-handed hook from the low blocks), and junior forward Noah Savage all got minutes.

7. The Tigers are now 7-3, and while doubters might argue that "they haven't played anyone", the players will tell you that "you play who you play" and most fans will tell you that winning begets winning. If you look at the schedules of the best teams Coach Scott had at Air Force, you'll note that they played the likes of Texas-Pan American, Texas-Corpus Christi and IUPU-Fort Wayne in their non-conference schedule as opposed to Kansas, North Carolina, UCLA and Kentucky. The result: Air Force was the story about four years ago, getting a bid to the NCAA tournament. Okay, so it's not the same league and the teams are different, but those looking for a light at the end of the Joe Scott coaching tunnel saw it at the end of last season and might be seeing it again now.

8. If Princeton wonders why the attendance wasn't that good (2,100+), Princeton should only look at the walk-up ticket prices -- $12 per ticket. Given that Princeton charges $7 for walk-up tickets to football (and, okay, Princeton Stadium is a lot bigger than Jadwin Gym and presumably harder to fill), $12 is a lot, especially when you have about 5,000 empty seats. Note to Princeton AD Gary Walters: drop the walk-in ticket prices to about $7, advertise it, and perhaps you'd get a better gate. Then again, maybe the ticket prices don't matter (i.e., in economic terms, there is no "elasticity"), so perhaps it's just hard to get a big gate for a team like Marshall during the late afternoon at the height of Christmas-shopping season. But $12 -- ouch!

9. The Princeton Band. The good news that was despite the fact that the students were on break, the band showed up. They played okay, but their humor is lacking. Neither the adults nor the kids who noticed them thought that they were funny. Yes, they did make some noise, but that was about it.

10. Princeton promoted an afternoon-night doubleheader, featuring the women's team in the evening end of the twin bill. The Tigers were supposed to win that game too, but lost on a last-second shot by St. Francis (NY). That's a bad loss for the women's team, who, after sharing the Ivy title last year, seem to be struggling.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Why the NBA's Business Model is Bad

Because even in the days of bad trades (see, for example, when the 76ers traded Wilt Chamberlain to Los Angeles or Charles Barkley to Phoenix), teams tried to make their teams better. My guess is that there were those who might have wanted to tank the season to get a better chance at drafting an Abdul Jabbar or Jordan (and who would have blamed them, even if Jordan went third overall in the draft the year he left Carolina). But, by and large, teams have played to win.

Their judgment at times might have been bad, but it's hard to say that a general manager a la "The Producers" was looking for a "Springtime for Hitler" type of team in order to defraud his team's owners. (That might really make a funny movie).

But today's NBA GM is looking for expiring contracts. Make a trade, and the dollar amounts have to match. "Hoopshype", a website that I link to, lists the salaries of all NBA players, but today when a trade makes sense, it has to make cents. Otherwise, it doesn't make sense?

You follow?

So the reason the 76ers want the contracts of journeyment Joe Smith and Jamal Magliore is not because they believe that GM Billy King and Coach Mo Cheeks are Ponce de Leon reincarnated and can lead these glue horses to a Breeders' Cup victory. Hardly. They'll take the expiring contracts and free up a ton of cap room, especially after 2008, when Chris Webber's contract expires (he'll make $21.25 million roughly next year, and the Sixers also have $10+ million owning to new hoops TV personality Jamal Mashburn this year). So that's the ticket, and then they'll have the bucks to rebuild their team, the anti-Knicks, as it were.

Sounds like a plan.

Except it's all that's wrong with the sport. If this is what GMs have to resort to to make a team competitive (and that's an overstatement, because there are those GMs who are better at finding talent, who can resist bad long-term deals and who can find skilled players overseas, hoops traits that apparently have escaped most GMs in the Northeast corridor), then the league is broken. You should trade for talented players, not favorable contracts.

And then there's the question of who would want to come to a team with iffy prospects. Would that the NBA were like a bunch of HS prospects over 10 years ago who met at the summer camps and decided to go to Michigan together -- Chris Webber, Juwon Howard, Jalen Rose, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson. Imagine if you could draft Greg Oden and convince four talented free agents, all of whom can pass the ball, set screens and defend, to come to Philadelphia. Then you might be talking three titles over five years. But the odds for that to happen are apparently as great as they are for the 76ers, Knicks and Celtics to make the playoffs together this year. Teams that have a ton of cap room tend to be bad, and they might have to overpay a free agent to agree to come be the cornerstone of a rebuilding effort. Then there's the risk that that guy gets dumb, fat and too happy (after all, he's paid without being required to produce), and the team has five more years locked up in him. That's a vicious cycle for any GM (especially the bad ones).

Fans of good teams will argue that San Antonio, Detroit, Phoenix and Miami, to name a few, have figured out how to win under the current structure and anything that breaks it up will be the equivalent of foreign aid to nations who simply cannot get out of their own way. They'll argue whether it's good policy to enable the Knicks, Celtics and 76ers to protect them from themselves, and they'll make a good point. If pro hoops are all about competition, then the fittest, regardless of the system, should win.

It's a compelling argument, but it's still silly that GMs have to worry about matching up contracts and look to trade for guys whose contracts are expiring at the expense of winning today.

Consider two trades:

Allen Iverson, Kyle Korver and perhaps Rodney Carney to the Clippers for Corey Maggette, Cuttino Mobley and Shaun Livingston (the trade wouldn't be attractive in my mind if you substituted Sam Cassell, as has been reported, for Livingston)

versus

Iverson going to Denver with ultimately Joe Smith, Jamal Magliore and a first-round pick going to the 76ers.

I'd be happy as a 76ers fan to get both Maggette and Livingston for Iverson et al., because along with Andre Iguodala you have a decent nucleus going forward. I'd be unhappy getting expiring contracts and little more in the latter trade. Both trades are rumored, but it would appear that the 76ers won't get much on-court help in exchange for Iverson.

What they'll get are expiring contracts, a chance to build through free agency (where they have failed before) and a better chance in the lottery.

All with Billy King steering the ship.

Perhaps all 76ers fans would be happy if King would be included in any deal that peddles Iverson away from Philadelphia.

Then at least there'd be a better chance for a successful rebuilding.

Philadelphia fans are funny. They booed former Phils GM Ed Wade out of town after an eight-year tenure where they never made the playoffs, lost Scott Rolen and Curt Schilling in bad trades and opted to hire Charlie Manuel as skipper over Jim Leyland, who wanted the job badly. Don't get me wrong, the Phillies and Wade deserved criticism. The fans don't like King all that much, but the 76ers have bungled their roster since their championship appearance in 2001, and King draws far less abuse than Wade (in fact, he and now emeritus Flyers' executive Bob Clarke, also no great roster handler in the past five years, drew far less flack combined than Ed Wade did).

Why is that?

The answer is simple and scary for both the 76ers and Flyers.

Those teams just aren't that relevant on the Philadelphia sports landscape today to anyone except their faithful followers (read: those who shell out the big bucks for season tickets).

And if I were the ownership of both of those teams (earth to Comcast), I'd be very worried about that.

If the local fans cared that much, ownership would hear it loud and clear. So don't take the lack of loud and sometimes harsh public criticism to mean that the sporting public in the Delaware Valley is not all that unhappy with the state of play in pro basketball and hockey.

They just don't care.

When Your Tank Owns an Arsenal

And we're not talking about a soccer club in England's Premiership, either.

Read this, and, if you're a Bears' fan, you might want to worry a little more.

Is it that defensive linemen, who, by definition, are charged to disrupt a well-planned offense, hae always been a bit whacky (and, correspondingly, that the only difference between defensive linemen of yesteryear and today is the constant presence of the media?)? Or is it that today's NFL players have more problems off the field than their predecessors?

Lots of arrests in the NFL this year. Perhaps the average, hypothetical, honest defensive player needs a bodyguard in the locker room to protect himself from the guys with enough firepower to challenge a small town's police force.

Not a good trend, is it?

What can/will the NFL do about it?

Or, should they do anything? After all, the players have private lives and according to current gun laws in many states have the right to own this type of arsenal. Perhaps it's not the NFL's business after all.

At Some Point. . .

The 76ers will trade Allen Iverson, won't they?

Has AI's valued dropped the longer he's been on the market? Have teams gotten to thinking that he'll hurt both the salary cap and the locker room? Or has the market for a barely 6' shooting guard dried up, no matter how hard he plays or how many points he can score?

The latest story I've heard is a potential three-way deal among the Nuggers, Trail Blazers and 76ers that would send up sending Jamaal Magliore, Joe Smith (a one-time high draft pick and 76er) and a pick to Philadelphia. That's fine, but then tell me when Darrell Imhoff, Jerry Chambers, Jeff Hornacek, Manny Leaks, Archie Clark and John Q. Trapp are also headed to the City of Brotherly Love.

Meanwhile, the team has lost 10 games in a row. I had the game on for a bit in the second quarter, when out on the court for the 76ers were Louis Williams, Bobby Jones (the rookie, not the now 50+-year-old former all-star from Carolina), Alan Henderson, Steven Hunter and Kyle Korver. Just a few weeks ago the first two players were sent to the Developmental League for more playing time. Now they're back, and they averaged about 20 minutes each in last night's contest against the Mavericks.

In a game that featured battleships, the 76ers sent out canoes.

And the interesting thing about the whole story is not, of course, what value the 76ers will get for a player of Iverson's stature, because salary cap issues transcend on-the-floor matters. That said, the player apparently most coveted in a package deal is none other than Korver, which goes to show you how far the pendulum can swing in the NBA (and whom the 76ers won't let go and are interested in building around). Two years ago the 76ers gave Korver a multi-year deal (about 6 years at $5 million per) and the cognoscenti and local partisans wondered whether they were overpaying for a guy who "was just a shooter" and was too slow to play good defense. During last season, it appeared that Korver looked over-matched as a top-of-the-rotation player, and overall the 76ers' team defense was lacking (the local sports chatterers wondered publicly whether Billy King had laden the 76ers with another albatross of a contract). Fast forward to this season (and after last season's disappointment at the World Games, where the U.S. team showed that it couldn't shoot well enough to win the international game consistently), and guess what's the hot commodity -- shooters? And guess who's one of the best shooters in the NBA?

Kyle Korver.

Lots of slashers out there, the Maggettes, Carneys, Iguodalas, but few guys who can summon the days of Purvis Short and Jamaal Wilkes and nail jumper after jumper. That's why NBA games can resemble clogged drains -- with everyone jumbled up in the paint, sagging in, because there aren't many guy who I'd call "Clog Busters", the current version of the "zone buster" that the college commentators (particularly Al McGuire and Billy Packer) designated as the guys who would need to shoot the ball well enough on the outside to make interior defenses honest, come out and defend the shooters and open up the middle. A close cousin to the "zone buster" a "clog buster" will prevent NBA's switching man, match-up and yes even zone defenses from sagging too much inside and daring the other team to shoot.

How many clog busters are there out there that are good enough athletes/basketball players to get meaningful minutes?

The answer, apparently, is not many, and, yes, the Answer is not among them.

Stay tuned for this ongoing soap opera. If the 76ers keep up trade talks at this glacial place, Greg Oden should send his family members to the Philadelphia area to start checking out the condo market.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

A Tale of Two Cities

A few months ago I was talking with some colleagues at work about baseball, and they asked me who I root for. I answered that I am a "long-suffering Phillies fan." Upon reflection, the use of "long-suffering" is redundant. The Phillies have been around since 1880, and they have won the championship once in their 126 years of existence. You could look it up.

The local ice hockey team imploded early in the season, with GM Bob Clarke apparently suffering career burnout or, better yet, all but conceding that he failed to keep up with the game's sudden and swift evolution into one that rendered the "Broad Street Bullies" style of play which the Flyers fancied obsolete. There are those of us who remember the likes of Dave "The Hammer" Schultz, Bob "The Hound" Kelly, Don "Big Bird" Saleski and Andre "Moose" DuPont with a smile, but there were times back then when the local six resembled more of a WWE last-man-standing free-for-all than ice hockey. Today, the team struggles. Finesse is the word of the day in the NHL.

The local professional football team also faces some evolutionary questions. Four particularly come to mind. First, is it wise to have the coach in charge (totally) of personnel decisions? Second, does the coach suffer from myopia when it comes to using a big running back (was Keith Byars actually the last "big back" in the City of Brotherly Love -- he caught more than he ran, come to think of it) and getting better players at linebacker, a position that has been understaffed for years? Third, have opponents finally solved the one-time genius of defensive coordinator Jim Johnson? Fourth, does the not-as-beloved-as-he-should-be Donovan McNabb's string of season-ending injuries over the course of the past four years send a signal that the Eagles should start grooming a young quarterback to take over the reins? These questions dog the Eagles and the fans, but as writer Michael Lewis points out in an article on fourth-down plays in this month's "ESPN the Magazine", the gap between the knowledge of the fans and coaches and team officials is the widest in professional football. That statement isn't comforting for the fans, not all of whom would agree with it. But assuming for the moment that the statement is true, the fans who take it at face value are left even more confused. Right now they're hoping that 36 year-old Jeff Garcia, a one-time Pro Bowl quarterback with a losing record as a starter in his career, can lead the Birds back to the playoffs.

Good luck, as they're at New York and Dallas and play Atlanta, another playoff contender at home. The odds are they could just miss out on the playoffs. Sweep these three games, and Chicago had better look out. The bet here is that the hometown Birds will finish 1-2.

And then there's the local hoops team.

They're in the midst of trading their "star", the enigmatic Allen Iverson, and, in the process, "blowing up" the team so that they'll have lots of cap space and perhaps win the Greg Oden sweepstakes (which, having seen Oden play, seems worth a shot). Iverson has been a divisive factor on the Philadelphia sports scene. Those who love him cite his passion for the game, his talent and how hard he plays. Those who do not care for him cite his flaunting of team rules, his disdain for practice, his inability to make teammates better and his shooting too much. In rebuttal, those who support him will argue that the team never procured enough talent to help Iverson excel to his full potential and that the 2001 season (where the 76ers made the NBA finals) is an example of just how good he was because he lacked a prime-time teammate as a go-to alternative on offense. In rebuttal to the rebuttal, the detractors will argue that the 76ers could not develop a prime-time alternative to Iverson on offense because Iverson wouldn't let it happen, he had to be the show, and he wouldn't share.

It's true that Iverson plays very hard on the court. It's also true that he's a combination guard that doesn't work in the current construct of the NBA. He's a "bring-it-up-and-shoot-it" point guard or a "too small two guard." In the former case, he isn't great at finding the open man the way a pure point guard should. In the latter case, at a probable 6' tall he's a defensive liability. It also gets tiring to see 9-24 shooting nights.

He's 31, and while he still has a high motor you have to wonder how much tread there is left on him. (I also wonder what those tattoes will look like when he's 60). Charles Barkley said the other day that he doesn't think Iverson can change, and I agree. He's been in the league for ten years -- how will he change?

So why would another team be interested? His track record indicates that he can score points, he plays hard and he'll play a lot of minutes. But it also suggests that he doesn't lead the way a captain of a championship team could and is too selfish. He has a big contract (okay, so it expires in a few years) and, yes, he's 31.

Is he really "The Answer" for a team that needs that little extra something to make a championship run? And, if so, could that team afford him without going over the salary cap? Or would he merely be a draw for a team that's lagging in attendance? "Come see the great Iverson, watching him play hard, and watch him go one-on-three while two college all-Americans stand on the wing on a clearout?" Is that really want Golden State or Memphis want or need?

The rumors have intrigued me. If the Clippers offered Shaun Livingston and Corey Maggette, I'd do it in a heartbeat, even if the addition of Maggette would leave the 76ers with three swingmen (the other two being Andre Iguodala and Rodney Carney, both of whom have potential). If the Celtics offered Gerald Green, Al Jefferson, Delonte West and a first-round pick, I'd have to be restrained from jumping too quickly. For right now it seems that perhaps one of the few GMs with worse judgment than the too-long-tenured Billy King is the Celts' Danny Ainge. Last I heard, neither deal was on the table. The Clippers don't want to trade Livingston, and the Celtics want to keep Green. The rumors also are that Billy King is asking a king's ransom for Iverson.

Meanwhile, the 76ers keep on losing, and their streak remains at 9 games. Something has to happen soon. Yes, they cleared out Iverson's locker, but no, it doesn't appear that he has back spasms (which was the initial cause recited for keeping him out of the lineup). If the 76ers don't move soon, Commissioner David Stern has to step in to prevent this whole affair from becoming a farce. There's a healthy player and a team sliding into the lottery, and the healthy player isn't playing. The 76ers have their motivation too --- they're paying Iverson right now for not playing. Still, you can't let a team slide deep into the lottery with that much fun and purpose, can you?

Whither the NBA? The one-time proud Celtics, Knicks and 76ers are all plum awful. The product is not all that watchable, save for a few teams that move the ball around and have players with a complete set of skills. A star player is on the block and the pro basketball nation is as split over him, it appears, as the country was over George Bush and Al Gore in 2004.

The affair will bear close watching. Who will win -- Iverson, King, the 76ers or the team who trades for him? Naturally, all can win if Iverson is traded to a contender, the contender goes to the NBA finals, King gets some good value in return and the 76ers slide deep into the lottery before doing their imitation of a phoenix. The only person at risk, of course, is King -- for if I were the 76ers, I'd scope out and hire a new GM to lead my rebuilding effort.

Meanwhile the Phillies need to shore up their bullpen and get another bat. The Eagles are befuddled, and the Flyers and 76ers just aren't any good. Philadelphians used to take refuge in college hoops, but the only team that's been a pleasant surprise this year has been Bruiser Flint's Drexel Dragons' team, which beat Villanova for the first time ever (and, despite its Division I status, has not been "admitted" to Philadelphia's storied Big 5, thus making it a "Big 6"). Villanova lost a good deal of talent to graduation and plays in the brutally competitive Big East. St. Joe's has a star in center Ahmad Nivins, but it's a young team that needs to develop depth. Temple is re-tooling, as it were, as Fran Dunphy is in his first year as head coach. The signs are positive on North Broad Street, but the big question will be whether Dunphy can recruit. LaSalle has made strides under Coach John Gianinnni, but they're a low-DI school now and not the school they were even 15 years ago when they had Doug Overton and Lionel Simmons. Penn is the class of the Ivies, but the Ivies aren't all that relevant on the national screen anymore. Put differently, the magic that Villanova and St. Joe's created during the pas 5 years is gone for now.

Which leaves Philadelphians waiting for spring training (the Phillies do have promise) and waiting for the Iverson trade story to break.

It's going to be a long winter in the City of Brotherly Love.

Friday, December 08, 2006

A.I. Demands Trade

This story just broke today from a variety of sources -- Allen Iverson has demanded to be traded.

Whether it will be easy for the 76ers to move him and his big contract is another story. Yes, he can score points, and yes, he plays very hard, but he doesn't make his teammates better and hasn't set a great example for them.

But by demanding a trade, A.I. lets 76ers management off the hook. You see, whatever's left of the 76ers nation is probably split about Iverson. Some say they go to the games to watch him and that they won't return if he's traded, while others are pure hoops fans who will watch the hometown team (and appealing visitors) because they just love hoops. Now that A.I. has demanded a trade, the fans who love A.I. can't get mad at management for accommodating him. Perhaps this dynamic will prevent some of that subgroup from voting with their feet.

This whole episode has been long overdue. Perhaps next the 76ers will consider jettisoning their thus-far Teflon GM Billy King, who has failed to make many good moves since arriving in town with Larry Brown over 6 years ago. Clearing out A.I. will help the team start over again, and while there may be many losses in the short term, a team with A.I. wasn't going to contend beyond a first-round playoff appearance anyway. Some A.I. partisans will claim that the 76ers failed A.I. by not getting another great player to play with him (the same argument that Knicks fans made about Patrick Ewing, who did make his teammates better), but A.I. really never proved that he could share the ball or the limelight with another teammate whose talents approached his. In any event, trading A.I. will let the 76ers develop promising youngsters Willie Green, Andre Iguodala and Rodney Carney.

This will be huge news in Philadelphia. My guess is that some teams who are pressed to improve their gate will express interest in A.I. and will take him so long as they don't have to give up too much in return. The 76ers shouldn't be too greedy here, they should view this as addition by subtraction and try to rebuild their franchise by getting players who not only play very hard, but play smart and enable their teammates. I failed to see the joy in a player who could score 30 points a game by shooting 9-24 on a nightly basis (okay, perhaps 42%). Yes, he's a talent, but the 76ers haven't fared well with him as their leading player in years.

It will be interesting to see where he goes. Boston was interested in him in the off-season, proving that perhaps this once feared rival is about as well-managed now as the 76ers are. If 76ers fans are tired of Billy King, Celtics fans have to be frustrated with GM Danny Ainge.

Stay tuned on this drama. It broke today, and it will be interesting to see what trades can be worked out and where A.I. goes.

76ers' fans shouldn't be too sad. This could be a big opportunity for the hometown team.