Friday, July 15, 2011

Shaq Joins Turner Sports: Call Him "The Big Analytical"

Anyone who has been clamoring to hear Charles Barkley and Shaquille O'Neal trade jabs and comments about the NBA will soon have their wildest dreams granted.

Fresh off a retirement that concluded an unquestioned Hall of Fame career, Shaq has signed an agreement to join the Turner Sports team, including the studio show Inside the NBA. Shaq will fill the fourth chair alongside Barkley, Kenny Smith, and host Ernie Johnson, as well as provide content for and occasionally show up on NBA TV.

Placing O'Neal, who's known for occasional verbal outbursts as an interview subject, alongside Barkley, who's never stopped his outbursts as an analyst, could lead to fantastic TV, some of the most entertaining sports coverage ever taped. It could also lead to a flaming trainwreck playing out in the nation's living rooms.

First off, let's remember that Chuck and Shaq once faced off in a memorable fight. All is forgiven now, but wait until someone gets the bright idea to have a re-enactment. A ball comes flying in from offcamera, clocks Shaq in the head, and it's on.

Eh, for that matter, that might be pretty entertaining, and the two of them would almost certainly play it for laughs now.

Okay, what about criticizing former colleagues? Well, Shaq has had his fun with comments about the likes of Greg Ostertag, or at least a Karl Malone dummy in Shaq's hands did ("Glad I'm playin' with a center, that Greg Ostertag was a bum."). And there was also his contentious relationship with the Sacramento "Queens."

So many rookie analysts, however, have difficulties criticizing former teammates. Well, maybe Shaq's already got that problem licked. (Okay, unfortunate choice of words. Right, Kobe?)

You know what? Never mind. It's time to get that new NBA labor deal done, so we can be assured of seeing Shaq and Chuck suited up for Opening Night as soon as possible.

David Stern, free The Big Analytical now.


Thursday, July 14, 2011

NBA Players Association Supports Taking Talents to Europe

According to the New York Times, NBA Players Association executive director Billy Hunter has sent a letter to 450 players, fully blessing any athlete who explores the option of playing abroad during the league's lockout.

In the letter, Hunter said that the lockout's purpose was to "economically pressure our players to agree to an unfavorable collective bargaining agreement." He also added, "If the owners will not give our players a forum in which to play basketball here in the United States, they risk losing the greatest players in the world to the international basketball federations that are more than willing to employ them."

In the wake of New Jersey Nets point guard Deron Williams' agreement to play for the Turkish club Besiktas this fall, nearly every other star player in the league has had to face questions about his own plans for a protracted lockout. Knicks forward Amar'e Stoudemire tweeted that he had decided against Europe as a viable option, but backpedaled from that stance on ESPN Radio this week.

Stoudemire's reversal seems telling, especially in the wake of Hunter's letter, the published excerpts of which read like labor-leader posturing from word one. The letter's stance seems likely to inform responses from every player who gets lockout questions from now until Dealday.

Williams claims to have talked to many players highly interested in playing for European clubs. Stars like Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, and Kevin Durant aren't ruling anything out. Their waffling rings hollow, though.

According to Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski, Williams' Besiktas contract will pay him $200,000 per month. His Nets contract is set to pay him $199,509 per game for the 2011-12 season. Players like Williams and the others mentioned above don't need the money one bit. At least they shouldn't, but you never know. Antoine Walker never seemed to need the extra cash, either.

Players like Sonny Weems are a different story. The Toronto Raptors' forward, slated to make $850,000 this year, signed with a club in Lithuania. Philadelphia forward Darius Songaila is headed to Turkey for $1.5 million, not much less than Williams.

The risk of contract-voiding injury is likely too great for guys like Wade or Durant to entertain traveling to a different country to play for what amounts to pocket change. Especially when there's a likelihood that they may not even see said pocket change.

Phoenix Suns swingman Josh Childress told ESPN's Ric Bucher (Insider piece) that "If a guy isn't playing well or a team is out of the playoffs, they'll just stop paying you. I know tons and tons of players who just walked away because they didn't want to go through the hassle of going to court to get their money."

Childress, who spent two years playing for the Greek club Olympiacos, doesn't understand why any player with a large guaranteed contract would go to Europe and put it all in jeopardy. Players like Weems, Songaila, and Thunder center Nenad Krstic, who's bound for Russia, don't fall into that category. They're also not the kinds of names that will move the needle stateside, for fans or the league.

Kobe and Wade understand the politics of the labor negotiations well enough to know that ruling out options takes pressure off the owners to move on their proposals. Amar'e needed a little reminder after getting carried away on Twitter.

If David Stern thought for a moment that all of his owners' high-priced superstars were ready to throw it all away to play for clubs whose names are only familiar to dedicated soccer fans, there might be a bit more urgency in negotiations. Guys like Sonny Weems and Darius Songaila, however, may just be written off as collateral damage.

Unfortunately for Billy Hunter, it's guys like Weems and Songaila who are the only ones who really have any motivation to make this move.


K-Rod Trade: Brewers' Ticket to Glory or Misery?

In Major League Baseball's post-All-Star-break horse race toward the playoffs, the Milwaukee Brewers became the first to make a big move on the outside, acquiring veteran closer Francisco Rodriguez from the New York Mets for a pair of players to be named later.

In a move that would seem excessive for a team that already has an established closer, the Brewers bring in "K-Rod"'s 291 career saves and tout him as a backup plan for John Axford. Brewers GM Doug Melvin said, "In a pennant race, there's a chance you could go out and have six straight one-run ballgames. There's no way that any one guy can close six games in a row."

As a factor in the deal, Rodriguez's contract has been downplayed by his former employers in New York. K-Rod would receive a vesting option paying him $17.5 million next season by finishing 55 games over the course of the season. To this point in the season, he has finished 34.

Escaping that option is undoubtedly a benefit for the Mets as they face uncertain decisions over the futures of the rest of their nucleus. David Wright, Jose Reyes, and K-Rod faced rumors from the start of the season. Now, the Brewers have the clock running to influence their usage of Rodriguez.

That usage may turn out to be the most difficult juggling act not involving chainsaws or torches. K-Rod's new agent, Scott Boras, told New York's Newsday earlier this week, "Francisco Rodriguez is a historic closer. He’s not going anywhere to be a setup man.” Boras added, “Closers don’t make good setup men. Does anyone want an unhappy setup man in their clubhouse?"

Rodriguez has shown in the past that he can quickly make a situation ugly when he's unhappy. Last August, the Mets were pondering proceedings to void his contract when he assaulted his girlfriend's father in a Citi Field lounge.

The Brewers have to gauge their use of Rodriguez carefully, as his potentially historic 2012 salary would be an enormous drag on any attempt to keep Prince Fielder in next season's lineup.

No matter how the Brewers use him, K-Rod will need to weigh his words and actions just as carefully, especially if he runs out of games to close and faces the free agent market. The rehabilitation of his image would be aided immensely if he helps Milwaukee to the playoffs with only a handful of saves, being a good company man all the way.

Axford is 23-of-24 in save opportunities with a 1.99 ERA since blowing one on Opening Day, so anything that would upset his rhythm could easily backfire, even if the motive is based around getting him some extra rest.

The addition of K-Rod is certain to increase everyone's stress level, from Melvin to manager Ron Roenicke to all the players to the fan base. The one certain benefit is that the fans may have to make several more runs to the beer stands to take the edge off.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Yao Ming Retires, And A Generation Now Understands Bill Walton

Skilled, potentially dominant big men are very difficult to find in basketball these days. Dwight Howard’s had years to develop something resembling an offensive repertoire, learning from one of the last talented inside scorers, Patrick Ewing. Shaquille O’Neal’s sheer physicality made up for any lack of moves, as defending him was much like posting up a CSX freight train.

It’s for this reason that the NBA is highly likely to miss Yao Ming. Listed at 7’6” and admitting to 7’3”, the NBA’s first Chinese star is still considered a better ambassador than player. This despite a career that saw averages of 19 points, nine rebounds and two blocks per game. Should the numbers have been greater? Perhaps.
Still, why is the bar set that much higher for Yao than it is for, say, Bill Walton? Is it simply based on the extra four inches of height? Walton did produce more as a rebounder and shot-blocker despite being “only” 6’11, but otherwise, the two men possessed several similarities.

Both were very gifted passers for pivots and possessed better scoring range than most of the brutes that they guarded night in and night out. When it came to scoring, Yao was as skilled as any center since his Houston predecessor Hakeem Olajuwon.

His career free throw percentage is second only to Dirk Nowitzki among seven-footers. Yao’s 2006-07 season put him in fast company when he averaged 25 points per game. Only seven other seven-footers have recorded a 25-ppg season, and you may recognize some of the names: Abdul-Jabbar, Chamberlain, Ewing, Nowitzki, O’Neal, Olajuwon, Robinson. All of them are or one day will be Hall-of-Famers.

Yao’s decision to truncate his career rather than hang on as a spare part, as Walton did in backing up Robert Parish in Boston, is likely to be held against him, because he never got to wear a ring. Walton is still in the Hall of Fame despite the foot problems that ravaged his stat sheet even worse than Yao’s.

Walton is likely in the Hall even more for his dominance in college than for his all-too-brief moments of NBA glory. Yao proved capable of performing on the game’s biggest stage, and his impact in putting the NBA product in front of the world’s biggest consumer market should more than trump anything Walton did at UCLA. Perhaps Yao’s not bound for Springfield on the first ballot, but it’s absolutely possible, and advisable, that he get there.


Thursday, July 7, 2011

Mackey's Passing Illustrates NFL Lockout's True Point

Hall of Fame tight end John Mackey passed away Wednesday at the age of 69. His blend of size, speed, and strength made his position a weapon in the NFL’s increasingly sophisticated passing game, expanding the tight end’s role from that of a glorified sixth lineman.

In addition to his contributions on the field, Mackey served four years as NFL Players Association president from 1969 to 1973. A brief 1970 strike led to $11 million in improvements to player pensions and benefits, according to the Baltimore Sun.

He also led litigation that forced the elimination of the “Rozelle Rule,” which limited free-agent signings by mandating that a team losing a free agent must receive equal compensation. The courtroom victory helped pave the way for the free-agent system from which today’s players benefit.

The rigors of Mackey’s career, however, left him with dementia, an increasingly common side effect from the constant hits absorbed by NFL players. The NFL and NFLPA collaborated on the so-called “88 Plan,” which provides $88,000 per year for nursing home care to ex-players suffering from dementia, and $50,000 for home care.

The NFL lockout sometimes gets oversimplified to two groups of rich guys arguing over who gets how much of the league’s nine-billion-dollar revenue pie. What’s often lost is the issue of care for the players who put the NFL in position to rake in those amounts of money. Retired players have filed a grievance demanding a larger voice in the lockout negotiations, attempting to make sure that they’re not left out in the cold as owners and today’s players battle over the spoils of the game.

The negotiations appear to be warming up as the planned start dates of NFL training camps approach. It would be sad if the deal was sidetracked by both sides being reminded that they have not adequately provided for the NFL’s retirees. If it is, though, so be it, because making sure that players from John Mackey’s era can live their final days in dignity vastly outweighs the need for today’s stars to buy another house.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Joe West's Ejections Have Now Eclipsed His Record Sales

We're only six days into July, and MLB umpire Joe West has his crew on a one-ejection per day pace this month. ESPN's Streak for the Cash game has yet to make West's July ejections a prop bet, but they should. (Suggested over/under: 20.)

West's crew has tossed 17 players, coaches or managers this season, a rate of one every 5.76 days. Four people got run Tuesday night alone, overshadowing a marvelous two-hit shutout by Dan Haren (his 100th career win, to boot). Pitcher Rick Porcello was tossed from a game he wasn't even in because he got lippy from the dugout. Tigers starter Justin Verlander was leaving the game for a reliever when he was, what, he should head for the showers that much faster?

The old saying "absolute power corrupts absolutely" holds a little relevance in the case of umpires like West and his partners Angel Hernandez and Angel Campos. Baseball umpires, perhaps clinging to a bit of the game's rough-and-tumble heritage, are the only officials in any major sport that yell back when someone is giving them the business. When the ump tires of the argument, he can simply excuse the other party from any further participation that evening.

The best part of an ump's job? If anyone dares to piss and moan about an ejection, whether they have a case or not, they're going to pay for it. Meanwhile, the umpiring crew goes back to the hotel, watches a little pay-per-view, and returns to the park the next day, already amped up to see if anyone else wants to test their tolerance.

That noted paragon of patience, Tigers manager Jim Leyland, says something needs to be done. And he's not wrong. Umpires are rarely, if ever, disciplined for unreasonable or excessive ejections in games, nor are they evaluated for any actions of their own that contribute to the angry climate surrounding a particular game.

The best officials are the ones who keep control of a game in an understated, anonymous fashion. "Understated" and "anonymous" are two words that could never be applied to Joe West. Remember, we're dealing with a man who wants to make some extra scratch as a country singer. Any time he gets his name in the paper, it's a bonus. Right, Mark Buehrle?

After all, this is a guy who once tossed TV cameramen out of Shea Stadium for letting the Mets watch a replay. Oh, speaking of which...

Anti-baseball-replay advocates often complain that umpires spending time looking at a video screen will delay the game. Considering that most of these screaming matches take place following some kind of bang-bang play, is it reasonable to ask if a manager respectfully asking "let's go to the videotape" would delay the game less than a vociferous argument? This doesn't even take into consideration the lineup juggling that would take place if a player was tossed, or the time it would take for a reliever to warm up after replacing an ejected pitcher.

Mike Hargrove used to be called "The Human Rain Delay" for his routine at the plate, but West's crew have done more to slow down games this season than David Ortiz home run trots. Good officials try to avoid deciding the outcome of a game, but what does an ejection do if not change the future of that evening's action? Er go, West and his boys aren't exactly good officials. Right, Ozzie Guillen?

I really am waiting for this conversation to occur in the near future:

Joe West: "Hey, did you buy my new album yet?"

Batter: "Nope."


Note to the Cowboy: ejecting half the free world has little effect aside from alienating the CD-buying public. Kinder, gentler umpires sell more country albums. Basic marketing is your friend, Joe.

Roy Williams Fails With a Ring in the Mail

A marriage proposal should carry a large romance quotient. At the very minimum, a nice dinner should be involved, some candlelight, being in the same room…you know, the basics.

Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Roy Williams dispensed with all of that foolishness, deciding that nothing says romance like a U.S. Postal Service Express Mail box containing a $76,000 ring and a DVD. The recipient, former Miss Texas Brooke Daniels, was strangely unmoved by a proposal from a man who couldn’t even make the trip in person to deliver the ring.

It’s understandable to be nervous about a proposal. Men worldwide struggle to get the words out, fumble the ring, sweat through their suits, etc. That’s part of the secret for having one accepted. Even if a woman is iffy about spending her life with you, she may give you credit for getting through the proposal without vomiting on her shoes.

Sending a video of yourself in your comfortable gear in your comfortable home takes all the daring out of a proposal and makes it reek of selfishness. If a man won’t make a woman feel like she’s worth the discomfort of dropping to a knee and spitting the words out, she’ll forever wonder, “What am I worth to him, exactly?”

Roy Williams’ last several years have been based around taking the easy way out. He tried to convince everyone that he was still the Cowboys’ No. 1 receiver three games into the explosive Miles Austin era. His 2010 season ended with five catches in his last four games, and his response was, "I was the go-to guy in Detroit…coordinators can make who they want to make the star."

Everything is someone else’s fault. In Roy’s mind, Daniels probably refused the proposal because the mailman slipped her his phone number. Either way, he now feels the need to press legal action to get the ring back. All the legal fees could have been saved if he’d ensured that the ring never left his possession in the first place.

Learn a lesson from Uncle Roy, kids. No “how Daddy/Grandpa proposed” story should ever include the words “postage due.”