Friday, September 28, 2007

My Marion Post

I've received a number of emails asking for my take on Shawn Marion and his recent trade requests, so here it is:

Shut up, Shawn.

There are many recent trends in the sporting world that have me feeling less than thrilled, namely the fact that the summer of 2007 turned into a real life version of Cosmo Kramer's fake talk show retooling: "Scandals and Animals."

However, more than point shaving, dogfighting, steroids, cheating, or anything else, the thing I am most tired of is the whining of star NBA players. These guys make in excess of $10 million per year because they are supposed to be star players, and then they cry about not getting enough help or love or respect or private jets or whatever. Get over it.

Shawn Marion needs to take a little trip next week. He needs to chose five random people in the Phoenix area and go shadow them at their places of employment. Pick them right out of the phonebook and follow them around, Monday through Friday. See how much "love" they get. See how fawned over they are. How much they get paid, how their bosses treat them, how many standing ovations they receive, how many autograph requests they get from people who think they are heroes. I'm guessing he will come away feeling pretty, pretty, pretttyyyyy good (as Larry David would say) about his current job as the starting power forward on the most exciting basketball team in the world.

I know Marion has worked hard for what he has and I'm not the type to begrudge athletes their enormous salaries. I'm a free market guy. Hooray capitalism and all that. However, nothing is more off-putting than someone being ungrateful about his spoils. You don't win the lottery and then complain about it. You just don't.

So anyway, that is my take. Maybe Marion will be traded (quite possibly for fellow baby AK-47), maybe he won't. Frankly, I hope it all works out for the Suns, but I don't really care about The Matrix.

Just shut up, already.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Defending Paul Westphal

I'm a huge fan of Henry Abbott's blog over at ESPN, but since I started my new job, I haven't been able to read it as often (let alone blog, obviously). I usually wind up taking in large chunks at a time, while drinking the morning coffee or before I go to bed.

Which is how I came across a post from yesterday about Paul Westphal.

You can read the post for yourself, but it basically amounts to a True Hoop reader positively killing Westphal. This, in response to a Marc Stein column over on ESPN about the best moves in the Western Conference.

And while Henry himself casts no judgment on Coach Westphal, and while a few other readers come to his defense in the comments section, I felt motivated to post something here as well.

For starters, I should note that I came to know Coach Westphal well during his time at Pepperdine. His son-in-law is one of my best friends and after getting to know him, Coach Westphal allowed me to basically become part of the team for the 2003-2004 season. The reason? I was a young writer looking for an opportunity and we decided that following a mid-major team around and writing a book about it might be a good idea (the book never came to be, for reasons that will be discussed below). He took the time to meet with me on a regular basis, allowed me full access to the team and the players, and even gave me the opportunity to meet one of my heroes, John Wooden.

So understand that I am hardly objective.

However, understand also that all of that access gave me a different perspective than that of the guys sitting in the stands. I don't fault these guys for caring, because as a Pepperdine alum myself, I care just as much. However, there is a difference between bashing someone from a bird's eye view and without all the information, and making the same claims when you've seen behind the curtain. (And I'm sure this is true of all coaches and players in all sports; it is always easier to criticize when there is no personal connection.)

There is no denying that Pepperdine's basketball program has trended downward over the past several years, going from one of the elite mid-major programs in the country to a team that struggles mightily to win WCC games. And because that dip largely occurred on Coach Westphal's watch, it is easy to see why people would automatically connect the dots and assume he was responsible.

However, as is always the case, there is more to the story. In Coach Westphal's first season at Pepperdine, he managed to bring in (largely through the recruiting efforts of former assistant Gib Arnold) a couple of transfers (Jimmy Miggins and Devin Montgomery) on the fly to team with a lot of young talent that remained from the Jan Van Breda Kolff era. That season he inserted redshirt freshman guard Terrance Johnson into the starting lineup, got senior Craig Lewis to buy into a sixth man roll that literally saved that team, and turned longtime stiff Cedric Suitt into a shot-blocking stud at center. That squad reached the 2002 NCAA Tournament as an at-large bid and gave a very good Wake Forest team (led by Josh Howard) all it could handle in a first round game in Sacramento.

Expectations for the next season were naturally very high. Many of the team's star players were returning and young center Will Kimble was being groomed to take over for Suitt. Then, tragedy struck when Kimble was diagnosed with a heart condition that ended his playing career at Pepperdine (although he would later play again, at UTEP). That team was never the same, as it basically amounted to a lost season, particularly when Montgomery went down with a thumb injury for an extended period of time.

The 2003-2004 campaign should have been one for the books. Literally, my book. However, once again, the Waves were thwarted at every turn. Star transfer - and current member of the Denver Nuggets - Yakhouba Diawara (who has been featured many times on this blog in The Khoub Report) was forced to miss over half the season for some ridiculous eligibility issue that took the NCAA forever to resolve and subsequently robbed him of the entire (and critical) non-conference schedule. Top recruit Shaun Davis got off to a great start and then completely melted down, to the point where he was an ongoing distraction and was eventually asked to leave the team. Plus, Kimble was on the bench all season (another case of Westphal being a stand-up guy, as he honored the scholarship), which wound up being more haunting and sad than inspiring. Yes, there was a lot of talent on that team, but they never had a shot. There were just too many problems to deal with.

What people don't realize about success at the mid-major level is that everything has to go perfectly. You can't afford a single major injury or suspension or borderline insane recruit. And when all of them happen in unison and the guy forced to quit basketball because of a heart condition is sitting on the bench next to you, it is hard to maintain excellence. It just is.

And as for the diminution of talent in the program, I'm sure the recruiting wasn't flawless, but people need to understand that Coach Westphal and his staff were trying to recruit to a school with inadequate facilities (Pepperdine is a breathtakingly beautiful campus with first rate facilities ... except for basketball) and high academic standards. Additionally, he is a guy that actually values excellence of character and tried to hold players up to moral standards as well as those of an academic or athletic nature. Not only that, but Coach Westphal was forced to recruit and build a program amid constant rumors about his next move. He was rumored to be angling for the head coaching of the Boston Celtics (a rumor that Marc Stein himself inaccurately spread) and rumored to be heading to the Knicks as an assistant, neither of which were true, but both of which did damage to the work he was trying to do in Malibu.

I'm not making excuses for the results, because I'm sure everyone involved in the process of building those teams would admit to some mistakes and regrets, but I am interested in pointing out the other side of the argument.

Of course, all of this is sort of moot when it comes to Coach Westphal's ability as an NBA coach, which is what Stein's column discussed. If anything, my time with Coach Westphal only proved what a great basketball mind he has. He is always thinking outside the box and coming up with innovative ideas. The problem with that kind of high level thinking in college basketball is that the players are often not advanced enough to apply some of those ideas. Coach Westphal's greatest sin as the head coach at Pepperdine was probably that he trusted the players too much as athletes, treating them like pros rather than college kids. That obviously isn't an issue when he will be coaching, you know, pros. He doesn't have to teach Jason Terry how to shield a defender from stealing his dribble, so he can spend all the time he wants showing JT a few tricks for drawing fouls off the ball. There is no need to instruct Jerry Stackhouse on the principals of a high-low offense, so he can skip right to the good stuff. And he doesn't have to show Erick Dampier what a pivot foot is, so he can move on to a nifty double move. Okay, maybe that last example wasn't the best.

But the point is that Paul Westphal is perfect for the Dallas Mavericks. He can deploy the mounds and mounds of strategy that he has about basketball, while working for a standup guy (Avery Johnson) that shares his emphasis on character, and probably reinvent a few things along the way.

I watched Coach Westphal succeed tremendously at Pepperdine and I watched him fail and I learned a lot about what a quality person and basketball coach he is along the way. Things may not have worked out perfectly in Malibu, and I suppose that students and alums have a right to be as angry as they want to be about how things turned out, but I can say with 100% certainty that the Dallas Mavericks are very lucky to have Coach Westphal on their staff.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

More Oden: Silver Linings

My inbox is flooded with desperate emails from people in the 503 area code. A great many of these broken-hearted individuals are probably reaching for their most expensive spirits right this moment, or perhaps drying their tears with Greg Oden rookie cards.

All of which means that I need to expand on the previous post with more and immediate optimism, however unfounded.

Therefore, I am presenting four silver linings for the Blazers. Most of them have yet to be covered in great deal in the mainstream media, mainly because the coverage hasn't moved from reporting to spin to counterspin just yet. But that's the beauty of a blog, you can just throw stuff up at an alarming rate.

1. The David Robinson Factor. During one email conversation I had earlier with some Blazer fans, one suggestion that came out is that perhaps the Blazers can tack on more talent by virtue of another losing season. With Oden on the shelf for 07-08, the thinking goes, Portland is doomed for another terrible season in the W/L column, which could set them up for another very high draft pick. This is obviously a close replica of the situation that netted San Antonio Tim Duncan back in the day. There are obvious differences here, namely that the Spurs were a perennial 50-win team that took a nosedive for that one season without The Admiral, whereas the Blazers have been at this "struggling" thing for a while. But the main idea still applies: a guy worth probably 20 wins is out for the year and a much higher draft pick is obtained as a result. One can imagine the Blazers cashing in on another top pick and getting a fabulous talent like incoming Memphis point guard Derrick Rose or incoming Kansas State power forward Michael Beasely. The former is going to lead somebody to the NBA Finals at some point in his career and the latter is going to be one of the best power forward prospects to enter the draft in this decade. So there is definite cause for optimism here.

(Not to throw water on everybody, but I should point out a few problems with the "Hey, now we can get Derrick Rose too!" silver lining: A) Even without Oden, Portland will still have a hard time being the worst team in the NBA. Roy has a year of experience under his belt, Aldridge is emerging, Frye can step in and play big minutes, and so on. I think there are at least six NBA teams that will be far worse than the Blazers this year. B) After winning the lottery last year, it seems unlikely that Portland could have lightening strike twice on that front. They would be more likely to land something like the 6th pick and be faced with the prospect of Chase Budinger playing small forward for the next decade.)

2. The Scrutiny Avoidance Factor. Look, don't confuse what I'm about to say. I am not for a minute suggesting that being under a media microscope is worse for a young player than undergoing severe and risky knee surgery. So please don't take this that way. However, I do think there was significant risk that Oden was going to get off to a rough start. He hasn't been healthy in a while and it looked highly likely that he was going to spend the year in constant foul trouble and in the shadow of Kevin Durant. The media would latch onto that combo like a dog snatching a soup bone and they would never let go. Again, I'm not saying that Oden is better off with a surgically repaired knee, but I do think that some guys can wind up being protected from themselves until they are truly ready to flourish. Carson Palmer wasn't hurt his rookie year, but I'm convinced that his never taking a snap in Cinci that season is why he's so good now. It seems entirely possible that Oden can and will benefit from watching and learning and moving out of the pressure cooker for a significant period of time. Then again, it is entirely possible that he's basketball's Mark Prior.

Whoops, sorry, this is a silver lining column.

3. Timing. I wrote about this on this very blog several times over the summer, but the key to cashing in on their recent run of lottery success was for Portland to remain extremely patient with this roster. Oden had the look of a championship centerpiece, but it was going to take him 3-5 years even without a setback before he would be ready to lead a title contender. The same is true, to a lesser extent, with Aldridge. Roy, on the other hand, will progress much faster and some of the other pieces are close to reaching maturation. The temptation that was eventually going to confront the Blazers was one of timing. Would they stick to the long term vision and wait for not only title contention, but even mere playoff appearances? Or would they start to give up future pieces for lesser players who would help compete now? I think the former is the best approach in a Western Conference loaded with teams that are powerhouses now (San Antonio, Phoenix, Dallas, and even Houston) but that also have a horizon line in play. In my mind, only Utah looms as a mortal lock to be good in about 2011, so there is going to be a window for Portland if they play their cards right.

As much as I trust their front office and think the world of Kevin Pritchard, I'm not sure they had the restraint to wait and wait and wait for the right time. Now, they have no choice but to wait. And while Oden no doubt sees his timeline moved back a bit, I don't think it changes all that much. I think whether he plays in the next 18 months or not, he was/is going to be ready to lead a Finals-level team around the same time, which is the 2010-2011 season. As long as he can make it back at least 85-90% of the way physically (as Kidd, Randolph, and Amare have done), I don't really believe this stunts his progress in terms of the big picture.

4. Ability To Re-Sign Oden. This came up in the same chain of emails referenced above and I tend to see this as a positive for Portland. Not only do most NBA players re-sign with the teams that drafted them anyway, but the Blazers are going to be able to slap a contract extension in front of Oden long before he answers the myriad questions that outside organizations will have. The Blazers will be able to make an informed offer based on critical internal information, thus make a more confident offer that is likely to result in Oden re-signing for the max number of years. Not only that, but since Portland and Oden now have their fates so intertwined anyway, there isn't much harm in rolling the dice on a big extension. If they re-up him and he never comes all the way back, they (meaning the front office, the team, the fans, everyone) are all screwed anyway. I think this only helps Portland transition quickly and smoothly from the "we have him for three years under his rookie contract" phase to the "we have him for five more years" phase. Whereas you can bet that everyone from GM's to agents to endorsers to David Stern himself will be whispering in Kevin Durant's ear about the weather in L.A., the big lights of New York, or even the tax benefits of Florida. If ever there was a stud draft pick that looks like a good bet to bolt from the team that drafted him, it is the uber-marketable Durant playing for a team with one foot in Seattle and the other in Oklahoma City.

Obviously, a lot remains to be seen. How well did the surgery go? Will they find anything when they go back and scope again (ala Amare)? How will he recover? But as long as those questions are met with positive answers, I think that it could wind up being an "all's well that ends well" situation.

Horrible Oden News

I was just on my way back to my desk when I got an email from my buddy Josh Stump which read, "It was microfracture." I barely made it the rest of the way to my office.

If you are a Blazers fan, or even just an NBA fan, this is far more depressing news than referee scandals or plummeting NBA Finals ratings. This is "you have to be kidding me" territory.

Obviously, the first place this news takes us is back to the Sam Bowie conversation. Leading up to the draft, one of the big fears in taking Oden is that the Blazers might somehow be tempting fate, since the last time they had the chance to take either an electric perimeter player or an imposing big man, they opted for Bowie over Jordan in one of the most infamous draft choices of all time. The comparison seemed wrong for many reasons, not the least of which was the fact that Portland wanted Hakeem that year but missed out when they didn't get the number one pick. So comparing Hakeem to Jordan was more appropriate. But now that Oden is already going to be shelved for his rookie year, the Sam Bowie/Michael Jordan comparison is more apt. The specter of Bowie is going to loom over EVERYTHING.

The second place this is going to go is the inevitable comparisons to other NBA players who have had microfracture surgery. This tends to be better news for Blazers fans. I think we still recoil at the term "microfracture," because very recently it appeared to be an injury from which there was no coming back. Now we just know that it takes at least a full year, maybe more. Jason Kidd is no spring chicken, yet he has bounced back well enough to be the key guy on Team USA. Zach Randolph carries more weight on his frame than Oden, yet was able to come all the way back and have a monster year for this very same Portland team last year. And Amare Stoudemire is a player that relies far more on his athleticism than Oden and managed to make the NBA's first team all-league last year. No doubt Amare isn't quite the same guy, but he's still pretty fantastic.

The one player that has to worry the Blazers is Kenyon Martin. That is because K-Mart has a star-crossed injury past that sort of mirrors the path that Oden is on. While Oden never shattered a leg like Martin, he did have the broken wrist at Ohio State and was already down with tonsillitis during summer league play. K-Mart is the one NBA player of recent vintage that hasn't been able to get back to full health (yet) and that has to scare the good people of Portland.

All told, this is horrible, horrible news. No doubt the immediate gut reaction for the Blazers is to want to turn the clock back to draft night and take Kevin Durant instead. The urge to second-guess and wonder "what if" is going to have to be suppressed, otherwise, it will cause you to go crazy.

The Blazers need to use this season to continue Roy's development, let Aldridge grow into the monster that he's destined to become, and maybe boost the trade value of some expendable (or maybe not so expendable now?) players like Joel Przybilla. They need to sit comfortably in the knowledge that Oden is young, that his knee is otherwise healthy, and that the injured area was small (all similar to the first reports about Amare's knee, by the way - of course, they had to go back in on Stoudemire). Mainly, they need to take some solace in the knowledge that this type of procedure has come a long, long way. The days of Terrell Brandon and Jamal Mashburn seeing their careers end over this are over.

Oden is going to be okay, as long as no one panics.

And as long as there really is no Bowie Curse on this franchise.