Thursday, May 19, 2016

Too Much Future Can Make a Front Office Tense

Gratuitous cruelty isn't very nice, so it would be wrong to tell Celtics fans to cheer up and remember that Michael Jordan was a third pick in the NBA draft.

Nor can we tell Danny Ainge that the trouble with trades is that it takes more than one team to execute them.  Beating all contrarians to the punch, the Celtics' front office boss said so himself last week with visible regret.

There's no denying that last Tuesday's draft lottery took a lot of the wind out of green sails in this burg. The question is, why? In terms of possibilities for improving their more than decent but less than imposing roster for next year, the Celtics are no worse off with the third pick than they would've been with the first or second, whether Ainge chooses to use the pick for immediate improvement or trade it for same. The risks are the same, the likely rewards haven't changed, all that's lost is a little glamor.

Fans fall for glamor all the time. An NBA lifer like Ainge seldom does. So why did he seem so glum at the lottery's conclusion? My guess is that he was glum after because he was glum before. After assessing trade possibilities and draft possibilities, Ainge had already concluded that the coup of acquiring the Nets' 2016 first round pick is going to be less coup and more like the resignation of the Minister of Agriculture.

It would be foolish to say that a GM as daring and resourceful of Ainge has no chance at all of filling his hand this summer. But it's more likely he'd fill it with two pair than a full house. Trade or draft, the Celts ought to improve themselves for next season. They might even wind up better than the Atlanta Hawks or Miami Heat. A peer of the Cavs, Warriors, Thunder and Spurs? Wait  'till year after next.

It's possible the Kings would part with DeMarcus Cousins -- for a price that'd be more than another lottery pick. They acquire those on their own. It'd take a valuable piece or two from the current Celtics, including Isaiah Thomas to grab Cousins, who let's just say represents a high-reward, high-risk investment. He would be a better best player on the team than Thomas is. He would also cause Brad Stevens more sleepless nights. And leaving personality out of it, it would come down to swapping a backcourt scorer for a frontcourt one. Backcourt points are easier to replace. Easier does not mean "it'd be a cinch."

The price would be lower for Jimmy Butler (a 30th pick in the draft, BTW). So would be the ROI. He's a marginal All-Star shooting guard. As the Hawks series showed, the Celts could use some extra shooting from just about every position on the floor. As I understand the carom shot theory of franchise building popular among the Celtic faithful, the acquisition of Butler would help convince a real top-shelf free agent, namely Kevin Durant, that Boston represents his best chance to win a title.
I find this less than convincing. For one thing, Durant might win said title THIS season. For another, he already plays with Russell Westbrook, a far better player than Butler.

Deceit is a vital part of sports personnel management. Ainge might be playing a most effective con. But after the lottery, it sure seemed he was becoming resigned to the line of least resistance, using the third pick on whomever he deems is the newbie best able to garner the Celts a few more regular season and especiallyplayoff wins in 2016-2017.

And there's nothing wrong with that at all. In a peculiar quirk of fate, the 2016 draft actually features some seniors as well as the usual crop of one and dones and teenage Europeans. To get immediately better, and let's hope that's his goal, all Ainge has to do is avoid the primal NBA draft error -- reaching for height.

Falling in love with big people is to the basketball draft what trading up to get a quarterback is to the NFL. For every time it works (Ed Macauley is in the Hall of Fame, and Red Auerbach traded him to get Bill Russell), there's about 10 times where it fails spectacularly. This was true in 1985 when Joe Kleine and Jon Koncak went 10 picks higher than Karl Malone, and it was true in 2009 when Hasheem Thabeet was picked second, ahead of third pick James Harden and seventh pick Steph Curry.  It'll be true in the 2029 draft, too.

Picking Buddy Hield or Kris Dunn is not the stuff banner dreams are made of. It is, however, the type of solid but incremental improvement teams in the Celtics' overall good but not great situation are lucky to get to make. If that's how Ainge's maneuvering (I'm sure it's far from finished) ends up, he might not be overjoyed, but he shouldn't be glum.

Two pair isn't the strongest hard in the deck. But sometimes it's enough to win a pot.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Recipe for Ridicule

There are a great many cookbooks in my house. There's a ceiling-to-floor set of bookshelves worth of them. Everyone in my family, me, Alice, our children Josh and Hope, is into food and into cooking. Over the course of the years, we've acquired quite the collection. Historical cookbooks, fad diet cookbooks, cookbooks by famous chefs, even novelty items such as the "Star Wars Cookbook."

I won't be adding Tom Brady's new book to the shelf next to its only possible companion volume "The 1987 Patriots' Wives Cookbook," which is real and one of the treasured momentos of my sportswriting career.  There will be no end of fans who'll pony up $200 for his souvenir cookbook, but I'm damned if I'll be one of 'em. What does he take me for?

To be fair to Tom, let me say up front that cookbooks can serve many purposes other than offering practical advice and instruction to the home cook. To take one random example from my shelf, a cookbook by famous chef Thomas Keller is food porn. It's coffee-table book expensive, but that's way less than dinner at his restaurant the French Laundry would be. No one who buys it is even going to try to follow one of its recipes, for lack of the two most vital ingredients of each one -- decades of formal training and a large staff of assistants. But it's fun to read them, look at the pictures, and wander into a daydream of tastebud lust.

By all accounts, Brady's book is basically divided into three parts, a straightforward account of his rigorous dietary habits with recipes attached, detours into nutrition quackery (no tomatoes?), and fierce diatribes against the American food industry. Parts one and three are all to the good. The food industry can always use a swift kick in the ass, as long as the kicker understands the essential futility of the gesture. Assisting others to eat more healthily is a worthy goal, and I'm sure some of Brady's advice is sound. As for part two, we can shrug that off. Throughout American history, there's never been someone who altered the national diet for the better who didn't have some quack in them.

But missionary work and the profit motive are not good partners. I'm sure Brady sincerely wishes everyone ate better as he defines it, but it's hard to spread the good word to the masses at $200 a pop. My suspicion is that the book is a preview of Brady's stated plan to create a network of fitness-related businesses after he retires from football at age 72. Those businesses will not be seeking to convert society as a whole. They'll be top-shelf offerings charging top dollar aimed at the carriage trade. That lets me out right there.

A $50 Tom Brady cookbook would not be out of line. One costing four times as much doesn't make me curious to see one of the secrets of the quarterback's superb fitness, it only generates unworthy smart-ass thoughts.

Thought one: Between Dad's diet and the fact Mom is a supermodel, I'll bet the Brady children always go to a neighbor's house for after-school snacks. They won't rebel as teenagers through clothes, music or substance abuse, they'll sneak out for pizza.

Thought two: The most important element in Tom Brady's continued excellent health are the five dangerously (to themselves) large men in his offensive line, guys who intake around 6000 calories a day.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Jarndyce v. Jarndyce v. Goodell v. Brady v. Sanity


WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Federal judge Merrick Garland has asked President Barack Obama to withdraw his name from nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Garland phoned Obama with his request approximately six seconds after a three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals, Second Circuit, reinstated the four game suspension imposed on New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady for his alleged role in the so-called Deflategate affair in the 2014 AFC Championship Game imposed by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. By a 2-1 vote, the panel reversed a 2015 decision by District Court Judge Richard Berman which had overturned the suspension.

According to a senior Obama Administration official with knowledge of the call, Garland cited the likelihood of the 2-1 vote leading Brady and the NFL Players' Association to appeal the ruling and the possibility the case would reach the Supreme Court in making his request to the President, as well as his age of 63.

"Life's too short for that shit," Garland is said to have told Obama.

According to the same official, at least 15 other U.S. appellate judges currently on are hold after phoning the White House "within minutes" of Garland's initial message.

Presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Ted Cruz and John Kasich had no initial reaction to Garland's decision or the Brady ruling. In a message on Twitter, candidate Donald Trump vowed to "only appoint judges who like football. And not soccer!"

"We're on to the draft," was the only comment by New England coach Bill Belichick.

In a possibly related development, ESPN television personalities Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless were each hospitalized early this afternoon for treatment of incipient apoplexy,

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Armies With Nothing But Generals Don't Win Many Wars

As the college and pro football season neared and reached their ends last winter,  NFL "insiders" (actually outsiders) in national sports media grew louder in expressing a consensus opinion they'd been stating since September. The crop of college quarterbacks eligible for the 2016 draft contained a few players who might make competent pros, there were a couple of promising prospects needing work, but this was no bumper crop of signal callers.

Nobody would mistake this crowd for the class of 1983, ran conventional wisdom. There were no Andrew Lucks here. There might not be any Alex Smiths.

The draft is next week. The Los Angeles Rams and Philadelphia Eagles have already paid king's ransoms in future high-round draft picks to acquire the first and second overall choices. They did so in order to make sure they wouldn't miss out on quarterbacks Jared Goff and Carson Wentz. The Rams have yet to say which one of these megastars of 2021 they favor, meaning the Eagles dropped off their ransom to the Browns to get their hands on the first runner-up.

This is what REALLY happens every spring. Without fail, at least one and usually more than one NFL franchise pulls up a year's worth of scouting and personnel evaluation, hits the delete key, and lets desperation rule. We need a new and better quarterback. QB X is new. We need him! This logical fallacy is akin to deciding that since a straight looks like it'll be the best hand at the poker table, drawing to fill one's inside straight is the best possible move.

At least the Rams have an excuse, not a good one, but a real one,  for saying the future had damn well better be now. They're moving to a new city with an easily bored community of sports fans, and even if they weren't concussed all the time, neither Case Keenum nor Nick Foles are what you, me or their moms would call gate attractions.

The Eagles are the finer, purer example of how quarterback lust drives front offices mad. Philly had already re-signed last year's starter Sam Bradford and acquired backup Chase Daniel for 2016 at a salary cap figure of $22.5 million. Draft pick number two will add a few mil to that total. Good luck fighting over the crumbs, you special team vets. Between that sum and the big bucks former coach Chip Kelly wasted on running backs, shoring up the rest of the Eagle roster will be impossible.

Get the logical contradiction here? Philly made a big and questionable commitment to its current questionable starter. It then mortgaged its short-term future in an investment in its long-term future, an investment that only makes sense if they pay Bradford to stink in 2016. Let's go to Fantasyland. Bradford defies the odds, has a great season and wins Comeback Player of the Year. What happens to QB of the Future then? The date where he begins to offer some ROI on yesterday's trade will be pushed back two seasons at least. He will be dead money wearing a baseball cap backwards on the sideline.

The 2016 draft, like many drafts before it, has been shaped by the inability of NFL front offices to distinguish between the definitions of two simple four-letter words. Yes, quarterback is the most important position in football. Most, however, is not a synonym for only.

Forget the irrationality of the Rams and Eagles paying Ferrari prices to acquire players rated as Subarus before QB frenzy kicked in. Just think about how they paid draft picks they now can't use to paint their houses or replace their cracked and failing roofs. Should either or both Goff and Wentz turn out to be sports cars, they won't impress the neighbors when they're parked in the driveways of two eyesores.

Andrew Luck WAS a consensus surefire franchise quarterback when the Colts picked him number one in the 2012 draft. He lived up to the billing, too. Indianapolis made the playoffs in his first three seasons with Luck pretty much the entire offense of a team with a mediocre defense.

In an exercise in idiocy, Indy's front office (who knows who runs things there, really?) passed on three chances to improve the tacklers and especially blockers among Luck's teammates. In 2015 the inevitable happened. The hits Luck took being the franchise became more numerous. His performance suffered, then he got hurt. The guy who should've been the league's next superstar is dangerously close to "what might have been" territory.

Number one pick Alex Smith was a disappointment in San Francisco. Andy Reid traded for him, let Smith play to his limitations in a no-risk offense, surrounded him with players suited for such a scheme, and hey, presto, the Chiefs are a playoff team.

Tom Brady is on the short list for greatest quarterback ever. He is why the Patriots have been the most consistent winning team in NFL history, 15 seasons and counting now. If we're talking trades, he'd be worth two ENTIRE drafts or more. Yet as was proved once more in the AFC championship game, Brady's only great when he's upright. Like any quarterback who ever lived, Brady's just another guy when he spends 60 minutes staring up at the sky after pass plays and goes back to the huddle picking grass out of his nose and ears. Brady is way more important than any other individual Pat, even Gronk. But as a group, his offensive lineman are just as important as Brady.

It's an equation first discovered by Amos Alonzo Stagg. Blocking + tackling = winning. The emergence of the quarterback has changed what blockers do, but it hasn't changed their significance. This will occur to either Goff or Wentz the first time some Ram guard yells "look out" this fall.

The men who run NFL franchises have spent their lives in the game. They know much much more about football than I do. It's the insecurity of their chosen trade that drives some of them to make the same blunder year after year. The fastest way to get better, not to win titles but to get better, is to get your hands on a real star quarterback. Fastest way to impress fans and the owner, too. Too bad trying to get one is also the bet least likely to pay off, meaning it's also the fastest way to get fired. I sure wouldn't want a gig where I had to eagerly play against the percentages just to draw a paycheck for another couple of years.

The future is never now but it's always unknowable. Goff and Wentz could become the next Brady and Peyton Manning. People DO fill inside straights sometimes.

If only more people tried it when I play poker.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Dullest Killer Reptile Ever

Many careers in all trades end in self-parody, so it's not too surprising Kobe Bryant ended his NBA days in a game in which he scored 60 points by taking a measly 50 shots. Even back in his prime, Bryant was not what one would term a paragon of offensive efficiency. In 19 seasons, he led the league in scoring three times, and in shots taken six times. No man has better epitomized the saying that a shooter must have no conscience.

Indeed, if I were to create a prototypical Bryant game, it'd be a night where he went 11 for 27 and one for 7 from behind the three-point line for about 31 points. It's no accident that the new breed of statistically-driven basketball followers, who're trying to do for their sport what's already happened in baseball, tend to be reluctant to label Bryant an all-time great. They ignore the catch that in my typical Kobe game, that one three would win it for the Lakers.

This NBA follower is anything but stat-driven, but I'm willing to give Bryant his due. Obviously he's an all-time great, one of the top 20 for sure. He averaged 25 points a game over 19 years and scored 33.000 points. That's outstanding. He was a star on five NBA championship teams. That's even more outstanding. Although they all wore Laker uniforms, those five title winners were essentially two different teams (titles were 2000-2002 and 2009-2010) of which Bryant was the only constant. That's the stuff of history. Michael didn't do that, nor Larry nor Magic. Only Hall of Famers I can think of who did were Bill Russell and John Havlicek.

These accomplishments are to be respected and admired, and I do. Yet I must balance that respect and admiration with the following cold truth. From his rookie year to his pathetic farewell season, Kobe Bryant's game has always bored me stiff. He is the least compelling NBA superstar of my long life following pro basketball.

Scoring points is the sport's objective and Bryant was good at it. It's not his fault that isolation one-on-one scoring and repeated jump shots are not what I find the height of hardwood drama. There are no style points in basketball -- except in the hearts and minds of fans. And in my mind, I can think of a dozen scorers, from Earl Monroe to Kevin Durant, who probably weren't/aren't as accomplished as Bryant who were/are more fun to watch. For them, I'd buy a ticket. For him, never.

Time for the elephant in the bathtub. Bryant was accused of the heinous crime of rape. We will never know what really happened in that Colorado hotel room since the case never went to trial. I will say that for celebrities, bribing/threatening victims not to pursue serious criminal charges is not as easy as popular culture supposes. But I can't help remembering that when the news broke, my immediate reaction was "I can't believe such a vapid personality had such a horror in him."

Any fond/funny anecdotes from Bryant's career come to mind? Any memorable quotes? Anything besides all those shots? Maybe people in LA have dozens of such memories. Thirty-five hundred miles away from Staples Center, I don't. When I reach to compare Bryant to another superstar, the first one that pops into my head is poor A-Rod. Outside of Laker fandom, I can think of only two entities in sports who're really fond of Kobe, ESPN and Nike. That's not the best company to keep, legacy-wise.

Sports legends earn that term because people remember them for as long as life lasts. I've been lucky enough to see every NBA immortal save George Mikan. When I close my eyes and think of them, I see plays, signature displays of skill and will. I see Russell blocking a shot, Wilt dunking, Magic leading the Showtime break, Michael going off for 63 on the '86 Celtics. I can turn on the TV and see Steph Curry hitting a three.

When I close my eyes and think of Kobe Bryant, I see a resume.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The Weight of Victory Is as Heavy as That of Defeat -- Heavier Even

There is almost no danger that his 45 minutes of terror and lost balls on the back nine of Augusta National last Sunday will be the most remembered event of Jordan Spieth's golf career. Thirty years hence, he won't be mentioned in the same sentence as Jean Van de Velde.

In fact, Masters champion Danny Willett is at greater risk of a stern sentence from the bar of golf history. He could yet wind up mentioned in the same sentence as Paul Lawrie.

Who's that, you say? Why Lawrie was the winner of the 1999 Open Championship. He was the beneficiary of Van de Velde's breakdown of mind and body on the 72nd hole at Carnoustie. Lawrie went on to win the title in a playoff. He holds the record for biggest final day comeback in a major tournament, having begun the last round 10 strokes off the lead.

And nobody knows, or almost nobody. The video of Van de Velde's comical, horrible triple bogey is a staple of sports television. It never shows clips of Lawrie hoisting the claret jug in triumph. Lawrie's still on the European Tour, a ham and egg journeyman uncelebrated beyond his own household.

If Willett doesn't continue to succeed at the highest levels of tournament golf, indeed, if he doesn't win another major, he will become Lawrie, a guy seen as having prospered from the misfortune of one of his betters. The 2016 Masters will be known not as Willett's victory, but as Spieth's disaster.

This would be most unfair. Not only did Willett should a flawless 67 on Sunday, he also coped with the burden of a sudden and unexpected lead in what was now a wide-open tournament. Willett was on the 15th green when Spieth quadruple-bogeyed the 12th. Willett went on to finish birdie-par-par, earning the praise of interested observer Mr. J.W. Nicklaus.

But Willett's win would be denigrated all the same. There are few areas of human endeavor where it's more of a front-runner's universe than golf, and its history is the same if not more so. One can see this happening even now. For every sentence of praise for Willett's performance, there's been an avalanche of essays, columns, stories, blog posts and tweets on Spieth's. Golf defines itself by what happens to its favorites, not its underdogs.

There's been some long-distance psychological hooey aimed at Spieth, speculation that his collapse will leave lasting scars that'll harm his golf for as long as he keeps playing. One never says never, except this time I will. That's not gonna happen. Spieth's just too good. Multiple major winners, which he already is at age 22, are made of stern stuff, and more of them than one might think have major tournament collapses on their resumes.

Start with Spieth's contemporary peer, Rory McIlroy. McIlroy had yet to win a major when he fell apart at the 2011 Masters in exactly the same fashion, disintegrating with a lead as he stood on the 10th tee of the final round. Oh, the long-distance psychoanalysis was way more superheated in his case. More specious, too, as McIlroy promptly won the next major, the US Open, by about the same margin by which Secretariat won the Belmont. He's won an Open Championship and two PGAs since.

Phil Mickelson kicked away his best chance to win a US Open with a drive to parts unknown on the 72nd hole. Nobody in their right mind calls Mickelson a choker. His failure is accepted as an inescapable part of his greatness. The drive at Winged Foot is the flip side of the shot he hit off the pine straw to win the 2010 Masters. Mickelson has always gone for broke and to hell with prudence. It's why he's loved. Life's too short to lay up.

Greg Norman's debacle at the 1996 Masters is seen as the defining moment of his career not because it was, really (he was already on its downside) but because it epitomized what was the most amazing long term hard luck story the sport has told. Before that awful day, Norman had already lost each one of the four major tournaments in a playoff. Two of the losses were by holeouts. Somebody up there with a five-iron in his hand didn't like him.

Arnold Palmer double-bogeyed the 72nd hole to lose the 1961 Masters, He lost a seven-stroke lead on the final day to lose the 1967 US Open. That's two big fades. Who cares? He's Arnie.

Sam Snead tripled bogeyed the 72nd to lose the 1939 Open and missed a short putt to lose the same tourney in 1947. He was famous for never winning an Open. He's still famous, but the Open gap is a just a quirk of his legend, nothing more. Ben Hogan, Ben Hogan!! went a long time on Tour before he starting winning, and believe it or not, he had a rep for not being able to finish.

Unless everything else Spieth has done in golf was a mirage or unless they change the rules to make putting less important, his destiny will be to have his Sunday of perfect misery stand as an exception to past and future successes, a reminder that the sport's too hard for anybody to beat it all the time, so failure is to be understood, excused and forgotten if success is to be properly celebrated.

The US Open is in two months at Oakmont. As defending champion, Jordan Spieth will face a considerable amount of pressure when he steps on the first tee.

Masters champion Danny Willett will face more.

Wednesday, April 06, 2016

Merle Haggard 1937-2016

Merle Haggard died today of pneumonia on his 79th birthday. The list of authentic creative geniuses in country music is smaller by one name, and not that many new names are replacing the fallen giants.

Haggard's accomplishments are too many for me to fairly discuss them. I'll just focus on a small one he never knew about. It was his tribute album to Jimmie Rodgers "Same Train, a Different Time," that gave me a love of country-western that lives to this day. Find that album, acquire it, listen and you'll hear what I mean.

Country is like every other genre in American popular music. It's artists striving to produce and perform something true to themselves and others within an industry with a vested interest in grinding off art's rough edges to appeal to the mass audience which like all mass audiences isn't much for originality or truth. Haggard's voice, impeccable sense of music and his personality allowed him to thrive for half a century atop that narrow, narrow balance beam. That's the apex of popular art achievement.

If the Times doesn't have Merle's obit on Page 1 tomorrow, they'll be walkin' on the fightin' side of me. And American cultural history's.