Friday, February 24, 2017

You Mean I Might Have Nothing to Do But Watch the Games?

Hell hath no fury like a talk show host whose home market teams don't swing big deals by their sports' trade deadlines. Doing nothing is unacceptable! (Make that three exclamation points here in Boston.)

As I went on a pizza run last night, it was very weird to hear Adam Jones on the SportsHub denounce Danny Ainge of the Celtics for timidity, no, downright cowardice for failing/refusing to make a trade before the deadline yesterday afternoon. But then, Jones had to top Felger and Mazz, whose squawks of scorn reverberated around town without one having to turn on one's radio.

Danny Ainge? The guy who made about 15 deals in his first year at Boston's helm. The guy who brought in Kevin Garnett? The one who acquired Isaiah Thomas at last year's deadline for a briefcase full of Imperial Russian railway bonds? Danny, timid? Making criticism loud is one thing. Turning up the volume to silly is another.

We know that Ainge could've acquired DeMarcus Cousins for almost nothing, since that's what New Orleans paid to get the volatile but gifted center, but decided, along with Brad Stevens, the Celts didn't want Cousins at any price. That's a real thing that happened, and if you or anyone else including talk show hosts disagree with Boston's assessment of Cousins, Ainge may fairly be criticized for that judgment.

Judgment, not temperament. To accuse Ainge of lacking the iron nerve of the true plunger is to ignore more than a decade's worth of Celtics' history. And to criticize his judgment for failing to pull off some unknown but allegedly available "big deal" that'd be a "real upgrade" is just nonsense. It's not only assuming facts in evidence, it's assuming assumptions not in evidence.

Fans and sports journalists the world over make the same mistake about trades every day in every sport. They blithely presume that their team is the only participant in one. The wants, needs, foibles, psychoses, etc. of the teams on the other sides of their fantasy deals are not considered, let alone the thoughts of the players who might be involved. It's usually a harmless way for outsiders to spend their time, much like imagining what they'll buy when their Powerball numbers hit.

But it's just as divorced from reality. There are no grounds for blasting Ainge for not acquiring Jimmy Butler from the Bulls or Paul George from the Pacers unless it is known (Twitter doesn't count as knowing) what either of those teams wanted in return for giving up an All-Star, whether they even wanted to do it in the first place, and if either player was amenable to coming to Boston. I mean, I wish I could go out and buy a Ferrari this afternoon, but I KNOW I can't because I get bank statements. Ainge is a capable GM. He's not Dr. Strange. Reality won't bend to his will.

Fans and sports journalists love deadline deals (hey, I used to as well) for a good reason -- they're something new to talk about in the dullest part of very long regular seasons. Front offices need a little more concrete return on investment than novelty.

Trade rumors are fun. They proliferate because teams talk about trades almost every day, in conversations ranging from late night hotel bar bullshit to deadly serious conference calls with lawyers, cap specialists and player agents.

Here's a trade reality that's less fun but worth knowing anyway. 999,999 out of 1 million of those conversations end with one or both parties saying "sorry, but no thanks."

PS: Just have to vent a pet peeve here. Heard either Jones or his sidekick say "what message does Ainge not making a move send to his team, to those guys in the locker room?" assuming they would obviously be disheartened by their bosses' failure to create an invincible powerhouse that would sweep the Cavaliers aside with ease in every drive time segment between now and the playoffs.

Do commentators ever look at player sentiment from the other end of that telescope? What is the effect on morale if Ainge HAD pulled off a big trade, one whose unspoken message would be "Boys, I love this team. But for it to have a chance of being any good, I had to get rid of one-third of you."

Monday, February 20, 2017

Maybe the Best Trades Are the Ones You Don't Make Because You Don't Want To.

The good news for DeMarcus Cousins this morning is that he is no longer a member of the Sacramento Kings. The OK news for Cousins is that he's now with the New Orleans Pelicans. The preceding sentence must be the best news of all for Celtics' basketball boss Danny Ainge.

Deductive reasoning leads us to an inescapable conclusion. Ainge did not want All-Star center Cousins at any price. He couldn't have, since the price the Pelicans paid for him (rookie guard Buddy Hield, veteran Tyreke Evans and their first and second round draft picks this summer) was both absurdly low and an offer the Celtics could have bettered without harming their current and future rosters whatsoever. Ainge has acquired so many future draft picks for the next few seasons commentators and fans have a tough time remembering them. The existing Boston squad, a pretty damn good one according to the NBA standings, has its quota and then some of "nice players" who could be sacrificed to acquire one of the few legitimate centers in the league.

So what wonders what if anything Ainge did offer Sacramento in the much-rumored trade talks over the past couple of weeks. A boxed set of Red on Roundball DVDs? More likely, he offered nothing, but politely listened over the phone as Kings GM Vlade Divac tried to scare up a market for his team's superstar who somehow can't help it win much.

That is not all Cousins' fault. The other Kings are pretty terrible. Some of it, however, is. Cousins is, how to put this politely, apparently not emotionally strong enough to cope with the undeniable stresses of an NBA season without acting out. That's just on the court, which in terms of NBA behavior, is only the visible part of the iceberg. When a bad team gives up on its one All-Star, there's usually a damn good reason for it.

New Orleans must've been aware of those reasons. The Pelicans must also have been aware that there is a long history of NBA big men who've broken their leases with teams in order to be traded away and it's worked out splendidly for the franchises who took on the "problem" centers Right, Wilt? Right, Kareem?

Ainge would not take that side of this rather large bet, even when cold numbers indicate it's an awesome value bet. If there's one thing we've learned from more than a decade of Ainge sitting at the personnel poker table, he's not a tight player. He has made far more than his share of big bets with worse hands than the one he's holding now.

My own wild guess is that Ainge's unwillingness to deal for Cousins has little to do with the latter's personality. More likely it stems from technical basketball analysis, a judgment that integrating Cousins' talents into the 2016-2017 Celtics would be a difficult and time-consuming endeavor that wouldn't be completed by playoff time.

Or maybe Ainge just looks at the cards he's holding and thought "this is what I want to play." That could be correct or not. But it's just as bold a move in its own way as swinging a major deadline deal.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

No Days Off, Pro-Am Division

Today's Globe has a nice story by Ben Volin in which PGA Tour pro Rob Oppenheim describes playing three rounds of the AT&T National Pro-Am on the Monterey Peninsula with a notable amateur -- Patriots coach Bill Belichick. According to Oppenheim, Belichick had one hell of a good time for the three days he competed in the event, enjoying the plaudits of the galleries and spreading cheerful positive energy to his playing companions.

The galleries, perhaps with a better sense of irony than fans of other sports, chanted "No Days Off" as Belichick strode down the fairways. That made Belichick even happier.

I'm not criticizing Belichick's golf weekend. Quite the opposite. The wisest leaders are those who understand that when there's nothing to do, do just that.

And all NFL coaches know they're in a grinding cutthroat business where unlimited amounts of hard work and even moments of inspiration can't alter the fact that the chances of failure far, far outweigh those of success. The grumbly, mumbly Belichick the outside world sees most of the time is because he understands, no, feels that fact deeper than most, seeing as he's lived with it his whole adult life.

The only way Belichick will stop being good at football is if he gets tired of it. Pats fans should be cheered that their coach knows the occasional victory lap is good for his soul.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Bill Belichick's Just Screwing With Everyone Now

In the aftermath of Super Bowl LI, Bill Belichick has discovered a delightful truth about his image. If one has a well earned reputation as an Evil Genius (just Genius east of Hartford), one can use that reputation to confound one's opponents without doing anything evil or genius-y at all.

Item One: In the Monday morning press conference after the game, the Patriots' coach complained that all the other teams in the league had a five week head start on New England in preparing for the 2017 season. Reaction from neutral observers was "that guy, he can't even stop scheming for a second to enjoy historic victory."

Now, this may have been a time, and not the first time, where Belichick's seldom displayed, bone dry understated wit went over the heads of his audience. But his words could have had another ulterior motive. They could have been intended to sow doubt and despair in the three other franchises of the AFC East, a fear that "God damn it, he's never gonna retire. He'll die on the job and we'll never win the division until he does." That's the sort of fear that sends front offices and coaches into scheming frenzies of their own, frenzies which tend to result in overpaying lucky free agents and talking themselves into drafting yet another quarterback who's never run anything but the spread since childhood.

In the event, Belichick did not immediately turn to scheming. He spent Monday evening in New York playing straight man to Julian Edelman as the two yucked it up with Jimmy Fallon. The coach appeared to enjoy himself immensely. Didn't have a care in the world. Or a scheme.

Item Two: The next morning, Belichick participated in the victory parade and addressed the crowd with that odd chant "No Days Off." He repeated it until the crowd responded. It's the new team motto, coming soon to merchandise near you. It's also a crock, a literal untruth.

The Patriots took days off in the 2016 season, all of them did. Those days off are mandated by the collective bargaining agreement, and if the Pats showed up for work on any of them, Robert Kraft would've had yet another unpleasant and losing confrontation with Roger Goodell. Furthermore, while stern, Belichick is not an ogre. All season long, various Patriots (especially Tom Brady) showed up as absent at practice for non-football reasons. Players have families, players get sick, can't get out of jury duty, etc. It's no big deal.

If Belichick meant to say "everybody on this team showed up and gave maximum effort on the days they had to work," that would've been much closer to the truth, but not the sort of thing one can fit on a sweatshirt or ball cap. So maybe he told a fib for the greater glory of the bottom line at Patriots Place.

Or maybe, just maybe, Belichick wasn't speaking to the fans at all. Perhaps his banal slogan was aimed at his peers -- all the other NFL coaches. Could it be his subliminal message to them was "my players get days off, but I never take one!"

If so, that's magnificent passive-aggressive evil genius work right there. All the other coaches know Belichick's the best in their business. If they start to think that's because he never stops working, they're all halfway towards beating themselves, not to mention towards an early grave.

All football coaches work impossibly long hours all year round. As there remains only 24 such hours a day, an attempt to extend such hours quickly reaches the point of diminishing returns.

The reason why Belichick is the best coach isn't that he's the hardest working. It's ability. He is better able to use those long hours to understand stuff about football and then to communicate that understand to his players. Believe me, Rex Ryan could without sleep for a year to look at more film and it wouldn't help a bit. Another hour a day at the office won't improve Andy Reid's clock management.

In a job where long hours are a given, fatigue is also one. Vince Lombardi said "fatigue makes cowards of us all." Don't know about that, but it's bad for the decision-making process. There comes a point where any coach has to stop planning and let the players take over. A tired coach has more trouble reaching that point. I can't prove it, but it is my belief that what fans and media call overcoaching is really fatigued coaching.

In any contest, whether of mind, body or both, if your opponent is more tired than you are, you're also two-up standing on the first tee. Your opponent is fighting you and his own body. He's liable do just about anything -- like passing on your one-yard line, or forgetting to run the ball with a 25-point lead.

I don't know what Belichick is doing as I type this. He's probably at work in his office, as he does truly love his work. But if he's not, his reputation is out there working 24/7. It gets no days off.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

Somebody Up There Took the Falcons and the Under

The horrendous winter (really just February, that was enough) of 2015 in Boston didn't really get rolling until a big storm the day after the Patriots won Super Bowl LXIX. Then it snowed about a foot every fourth day for a month, and never got above freezing to melt any.

The Patriots won Super Bowl LI five days ago. Since then, we had freezing rain yesterday morning and are getting a foot of snow or more today -- followed by sub-freezing temperatures.

Coincidence? Maybe. But the Pats didn't even make the Super Bowl last year, and there was hardly any snow to speak of.  I'm guessing there's some powerful supernatural force in the universe that is just a terrible handicapper, is Rex Ryan's guardian angel, or both.

Monday, February 06, 2017

Hey, I Got the 34 Points Right.

One man's miracle comeback is another man's historic disgrace of a choke and both men are right. That sentence is the story of Super Bowl LI.

All chokes in every sport are someone else's comeback and vice versa, something that first came to me during the 1986 World Series. Here in Boston it was "One Strike Away." In the New York metro area, it was "Mets Do It Again." The dynamic is no different in 2017. What's being celebrated in New England as a crowning achievement of the NFL's greatest dynasty is being condemned everywhere else as an unspeakable Falcons' collapse of body, mind and spirit, almost a rejection of victory by the losers.

It cannot be stressed enough that each of these assessments are accurate, accurate but incomplete. Every legendary comeback game or series of games in team sports is at bottom a murder-suicide pact. The comebackers must generate an unbroken string of feats of derring-do. But the losers must also cooperate in their own demise, or the comeback fails.

The Falcons' sins of omission and commission down the stretch are already legends. With a 28-3 lead well into the third quarter, Atlanta ran the ball on offense exactly five more times. They couldn't get a first down after recovering an onside kick. Unforgivably, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, whose welcome in 49erland will be less enthusiastic that it might have been, called two pass plays on 2nd and long from the Patriots' 22, leading by eight with four minutes to play, when a field goal would make it a two-score game. Result: Two sacks, one holding penalty, one punt, one lost NFL championship. When will coaches learn that there's such a thing as too much imagination?

The Falcons' defense didn't choke, it just ran out of gas. Speed may kill, but speed is also very hard work, especially speed pass rushing. It leads to lost steps, and in Atlanta's case, the loss of their entire defensive rationale. By the overtime, those poor 11 guys were rubber-legged boxers without ropes to lean against.  

So choke it is. But miracle it is to. Julian Edelman's catch had nothing to do with Atlanta at all. Nor did James White's performance, when at times he WAS the Patriots' offense, nor the improvement of New England's offensive and defensive lines in the fourth quarter. That was all on them. That is why they are champions, past and present.

Most of all, of course, Tom Brady's ability to regroup from what had been a very poor game while absorbing one of the worst physical beatings of his career to become an unstoppable force in the final 20 minutes was all him (well, that and getting some blocking). One mark of the true greats is their belief that failures are aberrations, flukes than can be erased by simply going out and trying again. Brady has that quality as much or more than any of his very few sporting peers. Without that, the Falcons could've punted on first down on every fourth quarter possession and the Pats would've lost anyway.

Comebacks look inevitable in retrospect. In real time, they are the messiest of affairs, a vortex of chaos from which the winners suck energy as the losers are sucked into its maw. The Patriots are winners and champions. They deserve all the celebration that comes their way.

But they had help, from the most unwilling of helpers. Ignoring the Falcons' collapse doesn't make the Pats' feat more impressive, it just presses three dimensional reality into a flat two-dimensional falsehood.

Amazing comebacks are best thought of as the ultimate team accomplishment, because it takes two teams to make them happen.

Sunday, February 05, 2017

So There's a Game Today?

Data analytics rose to its current lofty post in sports management techniques as a reaction to one immutable truth. When forecasting anything, there's nothing as dangerous as the evidence of one's own two eyes.

The human brain sees what it expects to see. That's why .350 hitters get those borderline ball-strike calls and .230 hitters don't. It's why LeBron James foul out too often. And it is why almost 100 percent of all predictions about the Super Bowl today will be based on what the forecaster saw this season and what he or she didn't.

I'm no different. Can't help it. I've been watching the Belichick-Brady Patriots, up close as any outsider can get at times, for 16 years. That means I've seen them win 80 percent of the time. I saw all 18 of their previous games in the 2016 season, of which they won almost 90 percent. I've seen them lose, of course. I've seen them lose Super Bowls. But operant conditioning is a thing and before the start of any New England game, from preseason to this one, I never EXPECT them to lose.

I've seen two Atlanta Falcons games from start to finish this season, their two playoff victories. They looked great. It was easy to see why they had the NFL's highest scoring offense, and on both offense and defense, they had the best team speed I saw this season. The Patriots are fast enough on both sides of the ball, but that's all. Nobody looks at them and says, "what a bunch of burners."

Team speed is a big edge in a football game. Paul Brown thought it the most important one. But that edge is not enough to make me or almost anyone else pick the Falcons as winners this evening. We see what we expect. I'm not the only observer who no longer ever expects the Pats to lose.

Nevada sports books have the Pats as three-point favorites and the over/under at 59. That translates to a New England win by a 31-28 score, which seems reasonable. The boys out West have seen all the Falcons games. They expect Atlanta to score because that's what they've been watching since August. They expect the Pats to win because same reason.

It is telling that ESPN's Bill Barnwell, whose noteworthy writing skills allow him to use analytics without irritating or stupefying the reader, forecast a Pats win by a non-exciting 34-17 score. Coincidentally, this is a margin almost exactly that of New England's two playoff wins, which were 34-16 and 36-17. Those were games imprinted on Barnwell's brain as he wrote. What good is data against memory?

The data and eye-based cases for a New England win today are identical and simple. Both teams have wonderful offenses, but the Patriots' defense is pretty good at worst while Atlanta's is average at best. Since the last four Super Bowls have either been won though a dominant defensive performance or by last minute goal line stands by the victor's defense, this makes it hard to argue for the Falcons.

Atlanta's defense did fine in the playoffs. It did what an adequate defense must do, generate some turnovers. The New England and Atlanta offenses were the league's two best at protecting the ball this season. But there have been 50 Super Bowls now, a significant data set, and only one of them (XXV, Giants-Bills) was turnover free. In most, even the winner gave the ball back to its foe at least once. It's possible the Falcons' D could get its mitts on the ball a couple of times in the first half, have Matt Ryan and Co. make the most of it, and force New England to chase the game. Unfortunately for contrarians, it's much easier to envision the reverse of that scenario.

One more fact that never figures into any football predictions, be it for a game or a season. It's a rough sport and people get hurt. The Super Bowl is the roughest game of 'em all. A player or players will be injured. That could alter circumstances dramatically, as the rash of injuries to the Pats' defensive backs in Super Bowl XXXVIII turned Jake Delhomme into Dan Marino.

But the reason nobody mentions injuries in predictions is that they are both a high probability and utterly random effect. We know Americans will die from lightning strikes in 2017, but we can't say who. I'm not about to hand the queen of spades to some player who'll then wind up being the Bowl MVP by 10 p.m.

No, I'm going to go with what I expect, what the 2016 season has taught me to expect. It's been a dull year for the NFL, and the playoffs, excepting the Cowboys and Packers, have been duller still. In those 18 Patriots games, exactly two were engrossing to the end to anyone but diehards, the loss to Seattle and the win over the Jets in the Meadowlands.

What's a duller story than "Dynasty Wins Again"? Fundamentals are dull, too. Blocking and tackling win every game, and the Pats have no worse than equal blockers and way better tacklers. Call it Pats 34-Falcons 23. Game-watching parties will end in political arguments that will begin at roughly the 7:00 mark of the fourth quarter.

Friday, February 03, 2017

The Man Behind the Curtain With the Number 12 on It.

Something unusual is going on with Tom Brady at the Super Bowl. He's not speaking his mind exactly, but he's letting people see a bit of what's inside it.

As a veteran of many a Brady press conference, what I expect from the Patriots' quarterback is very pleasantly expressed cliches and cheerful but noncommittal replies to more specific questions. This gentle brushoff technique is standard media relations for jocks. Being dull makes the questioners go away more quickly to leave you in peace.

Brady began his Super Hype week ducking the question of his relationship with the President of the United States. This is understandable. Brady's spent his life in an ultimate bubble, as a handsome football hero since puberty. His supermodel wife has more real world experience than he does. It must've come as a shock to him to find that expressing a political opinion, no matter how passively, exposes one to controversy and even anger.

Since that opening non-bid, however, Brady has taken the opposite approach. Perhaps in compensation, he's revealed glimpses of his thoughts and even emotions. I wouldn't say he's exposing his vulnerable side, just his normal one.

The main news story about Brady this week is that his mother has been ill. This story had to have come from either Brady himself or his immediate family, a huge change of policy from that clan. Ever since Brady's Dad justifiably shot his mouth off about Deflategate, the Bradys have kept a low profile, which is kind of hard to do when you're Giselle Bundchen. I was surprised the news came out, and figured that Brady himself would go full clam as a result. I was wrong.

Those wishing to escape the subject of Pres. Trump should've watched Boston local TV news this week. Every one of Brady's Super media sessions was broadcast live on every station. Out of midwinter cabin fever I watched 'em. And there was a new Brady at the podium. Oh, the Patriot Way was still the message he stressed most, but he had a secondary message, too. If asked the right question, Brady switched to a hot read of "Hey, I'm a real person here."

The right questions came from reporters who clearly were not football beat reporters or even sports reporters at all. They were too basic for that. They were asking about things people inside sports take for granted. Taking things for granted is a good way to overlook something important.

On Wednesday, Brady was asked the following simple, profound query: Why do you like football?
No sportswriter would ever ask that. Football's drawbacks as a profession, the insecurity, tedium and near certainty of permanent health issues in later life are so obvious we sort of insiders just assume all the players love it for illogical reasons and go on from there. From a veteran superstar, I'd expect to get a nonanswer at best, a sneer at worst if I'd asked it.

Brady answered at length, as if he'd wished all his career somebody would've brought up the subject. Summarizing so as not to misquote, Brady said the challenges of mastering football's complexity and its collaborative nature were why he preferred it to other sports and what made the game so great. It was an honest look into the emotional side not of football, but of quarterbacks. His was a viewpoint specific to the unique position he plays. Ask a linebacker or right tackle the same question, and honest answers would be quite different.

Yesterday, Brady was again asked a question few if any reporters not at their first Super Bowl would have. Describe Bill Belichick and your relationship to him.

In the moldy notebooks in my attic there are paragraphs of fluent cliches from Brady on the subject of his coach. This time, Brady let that mask drop for a few moments. He spoke approvingly of Belichick as a disciplinarian, and how the coach wasn't afraid to yell at or use his cold sarcasm
on his invaluable star should Brady put a foot wrong in practice or a game.

"That's good," Brady said, "because it lets the team fell I'm just one of the guys, and I think it helps the team if they feel that way, especially for someone in their 17th season."

By "the team," Brady meant "me." Comedians want to play Hamlet. Firemen wish they could be cops and vice versa. And the all-time great athletes of every team sport want to be just another teammate, an equal, no more, no less, in a communal fellowship. That wish led Michael Jordan, about the most success-driven person ever, to spend a season failing at Double-A baseball in perfect contentment.

Didn't last, of course. Jordan soon went back to being the prickly, demanding superstar of his true sport. Nobody fights destiny for long.

Same for Brady. His teammates may love and revere him, in fact they'd better if they have a brain in their heads, but he's not one of the guys and never can be. For one thing, he's almost twice the age of some of them. For another, he's a quarterback. They're part of management, willingly or not. Most of all, he's free from the insecurity that's so much a part of their existence. Football players are not dopes. They know that when Belichick yells at Brady, the coach doesn't REALLY mean it. It's a show for their benefit.

What has caused Brady to let down his well-perfected guard, even just this little bit? Beats me. Maybe it's compensation for not talking Trump (doubtful). Maybe dealing with a family crisis has given him a new more philosophical outlook (could be). Or maybe Brady's just feeling secure and relaxed enough about his personal future he doesn't feel he needs that guard.

If I were an Atlanta Falcon, that last possibility would bother me.