Spending Freely Can Maintain, but It Rarely Builds, Success

July 9, 2008

Off topic, but it was the Bleacher Report “open mic” topic of the week and it sounded interesting. Sue me. Sub in “boosters” for owners and T. Boone Pickens and Phil Knight for some of the names, and it still works for college football.

One of the things that makes Major League Baseball unique from the other four major North American sports leagues is its lack of a salary cap. It is the only sport left without one after the NHL adopted a cap in the aftermath of its lockout.

Because of that lack of a salary cap, it is frequently singled out as the league with the biggest problem of free-spending owners. The sentiment has been repeated many times: the big market teams keep the small market teams from competing. We hear that more and more despite some small market teams like Minnesota, Arizona, Florida, and Oakland making impacts in the pennant races over the last decade.

While baseball has the biggest image problem in relation to lavish owners, the other major sports are not immune. Mark Cuban and James Dolan are two owners who are not shy about stretching the NBA’s soft cap as far as it will go. Some NFL owners are perfectly willing to break the bank for $100 million free agents and $60 million first round draft picks.

However, handing out lots of money does not guarantee success. Only the New York Yankees have been able to maintain a high level by simply throwing money at big names. The Mets and Tigers both have payrolls in the neighborhood of $137 million in 2008, yet both are mired around a .500 record and are well behind the Tampa Bay Rays and their $44 million payroll.

The large sums of money certainly are impressive, and they no doubt intimidate some of the more fiscally conscious teams. That intimidation factor works into the hands of the owners of largess, who can change the landscape in the free agent and trade markets just by appearing interested in players. It is a strategy employed routinely by big companies as they can sometimes freeze competition out of a market by simply saying they are interested in it.

The 1997 Florida Marlins, who basically bought their championship, are the rare exception. If you look at the repeat champions of each of the major sports in recent years, from Michael Jordan’s Bulls to this decade’s Patriots, you’ll find that most of the key players were either drafted by or primarily developed by those teams.

Great parallels in this respect can be drawn between sports teams and the titans of America’s technology sector.

The New York Yankees and Microsoft have been the big bad bullies for a while. Both really took off in the mid 1990s – the Yankees with their 1996 championship and Microsoft with Windows ’95 – with players and products that were developed in-house.

This decade however, the Yankees have been unable to win another title and Microsoft’s stock has been basically flat. They each have been making large purchases, but those buys have yet to make much of a difference. Only recently has either shown interest in winning by using the method that got them on top in the first place.

Microsoft’s traditional foil, Apple, is more like this decade’s Oakland Athletics. They both place a premium on talented leadership and management, with Apple assembling an all-star senior management team and the A’s using guys like Bill James and Billy Beane.

Once they got their teams of visionaries in place, they focused almost entirely on in-house development. However, they each have a reputation for not getting over the hump that they can’t seem to shake. For Oakland, that challenge is winning a playoff series; for Apple, that challenge is greatly expanding its market share in computers.

What about Google, you say? That company is like the Atlanta Braves of the 1990s. Google has had a lot of interesting products come out and has made some splashy purchases like buying YouTube. Atlanta had a lot of position player cogs come and go too. However, each had and has only one real moneymaker that sustains the rest: for Atlanta, it was the Maddux/Smoltz/Glavine rotation and for Google it is its search advertising business.

What does this all mean? Big spending alone can keep a team or a company elite top once it becomes elite, but it seldom is the route to the top. Just ask Dolan or Daniel Snyder of the Washington Redskins about how well that works.

In the end, the depth of brainpower running an organization is far more important than the depth of the pockets financing it.


NBA Draft Live Blog

June 26, 2008

A bunch of young guys are wearing new suits in Madison Square Garden, old men are talking about a choice between two young men, and ESPN has popped Dick Vitale out of his offseason recharging machine… it must be time for the NBA Draft.

As often happens, the most interesting part of the evening will probably be the trades that blow up everyone’s mock drafts. After all, the players being drafted all carry loads of risk since they’ve never played on the highest level before. When known quantities like Richard Jefferson and Jermaine O’Neal are getting moved around, it just feels bigger.

Anyway, the festivities are about to begin, so let’s do this.

7:27 – All is quiet in the Magic’s draft room, and appropriately so. It will probably be some time before they need to get moving. They aren’t looking to make any deals other than perhaps buying a second round pick. Everyone’s just watching TV or working on a computer, and Otis Smith looks bored.

7:31 – The New Yorkers still love David Stern. I wonder if he feels good about being in a theater sponsored by a failing bank.

7:32 – Classic. Chicago decided at the latest over an hour ago who it will take, but will take all 5 minutes to make their pick. Why do teams do this with the first overall pick in drafts? Does ESPN force them to do it to give more time to talk about the pick?

7:37 – New Bulls coach Vinnie Del Negro has a hall of fame name, and it’s nice to hear it thrown around again.

7:38 – Derrick Rose goes first, as we all knew. Again, did it take all five minutes to write his name on the card? Anyway, it’s the right pick so kudos to the Bulls for making the right choice.

7:41 – Rose didn’t faint like he said he might, but now he’s getting a full blast of Stephen A. Smith’s voice in an interview. He still doesn’t faint. Honestly, the latter might be more impressive.

7:43 – The Miami Heat’s tank job officially lands them Michael Beasley. I’m still not sure what to think of the guy. I know he puts up great numbers, but he stuck with Kansas State after Bob Huggins left despite not being from the state. While it’s honorable that he kept to that commitment, it still doesn’t make sense on any level.

7:46 – Beasley needs to develop a media voice. All the stars figure out a way to enunciate better in front of microphones; even Shaq speaks more clearly when he wants to. If Beasley wants to maximize his money making potential, mumbling won’t get him there.

7:48 – The T-Wolves select O.J. Mayo, and he ends up looking like a robot. He doesn’t smile until he gets to the stage. This guy is acting like he always was meant to be here and maybe he was, but O.J. should at least look a little surprised/relieved.

7:51 – Mayo already has developed his media voice. Beasley should be taking some notes.

7:53 – Pat Riley puts on his best happy face and tries to talk himself into Beasley on camera. He just doesn’t sound sold on him, almost like he was obligated to take Beasley second.

7:54 – The thing about the first pick taking the whole time? Definitely media-driven. The Sonics have been off the clock for a while, and it’s still interview time on ESPN.

7:55 – The first surprise of the draft: Seattle takes Russell Westbrook fourth overall. I can’t remember a single mock draft with him here. By the way – I don’t trust anyone who wears single zero on his jersey. I can’t explain it, but it makes me wonder.

7:57 – No reaction to the surprise in the Magic’s draft room. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if the video feed has frozen or not. Meanwhile, Westbrook’s interview gets preempted for a single question for Kevin Durant. We find out later that the rush job is to get in a commercial. I know it’s hard to cut away when there’s only 5 minutes between picks, but more player interviews and less from the talking heads would be nice.

8:00 – Again, the clock has run out but we’re watching people talk. It can’t possibly take that long for Stern to walk up and down the backstage walkway.

8:01 – Memphis goes with Kevin Love. Maybe he’s worth it this high, maybe he’s not, but you know you’re not getting a head case. You also know you’re getting a guy who knows more about basketball than perhaps your GM does. In Memphis’s case, this is almost certainly true.

8:04 – Stu Scott asks if Love can handle an interview. He repeats the canned answers and buzzwords he’s been saying all week. Way to stay on message, Kevin.

8:05 – This has got to be the first time ever that two drafts in a row have a guy named “Kevin” taken in the top 5.

8:07 – In their first draft without Isaiah in a while, the Knicks take the son of Mike D’Antoni’s former teammate. Given that D’Antoni basically runs an Italian league scheme, it makes sense to take Danilo Gallinari. The New York fans boo him mercilessly, natch.

8:08 – ESPN just now tells us that he won’t be a star, they’ll have to wait for him to develop, and that his nickname is “The Rooster.” Yeah, this is going to go over really, really well.

8:10 – Gallinari gives a nice effort at answering Smith’s questions despite his shaky English. If I didn’t know the language that well, I doubt I’d understand a word Smith says, so good job Danilo.

8:12 – The Magic are tied for fourth on the list of most times in the lottery at 12. Wonderful.

8:13 – The Clippers end Eric Gordon’s productive career by taking him in the draft. It was nice knowing you, Eric.

8:14 – Otis Smith actually looks like he’s working now. Either the video feed is on a half hour delay, or Smith is an Indiana fan. I don’t know; I know the Magic aren’t picking for a while, but I’d think a GM would look busier on draft night.

8:18 – The Bucks take Joe Alexander in their first pick of the Scott Skiles/Richard Jefferson era. When you add Alexander to Jefferson and Michael Redd, it appears the Bucks are planning on winning with offense despite Skiles’ coaching reputation.

8:20 – Despite trading away Yi Jianlian, Milwaukee keeps a Mandarin speaker on the roster. He’s got a big voice. Not exceptionally low or powerful, just big.

8:22 – The hometown team of my new city is up next. On the one hand, you have Larry Brown’s great basketball mind. On the other, you have Michael Jordan’s horrid drafting record. Which will win? Let’s find out.

8:25 – Charlotte takes D.J. Augustin despite Brook Lopez still being there. Jay Bilas was right when he said that Lopez would have made a lot of sense. Either Raymond Felton is not be as good as we thought, or they just picked a backup at #10.

8:28 – There’s been a lot of activity in the Magic’s draft room after that selection. They don’t have the pieces to move up for Brook Lopez yet. However, if he slides a few more slots I know they’d have to be at least making some calls.

8:30 – The Nets take Lopez, and that ends that. However, it still shows that big men aren’t at as much of a premium this year. That increases the chances of a quality big guy still being there at #22.

8:34 – Four mentions of his name, and four different pronunciations of Yi’s name by Stu Scott. Anything less would be a disappointment.

8:35 – Jerryd Bayless goes to Indiana, and by some measures that’s a bit of a steal. Between him and T.J. Ford, I guess the reign of terror inflicted on Pacer fans by Jamaal Tinsley may come to an end soon.

8:36 – Not only does he wear single zero, but he shares a last name with Skip Bayless. Be afraid Indiana, be afraid.

8:39 – It took until now for one of the “You’re watching the draft on ESPN” segments to be successful one rather than a blooper. I know the mess-ups are funny, but really? An hour and a half into the coverage to get a real one?

8:41 – The Kings take Jason Thompson from Rider. He’s a power forward, and I know someone the Magic were looking at. Is this a sign that Spencer Hawes was a mistake?

8:44 – Not too much reaction from the Magic’s draft room, though everyone appears to be working on something now.

8:46 – Bob Vander Weide just stood up and awkwardly tried to dribble a basketball. He’s getting restless.

8:47 – The Blazers make another savvy pick by taking Brandon Rush. They have a really nice young nucleus up there, but they have to figure out a way to maximize the talent. The Bulls were where the Blazers are two years ago, and they bottomed out this past season.

8:50 – I kind of feel bad for the Warriors, having won so many games and yet they missed the playoffs. They have a lot of question marks this offseason with free agency.

8:51 – Golden State takes the bait and selects Anthony Randolph. He has physical skills that got him by in college, but he is nowhere near ready for the NBA. I guess the team is going to try to resign most everyone and compete that way.

8:53 – ESPN keeps talking about how high the number of freshmen being taken is, but never once mentions the age limit as the reason why it’s happening. It’s obvious yes, but at least let us know you know it.

8:54 – Our first Dick Vitale appearance of the night, and he’s pumping up Kevin Love for Seattle over Westbrook. He’s now comparing Gallinari to Darko, meaning his college bias is also in full effect. It’s strangely comforting how some things never change.

8:57 – The Suns take Robin Lopez at 15, and he’s got a nice Oscar Gamble effect going on with the hat that won’t stay on his head. This seems slightly high for him, but Steve Kerr has shown an affinity for big guys so far. If D’Antoni is still in town, there’s no way they pass up Kosta Koufos with this pick.

8:59 – The attitude in the Magic’s draft room seems a little deflated. Aside from Vander Weide laughing at a joke, everyone appears disappointed. I think they may have wanted Robin.

9:01 – Of the eight players that Otis Smith listed as his favorites, two are now gone in Thompson and Robin Lopez. There are six picks before the Magic’s selection, so there’s a great chance at this point they’ll get a guy they want.

9:03 – The Sixers pick up Marreese Speights, I suppose to get an offensive talent to go next to Sam Dalembert. I wish him all the best after two years in Gainesville, but I think this may be too high to motivate him properly. He needs something to spark him to dominate, but nothing has done that yet.

9:06 – Otis Smith and who I believe is Dave Twardzik have left the room. It’s not to make a call since there are phones on the table, so I guess it’s to make a snack run or something.

9:08 – The Raptors select Roy Hibbert for Indiana with the 17th pick. Hibbert was someone that Smith wasn’t high on, so we are now guaranteed to see someone from Otis Smith’s A-list available at #22.

9:10 – For reference, the remaining guys are Courtney Lee, JaVale McGee, Darrell Arthur, J.J. Hickson, and Kosta Koufos. Arthur is the only one left in the green room. I don’t really want Hickson since I don’t like taking the only good guy on a bad team.

9:13 – Washington takes McGee off that list, which is fine for me since I don’t like the idea of taking a thin big man from a mid-major. Plus, “JaVale McGee” just doesn’t sound like a name that could ever end up on an all star roster.

9:15 – The Pacers and Blazers are clearly not done dealing, announcing a trade of Jarrett Jack and the rights to Rush for Ike Diogu and the rights for Bayless. I guess Jack just got too old for the Baby Blazers. After all, he turns 25 in four months.

9:18 – Poor Darrell Arthur is still in the green room, but in my humble opinion, he probably shouldn’t have been there anyway.

9:19 – For the first time tonight, Otis Smith picks up the phone. There’s three picks between now and Magic’s selection, so I guess it’s about that time to make some calls. Then again, he put it back down without calling anyone.

9:20 – The Cavs pick up Hickson, destined to become the latest in a long line of role players around LeBron James. He’s got moves but is undersized and doesn’t have a great work ethic. Congrats, Cleveland – you just picked up Drew Gooden again. That is, if Hickson ever gets that good.

9:22 – The Bobcats are up again, which means anything could happen. This pick just feels like Koufos to me, since they seem to have a thing for putting soft big guys around Emeka Okafor.

9:25 – Things are getting antsy in the Magic’s draft room. Twardzik his pacing the room, Smith is talking to everyone, and Vander Weide is typing something on his phone with the basketball still in his lap. Smith finally is making his first phone call.

9:27 – And right on cue, the Bobcats put a soft big man next to Okafor, but it’s Alexis Ajinca. He’s a French center who needs to put a lot of weight on, says Fran Fraschilla. He hasn’t been a productive player in the French pro league yet, and thanks to the value of the Euro versus the dollar, Fran says he may stay in Europe.

9:29 – With Charlotte going with the high risk foreigner way higher than anyone else would have taken him, the Magic will actually have a choice among their favorites. Arthur, Koufos, and Lee are still there. The activity is really ramping up in the Magic’s draft room.

9:31 – It will be interesting to see who the Nets take, since they likely aren’t taking another big man. The Magic have a good chance of getting a green room player at #22, which is startling.

9:33 – With the last pick before the Magic, the Nets take 6’10” gunner Ryan Anderson. He’s big, so I was wrong, but he’s more of a shooter than a post player. That means they get to pick between three of their eight guys. They can’t have been expecting that.

9:35 – Otis is calling someone on the phone in the front of the room instead of the one by his seat. He just pumped his fist, so I think the pick may be in. By having three of their eight guys available, and both a guard and forwards, we get an insight into what the team is really looking for instead of having the decision made for them. I like that as a fan.

9:36 – We get a fist pound between Smith and Twardzik, so they obviously got a guy they really want.

9:38 – The pick is in, and it’s Courtney Lee from Western Kentucky. Clearly they are not as concerned about the front line as I am. He does a lot of things well and is very tough, so that fits right in with what Stan van Gundy is looking for.

9:40 – The draft room just applauded, so the web cam is on a two minute delay. Not bad, all things considered.

9:41 – This will be the last entry, since the Magic have now made their selection. I like it – Lee can play right away, and that’s what you want when you’re planning on contending sooner than later. If they can get Adonal Foyle to resign or someone similar in free agency, they’ll probably be fine up front with Tony Battie coming back. Well done, guys.

Orlando Magic Draft Preview

June 26, 2008

The drafting history of the Orlando Magic has been decidedly a mixed bag.

The best drafting years in the team’s history came under Pat Williams’ tenure as GM. He nailed four of the team’s first five drafts, picking up Nick Anderson in ’89, Dennis Scott in ’90, Shaq in ’92, and trading Chris Webber for Penny Hardaway in ’93. Those four players all started on the Magic’s 1995 NBA Finals squad. That is how you draft your way to a championship contender.

In the remaining years, only 2000 pick Mike Miller (Rookie of the Year) and 2004 pick Dwight Howard have received league honors while in a Magic uniform. Many of the team’s choices have carved out their niches in the league and some have been quite productive: 1998 picks Michael Doleac and Matt Harpring, 1999 pick Corey Maggette, 2000 picks Mike Miller and Keyon Dooling, 2003 pick Zaza Pachulia, and 2004 pick Anderson Varejao. The team also picked up Marcin Gortat in 2005, and he showed some flashes at the end of last season that indicate he might end up playing in the league.

There is pressure on current GM Otis Smith to get this draft right. His first draft was 2005, and that was the infamous Fran Vasquez draft. The team hopes he will come over to America someday and contribute, but that’s the modus operandi for late second round picks, not the #11 overall pick. In 2006, they took J.J. Redick, who has since been buried on the bench for the defensive issues that were known before the draft, and the team basically sat 2007 out.

With the Magic just a player or two away from serious contention but without cap room, getting this pick right could make the difference in a championship run. Here is a look at what Orlando needs and doesn’t need.



This one should be obvious. Dwight Howard will start for the Magic at center for as long as they can keep him under contract. Adonal Foyle leaving hurts depth, but Tony Battie can play both the 4 and the 5 and Stan van Gundy showed faith in Gortat by playing him in the playoffs.

Small Forward

Anyone who sees the Magic drafting a small forward in the first round must not have watched the team. They have not just one, but two all-star caliber swingmen in Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis. Lewis played out of position all year at power forward, but he is really a tall 3. There is too much money tied up in this position already to draft another in the first round.


Point Guard

Jameer Nelson assuaged some of his doubters with some pretty good play in the playoffs. Keyon Dooling wants to come back and the team wants him back for his defense and versatility. Carlos Arroyo is likely gone.

The organization definitely feels Nelson is the long-term answer here, so unless they can nab a big point guard with some defense, they are passing on the point this year.


Power Forward

Battie returning helps here, but the Magic still need another credible big man to have Howard’s back. The Magic resembled a college team last season, more or less surrounding one excellent post player with a battalion of long range shooters.

Taking someone who played center in college will work here, just as long as he is willing to bang. Scoring won’t be a huge concern given Howard’s developing post game and the array of aforementioned shooters. Unfortunately, most of the quality guys with size will be gone by the Magic’s pick, though it’s possible that one out of the set of Marreese Speights, Roy Hibbert, and Robin Lopez will still be around.

Shooting Guard

The consensus seems to be that this is the position the Magic will be taking at #22. Maurice Evans had a nice end to the season, but it just screams “contract year” given the rest of his career. Keith Bogans will likely not opt out of his contract, but his upside is limited at this point. The front office is still set on not trading J.J. Redick, so he’s still around if he can ever get out of Stan van Gundy’s doghouse.

The names Courtney Lee and Chris Douglas-Roberts have been thrown around a lot, with Lee the seeming frontrunner. Lee is a pure shooter, but CD-R can score from the post. Either one could contribute right away in 2008.

Second Round?

At the moment, Orlando does not have a second round pick. Otis Smith has expressed interest in obtaining a high second round pick, but he has not said what it would be for. If he trades for it early, it could be to try to package it and move up to secure a big man. If that’s not the plan, it’s unclear at this point who his target might be.

The Magic already have two bigs marinating in Europe, between Vasquez and 2007 draft-day acquisition Milovan Raković, so I think it’s unlikely that they’d trade for the opportunity of stashing another project pick abroad. If the Magic go big at #22, their options for a second round acquisition likely include SG Bill Walker, SG Jamont Gordon, and ace defender Luc Richard Mbah a Mouté.

Chicago Bulls Hit the Jackpot

May 21, 2008

A bizarre season for the Chicago Bulls that was filled with more losing than anyone expected has been capped off by an improbable win.

Despite a 1.7% chance of gaining the first overall pick, the Bulls hit the jackpot and won the draft lottery. Chicago’s season began with talks about a potential Kobe Bryant trade involving a number of its young players, and most observers cite that as the cause of the Bulls’ unexpected slide.

It would be in Chicago’s best interest to choose a coach before the draft because of the fork in the road the team now faces: Michael Beasley or Derrick Rose? What style of play the coach wants to have will make that choice a lot clearer. A half court-oriented guy would probably favor Beasley; a more uptempo guy would probably favor Rose.

Beasley is a great talent, but he plays a position the Bulls are stocked at. They have Drew Gooden, who is inconsistent but talented, and Tyrus Thomas, who still at just 21 years of age could develop into a great player. They also have Joakim Noah, who despite being listed at center is really a power forward who can run. If they draft Beasley, you have to figure Gooden or Thomas will be moved.

Rose would make an easier transition into the team. Chicago signed Kirk Hinrich to an extension that paid him over $11 million last year, but his scoring and shooting dropped off. Chris Duhon is an unrestricted free agent this summer, so they could just let him go if they draft Rose. Hinrich would be awfully expensive as a backup if Rose beats him out, but thanks to Rose making rookie money it could work financially in the short term.

With the attention that Chris Paul and Deron Williams have been generating, along with the recent MVPs for Steve Nash, I have a hard time seeing the Bulls going with Beasley right now. Top-notch point guards are nearly as rare as dominant centers are, and the evolution in the NBA’s style of play combined with recent rule changes favor great point guards.

Beasley or Rose? Rose or Beasley? Whatever the outcome, you can be sure it’s a choice that Chicago is glad it has to make.

The Magic’s Closeout Of The Raptors Is More Than a Just Series Win

April 30, 2008

With a 102-92 win, the Orlando Magic closed out the Toronto Raptors to win their first playoff series since 1996.

On the face of it, that’s only a somewhat remarkable statement. Most franchises have gone that long without winning a playoff series. It’s also not the case that the Magic have been terrible all those years; they made the playoffs six times in those 12 seasons. They even finished a just one game out of the playoffs in the Heart and Hustle caimpaign of 1999-00, which has to be the best rebuilding year ever.

It means an awful lot to the team and the city though. There are still hard feelings about the way Shaq left, and it didn’t seem fair to watch him collect ring after ring. The city and community also made a huge investment in the team this year by agreeing to build a new arena, despite Orlando being one of the hardest hit areas in the country by the real estate bust.

Everyone needed this. The Magic organization needed it to confirm its new direction and the investment in the new arena. Orlando needed it to give the community a rallying point in the midst of tough days. Dwight Howard needed this to solidify his standing among the new crop of stars in the league, as true validation comes in the postseason.

It no doubt felt good for Stan van Gundy, who was robbed of the chance of winning a title when Pat Riley forced him out of Miami. It’s only sweeter that the win happened on the same day that Riley once again resigning from coaching duties. Stan is a good man and an excellent coach, and he deserves this.

It is also fitting that the win came on the same day that Hedo Turkoglu was named the NBA’s most improved player. The story of his career so far has been one of unfulfilled promise, destined never to be bigger than the routine salary cap exception pickup that he was for Orlando. Something finally clicked this year, and he nearly capped it off with a triple double in the series clinching game.

The player that has benefited the most is perhaps Jameer Nelson. After the NBA changed its hand check rules a few years back, the league became more and more point guard-driven. There have been concerns that Nelson is not the long term answer for the Magic, and rightfully so with his tendency for over-dribbling and turning it over a few too many times.

Nelson had a superb series however, averaging just over 17 points and shooting over 50% from the field and from three. He keyed fourth quarter runs in multiple games, and the one game he was hampered by back spasms was the game that the Magic lost. Dwight Howard is undoubtedly the straw that stirs the Magic’s drink, but Nelson showed something this series. The Magic wouldn’t be close to the playoffs without Howard, but they would not have won the series without Nelson.

Speaking of Howard, what more can he do? He became the only the third player ever to average 22 points, 18 rebounds, and 3 blocks in a playoff series. The other two guys? Moses and Kareem.

Of course, blocks only became an official stat in the 1972-73 season, but surely one day he will be known as just “Dwight,” since all the greats go by just their first name. He will need to keep it up, though, as Toronto has the least physical frontcourt of any of the playoff teams. Howard has plenty of years left to make his name and build his legacy, but continued success this year will show that he’s ahead of schedule.

The Magic have now won the series that received the least attention of them all this postseason. More of the games were locked away on NBA TV than were not, and the prevailing wisdom was that the winner got the right to lose to Detroit in the second round. But with the way the Pistons have been playing as of late, is it really that unreasonable to think that Orlando couldn’t beat them too? As old as the Pistons are, a win by the Magic could signal a passing of the torch in the Eastern Conference.

Sure, the Magic aren’t a perfect team. They need a real power forward, and for that matter, a backup power forward while they’re at it. They still play a lot like a college team, with one good rebounder surrounded by three-point bombers. Overpaying Rashard Lewis handicaps them in free agency.

None of that matters at the moment. That’s offseason stuff.

Right now, the Magic are playoff winners, and it feels wonderful to be able to say that again.

Magic: Back in the Playoffs

April 19, 2008

This falls in the “and More” category. See banner graphic.

It is with a twinge of regret that I write this, as I grew up in Orlando and have loved the Magic for many years. I am now in Charlotte, a city where pro basketball died many years ago. I am excited about the start NBA playoffs, but the only sports interest around here is what the Panthers will do in the NFL draft.

Everyone knows, this is the first 50 win season for the Magic since the Shaq and Penny days. So much has happened since then – Chuck Daly came and went, Heart and Hustle, the McGrady and Hill signings, Howard and Nelson in the same draft, the idiotic Steve Francis experiment, Brian Hill’s return, the Billy Donovan fiasco, and finally, Stan van Gundy taking over as coach. Of late, there have been some disappointments, like anything from the draft post-2004, and some pleasant surprises, like Hedo Turkoglu going from a mid-level exception signing to a go-to guy or trading for Brian Cook and ending up with a starting 2-guard in Maurice Evans at the same time.

Now they’re in the playoffs as the third seed in the East. It’s a young team, and the universal expectation is that they’ll win one series at most. Honestly, winning a series would be great considering they haven’t won a first round series since before the Gators had won their first football national championship. They’ll almost certainly get the Pistons in round two, and though the Magic split the season series 2-2 with them, Detroit still won 59 games and is deadly in the playoffs. An upset there wouldn’t be a complete shock to me, but it still would be unexpected.

Even though I was 9 at the time, I can still remember the excitement about the Magic in the 1995 playoffs. The city was abuzz. Cars everywhere had “I believe in Magic” bumper stickers on them. Horace Grant goggles started showing up everywhere around town. The team actually could run retail stores, called Orlando Magic FanAttics, and they’d actually make lots of money. The sense of community and camaraderie in Orlando has never been higher. It was fitting since the team had only known joy after the expansion growing pains.

The Magic, just like the fans, are a little older and a little wiser. We’ve experienced the pain all other NBA franchises have had to. We’ve seen the team almost leave or be sold a couple times. Now it’s time to embark on another playoff journey together. Dwight, Jameer, Turk, Rashard, and Maurice will take the floor tomorrow against Toronto and the dream will be alive again. I only wish I could be there to see it.

The National Championship Game, Part II

December 28, 2007

In the first post titled “The National Championship Game,” the most interesting stat (to me, anyway) I uncovered was that since 1992, only 12 unique teams have participated in the college football national championship game. Now, part of that is because from 1992-97, no Big Ten or Pac 10 teams participated in the Bowl Coalition or Bowl Alliance. If you go by who finished #1 or #2 in the AP Poll for 1992-97, that number increases to 15.

It still made me wonder whether this was on par with other sports. After all, a common complaint is that baseball lacks of competitive balance with major market teams outspending the smaller market teams. Plus, since 1988 only 6 different franchises have won NBA championships. I want to see how much variety some other sports get at the end of the season compared to college football. So, I looked at the participants in the finals of the MLB, NFL, NBA, and NHL, plus the championship game of the NCAA D-I tournament. In addition, I threw in I-AA football since it is somewhat similar to I-A. Any division lower than that is beyond my realm of familiarity.

How does the polls-and-bowls system stack up against other sports in variety of finalists?

I-A College Football

15 Unique Teams: Alabama, Miami, FSU, Nebraska, Penn State (AP #2 in 1994), Florida, Arizona State (AP #2 in 1996), Michigan (AP #2 in 1997), Tennessee, VT, Oklahoma, Ohio State, LSU, USC, Texas

Percentage: 15/32 = 46.88%

This is our baseline. Only 46.88% of the top 2 at the end of the season have been unique teams. College football is known for having marquee teams dominating, but as mentioned above other sports have the same perceptions. If we assume that college football’s top teams come and go at the same rate as other sports’ do, we can now determine whether the variety is lower or higher than other sports’ varieties.

NBA Finals

17 Unique Teams: Chicago, Portland, Phoenix, Houston, New York, Orlando, Seattle, Utah, San Antonio, LA Lakers, Indiana, Philadelphia, New Jersey, Detroit, Miami, Dallas, Cleveland.
Percentage: 17/32 = 53.13%

Jordan/Pippen. Olajuwon. Stockton/Malone. Duncan. Shaq/Kobe. Kidd. Of all the multiple appearances of teams in the finals, only Detroit didn’t have at least one superstar or superstar combo leading the way. With basketball, that’s almost all you need since only 5 guys from a team participate at a time. Sometimes, all you need is one transcendent star and a grab bag of guys who don’t care about their own shot to get to a Finals – think Iverson and 2001 Philly or LeBron James and 2007 Cleveland – though you’re not likely to win the title once you get there.

Div. I College Basketball

18 Unique Teams: Duke, Michigan (vacated), UNC, Arkansas, UCLA, Kentucky, Syracuse, Arizona, Utah, UConn, Michigan State, Florida, Maryland, Indiana, Kansas, Georgia Tech, Illinois, Ohio State

Percentage: 18/32 = 56.25%

Despite college basketball’s tournament being known for upsets and chaos, when it comes to the final game the cream rises to the top. Some of the lack of variety can be attributed to the fact mentioned above that with basketball, you can ride 2 or 3 outstanding players to the finals or a championship. After all, Michigan, Duke, Arkansas, Kentucky, and Florida all had teams in back-to-back championship games or at least two in three years.

Major League Baseball

17 Unique Teams: Toronto, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Cleveland, NY Yankees, Florida, San Diego, NY Mets, Arizona, Anaheim, San Francisco, Boston, St. Louis, Chicago White Sox, Houston, Detroit, Colorado

Percentage: 17/30 = 56.67%

Remember, there was no 1994 World Series due to the strike, so there’s only 30 possible teams since 1992.

Baseball has seen some remarkably consistent winners in the Atlanta Braves and New York Yankees. Some teams bought their championships and were really good for only one year (’97 Marlins, ’01 Diamondbacks), some got hot at the right time (’98 San Diego, ’07 Colorado), and others just made timely pitching acquisitions (’05 White Sox and Astros). In the end, only the Yankees’ hegemony over the AL and Braves’ hegemony over the NL (6 and 4 Series appearances, respectively) kept the number so low; besides them, no team has appeared more than twice in the World Series, with only Toronto doing it in back-to-back years.

National Football League

21 Unique Teams: Washington, Buffalo, Dallas, San Francisco, San Diego, Pittsburgh, Green Bay, New England, Denver, Atlanta, St. Louis, Tennessee, Baltimore, NY Giants, Tampa Bay, Oakland, Carolina, Philadelphia, Seattle, Indianapolis, Chicago

Percentage: 21/32 = 65.63%

The NFL is supposed to be built for parity, and you can see that reflected in the larger number of unique Super Bowl participants. This time period does include 4 visits by the Patriots and 3 each by the Cowboys and Bills, but only Favre’s Packers, Elway’s Broncos, Warner’s Rams, and Cowher’s Steelers made multiple visits. The league got what it wanted for the most part, though the current Colts and Patriots seem to be increasingly resistant to the parity virus.

National Hockey League

20 Unique Teams: Pittsburgh, Chicago, Montreal, Los Angeles, NY Rangers, Vancouver, New Jersey, Detroit, Colorado, Florida, Philadelphia, Washington, Dallas, Buffalo, Carolina, Anaheim, Tampa Bay, Calgary, Edmonton, Ottowa

Percentage: 20/30 = 66.67%

Remember, there was no 2005 Stanley Cup playoffs due to the lockout.

I must confess I’m not really a hockey fan; I attempted to get into it when the Lightning went to the finals a couple years ago, but I just couldn’t watch an entire game on TV. I think part of the problem was the neutral zone trap, a defense of which I have a tenuous grasp; basically it sucks the like out of the sport. It was one of the things fixed as an aftermath of the lockout, along with the institution of a salary cap. It’s too early to say what effect the salary cap will have on competitive balance, but no sport in the past 16 post seasons has produced more finalists than the NHL has. It’s mainly due to parity in the early ’90s; since 2000, only 6 of the 14 finalists have been newcomers, whereas 1992-99, 14 of the 16 finalists were newcomers (Detroit being the only returner).

Div. I-AA Football

13 Unique Teams: Marshall, Youngstown State, Boise State, Montana, McNeese State, UMass, Georgia Southern, Furman, Western Kentucky, Delaware, Colgate, James Madison, Northern Iowa

Percentage: 13/32 = 40.63%

Here, we see that I-AA football actually produced fewer finalists than I-A did. Looking at the results, I can tell you that it’s because of coaches  cultivating dynasties: Jim Donnan at Marshall, Jim Tressel at Youngstown State, Paul Johnson at Georgia Southern, and recently Jerry Moore at Appalachian State.

Why so few finalists in college football?

As stated above, the I-AA championship game can be dominated for years at a time by excellent coaches that are too good to stay at the I-AA level for long (such as Donnan, Tressel, and Johnson). Opponents of a playoff might try to point out the fact that from year to year, the best teams change more slowly in college football than other sports, so picking a top two should be easier than in the NFL for instance, where recent Super Bowl losers have been prone to falling off the map.

Consider this though. The I-AA football playoffs since 1992 have all consisted of 16 teams apiece, and while the number of teams seeded has changed, the top four seeds every year are enumerated. The teams are determined by a playoff committee, similar to the basketball tournament. Only 5 times in the past 16 years have two teams from the top four played each other, and only once (1996) have the top two seeds played each other. That fact shouldn’t come as a surprise when you remember that never have all four #1 seeds made the Final Four of the men’s basketball tournament.

The Coaches’ Poll, Harris Poll, and computer poll average of the BCS make up the de facto I-A football playoff committee, whose job is simply to pick out #1 and #2. Records and stats alone aren’t enough, because teams from different conferences play completely different schedules, and comparing conferences is difficult when so few of the elite of any of the conferences play each other.

Even the committees, who are made to be balanced and whose members watch more film than any pollsters do, can’t accurately guess the best four teams most years, much less the best two. Can the choice of the two teams that play for the championship really be made by people who may or may not watch film of more than 13 teams (the coaches), people who may or may not watch more than a game a weekend (the Harris Poll voters), and those who may or may not have hidden bias incomprehensible to common people (the computers)? Almost certainly not if you’re going for accuracy.