Month: March 2014

The Fighter

Some people are made for certain types of fights.  Fights that don’t make sense.  Fights that can be lost easier than they can be won.  UConn basketball doesn’t make sense.  It has brought three National Championships to a rural campus in the middle of a tiny state with no pre-existing tradition, recruiting base or now major conference affiliation.  It is one year removed from a post-season ban, and two years removed from the retirement of Jim Calhoun, the coach who built this program from nothingness.  UConn basketball could, and perhaps should, regress to an anonymous mediocrity befitting it’s limited resources, but next Saturday night, the Huskies will be playing in the Final Four.

In 1991, a skinny point guard took his talents and a chip on his shoulder from Los Angeles, California to Storrs, Connecticut to play for the newly-minted Big East contender.  He was a fine Huskie for four years, but went undrafted on graduation.  He played two years with the Connecticut Pride of the CBA before making an NBA roster.  He stayed in the league for thirteen years, playing for twelve teams and never averaged more than 27 minutes and 8 points per game.  He was, however, brought to Cleveland to mentor Lebron James, named captain of the Minnesota Timberwolves while playing only 17 minutes per game, and played his final season in Oklahoma City where Kevin Durant credited him with “showing him the ropes.”  On Saturday night, Kevin Ollie will coach the Huskies.

Kevin Ollie is made for this fight.  

State Cup Round One: Choked Out!

At about 11pm Friday night, Bryson and I arrived in Naples for the first round of State Cup.  Orlando City faced the Wellington Wave at 8:30 the next morning and Tampa Bay United at 2:30.  The final group game against Pinecrest was scheduled for 8:00 on Sunday morning.  None of the four teams were incompetent, and it could be rightly call “The Group of Potential Discomfort”.

The formula is simple.  Win the group and advance directly to the Sweet Sixteen.  Take second and go to the challenger round in two weeks for a chance to reach the Sweet Sixteen.  Third and fourth are eliminated.

Since it’s assembly in August, the team has won an overwhelming majority of their games with a stout defense and possession-based style of play.  Despite the lack of a genuine goal scorer, they have produced some entertaining soccer, but to be fair, the competition has been somewhat lacking, as the team suffered by not qualifying for the Disney Showcase and getting washed out of the Jefferson Cup due to bad weather.  In recent weeks, there has been a run of poor results due largely to heretofore uncharacteristic defensive errors.

In game one, Orlando City started well dominating the possession and rarely appearing off balance defensively.   At the 15 minute mark they took the lead when Albert Garcia put away an eye-through-the-needle cross from Darius Brown.  Just as quickly, Orlando City lost hold of the game as it drifted away from tight controlled passing to a dangerous blend of ball-holding kickball.  They reached the half, and things proceeded along this perilous, purposeless path until Bryson drew a late free kick that was converted by Austin Coyle giving the Whites a 2-0 win.

Game two against Tampa Bay United figured to be a tight battle for control of the group.  Orlando City beat them 1-0 in August, and the teams drew in Tampa in September.   The first half was true to form as both teams traded blows through a scoreless half.  Early in the second, Orlando City was caught holding the ball, and conceded a go ahead goal.  Matters deteriorated rapidly after that as a sense of misguided desperation enveloped the team.  Any semblance of a passing game disappeared under a hail of inaccurate long balls, and classless time-wasting from the leaders.  Orlando City fell 0-1 and lost the Group of Realized Discomfort.

Heavy rains and wind swept through Naples late Saturday afternoon necessitating a change in schedule.  The decisive group game against Pinecrest was pushed back to 11:30.  Orlando City needed only a draw to advance on goal difference.  Pinecrest struck first on a well struck volley from a corner kick.  Orlando City was optimistic,  but sloppy up to that point, and critically left the goal scorer unmarked.   Again, Orlando City showed little composure while chasing the game, and failed to pose a serious threat for an equalizer before surrendering a second goal.  There was a futile flurry in front of net near the end, but no return. 

The team featured some talented individual players, but lacked two critical components fundamental to success.   A lack of seasoning against high calibre competition, and the absence of discipline to play to the team’s strengths in all circumstances. Successful teams have an identity, and that identity organically adapts to the circumstances the team finds itself in.  For lack of these qualities,  Orlando City was eliminated.

March Madness Ramblings

I missed the game of the season between Wichita State and Kentucky, but I will offer this analysis anyway. The game pitted a seasoned, battle-tested and undefeated mid major returning to the Big Dance from a final four appearance a year ago, against Blue-blooded Kentucky’s thus far underwhelming crop of aspiring one and done’s. In short, an epic clash of contemporary college basketball ideology. Although Kentucky advanced, the enduring quality of the game was a victory not for either ideology, but for the game of basketball as a whole. That said, I fear Wichita State’s fantastic season will be lost to history, and that is genuinely unfortunate.

It was a joy to see Ohio State and Syracuse fall in the first weekend, but I remain somewhat torn about the fall of Duke. I think much of my disdain for Ohio State stems from football and in particular the injustice of the long ago Miami/Ohio State title-tilt marred by the horrible knee injury to Willis McGahee and the horseshit pass interference call against the Canes. From that moment, Ohio State has been the annoying embodiment of Midwestern virtue wrapped in hypocrisy and the stench of a thousand farts. Syracuse is effective, but brutal to watch. Jim Boeheim is a well-respected coach, but has offered little to the profession of coaching or the related craft of leadership, which brings the mixed emotions of Duke suffering it’s second embarrassing exit in three seasons. Coach K is the man who restored dignity and good results to USA basketball, and who’s West Point-born conceptions of leadership have infiltrated my psyche while he has become a complex, Saintly, dark overlord of basketball. He is greatness at both extremes making his success and failure unsettling.

Kansas and Stanford was a terrible basketball game. Both teams looked inept, and should be eliminated from the tournament.

I love Kevin Ollie and Shabazz Napier. Kevin Ollie is intense, and he fights his guts out to perpetuate the tradition of Connecticut basketball in what a clearly difficult times with the implosion of the Big East. I would love to play for a guy like that. Napier is the tournament’s Hero Baller. He will not be enough to win a title, but he is damn entertaining.

It kills me that UConn has to play Iowa State, and one of these team’s will lose. On the upside, one of them is assured a chance to play a regional final. The Mayor, Fred Hoiberg, is another coach that I absolutely love. He has full connection with his players, his school and the community at large. He is in the process of building something special.

This has to have been the most anonymous season in the history of North Carolina basketball. They were inconsistently mediocre, but the range on that band with never threatened title contention or full meltdown. It was almost fitting the Teardrop Roy meekly capitulated at midcourt after a bizarre clock issue at the end of his game. I am excited to see Joel Berry on that team next year though.

I have spent more time in the past week debating the coaching merits of Jamie Dixon than at any point in my life, and he is now home….again.

Florida, Arizona, and Louisville all looked fairly formidable on the first weekend, while Baylor and Tennessee were surprisingly robust.

My final note is this, please refrain from talking about the amount of upsets during the course of a\the tournament. It happens every year, seldom more so than in any other year, and you come off like a total rube when you overstate the obvious unpredictability of March Madness.

Defining NBA Superstardom

I recently asked a few of my friends to define superstardom in the NBA. Their responses echoed many of my own thoughts regarding elite level play on both ends of the floor delivered consistently over the 82 game season ensuring a playoff spot, and a general sense that a superstar exerts an influence over every game. The exercise was brought about after I watched the White Mamba, Brian Scalabrine, talk to Bill Simmons about Kevin Garnett. Scalabrine described Garnett, and former teammate Jason Kidd, as culture changers. Once they became a part of the organization, everything changed meetings, weight room, communication and, ultimately wins and losses. The commitment and focus level of both players defined the organization and pushed them to title contention. With this standard in mind, I have assessed the current crop of NBA players in terms of superstardom.

SUPERSTARS

Lebron James has become a two-time champion in Miami, and the World’s Greatest Player, but elevating the Cleveland Steamers to a finals appearance and perennial contention branded him a Superstar. Kevin Durant has had a fantastic season, but King James sets the two-way standard for greatness in the league and remains MVP until dethroned.

Kevin Durant is the game’s best scorer, and has displayed an even more complete game this season. Often playing without Westbrook this season, he has driven the Thunder to contention and played with a consistent intensity evidencing his discontent with being the league’s second best player.

At this point, I do not believe there is a clear third best player in the league, but the next ten players (in no particular order) satisfy the requirements for superstardom.

Paul George is a fantastic two-way player that is in the process of a meteoric rise to superstardom. He has the rare physical build to compete with James and Durant, earned his playoff chops last year and has worked hard to improve his offensive game. He is clearly the cultural standard bearer for the title-contending Pacers.

James Harden takes a lot of crap for his oft-times indifferent defense, and it’s deserved as his play on that end of the floor is far from elite, but what cannot be denied is his immediate impact on the Rockets last season. He shaped and defined their style of play, like Nash in Phoenix, brought them to the playoffs and created such a positive vibe around the team that Dwight Howard signed vaulting Houston to another level.

Dwight Howard is in some sense the quintessential superstar from his time in Orlando where he carried a flawed cast of mediocre players to the playoffs every season and the finals once. Despite his farting, immaturity and unpolished offensive game, Dwight Howard’s rebounding, defense and significant gap over all other centers ensures any team his is on will be in the playoffs.

Chris Paul is a culture changer. He is competitive as hell and that pervades any organization that he is a part of. His trade to the Clippers immediately re-branded the organization from tragic, incompetent losers to contenders before the maturation of Blake Griffin.

Blake Griffin has made the leap this year playing at an insane level, particularly in the absence of Chris Paul for a significant stretch of the season. Blake is not an elite defensive force, but has diversified his offensive game, and seems to have built some substantive character and toughness this season.

Russell Westbrook is probably a questionable call for many as he plays uncomfortably in the shadow of Kevin Durant and has had three knee surgeries in the last year, but I love the guy. He combines elite athleticism with genuine toughness that transforms any team that he is on. Consider his willingness to have the three surgeries this year, and not once was there a whisper of him shutting himself down. That resonates through an organization.

Joakim Noah is another player that has made the leap, and probably did so last year in the playoffs. Noah is a complete two-way player, and his competitiveness is at the cultural core of the resilient Bulls, who will not accept mediocrity. Although their temperament and positions differ, I see the positive teammate qualities of Scottie Pippen in Noah.

Steph Curry is another player lacking on the defensive end, and can be fragile at times, but his offensive game is transcendent. He is the cultural standard bearer for the genuine rise to contention of the long-suffering Warriors. Further, like Harden, he is stylistic difference-maker invoking Steve Nash’s time as a superstar.

Tony Parker has almost anonymously become the superstar of the machine-like Spurs. Parker has complete mastery of his craft on both ends of the floor, and has been seasoned by over a decade of deep playoff combat. He has sustained the Spurs through Duncan and Manu’s aging, and the endless sea of change among the supporting cast.

Marc Gasol is another player under the radar, but he provides elite level performance on both ends of the floor while drawing rave reviews as a teammate. Since his maturation as a player, he has kept the Grizzlies in the playoffs.

Dirk Nowitzki is the final true superstar in the NBA at this point, and he barely made it. Dirk is aging and does not offer as much to the game as he did during the earlier part of his career, but he is still an elite offensive player and the very foundation of Mavericks basketball which has enjoyed a resurgence likely to get them to the playoffs this year.

SUPERSTARS IN WINTER

Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, D-Wade and Tim Duncan have all played at the superstar level over the course of long careers in the league. Each has won a title as cultural standard bearer for their team, but due to age and injury no longer consistently perform at a superstar level over the course of a full season.

SUPERSTARS IN TRANSITION

Derrick Rose and Rajon Rondo have both been superstars, but Rose has barely played in two years and Rondo missed a chunk of this season while stuck on a built-to-tank Celtics team.

SUPERSTARS IN PROCESS

Anthony Davis, John Wall, Lemarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard have shown superstar level play, but must do so consistently. Davis is the closest at this point and has a strong argument to be a superstar already. I hesitated including him as he has not yet made it to the playoffs, but regard him as a lock going forward. Wall has found his game as an NBA difference-maker, and recently received a max extension from the Wizards. Again, no playoffs, no superstar. Aldridge and Lillard have paired to push the Blazers back to the playoffs, but neither is in my estimation a transcendent talent and require some solid playoff appearance to complete their resumes.

THANKS, BUT NO THANKS

Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving and Carmelo Anthony are all statistical machines, but in the instance of Love and Irving lack playoff appearances. A superstar should move the needle in the win column and both these guys have failed to do so. Anthony is a bit different. He has been to the playoffs, but their is something disingenuous about him that has prevented him from becoming a true winner. I believe for all his talents, he is not a culture changer and falls below the level of superstardom.

The Difficulty of Simplicity

“Simple…..simple…..keep it simple.”  If you have been to any half way decent youth soccer game, you have likely heard this refrain while player after player dribbled or passed themselves into a crowd of opponents and lost the ball.  It is uncanny how full field, full-sided youth game can appear far more crowded than a professional game given the size and speed of professional players.  The difference is in the simplicity of play.  The “simple” play is a function of position, time and space, and it is rare, even at the professional level, that a game-breaking or decisive play is not preceded by the creation of position, time and space.

The twin antagonists of simple play are technical incompetence and ego.  Technical incompetence is manifested in the inaccuracy of ostensibly simple passes that require the recipient to concede valuable position and angles of attack to control the ball, and the dreaded poor first touch, which even when a pass is accurate will carry the player into a less advantageous position to control the ball or close the window of opportunity for the next pass or shot.  Technical quality is a bright line definer of the level at which you can play.  Without the ability to deliver accurate passes and bring the ball under control with a first touch, it is best you leave the game of soccer to others.

Ego is perhaps more frustrating in that the player often has some technical aptitude for the game, but is blinded to the interaction of team requisite for success.  This player elevates his every touch of the ball to a manhood-defining act of theater, while eschewing anonymous, but functional, time and space-creating passes as beneath his vain, self-delusional gloriousness.  This form of ego is often empowered or enabled by weak coaching that is either captivated or beholden to the temporal success of the talented egotist.

“Simple” play requires technical skill, a selfless team oriented disposition and an awareness to contemporaneously recognize the option that will optimize position, time and space. 

The Warrior Soul

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“Out of every 100 men, 10 shouldn’t be here, 80 are nothing but targets, 9 are the real fighters and they the battle make.  Ah but one, of them is a warrior, and he will bring the others back.”  – Heraclitus

Who is that one, and how did he come to be?  Was he a warrior by birth, or was he forged by the cauldron of life? 

From the womb, we come of substance, not yet formed, but unique in character from every other one we will meet.  This is the lens through which we experience.  Experience and reflection accumulate and percolate in the recesses of our substantive soul, and render us…beautiful, flawed, tragic, triumphant, common and completely unique.

Pop on Empowerment

“Sometimes in timeouts I’ll say, ‘I’ve got nothing for you.  What do you want me to do?  We just turned it over six times.  Everybody is holding the ball.  What else do you want me to do?  Figure  it out.  And I’ll get up and walk away.  Because it’s true.  There’s nothing else I can do for them.  I can give them some bullshit, and act like I’m a coach or something, but it’s on them.

I think competitive character people don’t want to be manipulated constantly to do what one individual wants them to do.  It’s a great feeling when players get together and do things as a group.  Whatever can be done to empower those people.

If they’re holding the ball, they’re holding the ball.  I certainly didn’t tell them to hold the ball.  Just like, if they don’t make five in a row, I didn’t do that.  If they get a rebound, I didn’t do that.  It’s a players’ game and they’ve got to perform.  The better you can get that across, the more they take over and the more smoothly it runs.  Then you interject here or there.  You call a play during the game at some point or make a substitution, that kind of thing that helps the team win.  But they basically have to take charge or you never get to the top of the mountain”

-Gregg Popovich

Empowerment is ultimately investment.  Investment of the coach in his players and investment of the player’s in the purpose of the team.  The power of investment is what carries teams to the mountain top.