Monday, March 3, 2008

Kiki Is A Silly Name.

You know it, I know it, there's no sense beating around the bush. In fact, it's not even his real name, it's Ernest Maurice Vandeweghe III (how about that tastily informative tidbit? did you know that he was born in Germany and that his mom was Miss America in 1952? only here are you getting this information, here and wikipedia). Kiki is merely a nickname, the nickname of a guy who, depending on what the week or month is, has been rumored to be taking over for Isiah Thomas in the front office in New York.

In 2001, he was hired as the general manager of the Denver Nuggets and under his charge, a team that --after shattering all of my dreams in the spring of 1994-- for half of a decade had oscillated between terrible and merely sub-par before his hiring in August of 2001. His job was to dismantle a roster with a few bad contracts and a low ceiling and lay the foundation for a sustained playoff run which is what I'm assuming Dolan would be wanting him to do after the calamity that has been the tenure of Isiah Thomas. Considering the possibility, I thought it might be hilariously fun to laugh and giggle and play while recounting the moves he made that helped put Denver into position to lose regularly in the first round to eventual champions (the Spurs, who I'm told they match up well with), something they could have done in 1994 (by this, I mean lose to the Sonics), but they had to be jerks.

Here, I'm trusting that my sources are accurate, which could get me into a bit of trouble as so many count on me for accuracy and I'm not sure these sites I'm using are reputable. We'll see how this works.

September 24th: signed a few players, the ones that would play games that count: Isaiah Rider, Zendon Hamilton, and Mengke Bateer (he was waived before the season, but they would re-sign him in late February). Isaiah Rider --who has famously spent a night in jail for throwing a milkshake through a Jack in the Box drive-through window, kicked a woman in a sports bar, had an illegal cell phone (likely a burner), gambled in public (throwing dice?), spitting at a heckler (this one I might support, I don't know the circumstances, but I'm really not a fan of annoying hecklers as they are annoying), and kidnapping a woman-- would play ten games before being cut November 19th and wouldn't play another NBA game. Zendon Hamilton played in 54 games, was passable, and was on the Raptors the next season. Mengke Bateer played in 27 games and was a decent rebounder, I guess? I'm being nice, he was mediocre-to-poor, hopefully if he sees this he doesn't read past the question mark.

October 9th: signed Shawnelle Scott, who would play in 21 games and seemed to be a better rebounder than Bateer which is pretty impressive.

October 13th: traded Kevin Willis and Aleksandar Radojevic, receiving Scott Williams and Detroit's first round pick in 2004. Scott Williams won three championships with the Bulls and Kevin Willis only won one (with the Spurs at the end of his career). Following logic, I think we can say with certainty that he was clearly the better player, so this was a great trade. Also, he had a $4.6 million expiring contract, because someone had the idea that he was in fact a good player because he played a role on championship teams. The draft pick would eventually be traded and became Josh Smith who is well-known in basketball circles.

Before Regular Season: exercised the options for James Posey, Keon Clark, and Raef LaFrentz. James Posey would eventually be a useful player on good teams as a defensive stopper that could shoot (and in 03-04, he was genuinely good), but that was years away. In 2001-02, he would post his lowest true shooting percentage. Keon Clark was drunk. Raef LaFrentz was still making a reasonable amount of money considering his talent, he shot well, was second in the league in blocks and would be useful trade bait (more on that later).

November 21st: signed Chris Andersen from the NBDL. Considering that Andersen would eventually become a very solid big guy that doesn't take too much off the table, this was alright. And if you're going to hold his drug issues against him, you're a jerk and probably don't like Roy Tarpley, either, you jerks.

February 21st: traded Nick Van Exel, Raef LaFrentz, Avery Johnson, and Tariq Abdul-Wahad for Juwan Howard, Tim Hardaway, Donnell Harvey, and Dallas' 2002 first round draft pick. Juwan Howard had a salary of $18.75 million that season and $20.15 million the next. He would post his highest player rating of his career in 02-03 of 17.2. Tim Hardaway would play only one more season and had an expiring contract worth $3.4 million. Donnell Harvey, a first round pick in 2000, had two more seasons on his deal and was afforded the opportunity to prove if he was in fact an NBA player, averaging 23 and 21 minutes in his two seasons with the Nuggets. He now plays in Turkey. The deal allowed Denver to get out from under Nick Van Exel's ($22.2 million, 2 years), Tariq Abdul-Wahad's ($23.6 million, 4 years), and Avery Johnson's ($15 million, 3 years) contracts, and avoided overpaying Raef LaFrentz the next year.

March 7th: signed Carlos Arroyo. He had played earlier in the year for Toronto, and would finish the season with this Nuggets. Arroyo would famously play backup point guard for Utah, Detroit, and Orlando. Denver would finish the season 27-55, better in the west than Memphis and Golden State.

June 26th: drafted Nikoloz Tskitishvili and traded Antonio McDyess, the draft rights to Frank Williams who was taken with Dallas' picks and a 2003 second round pick for Marcus Camby, Mark Jackson, and the draft rights to Nene. Marcus Camby missed 53 games in his first season with Denver and from 2003-04 on, he would annually rank in the top three in defensive rebounding rate, top six overall, top eight in block percentage, but only lower than third once (03-04), and top ten in defensive rating, only lower than fourth once (also in o3-04). Mark Jackson was cut in September, and Nene would prove to be a mildly above average power forward that would be given an extension fitting a very good one. With the trade Denver was able to avoid paying McDyess $12.6 million to not play in 02-03, and $13.5 million to play 42 games in 03-04. Frank Williams plays in Italy.

Nikoloz Tskitishvili would play regularly only in his rookie year, in the four years he was in the NBA he posted PERs of 4.9, 7.1, 2.7, 8.3, so he might have been worse than Adam Morrison.
Key on "might," for all the mocking Bill Simmons has given general managers for taking players who haven't proven themselves in our country's college game, eschewing them for chair-poster-uppers with upside, it's worth keeping in mind how regularly those "known quantities" fail in the NBA (I'm singling out Simmons, but I'm sure there are others. I just haven't bothered to read those writers with any regularity. If I had to guess other national writers who hate foreigners with a similar level of passion, I'm sure at least of one Bill Platscke, Skip Bayless, Dan Shaughnessy, etc. would fit the bill). Just this decade, lottery picks have been wasted on Jay Williams, Dajuan Wagner, Jared Jeffries, Melvin Ely, Marcus Haislip, Michael Sweetney, Jarvis Hayes, Marcus Banks, Luke Jackson, Channing Frye (he could still be good, though, right?), Adam Morrison, Shelden Williams, and J.J. Redick. In fairness, over that same time (I'm reluctant to include high schoolers, so I'm limiting this list to foreign players, but the argument could be made that I should, in fairness, count the Kwame Brown's and the etc.'s as their perceived value is largely determined by their chair-posting abilities) NBA GMs took the aforementioned Tskitishvili, Darko Milicic, Rafael Araujo, Fran Vazquez (who simply hasn't come to America), Yaroslav Korolev, Saer Sene (which, admittedly, was a ridiculous pick). It's misleading to use the largess of the first list solely as the point of argument, but I think that in some ways I think I was kinder than I could have been when determining which college players warranted a place on the first list.

This deserves a longer post, one I'll probably make in the near future, properly analyzing how successful different draft approaches have been, but I'm not finding myself cottoning to someone patting themselves a little too hard on the back for touting Chris Paul as the correct player to take with the first pick in the draft when they followed that by pushing Morrison just as hard the next year. Anyway, that was an aside-and-a-half, back to the laughing and giggling and playing.

August 1st: traded a 2004 second round pick for Don Reid and a future 1st round pick from Orlando, which if I had to guess, was sent to New Jersey as part of the Kenyon Martin deal the next season. Don Reid would resurrect his career in Denver and make the All Star team in '03, and by that I mean he would play ten more minutes in his career (none of them with the Nuggets) and subsequently retire.

August 8th: signed Mark Blount as a free agent for $763,000. Mark Blount famously played a fill-in role on my championship winning fantasy basketball team last year after Yao Ming went down. Not so famously, he had one good season and fooled someone other than Isiah Thomas into giving him a six year deal worth $42 million (Bill Simmons liked move this at the time [I've spent 30 minutes looking through his archives, haven't found it, but know it happened, trust me], Milwaukee Bucks fans, don't be swayed!). This would not be that season.

October 1st: traded Don Reid, Mengke Bateer, and the first round pick that would become Josh Smith for Rodney White. Rodney White would play two seasons for Denver, playing 72 games during both, starting 19 in 02-03. In a more limited role in 03-04, he would post his career highs in PER, true shooting, and rebounding percentage. He's now apparently playing in Puerto Rico, which makes sense, I guess. If you knew they had a league, I mean.

October 24th: traded George McCloud and (an undisclosed amount of) cash for Chris Whitney. Acknowledging their weakness at guard, the Nuggets traded someone that wasn't going to play again for a player who was a serviceable shooting guard from 1995-2002 and turned out to be beyond his prime, himself. Win-win.

Before Regular Season: signed Predrag Savovic, Junior Harrington, and Vincent Yarbrough. Savovic played in 27 games and he was pretty adept at turning the ball over almost as many times as he assisted baskets and shooting under 32% from the field. Junior Harrington incomprehensibly found himself on a team weak enough in the back-court that he started 51 games, and appeared in all 82. Yarbrough played in 59 games, starting 39 in his only NBA season, he now plays in Germany.

December 18th: traded James Posey for Mark Bryant, Art Long, a first round pick from Philadelphia and a second round pick from Houston. James Posey played much better for Houston than he did for Denver, improving from a 47.7 true shooting percentage to 55.1% for a team that would finish one game outside of the playoffs. The pick would eventually be used by Toronto to select Joey Graham. Art Long was cut two days later.

December 20th: signed John Crotty, known the world over as John Stockton's once gutty, gritty, gutsy backup. These would be the last twelve games he would play in the NBA.

February 20th: traded Mark Blount and Mark Bryant for Shammond Williams and a second round pick. Shammond Williams, who had been a good shooter for stretches while he was with the Sonics, would only start 9 games for the Nuggets down the stretch, which makes sense. At that point it would've been a lot to ask for Williams to immediately jump in and run Jeff Bzdelik's system. It is possible that at that point Denver was openly tanking. To be honest, I wasn't really paying much attention.

March 23rd: signed Jeff Trepagnier. He played a superb 98 minutes, which would prove a fluke as he played an awful 96 minutes in 03-04. Denver would finish the season 17-65, tied with Cleveland for the worst record in the league.

June 28th: drafted Carmelo Anthony, traded a 2004 second round pick for the rights to Xue Yuyang who may or may not exist. He's not listed on basketball-reference, so I'm assuming --if he is real-- that he was never actually signed. Carmelo is a good player, he fights like I would, and doesn't condone helping the police find criminals who break laws; in fact, he may condone making a hit on you if you told the cops that his main home-slice Big Stuey raped a girl at a party while she was ODing (and would subsequently die) from a bad batch (allegedly, and by "allegedly," I mean I just inserted him into a scene from The Wire, Melo's friends wouldn't do things like this). All of this is fairly old news.

August 1st: signed Andre Miller to a 6 year, $51 million deal. This was their big free agent signing. His best years were with Cleveland, but his first year with Denver almost stacks up (also, this season with Philadelphia). He's always struck me as someone that should be a good long range shooter and I have difficulty reconciling this notion with the reality that he isn't. Aside from his one season with the Clippers, he's posted a true shooting percentage above 51.7% (that being his rookie season), and often significantly higher, which is passable (at least it's not Kidd-like).

August 8th: signed Earl Boykins to a 5 year, $13.5 million deal. I'm taller than Earl Boykins. He loves to shoot. He never posted a FG% higher than 41.9 while with the Nuggets. Both of these are things I'm looking for in a back-up point guard. I'm lying, first and foremost, I want grit, guts, guile, and intestinal fortitude.

August 19th: signed Jon Barry to a 1 year, $3 million deal. Which is what they got here (I'm referring to the grit, guts, guile, and intestinal fortitude remark I just made), with Jon Barry.

September 5th: signed Francisco Elson. He plays for the Sonics now. He's Dutch. To my surprise, he kind of has a jump shot. If you're curious why I'm listing the amounts of some of the contracts and not others, it's not entirely random. In this case, it was around a $366,000 deal. Not all of the deals I'm listing were for the league minimum, but they haven't struck me as significant signings as they had little baring on Denver's long term cap situation. Elson averaged 14 minutes in the 61 games he played for the Nuggets. It was his only season with Denver.

September 12th: signed Voshon Lenard to a 3 year, $9.5 million deal. NBA teams like to space the floor, so they sign outside shooters and Lenard is a former winner of the NBA 3-point shooting contest at All-Star Weekend, so stick that in your pipe. Lenard was alright in this capacity in 03-04, shooting 36.7%. Unfortunately, he would play in a combined 29 games in the two seasons after that.

This was their last multi-million dollar signing in the off-season. Looking over the list of free agents that year who eventually ended up on different teams than they had played for the year before, available were (and what they signed for): Gilbert Arenas (6 years, $65 million), Raja Bell (2 years, $2 million), Antonio Daniels (2 years, $4.4 million), Stephen Jackson (2 years, the second being a team option, $2.1 million), Bobby Simmons (2 years, $1.5 million), Lamar Odom (6 years, $65 million), and Brad Miller (7 years, $68 million). The cliche is that hindsight is amazing and it really is, as are those contracts for Bell and Jackson (of course, Jackson would have made substantially more had he not been an idiot). It's hard to say with certainty --regarding the higher profile deals-- if Denver would've been better targeting Arenas, Odom, or Brad Miller (in this case, I can, the answer is "no") instead of Andre Miller, but it's interesting to think about. I plan on doing a lot of thinking about over the coming nights.

September 29th: signed Mark Pope for $689,000. Pope was never a good pro, if I had to guess as to why he lasted in the league as long as he did, it would either be great workouts or people remembering him winning a championship with Kentucky in college, which means he should have been a good pro, because American college basketball is like the NBA.

February 20th: claimed Michael Doleac off waivers. Still in the league and has always been better than Mark Pope. Side-note: if you lined them up and asked me to identify which was which, I might be able to do it.

June 24th: drafted and then traded Jameer Nelson for a future first round pick that would subsequently be used/wasted on Julius Hodge. Not a great move. Nelson may eventually be rounded into a plus point guard, while Hodge plays in the NBDL. They did receive Linus Kleiza from that same draft in a trade, so that's all right. I guess. I'm writing that reluctantly. Vandeweghe could have done better on draft day, and should have, quite frankly, that's part of the deal when you're in charge of rebuilding a squadron.

July 15th: traded three future first round picks that would be used on Joey Graham, Renaldo Balkman, and Marcus Williams for Kenyon Martin. This is the last move I'm going to post, because I think at this point the building of this team that loses in the first round perennially was complete (the Allen Iverson trade with Philadelphia would be six months after he was fired). It might be worth mentioning that one of those three first round picks was used as part of the package that brought Vince Carter to New Jersey. Then again, it might not. Martin, much like the superior McDyess, before him, has had serious, serious injury problems while being paid loads of money by an NBA organization based out of the Colorado metropolis of Denver and will never be the player he was early in his career (I'm going out on limbs this morning), but unless Vandeweghe was going to draft better players than the GMs who received those picks (given his track record, that seems doubtful), and not wasted $95 million over the course of 7 years on a player no one could have predicted those injury ailments --it's difficult criticizing this as a bad move at the time, considering what everyone knew about everything-- one can be, but doesn't necessarily need to be, super harsh on the move (that is, looking back on it in retrospect).

Ultimately, making a final decision after looking over his record: Vandeweghe succeeded in providing a stronger foundation by blowing up the roster, rather than attempt to build around the players he inherited (the bright spots: Nick Van Exel, Antonio McDyess, Raef LaFrentz), but considering the talented players taken with picks after his, it's difficult being too thrilled to see him taking over the rebuilding effort for any team not as destitute as the Knickerbockers. At the end of the day, he's better than a lot morons --like me or Bill Simmons, for example-- and maybe that's enough for all of the New York fans that search out my blog for Knick-related insight. Godspeed, all of you.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Bendtner's Strike.

I have a soft spot for Arsenal. If I've picked a club side in any league, they're the team.

This affinity dates back just a few years (doing the math, I think it was about 2003). This coincided with their record-setting unbeaten run, but at the time I knew nothing about this. In fact, had I known, I probably would've deliberated longer and eventually would've picked a different team, because there's really nothing quite as distasteful as a front-runner (not extortion, rape, genocide, not anything) and I think at the time, if I knew anyone that cared about soccer, I probably would have been called that.

Getting back to giving background on my glory hunting: that Thanksgiving, my family invited me to go along with them as they visited my step-sister who was in the middle of a semester abroad in London. The few minutes I saw of English television, and the slightly fewer that were devoted to soccer, intrigued me. Fans in stands were celebrating draws, Euro 2004 was already being hyped seven months before kick-off. When I got back, I bought one of those cheap EA Sports computer game bundles that feature four games made years before --and due to personnel moves, promotions, relegations, expansion, etc. are generally considered out-of-date (in this case: 2001 versions of Madden, NHL, FIFA, and Tiger Woods)-- specifically for FIFA, riding a wave of new-found Anglophilia and wanting to play the game I couldn't find on television here (not having an expanded-beyond-my-means-cable-package or satellite dish).

I scrolled through the English sides, and chose my team quickly, knowing only enough not to pick Manchester United (the comparisons to the Yankees had made it to my shores), and went largely on name and ability rating; ability being important because I didn't --and still don't, sadly-- understand soccer and wanted to have at least a puncher's chance when going against the computer. I chose Arsenal because, frankly, it was a cool name and I liked the crest.

It's embarrassing to admit that I would initially choose a team to follow for reasons as simplistic (read: "simpleminded") as those. It'd be cooler if I said something about their "attacking, free flowing style," or appreciating the mastery of Arsene Wenger, keeping his side on pace with the other teams in the Big Four despite his fewer resources, this season that skill in developing a team on a budget best being exemplified by their greatly improved form after selling Thierry Henry to Barcelona. As it turns out, none of that is true, I just think the color red is pretty. In the ensuing years I have come to appreciate all of that, I've downloaded and watched multiple times Arsenal 49, I've spent hours watching youtube highlight compilations of Henry, Wright, and Pires, but until discovering online streaming of soccer, I wasn't able to do much more than follow their results after the fact.

Despite being tipped by many to drop out of Champions League contention this season (and don't discount the effect prognostication has, bad juju adds up), has been atop the Premier League most of the season, but with their lead dropping to three after last week's Matthew-Taylor-wrecked match against Birmingham. At home, against Villa, despite their opponent's quality, one would hope for a win rebounding from results --in some cases disappointing and against Man U, deserved-- over the past two weeks. From the 27th minute to well after the 90th, largely thanks to Senderos clearing the ball into the back of his own net, Arsenal trailed despite a 58% possession mark, with more shots on target, 7-4.

Bendtner's strike two and a half minutes into stoppage time was remarkable. (I said it. You're likely hearing it here first. It's insightful comments like these that are largely attributable to my high readership. I have this counter when I log in that tells me how many viewers I have, and while my writing doesn't inspire a great many comments, I can tell you, thousands of people are checking this page daily for information that they know they can't get anywhere else.) Not only that, but it came from a pass from Adebayor and they hate each other, reportedly. In a perfect world that would have included a hyperlink to a report, but I don't feel like researching it at the moment. Know that I once heard on a soccer podcast that might be reputable that Adebayor came on as a sub for Bendtner recently, with the Gunners trailing, and said to Bendtner something along the lines of, "we're (other players were coming in as well) only playing because you're shit." Whether or not that's true, I'll be telling it to everyone I meet no matter the context: weddings, funerals, making small talk at the register of a convenience store picking up a 99 cent 2-liter of Pepsi, you're going to be hearing about it.

To be honest, I really didn't see it coming (my blog's popularity or the goal), and had been fighting off the doze for the last five or six minutes, just wanting distress that comes with watching the side I was born into rooting for held scoreless. Again. Despite this, I was able to manage a yelp loud enough to frighten the dog, and concern the people that were in the bed with me that someone was going to kill them.

I don't know what this "draw that feels like a win" that comes off of the "draw that feels like a lose" means for the rest of the season. I'd thought, after the Man U drubbing, that the team could go either way, use it as motivation or see it completely kill their confidence. After the Eduardo injury, it's impossible really to say, as that likely has had a greater impact on their performance since, rather than what they gleaned from the FA Cup tie (they're actually going to have to cover opposing strikers if they hope not to lose 4-0 again in the near future). The strike does save the lead, which has dropped with successive draws to 1. What's disappointing is that these were two matches that should have been wins (I mean, really, Arsenal did outscore Aston Villa 2-0 this morning). Still having to go through a four game stretch of Chelsea, Bolton, Man U, and Liverpool, I'm not optimistic about their chances unless Bendtner can continue not playing like shit.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Theo Ratliff's Expiring Contract.

First, a little background on the impetus of this post.

Back when the contract was merely a gleam in Pete (brother of Rob) Babcock's eye, Theo Ratliff played four years at Wyoming. In 1995, he was drafted 18th by the Pistons. Between 1997 and 2001 he maintained a PER above 16 while playing for the 76ers. Over the last three seasons of that moderately successful run, he missed a combined 99 games (RED FLAG). After making an average of roughly 6.67 million dollars a year, he signed a 7 year deal for $57 million with the Atlanta Hawks. In 01-02, he played 82 minutes. Improbably, he followed that by making appearances in 166 regular season games over the next two seasons (NBA seasons are 82 games long), that number being owed to the fact that mid-season, he found himself traded to the 03-04 season to Portland. Since then, he's been paid by two more franchises and played a total, as of now, 127 games over more than 3 and half seasons.

His main function over the final two years has been to rehab vigorously and help make up the difference in transactions in which big salaries moved between teams. In the Kevin Garnett deal this summer, it was his ability to be signed to a ludicrous contract several years prior that saw him sent over to Minnesota and the thought was that, of all expiring deals, his would be one that would have to be in play as the trade deadline passed as it would fit as part of a package in which multiple players of quality could be sent between the rival townships that the NBA is made up of, but like P.J. Brown's last year, nothing was done, and the great running joke that his contract was has, to the sadness of some, died.

As Theo Ratliff has passed from relevance, I was wondering what budget crushing contract expirations might be on the horizon (why spend time talking about the game actually being played on court when the season is going on? I mean, seriously?); so, looking ahead to when teams are allowed to make trades, I've created a the quintessential list (try to top me) of players who might be traded for reasons other than what they'll bring to a team on the wood, ranked by size of deal. First are the small contracts given to players that have the potential to be D-League All-Stars this year and next, then will be questionable signings that, largely unsurprisingly, didn't pan out, followed by the albatrosses, the fireable offenses.

In the interests of full disclosure, ESPN's Trade Machine and NBA 2K8 were the primary sources when it came to salary details and the statistics are as of 2/23/08.

Saer Sene, Seattle Supersonics
PER: 15.1; Salary: 2.31 million
Drafted with the 10th pick of the 2006 draft, ahead of players who have already shown that they may be functional pros: Ronnie Brewer, Rajon Rondo, Josh Boone, Paul Millsap, Renaldo Balkman, Kyle Lowry, Jordan Farmar, Sergio Rodriguez, and Daniel Gibson; he marked the third time in three years that the Sonics used their first round pick on big players who would be best described as "projects." He's getting paid a lot of money to mostly sit on the bench (his PER is largely inflated, he's only played a total of 38 minutes this season), but it's hard to imagine that they'd give up on him this early in his pro career despite it being a new regime, and one would hope that he could be resigned for a smaller contract than his current one. A friend of mine is convinced he'll be a passable pro, largely thanks to once seeing an apparently awesome youtube video. I haven't seen this video and am dubious.

Jarron Collins, Utah Jazz
2007-08 PER: 5.7; 2008-09 Salary: 2.59 million
His first season was 01-02, in which he played in 70 games and posted a career high PER, 11.5. He's averaged 11 and 10 1/2 minutes a game over the past two seasons, starting a total of 16 over that span (I would credit injuries to capable players for that). On a team that features talented post players Boozer, Okur, and Millsap, his services are that of a space filler, one who averages more fouls per 36 minutes than rebounds (5.6 to 5.4). It's hard to think his production couldn't be replaced by a D-League player (I look forward to finding out about an NBA equivalent to VORP because I'm sure he'd be negative-whatever in that sort of metric). The Jazz organization appears to have a sort of loyalty to him (he's played each season since his first with them), but like most of the names on this list, one thinks he has to have more value as a contract next year than as a player.

Adam Morrison, Charlotte Bobcats
2006-07 PER: 7.9, Salary: 4.27 million
If I remember correctly, John Hollinger called him the worst regular player in the league last year. He's relatively one dimensional, his strength (shooting, scoring, what-have-you) doesn't appear to be translatable to the pro game. While he shot 49.6% from the field and 42.8% in his last year at Gonzaga, last season he shot 37.6% and 33.7% (do we have to say "respectively" in this context?) in the NBA. He's missing this season with an injury and probably would have found himself behind Matt Carroll in the rotation, anyway; that is if Sam Vincent thought he'd be better served playing the clearly inferior player (which is saying something considering Carroll's 10.5 PER, his .530 true shooting percentage, he makes big money because he's supposed to be Kapono-like) as he already does with Carroll playing more minutes than Jared Dudley. Whether or not he's traded simply as dead salary will be dependent on whether next February will be too soon to gauge whether Morrison is a bust or not, which in fairness, it likely will be.

Zaza Pachulia, Atlanta Hawks
PER: 9.2, Salary: 4.4 million
I don't know how many people out there play fantasy sports on CBS Sportsline, but I do. It's great, I've won a couple of leagues. For one of them I received my completely legal monetary prize promptly, the other I'm still waiting a couple of months after the fact and have, to be honest, given up hope on ever seeing my check. I have a basketball team I've currently given up on (I was out of playoff contention within two months and when I lost my internet connection --right about the fifth day of the African Cup of Nations-- I just couldn't bring myself to maintain my pathetic team, the will of the champion had been lost). What I consider to be the principal cause for my lack of success was that, despite what CBS' website professed before the preseason, during the preseason, and through the current NBA season, Al Jefferson does not have dual F-C eligibility. Now, of course, perhaps, I shouldn't have taken it for granted that the information on the site about the way the site operates its leagues would be accurate, so really I shouldn't be complaining about them a) screwing my roster, and b)not giving me my prize money for the football league I just dominated (by "dominated," I mean won because everyone on every other team got injured late in the season). I mention all of this because I didn't realize, until the end of the draft, that I didn't have a center, that I just had a tall forward that was playing center on his real-life team, in Al Jefferson. I drafted Zaza Pachulia (who was available because he would be starting the season on the injured list) and Troy Murphy. I figured, despite the screwjob perpetrated on me by CBS Sportsline, that I'd probably still be okay (I did pretty well last year with Mark Blount filling in for an injured Yao Ming) because both had the potential to be alright. I don't know how many people are following the Atlanta Hawks and the Indiana Pacers this season, but that hasn't really been the case. Murphy's minutes have been dicked around and Pachulia barely plays. After looking like a promising young center the last few years, he's lost playing time because of those nagging injuries and the emergence of Al Horford, as well as the continued improvements of Josh Smith and Marvin Williams. It seems like he could rebound next year and extricate himself from this list (his salary is reasonable) but if he continues to struggle, it wouldn't be surprising to see him on another team next year like I wish he was in my fantasy league.

Jorge Garbajosa, Toronto Raptors
PER: 10.7; Salary: 4.49 million
Garbajosa, or "Garbo" as we all know him by, has played a total of 74 minutes this season, all in November, so his low statistical numbers aren't a totally accurate way to gauge. Last year's first year numbers weren't entirely impressive, but neither were Calderon's in 05-06. It seems premature to suggest that he won't be a valuable part of the Raptor rotation when his ankle is finally healed, but in the interest of cynicism, watch for his name in transaction reports a year from now.

Damon Jones, Cleveland Cavaliers
PER: 11.1; Salary: 4.59 million
Writing any sort of informational capsule on Damon Jones is leading me to consider, in the future, making a list of my least-favorite players in the NBA. I haven't thought out who else would make the list yet, but the reason for Jones' guaranteed inclusion would be centered around his belief that he's fundamentally better than what he is, a stop-gap guard who can at times shoot well (he has produced true shooting percentages over .550 twice in his career, 04-05 and this season), and, as described in his player profile on ESPN, the false bravado that's resulted from this. On the other hand, he did do this, which I tip my hat to, and like Tony Parker's rap career makes me like the Spurs a tiny bit more, softens my stance a little on Jones.

Donyell Marshall, Seattle Supersonics
PER: 8.5, Salary: 6.12 million
It's hard to remember, and I can't say I appreciated it much at the time, but Marshall was once actually good. Like, from 1996 through 2005. What's hilarious, of course, is that only two of these seasons were for teams that made the playoffs and it wasn't until he was on a relevant conference title contender that he fell off a cliff. This season, he's played in 11 games and shot under 30% from the field, which is exactly what you'd want from a player brought in specifically to space the floor for LeBron James. I have no idea if the Sonics are going to or have already bought him out, but after watching Presti's shrewd moves surrounding the aging Kurt Thomas, one would hope (if that one were a Sonics fan, such as the person typing this) that over the next several months he's on the team, he's able to show that he might have, if even momentarily, regained his outside touch so that he could be packaged in some sort of deal to a contender for more draft picks in the coming years. Either way, I've always had a soft spot for U Conn, the explanation of which is a story for another day, so I'll enjoy watching the decrepit Husky sit on the bench in warm-ups even if that rekindling of magic doesn't take place.

Desmond Mason, Milwaukee Bucks
PER: 12.7; Salary: 6.33 million
He's having his best season since 04-05, but that's not saying a whole lot. He finds himself on a roster that is largely thought to be on the cusp of a rebuilding effort with huge sums of money being paid to players (Michael Redd, Bobby Simmons, Dan Gadzuric, Maurice Williams --and comparatively-- Charlie Bell to name more than a few) who really shouldn't be paid what they're finding themselves being given. If you've ever played with Mason in a video game, he functions superbly as an athletic trailer on the break and he's actually a pretty good defender, but I always traded him before he reached free agency, proving that I, like millions, would be better at general managing than Isiah Thomas, or, I guess, Larry Harris, if we're going to keep this Bucks-specific.

Jason Collins
, Memphis Grizzlies
PER: 2.4: Salary: 6.71 million
He's significantly worse and paid significantly more than his twin. He's dead last among eligible players in PER, more than a point and a half under new teammate Casey Jacobsen. He's last among centers in rebound rate, averaging almost a point and a half less than David Harrison. Needless to say, he's a waste of space on a basketball court (but probably a great, honorable man off it; I'm just guessing). I know it's irrational to associate the great, honorable Collins men with every Stanford product to come, but with the relative lack of success both twins have had in the NBA, I worry when I see Brook Lopez high on mock draft lists that I could end up --if my team stays in Seattle-- having to watch the next worst center in the league for years on end. On the brightside, David Stern views Oklahoma City a much better market than Seattle (who wouldn't?) so that's a danger for someone else to consider.

Eric Snow, Cleveland Cavaliers
PER: 3.2; Salary: 7.37 million
He plays defense and he was largely credited with reigning in Allen Iverson when they played alongside each other in the backcourt of the Philadelphia 76ers. Whether or not his value on the court completely dissipated when their partnership broke up (probably), or whether it was just in the past year or two (yes, if you're one of those apologist types), it's completely gone now. He's played in 22 games so far, which seems a strangely high number; he's shooting 15.8% from the field (he's almost as bad as Ben Wallace from the free throw line, by the way), he shouldn't be playing, and if it weren't for particular players with higher cap figures and the fact that Mike Brown improbably keeps giving him minutes, he'd be the most likely player to take the mantle of existing as no more than as a big red X on a playing card.

Malik Rose, New York Knicks
PER: o.5; Salary: 7.81 million
He was once a very good contributer on a championship team, and a solid one on a couple of contenders (his last good season was the last year of the Lakers mini-dynasty of earlier-in-the-decade) so perhaps that's why Isiah Thomas was so willing to give up a true center who is known to play defense occasionally, Nazr. Granted, Mohammed has regularly been a disappointment for all of the teams he's played for since, he's more functional than Rose, who doesn't even play basketball at this point. As far as PER is concerned, only Jason Collins and Eric Snow are likely candidates to be having worse seasons at this point next season. Will he be used to add another overrated, undersized shooting guard mistakenly playing point? Yes, probably.

Raef LaFrentz, Portland Trailblazers
PER: 11.8; Salary: 12.99 million
He's averaging 11.8, but he's only played in 25 games, for a total of 172 minutes, just under 7 an appearance. If I had to pick one player on this list, I would select LaFrentz as next year's Ratliff, P.J., etc. and funnily enough, he was once traded by Boston for Theo Ratliff. After being drafted with the third pick of the 1998 draft, he's been criminally overrated by the general managers charged with assigning monetary values to players. Maybe it was size, or his range (he's occasionally been a very good 3 point shooter), but his contract has been one that has hung heavily around the neck of whatever team had him. He's played double digit minutes 7 times this season and likely would have been bought out like Steve Francis if he wasn't potentially such a valuable trade asset next season (and a good influence). They're fortunate not to have ended up with Jason Kidd, because there'll undoubtedly be a better point guard on the market next season (at worst, T.J. Ford or Jamaal Tinsley, right?).

Wally Szczerbiak, Cleveland Cavaliers
PER: 16; Salary: 13.2 million
A genuinely good shooter on a team that is perfectly willing to give a whole great amount of money to a player that doesn't necessarily need to bring anything more to the table (see: Marshall, Donyell). Unless he's having the same sort of injury problems as he's had in the past, (see: 2002-03, 2003-04, 2006-07), I would assume he'll be playing regularly with the Cavs throughout the rest of his deal.

Mike Bibby, Atlanta Hawks
PER: 14.7; Salary: 14.85 million
Bibby, assuming he doesn't experience a renaissance with Atlanta, peaked from 2003-05. He hasn't shot as well from the field this season as he did then, but he is shooting better from 3 (a career high, 41.7%) in limited time and that was, before the recent trade that sent him to the Hawks, one of Atlanta's biggest weaknesses (along with their lack of depth at point guard). They've famously passed over Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Randy Foye, and Mike Conley, Jr. in past drafts and, after Bibby, their next option is Acie Law IV, who is sporting a 7.5 PER (second to last among eligible point guards), a 43.8% true shooting (fourth to last among eligible point guards), and a 13.0 turnover rate (56th out of 64th among eligible point guards). If they have a shot at a playoff berth, they're likely to keep Bibby even if they're ceiling is first round fodder.

Lamar Odom, Los Angeles Lakers
PER: 15.2; Salary: 14.87 million
I would say he's the best player on this list. I'm including him because I believe with the addition of Pau Gasol and Odom's continual decline in production from his statistical peak in 03-04 --the year he played with Miami-- his PER has dropped to a still passable 15.2, it's possible he won't be as relevant in the Lakers' plans next year and would seem to be a likely candidate to find himself trade bait for another piece to a lottery-bound team looking for cap relief.

Stephon Marbury, New York Knicks
PER: 14.2; Salary: 22.11 million
I don't think this one worked out.

The question is whether Isiah, if he's still employed by the Knicks after this season, will be looking to trade the contract or just let it expire. Obviously the latter would be the best move, but these are the Knicks. A lot of what Thomas has done as general manager of this team has made this team worse, resulting in a continuation of what was already an organization in the state of trainwreck. I wonder if the next GM will operate in the same fashion. The media has repeated, ad nauseam, that New York fans lack patience and require their teams be relevant and in the playoffs, no matter whether the most prudent course would be to blow up the roster and start over. With the East as weak as it is --nearly every team but Miami having a shot at making the playoffs-- it can be argued, if you're explaining basketball to morons, that if a team is one transaction away from losing promptly in the first round, they should make that move. So, how much of what the Knicks have become is the result of Isiah Thomas' inability to construct a proper roster, and how much of that is due to pressure from Dolan and the media currently calling for his head? It'll be interesting, to me at least, to see just how poorly this team will be run after the easiest scapegoat I've ever heard of is gone. He deserves to be let go, but what will the state of the franchise be considering the vacuum he existed within when the further destruction of the Knicks was perpetrated, and the next over-matched GM is brought in?

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Another Blockbuster.

I feel like the sort of writer I don't want to be would start this blog --after giving it that title-- with a note about the trade between the Nuggets and the Trailblazers in which Von Wafer and Taurean Green switched spots, following that by writing "just kidding," or "bah-dum-ching," or "but seriously," and then moving onto the higher profile deal between Chicago, Cleveland, and Seattle in which players who actually appear on the playing surface regularly were involved. I don't want to be that writer, and yet, because I've read that sort of introduction so many times it was so firmly embedded in my head I couldn't think of anything else to start with (a phenomenon --make that "happening"-- Joe Po referenced here, scroll for it ... scroll for it ...) so now I feel compelled to actually say something about Wafer for Green before advancing to the trade that likely will effect the teams involved.

Cheating --which I had to do because I haven't had cable for years and so my only opportunities to watch either one play was Florida in the NCAA tournament last year in a bar and most of that time was probably spent drunk-- I looked at John Hollinger's player profiles on ESPN and I learned things. Did you know Von Wafer lead the D-League in 3 point shooting last year? I'm mildly impressed by that stat. Taurean is leaving a team in which he's fourth on the depth chart of at his position, as is Wafer, to go to a team where he'll likely be the third point guard, while Wafer will be the third shooting guard. It's difficult to imagine that, barring injuries, either player will have an impact on their new team this season, but considering Green and his presumably low ceiling (the next Jacque Vaughn?) I have to think Portland is better off here. With the regularity teams seem to be in the need of a shooter --to help space the floor and etc.-- why not trade a mediocre point guard when you have three for someone who could have value down the road if he's able to figure out how not to be a total liability in every other phase of the game. I'm nearly positive that in a year or two, I'll look back on this and wonder why on Earth I spent this much time (yes, even this much) writing about this deal, but it seems like one that could have the potential of looking pretty okay down the road for Portland.

I have a friend, a whole one, that is from Cleveland and, predictably, he's a Pistons fan. He hates the Bulls because when he was younger, they always beat the Cavs in the playoffs, so following that logic, when Ben Wallace signed with Chicago, he put up a picture --torn from a magazine-- of Wallace standing in front of Kirk Hinrich and Ben Gordon with arms crossed on his wall. I haven't talked to him about this trade yet, but I imagine he's stoked to have his favorite basketball player on the team he roots for only when the Pistons have been eliminated from the playoffs and then only joylessly (but in fairness, that joylessness could partly be attributed to the fact that the only time the Cavs have been in the playoffs longer than the Pistons this decade was last year's Finals when only rubes and dullards were giving Cleveland a chance to win).

Ignoring the rest of the players they're receiving, Wallace is a perfect acquisition for the Cavs. Watching them the past two years, their offense seems to revolve largely around LeBron ISOs which may or may not result in open looks for teammates that are even less likely to be made. If there's one coach whose schemes won't be affected negatively by a complete liability on offense like Big Ben, that man (or woman; I'm not calling Mike Brown a woman, but I don't want to be accused of assuming females, another word for "women," shouldn't/can't/won't coach a professional basketball team with the same level of competence as Brown) is Mike Brown. I'm doubtful anyone will notice they're doing anything differently when he's on the floor.

As for the rest of the players involved, I've liked Wally Szczerbiak with the Sonics; as an overpriced veteran on a bad team playing inconsistent minutes, I was impressed on Tuesday against Memphis that he was still playing as though he cared. His role will be to replace Larry Hughes, or rather play as well as Cleveland would have hoped Hughes would have, but considering his injury history and his inconsistency, luck will be required. Delonte West is another undersized shooting guard to go along with Boobie, but with LeBron being the primary playmaker in the Cleveland offense, he'll be able to spot up and shoot when left open. He and Wally are being brought in as Hughes and Donyell Marshall leave, the later who was specifically signed to do what they're hoping West will, why he'll be more effective in that role than Marshall, I'm not sure, because he's been just as brittle this year and he looks like a cancer patient which won't help anyone.

All in all, it's a positive trade for Cleveland, they've managed to add shooters, a solid defensive center, and a power forward (Joe Smith) who, while not being as a good a rebounder as Gooden, does have a PER around 4 1/2 points higher and haven't further negatively affected their future financial flexibility. Wallace's contract will run two years after this one, but they were going to be stuck with Hughes for just as long, who was probably producing far less than the three million dollar difference between the two player's salaries.

Among members of their rotation, they're losing Ben Wallace and Joe Smith and among players that are likely to play for them that are coming in, they're getting Larry Hughes and Drew Gooden. If this trade means that the Bulls will be playing Aaron Gray, Tyrus Thomas, and Joakim Noah more, that can only be a good thing down the road, but it doesn't allow them to get out from under what they already had, a brutal long term contract given to an overrated player in a shallow free agent market. Hughes, likely to be known only as Larry Hughes' Expiring Contract within a year and a half, gives them a far below-league-average shooting guard who can start while Chicago continues to bring Gordon off the bench. They didn't trade away any of their young pieces but it's hard to imagine they'll be better in the near future, at least with Please Stop Taking So Many Bad Shots' contract affecting their cap.

Couldn't they at least have picked up a draft pick? For Ray Allen, they've now received Jeff Green and expiring deals. I know that certain prognosticators have likened Green to Pippen (and Durant to Jordan), but without jumping the gun, that's seems a tad optimistic. Allen hasn't played as well this year as he had in the past, but he was a top shooting guard not too far beyond his prime and it's disappointing that all the Sonics are able to get back are Adrian Griffin and Donyell Marshall. Szczerbiak, Marshall, and Griffin's contract all expire in two years, so it won't give them a great deal more cap room for next year beyond Newble's expiring deal, I wonder if they'd have been able to get more for Szczerbiak next season.

Cleveland has probably improved, Chicago will be better not having to play Wallace and they avoid acknowledging how horrible a mistake that deal was, but Seattle has done little than to shorten their rotation. They're clearly not trying to win this year or next, but it's hard to think they couldn't have gotten more.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Group A, Day Two.

I wasn't able to watch games the last two mornings --I miss evening classes and not having to worry about getting up past noon on days I don't work, by the way-- so these were my first matches since the triple header and it provided the best game I've seen in the tournament and, thankfully, a close night game. I was dreading the inevitable destruction of Namibia after watching their first match, it's not that I'm usually so empathetic to the failings of athletes (Eli Manning's game against the Minnesota Vikings, for example, was hilarious), but I wasn't anticipating enjoying watching Ghana run all over them, but more on that game in minute.

Guinea v. Morocco
The first half played out with very few chances for either side. Guinea played defense like they had in the second half of the opening game with Ghana, as though their play in the first half of that tie was an aberration, likely due to nerves or something.

Morocco's attack was without Alloudi and, the Cristiano Ronaldo look-a-like, Marouane Chamakh, they looked very little like the side that was up 2-0 within the first five minutes against Namibia. The long balls that were setting up easy opportunities for their strike force were nowhere to be found, as if they were only brought out against the lowest ranked team because who needs to spend a lot of time developing strikes when everything is coming so simply?

They had two shot attempts in the first half. It's possible both were by Youssof Hadji. I know one of them was because I made a note at the time that I have little faith in him actually putting something in the net when he's on goal. Of course, that was before I saw more of Chamakh. Put it this way, it's not surprising that his best play of the first game was passing the ball off the deflection of his own missed strike to Alloudi for the first goal against Namibia. That's likely the closest he's going to come to scoring in this tournament, his touch is awful; were it not, his team likely would've scrounged a point.

Aside from Pascal Feindouno's fantastic free kick from the left side of the penalty area in the 11th minute, neither side were able to get anything by each other until a flurry of goals around the 60th minute. The first was a wonderful set up by Feindouno finished by a perfect strike by Ismael Bangoura; followed by a goal from the just subbed in Hicham Aboucherouane that came from distance and was so quick that the live broadcast was only able to show the ball in the back of the net because they were still replaying Bangoura's shot; a minute later, after a questionable penalty call --the commentator said that if the foul had been committed in the French Ligue, it would have been a free kick; I know from experience that it would have been in FIFA-- Feindouno made it 3-1.

It seemed all but over, unless Morocco had another non-sequitur goal or two in them, but Feindouno was goaded into kicking a defender who had stepped on his foot and was immediately ejected. The resulting half hour, with occasional breaks, the Moroccans were in Guinea's side attempting to close the gap. Despite a few great opportunities, they wouldn't score until the final minute of regulation, and then proceeded to squander the last minute of stoppage time --in which they had a free kick-- feuding with Guinea. It seemed like a waste to me, that maybe they could have used that time to set up something a little better than a long range kick with their last possession of the match, but it's possible there are things about proper late game strategy I need to learn, being a relative neophyte to the game.

Two things things that stood out.
First, early, multiple Guinea players were forced to leave the pitch to cover weddings more than they already were taped up. The guy announcing the game (I've yet to retain the name of any of the people involved in putting on these broadcasts --not knowing most of the players involved, I'm forced to focus my attention on learning those-- by African Cup of Nations 2008 I'm hoping to have that down) seemed to think that the attention these rings were getting was odd. I certainly don't remember this happening in any other game. I wonder if Guinea are notorious for fouling with their rings, if they use them as a brass knuckle or if they attempt to get close to people and pinch them between in the skin of their finger and the band. Either way, this South African ref was abysmal and this had nothing to do with it.

Second, I wasn't initially sure what I thought of Pascal Feindouno after the Sunday. He seemed good and all, but I couldn't tell whether I was under that impression simply because of the attention he received being the captain and everything, but I've definitely come around. He might be my favorite player of the tournament I didn't already know (although Salomon Kalou of the-great-goal-against-Nigeria-fame-who-would-rather-be-playing-for-the-Dutch-national-team is intriguing), the unfortunate red card notwithstanding. Apparently, the rumor is that Blackburn is looking to sign him this month to replace the departed Anelka for a fifth of the money they retained from his sale. I don't know anything, really, but it seems like a good deal to me.

Ghana v. Namibia
Ghana dominated this match. Really, it played a lot like the first half of the kick-off match. Ghana with over 60% of possession, getting chance after chance, missing all of them (except, of course, the Agogo off-the-keeper chip). It's possible that I've just seen three really mediocre halves from an ordinarily really good team, but I wonder if they weren't the home team if they would have won either of these matches. Despite having the ball, roughly, 38% of the time and being out shot 20-7, Namibia really could have tied this game and put a lot of pressure on Ghana to even qualify for the next round. It's possible they're one of those teams that play down to their competition, but save for a great long distance goal from Muntari at the end of the opener and Agogo miraculously not missing the goal from 5 feet out, I don't know if they're capable of actually finishing. I think Morocco can beat them (and obviously Guinea can beat Namibia) and potentially eliminate them from the tournament. Either way, it should be an exciting final day, on Monday, for these four sides. Well, three of them.

Claude LeRoy was wearing a black jacket and a black v-neck sweater.

Monday, January 21, 2008

African Triple Header.

Last night I drank a beer and a bottle of wine and won trivial pursuit and got to bed at around one in the morning still feeling pretty drunk. I point this out, not trying to brag about my fast-lane lifestyle, but to establish, roughly, how I was feeling when I woke up at 6:45 this morning to get prepared to watch the first of three soccer matches. My head hurt, I was tired, and I was starting to get hungry.

Morocco vs. Namibia
Apparently there were only two thousand people in the stands to watch this one, after 45,000 watched the home team Ghana vanquish Guinea yesterday. I guess there are only so many people willing to wake up at 6:45 in the morning, hungover, ready to watch --if the experts at the FIFA rankings department would have you believe-- a likely rout. I put my faith in the experts and make it a point to believe what they'd have me believe and I was rewarded with having an idea of what I was in for.

Soufiane Alloudi scored two goals in the first five minutes and a third in the 28th minute that effectively ended it with an hour to play. Namibia's Brian Brendell scored in the 24th to make it 2-1, but that would be their only score. I went to Wikipedia a couple of minutes after Alloudi scored his hat trick and his profile had already been updated to reflect what he'd done in the match, I didn't check to see how quickly whoever is doing that fine work would mention the injury he sustained in the second half, but I do know that it's up there now.

Considering how much of their offense came from the feet and head of the forward, it'll be interesting to see how they'll fare in their next matches against tougher opposition without him if he's unable to perform. He was walking with a distinct limp and grimacing with each step as the cameras showed him walking toward the dressing room after full-time. It's difficult to know just how good he was, and how much of his production was the product of the performance of his teammates, the first and third goals were set up brilliantly, requiring him to do little more than be in the right place at the right time, but I suppose he does deserve credit for being there, and that second goal was superb.

Delightfully, Claude LeRoy made another appearance on my computer screen as he was shown scouting his group opponents. In a tournament with few compelling-enough-for-me stories, so far, I'm pleased to see as much of him as possible.

Nigeria vs. Ivory Coast
At halftime of the first match, I was considering dozing off, Morocco was effectively running the clock and Namibia wasn't about to make it interesting, but I stayed awake and alert for fear that if I did nod, I'd miss the start of this match. I realized as the lineups were announced that all three of the players I specifically cited in my first entry were playing in this game, and it figured to be an exciting match. For the most part it wasn't, but how much of that was due to my own condition could be debated.

Through the first half, Ivory Coast excelled in controlling possession, but it was Nigeria that had the chances. The cliched allusion of two heavyweight fighters, perhaps, feeling each other out before throwing hay-makers came to mind, but that seemed rather hopeful until around the end of the first hour, when both teams traded strikes on goal. Ultimately, it was Salomon Kalou, taking on the entire Nigerian defense who put the only score on the board in the 66th minute. It was a fantastic goal, I wouldn't be surprised to see it go down as the best of the tournament.

Ivory Coast had a few more attacks in them, but eventually the pace would slow back down with Nigeria unable to find an equalizer late. I assume that frenetic pace of Morocco's attack in the first game was largely due to the inferior quality of their opponent, and that they wouldn't fare as well if they were going against a class side like either of the two in this match, but it was still disappointing that the first twenty-five minutes of the earlier game, when Namibia appeared to still have a chance, were more exciting than all but a quick stretch of this heavily touted showdown.

Mali vs. Benin
I assumed Mali would roll here, not because I know anything about African soccer, just due to the disparity between the two in the CAF rankings. Benin mounted serious attacks infrequently, mostly relying on a bend-not-break defensive approach, I imagine in hopes of trying to steal a 1-0 decision or, at the worst, a point. Going against a much better side, it makes sense, I know when I play video games (it doesn't matter the sport) against significantly higher rated opponents, I like to play ball control offense and limit possessions, but unfortunately, Mali received a penalty and that would be the only goal for either side.

There's a widely held belief that the best tournaments, the best finishes, are when the perceived top powers meet in the finals. The most recent occasion I've heard someone say this was in reference to March Madness, that it's ultimately better when it's North Carolina meeting Duke meeting UCLA meeting Georgetown than when there's a George Mason or an Evansville or a what-have-you. It's a theory I'm not sure there's much to.

I watched Super Saturday last year, when four big conference powers and top seeds met up, and it was horrible basketball. Maybe my expectations were too high, but I had been convinced going in that both games were "must see" action, when they wound up both being extraordinarily (they went above and beyond) boring.

I guess what I'm getting to, with this aside, is that I'm really rooting for an underdog to come out of this first round. The last ten minutes of this match, in which Benin was peppering the Mali goal, was pretty fantastic, and I was really hoping they could even it up and perhaps be that energy drink with the black horse on it (if you're not watching African television, you're not getting that reference). I imagine that if, and likely when, the top clubs advance that there will be some great action, with one complete game on par with the best moments of the first two days, but it will feel like something is missing if a mild upset doesn't occur.

I firmly believe that on the right day George Mason can make for better basketball than UCLA (and I've seen UCLA on the wrong day, so I feel like I know what I'm talking about there) and I hope this tournament has one.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Ghana & Guinea.

As I watch more of these matches, I'm sure I'll come away with a better idea of what I should expect as far as quality of play is concerned. It seemed choppy early, particularly in contrast to thirty minutes of the Barcelona v. Racing match I watched a replay of later this evening. It's possible that was due to nerves, the halftime analysts said that the opening match is usually of poor quality, so maybe tomorrow will be make for a better 90 minutes, rather than 90 minutes of alright with intermittent flashes of brilliance.

As for the game, it was only surprising it was as close as it was. After a few early chances for Guinea, Ghana dominated the rest of the first half, maintaining possession for nearly 60% of the period. They had an 11-1 corner advantage and should have found themselves up, with at least something on the board after three shot attempts knocked off the woodwork, including one hitting the inside and bouncing out. Guinea was lucky to still have a chance at a point.

Both teams would get on the board in the second, Asamoah Gyan knocked in a penalty, ten minutes later, Oumar Kalabane tied it up with a header off a corner. The quality of the challenge on the play that led to the penalty, and the ensuing first goal, was debatable, on one hand Kalabane missed the ball, but it still didn't really look as though he made significant contact with Agogo. I wonder about the art of the flop, and if the referee would have made the same decision had Agogo stayed down on the pitch and writhed, rather than rolling and quickly getting back up. However questionable the call, it was a brilliant play on his part, not over-selling the contact.

Ultimately, the team I'd incorrectly assumed was the favorite won, and in spectacular fashion. In a game full of missed chances, Sully Muntari's impeccable game winner from about 25 yards out in the 89th minute seemed a near miracle. By that time I was openly rooting for Guinea, that a point should have been theirs, as Ghana had appeared desperate late to come away with more, relying on the long ball and forgoing the midfield in order to create quick shot attempts. I was disappointed Guinea weren't able to hold on, but at least the defeat came after a fantastic shot.

Also, and maybe it's just me, but Claude LeRoy, aka "The White Witch Doctor" needs more screen time. The horrified gasp in the room that came after the close-up of him smiling was priceless. Apparently he looks exactly like Mad-Eye Moody from Harry Potter. Who knew?