Monday, December 24, 2007

Bobcats Thoughts, 12/24

On Friday night—ahh, at last—the Knicks came to town! I could practically see MJ standing by the Knicks’ team bus as it pulled up, shaking their hands with each player as he stepped off. "Welcome, Zeke, always great to have you; and who’s this little man brought with you—Z-Bo? Great, great trade, by the way." We have to be nice to these guys, because let’s face it: now that Atlanta’s gotten all respectable and whatnot, and Sacramento’s buffoonish Maloof brothers have either died or are holed up in a hotel casino, snorting coke and lighting firecrackers, I feel like the Knicks are the only ones preventing us from becoming the #1 league-wide joke.

On the other hand, what a safety net! The Knicks continue to be a sad burlesque of a franchise, the type of disaster that when Quentin Richardson and Isiah Thomas get into a heated and very public exchange (as they did tonight), it’s considered to be progress. Although New York didn’t have Starbury suiting up, he still managed to come through with his own wonderful magic. Just before tip-off, the latest issue of Dime magazine found its way to my mailbox, and it contains a gem of an interview with Steph. Here’s the best part:

Dime: People were emailing links to the videos of your interviews, especially the Bruce Beck appearance.
Marbury: And saying that I’m on coke? That I’m on crack, right?
Dime: You guys have known each other for a while, right?
Marbury: Yeah…now here I am having fun, bugging out, tripping out…and so now I’m crazy? So now I’m on crack?
Dime: The word “crazy” has been attached to you a lot lately when people are talking about you.
Marbury: Yeah, that and I’m on crack.

Oh, Steph, promise me you’ll never change; you’re a candle in the wind. Anyway, after a frighteningly competitive first few minutes, we went on a 23-7 run to take control of the game, en route to 67 first-half points. We could have actually gone scoreless for the first eight minutes of the second quarter and still just been tied—so ineffective was New York. With guys like Eddy Curry and Zach Randolph, it’s always to tough to figure out whether they’re just not trying hard, or they’re simply too overweight to move very fast; I guess it’s two sides of the same coin.

And for all the talk you always hear about how Zeke needs to play David Lee more, yowsers, he was really bad. He shot just 5-13 from the field—and these weren’t exactly half-court attempts, if you catch my drift—plus he made just 1-of-6 free throws and had four turnovers, each of which was spectacularly awful. Meanwhile, our own big guys came to play. Our savior (Nazr) Mohammed had 20 points, 14 boards, and 4 blocks, while Okafor had 17 and 8. In fact, every starter scored into double-digits, led by Gerald Wallace with 27.

In the 3rd quarter, when we pushed the lead out to 29, Thomas began benching his players. But after the jawing session with Richardson, I was halfway expecting him to do something completely radical, like reassign positions at random—maybe put in Nate Robinson at center with Curry running the point. Instead, the Knicks buckled down a bit and made things a little more interesting at the end. But with Lee clanking foul shots and a slew of missed put-backs by the Knicks, plus our 50% shooting, things were never really in doubt. I just hope Jordan left them some nice mints in their lockers; they’re welcome them back anytime.

Sadly, the good times didn’t continue the next night in Milwaukee. Things started with a calamitous road trip, featuring inclement weather, delayed flights, bus trips, and pretty much everything but John Candy trying to sell Sam Vincent some shower curtain rings. The team arrived only a few minutes before tip off, and the Bucks had target-lock on the hoop. And though we fought hard to come back out of double-digit wilderness by shooting over 50% for the second straight night, it’s like saying Sal Maglie pitched a great game against Don Larsen in the 1956 World Series, because the Bucks were just about perfect. By my count, Milwaukee scored on 12 of their first 14 possessions to start the 3rd quarter, stretching an 11-point halftime lead out to 22.

The chief perfectionist was Yi Jianlian, who hit his first 12 from the field and finished 14-17. These weren’t point-blank makes either; most of them were long-range baseline 2’s. In my opinion, this will go down as one of the more unheralded-but-extraordinary performances of the season. Mo Williams was the runner-up MVP, hitting 9-of-20 for 22 points, penetrating often, and assisting more than public housing. Oddly, Michael Redd was the weak link for the Bucks tonight, missing a ton of open shots (10-of-27).

All in all though, things still seem to be looking up slightly as we cruise into the holiday break. I’ve been downplaying the now-famous Jordan-run practice a few days ago, because I didn’t think it would amount to anything. Because the Observer’s Scott Fowler basically described it as a repeated succession of Jordan shooting and scoring on our guys, my thought at the time was, did he teach us anything other than getting schooled? I mean, don’t we already have that part down? But who knows, maybe he’s injected some guts and leadership into our guys. Oh yeah, there’s also that little Primoz-for-Nazr deal, which has been an upgrade worthy of a show called “Pimp My Center.”

Friday, December 21, 2007

Bobcats Thoughts, 12/21

Very strange win against Utah on Wednesday night. The Jazz were (was?) up by 12 points late in the fourth and completely derailed. Usually when I’m watching a team unravel like that, a) it happens in the 3rd quarter, and b) it’s our team. And actually, I missed a lot of our run for this one. In fact, after Andrei Kirilenko sank two free throws to make the score 86-74, my personal contribution to the amazing comeback that followed was sighing dejectedly and going off to brush my teeth. Meanwhile, the Jazz went on to miss two layups, throw a horrible pass out-of-bounds (courtesy of Derron Williams), and commit 4 fouls and a shot clock violation over the next few minutes. By the time I came back for a cursory check of what I thought would be a deficit somewhere in the high teens, we were actually UP a point.

And it only got worse from there for Utah, who seemed to be on some sort of suicide mission without any upside. They were like Bruce Willis at the end of the movie Armageddon, only if his explosion didn’t blow up the asteroid and save the world but simply paid for some acting lessons for Liv Tyler. Actually, even that would have been a small upside. So I don’t know what happened with the Jazz, but what I do know is this: any of you Carlos Boozer-for-MVP campaigners out there might want to hide the tape of this game, just like Rudi Giuliani backers might want to shred any Econo Lodge and Motel 6 receipts from 2000-01 that they come across. The Booze scored a grand total of 2 points over the last 6 minutes, committed three fouls, a turnover, and had just one board.

The Bobcats, on the other hand, hit the boards like a bong, getting key rebounds from not just Gerald Wallace and Emeka Okafor, but also J-Rich, Felton, and even Matt Carroll. Crash had an absolutely Kareem-tastic block-and-steal on a seemingly wide open Ronnie Brewer layup with 90-seconds left that preserved a 3-point lead, and Felton’s subsequent free throws iced it. And speaking of which, what’s with the sudden foul shooting proficiency? I counted 20-of-22 foul shots made in the fourth. The only explanation I have is that the Knicks beat Cleveland by 18—there was just something in the NBA air tonight, and not even Phil Collins could feel it coming.

And look at Nazr Mohammed! He catches, he rebounds, he blocks, he…he…does things. With those two stuffs he had down the stretch, Nazr not only helped save the game, I think he also passed Primoz Brezec on the Bobcats’ all-time shot-block list. Sure, Nazr only had 17 points, which isn’t amazing or anything, but you know what this is like? This is like getting an appliance for the first time that most people already have. Like if you just now bought a microwave, or even better: a dishwasher. Let's say that until now you’ve just been making due by scrubbing all of your dishes with soap, and then one day you finally get a dishwasher, and it’s like magic! And then you try to tell everyone at work how amazing it is to have a dishwasher, and they’re looking at you like you’re insane, because they’ve never NOT had a dishwasher. That’s what Nazr Mohammed’s like. We’ve essentially been making due without a center this entire time, which most NBA teams have, and even though we just got the basic version, it’s completely going to transform our lives for the better. I think this is what people are overlooking when they criticize the Brezec-Herrmann/Mohammed deal.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

NFL Thoughts, Week 15

If the analysis I did last week were drugs, it’d be marijuana: a gateway, experimental narcotic that leads to much more addictive ones. It was supposed to just be for recreation, all in good fun—“hey, everyone else on the internet’s doing it, how bad could it be?”—and now look at me, I’m completely strung out on stats.

If you recall at the end of my Week 14 thoughts, I realized that I hadn’t fully answered my own question about how important special teams units are to a team’s overall success, and that there were many other ways of looking at it. Thus I began fiending for more analysis, and now I’m fresh off a marathon binge of numbers-crunching that will probably cost me my job and my family, all in an effort to seek that euphoric knowledge high. And though I’ve got a more complete perspective on that special teams question, I’m STILL not satisfied—there’s more I can do! It’s like I’ve gone from the pot of results comparisons last week to the crack-cocaine of percentages THIS week, and I’m basically one week away from the full-fledged crystal meth of positive and negative correlations. No more! I must stop before you catch me in a gutter somewhere, turning tricks in exchange for hits off of someone’s Excel spreadsheet.

But all that said, what a rush! I feel like Motley Crue’s Vince Neil or Poison’s CC DeVille anytime they’re interviewed on one of those lame “Behind the Music” documentaries. Sure, they’re a mess now, and they’d take back all of the coke, strippers, etc. if they could, but there’s an unmistakable gleam of nostalgia in their eyes when they talk about it.

So here’s what I did: in my continuing quest to figure out the importance of special teams, I’ve chopped up six years’ worth of overall team stats and injected them into my MS Office Excel, then snorted them into my brain (and vomited out results, I guess, to complete the entirely unnecessarily graphic analogy). I chose three offensive categories: total yards, total points, and total giveaways (lost fumbles + interceptions). Then I selected three defensive categories: total yards allowed, total points allowed, and total takeaways (recovered fumbles + interceptions). Then I used the same six special team categories I used last year: kickoff return yards, kickoff return touchdowns, punt return yards, punt return touchdowns, % of punts that pinned the opposition inside the 20, and average net yards per punt.

Having selected my stats, I went through every single category for each season’s playoff teams and checked whether or not it was within the Top-12 for that year. The two exceptions to the “Top 12 Test” were the kickoff returns and punt returns for touchdowns, in which case I observed whether or not the team had more of two of them (the vast majority of teams only return 1 or fewer kickoffs and punts for touchdowns each year). If this sounds easy to do, it’s not. In fact, I’m not even sure it sounds easy—just trying to describe what I did is giving me a contact high.

So having done all that, it was time for a little subjectivity (subjectivity is the statistician’s chaser). I decided that a team’s overall offense was “stellar” if it ranked in the top-12 in all three categories, “good” if it was top-12 in 2-out-of-3, “bad” if it was top-12 in just 1-out-of-3, and “awful” if it wasn’t in the top-12 in any category (considering that I was only dealing with playoff teams, there were a surprising number of “bads” and “awfuls”—more on that later). Then I did the exact same thing with the defensive categories. Special teams were a little trickier, because I had six categories, rather than just three. So I decided that 5 or 6 top-12 categories rated a “stellar,” 3 or 4 rated a “good,” 2 rated a “bad,” and 1 or 0 warranted an “awful.”

Then it was time for the ultimate trip: the results. Of the 72 playoff teams of the past 6 years, 25 had “bad” or “awful” offenses, 25 “bad” or “awful” defenses, and a whopping 47 “bad” or “awful” special teams. So by that measure, special teams are far less important than the other two units. Incidentally, there were more “stellar” offenses than defenses (26 to 19), and fewer “awful” offenses than defenses (9 to 11) among the playoff teams, so I suppose that great offenses are better than great defenses—contrary to all we hear about defenses winning to championships. And yet, there are probably other ways to answer this…STOP! I better stop right there before the cops are surrounding my apartment, and someone with a megaphone is telling me to “step away from the laptop.”

Back to special teams! Of those 72 playoff teams, four of them actually had “good” or “stellar” special teams and “bad” or “awful” offenses and defenses. So by that count, it would seem that special teams CAN actually carry a team to the playoffs…until you try the same measurement with offenses and defenses and find that 13 “good” or “stellar” offenses have overcome “bad” or “awful” defenses and special teams through the years. Similarly 15 “good” or “stellar” defenses have overcome offenses and special teams that were both either “bad” or “awful.” So once again, the stats show that the significance of crack special teams units should be marginalized (AND that defense might be more important than offense, but again, I’ll stop right there).

Let’s see, was there anything else? Is that all I have to show for this? I guess there was one other thing: just for kicks, I was wondering how many were playoff teams were “good” or “stellar” in ALL THREE categories (offense, defense, and special teams), and it turns out that there have been 13. And of course, then I had no choice but to find out if/how many teams have been “bad” or “awful” in all three areas, and there have actually been 3, believe it or not: last year’s Giants (which most New Yorkers probably have NO PROBLEM believing), the 2004-05 Rams, and last year’s Seahawks, who happened to be the only playoff team of the last 6 years with the dubious honor of being “awful” in all three categories. So if you’re a fan of those any of those franchises and have been feeling vaguely guilty for criticizing them even though they made the playoffs, Merry Christmas from me.

So anyway, the conclusion is…ummm, I forgot the question was at this point. Oh yeah, with very few exceptions, special teams are pretty much not that important…which is actually what all of us know intuitively in the first place. I’ve basically accomplished nothing. I suppose I’m at least a good cautionary tale. Stay away from spreadsheets, kids, because they’ll ruin your life. Try smoking pot instead…

Defensive Player of the Week: Scott Fujita, Saints. 10 tackles, 2 sacks, and a FF kept the playoff dream alive for the Saints against Arizona. Too bad he can’t run the ball for Reggie Bush and Deuce McAllister.

Offensive Player of the Week: Fred Taylor, Jaguars. Taylor’s 147 yards and a TD on 25 carries against a solid Steelers defense keyed a huge road victory for the Jags. From now on, Fred Taylor should be an adjective that describes a consistently excellent player who nonetheless flies under the radar for most of his career, as in “Curtis Martin had a very Fred Taylor-ish career.” Incidentally, this week’s runner up, Jamal Lewis could also describe a player who’s great even after he does an extended stint in prison. For instance, in 2010, we could all be saying, “Mike Vick just pulled a great Jamal Lewis.”

Monday, December 17, 2007

We moved Primoz? Great Trade! Who’d We Get?

Friday had to be one of the strangest days in Bobcats history—second only to the day ownership decided to give Charlotte’s new team the name “Bobcats.” Just a couple of nights after there was no television coverage of our game against the Clips whatsoever, ESPN ran a virtual all-day, um, “extravaganza” of “Insider Access” to Charlotte’s pre-game shootaround, conversations with Sam Vincent, Michael Jordan, Bob Johnson, a little fun with Jared Dudley, a gritty rehab session with Adam Morrison (remember him?), and a comically staged “meeting” of the coaching staff. All of this build-up culminated dramatically with a…total blowout by the vastly superior Orlando Magic.

If you’ve ever read an issue of Blender magazine, you know that every month they like to do a review of some longtime artist’s entire repertoire of albums (e.g., all of Bob Dylan’s work). The best part about the review is the way they divide up the albums into descending levels of quality. Instead of using plain old 1-4 stars, the category headers are “Essential,” “Great,” “Check It Out,” “Be Careful,” and “For Fans Only.” ESPN’s Insider Access was definitely for Bobcats fans only.

The screwiest part of the whole thing was the Bobcats had a real-live, major, behind-the-scenes deal actually happen: the trading of Primoz Brezec and Walter Herrmann to the Pistons for Nazr Muhammed. How amazing (and yes, I admit it, delightful) would it have been if ESPN had had a camera crew follow Vincent, Higgins, Jordan, or whoever it was who ultimately broke the news to Primo, as he walked up to the big guy, tapped him on the shoulder, and gave him the axe? What was Primoz’s reaction? Did he burst into tears? Did he leap for joy? Did he get suddenly terrified at the thought of playing with Rasheed Wallace? I’d believe any of those scenarios. Instead we just got a bunch of canned interviews—ESPN blew a golden opportunity on that one. It’s also weird when you go back and look at the clips later--which you can do on the web site--as there’s Primoz doing his thing in the morning shootaround, there’s Dudley showing off his merchandise at the team store, etc. It’s all pretty ghostly.

The one thing that’s worth looking at is Vincent’s meeting with the staff, which is unintentionally hilarious. Vincent clearly already had the real meeting prior to the taped one, so here he’s more or less “reenacting one”—the way all the staff members are vigorously nodding to his generic instructions is the dead giveaway. The meeting also leaves a couple of questions unanswered. First, there’s the decision in the “meeting” to send Jermareo Davidson down to the NBDL, yet he suited up for us that night and even played the next night in Atlanta—so what happened, did the Primoz trade nix that? Second, what’s with the mysterious Starbucks drink? It appears in various clips yet doesn’t always have a clear owner—so is it the same one, or is the whole staff hooked, or is one of them just serially addicted? I need to know these things.

As for the trade, Muhammed is slightly shorter than Brezec, costs about $3 million more (although he costs less than Anderson Varejao), and has more years on his contract, while Brezec’s was expiring this year (although it’s not like we’re on the hook with Theo Ratliff-levels of pain). Other than that, as far as I can see, it’s upgrades across the board, particularly in the areas of rebounds and simple ball handling. For the last two seasons, I swear, our guys almost couldn’t pass to Brezec without something bad happening. I’m convinced that his listed turnover rate this year, .81, was not even CLOSE to capturing the number of blunders he committed. I think it’s kind of like incomplete passes for quarterbacks in football, which almost always side with the receiver rather than the passer in terms of assigning the blame. Trust me, the number of times a pass in his direction resulted in a lost possession would have made for a deadly drinking game.

Herrmann gets a big fat “inconclusive” for his brief time here. Besides his hair, his biggest crime was playing in the one position in which we have depth to deal, particularly when you factor in Sean May and Morrison, who are untradeable right now with their injuries. If Walter had exhibited more down-and-dirty defensive prowess, he would have been more necessary. Instead (say the following line in a low, Carl Weathers growl:) he’s an asset, an expendable asset, and GM Rod Higgins used him to get the job done, got it?

The Bobcats’ subsequent two post-trade games were both dreadful affairs in which we were competitive in the first half, and then ignominiously clank-happy in the second. The first one was on ESPN, the second one took place in a desolate, quarantined-looking Phillips Arena in front of about 25 former WCW fans wearing Sting and Lex Lugar t-shirts. Dwight Howard was unstoppable in the first game, Joe Johnson was unstoppable in the second game, and Jason Richardson was highly stoppable in both games. In fact, I’m not even sure if these games rated high enough to be "for fans only"; they might have only been fun for future serial killers who have nothing better to do with themselves on Friday and Saturday night only (e.g., me).

Friday, December 14, 2007

Bobcats Thoughts, 12/14

The Bobcats are now 3-0 in games that aren’t televised. By myself, I probably represent 50% of Charlotte’s out-of-market fan base, so I think I speak for most of us when I tell you, League Pass, that we do NOT appreciate shelling out all that cash to see our beloved franchise, with its rich history, etc., only to tune in and find the game’s NOT on—especially when they’re playing a big-time powerhouse like the Clippers. It’s bad enough that I’m marooned up here in NYC, where every time I take my dog for a walk I’ve got to be careful that he doesn’t start chewing on a discarded syringe or licking a homeless guy’s urine bottle, but now I’ve got to fill up this column with lame, unfunny jokes instead of analysis because I CAN’T WATCH MY TEAM. And then, to top it off, it looks like they went out and played reasonably well! And considering they’ve only won 8 games total, I’ve missed practically half of them.

Anyway, after I flipped through the 401-412 channels, began drifting into the porn-on-demand region, and eventually accepted that the game wouldn’t be on, I realized that my only alternatives were the Knicks-Sonics game and E3: The Extra Testicle. Considering both were crude productions put on by people with limited abilities, it was kind of a tough choice. But I went with Knicks game, just to get a look at Kevin Durant. K-Smoove was definitely solid with 30 points, and yet…it was accomplished so incrementally—4 in the first quarter, 7 in the second, 10 in the third, 9 in the fourth, and he almost never scored more than twice in a row—that you never felt him taking over the game. Of course, his athleticism is there, and he’s willing to drive to the hoop despite having less bulk than a Kenyan marathoner, and all of this at 19—yikes, he could become the biggest one-man-wrecking crew since Gandhi 2.

On the opposite end of realized potential, I also fixated on Chris Wilcox. I can’t help but feel disappointed by him. It’s not that bigger things were expected from him coming out of Maryland 5 years ago, but…I guess that’s it, actually: bigger things weren’t expected of him. Forget about his PPG; if you look at him, he’s so naturally big and strong, that how could he only be averaging 5.5 rebounds for his career? And just .41 blocks a game?? I mean, the guy’s 6’-10”. I remember after Greg Oden announced he’d be missing the season, Bill Simmons had an excellent article about how some big guys “fill out” their size and weight better than others. Well, Wilcox is excellently proportioned, and yet you can tell he does nothing to improve upon it. And look at Hollinger’s scouting report on “he has no post game at all and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen him attempt a real jump shot.” Well, to be blunt, that tells me he’s really not practicing. So what's he doing with himself? I guess just coasting on $6.5 million per. For the general, non-NBA-adoring public, there’s always going to be a disproportionate amount of coverage devoted to “thuggish” behavior, but for those of us who care about it, it’s guys like Wilcox who will frustrate us much more.

So, how’s this for a 180-degree turn: we go from no television coverage at all to prime-time national coverage on ESPN tonight. It’s okay, though, it’s Orlando, and as everyone knows from last year, we own these guys on prime-time TV.

Romance Tip of the Week: Any of you fellas with better halves out there want some guaranteed action? Take 'em to see Juno ASAP. It’s not all that funny, the dialogue is completely unrealistic (EVERYONE, including and especially little kids, zing each other nonstop with late-night talk show-caliber one-liners), and an annoying amateur acoustic song breaks out approximately every 2.5 seconds, but trust me: the women will love it. Not only is there heartwarming romance (the audience in my particular theatre seemed ready to fawn from the giddy-up; there were tons of "Aww"s) in the mood, but there are tons of gal-pal scenes and “you-go-girl” moments—highlighted by Juno’s step-mom going ballistic on an ultrasound technician for whom I felt kind of sorry—that will unleash the tiger in them. For just a 90-minute investment, you can’t miss…

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

NFL Thoughts, Week 14

This year, Nate Burleson, Leon Washington, and Josh Cribbs have emerged as celebrity threats to run kickoffs and punts back for touchdowns at any moment. Meanwhile, Devin Hester has solidified himself as a bona fide rock star in Chicago for his highly specialized explosiveness. As a whole, there have already been 35 punts or kickoffs returned for touchdowns this year, compared to 24 for all of last season. Overall, this might be the sexiest year ever for kickoff and punt returns.

Do all these new flashy, special team stuntmen spell total anarchy for the NFL? Not really. Of the ten teams who’ve scored more than one touchdown on kickoff and/or punt returns, only 5 would be in the playoffs if the season ended today. Further, the non-playoff Bears lead the league with 5 TD returns, and the non-playoff Ravens are tied for second with 3. So even the best, most dangerous return teams haven’t given their organizations much of a competitive advantage. Similarly, of the 12 current playoff-bound teams, only 7 are among the league leaders in combined kickoff/punt return averages (Buffalo’s #1). So do special teams have any special significance? Or are they all style and no substance?

I went back to the 2002-2003 season and examined the past 5 years’ worth of special teams data. Focusing on what I thought to the most significant stats for kickoff and punt returns, I selected six of them. Four were offensive: average kickoff return yards, total kickoff returns for touchdowns, average punt return yards, and total punt returns for touchdowns. Subsequently, two of them were defensive: the average net yardage allowed on punt returns (meaning the average of the punt itself minus the amount returned by the opposing team), and the percentage of punts that pin the opposing team inside their own 20-yard line.

What I found is that of the twelve playoff teams each year, only 5 of them on average were among the top-12 in kickoff return yards. Only 4.4 of them on average were among the top-12 in punt return yardage. The net-return yardage allowed stats were even LESS indicative of a team’s success, as only 4.2 playoff teams on average were among the top-12. And the touchdown return numbers seemed the least significant of all: there were usually about 20 teams each year who didn’t return a single punt or kickoff back for a touchdown the entire season, and anywhere from 6-to-9 of those teams were playoff participants. So while brilliant kickoff and punting performances might provide dramatic plot twists to individual games, their ability to enhance a team’s playoff chances over the entire season are marginal at best.

The one stat that did seem to matter—albeit slightly—was that %-inside-the-20 one, in which 5.2 of the playoff teams on average were in the annual top-12. More telling was the fact that in two of the five years, 2 of the top 3 teams in that category were playoff teams. And one season, 2004-2005, the top-3 teams in %-inside-the-20 were ALL playoff teams.
These results are somewhat intuitive. Good teams are going to have fewer kickoff return opportunities in general, because the opposing teams won’t be scoring field goals and touchdowns against them as much. And I would have to assume that most kicks end in simple touchbacks, although I could find the actual percentage anywhere. Moreover, good teams will probably be receiving more onsides-kicks from desperate teams who they are leading late in games, which again would damper their return yard averages. And when they DO receive regular kickoffs and punts, good teams will normally be ahead on the scoreboard, and therefore less likely to try and “make something happen,” opting instead to just take a touchback or a fair catch.

As for net punt yardage allowed, bad teams will more often than not be punting from deep inside their own territory, and therefore their punters can blast the ball as hard and far away as possible, which will increase the likelihood of a high net yardage. Good teams, on the other hand, will usually be punting from advantageous field position, resulting in lower net yardage and a higher percentage of punts that end up inside the opposition’s 20-yard line. Thus, these stats are all circumstantially explicable, and do not seem to indicate that a new generation of return superheroes can carry their teams to glory.

So the conclusion is that crack kickoff and punt units have no real correlation with their team’s overall success. And yet…to be thorough, I should probably check out overall offensive and defensive statistics and examine their correlations. What if they’re equally insignificant? What if, say, only about half the playoff teams each year are among the best in yards/game or yards allowed/game? Hmm. Or what about teams that have really good special team stats, but are otherwise mediocre-to-poor offensively and defensively? Then you could make the case that special teams are extremely significant, because there’d be no other explanation. That would probably be a better way to approach this question. Or maybe I should just not do anything and enjoy the games. After all, as my statistics professor liked to say, the numbers will tell you anything if you torture them long enough.

Offensive Player of the Week: Tom Brady, Patriots. 32-46 for 399 yards, 4 TDs, and 0 picks, all against the #1 rated defense in the league. Plus he dished out some Stone Cold Steve Austin-style trash-talking to Anthony Smith like he just gave him a stunner. The ratings for this week’s game against the Jets should be huge, and not without an element of bloodlust, because it’s going to go down like a public hanging.

Defensive Player of the Week: Gary Brackett, Colts. 9 tackles and 2 interceptions, one for 49-yards. Like most Jersey guys, Brackett’s a 5-11, 230 lb.-schlubby dude who went to Rutgers. Unlike most Jersey guys, he’s got 102 tackles on the season and is a key ingredient of the reigning world champions’ ferocious defense.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Bobcats Thoughts, 12/10

It’s been 7 hours and 15 days…since you took your buzzer-beater, Ray Allen—nothing compares 2 U. Ever since Walter Ray ripped our collective heart out and showed it to us before we died, we’ve been performing worse than a mortgage-backed security; we ought to change our names to the "Charlotte Structured Investment Vehicles." Thus I was as excited about Saturday’s game with Cleveland as I normally am about cleaning my cat’s litter box. There just wasn’t anything to look forward to in this one, not even watching LeBron plow through us, because he wasn’t suiting up. The other thing about LeBron is he offers a built-in excuse for losing—without him in there, it’d be a modified version of the Toronto game, and the only thing to do would be to just accept that we really, really suck.

For a while, it looked like Larry Hughes would be more than happy to remove that embarrassment, as he returned to the lineup, looked buffer than Brad Pitt in Troy, and played like a dynamo. Hughes had been out for so long that no one even remembers what it was that he injured in the first place, including Hughes. Yet Larry Hughes ran through us like Larry Davis, getting 22 points in 26 minutes. The Cavs also proved that they do have a couple other guys who can play, including guards Daniel Gibson (15 points), who made a name for himself against Detroit in last year’s playoffs (unfortunately, that name ended up being “Boobie”), and Shannon Brown (15 points). LeBron was there in spirit as well, although—sadly—not in turtleneck. Fortunately, he did rock a fabulous, multicolored vest straight off the 1990 In Living Color set as he cheered his teammates from the sidelines.

Still, this was yet another terrible game between two bad teams. There were 47 turnovers, 79 free throws, and a horrifying finish that nearly defies description. The good news is that Raymond Felton scored 8 points in the final 16 seconds to break our 7-game losing streak. The bad news is that the 8 points were all foul shots, meaning those 16 seconds of game time took approximately 2-and-a-half hours of REAL time to elapse and caused anyone who actually sat through it all to contemplate grabbing a knife and stabbing themselves repeatedly, Exorcist-style. Raymond showed some true grit for this performance, but he would never have had to do it if not for two monumentally, fantastically, spectacularly stupid fouls by Jason Richardson and Gerald Wallace, both of which stopped the clock and allowed the Cavs to get close enough to continue fouling. A sort of combination miniature golf/free-throw game ensued, in which both teams walked back and forth across the court, took foul shots, and called lots of timeouts. I’m still floored by the sheer atrociousness of the experience. It was like watching a fight to the death between Sasha Vuyacic and Dan Dickau, with the winner advancing to face Luke Ridnour.

Besides Felton’s clutch play, Gerald Wallace had a brilliant night—other than that foul on Gibson…on a 3-pointer…(stab-stab-stab). Crash notched 22 points, 7 rebounds, 5 blocks (including a game-saver on a wide-open, waltzing-in-for-an-easy-layup Zydrunas Ilgauskus), and 4 steals. Wallace was so good, at times he seemed like the only one moving out there, like he was Hiro Nakamura and he had frozen time and space to swipe passes.

The thing that confused me was Coach Mike Brown’s decision to limit Drew Gooden to just 22 minutes. He does know how weak we are in the front court, right? Why not beef up with his two big power forwards? Especially since at this point, our options down low are pretty much limited to a) Emeka Okafor, and b) trying to angle passes off Primoz Brezec’s hands in such a way that after he inevitably drops them, they either ricochet to a teammate and/or into the basket—it’s become like a carnival game.

Anyway, I think the time we had to savor the victory was less than those last 16 seconds, because it was immediately onto Detroit for a Sunday mid-afternoon showdown with the Pistons. This one had nothing unexpected about it, as Detroit jumped out to a 22-10 lead, repeatedly doubled us up in scoring, and pounded us against the wall like Sunny Corleone on a bridesmaid—no alarms and no surprises…

As expected, the Back-to-Back Games Excuse Meter was cranked up to 10 for this 104-85 beatdown, although once again I’d point out that we’ve only played 5 games in 9 days. There’s also the fact that the vast majority of the previous night was spent standing around and watching Raymond Felton win a glorified game of HORSE. Nonetheless, Rip Hamilton, Chauncey Billups, Tayshaun Prince and the rest of the Bad Boys dribbled circles around us, frequently spinning Jeff McInnis around like a dredlocked sprinkler.

Despite the success we had with feeding Okafor down low the night before, that new approach apparently went out the window last night, as Mek had fewer field goal attempts (11) than Derek Anderson. Meanwhile, Jared Dudley’s almost completely vanished: he went from double-double to not scoring at all to not playing at all, although he did get 11 minutes last night. Baffling as that one was, the other no-show was even more mysterious: just 3 points for Wallace!? As a whole, we kept the turnovers down (12), but that’s mostly because we barely had the ball in the first place.

I must confess that with about 6 minutes to go and the deficit in the 20’s, I flipped over to the Colts-Ravens game. Watching a garbage-time squad of Jeff McInnis, Othella Harrington, and Derek Anderson on the court wouldn’t have been all that enticing in '98, let alone '08.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Bobcats Thoughts, 12/7

This latest week has been like the HBO series Tell Me You Love Me: mostly terrible, but also occasionally interesting. On Monday the Bobcats took on a Toronto team that lacked Chris Bosh, TJ Ford, Andrea Bargnani, and Jorge Garbajosa. Their injuries forced Coach Sam Mitchell to throw out a starting five of Jamario Moon, Joey Graham, Rasho Nesterovic, Anthony Parker, and Jose Calderon, and against such a devastating arsenal, the Bobcats didn’t stand a chance. It was a debacle right from the tip, as we found ourselves down 16-4 in less time than it takes for Primoz Brezec to mishandle a pass. Speaking of which, in an inspired move, Coach Vincent sat the Big P and played Jared Dudley instead. And Dudley responded; in fact, early on, he was the only one producing at all, causing commentator Henry Williams to wonder aloud—somewhat hilariously—“Where would the Bobcats be right now without Dudley?” Good question, Henry! 18-4, 20-4? You’re right, it could’ve been bad.

However, Coach Vincent, after watching us blow up on takeoff, apparently decided that the one thing this fire lacked was some more grease, and decided to sub in Jeff McInnis and Primoz. And then things really got ugly, with the Toronto B-listers putting up numbers like sudoku. Carlos Delfino was deadly, hitting 4-of-6 3’s for 17 points. Kris Humphries can’t even spell his first name correctly, yet he scored 17 and grabbed 6 boards, plus hit 7-of-8 free throws. The most terrifying of all was Calderon, who was slinging assists like crack and driving to the hoop with such ferocity that the Raptors actually quit even bothering to set picks after awhile. On one play Calderon blasted past McInnis so fast it straightened his dreadlocks; I actually thought Jeff was going to go spin out in a jet-wash.

Meanwhile, the Bobcats shot with about as much accuracy as a villain on TJ Hooker. Raymond Felton went 0-of-8 from the field. Mr. Third Quarter, Jason Richardson, went 3-of-17. Meanwhile, I’m still trying to figure out what’s more disturbing: the fact that Gerald Wallace went just 4-of-13 or that he only took 13 shots in 40 minutes. God help us, McInnis led the team with 5 assists. Dudley was arguably the best player, shooting 8-of-14 for 16 points and grabbing 10 boards and 3 steals--it was the one shining diamond in this pile of feces. Maybe Dudley needs to play much, much more, and it took an event this horrible and calamitous to bring forth his talent and ability, just as it took the Spanish Civil War to produce Guernica.
In the interlude between Monday’s Catastrophe in Toronto and Wednesday’s Homecoming from Hell against Chicago, we managed to sign but not get the services of disgruntled Clevelander Anderson Varejao. We sure could have used the big lug. Jared Dudley’s a great kid, but replacing Brezec with him is like replacing gasoline with corn-based ethanol: it’s a highly imperfect substitution. Varejao has got 3 inches on Dudley (in height, that is) and about 3x the annoyance capabilities. Playing against him automatically puts teams in a putting-together-a-piece-of-IKEA-furniture mood, and the irritation factor alone is probably worth a few victories. But forget it, he’s gone, and I hope the marketing department didn’t put too much money down on the “Varejao Wig Night” promotions.

As for the PF/C front, I’m sure something will get done. As GM Rod Higgins put it in one of his always highly-informative quotes, “We’ll continue to look for possibilities to hire another quality player. That’s our job.” Ooookay. Apparently his job doesn’t include realizing the blindingly obvious in any sort of timely fashion, which is that Primoz Brezec is quite possibly the worst center in the NBA and the NBDL and probably several South American leagues, and Higgins probably would have gotten a more quality player if he’d conducted one of those Kevin Bacon, “Air Up There”-style scouting trips to Chad or something during the offseason. Seriously, this hasn’t been a closely kept secret. “Primoz Lacks Talent” is not exactly “Iran Lacks Nuclear Capabilities” in terms of stunning headlines. So whatever. Now that the staff has hopefully recovered from the shock, go get 'em, Rob, you’re just in the nick of time. And if you ever get tired of this gig, I’m sure FEMA’s got some openings for you.
As for the Wednesday nighter: Johnny “Red” Kerr for the second time in a week! Joy to the world! Christmas has come early this year! Fortunately of my sake, the Kerr Effect was somewhat muted by a 3rd commentator in the Bulls booth, the increasingly annoyed Stacy King. First of all, King sounded like he was coming in on a walkie-talkie, so one of the techs over at WGN needs to look into that. Second, King is such a hoot to listen to that I actually wouldn’t mind tuning into future Bulls broadcasts. This guy gets legitimately angry during the broadcasts, and with the Bulls trailing most of the way against us, I honestly was waiting to hear the sound of something breaking and the screen suddenly switching over to a test pattern. The height of his fury came toward the end of the 3rd quarter, when Walter Herrmann hit the second or third of his "Dr. J"-style finger rolls, after which King fumed—without any trace of irony—“If I see that move one more time, I’m GOING TO SCREAM.”

Sadly, we’ll never know if King would have kept his word, because shortly thereafter the Bobcats collapsed and blew an 11-point lead they held as late as the end of the third quarter. This was pretty upsetting, because—and this isn’t exactly news, except possibly to Rod Higgins—the Bulls are really, really bad this year. And in this one they played, really, really bad. They missed a stupefying number of easy shots, turned the ball over 20 times, looked thoroughly disinterested for most of the game, and were pretty much asking to be put away.

Unfortunately, this is a Bobcats team that couldn’t defecate in a toilet if you held the seat up for them. We were outscored 38-22 in the fourth quarter and mainly began taking our anger out on the poor, innocent 3-point line, hitting just 1-of-6 in the fourth (and 6-of-26 overall). Considering we’re the 4th-worst shooting team in the league, I have no idea what was behind all the long-distance shenanigans, although part of it was because Emeka Okafor was limited by foul trouble. The Dudley-as-starter experiment also apparently went through a sophomore slump, as he went 0-of-6 from the field. The team also missed ten of its fourteen free-throws, including some critical ones down the stretch when we still had a chance.

It was a pretty terrible night, capped off by the sting of watching the Bulls celebrate at the end like they just beat trial. Scott Skiles was reduced to the role of Michael Keaton in Herbie: Fully Loaded, cheering along like a pathetic dad. We’re definitely in a serious malaise right now, and we can only hope there are no reports of Sam Vincent getting attacked by a rabbit.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Bobcats Thoughts, 12/03

If I get sent to hell, the best way to punish me would be to have Red Kerr provide the color commentary of my descent, wherein he’d probably complain the whole time that I haven’t been stuck with enough pitchforks. This would be a fitting fate for me, because no matter how painful losing to the Bulls is, Kerr makes it worse. In fact, Kerr makes everything worse; there’s nothing Kerr can’t worsen by simply opening his mouth—it’s almost impressive, really. Kerr could exacerbate a nuclear holocaust if he were within earshot. So basically, Saturday night’s loss to Chicago wasn’t pleasant on a number of levels, both visually and sonically. For the game itself, we lost in the kind of way that makes me feel like we’ll never win again. Meanwhile, Kerr provided the soundtrack, and--when he wasn't complaining about the refs--over-praised the crappy Bulls like they’re a bunch of 4-year-olds who just made their first finger-painting.

Offensively, Ben Gordon and Luol Deng dug our graves, while Ben Wallace cleaned up on the boards. Deng had 15 of his 29 points in the first quarter, and Gordon had 15 of his 34 points in the 3rd quarter. Even though we were down by just 1 at halftime, Gordon hit three consecutive 3-pointers in the third to officially announce he was In The Zone, and the rout was on. “That's a big part of my game,” Gordon said afterward. “My hands up, my hands up, they want me with my hands up,” he added, in a soft, quasi-reggae-style voice, “I’m your…shooter, shooter, shooter!” Wallace had 10 points and 19 boards, actually looking—for one of the last times in his career, I'm guessing—relevant. As a whole, Chicago shot 54% and made 17-of-19 free throws (although if it were up to Kerr, it would have been 83-of-85).

With Tyrus Thomas flying around like a halftime trampoline act, the Bulls temporarily looked like they weren’t seriously deficient in the interior. And the reason for this is we’re perhaps the only team that’s weaker than Chicago in the frontcourt. Emeka Okafor was solid as usual (21-9-3 blocks), but other than that, we’d have gotten more production from a 7-foot inflatable doll than the rest of the crew—especially with Ryan Hollins still reassembling his arm from that run-in with Dwight Howard. Chicago doubled us up in rebounds (48-24) and blocked 7 shots. I remember last year the local broadcasts had a regular “Points in the Paint” graphic sponsored by Lowes, and it became something of a running joke for me, because we were always getting killed in that category. In fact, I’m not sure you could pick a worse stat to sponsor, unless it was # of times GM Michael Jordan actually showed up to our games. Things haven’t changed this year either.

Jason Richardson threw us his twice-monthly bone, getting 22 points and showing some sporadically impressive athleticism. He’s almost like an absent father who neglects his kids, occasionally feels guilty about it, and randomly shows up with a cool present to try and make amends before disappearing again. Wow, thanks, J-Rich, a brand new 22 points on 50% 3-point shooting, cool! See you in a few weeks...This was also easily Raymond Felton’s worst showing: 5 points and 2 assists. Thank goodness we’ve got all that depth at point guard—almost as much as at center.