Friday, March 28, 2008

What Okafor Wants, What Okafor Needs

As the season winds down and limps to a series of meaningless results, I thought I’d take a look at one of our most significant moves (or non-moves) of the upcoming off-season: what to do about Emeka Okafor. The two key numbers floating around the situation are his $5.4 million expiring contract and the $13 million dollar extension he refused at the start of the season. That was 4 months and another terrible-team-performance-in-a-mediocre-conference ago. Assuming the bridges haven’t been burnt between Okafor and management, Charlotte can still match any offers Okafor receives, and they’re free to unilaterally renegotiate with him in July. The question: what should they do?

First of all, I can’t stand visceral responses to questions like these. All they generally indicate is the respondent’s biases, which are usually dominated by what happened in the last five minutes. So let’s try a numerically-based response. I’m going to use John Hollinger’s PER statistic as a benchmark for performance, and I’m going to use, um, US American dollars as a benchmark for money.

Okay, currently, Mek sits 18th among power forwards in the PER rankings with a score of 16.64. Of the 17 guys ranked above him, the average salary is $9.5 million. Bear in mind, this spans the entire spectrum of salaries, from Carl Landry’s $400K to Kevin Garnett's $23.8 million. Due to the wide range of numbers, it might be more instructive to choose the median value, or the middle salary of the 17 incomes. In this case, it’s Carlos Boozer’s $11.6 million (he’s ranked 5th). Either way you look at it, both the average and median incomes of the 17 players ranked above Okafor are LESS than what he rejected. Probably the biggest red flag in there for the Okafor camp is that Rasheed Wallace--ranked 15th on the list and with a far beefier resume than Omeka--only scores $12.5 million in annual income. If I’m Okafor’s agent, I might be a little nervous right about now.

One card Team Okafor might play is Emeka’s durability. This would have been utterly ridiculous before the season began, given that his average games-played coming into '07-08 was just 55. Yet Okafor’s played a surprisingly robust 71 games this year, while the average games-played of the 17 guys ranked above him is just under 62. At first, this might seem like promising leverage for Okafor, given a guy like Chris Bosh, who pocketed $13 million this year while only appearing in 56 games so far. However, the salary-per-games-played average across the top 17 power forwards is $149K, and Okafor’s $13 million-per-games-played average would be $183 K. The median comparison is David West’s $167K-per-game, still far less than the amount Okafor nixed, and West was an All-Star…in the Western Conference. Comparisons in salary-per-MINUTES-played yield similar results. So far, Okafor and/or his agent look completely foolish for turning down $13 million. Likewise, the Bobcats would be foolish to repeat the same offer in any future negotiations.

Other than PER, what do the more traditional stats tell us about Okafor's value? Glad I asked! Okafor’s scoring this year is at a career-low (13.1 per game), as are his blocks (1.6 per game). His rebounds, personal fouls, turnovers, and assists are relatively stagnant. Yes, he’s 6th in the league in rebounds and one of just ten players to average a double-double. The average salary among that elite bunch, though? $11.4 million. And for some extra hot sauce, if I were Charlotte’s GM, I’d add that every one of those double-double guys (with the exception of Shawn Marion) is taking his team to the playoffs (and Marion certainly would have had he not sulked his way out of Phoenix). Further, if Okafor’s agent wanted to get all statistical on me, I’d politely direct him to Okafor’s turnover rate—that is, his percentage of possessions that end in a turnover: 13.2%. This is horrifically bad among power forwards—52nd, in fact, below such legends as Brian Cook and Matt Bonner.

Of course, contract negotiations don’t happen in vacuums. As lots of economists love to point out (it’s practically their version of “it is what it is”), a player’s worth is what the market is willing to pay. So is there a team out there with $13 million that they wouldn’t mind flinging at Okafor? If that’s the case, then none of these statistical comparisons mean squat. A quick glance at the League’s payrolls shows a few teams with some obvious financial flexibility, such as Seattle and Memphis. There are also a handful of teams with some wiggle room pending a) the resolution of their own personnel negotiations, and b) how far over the cap they’re willing to go. Miami, Minnesota, New Jersey, and Orlando fall into this group. And a wild card to be worried about (that is, if you actually worry about losing Okafor)? Those dastardly San Antonio Spurs. They’re currently $11.7 million over the cap, but they’ve got Robert Horry ($3.6 mil), Kurt Thomas ($8 mil), Michael Finley ($3.1 mil), Brent Barry ($5.6 mil) and Jacque Vaughn ($1.2 mil) all coming off the books, should they choose not to re-sign. And the allure of San Antonio might allow the Spurs to get a discount in their offering—which they’d just about have to implement, because there’s no way they’re paying Okafor more than Ginobli ($9 mil) and Parker ($10.5 mil).

As for the Bobcats, we’ll have about $10.5 mil in spending money this summer at a minimum (I’m going out on a limb by assuming we’re not going to retain Othella Harrington and Derek Anderson). $10.5 would be a “fair” price to offer Okafor, because it’s right around those averages I laid out earlier. We’ll have potentially more depending on how we handle Sean May ($1.8 mil), Adam Morrison ($3.9 mil), Earl Boykins ($400 K) and the two-headed Ryan Hollins/Jermareo Davidson-combo of raw mediocrity (keep one but not both, right? That’s another half a mil). The two X-factors are trade options (impossible to predict) and the draft. A circa-8th round pick (which is about where we’ll fall) will run us in the neighborhood of $2.5-3 million bones. So we can’t even offer Emeka that “fair” price of $10.5 millon without making some other moves—unless of course we go over the cap, but does anyone actually see that happening?

So there’s my Frontline: Okafor piece. After all that analysis, I must admit that I still don’t know how both sides are going to play it from here on out. This is like the “sports contract” version of the Iraq War: it’s a total mess that was started by a series of blunders, and nobody’s sure about what to do now. First, the Bobcats did a monumentally stupid thing by offering way too much money--$13 million—to Okafor. And then Okafor somehow one-upped their stupidity by actually rejecting the deal. Then he went out and didn’t live up to that value this season, but it’s also going to be hard for management to redact it. There are going to be hard feelings either way—Okafor’s going to be bitter if he takes less, and management’s going to be bitter if he gets away out of spite or they end up forking $13 million over to him—that is, if they can even figure out how. So we’ll see how this quagmire turns out this summer, as well as how each side manages to put a good face on it…

Monday, March 24, 2008

Bobcats Thoughts, 3/24

Forgive me, O Spirit of Matt Devlin, for I have sinned: I didn’t watch the Miami-Charlotte game on Saturday. I have no excuse, either. It was on, I was home, but I just couldn’t do it. And to be honest, I don’t know how much I’ll watch of the remainder of the season, given that much of it will take place on the West Coast, and therefore it won’t start until around the same time Cinemax begins airing episodes of The Pleasure Zone and Kinky Kong. In my defense, I did watch basketball, but it was the Hawks-Magic game, as well as the Nets-Sixers, the Celtics-Hornets, and the Rockets-Suns. The difference between these games and our match-up with Miami is that in the first group, both teams had a vested interest in winning (although in the case of the Nets, I can’t actually prove this).

This brings us to the unavoidable fact that the meaningful part of the season is over. Do I believe in miracles? No, and I don’t believe in Peter Pan, Frankenstein, or Superman. We’re not making the playoffs, and we’re a bad team worsened further by poor management; this season’s lost. And thus my other defense for consciously avoiding this game is that it would be difficult to prove that either team was even trying to win. If you’re a boxing fan, you wouldn’t watch a bout in which one of the fighters was credibly rumored to be throwing the match; how unwatchable would it be if both fighters were trying to take a fall?

And in Miami’s case, it’s more than just a credible rumor. Half the team didn't dress and the coach was gone. How can I be blamed for not watching the Heat play when their own coach isn’t watching? I’m surprised there hasn’t been more made of this. Remember how much flack the Celtics took last year for tanking the season? At least Doc Rivers was there (or, more precisely, “physically present”) for the games. Nevertheless, Boston’s purposeful losing invoked harsh indictments, ethical debates, and endless navel gazing. Yet in the Heat’s case it’s treated as something of a joke (also, are they making Pat Riley prove that he’s scouting NCAA games? I haven’t seen him in the crowds. If I were the Heat owner, you better believe I’d be making Riles show me some receipts). I’m not sure why there’s this double-standard; maybe it’s something about the cities. Things from Boston have always been regarded more seriously than those from Miami; look at the difference between St. Elsewhere and Miami Vice. Both were serious 80s dramas, yet which has been more parodied through the years?

There’s also a more general double-standard when it comes to tanking in basketball and football. Football teams with no chance throw in the towel just as blatantly as basketball teams, but there’s never any stink over it. If anything, football teams do it more blatantly, because they don’t even have a lottery; their picks are guaranteed. But just as with performance-enhancing drugs and bad behavior on the part of athletes, football is Teflon when it comes to criticism.

I say this all as an unbiased spectator, by the way. When it comes to tanking, I don’t believe in doing it, but it’s not for any moral reason; it’s mostly because I don’t think it actually works. Thus my policy on tanking resembles my policy on acupuncture or buying a copy of The Secret. If teams that tanked were actually guaranteed high draft picks that would significantly improve them immediately, I’d be all for it. In the Bobcats case, I’d have probably been advocating them to throw games starting in about December for the past four years. But we’ve seen time and time again that it doesn’t work, so I’d rather go for the win.

Therefore, I’m happy to see that it looks like we actually did go for the win in Miami--especially since they acquired Shawn Marion. If there’s any joy to be had this season, it’s in the fact that Shawn Marion is now on a lousy team. I wish him nothing but professional failure the rest of his career, and I don’t feel bad about it. This is a man who had it all and still complained his way right out of a great situation, all because he felt unappreciated. Unappreciated? The man was a first-round draft pick, was paid the most on the team, made the All-Star team four times, and made countless ESPN, Dime, and Slam magazine covers. Oh, and he was lovingly given the nickname “The Matrix” by the fans. Who has a nickname but gets no attention? How could he have possibly felt unappreciated? It’s like watching your a dude cheat on his perfect wife and then get dumped, and now Marion is stuck with with the Roseanne Barr of sports teams.

As for the game, it looks like Gerald Wallace is getting back to form. Ever since he returned, the only thing I’ve seen him do with any intensity is chew his mouthpiece. At last, on the highlight reels for this game, he was going hard to the hoop. Coach Sam Vincent was happy to see the old Crash as well. “He's not settling for the jump shot and he's attacking the rim,” Vincent said after the game. “He is, in big part, the heart and soul of this team.” Two things: 1) I hope Vincent is letting Gerald know this, and not just us; 2) not sure if one can be the partial "heart and soul" of something—I think it’s got to be an all or nothing deal. Either way, I'm glad to see our boys were triumphant, even if I didn't see it.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Bobcats Thoughts, 3/20

Although we lost decisively to Dallas, Houston, and Cleveland in rapid succession, I was still feeling pretty upbeat on Monday. I was in a chipper, George Bush-ian mood—optimistic and cheerful despite the relentless stream of bad news. In fact, I nearly broke into a little tap-dance routine while waiting for the Memphis game to arrive like it was John McCain. Memphis is terrible after all, and after them, we had Indiana and Miami scheduled, and that’s about as sorry a threesome as Gov. McGreevey’s “Friday Night Specials.” So even though the immediate news wasn’t good (folks), things seemed fundamentally sound.

Side note: although it has nothing to do with basketball, another positive beacon was that they finally, FINALLY replaced the huge billboard ad for The Kingdom on the building adjacent to my apartment. Although the replacement was an ad for the 8 millionth energy drink concoction with some sort of “nuclear”-sounding name, it’s still an improvement. That stupid movie ad had been up there so long (“On September 28th, Trust No One”) that I thought I was doomed to a lifetime of looking at Jennifer Garner dressed ridiculously in Special Forces gear (yet with long, flowing hair).

Anyway, it's 72 hours later, and I’m completely broken. Darkness imprisoning me, all that I see: absolute horror. Who even cares how the Miami game is going to turn out? At this point, the only thing worse than losing would be winning. We have no chance at anything this year, so we might as well go for a draft pick. And yet, the draft doesn’t guarantee any salvation either, because it's not particularly top heavy with talent. I’ve been “playing” ESPN.com’s draft lottery a lot lately (they ought to come up with a cell phone version of this thing, a la Tetris and Solitaire, so I could do it on the subway), and the overwhelming majority of the time we end up with the 8th pick and Brook Lopez is our selection. And guess what the scouting report on him is? “Great big guy who can’t rebound.” Well, we already have two of those, and they’re called “Ryan Hollins” and “Jermareo Davidson.”

As for these last two games, I’m trying to decide where this Memphis-Indiana combo lands if we were to build a Top Ten 2008 Losses list. Before you even build such a list, you have to decide what hurts you more: close losses to good teams that rip your heart out and show it to you before you die (e.g., the Ray Allen Massacre game), blowout losses to good teams that grimly reveal how truly far away you are from relevance (e.g., that Pistons loss where they shot and made a million 3-pointers, that Golden State loss by 500 points, the recent Dallas loss), or blowout losses to bad teams that make you question how a fair and just God could ever allow such evil to befall you.

As you probably guessed, it’s that third sub-genre of losses that is the most dispiriting to me, and off the top of my head I’d throw the first loss to Philly in there (God, did the Sixers outplay us, and this is back when they were on the verge of fire sale-dom); at least two of the three Bulls losses (exacerbated by commentary by Red Kerr); that atrocious Nets loss in which we’d had about a week to prepare and Jason Kidd had just demanded a trade; that loss to the Wizards right after they found out Gilbert was gone for the year and Haywood for the game; that disgusting loss to Milwaukee in which we blew a 7-point lead and had the ball with, like, a minute left; the Knicks loss which I witnessed in-person like a public hanging…And I’m sure I’m repressing the memories of some others.

But these two losses to Memphis and Indiana have got to be 1-2 on the list, because they were not only miserable and humiliating, they also effectively killed the season. Memphis is essentially a scab team at this point, and Indiana ought to change their name to the “Milk Cartons”—anybody seen Jamaal Tinsley or Jermaine O’Neal lately? I was about to say Ike Diogu too(remember when he was the “wild card” of the Dunleavey/Hudson-Jackson/Harrington deal?), but he actually had a cameo last night. Indiana’s also a team bombarded by scandals and off-court drama involving Tinsley, O’Neal, most of the management, Shawne Williams, and David Harrison (who gets my vote for "Best Real-But-Fake-Looking Hair" Award—doesn’t he look like a cast member of Semi-Pro?). Also, their coach looks like the comic strip character Dilbert’s boss—not that that’s really relevant. Add it all up and these losses were truly disgraceful season-enders.

In Memphis we only scored 80 points, or roughly one point for every fan in attendance. I think there were actually fewer people at this game than those who saw that “Secret Game” between Duke and the NC College for Negroes in the 1940s. This was exactly the type of game that Jason Richardson should dominate, and instead he put up 8 points, and then blamed the road-heavy schedule. I’m sorry, but could someone please explain to me what exactly is “tiring” about being on the road? It’s not like Sam Vincent is making the team travel by canoe. If you’re a player, you pretty much have to just sit on a bus, sit on a private airplane, sit on another bus, and sit in your hotel room and order room service. During every one of these activities, you could also be asleep or doing nothing more aerobic than changing your DVD from Season 4 of CSI: Miami to a bootlegged copy of 10,000 B.C. You’re arguably less active on the road than when you’re at home and being pestered by children, baby-mommas, and entourages. I just don’t by the “on-the-road” excuse for a second.

If anything, it might be the cumulative fatigue of not having a reliable bench. How else to explain Raymond Felton failing to keep up with Flip Murray in Indiana? Felton’s logging almost 38 minutes a game this year--up 3 minutes from his career average--and it’s taking his toll (please keep this in mind, Rod Higgins, when it’s our pick in the draft and Russell Westbrook is still available). Meanwhile, Emeka Okafor’s minutes have increased as well, plus he hasn’t missed nearly as many games to injury. I expected him to deliver like Halle Berry in these last two games, and instead he put up a grand total of 10 points and 9 boards.

Getting schooled by the likes of Murray, Juan Carlos Navarro (21 points), Hakim Warrick (19 points), Darko Milicic (double-double), Troy Murphy (double-double), and Shawne Williams (16 points and a posterizing dunk on Jared Dudley) are bad indicators. So are allowing 18 offensive boards to the Grizzlies and nearly 50% shooting to a Pacers team playing without Danny Granger. They’re alarms akin to triple-digit oil prices and $2-a-share Bear-Stearns buyouts. Blaming all this poor performance on long road trips is like blaming the bad economy on tax breaks that might expire in two years. Without a more reliable bench, rebounders, and point guards, we’re not fundamentally sound, nor should we be optimistic about our future.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Bobcats Thoughts, 3/17

On Friday night the Bobcats entered a festival-like atmosphere in Houston. With the Rockets poised to capture the second-longest winning streak in NBA history, the crowd was ready to party. Even the announcers, Clyde Drexler and whoever does Houston's play-by-play, were more like red carpet fashion reporters. They were full of kind words for the Bobcats too, because—let’s face it—Charlotte had no chance, so why not patronize them?

Listening to them extol the coaching efforts of Sam Vincent (“he’s really done a great job developing this young team”), I thought they may have been laying it on a little thick, considering we’re on a pace to win 3 fewer games than last year, despite the importation of one of the game’s great talents (Jason Richardson) and no extensive injuries (save for Gerald Wallace, and we won 5 straight while that happened). In fact, this team has been spectacularly mismanaged in my opinion. Entering the season, we had two huge and long-standing weaknesses (crippling incompetence at center and backup point guard) that we didn’t address until much too late, and then we bumped everyone up 1 slot out of position to inexplicably make room for a decrepit, prime-less point guard (who—surprise!—hasn’t been picked up since we waived him). But that’s just me.

Then again, these are two announcers who regularly misuse the words “commodity” (a commodity isn’t a “great product,” it’s merely a “product,” like corn and soybeans) and “literally” (I don’t care how great a player is, he doesn’t literally put a team on his back), and the play-by-play guy also can’t pronounce “Omeka” correctly (he says, “O-mee-ka”), which is somewhat insulting, considering Okafor came of age in Houston. So I don’t know, maybe they legitimately believe Vincent has done a good job.

In any case, the announcers kept their cheerfulness up throughout the affair, even though the Rockets’ victory lap temporarily stalled with a scoring drought that lasted nearly 8 full minutes. This was something of an Epic Drought; it was like the Lord of the Rings of scoreless streaks. I’m not even sure if we’ve done something like this (although we probably have). The Rockets were stuck on 18 points with 4:09 to go in the first quarter all the way until the 8:27 mark of the second. During this streak, the Rockets failed to get to the foul line, and they missed 6 three-pointers, 2 jumpers, and a layup. The Bobcats went from trailing by six to leading 29-18. Even after the Rockets scored, they shot just 6-for-16 the rest of the quarter to close out the half down by 7.

In the third quarter, the Rockets righted the ship pretty quickly and the hometown celebration was back on. Assuming their more familiar role of being the offensively impotent ones in any given game, the Bobcats scored merely two points in the first four minutes of the third quarter en route to just 37 total second-half points. They never trailed by more than 14 though, causing the Houston announcers to break a record of their own for most times using the phrase, “And I’ll tell you what, this Charlotte team keeps hanging around!” At least they didn’t say we were literally hanging around.

On Sunday evening the Bobcats found themselves in Cleveland, and poor Matt Carroll found himself guarding LeBron James (just two nights after having to cover Tracy MacGrady—happy St. Patrick’s Day, Matty boy!). Both times Carroll was in colossally over his head, matching up about as well as Jesse “The Body” Ventura did with Predator. The King put up 33 points, 10 dimes, and 7 boards, and then shot a green laser missile that blew out Carroll’s guts in an exploding red mist—no wait, I meant, he also had two blocks on a steal while goading Carroll into 4 fouls. Conversely, Bron-Bron had no trouble guarding Carroll—in fact, I think he had a harder time handling Gisele B√ľndchen for the Vogue cover shoot. Carroll had a sparse 4 points and...that’s pretty much it, actually.

This was not a fun game to watch or hear. In the second quarter, slimy Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert came over to the announcers’ booth, causing both commentators to switch their “fake suck-up laughs” setting to “fully automatic.” When not chortling over Gilbert’s unfunny remarks, all three spent an exorbitantly long time being outraged by DeShawn Stephenson for recently calling James “overrated.” Sheesh, judging by their level indignation, you’d have thought Stephenson said, “If LeBron James was a white man, he would not be in this position.” Anyway, the sycophancy shock-waves generated by the announce team were so potent they must have knocked out the scoreboard, because it wasn’t visible for most of the third quarter.

Not that I really needed a scoreboard to keep track of this one. I simply needed to count the number of times Zydrunas Ilgauskas drew Nazr Mohammed way, way out of his comfort zone to know we were losing badly. Ilgauskas’ range (he scored 16 points, every one of which seemed to com via an 18-footer) left our interior defense reeling. Unprepared to deal with a big who could actually shoot jumpers, Mohammed and Okafor played in a distracted state (combining to shoot just 8-of-23), while Jared Dudley looked totally demoralized (0 points, 3 fouls, and just 5 boards in 22 minutes). Without any contributions from them or Carroll, we didn’t have enough juice to rally, although two late 3-pointers by Richardson made it look respectable. A still-tentative Gerald Wallace (10 points, 5 assists) insisted afterward that he “take the blame for this one” afterward, so maybe that theory about him costing us the Dallas game was actually his own.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Bobcats Thoughts, 3/14

On an ESPN podcast, Marc Stein called our blowout loss to Dallas a “glorified practice session,” which actually may have been an insult to the Mavericks’ second-stringers. I’m pretty sure JJ Barea, Malik Allen, Antoine Wright, Juwan Howard, and Jamaal Magloire regularly give the starters more of a workout than we did on Wednesday. In fact, during a timeout in the second quarter in which Dallas outscored us 31-17, Coach Avery Johnson told his team that they were “playing against themselves right now.” He was right, because the Bobcats were pretty much playing with themselves—all game.

And thus the air went out of our little 5-game win-streak balloon. The biggest tragedy of not making it 6 in a row was that it would have set off a completely ridiculous “battle of the unbeatens” angle tonight between the Bobcats and the 20-straight Rockets. But if there’s an upside, maybe Mark Cuban will now feel happy and secure enough to allow bloggers back into his arena—just think of the Bobcats as champions of free speech.

The other upside was getting Gerald Wallace back. I was amused that Rick Bonnell felt compelled to write an article in the Charlotte Observer entitled “Wallace’s Return Didn’t Cause Loss.” Did anyone actually think that? Bonnell opens the article with the line, “This theory among some that Gerald Wallace's return had anything to do with the Charlotte Bobcats' winning streak ending is the silliest example of inductive reasoning I can imagine.” I think he actually DID imagine it. We’ve got some serious dissonance brewing at the Observer when one writer (Tom Sorensen) believes that nobody cares about the Bobcats, and another writer (Bonnell) believes that not only do they care, they care enough to concoct paranoid theories about why we lose games. But thanks, Bonnell, for putting those wild rumors to rest; I don’t know where we’d be without your forthright level-headedness. Your next task is to dispel those vicious rumors I’ve been hearing that Adam Morrison deliberately injured himself at the beginning of the year to try and opt out of his contract.

All that said, Wallace was a little woozy when he bravely stepped back on the floor. Entering the game about 9 minutes in to the first quarter, Wallace got his first shot blocked by Eric Dampier, fouled Dirk Nowitzki, missed a jumper, traveled, and missed another jumper. At this point, I was terrified that his injury was not just an injury, but some sort of disease straight out of a bad movie, in which he was knocked unconscious and woke up thinking he was somebody else—specifically, Primoz Brezec. But Crash finally sank his next jumper, and he finished with 14 points and 5 boards in just 22 minutes.

As for the rest of the practice—I mean, game—well, I did a little stat check on Wednesday afternoon just to see how our 5-game winning “spree” compared with our overall season averages. Not surprisingly, our 5-game stats were better across the board, but the biggest disparities were our points-per-game (up from 96.3 to 109), our 3-point % (37% to 45.4%), our opponents’ offensive rebounds-per-game (down from 11.8 to 8.4), and our rebounding difference vs. opponents (-2.5 to +6.6). And of course, all of this collapsed aganst Dallas faster than Elliot Spitzer’s reputation. The Mavs thumped us on the boards (47 to 32) and checked our scoring (93 points, although we still shot a robust 47.1% from 3-point range). They also shot with the accuracy of Robocop, hitting 53.8% of their field goals, including 10-of-24 3-pointers and complemented by 22-of-26 from the foul line. A lot of their marksmanship can be attributed to late rotations on our part, but a lot of it was also just because they’re good shooters (7th in the league)…and don’t forget Gerald Wallace, who we can all agree has been the weak link this year.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Bobcats Thoughts, 3/10

Just to show you how I handle success, amidst this miraculous five-game winning streak, the first thing I like addressing is Tom Sorensen’s recent “Nobody Cares” article in the Charlotte Observer. First of all, Tom Sorensen has The Life. To be able to have one of those “In My Opinion” gigs—and I don’t even care what the subject is—and have that be your salaried job, well...I think it's the ultimate dream gig. Sure, there are lots of opinion articles, but generally they have some sort of stipulation attached; the author has got to be funny a la Bill Simmons, for instance, or he or she has to travel to exotic locales and eat bugs and report on the experience—that sort of thing. Judging by his articles, though, Sorensen has to do NONE of that. He definitely doesn’t have to be funny, or even creative, for that matter (unless that line, “I liked Jeff McInnis,” was supposed to be a joke—which it had to be, right? I don’t know how else to process that one, unless he meant he liked Jeff “as a person”). He doesn’t even have to do a stunt wherein he watches tapes of every single Bobcats game this season in a row for four days straight and then describe how crazy it made him. In fact, as he tells us straightaway in the headline, he doesn’t even have to care about the subject at hand, nor offer any documented reason why. I can only imagine the editors who authorized this: “No really Tom, just ‘I don’t really care about this team’ will do.” Man. Amazing work, if you can get it.

That brings me to the second observation: isn’t it odd that someone would take the time to write several paragraphs with the sole purpose of expressing his lack of interest in something? I mean, if a person truly doesn’t care about something, why would it ever occur to him or her to even write about it at all? I can’t imagine sitting down right now and typing an article-length piece about something I have no interest in like, say, stamp collecting. I could come up with something I DISLIKE, mind you, like a $2-trillion dollar war that began under false pretenses, for example, or people who think immigration is a “problem”; but it’s actually hard to even think of something that I have no feelings on at all, positive or negative, let alone write about it. This leads me to believe that Mr. Sorensen actually does care about the Bobcats in the sense that he dislikes them, for whatever the reason.

Think about it: how many times in your life have you talked about something in sports or entertainment of which you’re a fan, and at the first opportunity the person you’re talking to comes back with, “Oh, I don’t care about/watch/listen to that”? And usually the person says it in varying degrees of a snooty tone that suggests that he or she is “above” caring about something like that and wants you to know it. In fact, I would argue that “not caring” about something in popular culture equates to "not liking" it, because to know about it and not consume it means you’re actively ignoring it. And in fact, in the article, after stating that he doesn't care, Sorensen adds, “And you don’t care,” with the clear implication being that we shouldn’t care (unless we’re in a “cult”). So thanks for your 2 cents on the Bobcats, Tom, it was worth every penny. And to the editors of the Charlotte Observer, do you need any other In My Opinion columnists? I probably won’t do any more research than Sorensen, but when I’m passively insulting your readership, I’ll at least throw a joke in there.

The other thing that I need to get off my chest regards this deluge of articles about the success of the Bobcats’ recent lineup stability, specifically how Raymond Felton has settled in at the 1. I’m sorry, I know I talked about this before, but I still can’t read any line like Rick Bonnell’s in the recap of the victory over the Hawks without reacting much the same way I did to David Tyree’s Super Bowl catch: gasping in disbelief. “(T)he constant confusion about roles has been cleared up,” Bonnell reports. “(Jeff) McInnis' departure stabilized Raymond Felton's role as playmaker.” (Gasp). PEOPLE, Raymond Felton was a point guard ALL HIS LIFE, prior to this year. WHY was there EVER confusion on this? It’s like if all of a sudden in the past year, lots of people became confused about Elton John’s sexual orientation, and his publicists had to put out a massive press release confirming that he actually is gay. The confusing thing is that Felton was ever considered to be something OTHER than point guard; that’s what confuses me...ESPECIALLY when Felton’s abysmal career shooting percentage is well-documented (he's long been one of the worst in the league), which you would think would make him a poor a candidate to ever assume the role of, you know, SHOOTING guard.

By the way, in that same article, we also got a priceless quote from Sam Vincent, who describes releasing Jeff McInnis as a “gamble.” Whaaaaa?? This was a “gamble” only if you consider removing your finger from a burning stove to be a “gamble.” I really haven’t heard anything this preposterous since General Norman Schwarzkopf described attacking with all of our tanks, B-52’s, and smart bombs in the First Gulf War as a “hail-mary.” A gamble? What was trading away Primoz Brezec? Hitting on twenty in blackjack? How stupid does Vincent think we are, and is it more or less than Sorensen?

Anyway, I never thought winning 5 in a row could be so…exasperating. I should emphasize that much to Sorensen's chagrin, not only do I care, I’m ticked to death. Especially when it comes to the Washington win! They’ve been pounding us relentlessly all year for reasons that have been as mysterious as they have been frustrating. Antonio Daniels, for instance, seemed to transform from journeyman point guard to unstoppable killer cyborg from the future every time we played them. And Roger Mason would go from “guy whose name sounds like an obscure mid-major college” to “guy who needs to be invited to the next 3-point shooting competition.” But finally, in our last meeting, we turned the tables. In a crazy string of ironies, we ran out to a 19-point lead, we took and made the open 3-pointers, and we sealed the victory with free-throws down the stretch and—most unlikely of all—two HUGE offensive rebounds with a minute to go, one each from Nazr Mohammed and Jason Richardson. Oh, and how I could I have left this out: Felton had 14 points and 12 assists as…get this…the point guard! No, seriously!!

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Bobcats Thoughts, 3/6

Oooh yeah, three in a row! Not since the halcyon days of November 1st to the 19th have we looked this good. Apparently, Jeff McInnis’ way with the Dark Side was more powerful than even I thought. Even without Gerald Wallace, we racked up one W on the road and another over a playoff-hungry Warriors team. Granted, the Minnesota T-Wolves are the NBA equivalent of William Hung: sort of endearing and inspiring, but mostly untalented. Have you seen these guys? They’re all sort of misshapen, almost like they’re defective models off the NBA player assembly line. Craig Smith is kind of rotund and overly sweaty, Corey Brewer is skinny, Marko Jaric is squinty, Randy Foye’s kind of stocky, Bassy Telfair is kind of slow and small and can’t really shoot, Antoine Walker is kind of a salary dump, etc.

Even that “Wolf howl” sound effect blasts over the PA system at inappropriate moments. I swear I heard one after Jason Richardson drilled a 3-pointer. They also have a pair of television announcers who are unmatched in their ability to generate awkward silences after weird, vaguely homoerotic outbursts. After a generic put-back, one of them inexplicably yelled out, “Kirk Snyder is GOOD!!” (ensuing long silence). The best shout-out was, “Emeka Okafor is a MAN!” (ensuing long silence). Not “the man,” mind you, “a man.” I also took offense to one of them asserting that Jason Richardson is “the first go-to guy in Bobcats history.” Excuse me? Obviously, these guys have never heard of the legend that is Jason Hart.

None of this stopped the Wolves from getting indignant over a loss to the likes of us. Head coach Randy Wittman went all Neville Chamberlain afterward. "Tonight we tried to have a nonaggression pact with the other team, from the first play of the game to the last play of the game," Wittman said. "That's disappointing." Wait, did he just compare Sam Vincent to Hitler?

Then came the Warriors. You know how there’s been an endless debate over who are the biggest trade-deadline “winners” and “losers”? Here’s my choice for a winner: Chris Webber. He’s got to be thanking his lucky boosters that this year’s deadline wasn’t as quiet as last year’s, otherwise people would have had nothing better to do than focus on what a terrible acquisition he’s been: 9 games, 14 minutes per, 4 points, 2 assists, 4 reboards (and all these numbers rounded up). Fortunately for him, the plethora of deals has completely taken the spotlight off his disastrous reunion with Golden State.

As for the game itself, the Warrior roared out of the gate with 38 first-quarter points. Sam Vincent had to call two timeouts, and it had the same demoralizing effect as a boxer receiving two standing 8-counts in the first round. Monta Ellis was so fast that at times he seemed to be moving through people; he’s like X-Men’s Kitty Pryde if she also had the ability to draw lots of shooting fouls. Given Ellis’s speed, it’s mystifying why they didn’t just give the rock to him for the last 5-and-a-half minutes when they were ahead 106-105—he seemed a mortal lock to either score or draw the foul every time he had the ball. Instead, Stephen Jackson, Kelenna Azubuike, and Al Harrington all missed two 3-pointers apiece, and we pulled away for the win.

But I’m skipping a whole bunch. Before all this came a stunning turnaround of a 2nd quarter, in which we cut their first quarter scoring by half (just 19 points) and came storming back to take a 2-point lead at the intermission, spearheaded by Earl Boykins’ 9 points in the period. Matt Carroll scrapped for 11 boards and 4 steals, and Okafor got to the foul line 18 times. Our two most positive trends lately—Richardson and Jared Dudley—also continued to blossom. Richardson scored 42 points and Dudley did just about everything else—18 rebounds, 2 blocks, and a steal. He also drew numerous charges and generally played like a muthaf---in’ spiteful, delightful, eyeful.

Winning feels better than anything—even better thinking of Jeff McInnis in the past tense. Over the last two games, we’ve hit 52-of-70 foul shots, committed just 22 total turnovers, had 8 of the 10 starters score in the double-digits, and exhibited crunch-time defense (just 37 total fourth-quarter points allowed)—is this how it feels to cheer for the Spurs every game? Woooowww.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Bobcats Thoughts, 3/3

Hmmm. In the last two games, we were highly competitive against arguably the best team in the league, and then we flat-out defeated a team that almost always kicks the crap out of us. And these results came despite not having our best player (Gerald Wallace) in the lineup. What happened? I’ll tell you what happened: we got rid of Jeff McInnis! Free at last, free at last, thank Rod Higgins Almighty, we are free at last! I’ll never know why it took the front office so long to do what was painfully obvious in the preseason (direct quote from my 2007-08 preview: “My two biggest dreads this year are Jeff McInnis and Primoz Brezec. I really think they are the primary reasons why the Bobcats have the potential to be bad-to-horrible this year.”), but by waiving McInnis, at least they’ve shown that they do eventually respond to the problem. If their indecisiveness with the whole McInnis/Brezec fiasco is any indication of how they handle the rest of their lives, however, I just hope none of their kids ever gets appendicitis.

All that said...I’m still ecstatic! This wasn’t just addition by subtraction, it was exponential multiplication by subtraction. In their recap of Charlotte’s win over Toronto on Sunday, ESPN.com wrote that the Bobcats “essentially acknowledged they are no longer in the playoff hunt when they waived veteran guard Jeff McInnis on Friday.” I’d argue the exact opposite—if we really wanted to tank games for draft positioning, we would have kept him around. Jeff McInnis is so slow and useless that I was waiting for Charles Barkley to challenge him to a foot race at next year’s All-Star weekend. With him gone, it’s the dawning of a new era.

Earl Boykins, Matt Carroll, it really didn’t matter. ANYONE does more in the 2-slot than McInnis. And why Felton was ever slotted anywhere other than point guard is just as mysterious. I mean, the guy’s 6’1” and has played point guard his whole life—why were we ever shuffling him around? Is anyone on the Miami Dolphins considering drafting Glenn Dorsey first overall and then moving him to free safety? Forget it, I don't care, I'm just glad it's over. I feel like Eminem once he finally got custody of Halie-Jade from Kim. Crazy McInnis is out of our lives now for good, let’s just try to forget the whole thing ever happened. And now that he’s gone, we can enjoy two things:

1. Jared Dudley. I haven’t loved a “Dudley” this much since Arnold Drummond’s best friend on Diff’rent Strokes. Against the C’s on Friday, he had 9 points, 7 boards, and 3 steals in just 27 minutes. These were a handful of forwards he was dealing with, too—Garnett, Posey, and Powe. And on Sunday, he had his greatest game yet: 17 and 10. He’s been deadly efficient all year, almost never taking a bad shot (50% shooting from the field). He’s almost like a “Moneyball” player: not an Adonis-looking guy, he just compiles the stats. If Dudley continues this trajectory, management’s going to have to think real hard about how much more they want to sink into Sean May (and I’m sure they’ll get back to us by, say, December 09).

2. Jason Richardson. I’ve bashed him a lot all year, but I have to admit that not only has he been great for the past two months or so, he’s even been tough. After what happened with Nate Robinson at the Garden, I didn’t expect to see him for a week, except maybe in civvies and sporting a pirate-style eye-patch. But he didn’t miss a single game and has gone for 30 both nights. And really, if you take out November, he’s been averaging over 20 points per game and playing over 37 minutes—in other words, he’s been right in line with his career averages. More importantly, he averages about one really "cool thing" per game—be it a windmill slam, a ridonkulous 3-pointer, etc. So although he hasn’t been the missing link that would connect us to the playoffs, he’s often the only reason to tune in right now.

I really have no idea how we kept things so close with Boston. The Celtics did miss a bunch of lay-ups (“at least 6,” according to the ever-impartial Tommy Heinsohn, and this estimate came roughly midway through the second quarter), but still, we were a Felton-drive away from having that puppy at 96-93 with two minutes left! Too bad. And then against the Raptors, we started out cooler than being cool—that is, “ice-cold”—by going just 3-for-12. To make matters worse, Rasho Nesterovic, who looks like a sort of Frankenstein’s Monster at center, was randomly unstoppable, scoring 13 in the first quarter. Toronto also had the two-headed monster of TJ Ford and Jose Calderon (who NEEDS to quit licking his fingers all the time when he doesn’t know where that ball has been—is that not the grossest habit this side of LeBron’s nail-chewing?) working it. But for whatever reason (aw hell, let’s blame this on McInnis too), we out-rebounded the Raps 50-37 (inc. 18 offensive boards—could that be right??) and hit 24 of 26 free throws. And just 7 total turnovers the whole game? We usually churn that out in a quarter. We really were the Anti-Bobcats in this one.

And Primoz…ah, Primoz. 11 minutes, 4 points, 4 fouls. Seems like only yesterday…