Sunday, June 25, 2006

Must read parody

And like the Daily Show this parody provides a more accurate assessment of the Finals and the D-Wade cult than all the ink spilled in the MSM:

D-Wade: The Transcendent Super-human

Sunday, June 18, 2006


And that's the thing that bothers me about this series: No team depends on the refs quite like the Heat. When the refs are calling all the bumps on Shaq and protecting Wade on every drive, they're unstoppable. When they're calling everything fairly, they're eminently beatable. If they're not getting any calls, they're just about hopeless. I could see the refs swinging two games in Miami's favor during this series, possibly three. In fact, I'm already depressed about it and the series hasn't even started yet. [emphasis added]
Well, after watching the refs hand the game over to Miami but putting Dwyane W. - after an out of control drive against three players resulted in a predictably lame shot that missed - at the free throw line with 1.9 seconds left in a one point game I would have to agree with ESPN's Simmons: the NBA refs have been swinging games to Miami.

The worst of it is that Dwyane was not fouled - as replays clearly showed.

I say the above not being a fan of either team, but a fan of basketball. What we are seeing is no longer basketball - it has become choreographed, scripted, ridiculous. Room is still left for the players to play, but not all the way and not all the time. For example, not only did Dwyane get to decide the game at the FT line, but his FT attempts equalled the entire Dallas team. Not surprisingly Dwyane made more FTs this game than any other player in the entire 50 year history of the NBA Finals.

The refs swing games in subtle and not so subtle ways. For example, Dirk Nowitzki is punished by the opposition every time he touches the ball - actually before he touches the ball. Dirk is 'bodied-up' in the parlance - full body contact to push him and keep him off balance. This is routine - as is the lack of a call. Meanwhile, contrast that with the treatment of Dwyane - where merely a poor shot is oftentimes enough to warrent a whistle as in the case of the final shot of the game. I could go on, but why bother?

It is time for the people who value the sport to speak up. Wait for the sportswriters to do so and you will have a long wait. They know what side their bread is buttered on.

People will say 'but Dallas could have won if...' but isn't the point that both teams should have equal chances? You can play the same game saying 'Miami should have one if...' but they got and extra chance. That is why it is not fair. That is why the NBA and their refs and the favoritism that is rife is destroying any belief in spontaneity as opposed to scripted endings. One team should not have to win by four of more points - it should be fair.

Photo of 'foul' being called

Video of 'foul' - notice how quickly the ref signals for the foul, before Nowitzki even has an opportunity to push, which in any case he does not.

Another video showing the entire sequence including Dwyane Wade jumping in the air in the frontcourt, catching the ball and landing in the backcourt, then using his left forearm to knock Jason Terry (the Maverick with the high socks) out of bounds right in front of the ref before his out of control drive to the hoop.

Monday, June 12, 2006

NBA Finals - Rileyball: end of an era?

Following the Mavericks's blowout of the Heat on Sunday, Heat coach Pat Riley claimed it was due to the passion and the intensity of the Dallas players.
"This game was about another team's competitiveness and energy," the [Miami Heat] coach [Pat Riley] said. "Their energy and their effort far surpassed ours."

Sorry, try again.

Riley - whose post-Showtime reputation is one of a motivator first, defensive tactician second (especially on how to exploit the no-longer operative illegal defense rules) and offensive guru last - is as regular as Old Faithful when it comes to his diagnosis of his team's ills. Any of his teams. He sang the same song in LA. He sang it in NY. He sang it before and he is singing it again in Miami. For Riley it always comes down to who wants it more, who works harder, who is more motivated.

It is that sort of tunnel-vision that explains much about why Riley's team has not been competitive in these first few Finals games. Riley has failed the team as much if not more than any other person. He has failed them because he himself has failed to adapt to changing times.

'Rileyball' was an epithet given to the ugly shove'n'grab basketball that Riley promoted at the tail end of his run in LA and throughout his reign at NY and Miami. Its essence is to drain the air out of the ball by making the game a physical wrestling match, permitting the team with the biggest, most committed goons to bludgeon their way to victory.

Essential to this strategy is having a few stars (to, you know, actually put the ball into the basket) and surrounding them with flawed players who possessed the mindset of berserker warriors. The stars would score the ball through isolation and a two-on-two game while the supporting cast would provide the mania, occasionally chipping in with a spot-up bucket.

Not surprisingly, this led to the ugliest basketball this side of the shot-clock. Riley, being the pacesetter he was among the coaching fraternity had a great impact on how the game was played. This impact was heightened by his undeniable success, which was due in part to the good fortune he exercised in selecting the teams whose sideline he would grace and his unparalleled skill in exploiting the rules as they then existed - particularly the illegal defense rule, which he bent and broke on the defensive side (leading to several revisions of the rules) and just as importantly, which allowed him to reduce offense to isolations for his star players while hiding the deficiencies of the 'supporting cast.'

Now Riley was not alone in forging this unholy union between physical D and minimal O, but he was perhaps the most extreme exponent (even if not the most successful - witness Phil Jackson). Eventually, however, the league, facing declining attendence and televisual indifference, acted to restore the flow and beauty to what is intended to be a team game. As Boston sportsguru Bob Ryan put it:
Simply put, isolations had to go.

"My abiding sense," explains commissioner David Stern, "and Jerry's abiding sense [Jerry Colangelo, that is], was that isolation really was -- it seemed designed to hide the talents of a good percentage of our players and that we had to try to do something better than that. Hard defense -- good, smothering defense -- was OK from our perspective. If so, what was the offensive set? You put one guy in the corner and four guys, as I've said, in the parking lot, and that's NBA basketball?

The second problem: "There was a lot of slowing down players on the way to the basket, but not necessarily rising to the level of a foul," continued Stern. Hence the advent of ``points of emphasis" by the 2004-2005 season, which, according to Stern, ``began to allow players to move about without getting clipped on a regular basis so that there was no foul, but by the time they whorled their way to the basket it was as though they had been on a forced march."
Eliminating the 'illegal defense' and permitting zone defenses was a simple and ingenious method to restoring team offense. Why? Because teams with one or two stars could not simply hide their offensively inept teammates and in so doing make their counterparts vanish from the hardwood equation. All five players had to participate on offense or else allow the defense the luxury of any combination of doubleteams and zone defenses. Likewise, the crackdown on physical 'clipping' of players premits a freer flow of players on offense - thereby rewarding movement without the ball, something that had virtually vanished during the Rileyball era.

But what, you may ask, has this to do with the 2006 Finals? Well, it is a funny thing, but coaches, like so many other professional fraternities, are slow to adapt new ways of doing things. The rule changes themselves, although they had some immediate impact with regard to the efficiency of particular players, have not truly been exploited in a systematic fashion that demonstrates what is now possible. That is, not until this year's Finals. It took a coach who is creative and visionary (Avery Johnson), supported by the right organization (Mark Cuban's Dallas Mavericks), to conclusively demonstrate that the future of the NBA lies in a team game - both on defense and offense - and that the deeper and more talented team will benefit from the renewed emphasis on movement, speed, skills (like passing and shooting) and honest-to-goodness teamwork.

Most coaches and teams have stuck to what they took to be the virtues of Rileyball, which is how Riley and his Frankenstein monster of a Rileyball team - the Miami Heat - were able to cruise to the Finals. Not that they didn't encounter a few bumps on the way, but for the most part their opponents stuck to the Rileyball script allowing the Heat - who had the biggest baddest Rileyball star ever in Shaquille O'Neal - to prevail.

Shaq - a star who is also a goon - is the personification of Rileyball and to what depths the play in the league had fallen. Although personally beyond reproach, his lack of professional discipline (witness his FT woes) and reliance upon his brute strength to make up for his never having refined a post game by developing a go-to shot were not a handicap to success. Why? Because in Rileyball strength trumps skill, size trumps speed and a few talented individuals can outplay a roster of well-rounded team players. Shaq has never had to develop a proper post game because he could alway simply knock over his man and dunk the ball, or at worst, clear his opponent away with one arm while flipping a half-hook up with his other. And if the shot didn't go, he would simply go get the rebound and try again. He could do this because opponents had to play him one-on-one, allowing his immense size dictate the outcome either initially or in the scrum for the ensuing rebound. Or, if they did decide to double, the defense had to leave someone wide open, since zones were forbidden. And Shaq has never felt compelled to overcome his problems at the free throw line, since his advantages were so overwhelming that he could afford to miss bundles of free throws and still contribute to his team's victory.

None of this is to say that Shaq has not worked hard at his craft (particularly when it came to anything that would allow him to dunk the ball more thunderously), but his lack of basic skills, his indifference to conditioning, his almost arrogant refusal to refine his post game, instead relying for the most part on innate size and relative quickness, and his success despite these factors are symbolic of the rot that had set in with the rise of Rileyball. A player such as Shaq could only dominate the game as long as his team could isolate him on offense close to the basket, where his overwhelming bulk could determine the outcome most of the time.

But that has changed now, even though most of the league still does not realize it. You can now punish teams that are predictable on offense by keying on those predictabilities. Shaq is used to getting the ball, holding it and deciding whether to go for the dunk or pass it to an open player. But without the old illegal defense rules teams no longer have to wait to double team him and if they do they can zone the rest of his teammates. Shaq can no longer simply hold the ball since the double teams will be all the quicker and the open shots will no longer be quite so open. By allowing for team defense the NBA has allowed coaches to try and force teams to play team offense. Rileyball, however, is not predicated on team offense. It depends on isolation, which can mask the deficiencies of an Antoine Walker, a Jason Williams or an Udonis Haslem.

Avery Johnson and the Dallas Mavericks are showing the basketball community that the rules have changed and that the old ways of doing things are no longer sufficient. No longer will it be enough to simply dump the ball into the post and wait for the double team - over and over and over again. No longer will it be sufficient to simply get the bigger, badder frontline thug and let them 'punish in the paint.' Offense needs diversity, passing, ball and player movement - otherwise doubleteams and zones will smother even the biggest, baddest big man of all time.

None of this is to say that Shaq's career is over. He is talented and will continue to contribute for years to come. But the time is coming to a close when he could simply dominate by leisurly brushing players aside, waiting for the pass and either dunking or passing out to a wide open teammate - time after time after time. It is sad in a way, because Shaq clearly is not prepared for the changes that are going to be required of him. He is going to need a go-to post move, one which he can use quickly and reliably time-in and time-out. He also needs to get over his mental block, swallow his pride and learn to shoot free throws, because he can no longer simply make up for misses by bulling over players in the post time and again. These are skills he clearly could develop, but has never had to. Will he in the time left to him?

Regardless of what Shaq decides in the future, however, it seems clear that Riley has not prepared him or his teammates for it. Riley himself seems unaware of how the NBA game has changed. In part, that is due to the inherent conservativism of his coaching brethren. But at the same time, coaches are quick to adopt what works, and if nothing else, Avery Johnson has shown - on the biggest stage of all - how to stop Rileyball dead in its tracks. While Riley rants on about 'competitiveness' and 'energy' and 'effort,' staples of the Rileyball mantra, the rest of the league is witnessing the game as it passes him by. The game has changed but Riley has not. There were no apparent adjustments for the Heat between games One and Two and, if Riley remains true to form, there won't be any during the last few games of the series either.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Wake up: the American Dream is over

Sad, but true. Those in the 'middle class' can continue to leverage themselves up with help from their parents (I don't know anyone in my age cohort who has bought a house without parental support). And of course double income households are a necessity now. But how long can such leveraging continue to prop up the current state of affairs? With debt at an all-time high? With the real estate bubble set to burst? And when it does a large segment of the 'middle class' will become part of the 'struggling-to-get-by class.'

Here is a sobering article (follow the link to read the whole thing) that essentially states the case as objectively from an outside perspective: in short, that the U.S. is becoming a North American Brazil - a land where the elite have rigged the game against the rest of us.

Wake up: the American Dream is over by Paul Harris of The Observer:

Over the past few decades there has been a fundamental shift in the structure of the American economy. The gap between rich and poor has widened and widened. As it does so, the ability to cross that gap gets smaller and smaller. This is far from business as usual but there seems little chance of it stopping, not least because it appears to be government policy....

And still the American government is set on tax breaks for the rich. Bush's first-term tax cuts notoriously benefited the upper strata of American taxpayers. So much so that even Warren Buffet, the second richest man in the world who benefited to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, has said the tax cuts 'scream of injustice'. As head of a hugely successful investment firm, it is hard to paint Buffet as a lefty liberal who hates Wall Street (though, bizarrely, some conservatives do try).

Dems need to be addressing the long-term perspective when they discuss economics - not just facts and figures but what kind of nation we want in the future. The options are out there: a land of opportunity or a country characterized by elitism and dashed dreams.

Still the tax cuts go on. This week one of the main political debates in Washington has been about scrapping the 'estate tax' whereby those who inherit large amounts from their relatives will be taxed on it. This overwhelmingly affects the wealthy. The estate tax is already set so high ($400m) that only one in 200 estates pay any tax at all when they are inherited....

Yet the White House and many politicians, overwhelmingly Republican, want to get rid of it. The lobbying campaign against it has been financed mostly by 18 business dynasties, including the family that owns WalMart. At the same time the Bush administration has sanctioned millions of dollars of cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and the education budget as part of a measure aimed at reducing the spiraling deficit. This is, frankly, obscene.

Race and immigration feed into this debate too, of course. Many Americans could care less about the working poor because they are seen as 'different': brown-skinned 'foreigners.' Racial and cultural divides are typically the point where elites seek to drive wedges between people who otherwise share similar interests. That is why the Dems need a realistic policy on immigration. While criminalization is not an option, rigorous enforcement - particularly of corporate violators - should precede the attempt to grant political rights in order to integrate the existing 'illegal' population. A 'guest-worker' solution is no solution at all, since it will only perpetuate an underclass of disenfranchised workers. We need to integrate - with full political rights - the entire American workforce, but politically this is only realistic if the laws on illegal immigration are meaningfully enforced.

The effect of all this has been to scotch that long-cherished notion of the American Dream: that honest toil is enough to reap the rewards and let even the poorest join the middle class, or maybe even strike it rich. A survey last year showed that such economic mobility (a measure of those people trying to make the Dream come true) was lower in America than Canada, Germany, Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Finland. In fact, the only country doing as bad as America was Britain....

Now this is not some argument against capitalism. Inequality is inevitable. It is a good thing. People need incentives. People need competition. People need markets. Some people will always be poor. Others deserve to be rich. But at the moment it looks like the rules of the game are being fixed in America in favour of the wealthy....

Monday, June 05, 2006

Feingold and "firm principles"

Senator Russ Feingold's interview with Chris Cillizza and Dan Balz was posted on the WaPo today. In it Feingold hits on one issue that has haunted the Dems since Jimmy Carter - that they are a party of vaccilators - 'professional politicians' perpetually with their fingers in the air and with the moral backbone of an octopus.
Let's start with a broad question about the Democratic Party. There's all this talk about what ails the Democratic Party. What do you think the party's situation is these days and what needs to be done about it.


...There is this deep sense, especially in the base of the party, that we don't have firm principles or that if we have firm principles, we're not stating them firmly. And it is amazing to hear people, almost as if they've had the same script, saying we are tired of Democrats looking weak.

So that appears to be the conviction. I don't think people are as concerned about what the exact issues are as this feeling that we don't act like we are ready to govern this country both domestically and also especially ... standing up to the White House with regard to the mistakes and abuses of the post-9/11 era.

So that's what I hear. I'm convinced it is accurate.
I'm convinced that Russ is right on target on this issue. As a college instructor of political science who has worked on the campaign trail, I can't tell you how much people crave politicians to be straight with them. I've had it expressed to me many times by various people that they would prefer a candidate with strong, heartfelt convictions - even if some of those convictions differ from the voter's own - rather than a candidate who appears deceptive about their views, willing to to pander to everyone - in short, one who is indecisive, a 'waffler,' a 'flip-flopper.'

I've read on blogs where people wonder why Bush never gets tagged as a flip-flopper, most recently with regard to the turnabout in negotiations with Iran. Part of any full answer would naturally have to take into account the biases of the press, but even more importantly I think is the fact that Bush does articulate strongly held beliefs in strong language (regardless of what he really thinks on such issues). Given what we 'know' about Bush, any deviation from such beliefs then appears as a statesman-like act.

Contrast that with the caricature of the 'dithering Dems' that has grown up over the past 30 years and epitomized by Carter's malaise speech on the one hand and Kerry's 'I voted for it before I voted against it' on the other. This lack of fortitude is one of the reasons why people have doubts about the Dems when it comes to foreign policy. It is not just the policy themselves, but the behavior of the candidates that sets the tone, as documented by Josh Marshall in his Bitch-Slap theory of presidential politics (Someone who can't fight for himself certainly can't fight for you).

Chris Cillizza, who also wrote up a summary of the interview and of Feingold's career and prospects, notes up front that dithering indecisiveness is not something one has to worry about when it comes to Russ:
"Cautious" is not a word that comes to mind when writing about Russ Feingold.

The Wisconsin senator was the first member of his party to propose a timeline for withdrawing American troops from Iraq last fall, and when news broke about the Bush administration's domestic eavesdropping campaign, Feingold introduced a resolution to censure the president for violating U.S. law.

Political suicide, says the Democratic political establishment. Phooey, responds Feingold.

"I've heard these pundits, they are people that are paid by Democrats, many of them were in the Clinton administration, these are paid political pundits and paid political consultants who make their living coming up [to] the Capitol and telling the Democratic leadership this is a loser," Feingold says. "It is bad advice. It is advice we got in 2002 and 2004. And we lost because we were perceived as unable to take the tough stands that are needed to change the course in the fight against terrorism."

That's Russ Feingold at his finest. An anti-politician contemplating a run for the highest political office in the country....
Whether a Democrat is liberal with a capital 'L' or moderate is not so much the issue here; after all, Dean was no flaming liberal but he was willing to fight back for his beliefs.

[Of course, Dean was later labeled as 'too liberal,' but as we know, that has more to do with his willingness to 'Crash the Gates' and stand up to the Dem Establishment than any actual issue of ideology. BTW both the interview and summary go into how Feingold's style differs from Dean's and what he learned from Dean's flame-out.]

What is more important is that a candidate can articulate their beliefs clearly and strongly. This is key for reaching people who are not ideological themselves but who are not comfortable with 'politics as usual' either. Reaching these voters by consistently standing for our core beliefs - whether considered liberal or simply common sense - is as important for rebranding the Dem party as building a 50 state organization.