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Dan Shaughnessy on Tim Duncan…

March 29, 2010 1 comment

I don’t really want Sports on the Brain to be one of those blogs that searches out articles by established sports writers and tears into them. Partly, because if you’re going to do something so querulous, then you have to do it with an exceptional amount of intelligence and wit, and.. well… I’m just not going to do it better than these guys did. But also, because with the proliferation of FJM copycat blogs, at this point it seems banal, jealous and mean spirited, and that’s not really what I’m interested in…

(you can just see the giant BUT coming here, can’t you?)

But… today, Sports Illustrated’s Dan Shaughnessy wrote a column were he disputes the notion that Tim Duncan is one of the ten best players in NBA history. That he’s wrong is I’m sure obvious to almost everyone with even a rudimentary understanding of basketball, but lets ignore the end result for a minute and look at some of his logic.

Off the top of my head I’d take Wilt Chamberlain (always No. 1, the guy averaged 50.4 points a game during the 1961-62 season), Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O’Neal, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West and Bob Cousy ahead of Duncan. There’s a quick 10 without as much as a three-second violation.

Ok, first off, we know that the Bible took apart Chamberlain as a potential top dog in NBA history so completely that it’s now hard to respect anyone who keeps Wilt ensconced there based upon logic like, he averaged 50.4 points per game in a single season (It’s called context Dan). Yet, obviously Wilt is still in the top ten, as are Jordan, Kareem, Magic, Bird, and Russell. I’d say then that Duncan comes in at the front of a group that includes (in some order) Shaq, Kobe, Oscar, and West, with the Diesel having a big advantage in terms of upside, but also having the biggest caveat, because he spent so many seasons running in neutral.

The real kicker in Shaughnessy’s group though is Cousy. Come on Dan, we all get that you’re a rabid Boston homer, but Cousy? Better than Duncan? Lets use one of Bill Simmons’ favourite constructs. We’ll play a game with our lives on the line and you can have either Cousy, who was a tremendous court leader, a gifted passer, and a cagey player who couldn’t shoot water out of a hose, or Duncan. A player who at his best was a seven foot behemoth, who protected the rim so smartly that he managed to affect shots without taking himself out of the play. A player who was a strong passer out of double teams, which his presence demanded, because his bank shot was so automatic that teams couldn’t let him get in position to take it. And a player who just happened to grab ten boards a game without thinking. Cousy was great, but he’s at least ten players away from the top ten and taking him over Duncan with your life on the line would be a little like saying, “let’s play Russian Roulette with a single barrel shotgun, I’ll go first.”

Nothing against Duncan, but you could also give me Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Julius Erving, Elgin Baylor, Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone and Kevin McHale. Oh, and let’s not forget Bob Pettit, Moses Malone, John Stockton and Isiah Thomas.

I’m sorry, but did you just add perennial runner ups Barkley and Malone into a covnersation with four time champion Duncan? And Stockton? Believe me when I say that I love the guy, but… him? Really? I already mentioned Bryant in my top ten, Hakeem certainly could make an argument, and we all know that unless he’s abducted by the military for some sort of secret cloning project, LeBron will reside somewhere in the pantheon one day, but Thomas? Petite? Baylor? Erving? Great, great, great, and great, but better than Duncan? Please.

Somehow, I’ve missed Duncan’s greatness. Maybe it’s because he played in San Antonio. Maybe it’s the lack of flair in his game. Even his nickname is boring. Please, “The Big Fundamental?” Sounds like a guy you’d fit for a pocket protector.

I’m sorry, did you just argue that you can’t include Duncan in your top ten because his game didn’t have flair and you don’t like his nickname? Maybe he should have flashed more Jazz Hands, given himself a pseudonym like Agent Zero, and then everything he does to (you know) actually win games might have been obvious to you. And SI wonders why it’s subscriptions are dropping faster than an accelerating Toyota.

I’ll admit that the more I scour Duncan’s numbers, the better he looks. He’s a 7-footer who plays great defense, makes the perfect outlet passes and uses the glass like no one else his size. He’s won his whole career, and he’s done it quietly. Too quietly for his own good, maybe. Playing in a small media market has disguised some of his greatness.
Duncan continues to play at an amazing level for a guy closing in on 34…

…Duncan was predictably humble about the whole deal.

We went down my list. I started rattling off names.
“You got 12 right there,” he said.
Tim Duncan is not going to fight about this. Even he admits it is absurd. He is a great player. He’s just not one of the 10 greatest of all time.

Hey, I’ve got a great idea, I’m going to determine that a guy isn’t one of the ten best players of all time. Then, when I actually look into it, I’ll find that he really is, but rather than concede my point, I’ll go ask him if he thinks he’s better than the twelve names I’ve randomly placed above him. If he disagrees, then I can pillory him for being arrogant, but if he doesn’t then I can write, “Even he admits it is absurd.” No Shaughnessy, what’s absurd is your entire column.

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A Super Column about a Super Bowl…

February 7, 2010 1 comment

So, there’s this little game of football this weekend, which I think you might have heard of. Given the importance of this game, I’m sure you’re wondering why I’ve spent all week writing about hoops? Honestly? It’s mostly because all the Super Bowl hype makes me feel a little like Tiger after a quick drive with Elin (or is that from Elin…?).

I mean, for two weeks we have been inundated with articles by writers who are too busy glad handing former athletes, D-level celebrities and fame seeking women to actually write something coherent and intelligent about football. The whole thing is a deluge of drivel, with the limited pieces of intelligent analysis lost amongst the rubbish like tears in rain.

Now, an intro like that suggests that I’m about to expel some salient words of Super Bowl wisdom, but you, my four loyal readers, know better. If you want to read someone break apart the game, analyzing positional battles, debating whether New Orleans can run against the Colts D, or how Gregg Williams’ blitz schemes will affect Peyton Manning then read the excellent work of Football Outsiders. I don’t really have a lot to add to that, and I certainly don’t have any of those fancy graphs, so… instead I’ll talk about the game generally.

I’m torn about who I will cheer for. Like most neutral observers, I’m moved by the story of the Saints. Hardcore New Orleans’ lifers, like James “Just measure my penis and let me on the plane” Carville speak eloquently about what the Saints have meant to New Orleans as it rebuilds after Katrina. A victory for the team would bring real jubilation to a city that has had more than its share of pain and suffering. Given that the restoration of the city is far from a finished project and that the world’s attention has long passed on to other calamities, bringing the citizens a reason to celebrate and reminding outsiders of the devastation felt in New Orleans would be an important step in the city’s convalescence.

On the other hand, as you know, I am always a fan of witnessing greatness. For me, the best part of sports is watching a player or team so in command of the game that they control it the way Neo controlled fights in the Matrix films. Watching Jordan defy gravity as he flew towards the basket, using inhuman body control to contort in mid air, transfer the ball to the other hand, and gently lay it in on the opposite side of the hoop; Watching Gretzky from the back of the net, playing with some poor defender like a cat with yarn, until he finally sees something nobody else sees, and before you or the opposing goalie knows it, the pucks is in the back of the net. Watching Pujols wait on his pitch, watch him take, take, foul, foul, and then watching his eyes explode, his hands whip through the zone, the little stick he wields connect with the ball, and his extension driving it 500 feet away; Watching Tiger deftly approach a waitress in a restaurant 2,000 miles away from his wife… Masters of their craft at the top of their game.

Which brings me to the reason I may be cheering for the Colts… Peyton Manning is playing this little old game of football better than anyone I’ve ever seen. Now, obviously I never saw Otto Graham, Johnny Unitas, or Bart Starr, but I have seen Dan Marino, John Elway, Steve Young, Troy Aikman, Brett Farve, Tom Brady, and, most importantly, Joe Montana. Before this year I would have said that of the guys I’ve watched play quarterback, Peyton was probably fourth (Joe, Elway, Brady, him), but the command of the game that he has shown this year is otherworldly. He is turning first year receivers into stars, he is calling all of the plays, he is figuring out ways to break down defenses in the first quarter and then destroying them the rest of the game, and he’s still convincing opposing teams that the Colts might run, when they haven’t had a 100 yard back since Moses was parting the Red Sea. We are watching greatness and with a victory in this game I believe Peyton would firmly entrench his name into the discussion of the NFLs all time best quarterback.

Don’t worry however, I’m not planning on being a sports bigamist, when the gloves drop I’ll know which force is pulling on me more. I’ve long maintained that if you’re unclear of where your loyalties lie, the fastest way to know is to watch the game. If one team scores and you instinctively cheer, well, then, you know your answer. If both teams score and you don’t cheer for either, well then you’re a neutral observer. Now, if both teams score and you cheer each time, well, then you’re just a bandwagon jumping knob.

I know what you’re saying, enough about cheering, columns like this are for picking games… which brings me to the other reason I couldn’t write this column until today. I couldn’t offer my prediction until I’d finished ironing out my Super Bowl bet with my old friend T-Bone. I couldn’t have T-Bone reading my prediction and using that to force me into better odds. But yesterday we finally finished haggling over our points (I’m giving him 3.5 to take the Saints), so it’s time for me to make a prediction. Remember if I were any good at prognosticating, I’d be living in Vegas, spending my time in an office with a guy named Vinny and eating $1.00 steaks for lunch every day. Instead I’m here flipping patties and adding pickles to your cheeseburgers, so… don’t take this to the bank or anything.

This game will either be a blowout for the Colts, or tight. I doubt New Orleans has the defensive chops to blow out the Colts and for all of the Colts dominance this year, they rarely destroyed teams, so close seems the safer route. A tight high scoring game will benefit the Saints, who have a quick strike offense that if it gets in a rhythm will be hard for the hobbled Colts defense to stop. On the other hand, if the Saints don’t score from forty yards out, then they stagnate in the red zone. And, as I noted above, I believe that Peyton has ascended to the point of greatness, where he controls a football like nobody I’ve never seen.

I think Peyton throws three touchdown passes, the Colts run for another and they kick two field goals. On the other side, I think that Drew Brees leads the Saints to three scores, but that the offence bogs down in the red zone three times and that the Saints are forced to kick three field goals. Both teams score six times, but add it all up and it spells a 34-30 Colts victory. Not a resounding victory, but enough for Peyton to have his second Super Bowl and enter into that greatest QB ever conversation, and, more importantly, just enough for me to cover and finally win a bet with T-Bone.

Pissing On History, or how I Learned to Stop Worrying and Cheer for the Colts…

January 23, 2010 Leave a comment

Part of why I returned to the world of blogging was the Colts’ decision to rest their best players part way through the Jets game and forgo the chance for perfection. That decision was so wrong, so insulting, so specious, that it had me dropping F-bombs while discussing it with the Bald Man. Now, by the time I got the blog off the ground, the fervor over the Painter era had passed and other things seemed more pertinent, so there was nothing for me to do, but eat those feelings of apoplectic hostility, which actually left me looking a lot like Jets’ coach Rex Ryan.

Still, when the playoffs began all that I wanted was for the Jets, who only made the playoffs because the Colts sat Peyton Manning in favor of Curtis Painter, to play the Colts when it counted. The irony of the Jets beating the Colts in the playoffs would be so thick that it would ensure Bill Polian’s insouciant opinion of a perfect season live in infamy. So, imagine my pleasure when the Jets last Sunday waltzed in to San Diego and threw down the vaunted Chargers… Only problem, now that it comes to it, I still find myself cheering for the damn Colts.

Don’t get me wrong, I HATE what they did. The logic to piss on the opportunity to have the NFLs second perfect season was so capricious, it ignored every level of athletic integrity; it ignored the men and women who buy the tickets and watch the team on TV; it ignored the players whose sweat and blood had won fourteen games already; it ignored a sense of history a week after Polian allowed the players to play so that the Colts could become the decade’s all time winningest team. Who held that record before them? Who knows, certainly not me. I imagine you could poll a 100, a 1,000, maybe even 10,000 dedicated football fans and not find someone who knows the answer. On the other hand, you could ask my beautiful bride who has the NFLs only perfect season and she’d know. Why? Because one record matters and the others a load of…

Bill Polian chose to focus on the possibility of the devastating loss of a player to injury, ala Wes Welker, the only problem with that logic? Belichick was also resting guys that day, albeit halfheartedly and without any rhyme or reason, and Welker still got hurt. Guys get hurt in games, they do, but Peyton could have gotten hurt in the half and a bit he did play, or he could get hurt in practice, or he could get hurt when he films all those commercials, or he could get hurt while sneezing or even while adjusting a pillow, seriously it happens. Injuries are a part of life, they happen and allowing them to dictate how you play is sort of like parents who refuse to let their children outside, lest they get skin cancer.

Polian also maintained that he was interested only in winning the Super Bowl, as though the two things were mutually exclusive. I’m sorry Bill, they aren’t and maybe this is just conjecture, but I actually think resting your starters in football has an adverse affect. This isn’t to say that a team can’t recover, the Colts looked good last week, but if you look at the difference between the playoff records of the Colts and Patriots during the past decade (a decade by the way in which the Patriots were clearly the best team, no matter who won the most games) it becomes clear that the Patriots succeeded with an incessant drive to dominate, while the Colts suffered by resting players.

The Pats never rested Brady, they went in to the playoffs sharp and ready to attack, only losing in the first round once, this year. The Colts always rested their starters and they lost their first playoff game in five of their nine trips to the playoffs. Coincidence? I don’t know, but I do know that the year the Colts won the Super Bowl a shitty start meant that they had to play their way into the tournament and thus weren’t able to rest their starters.

So why after all that vitriol am I cheering for the Colts? Well, in two words: Peyton Manning. If you watched the Jets’ game, then you know that whatever the man has said publicly, Manning hated that decision to sit as much as I did. I’d say flames were coming out of his eyes as he stood on the sideline watching perfection being passed like yesterday’s McDonalds, but, well… it was worse than flames. Lasers? Lava? Satan’s pitchfork? I don’t know exactly, Peyton was like Elin standing with a nine iron in one hand and Tiger’s blackberry in the other.

Manning is a bright guy, who grew up around the game and has a deep love of football. He knows the history, he knows the importance, he knows that he’s somewhere between the 8th and 4th greatest quarterback in history and that everything he does over the next five years will determine whether he stays in that range or moves up to join Montana, Unitas, and Graham in the penthouse.

This is what made me so mad about the Colts’ decision. Peyton Manning is that franchise on a level that few players are in any sport. We’re talking about in a way where not only is that guy so beyond the most important and best player on the team, but he’s largely considered iconic, either bigger than the franchise itself, or at least so firmly entrenched that imaging him in another uniform is like imagining Jay Leno without his chin: we’re talking about Ripken and the Orioles, Jordan and the Bulls (the Wizards sojourn just didn’t really happen), Jeter with the Yanks, Tim Duncan with the Spurs, Brett Farve with the Pa… whoops, maybe not that last one. I think at that point, if you are Bill Polian you at least turn the decision over to Peyton. I’d have let the other veterans decide too, but Peyton’s voice would have been the most important. For everything Manning has done for that franchise, he deserved the chance to control his destiny. I know the job of team architect is to make the “big picture” decisions, but it’s also to realize that some things are bigger than the big picture. Thanks to Bill Polian, Peyton didn’t have the chance to pursue something that would have put this Colts team in the discussion for not just the best team of 2009, but the best team ever. Instead, Polian painted right over Peyton’s and the Colts’ legacy.

So, in the end, because of Peyton, I’m cheering for the Colts. Some might think winning it all would validate Polian’s decision, but I think it only makes the ‘what ifs” worse… which might not be as vindictively satisfying as them losing to the Jets, but it’ll have to be enough for me.

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