It all started with this kick. Adam Vinatieri kicked a 48 yard field goal at the horn to give the New England Patriots the Super Bowl 36 victory over my beloved St. Louis Rams. At that moment, 9 years and 364 days ago, the Patriots would always be at the forefront of my NFL consciousness.
In three days the Patriots will play the New York Giants in a rematch of Super Bowl 42. In that first game I was adamantly rooting for the Giants. I was sick of New England. Not only had they ruined the dynasty that the Rams were supposed to have, but they had also won two more Super Bowls; Super Bowl 38, 8 years and 1 day ago, and Super Bowl 39 6 years and 361 days ago. On top of that they were undefeated, had the pretty boy quarterback in Tom Brady, the douchiest coach in sports in Bill Belichick, and SpyGate. I loathed the Patriots more than any other team in sports.
The Giants won that game 17-14 thanks mainly to a huge amount of luck, otherwise known as Houdini and Velcro. On that day, 3 years and 364 days ago, my feelings began to change.
For the next three seasons the Patriots turned into a normal everyday NFL team. They made the playoffs two of the three years, but lost their first postseason game both years. If it wasn’t for Brady and Belichick being such iconic figures, no one would have given a crap. Over those three years I came to appreciate the Pats. They played the game hard, they played it well, they played it with a no bull mentality. They played with such precision. They had the same arrogance and quest for perfection that had made the Rams so great during the Greatest Show on Turf years. Belichick and Martz have the same smug superiority about them. The offenses operate at the same level of supreme efficiency. You may not think Kurt Warner has much in common with Brady, but on the field the two possess many of the same qualities, talen-twise and personality-wise.
Of any teams in the NFL in the last ten years, the Rams and Patriots have been the two teams that have come closest to attaining perfection. I don’t mean perfection as in a perfect season, I mean perfection as in playing at the highest level possible that your talent and the game will allow you to achieve. For three years the Rams were the NFL’s perfect team. Heading into Super Bowl 36, the Rams were making their third playoff appearance in three years, they had won the NFC twice, and were 14 (!) point favorites in the Super Bowl.
If the Rams were to win that Super Bowl, they would have been on a path to NFL immortality. They would have become a dynasty in the era of free agency. They were a team 10 years ahead of its time. The offense, the speed, the machine like effectiveness. They were a referees missed intentional grounding call away from being ready to dominate the NFL for another 5 years (sorry, the bitterness jumped in). When the Patriots beat them, all that was over. We didn’t know it at the time, but that loss ended the potential of one of the greatest runs in football history and maybe will lead to football leaving St. Louis. The Rams didn’t get to go on that run; instead, it is the Patriots that have done it.
That is why I, and almost all Rams fans for the most part, hate the Pats. They are what the Rams were supposed to be. It felt like they stole what was rightfully ours. Then when the Red Sox swept the Cardinals in 2004 it added insult to injury. Everything St. Louis felt it deserved was being taken from them. (here’s some irony, a couple years before the Rams came to STL, the Patriots almost came to STL. If it wasn’t for Robert Kraft, you would today be rooting for the St. Louis Patriots. Weird huh. You can read about it here).
It took a long time to come to realize what I have written here. It took a long time for the wounds to scar enough to stop the bleeding. As of today, 9 years and 364 days since that day, there are still scars. But this Sunday, 10 years and 2 days since that day (so close to being poetic perfection), I will again be rooting to see greatness and perfection. Because, why do we watch sports if it is not to see excellence?
The final scene of my favorite show, “Chuck”.
USA Basketball today released their preliminary roster for the 2012 Olympics which will be held in London this August. (you can view the roster in the above link) This edition of the roster has twenty players with the final roster having to be trimmed down to twelve.
The last several editions of the U.S. Senior team has dealt with lots of questions. In 2006 the questions dealt with inexperience, accomplishment, and talent/cohesiveness. You can go back and look at the roster; it was not one of the more impressive the U.S. has put forth.
The questions around the 2008 “Redeem team” were accomplishment and if they could come together as teammates. Before that year’s Olympics, the senior team had failed to win gold in a major international tournament since the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
The 2010 squad had to face the questions the 2006 team did. Outside of Lamar Odom, no player on the roster had ever played in one of the top international competitions. Many also wondered whether the team was anywhere good enough to compete at such a high level.
This roster has been six years in the making, dating back to 2006 when the current regime of USAB, led by Jerry Colangelo and Mike Krzyzewski, began their reign. This era of USAB has stressed continuity and commitment and this edition of the men’s senior national team has plenty of both. 18 of the 20 players on the roster have previously played for the senior team under Coach K. Six holdovers from the 2006 World Championships are on this roster, eight players played in the 2008 Olympics, and ten from the 2010 World Championship team. Experience is no longer a question.
Those 18 players contributed to a gold medal in the 2008 Olympics and the 2010 World Championships and neither team lost a game. Accomplishment is no longer a question.
Technically, we don’t know if this year’s team will be able to come together as a unit, but I think we can trust Colangelo and Coach K to build a roster. We can also trust that these players know what it takes to win and play good basketball at this level. Talent/Cohesiveness is no longer a question.
Now in 2012, the U.S. Senior Basketball team has only one question: which experienced, accomplished, and talented players will have to be cut.
There are nine locks for this team. PG’s Chris Paul and Derrick Rose, SG’s Kobe Bryant and Dwayne Wade, SF’s Lebron James, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony, PF Chris Bosh, and C Dwight Howard.
That leaves eleven guys fighting for three spots.
3rd Point Guard: It is likely that the U.S. will keep a third point guard for this tournament. The last two tournaments Coach K has wanted the third PG and has used that spot to bring in a veteran. The U.S. braintrust felt like the team needed an old hand leading the offense and to be a calming force. In 2008 it was Jason Kidd. In 2010 it was Chauncey Billups. Kidd has since retired from international basketball, but Billups is on the 20 man roster. I don’t know how much “veteran leadership” this team needs. As noted earlier, 18 of the 20 players have previous senior team experience. The PG spot has 2008 Olympians Paul and Deron Williams, and 2010 World Championship participants Rose and Brian Westbrook. It never hurts to have experience, but I don’t think this team needs a designated “veteran” player.
If this team has a third point guard the choice should be between Williams and Westbrook. Westbrook gives you a more dynamic option. He is lightning quick, ultra competitive, and extremely athletic. At any point Westbrook can light up the scoreboard and carry his team. He can also shut down the opposite PG. Westbrook’s problem: He knows he’s good. He’s like the super hot blond that walks around school flipping her hair and wearing low cut shirts and short skirts to get people to look at her while she completely ignores everyone around her.
Westbrook takes too many ill-advised shots as point guard for the OKC Thunder. There are times where he has killed the Thunder offense by ignoring open players. Westbrook appears to want to prove he’s the best player on his own team, but the problem is that Durant is a teammate. Durant is a top 3 player in the world. Westbrook is very good, but he’s not Durant. But Westbrook thinks he’s Durant leading to chemistry issues that may or may not have derailed the Thunder’s playoff run last season (or it could have been this performance by Dirk. Good heavens.). Could these same issues come up when Westbrook is surrounded by more of the best players in the world? Maybe, maybe not. In the 2010 WC, Westbrook was the third leading scorer, third leading shot taker, and third leading assist man. He also had the second most turnovers. He probably wouldn’t get as many minutes playing behind Paul and Rose and being with all these players could be a good learning experience.
Deron Williams is the other candidate. Williams played in ‘08. Williams’ stats are very similar to what Westbrook did in ‘10. He often played in a two point guard alignment where he slid over to SG which limited some of the traditional numbers associated with a point guard, like assists. With the roster almost assuredly having two shooting guards, that lineup could be used again. If so, that would be a reason to take Williams over Westbrook.
The biggest thing Williams has going for him is that he doesn’t have a stigma attached to him like Westbrook does. Westbrook has taken a lot of heat for his play in last year’s playoffs. Williams doesn’t have anything like that.
My pick: Williams. Williams feels like the safer pick. He does not have the same dominant capability Westbrook has, but with guys like Kobe, Durant, James, etc., this team hardly needs domination from the third point guard. Instead they need someone who can come in, keep the offense humming, lead a fast break, and play solid defense. Williams gives the best chance to fill that role.
Backup Bigs: One of the major advantages the U.S. has in international play is versatility. Many of the players on the roster can play multiple spots allowing Coach K a lot of lineup flexibility in order to attack the many mismatches his team has over its opponents in talent, athleticism, and versatility. What that means is, you could see a lot of Lebron, Melo, or Durant playing the power forward position. You could also see Bosh play center. If Kevin Love and/or Lamarcus Aldridge make the team, each of them could see time at center.
So, how many “bigs” does the U.S. need? What kind of “bigs” do they need?
In the past, international basketball has favored frontcourt players who could face up, shoot, dribble, and pass. The trapezoid lane nearly killed any kind of a back to the basket post up game. This is one of the reasons you see foreign big men come to the NBA with a much more finesse skill set, think Pau Gasol and Andrea Bargnani. But FIBA has changed it up and gone with the familiar rectangular lane. This could have important implications for how the U.S. constructs its roster.
When the trapezoid lane was in effect it was important to find frontcourt players who could shoot from 10-15 feet or further. The reason is that it was virtually impossible to post up on the block and get to the hoop and, if you tried to post up where the block is in American basketball, you were almost sure to get a 3 second call. The 2008 team chose Bosh and Carlos Boozer. Both players can shoot from mid-range and have a good skill set.
Now, with the trapezoid gone, we could see a move toward more conventional post up players. The U.S. roster has seven frontcourt players. Bosh and Howard have spots on the team. That leaves 1-2 spots among the other five players. Those five are Aldridge, Love, Odom, Blake Griffin and Tyson Chandler. Of those five, Chandler is the one that benefits the most from the rule change. Chandler has no shot and he can’t dribble. His role on the court is to rebound, get putbacks and alley-oops, and be a wall on defense. Chandler did not get a lot of time on the 2010 WC team. His skill set just didn’t fit well with the rules, but the game is adapting to him and that could give him a spot on this year’s team. It also doesn’t hurt that you only get five fouls in international ball which means the need for depth behind Howard could be great.
The thing working against Chandler is that international teams like to play zone. Chandler does not offer a lot to beat a zone. But Aldridge, Love, and Odom do. All three of them are adept shooters and passers. Each can back you down and face you up to shoot or drive by. Odom is especially good at this as he has spent much of his career playing the power forward spot like it was the small forward spot. Odom wouldn’t get the same kind of mismatches in the Olympics that he does in the NBA, but he could play an important role in beating zone defenses.
Working against Odom is that he is competing with two other players that do the same things and, at this point, are playing better than he is. Love and Aldridge are two of the premier power forwards in the game at the moment. Aldridge is a pleasure to watch working in the post as he has a variety of moves he likes to go to. Love is one of the best rebounders the NBA has ever seen and his offense extends from backing you down to being a good spot up 3-point shooter. Love is often times called the perfect international center because of all the things he can do on offense. He shot the ball very well for the 2010 WC team and should get a spot in ‘12.
My pick: I go ahead and fill the roster here and choose Aldridge and Love. This gives the U.S. four frontcourt players guarding against foul trouble of any kind. With Bosh, Aldridge and Love, the U.S. would have an extremely versatile frontline. All three can play center to give Howard a rest. All three can serve as the “zone-buster”. All three can be gone to for stretches when the team needs them. Love’s defense is a bit of a concern, but on this team with the help he will have, it shouldn’t be a huge liability.
The Others: Eric Gordon, Rudy Gay, Andre Iguodala, Blake Griffin. Gay and Iguodala have the hardest road to making the team. They play the small forward spot which is currently inhabited by Lebron, Durant, and Melo. I love the games of Gay and Iggy. They are two of my favorite players to watch and I would very much like to see them in the Olympics. And if the U.S. decides to go with just three frontcourt players that could give one of them an opening, but it’s not likely.
Gordon has two reasons to hope he can make the team. The first is that he can shoot. Outside of Durant he is the best shooter on the roster. Gordon was the second best 3-point shooter on the 2010 WC team behind, you guessed it, Durant. The one thing the 2008 team lacked was shooting and they almost lost because of it. Gordon would go a long way toward rectifying that. So, how can he make the team? He has to hope the coaches value a shooter over a fourth “big”. The concern for the U.S. if they choose Gordon is would he be able to get enough playing time to keep his shot going. Michael Redd was the designated shooter for the 2008 team, but he got so little time that he ended up having the worst 3-point % of anyone who attempted a three. The lack of playing time is why I leave him off the final roster.
Then we have Griffin. Think about how fun it would be to watch a team with Lebron, Wade, Durant, Anthony, Howard, and Griffin catching oops from Paul, Kobe, Rose, Wade, Lebron, Durant and Anthony (yes I repeated some names, have you watched the all star games? The guys who catch the oops are almost the best at passing the oops). Take Griffin off that list and what do you have? Well, you still have Lebron, Wade, Durant, Anthony and Howard. Griffin has one great thing right now and that is his athleticism. Overall, he has yet to become a very good all around player. He does not have much of a post game. His face up game is developing, but it is nowhere near that of the other power forwards he is up against. If you are trying to put together the best team for right now, you leave Griffin off.
But the U.S. could see this as a luxury pick. They could see this as a chance to get Griffin in the same room with all these other players and hope that the work ethic wears off onto him. It would also be a way to expose Griffin to high level international play as he is likely to be a large part of the next several editions of U.S. Senior basketball. Griffin would be taking the spot of Aldridge or Love if he makes the team.
That leaves us with a final twelve man roster that looks like this:
Point Guard: Paul, Rose, Williams Shooting Guard: Kobe, Wade Small Forward: James, Durant, Melo Power Forward: Bosh, Love, Aldridge Center: Howard
Gold Medal? That can be the only acceptable goal.
Tribute to the late Kim Jong Il. The comedic opportunities will be missed.
"Do I want to be in St. Louis forever? Of course. People from other teams want to play in St. Louis and they are jealous that we’re in St. Louis because the fans are unbelievable. So why would you want to leave a place like St. Louis to go somewhere else and make three or four more million a year? It’s not about the money. I already got my money. It’s about winning, that’s it."
That was a quote made by then St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols in 2009, two years before he became a free agent. Two years ago, three to four million dollars would not be enough to get Pujols to leave St. Louis. Last Thursday morning Pujols decided to accept the Los Angeles Angels contract offer of ten years, $254 million. That averages out to $25.4 million per year. The reported final offer from the Cardinals came in at ten years, $220 million. An average of $22 million a year. The difference in those amounts comes out to be $3.4 million.
What changed in the last two years? Did anything change in the last two years? Was Pujols just saying that to make St. Louis fans like him more? Or did he actually mean it?
The first place to look is back around twenty months ago. In April 2010 the Philadelphia Phillies signed their first baseman, Ryan Howard, to a five year, $125 million contract extension. The contract not only gave Howard the second highest average annual salary in baseball, the highest for a first baseman, but the Howard was not set to be a free agent until November 2011. The Phillies saw the urgency and rushed out to lock up their star player. They showed respect, they showed they wanted to keep their man no matter what.
Now come back to the present, or more accurately, this past Saturday. Pujols is at his introductory press conference in Southern California. He dons his new uniform and hat for the first time, smiles for the cameras and all the fans in the crowd and proceeds to say all the nice happy things everyone wants to hear. At a second press conference later in the day, this one just for reporters, Pujols offered a bit more substance.
"But to tell you the truth, it wasn’t about money. I’m going to die saying that, because it wasn’t about the money. It was about the commitment. It was about the way (Angels owner Arte Moreno) made me feel."
The Phillies showed their commitment to Howard by signing him almost two years before he was set to become a free agent. The Cardinals first offer to Pujols did not come until eight months before his contract expired. What’s worse is that the Phillies gave Howard an above market deal, while the Cardinals offer to Pujols not only was much lower than the asking price, but had a lower average salary than Howard’s, a player that Pujols is unquestionably better than.
In the end, Pujols got the commitment and respect he always desired. He also will earn an extra three to four million dollars a year.What would you have done?
This is from one of my favorite episodes of Seinfeld.