Thursday, May 28, 2009

Memphis allegations stand out more than most


Normally, when I hear of a scandal involving the bringing in of a "student-athlete" to a university, I keep living, pay it little attention.

It happens all the time.

The whole system is flawed.

Kids should be able to go straight to the NBA.

Blah, blah, blah.

But when I saw that, allegedly, an unnamed Memphis player who we all know is Derrick Rose had someone take the SAT test for him to get into Memphis, I didn't move on with my life. At least not for 17 minutes.

For a simply reason, really.

Rose's impact.

The kid -- and, yes, he's still a kid; a very, very talented kid -- almost led Memphis to a national championship. The kid almost made the university millions and millions of dollars (in many different forms).

The kid was a huge difference-maker during his one year in Memphis, a huge winner. He helped John Calipari gain more recognition and probably helped him land the coveted Kentucky job this spring.

The list goes on...

And, if the allegations are true, he shouldn't have been at Memphis in the first place.

I'm not saying I would have felt bad for Kansas if the Tigers hadn't blown the end of that epic national-title game; I'm fairly sure the Jayhawks at least bent the rules to recruit a contributor or two from that championship squad.

Rather, I'll look at the season as a whole.

The Tigers played 40 games and won 38 of them. A solid portion of their opponents, I'll assume, were using rosters full of legitimate players. Coaching staffs of those teams spent long hours trying to figure out how to slow down the speedy freshman.

And the kid couldn't take an SAT test.

Did Rose make a bad decision? Of course he did. He should have known how illegal the whole deal was.

So he deserves some blame.

But at the same time, he had no desire to be in college for a year, or take classes. He just wanted to hoop and eat gummy bears.

If it wasn't clear until now, it's crystal clear now that kids like Rose don't belong in college for a year. They should be able to head straight to the NBA, which is where they want to be.

That's obvious and needs no further explaining.

What isn't so clear-cut is what went wrong here. Memphis, obviously, is to blame. Someone at the school, someone within Calipari's group of advisers and boosters, knew what was happening.

So the Tigers should be punished. Hopefully the current players won't feel that burden by missing a postseason. But someone needs to feel the pain of this gross error in judgment.

As for Rose, what can be done? Nothing, of course.

If it's confirmed that he is the culprit, however, I'd have to think that he'll feel something. Sure, Bulls fans and management will continue to love him -- why wouldn't they? -- but he'll be seen, at least for a time, as nothing but a basketball player, a body on the court.

If he wants a good off-court reputation, he'll have to really work at it. We'll see how his endorsements hold up (I'm guessing they'll be fine).

Whatever. He's not the one to feel sorry for.

And no one, really, deserves much sympathy here.

But I do feel a tad for the coaches who make sure to run clean programs and then have to play teams led by illegitimate players such as Rose.

The system is messed up; we all should know that.

It's like baseball and steroids, and it'll only be a matter of time before the next scandal breaks.

That doesn't mean, however, that the effects of such a situation aren't felt.

And I am glad, for the record, that the Tigers failed to win that national-title game.

Even if it's true that all but one of the team's players got into the university the right way.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Billups proves to be one of league's most valuable players


Give yourself a slap on the back if, way back in November, you saw this one coming:

The Detroit Pistons, with their six consecutive trips to the Eastern Conference finals, swept -- in embarrassing fashion -- in the first round of the NBA playoffs.

And, just as shocking, the Denver Nuggets, with their five straight first-round exits and not a run past that round since 1994, in the Western Conference finals -- even getting there before the West's heavily favored Los Angeles Lakers (who face a do-or-die Game 7 against Houston Sunday).

I, for one, didn't see it happening.

Which means, of course, that I was among the minions who didn't grasp just how valuable of a player Chauncey Billups is.

Because adding Billups, really, is all that changed personnel-wise for the Nuggets. He came over from Detroit along with Antonio McDyess, who ended up back in the Motor City, and Allen Iverson -- and all his talent -- was shipped to Detroit.

On the surface, the Pistons were getting the better player, the more athletic player, the more accomplished player.

Except for one thing -- Billups has an NBA title, not to mention a Finals MVP, while Iverson has none (and, at this point, it looks like he'll retire without a ring).

The reason for this is simple: Billups runs a team better, way better, than Iverson. He gets along better with his teammates, he helps foster a good camaraderie in the locker room.

And he builds a winning environment built on solid self-confidence.

That's the way these Nuggets, who are an impressive 8-2 in the playoffs -- a record only bested by Cleveland's dominant 8-0 mark -- are playing. They've got a swagger about them that says, "Bring it," but at the same time, they're playing with a looseness that you'd associate with an underdog.

And, believe me, they have a 50-50 shot of making the Finals, regardless of whether they take on the mighty Lakers or the Yao- and T-Mac-less, upstart Rockets in the next round.

Meanwhile, the other result of the trade was a mess. It was no secret that Joe Dumars, the Pistons G.M., had no intention of holding on to Iverson after this season. The trade was more of a looking-to-the-future move, aimed at creating valuable cap space to sign a big-time free agent.

But no one thought the Iverson Experiment would go so poorly, with the one-time MVP never fitting in with his Detroit teammates and eventually calling it a season with a purported back injury.

He'll, more than likely, end up in a starting backcourt next season. But don't expect an Iverson-led team to ever smell the Finals again.

We'll have to leave that to Billups, 32, who has looked anything but aged and worn down this season. Along with Carmelo Anthony, Kenyon Martin, J.R. Smith and other valuable role players, it's not unrealistic to expect the Nuggets to make deep runs into the playoffs for a good three or four years.

Who, in November, saw that coming?

It's not too far-reaching of a statement to say the Nuggets are a completely different team since the trade.

And the following is a factual statement: Only one NBA player has made a conference finals series the last seven years.

That man is Chauncey Billups.

Sure, he's been blessed with great talent around him in Detroit and Denver. But neither team was close to being a title contender before he joined it. And while Rasheed Wallace was a big mid-season acquisition for the Pistons during their championship run, there was still no questioning who led them to the upset of the Lakers in the Finals.

Anthony is clearly the Nuggets' most talented player, and even Smith is more explosive than Billups, but the point guard is the team's most indispensable player.

Just look how far -- or, not so far -- Denver got during 'Melo's first five seasons.

Now, the team is just four games away from reaching the Finals with a chance to win its first NBA crown.

And, appropriately, it would be led to that title by a hometown hero who continues to prove his worth to even those outside of his home state.

Just ask the Pistons how valuable he is.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Celtics show, again, the importance of experience


So the Boston Celtics are down, once again, 1-0 in a best-of-7 series.

So they lost the first game on their home floor.

So what?

The Celtics might be down, but they aren't panicking. And something tells me they'll find a way to fight back and oust the Orlando Magic from the playoffs with or without Kevin Garnett.

That "something" is experience.

Each postseason, every NBA analyst gesticulating on your TV screen mentions it, says how "important experience is this time of year." And most of the time an "intangible" gets so much attention, it's overrated -- just something for all the talking heads to blabber about.

But in the NBA playoffs, as the Celtics have proved in the past two postseasons, experience really can make a difference. It can separate a great team like the Celtics from a young, talented team like the Bulls. Or an untested playoff team such as the Magic.

Just take Game 7 of their epic series against the Bulls, a series that has to go down as one of the greatest of all time even if Boston is quickly dismissed from the postseason.

In that game, the Bulls' most talented player was rookie Derrick Rose. And while he was good at times -- especially in the third quarter -- he committed a trio of key turnovers and didn't control the game the way a veteran point guard would.

Boston's Rajon Rondo wasn't any better, but that wasn't too surprising considering he's the Celtic's youngest main-rotation player.

The guys who knew what they were doing, who knew how to handle a Game 7, were the veterans.

Paul Pierce and Ray Allen found ways to get to the free-throw line in crunch time and then calmly sank the freebies. They made 16 of 17 free throws and the Celtics converted 30 of 39.

And then there was Eddie House, the sharp-shooter off the bench. He'd been a no-show for much of the series, but in the deciding game he continued to do what the team asked of him -- shoot 3-pointers.

And they went in ...all four of them. Take away House's 16 points, and we're talking about a Bulls-Magic series right now. House has been in the league for eight years and has played in his share of playoff series. He knew exactly what his role was.

Ben Gordon tried in vain to be the strong veteran presence for the Bulls, playing poorly on a bad hamstring in the second half after a quick start. Without an A-plus game from him, Chicago was left to rely on a group of very capable but inexperienced players.

Another Bulls veteran, Kirk Hinrich, came off the bench and played brilliantly. It might have seemed a surprise to the casual viewer, but he understood how to play in such a situation.

Still, the Celtics' veterans -- let's not forget the eight points and three rebounds Brian Scalabrine contributed -- were too much to overcome even minus K.G.

Now, after a loss to the Magic, the masses are out saying that Boston desperately needs Garnett to combat the NBA Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard. He'd certainly help (obvious statement of the column). But Boston may also win this series without him.

Orlando is on the cusp of greatness. It has a reliable corps in Howard, Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu plus the injured Jameer Nelson. But they're still inexperienced compared to the Celtics, and I expect that to shine through at some crucial point in the series.

Let's not forget -- Boston had to survive two Game 7s and win a Game 6 in Detroit to get to the Finals a season ago. Nothing ever comes easy for the Celtics, and it certainly won't happen that way in these playoffs.

They may be exposed as thin inside sans Garnett. Their bench may have off games, as was the case, really, until Game 7 of the first round.

But these Celtics won't get beat mentally, won't let a dire situation negatively affect them.

And that can be attributed, in large part, to that word all the former-players-turned-analysts make sure to mention during each 30-second sound bite.