Thursday, July 29, 2010

Wait ... Chris Bosh quit on the Raptors?


Forgive me for writing about this, but I wanted to say something before it's completely forgotten. After all, it happened in Toronto -- the one NBA city which is basically ignored because, well, it's in Canada (anyone remember the Vancouver Grizzlies?).

However, before we completely move on to covering Miami's "Big Three" or "Terrific Trio" or "D-Wade and Co.," it should be noted that LeBron James isn't the only member of the "insert name" that has been ripped since his departure from his previous team. Since Wade didn't leave the Heat, that leaves, yes, Chris Bosh, the seemingly inoccouous All-Star -- but, no, not superstar -- who somehow, it appeared, held the most power during the free-agent negotiations in bringing all three to South Beach.

Raptors GM Bryan Colangelo said recently that Bosh, basically, quit on the Raptors as the team battled for the eighth playoff spot in the Eastern Conference this past season, not coming back as quickly as he could from an injury.

The Raptors missed the playoffs by a game. One game.

(Side note: Of course, all a playoff spot would have meant was a bludgeoning at the hands of James' Cavs. But still, there's a big difference in fans' eyes -- and others' -- between being the eighth or ninth best team in a conference and making or missing the playoffs.)

Colangelo said that Bosh was cleared to play "subject to tolerance on his part," but instead chose to sit out an additional six games. Upon further examination, Bosh missed seven games in late February and early March -- a period during which Toronto went 3-4 -- nursing a sprained left ankle. He also missed the season's final five games, and most of a sixth, after fracturing two bones in his face. I'm assuming Colangelo isn't referring to that injury.

So Bosh sat out when he could have played on his ankle with the team still having more than 20 games to lock up a playoff spot. Then when he returned, he wasn't quite the same player the rest of the season -- with his point and rebound numbers both dipping -- which, I'm sure, is part of what Colangelo was referring to when he said:

"Whether he was mentally checked out or just wasn't quite into it down the stretch, he wasn't the same guy,"

I wouldn't call it a reason to bash Bosh too badly. It wasn't the end of the season. Maybe he wasn't quite in that panicked playoff mode yet. That's somewhat understandable. Still, this kind of action has to be wondered about, especially when a respected GM like Colangelo speaks out and we're talking about a place in Toronto where Vince Carter admitted to slacking during games and Tracy McGrady gotouttatownquick.

I'd like to hope Bosh becomes a better team player, winner and hard worker than those cousins. And I'm pretty sure we won't hear about him taking it easy when injured in Miami now that he'll play alongside James and Wade.

Still, this really leaves a sour taste in the mouth. As Colangelo mentioned, here was an organization that had worked really hard to surround Bosh with complementary players, mixing and matching and putting forth a lot of effort to try to build a winner. This is a team that lured a very good player (although he just had a down year), Hedo Turkoglu, from Orlando to Toronto. What?

Bosh has never had a reputation for taking it easy or sitting out when he can play. Although during four of his seven seasons abroad, he played 70 or fewer games (not by much, however: 67, 69, 70, 70). He only played more than 77 games once. He never played in all 82 games.

Perhaps that's just who he is -- a 75-regular-season-games-a-year player. And for the Heat, that should be just fine. Any lock-for-the-playoffs team knows that it's not what you do during the regular season; saving a little energy for the playoffs isn't a bad strategy. Just ask this past season's Celtics.

So Bosh will have that option now. Miami, with a healthy trio of stars, will never be in danger of coming close to missing the playoffs. That must be nice.

But for Bosh to sit out a half-dozen games for a team battling to stay in the playoff picture -- a team that ultimately missed them by a single game -- doesn't leave a good impression. So, yes, Toronto fans, boos are acceptable when he makes his return next season. Just no jersey burnings.

That's my analysis, thanks. Now let's get on with the good stuff. I heard there's going to be this pretty good team down in South Beach...

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Major League Baseball leading the battle against performance-enhancing drugs


There are a lot of former baseball fans out there. People who used to love America's (past) pastime when it was "clean," when players looked like normal people and played because of a love for the game, and when no one even considered the thought of 70 home runs in a season.

Of course, the sports lost thousands of fans after the brutal 1994 strike. And just when its popularity was soaring again around the turn of the millennium, the steroids scandal rocked the game. And rocked it. And rocked it some more.

Many fans who turned their focus to other sports and endeavors may never come back to the game. However, everyone must admit this regardless of their disgust for the sport — it's done a very good, thorough job of cleaning up the game the last few years.

The latest news? Last week, MLB implemented random drug testing in the minor leagues for Human Growth Hormone, or HGH as it's commonly referred to. HGH has been a go-to drug for cheaters of recent years because it can't be detected by a urine sample. Now, that elusive blood test will be arbitrarily administered to minor leaguers.

It will be a little more difficult to get the testing implemented at the highest level because of collective bargaining, but most experts believe that it's not far away — that it's going to happen. Of course, there are always new, undetectable drugs out there. So it'd be naive to say that an HGH test would mean a completely clean sport. That's never going to happen.

But watch an MLB game today, and you'll notice how different it is from a decade ago. Players are noticeably smaller. And the biggest storyline of this season has been the dominance of pitchers, who have posted better numbers across the board than they have since 1992 — when steroid use was minimal (check out a Barry Bonds picture from that season and compare it to the '01 Bonds portrait).

Criticize Bud Selig all you want, but he's done more as a sport's commissioner than anyone else to clean up a game that was dirtier than a kid after a mud football game. MLB has in place penalties for steroid use that include a 50-game suspension for a first offense, a 100-game suspension for a second offense and a lifetime ban from the game for a third. Other disciplinary actions are in place for lesser crimes against the game.

The list of steroids, abusive drugs and stimulants that result in a penalty is long — very long. It reads more than 60-deep, and it's never a surprise to me when a player is suspended for taking something he had no idea was banned. Of course, it's the player's fault for not doing his research. But it also speaks to the thoroughness of MLB's movement against PED use.

Maybe some fans were lost for life during the ugly Steroid Era and its aftermath. Well, too bad for them. Because baseball today is as clean as it's been in quite some time.

Just watch the product on the field and you'll know right away.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Re-evaluating LeBron James' possible legacy


Hypothetical: LeBron James plays the next 11 years for the Miami Heat alongside Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, winning four championships. Each team features a balanced scoring attack, and the big shots are split pretty evenly between James and Wade, with Bosh throwing in a few and even Mike Miller draining some huge Derek Fisher-esque 3-pointers.

James retires with the four rings, four MVP trophies and hundreds of millions in cash.

How does his legacy stack up?

Since James' ridiculous one-hour TV special a week ago, which, by the way, got spectacular ratings -- yeah, ESPN did all right -- there has been a huge backlash against James. Some of it, criticizing him for the way he made his decision, he deserved. And a lot of it, bashing him for his free-agency choice, was, of course, just silly. It's his choice; he has no obligation to stay in Cleveland.

What's also been said, however, and deserves more thinking about is this -- that James severely tarnished his potential legacy by signing with the Miami Heat and Wade, arguably the third best player in the Association, and 20-10 guy Bosh. In essence, that he called for "HELP!!" instead of digging down to try to lead his own team to a championship.

Some say that any title James wins in Miami won't mean as much, won't garner him as much respect in the history books as if he had carried the Cavaliers to a championship. Others say that's garbage, pointing to Magic Johnson winning four rings playing with Kareem and Bird gaining three with a loaded Celtics team.

Here's where I stand: James set expectations so high, anything he does in Miami likely won't exceed them. Sure, if the above hypothetical works out, he'll likely be mentioned in the same breath as Bird and Magic. But it was just this past season that everyone was comparing James -- not his style of play, mind you -- and his potential to carry a franchise to Michael Jordan.

In joining up with Wade, a player who will likely possess the ball just as much as The King and take as many last-minute shots, James distanced himself from a chance at ever reaching M.J. status. When asked this week who the best player in the league is, Jordan's response was quick and short: "Kobe." James is not his type of dude -- that's clear.

And not the similar player, either.

One argument that I just had to laugh at involved comparing James' and Jordan's teammates. It was mentioned, in contrasting Jordan's Bulls to Wade and company, that Scottie Pippen was a top-five player in the league when playing with Jordan. Arguable, but maybe true. Still, how often did Pippen have the ball in his hands in the final seconds of a close game?

Very rarely. It was almost always Jordan's rock. Pippen was a great player, but he was no Wade when it comes to being clutch and making big plays. That might have had as much to do with playing alongside Jordan as anything else, but it's the truth.

Bryant, of course, relied heavily on Shaquille O'Neal for his first three titles. But now he's furnishing his legacy by leading the Lakers, and taking almost all the big shots, to back-to-back titles -- and, I think, a third next season.

James, if he wins three or more titles, will go down as a great champion. There's no doubt about that. And who knows, really, how things will work with the Heat? Maybe Wade will play off the ball most of the time. Maybe he'll defer to James and be a Pippen-like spot-up shooter.

But until the Heat become "LeBron's team," it will be difficult for him to crack the pantheon of the top five players of all time. Every headline that reads "Wade and James lead Heat to NBA title" hurts, just a tad, James' legacy. Just a tad.

I love the fact that this trio made selfless moves to gang up and give themselves the best chance to win championships. It's rare that you see something like this, especially in the NBA. And I believe their heads are all in the right place and they all have the same priorities -- winning, winning, winning.

So who really cares if James doesn't go down as The Greatest of All Time or The Best Since Michael? It should be a joy to watch how this duo of superstars -- plus an All-Star -- works together, and we'll see how many titles they can ring up.

And about that legacy? Well, we've always said there will never be another Jordan.

More and more, that's looking like the truth. In fact, Bryant might be as close to the next M.J. as we'll ever see.

Friday, July 9, 2010

How a non-superstar dictated the NBA free agency drama


I don't condone it, but it certainly can be understood why some angry, bitter Cleveland basketball fans were burning LeBron James jerseys in the streets of his former city Thursday night. After all, he had just announced, on national TV, his decision to leave the Cavaliers for South Beach -- in essence, leaving an economically depressed city with nothing to be excited about sports-wise.


But perhaps the inflammatory rioters should have been lighting flames to another jersey as well -- that of Chris Bosh, one of two high-profile players whom James will join in Miami. The other, of course, is Dwyane Wade, who, along with James, is one of the game's top three players.

Over the past week, one of the 1,073,294 storylines surrounding the free agency bonanza was that James was interested in having Bosh join the Cavs via a sign-and-trade from the Raptors that would have given him a maximum contract to play alongside the King on a team that led the league in wins last season. Bosh would be just the low-post player Cleveland needed to perhaps push it over the top and get James that championship -- a solid 24-point, 10-rebound guy who is only getting better.

Bosh, however, was having none of it. He didn't want to play in Cleveland, was not attracted to the city. He had done his time in Toronto, played his butt off for the fans there, made it his home. Now, he was ready for a big city with big lights, an attractive city.

Cleveland? Hell no!

(Tangent: This goes back to something that must be noted about free agency, especially in the NBA: Warm-weather cities have a huge advantage. How many big names leave the south to go north, especially to cities outside of the Big Three of New York, Chicago and Boston? Detroit, Cleveland, Minnesota, New Jersey -- they're all at a huge disadvantage. What are they going to say -- there's great skiing? Not to be stereotypical, but when was the last time you heard of NBA players going on ski trips together? OK, that's enough.)

So Bosh dismissed that possibility. He had zero interest in joining James in Cleveland. Instead, he would gladly move down to the beaches, warm weather, and trendy clubs of South Beach to join his other boy, Wade.

Now consider this -- it's not a definite, but if Bosh had joined James in Cleveland, leaving the Cavs with no cap room after the trade, Wade would have been left with nobody in Miami. And he has gone on record since Bosh agreed to play for the Heat Wednesday as saying that he wouldn't re-sign until he had a guarantee from management that a big-name player would be joining him.

Wade might have gone to Chicago, might have returned home to play on a very talented, very complete Bulls team. Seriously -- a squad with Wade, Derrick Rose, Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah would have been the favorite in the East (as would have been the case had James chosen the Bulls Thursday; and it would have made the most basketball sense, as all the experts said).

So we would be looking at quite a different landscape in the Eastern Conference -- and there would be no jersey-burning in Cleveland; just jersey buying.

None of the players can be blamed for their decisions. In fact, all of them are taking pay cuts to make things work in Miami (although the cuts might not be as big as talked about due to the state's lack of an income tax; I'll let the math whizzes crunch the numbers).

Everyone knows that this conversation started when the trio signed identical three-year deals to allow themselves to enter the Summer of 2010 in the same boat. And the bond probably got stronger in 2008 at the Beijing Olympics, where they were all key cogs in the U.S.'s run to the Gold Medal. Apparently, Chris Paul was a a part of the mix as well. And don't look now, but he's a free agent in 2012 -- yes, New Orleans, I'd be sweating at this very moment.

The only mistake made during this process was James' horrific decision to hold a one-hour TV special, "The Decision," to announce where he'd play. Cleveland fans may never forgive him for his overly public, unemotional, ugly divorce from the team. Owner Dan Gilbert definitely doesn't, considering the absolutely scathing letter he wrote to his fan base Thursday night.

But historians shouldn't forget that this all came to fruition because of the decision of a guy, in Bosh, who has never been first-team all-NBA and has played in all of 11 playoff games, failing to win a series.

He should win a few starting next season, and he deserves a lot of credit for helping to form this terrific trio that should wow NBA audiences, win a few titles -- and keep Cleveland fans, sadly, in a state of dismay and bitterness for many years to come.