Thursday, June 21, 2012

Will the Big Three Come Back? And a Couple Other Sports Thoughts

Of the four major American sports, basketball is my least favorite (which drops it to around 6th or 7th in the world of sports in general, but still puts it higher than just about anything else on TV) but it was damn near impossible not to become emotionally invested in the Boston Celtics this year. Everyone kept knocking them down and they just kept getting right back up. And not just dragging themselves to their feet to stagger through another round. They got back up to the Eastern Conference finals (more on that in unpacking the titular question) and went seven games with the Miami Heat, in the course of which, their play demanded Lebron James put it one of the great performances in NBA playoff history to beat them. They proved that great coaching and great team play can still beat the greatest individual talents the sport has to offer, if said great team could muster a few more points from their bench players.

But the question on everyone's mind of course, as the Heat fans gave the Celtics a standing ovation in the closing seconds of game 7 is, is this the end? Is “The Big Three” era coming to an end? There were points in this season (say, before the All-Star break) where this was an easy “no,” but, with the playoff performance the question is a lot more complicated, and is, I think, leaning ever so slightly towards, “yes.”

First of all, I think it's important to remember that if Avery Bradley was healthy the Celtics beat the Heat in six games. Maybe five. He would have guarded James most of the time, and by the playoffs, he had developed into an elite defender. Not only would he have added his own abilities, he would have eased the burden on Paul Pierce, who noticeably faded as the series wore on. Much like in their re-match with the Lakers when Kendrick Perkins went down, it wasn't poor play from the Big Three that accounted for a loss, but the absence of a key supporting player. The same thing could be said for the Heat, of course. If they had lost the 12 or so points Chalmers provided, they would have lost series. (And while we're on the Heat, if Chris Bosh didn't suddenly turn into a 3-point shooter in game 7, the Celtics would still be playing. I mean, seriously. What more could we ask from the Celtics defense than to force Bosh to take 3s as the shot clock expired?)

On to signing or not signing Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett to new contracts. Let's start with Ray Allen, because I think the possibility of his contract is more complicated.

First of all, it depends in his ankle. If he gets out of ankle surgery and doesn't believe he can consistently make jump shots, I assume he'll retire. But even if the ankle comes back healthy, the Celtics would have to be concerned about his ability to stay healthy for an entire season, given the ankle, the bone spurs, and his age. I think we can safely assume that Ray Allen can no longer contribute effective starter minutes. But coming off the bench? If Ray Allen's ankle is healthy after the surgery, I think he can be an major contributing factor off the bench. In 12 minutes or so per game, we could expect about 12 points or so from Allen, but more importantly, a fresh Allen at the end of games could be huge. He could only average 6 or 7 points a game, but if those points come in the fourth quarter to close-out games, they will be major contributions to the team's success. And you don't have to run around to make free-throws.

The question is whether a future Hall of Famer and the greatest pure jump-shooter the game has ever seen is willing to take a 1 or 2 year contract that reflects that role. Because it will be a pay-cut. And it might be only a 1 year deal. Personally, I think a Wakefield-like contract makes a lot of sense for Ray Allen. In a diminished role, he could continue to contribute for a 2,3, or even 4 years, but any game and any season could be the last. The rolling contract that Wakefield had, could be a perfect fit.

During the playoffs, Kevin Garnett proved he is still an elite player and if the Celtics only sign one of them, it's going to be Garnett. The only question is the contract. Is he willing to accept that, as every year passes, he becomes more and more of an injury risk? Is he willing to take a pay-cut in order to help his team fill the gaps in their roster? What is most important to him, being a Boston Celtic or being a high paid NBA star? As with Allen, I think there is a contract in here that makes sense, probably for two-years and probably for less than what he's getting paid now.

There is another reason for sports fans to root for The Big Three coming back next season; we could see professional athletes make a decision based on something other than how much money they'll be paid. There is an amount of money that makes sense for the Celtics to offer Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen and there is a chance other teams will offer them more. Unfortunately, we may never know all the details that will ultimately go into the contract negotiations, but if two players who have embraced a team identity the way Garnett and Allen have can leave Boston for more money in the waning years of their careers, we'll have the final definitive confirmation that professional sports has become the same soul-crushing corporate culture as the rest of the world.

About damn time.
A few other sports things to catch up on. Given that Patrice Bergeron won the Selke, as entertaining as it might have been, I will not be pitching a fit. He should win it a half dozen times over his career as long as he stays healthy. However, I do have questions about Karlsson winning the Norris trophy. Yes, there is no question he was the best offensive defensman in the league, but that :35 average shorthanded time on ice really stands out to me. There could be a lot of reasons for it, but it makes his plus/minus 16 much less respectable. From his point totals he was on the ice for a minimum of 78 Ottawa goals, which means he was also on the ice for a minimum of 63 opposing goals, but with so little shorthanded time, nearly all of the opponents goals had to come even strength. (Chara on the other hand had 2:55 shorthanded time on ice and a 33 plus/minus.) When a defenseman is getting points like that, you'd think the net gain for the Senators would be a lot more than 16, especially when he's not killing penalties. For a somewhat unfair comparison, in 1968-9, when Bobby Orr scored a paltry 64 points, he had a plus/minusof 65. The game was different back then, but the stats still add up to opponents scoring a lot of even-strength goals when Karlsson is on the ice. Which makes me ask, if there's a Selke for forwards, why not an Orr for defensemen?

Offensive Juggernaut
If I came back from an around the world tour and you told me Felix Dubron had 8 wins, Daniel Nava was batting .333, Jarrod Saltalamaccia had 13 home runs and David Ortiz was toting around MVP level offensive numbers (.313 batting average, 49 RBI, 18 HR, .614 slugging) and asked me where the Sox were in the standings, I'd probably guess the best in baseball and well on their way to a 100 win season. With a disabled list of mythical proportions, a pitching staff that took two months to straighten out, Youkilis and Pedroia constantly nursing lingering injuries, and playing in a division that is somehow even better than it was last year, the Red Sox are not on their way to a 100 win season. Oh, and what's up with Adrian Gonzalez? I think just about everyone was ready for an off year for the Red Sox, for a whole host of reasons, but I don't think anybody was prepared for the David Ortiz to potentially have the best year of his career, and for the Red Sox organization to demonstrate some pretty remarkable depth. What does this mean for the season? Well, the rest of the AL East is crushing it as usual, being the only division with all teams above .500, and the Sox lost a lot of games early in the season, but they still have Ellsbury coming back and who knows what Crawford can so, the Red Sox are speeding headlong towards another end-of-season playoff heartbreak. That extra wild card might be just within reach, and if they get it, they'll get their opponents ace might be a tough September. Or they could squeak in, everyone could get hot at the plate, and they could steamroll their way to another championship. Ah, Red Sox baseball.

No pads, no time-outs, and, they're friends are rowdier.
Finally, do not miss the rugby sevens at the Olympics this summer. Rugby sevens might be the purest, most athletic team sport in the world. It's played at a blistering pace, the players are freakish specimens of raw ability, and the US is the defending gold-medalist. (OK, we're not going to win any medals in rugby, but, hey, we've got enough.) Though it might be a little extreme to say your avoidance of rugby this summer will test the bonds of our friendship, your avoidance of rugby this summer will test the bonds of our friendship.

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