Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The free agent phenomenon, locally and abroad

I remember the first time I met Yi Jianlian, the newest Washington Wizard. Well, meet probably isn't an accurate word. I actually just sat in a room jampacked with Chinese journalists at the 2007 NBA Draft, who instead of asking Yi about getting drafted by Milwaukee, just wanted to know whether he was going to demand a trade considering the only thing relevant I could find on google when I typed in "Milwaukee Chinese" was a place called Long Wong's.

But Tuesday, I got a little re-introduction to Yi when the Nets essentially gave him up for free to the Wizards in exchange for precious cap space as we approach judgment hour in the biggest NBA free agent extravaganza the world has ever seen. Except this trade, and the draft day deal that brought Kirk Hinrich and the 17th pick last week's draft, likely means the Wizards will be on the sidelines when the bonanza begins at midnight.

Now in any other circumstance, I would wholeheartedly agree with the approach Ted Leonsis is taking now that he's the majority owner of the Washington Wizards. Just like he did with the Capitals a decade ago, he wants the product to bottom out and build fresh off the draft.

The stats back him up, too. Take a glance at the past 20 or so NBA champions and each were led by a seminal talent cultivated through the draft rather than free agency or a trade. There's the Bulls and Michael Jordan, the Lakers with Magic Johnson and Kobe Bryant, the Celtics with Larry Bird and most recently Paul Pierce, the Pistons and Isiah Thomas, the Spurs and Tim Duncan, or the Rockets and Hakeem Olajuwon. I guess the only exception is that Pistons squad that won back in 2004, but in general that team has been an outlier of sorts compared to other champions because they lacked a true superstar.

This template has worked wonderfully (in the regular season, at least) for Leonsis in regards to the Capitals. Much of the team's nucleus -- Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green, Semyon Varlamov, Brooks Laich, Eric Fehr, John Carlson, Karl Alzner, Jeff Schultz to name a few -- have come either via the draft or a trade when the franchise was de-constructing itself earlier this decade. Here's how Leonsis himself related all this together recently on his blog, Ted's Take:
The draft is important because a young, great player gets identified with the team; the fans fall in love with the player over a long period of time; the coach gets to help build a system around that player’s basic skill set; that player helps to build the identity of the team. And younger players are less expensive than max free agents, so they allow you to build more options and have more depth. And I believe when the time comes, your own young players should be courted, respected, treated, and wooed like they are free agents. I prefer to reward people that we know and trust more than players we don’t know and have contributed to another system and franchise.
Generally speaking that is a very wise, level-headed way to run a business. And frankly, amidst the hoopla that's always going on at Redskins Park during free agent signing periods, a breath of fresh air. But part of me is lusting for a little bit of Snyder to transfix itself inside Leonsis's head. Because this isn't a normal year in free agency, and to treat it like that is foolish. There are literally three no doubt Hall of Famers (LeBron, DWade, and Dirk) and numerous All Star types (Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Amar'e Stoudemire, Carlos Boozer, Joe Johnson, and Rudy Gay to name some) right there for the taking.

In the Post this morning, Wizards beat writer Michael Lee said the only comparable year in the NBA's free agency era was 1996, "when Michael Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal, Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Mutombo, Reggie Miller and Gary Payton were available." But considering MJ had no real intentions of leaving Chitown (just wanted to scare them into giving him more money), I would say this class is bigger and better. The only other recent comparison is probably 2000, when Tim Duncan, Tracy McGrady, and an in-his-prime Grant Hill were all available -- but that class dropped off precipitously from there.

At worst then, this year's flux of free agents is a once-in-a-15-year occurance. So if you have plenty of cap space -- something the Wizards had before the Hinrich and Yi deals courtesy of their midseason roster purge -- why would you sit on the sidelines? And why would the two trades you do make to upgrade the roster be for middling players that in the end just give a couple Eastern Conference rivals (in this case, the Bulls and the Nets) greater flexibility to go out and sign some of these fantastic players on the market? Patience aside, it just doesn't make sense unless your plan to get another star player besides John Wall (it pains me to admit it but Gilbert no longer fits under this disclaimer) is to be terrible again and get another top 5 pick in next year's draft.

All those rumors about maybe signing Baltimore native Carmelo Anthony next year? Chances are if he doesn't sign an extension with the Nuggets soon, he might just end up on the trading block so Denver doesn't lose him for nothing. Would he sign a max deal to play with the Wizards and John Wall next offseason? Maybe, but he's also going to be the crown jewel of an otherwise blah year of free agency. And don't think he hasn't been paying attention to the stir his buddies LeBron and DWade have caused hijacking the NBA offseason. Simply put, if Melo becomes a free agent, the Wiz won't be the only team courting his services.

I'm not even considering DC area native Kevin Durant, who becomes a restricted free agent in 2011. He's already in discussions with Oklahoma City about a long term extension and has said as much recently:
"No," Durant answered, when I asked if he's ever thought about coming home. "I mean, I'm just worried about Oklahoma City. I never envision myself playing at home, but you never know what'll happen. But I'm happy I'm in Oklahoma City, if that's what you're asking."

That leaves the Wizards average at best on the court, in my opinion. The addition of John Wall along with Gilbert Arenas's return is going to make them respectable and maybe even a threat for the 8th playoff spot -- and therefore another top-five pick in the draft is unlikely. So what is the Wizards' brass doing here? Building through the draft is a novel concept, but blissfully ignoring everything else just doesn't make much sense when established stars are sitting right at your feet.

Some other thoughts heading into the free agent frenzy:

*Speaking of Wizards' brass, I was reminded yesterday of my growing contempt for all things Ernie Grunfeld when it was announced Randy Foye would be allowed to become an unrestricted free agent. Combined with Mike Miller's impending free agency, it means the Wizards traded the No. 5 pick (Ricky Rubio's rights) to Minnesota for one-year rentals that helped Washington to a XX-XX record. Though Rubio's stock has fallen this year since he can't guard quick point guards, if he does anything resembling this once he comes to America, someone should have Grunfeld's head on a platter.

The guy has been living off his Caron Butler-for-Kwame Brown steal for way too long now. He's the guy who basically got Al Thornton in exchange for Caron, Haywood, and Jamison at the deadline this year (and don't you dare include the five games Josh Howard played in those trades). He's the one who signed Gilbert to his atrocious contract. And if Leonsis is looking to build through the draft, well, take a look at Grunfeld's selections through the years:

2003: Jarvis Hayes, 10th overall; Steve Blake 38th overall
2004: Devin Harris, 5th overall (traded to Dallas for Antawn Jamison); Peter John Ramos, 33rd overall
2005: Andray Blatche, 49th overall
2006: Oleksiy Pecherov, 18th overall; Vladimir Veremeenko, 48th overall
2007: Nick Young, 16th overall; Dominic McGuire, 47th overall
2008: JaVale McGee, 18th overall;
2009: Nada. Zilch. Zero.
2010: John Wall, 1st overall; Kevin Seraphin, 17th overall; Trevor Booker, 23rd overall

So you're Ted Leonsis and you have this draft-first philosophy and this is who you entrust to carry that strategy out? I'm surprised he could even walk by Grunfeld's office and ignore the stank, not to mention let him keep his job.

*Pat Riley could turn out to be the biggest player in the next couple of week, and I'm including LeBron, Dwade, and Bosh when I say that. I'm fairly certain Riley is going to pitch the trio of LeBron, DWade, and Bosh to take slight pay cuts with the, "You guys are the only reason I would come back to coaching" routine. This is going to be Riley's last hurrah, and if he somehow pulled it off, it could be his greatest achievement ever.

*What blew my mind about this year's class of free agents is the sheer amount of middle-of-the-road/past their prime players available. Names that stuck out to me were: Richard Jefferson, Shaquille O'Neal, Tracy McGrady, Allen Iverson, Grant Hill, Michael Redd, Kenyon Martin, David Lee, Tyson Chandler, Raymond Felton, Larry Hughes, Brad Miller, Chris Wilcox, Brendan Haywood, basically the entire 2009-10 Miami Heat, Darko Milicic, Bobby Simmons, Peja Stojakovic, Matt Barnes, Kyle Korver, and Josh Howard.

If I'm a contender (or the Wizards) I wait things out a little bit and then try to get someone like Michael Redd, Kenyon Martin, or Chris Wilcox on the cheap.

*Another interesting character in all of this is LeBron's business adviser Maverick Carter. LeBron fired his agent about five years ago and gave the reins to his buddy. I'm excited to see how the whole recruitment process goes. The rumors out there that LeBron would release a new shoe for each city he visits has already been denied by his people. They've also indicated Worldwide Wes won't play a role either (I'm not buying that, though). I'm still convinced LeBron goes to Chicago, the pressure of playing in the shadow of Michael Jordan be damned.

*I have two inclinations for the next three weeks. Most players will re-sign with their original teams or everything will be turned upside down. I don't know if we'll see no movement or watch player after player switch teams. I think out of the big names, Bosh is definitely on the move and Amare is almost certainly out of Phoenix. Aside from that, I think Joe Johnson is back with Atlanta, Boozer might go but only if someone is foolish enough to offer him a max deal. I have no idea what's in store for Paul Pierce or Ray Allen. Although I think the wild card nobody seems to think will leave is Dirk Nowitzki. Am I wrong when I say it would be scarier if LeBron paired himself with the German over Bosh?

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Awkward encounters on the recruiting trail

Sorry this post is so late in the day, but I just got back from the Washington Post's annual All-Met luncheon honoring the best and brightest in high school athletics around the DC area. Since I just started with the Post last August, I had never attended one before. I must say, the event is pretty cool.

This year they had Sheila Johnson, owner of the WNBA's Washington Mystics, and John Thompson III of Georgetown as the guest speakers. Because I cover Georgetown basketball for the Express during the winters, I was paying particular attention to Thompson.

That being said, I got the sense Thompson was keeping tabs on someone else in the crowd: The Washington Post's All Met Basketball Player of the Year, DeMatha junior Quinn Cook. A smooth shooting point guard, Cook has offers from just about every major basketball school in the country -- including Thompson's Hoyas (check out his ESPN recruiting page, it lists Kansas, Duke, Kentucky, Maryland, and Georgetown).

For the record, I've seen Cook play live once -- last year during an ESPNU game against rival O'Connell of Northern Virginia. In that game, he absolutely torched Kendall Marshall, a McDonald's All-American who's off to play at UNC this fall. You'd think Wednesday's luncheon would be a perfect opportunity for Thompson to mingle and chat up the star recruit, maybe even show a side Cook wouldn't get to see on the recruiting trail.

Except it's a quiet period on the recruiting trail. So not only did Thompson avoid conversation with Cook (as far as I could tell), he barely looked him in the eye when Cook came up to accept his award for being named All-Met. All in all just an awkward encounter that I guess is a reality with the NCAA's stringent rules concerning what's right and what's wrong when it comes to recruiting.

Afterwards, as I was taking the escalator out of the Grand Hyatt, Thompson was right behind me. So I turned around and asked, "Did you have to write to the NCAA in order to attend this?" His answer was interesting. "No, but now that you mention it, maybe I should."

Just in case anyone NCAA-related is reading this, I maintain that I saw Thompson have no actual contact with Cook other than the aforementioned handshake on stage. Duke commit Josh Hairston is another story; another reporter joked Thompson was making one final run at him when he sidled up and talked with the kid.

Long story short, I'm just curious how often things like this happen. It just doesn't make sense to me that Thompson couldn't even go have a normal conversation with Cook -- although I guess a normal conversation would have eventually turned to basketball, and therefore been a no-no according to the NCAA.


Also wanted to address yesterday's post about a certain right handed pitching phenom. Turns out the hype was not only warranted, but Stephen "Jesus" Strasburg seems to have embraced it. I know it's only one start against the woeful Pirates, but wow. This kid is already a phenomenon here in DC and I fully expect each of his starts the rest of the year to be a bonafide event for area fans.

Though I wasn't able to watch the game live (to give you a sense of how big this was for DC, they were giving inning-by-inning updates over the PA at the girls' lacrosse games I covering) I've been tracking all the aftermath. And one quote when Strasburg was asked what he'll do differently in his next start made me go "wow."
"The big difference now is that tonight they didn't really talk to me about a game plan and how to attack certain hitters, they just wanted me to go out there and enjoy it, so that's going to be a new experience, to make up a plan to attack the Indians' hitters."

So there was no plan, Stevie? None at all?
Yeah, I mean they wanted me to go out there ... I really don't have a scouting report to begin with cause it's my first game, but, you know, you've got so much experience behind the plate (in Pudge Rodriguez) ... so I was just trusting whatever he called."

I know some (cough cough Hartman) thought my post yesterday was pessimistic, but I can't wait to watch the Strasburg era unfold over this summer and many years to come.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

It's Strasmas, but don't go celebrating just yet

Tonight marks the long-awaited debut of pitching phenom Stephen Strasburg -- well actually it's only been about 10 months since he officially signed so I don't know if long awaited is entirely accurate. Unfortunately I will not be there, as the Virginia girls' lacrosse state semifinals beckon.

But I just wanted to quickly comment on the unprecedented hype (at least since I've been following sports) that the Stras is experiencing. Frankly, I just don't get it. Now don't get me wrong, I'm excited Nationals Park will be sold out with bonafide DC fans for the first time since the stadium opened in 2008. This is a historic sporting event in the history of DC professional baseball, and anything short of a sellout would be disappointing to me.

But to have Baseball Tonight broadcasting live on location? Or for Nationals officials to hand out close to 250 media credentials? For there to be wall-to-wall coverage as if this were the World Series? Hell, the town of Strasburg, Virginia (pop. 6,200) has even offered to change its name to Stephen Strasburg, Virginia if the pitcher makes his way down there for an appearance. I just don't get it.

This isn't the first pitcher to throw 100 miles per hour and he won't be the last. To me, we're just setting this kid up for failure (and he is a kid in my book since he was born in 1988 and is therefore younger than me). I didn't see people getting their panties in a bunch (not including the Bay Area of course) for the debut of Tim Lincecum a few years back. He's only become a two-time defending Cy Young winner by the age of 25, a feat I think would be remarkable for Strasburg to achieve.

Here's my question, though. What if all this pressure gets to Strasburg? Nobody in the media seems to want to acknowledge this. Here's a kid who has probably never pitched in front of 40,000 people before -- not to mention the hundreds of camera lenses that will be focused in his direction. Say he comes out and throws a dud tonight -- something like four or five earned runs in four or five innings. Not disastrous, but nothing like the savior he was billed to be.

Or what if he's just terrible this year -- not fully ready to handle the rigors of pitching to hitters that won't be blown away by a 100 (or more like 98) mph fastball? What if the Nats are forced to send him back to the minors for some fine tuning? It's not likely, but it happens even to the best of baseball's prospects now and again.

In this "what-have-you-done-for-me-lately media circus, we need results now. We form opinions without contemplation, disregarding the fact that opinions do change over time. So as I sit here at work, anticipating the Strasburg debut but also aware that I will miss it for some enthralling girls' lacrosse action, I want to leave you with a case study Tom Boswell of the Washington Post likes to use when discussing the Strasburg.

In Rogers Clemens' first six starts for the Boston Red Sox back in 1984, here's what his pitching lines looked like:

May 15, 7-5 loss at Indians: 5.2 IP, 11 hits, 5 runs, 4 earned, 3 BB, 4 K, 0 HR
May 20, 5-4 win at Twins: 7.0 IP, 7 hits, 4 runs, 4 earned, 1 BB, 7 K, 1 HR
May 26, 11-7 loss vs. Royals: 6.2 IP, 10 hits, 5 runs, 5 earned, 1 BB, 8 K, O HR
June 2, 6-3 win at Brewers: 6.2 IP, 7 hits, 3 runs, 3 earned, 0 BB, 3 K, 2 HR
June 7, 6-3 loss vs. Brewers: 5.2 IP, 13 hits, 6 runs, 6 earned, 0 BB, 4 K, 0 HR
June 12, 9-8 win vs. Yankees: 3.2 IP, 8 hits, 6 runs, 6 earned, 2 BB, 2 K, 1 HR

At the conclusion of those first six starts, Clemens had a 2-1 record and a 7.31 ERA. But he got progressively better as his rookie year went along, finishing the season with a 4.32 ERA and a 9-4 record. The next year, 1985, he was 7-5 with a 3.29 ERA after pitching just 98.1 innings due to a shoulder injury.

As we all know now, though, while those first two seasons were decidedly average, Mr. Clemens went on to win the 1986 Cy Young (24-4, 2.48 ERA) and eventually turned himself into arguably the greatest power pitcher of all time (that is until he started messing around with PEDs and underage country singers).

So let's try to avoid rushing to judgment after this one start. Whether Strasburg pitches a no hitter or gives up nine runs in two innings, he's not going to make or break his career or this franchise in one night.