Wizards can win ugly

As John Wall secured an inbound pass in OT of Wednesday’s game against the Nets, it was assumed he would be fouled and hit a couple of free throws to put the game out of reach. Instead, he stepped out of bounds trying to avoid the foul and gave the Nets an opportunity to tie the game in the closing seconds. Fortunately, Brooklyn failed to hit a tying three-pointer and the Wizards eked out a 114-110 victory in their 2nd consecutive overtime game.

Through 3 1/2 quarters, the Wizards felt like they were in control. Even without Markieff Morris, who sat due to calf tightness, Washington was the better team and played like it. Then, it was as if the Wizards tried to put their superiority on autopilot and coast to a victory – something you can’t do against any team in the NBA – and it almost proved disastrous.

Brooklyn made big shot downs the stretch as Washington struggled to defend the paint. And buckets didn’t come as easily for the Wizards as they did earlier in the game – or even as they did in Monday’s OT loss to Cleveland. Granted, the refs decided not to call fouls late in the game, but it was consistent for both sides.

All that being said, Washington still won the game. It wasn’t due to extraordinary plays or late-game heroics, it was simply from being the better team. They didn’t have to necessarily play as the better team. These are the type of games that Washington would’ve found a way to lose last season, and though moral victories aren’t needed in actual victories, it’s a bonus that the Wizards can incidentally win close games.

It’s very similar to how the Cavaliers beat the Wizards. They didn’t play better, but the team with the better players always seems to get more of the ‘lucky’ bounces and incidental plays. No, the Nets game wasn’t as good as the Cavs game, but it proved the same point in case you didn’t catch it yet. The Wizards aren’t just an avereage team playing good basketball right now; they’re actually a good basketball team.

The Process may be working, but it isnt over

Before Joel Embiid burst onto the scene at Kansas as a possible number-one overall draft pick, I was reluctantly questioning “The Process” that Philadelphia 76ers basketball was engulfing itself in about four years ago.

I was reluctant because I knew there was a good chance Sam Hinkie’s plan could work. From a probability standpoint, it made a lot of sense that stockpiling draft picks and increasing your odds of picking earlier would turn into a great player or two. Still, I was glad it wasn’t MY team in full-on tank mode.

While the 76ers struggled through one of the longest stretches of ineptitude I’ve ever consciously witnessed, I was satisfied watching my Wizards exit the playoffs early as a model of consistent mediocrity – no one in the east was going to knock off LeBron James anyway, right?

Now, in the fifth season since a Jrue Holiday-led Sixers team bowed out in the conference semifinals and a stick of dynamite was set to the roster, the ideal of “The Process” appears to have been born into the form of a 7-foot, 250-pound force of nature. In what is effectively his rookie season, after injuries kept him from the court since being drafted third overall in 2014, Embiid is giving Philadelphia its first bit of in-season optimism since Michael Carter-Williams won Rookie of the Year in the 2013 season (before being traded the next year).

Through Jan. 19, the Sixers were +68 with Embiid on the floor and -292 without him. He’s a complete game changer, and even more so in the closing moments of games. Of players with at least 50 combined minutes played in the final six minutes of 4th quarters over that span, Embiid’s 38.5 PER ranked third behind Isaiah Thomas and Russell Westbrook.

Embiid can shoot from long range, he’s skilled with has back to the basket – he’s got a soft touch and silky smooth moves – and his combination of footwork and handles is incredibly rare for someone his size. Oh, and he’s really good on defense. Before Friday’s win over the Trail Blazers, Embiid was on a stretch of 10 games scoring 20-plus points (he got hurt and finished with 18). He fell one game shy of tying Allen Iverson’s franchise rookie record of 20-plus points in 11 straight games. And when Embiid does score at least 20, the 76ers are 10-6.

“The Process” is finally a tangible thing that people can see and believe in, and the next part of it, 2016 first-round pick Ben Simmons, may finally play following the All-Star break. Combine Simmons with Embiid, and a surging Nerlens Noel – the 2013 first-round pick – and Hinkie’s plan seems to be a model others may want to copy.

Teams should take heed before going all-in on the tank, however, because the end game for Philadelphia is far and away. The final step in this drawn-out process is competing for a championship, because if the process was only good enough to get to the playoffs and make early-to-mid-round exits, then Philadelphia wasted 4-5 seasons to become the Washington Wizards. “The Process” is only complete when the 76ers win a championship, or at least make a push for the finals. It must be said though, the future looks bright with Embiid, and being competitive in the playoffs soon seems like a realistic possibility.

Draymond is the bad guy, and that’s a good thing

Are you not entertained? I have to ask, because everyone’s complaining about Draymond Green’s intensity as if they’re a Cleveland or Golden State fan.

Unless you root for the Warriors, you should probably look down – you’re sitting on a high horse that’s not in the race. The thoroughbreds left awhile ago. Get down and enjoy the show. This shit is getting good.

Green is providing all you pundits the talking points necessary to bash the bad guy, but without him you wouldn’t have anything interesting to talk about – just the mundane chemistry issues of a 35-6 team. Poor Warriors, with their best record in the NBA, how will they ever get it together? Let’s face it, Green’s the most interesting thing about this team right now.

His 2nd-quarter flagrant-1 foul on LeBron James Monday night was probably unnecessary and uncalled for, but it was also run-of-the-mill. This is the type of stuff rivalries are made of. People complain about the new, “softened” NBA, but when someone infuses some old-school toughness, it’s a problem?

Maybe it’s the antagonistic nature of the person at fault that turns you off, but beggars can’t be choosers. Personally, I can’t think of anyone better to get this party started. I didn’t like the foul. I loved it.

James denied the validity of this Warriors-Cavaliers thing as a rivalry, attempting to downplay the reality of what it is to ease his own psyche more than fool any of us. We, however, know exactly what this is. It’s more than Heat vs Spurs. It’s even better than Bulls vs Jazz. No two teams have met in the finals three years in a row in NBA history, and these two teams are heavily favored to become the first. Green embraces what this is all the way, and he plays like it.

“A team that you beat, beat you, it’s definitely fun,” Green said. “If you look at the last two years and this year, we’ve been the top two teams in the league each year, and so I look at it as a rivalry, and it’s definitely a fun game to play in.”

Is he over the top sometimes? Sure, but why strip down the thing that makes him such a good player at risk of minimizing the pure enjoyment and entertainment of this wonderful rivalry. Green is just as integral to this series as James, Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson, or Andre Iguodala are – and more so than the Kevins, with Love missing the first finals and Durant just coming around this season.

Rather than complain about Green picking up flagrant fouls that don’t affect anyone outside of potentially himself and his team, let’s embrace the fact that as himself, Green makes this thing interesting. He’s the wild card.

Without Green on the court last summer, Cleveland picked up a pivotal Game 5  victory necessary to spark a rally from being down 3-1. Had Green kept his cool, the Warriors may have clinched a second ring – but Durant doesn’t enter the fold. This season (and rivalry – maybe still?) wouldn’t be nearly as interesting if the latter happened. Green is what makes this thing fun. We need start embracing him finally and stop resisting the urge to enjoy the bad guy.

 

Cowboys’ season not a failure

I hate the Cowboys.

As much as any self-respecting fan of a non-Dallas NFL team, I have an extreme dislike of the Dallas Cowboys. It’s the only team to ever make me inflict damage to my own possessions – an innocent basement wall that had nothing to do with the Giants allowing a game-winning TD to slow-but-somehow-always-open Jason Witten in 2015.

 

And so life goes on. That was the season-opener of a year in which Tony Romo was injured and the Cowboys finished 4-12. Satisfying enough. But then, Dallas drafted Ezekiel Elliott with the 1st pick of the 2016 draft, and with Romo expected to return, suddenly looked like a team primed to reclaim its 1st-place form of 2014.

The rest of the story is well known: Romo is re-injured in the preseason, Dak Prescott emerges as Dallas’ QB of the future with one of the more improbable rookie seasons, the offensive line remains a juggernaut, and Elliott was everything he was advertised to be.

The Cowboys weren’t supposed to make it this far. Expectations of a turnaround hinged on the return of Romo. An almost all rookie-led run to the playoffs was unforeseen. And yet, here we are, the day after Prescott went head-to-head in the Divisional Playoffs as the No. 1 seed with arguably the game’s best QB, Aaron Rodgers, and almost won. Not to mention, the reason Dallas lost was less his fault than the defense and offensive play-calling.

When Romo went down, conventional wisdom said the team would repeat 2015. Instead, they went 13-3 (Giants sweep – hehehe) and received a 1st-round bye. At the end of such a successful season, it’s reasonable to expect a more fitting ending. But in proper perspective, this season was already a success when the team clinched the division and more in the regular season. This playoff game was merely a necessary get-knocked-down moment for a new regime led by Prescott and Elliott, and they’ll be hungrier than ever to get back next year.

 

So rejoice now non-Cowboys fans alike, because this team will give us plenty of nervous moments in the future. All we can hope for is that our teams (*cough* Giants) come back just as motivated.

Oh, and after a few down years, the NFC East is back.

It’s OK to root for Tyreek Hill

I completely understand if people have been conflicted this season watching Chiefs standout rookie Tyreek Hill set the NFL ablaze, contributing to his team’s success far earlier than most 5th-round picks.

During his time at Oklahoma State in 2014, Hill punched and choked his then-girlfriend following an argument. He pleaded guilty to abuse by strangulation in 2015 and was sentenced to three years probation on a plea agreement. The entire ordeal was horrid and unforgettable, even before  mention that the woman was eight-weeks pregnant at the time.

It’s important that we don’t forget what happened, because Hill may one day become an example of what not to do, who not to be, or how a person can and should change. But more than two years later, it’s OK to look past his transgressions and enjoy him play.

We like to think of violence against women as a football issue, something exclusive to athletes. We act as if domestic violence is something that only league’s need to deal with and that we all can judge from a distance. Maybe this way of thinking somehow makes people feel disconnected from a real-world issue. But the reality is “regular people” deal with domestic abuse too, and it’s an issue we all have a hand in fixing. It’s a culture that our country needs to address. Whether it’s OK to hit a woman isn’t something we should look to our favorite teams to set moralities and make us feel good about – essentially exiling anyone with a tattered past so we can act like the issue doesn’t exist daily outside of sports.

We should want people who have abuse problems to get help, so the cycle of abuse doesn’t continue. We should want personal reform more than punishment. And although punishment is often necessary for that reform, it should come from a fair judicial process, not a potential employer. People should be given second chances after paying their legal dues, and if a second chance proves to be insufficient, the justice system should have a next-step program for multiple offenses. And when someone is successfully reformed, we should applaud the outcome. We should be happy that another woman doesn’t have to be subjected to abuse. Simply banning an athlete from playing a sport doesn’t ensure that. It may actually have adverse affects.

The people an offender deal with day-to-day have more reason to take extreme action than someone that comes along after said offender has dealt with the issue. Hill’s girlfriend rightfully pressed charges against him. Oklahoma State rightfully released him from the football and track programs following his arrest. Afterwards, Hill enrolled at West Alabama for a season, and in 2016, the Chiefs drafted him with the 165th overall pick in the NFL draft.

Any team that passed on Hill because of his past did so to avoid having to address the questions and potential distractions, not because they were trying to stand on a moral high-ground. And as businesses, they shouldn’t be criticized for those decisions. In the same vein, we shouldn’t condemn West Alabama for taking a chance on a kid who had hopefully learned a valuable lesson. And we certainly shouldn’t condemn the Chiefs for giving Hill an opportunity to make a living. All we can hope for is that the organizations did their due diligence in the interview and background-check process.

Hill confessed to his transgressions and apologized. And as far as we know, he hasn’t had another issue since. It would be nice to see him advocate on behalf of domestic violence groups, but he’s not obligated to. He remains on probation and will likely go to jail if he doesn’t abide by it. That should be enough to keep Hill in check. Unless he has another incident, it’s not on us to hold it over his or his employers’ heads anymore.

The posse cut

Let’s get two things clear about Phil Jackson’s use of the word “posse” in reference to LeBron James’ friends and business partners.

1. Jackson didn’t intend to offend anyone

2. Regardless of his intentions, what he said was offensive

Whether Jackson knows it or not, calling James’ group of friends a “posse” reveals deep prejudices about young black males that have been built into the psyche of white society. When Jackson was speaking of the situation, he was probably searching for a way to simply refer to a group of males, but that the group he was speaking of was black – specifically black males in the world of sports – the word posse was elicited. If it were Jeff Hornacek meeting with a group of his friends or business partners, we can’t say for sure but it doesn’t seem like Jackson’s word choice would’ve been the same.

To some, it may seem like James overreacted to the use of a word that has been tossed around in similar situations for decades. It’s not unreasonable to think that some of the players Jackson once coached referred to their crews as posses. And although James brought up the dictionary definition of posse to further enforce his point, Jackson clearly wasn’t using the word by its literal sense. He did use it in a condescending tone, however, so as to dismiss the accomplishments of James’ agent Rich Paul and James’ business parter Maverick Carter. By calling them a posse, Jackson reduced them to guys hanging around for either the sole purpose of collecting benefits because they’re cool with a superstar basketball player, or to inflict violence on other people for the star basketball player. In actuality, these are grown men with individual business ventures going on in their lives. They aren’t teenagers fresh out of high school anymore, even if Jackson wanted to refer to them as a posse back then.

James and Carter were right to call out Jackson, not for an apology or reversal of what was already said, but as a reminder to anyone else who might label young black men based on prejudices, to see and think before they speak.

What can Wizards expect from backup point guard

When it was time for John Wall to catch a breath last season and the second unit rolled into the game, Ramon Sessions was the man called upon to initiate the offense.

Sessions provided the Wizards with a steady and consistent presence, appearing in all 82 games and often giving Washington exactly what it expected from him. Sessions was a penetrating guard, who got to the free throw line often. In fact, Dennis Schroder was the only guard with more games of 20 or fewer minutes and 4+ free throw attempts. Sessions wasn’t a great shooter but knew his limitations and didn’t attempt a lot of long shots. If he couldn’t get to hole, he got the Wizards into their offense, which usually meant dumping the ball into the inside.

Sessions is now in Charlotte, and Washington acquired Trey Burke to assume the duties of Wall’s backup. Burke, the former Michigan Wolverine, has a smaller frame than Sessions and plays a different game. His numbers declined almost across the board in each of his first three seasons in Utah, and now he’s looking to get his career back on track.

One immediate upgrade Burke provides over Sessions is his ability, and more importantly willingness, to score from the outside. Burke shot a career-high 34% on threes last season, which isn’t great, but in 18 fewer games he attempted over twice as many as Sessions (32%). Burke is also 7 years younger and should be able to push the tempo more for the second unit, not that Sessions wasn’t shy about getting into transition.

Burke doesn’t get to the free-throw line nearly as much as his predecessor, but if he’s able to improve on a career 1.6 attempts per game, he knocks them down over 80% of the time. The biggest downgrade going from Sessions to Burke will likely be on the defensive end of the floor where Burke’s defensive real plus-minus was 75th out of 79 qualified point guards, 27 spots behind Sessions.

The change at guard plays into the NBA’s change in offensive philosophy – that guards who play on the perimeter are more efficient than their mid-range counterparts. If Burke can improve defensively, Scott Brooks should be able to put him in positions to succeed on offense. And with Burke’s game still in the development stage, there’s a good chance his best days are ahead of him. The Wizards are hoping those days are more immediate. If not, Burke will have to look over his shoulder for Czech rookie Tomas Satoransky, who will be competing for minutes at both guard spots and small forward. Satoransky’s ability to finish at the rim adds a drive-and-kick dynamic to the second unit that Burke does not. Whether the move to Burke will be an upgrade this season remains to be seen, but the ceiling for what he can become is way higher than Sessions and that’s a good thing.