Fired Up: Free Agency

Perhaps it would make more sense for the NBA’s free-agency period to come before the draft.

When you go after a free agent to fill a need for your team you know that player is a solid bet because you’ve seen him compete in the league for a number of years, as opposed to draft candidates who are still unproven at the NBA level.

If the signing period for free agents came prior to the draft, you could pursue the pros you know will help your team and then fill out the rest of your roster at draft time accordingly.

For example, if the Nets had already signed Deron Williams, would they have made a draft-night trade with Portland for Tyshawn Taylor? Brooklyn may still have selected the promising young PG to groom him for a bigger role down the road, but they might have played their cards differently if they had locked in their All-Star point guard before the draft.

Fired Up: LeBron James

The seemingly endless criticism of LeBron James from the national media (and no doubt shared by many fans outside of Miami) feels more personal in nature rather than objective journalism. By all accounts, James committed a big error in judgment last offseason in the way he left Cleveland – i.e., “The Decision” and not informing Cavs owner Dan Gilbert. However, people are very quick to forget that many athletes, including the legendary Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson, have run-ins with management/coaches that they do not handle well from a PR perspective.

The bottom line is that young, talented and ambitious athletes under endless scrutiny are prone to make mistakes; and LeBron is no different. The other reality is that no athlete other than Tiger Woods has come into a sport with the fanfare and expectations that LeBron did, a fact that is particularly important to remember in today’s social media age where no stone is left unturned.

LeBron has also been vilified because he chose to team up with other stars in Miami rather than go-it-alone in Cleveland like stars of the past. Conveniently lost in the shuffle is the fact that parity is much greater in the NBA today than it was in the past. In the 80’s, the league’s best players were concentrated on a handful of teams. The overall talent pool from top to bottom was not nearly as deep as it is today – this is why it seemed as though the Celtics, Lakers and Sixers were contending for the title every year. In today’s game, star players are present throughout the league on many teams. Recent Celtics and Lakers teams have shown that one player, even Kobe Bryant, cannot get you over the top. Dirk Nowitzki may be the latest example of this, even though he has a much better supporting cast than LeBron ever had in Cleveland. The fact that LeBron joined Miami through free agency rather than a trade merely reflects the economic reality of today’s NBA, but does not change the underlying formula required to win.

Another major criticism of LeBron is that he’s not the last second(s) “closer” that Jordan and Larry Bird were, or that Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade and even Nowitzki are today. But he is a legitimate closer to the extent that his team wants to get the ball in his hands at the end of a close game because they trust him to make the right decision, whether that be to shoot the ball or pass it. To be a closer by the narrow definition of executing the winning shot every time requires one to not only be a perimeter player, but also to be a natural shooter/scorer, effectively eliminating both the great low post players of the game due to the ease with which they can be double-teamed and also the pure playmakers of the game as scoring is not their primary responsibility. Herein lies the fundamental disconnect between what LeBron actually is and how he is analyzed. While LeBron may not average the rebounds, assists and points of Barkley, Magic and Jordan respectively, LeBron possesses a combination of rebounding, passing and shooting skills that may be unparalleled in the history of the game. He balances his contributions in these areas according to what he must deliver in order for his team to win. To compare King James to any individual player of the past reflects a lack of understanding of what his true value as a player is. In any event, it is a debate best suited to the end of his career when we have seen his entire body of work.

As LeBron’s career unfolds there may be situations where he needs to focus on one of these skill sets more than the others; only time will tell. For now, he is taking full advantage of playing with Wade and focusing on his all-around game (including lock-down defense). Emotions aside, no one would dispute that a player maximizes his value to a team by doing whatever it takes to win, even if that means deferring to a teammate at times. The funny thing is that LeBron seems to be one of the few people out there who genuinely understands this.

Fired Up: Two Wrongs Don’t Make a Right

An unfortunate incident occurred prior to the highly anticipated exhibition game between Orlando and Miami at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa last night.

The NBA league office was forced to call off the preseason finale due to slippery court conditions. Apparently an oil-based cleaning solution was used and officials were unable to restore a safe surface in time for tip-off.

This was very disappointing news for players, fans and the league alike. The nearly sold-out game was scheduled to be televised on ESPN and would have given fans from a non-NBA city a rare opportunity to experience the game in person.

To make matters worse, a Heat player was reportedly almost struck by an object launched by an angry fan from the upper deck while the cancellation announcement was being made. Both the dangerous court conditions and the spectator’s careless action could have cost a player his career.

Though unusual, I encountered similar situations more than one time during my coaching career. As many arenas offer multipurpose facilities, a couple games were cancelled due to the fact that the wooden court was laid out on top of an ice rink and because they didn’t lower the temperature enough in the building, it caused condensation to build up on the floor and guys were sliding all over the place. I’ve also experienced the other case wherein the wrong treatment was used on the floor, rendering the court unplayable.

Regardless of the cause, the fact remains that players risk sustaining very serious injuries if they play under such conditions, and so it is absolutely necessary to error on the side of caution. It’s simply not worth jeopardizing a player’s career and a team’s season to do otherwise.

I understand how upsetting the cancellation was for fans of all ages who shelled out money for tickets, scheduled their evenings around the game and in a number of cases traveled great distances to be there. Not to mention this may have been the only shot for some to see the likes of LeBron, Wade and Howard play under one roof. But under no circumstances should anyone throw anything down onto the court. And it is especially nonsensical to direct one’s anger and aggression towards the players in a situation that boils down to an untimely accident that is completely beyond their control.

Fortunately nobody was harmed, and we do not have to wait long for a rematch as the Heat will host the Magic on Friday, October 29th.

Fired Up: NCAA Postseason Tourneys Are Tough on Top Teams

Sweet Sixteen action gets underway tonight. Hope you filled out your NCAA brackets in pencil. With teams like Vanderbilt, Villanova, Georgetown and No.1 seeded Kansas out of the running, it seems there have been more upsets than ever before. This is truly March madness.

All collegiate players dream of the chance to compete in the electrifying NCAA Tournament. But before getting there these kids have to battle through intense regular season schedules followed by postseason conference tournaments. As many have argued, these end-of-year tournaments might be hurting some of the higher seeds. Tournament play wears them out before the real show gets underway and causes some bubble teams to lose bids as well.

Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Years ago there weren’t post season tournaments in most conferences, but now they are requisite. For teams that normally don’t have a shot at they NCAA Tournament, they offer valuable opportunities. Not only are they moneymakers, but they also offer different regions a chance to recreate the excitement of the NCAA Tournament and are as close as most teams will ever come to the real thing. For some lucky underdogs with mediocre or even losing records, winning their conference tournament winds up being their golden ticket to the NCAA Tournament. The automatic bid even benefits some teams in small conferences that have impressive regular season records and successfully capture their postseason tourney titles, but would never get a bid otherwise because the NCAA knows they don’t play tough schedules.

Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

On the other hand kids who play through a whole season in major conferences like the Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac 10, ACC and SEC are beat up by the time they enter the NCAA Tournament. They go up against difficult rivals all season long and then have to get through their demanding postseason tournaments. Four or five days later, a one or two seed may have to go up against a lesser known but nonetheless challenging opponent in the NCAA Tournament.

Oftentimes the stronger teams from tough conferences are not mentally ready to play at the tops of their games at this point because so much has been taken out of them in postseason tournament play. Teams coming out of smaller, less competitive conferences are fresher and since any NCAA Tournament game is the biggest game of their lives, they are ready to play. They get a chance to knock off Goliath – so a matchup in the NCAA Tourney is their equivalent of a Super Bowl or the World Series and they are amped for the opportunity to topple a top team.

Also an upset in a smaller conference tournament can ultimately prevent a team that’s on the cusp in a big, competitive conference from getting in due to the auto-bid. With the fourth best overall record in the ACC, Virginia Tech is an example of a team that arguably should have been in the NCAA. But as a result of getting knocked out of the ACC Tournament by last place Miami in conjunction with an upset in the Conference USA Tournament, there was no room for them this year. University of Houston finished seventh in the regular season, but upset number one UTEP in the Conference USA Championship game to make the NCAA for the first time in nearly two decades thanks to the automatic bid. Because UTEP dominated the regular season they earned a bid anyway. So two teams from the small Conference USA got in, whereas normally only one team would make it to the NCAA Tournament based on its size.

While it’s always a thrill to see an unlikely hero have his moment in the sun, in the end the postseason conference tournaments can really hurt deserving teams from big conferences – whether they forfeit their bids to one hit wonders from smaller conferences or come up short in the NCAA Tournament itself.

Do you think postseason conference tournaments should be eliminated?

Fired Up: When’s That Bowl Game Again?

The waiting is almost over — counting down the hours ‘til tonight’s long anticipated BCS National Championship.  Maybe I’ve just grown impatient with age, but feels like I’ve been sitting in the movie theater watching the increasingly drawn-out and dull previews for too long.  Let’s get on with the show already.

I used to enjoy turning on the TV New Year’s morning and watching a steady stream of marquee bowl games — the Fiesta, Sugar, Orange and Rose – perfect way to kick off the new year.  Now it’s difficult to keep track of the 34 bowl games that span a lengthy 3-week postseason.  The addition of so many periphery bowls in an effort to generate revenue has diminished the once remarkable occasions.

From a coach’s perspective, it’s got to be incredibly challenging to sustain a team’s momentum and keep the players sharp – both teams have been waiting for 33 days since winning their respective Conference championships.  Seems excessive and a bit unfair to the players as well as the fans.  Let’s hope tonight’s Tide vs. Longhorns battle is worth the wait.

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