Wednesday, February 22, 2012

...And Like Like Can Lead to Love

W. Ross Clites
Your City Sports-Cleveland

Saint Louis, MISSOURI--Talk about first-world problems in a child's upbringing. His father was an NBA forward. His uncle was a member of The Beach Boys. His middle name, Wesley, comes from family friend and Basketball Hall of Famer, Wes Unseld, who taught him his patented outlet passes. He was Gatorade National Player of the Year and can't-miss McDonald's All-American. He still holds the record as the state of Oregon's all-time leader in high school points scored, and would have easily made the direct jump to the NBA--rules permitting. Instead, he led his UCLA team to the Final Four and was the cover boy for the video game NCAA Basketball '09. He even asked a UCLA legend to unretire his number, so he could wear number 42 in college. And the crazier part is that Walt Hazzard agreed to.

Who could possibly have that much audacity? What high school kid has done enough to request a banner that hangs in Pauley Pavilion (of all places) to be disregarded as off-limits. Three words: spoiled Kevin Love.

The silver-spooned Love had all your typical teenager dilemmas: Which brand will better my image and NBA draft stock? This tough decision notably played out twice in his road to fame. The summer before his junior year, Love chose a Reebok camp over Nike. The local Oregon brand promptly dropped him from their elite team. Oh well.

That next year, Love decided where he was born felt more like home than where he spent the 17 years of his childhood. He selected UCLA (an Adidas school) over the University of Oregon (the Nike school) to "continue his education." No ill-will, right Oregon fans? It was only going to be for one year, only because the NBA made him pick a college. His "betrayal" and subsequent decision to stay in-conference was not that big of an issue, right?

Get real. In Love's lone Pac-10 trip to Eugene, as a visiting Bruin, his family was pelted with garbage in the stands and his cell number was posted; flooding his phone with death threats. Again, his stance was that of oh well. He wouldn't ever have to go through that again. Kevin Love never had to care, because he was able to run away from rare adversity.

Love was yet another one-and-done player that I have grown to possess heavy animosity towards. It is no secret that I prefer the college hoops game over the "Association" and the one-year minimum certainly hurts fans like me. I empathize with those that need the impending income to give their families a better life. Some people are need-based dollar chasers, and I actually agree that it is unconstitutional to deny their right to work. In those cases, I understand foregoing a sophomore season. But not Kevin Love.

He was a privileged white kid, playing for a prominent college program. These two factors mean he had no business joining the front lines of those trying to break the system. If you are going to leave after one obligatory year, go be a star for a Conference-USA team with little to no tradition or standards. The UCLAs of the world deserve better than being reduced to JuCos for divas. Love needed UCLA, but he had all the leverage in his decision; making it appear that UCLA needed him. That is down-right embarrassing.

The one-and-done rule is for the revolving door colleges where the retention rate is comparable to the staff at Burger King. Fans and administrators of elite teams need to get weaned off the bottle. They should not tolerate/allow their coach to recruit rent-a-players, no matter how talented. They need to take a stance: win with people that respect the history of the jersey they wear and want to be a piece of it (not a fleeting trivia question). Regardless, I feel the rule needs to go away, but that is an article for another day.

While in Westwood, Love made
headlines with his demanding curriculum. If he was going to use the college ranks as an immediate stepping stone, then all the more reason to stay at Oregon. It was the alma mater of Love's father--the perfect situation. Eugene churns out athlete-students (not the other way around) each year. It is a place tarnished with commercialism; there is not a large enough separation of Church (Nike) and State. His leaving after one year would have been expected and not have John Wooden rolling in his grave. This, too, is a topic for a future date.

What made this worse is that Love turned his back on a very good team. The 2007-08 Bruins won the Pac-10 regular season and tournament championships, obtained a #1 seed in The Dance, and appeared in the Final Four. It makes the disloyalty all the more head-scratching.

I went to all these lengths to simply say that I strongly disliked Kevin Love. I felt his attitude towards the game was selfishly backwards. He came out of high school entitled and it only got worse coming out of college. He had a general appearance of laziness and it seemed that his talent was strictly shock-and-awe. I could never figure out how this "ogre" put the ball in the bucket with such regularity. Surely, it was because he outsized everyone in the college ranks. His game would never translate to the pros. I pegged Tyler Hansbrough to be a better NBA player, which is a real insult for how little I thought of the future of the North Carolina standout.

Boy was I wrong. It started when Lov
e was dealt the perfect hand to make me change my mind. Minnesota is not SoCal, in every aspect (remember, there was a reason the Lakers left Minneapolis). Similarly, the TimberWolves are not the UCLA of the pro ranks. His UCLA Final Four team could have probably beat the T'Wolves while Love was still in college. Things were finally difficult in Kevin Love's life. His first-world problems had to feel slightly larger.

Minnesota might as well be Canada. This was the same place where First-Team All-Flop, and fellow one-and-doner, Michael Beasley bashed for its lack of nightlife upon his trade from South Beach. Miami and Minneapolis have different social scenes? Who knew?

And while it is not a proud thing for me to reveal, I was ecstatic that Love was downtrodden. Minnesota basketball is major sport's media purgatory. I believe my exact thoughts were:
Good, we won't see or hear from that guy until his expiring contract is traded back to relevance, or the NBA contracts to 28 teams. Out of sight, out of mind; like a middle infielder getting traded to the Seattle Mariners. "Oh, that's where that guy went? I forgot all about him." I don't wish ill-will on many, but players in this category have/had millions of dollars to pile up and cry into. Not much sympathy.

What makes this story better--in the sadistic way--is that Love was actually drafted by the Memphis Grizzles. A Draft Day trade sent him up to Minnesota, which appeared like
to-ma-toe/to-mah-toe at the time. The two franchises play in the far superior Western Conference, where many lottery-pick careers go to die. Battling hard as an NBA bottom-feeder is like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. But, as luck would have it, the Grizzlies got better and the T'Wolves stayed the same.

Memphis surprisingly stole the eight-seed in the 2011 playoffs, taking on a Cinderella role. Had that trade never happened, Love would have a Western Conference semifinals appearance on his resume. Instead, Love's best regular-season finish is 11th place in the West, finishing last the past two years.

Somehow throughout all of this, Love has stayed freakishly positive and his game has taken off. He has said all the right things. He has strapped a young, untalented team on his back and single-handedly won many a game. He quickly became the star of the last SportsCenter highlight of the night; a title comparable to being the most prolific home run hitter in AAA. He silently collected the Most Improved Player Award in 2011, which accompanied an All-Star appearance. The league began to recognize that the boy could play.

He has had critics his entire basketball life, but he has never gotten mad. Haters say that he is overrated; a product of passing and rebounding ability. In a league where sexy plays sell, his skills are often undervalued. People are quick to point out that a team like Minnesota misses so often that anyone 6' 10" should pull down 15 boards a night without any trouble. Love has used his criticisms to expand his offensive repertoire. In a very short time, he has developed one of the best outside strokes of any NBA big man.

Love's dedication to the weight room is now equally evident. His arms went from flabby (large in appearance, not because of workouts but shear mass) to maintaining serious definition. He slimmed down and shed the
Shrek comparisons with every pound. It also helped his general image that he was no longer the clearly-located tallest man on the court; Love simply looks more athletic than in college. His deep threat ability has made him this hybrid swing man, like a white, non-crazy Rasheed Wallace in his prime.

In 2010-11, Love went on a 53-game double-double streak, the longest since the NBA-ABA merger. He also shot 42% from the 3-point line. Suddenly, he was a match-up nightmare. His versatility will be on full display during this weekend's All-Star festivities in Orlando. He will be the tallest and widest competitor (yet my favorite to win) in the Three Point Shooting Competiton on Saturday, and then a key Western reserve in his second All-Star Game on Sunday. If only the NBA added a rebounding/outlet pass relay. It his best attribute, largely unappreciated in the pace of today's pro game.
The man can nearly throw a full-court chest pass.

Love became especially personable with a series of funny
commercials and pun-filled campaigns. He obviously knew others shared my feelings about his spoiled-kid image. He brilliantly embraced the stereotypes and mocked them. His imitation cologne NUMB#RS pokes fun at everything that he left in California. It makes me think of Bill Murray's title character from "What About Bob?" He would say (in reference to life-threatening diseases), "if I fake it, then I don't have it." To me, SoCal is a disease, but it is not terminal. And Love is proof that you can shy away from that lifestyle and adapt in to whatever Minnesota offers.

Love even turned a noble charity coat drive into a vessel for his
personality to show through. For starters, the coat drive displayed his connection to the locals. There are charitable causes that are not geographically discriminate: things like cancer, MS, diabetes, and ALS are unfortunately found in every corner of the country. They are certainly worthy of celebrity-athlete endorsement, don't get me wrong. But by choosing something that is a Minnesota necessity, especially to the poorer people that cannot afford a ticket to watch him play, it speaks to something more about his character. He has embraced "his town" and now that town is making room for his roots to take hold.

Kevin Love's jests are endearing to me, as a Midwesterner, an area notable for its self-deprecating sense of humor. I really enjoy that he uses the Minneapolis area code in all his branding. He seems genuine and I would love to see him stay in the Twin Cities for his entire career; do what Kevin Garnett never could and hoist a T'Wolves championship banner.

His mentality and leadership are already there. He has a zero tolerance policy for prima donna loafers like Michael Beasley, who will likely be shipped out of Minnesota before season's end. Love made some recent comments about the fluidity of the offense without Beasley on the floor, and I'm sure his opinion carries more weight than you might think. If I were running the TimberWolves, I wouldn't hesitate to say to Love, "tell me who you want to play with."

Currently, that supporting cast is a little weak. I thoroughly enjoy Ricky Rubio and predict superstardom, but the facts are the facts. He has still spent more time playing in Europe as a T'Wolves product than he has in Target Center. Rubio is as silent as a double-double threat can be, but he is hardly on anybody's
top ten point guards going right now.

So, Love
does not have a big name star suiting up with him each night. This is his professional equivalent of his spoiled-kid dilemmas of the past. His reaction is just the same: Oh well. This time around, his apathetic outlook is actually the commendable approach. In the eyes of the nation, it all makes the Wolves even more of his team. It has to be pointed out that last season would have been Love's rookie campaign if he stayed at UCLA for a full four years. He is still a young kid and that gets lost in the shuffle. Show me a player under 25 who has done more with less.

Quick, envision a trade that would send Love to the Clippers for Blake Griffin, straight-up. Suspend your thinking of cap space, cash considerations, and all that nonsense. Simply evaluate how each has become the torch-bearer for the city they play for: Griffin
is L.A. and Love is Minnesota.

This is ironic because Griffin (Midwestern guy) played college ball in his home state of Oklahoma, while Love (Weft Coast guy) played at UCLA, where he was born. Should each player stay in their current location long-term, soon you will swear that their childhood locales were the other way around. Griffin is only going to get more Hollywood, while Love is only going to get more Paul Bunyan, Jr.

My conjecture is not only that Kevin Love belongs in Minnesota, but also that he is a better basketball player than Griffin. The combination of the league's adage of entertainment over sport, and the ever-growing ridiculousness of SportsCenter to value dunks over all else, has made Griffin the superstar. Love should have the upper hand in the argument because he can create his own shot.

Minnesota and Love are only going to get better, year after year. They will do it the fundamental, quiet, dare I say Tampa Bay Rays way. And that is why Love belongs where he does. A Chris Paul point guard would change the dynamic of what makes him my new favorite player in the league. He is a pure two-way player and represents the blue collar mentality that won the Detroit Pistons their 2004 championship.

This year, three particular things have really brought it all home for me. First, Love signed a five-year contract extension to stick it out in the Minnesota winters. With Rubio finally stateside, the decision clears up his loyalty issues and selfishness myth. He showed the city that his heart is in the right place, and dropped 31 points against the reigning champion Dallas Mavericks, the night after inking the deal. The feelings are mutual between Love and the Twin Cities.

Item two: Love had a recent run-in with the league's disciplinarian. In a defense-to-offense transition play, Love stepped on the face of a fallen Luis Scola. Regardless of the intent, he earned credibility in my book. By his account, it was strictly accidental. But I will choose to spin it into a cut-your-heart-out/throw-high-and-inside-in-a-father-son-baseball-game mentality... even if it wasn't. That type of grit or edginess is what he was lacking at UCLA. It was hardly Ndamukong
Suh's explanation for tripping over Packers guard, Evan Dietrich-Smith, but I thought it was just as wryly factitious. If he wants respect for Minnesota, Love knows he has to get physical and claw his way out of the cellar. He will play better as a bad boy and not a SoCal prima donna.

The last item was the final puzzle piece. It recently completed the full 180 degree turn in my opinion of Kevin Love. Admittedly, his approval rating saw small gains in his first two NBA seasons. An unsung role on the 2010 Team USA that redeemed international dominance with FIBA gold aided Love's stock. But the needle on the meter really took off when he threw away his razor. His beard is
legit. He goes from Dopey to distinguished, adding years of perceived experience with every hair.

I am a heterosexual man, but Love turned himself into a good-looking dude. His buzz cut head was awful. And the
pencil-thin, chin-strap beard brought attention to how goofy his jawline really is. All of a sudden, he now has a shaggy mop and facial hair. It is a microcosm of what really has happened to Kevin Love. He is now a Minnesotan, through and through. SoCal is a distant memory and he has adapted to his surroundings and team.

In a free-agent laden professional sports landscape, I root for anyone that is loyal and locally responsive to his fan base. It is also a league
where analysts hedge around the issue of a new-school racial discrimination among executives and scouts. In both cases, it is refreshing that a domestic Caucasian product is doing big things with his original team. And these big things do not involve being a token deep threat, see: J.J. Redick, Kyle Korver, Steve Novak, et. al.

Love is currently among the 20 finalists for the 2012 Olympics. For me to say I would love to see him in London is not only an understatement, but really corny writing. Either way, he belongs.

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Friday, February 3, 2012

Big Train Awards

W. Ross Clites
Your City Sports-Cleveland
Saint Louis, MISSOURI--This is a bittersweet installment. Four years of painstaking solo research, trial and error, gathering data, punching numbers, and formatting graphics has finally come to an end. The bow has been tied on the package, known only to me as the Walter Johnson Awards. The "Big Train" should have his name on the trophy; he won it more than anyone. Trouble is, Johnson died 66 years before anyone could hand him one.

The reason that this moment is bittersweet because it feels like it could be my greatest contribution, or legacy, in the sports world. Why is that all bad? Simply put, I'm nervous that the best thing I will ever do comes at age 25. Or worse, that my best really isn't anything all that great to anyone but me.

I am unveiling a confusing usage of my time at a confusing time in my life... seems fitting. On one hand I am extremely proud. I am confident there are no holes in any of the research; I wouldn't allow it to see the light of day until it was ready. There were nights where assuming the role of personal devil's advocate pushed me to the edge of throwing it all away. I would ask myself, "who is going to care?"

That is the irony of the whole thing: I can defend any of the things on these sheets, but I cannot answer that simple question.

No sane person sets out to create a nerdy baseball statistic and take it as far as I have taken it. On the cusp of an Oscar nomination for Moneyball, it is quick to say that this is an attempt to ride the wave of Sabermetrics in pop culture. In reality, I distance myself from Sabermetrics for it "devalues the artistry and takes the fun out of baseball" (my words).

In Billy Beane's mind, his application of atypical number crunching serves a purpose. He uses unique data for player evaluation and forecasting from a management perspective. Take Sabermetrics out of that "useful" context and their importance to society get questioned. You're not a manager, why do you need to know Ultimate Zone Rating? And don't say "for your fantasy team."

Statistics created by Bill James and Rob Neyer carry ridiculous-sounding acronyms, and the common fan has no clue what a good score is. Go to a baseball game and you may hear the person next to you saying, "His xFIP is one of the best DIPS in the league, but his BABIP is still over .300." Even the biggest baseball fans, like me, want to punch this person in the face.

I have written articles on this site that have challenged ESPN for giving Mr. Neyer a Cy Young Predictor. Everyone is entitled to their opinion and my formula is no better or worse than his, it is just different. In principle I like that team James/Neyer set out to create a vacuum, where arguments sparked by comparing players like Barry Bonds to Babe Ruth could be "settled." Somewhere along the way Sabermetrics fell into the hands of too many people that still live with their parents.

I would like you to believe that my work is not that crazy. My formula is more-or-less straightforward; it does not forecast anything, only summarizes what was done in the past. Its acronym is only two letters, there is a similar stat in circulation in football (thus there is precedent for widespread acceptance among casual fans), and works just like an academic test score (thus approachable because everyone understands the need for a curve). It takes an apples-to-oranges argument and makes it apples-to-apples. That is it. The best part is it never needs to come out of a spectator's mouth at a game.

The double irony is that I hate mathematics and have never been good with them.

This research was done during wars, financial meltdowns, etc. and it hardly helps solve any of the world's travesties. It is quite the contrary: backlogging the past achievements of million dollar athletes. What makes it worse is that the sport has (or had, depending on your stance) a muddled drug problem, so these contemporary stars should not warrant any comparison to the legends of the past. The last thing this world needs is another postseason award to be talked about on the 24/7 sports-focused media outlets.

Oops. It is what it is.

Pitcher Rating is my baby; a secret Excel formula that will stay with me to my grave (or until someone wants to pay me millions to see it). It has ten variables that were repeatedly checked and double checked against a sample size that filled my notebooks. Needless to say, became my homepage quickly. For two seasons I have been using it to post articles on this very site. I went through 122 MLB seasons and still haven't found an underserving leader in the PR category--the winner of a "Big Train" Award.

For those of you who have never spent a Friday night crunching the Run Support Average of a 1920s pitcher, you do not know what you're missing. Maybe I am crazy because I felt it needed to be done. A common complaint among historians is that there are too many different eras of baseball that prevent players today from being measured against the past. Under the same parameters? Absolutely. But that is a weak obstacle that no one truly challenged with anything more than an asterisk.

Pitcher Rating's main goal was to take a pitcher, regardless of role or time period, and grade their season-long contribution against any other. I feel this is achieved with the fluctuating "Points Possible" that reflect changes made to the game. Showing that the Cy Young Award voting has consistently been a joke was simply a joyful byproduct.

It is my humble opinion that the creation of an objective, strictly mathematics-based, postseason award would solve some sports fans' issues. Computers are extremely useful at taking dozens of opinions and statistics and translating them into one value. Few people would have a problem with the BCS rankings if they were used to seed an eight-team tournament. Treating technology like a juicer is a fine solution if the application is right.

It certainly won't bring about world peace or stop hunger, but it might just be the best thing I can do.

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