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Thursday, May 3, 2012

Derrick Rose & the Dangers of Hero Basketball

The NBA's youngest MVP ever went down with a torn ACL just one game into the first round of the playoffs. It marks what could be the most important moment of his career. Not only was it truly heartbreaking to watch (I can't remember being more affected by watching a favorite player injured), but this injury could define Rose's career and epitomize the NBA's reliance on and celebration of hero basketball.

Derrick Rose won the MVP award last season for a couple of reasons. 1) He was easily one of the most exciting players to watch all season. 2) Like Kevin Durant, the media likes to view Rose as an antithesis to LeBron James: A hard-working, kills-himself-for-his-team, only-cares-about-winning, quietly-extends-his-contract-with-the-team-that-drafted-him, clutch playmaker. 3) Last season was Rose's best statistically. It was just efficient enough to shut up the statisticians and marked career highs in points (only viable, consistent scoring threat on his team), assists, steals, rebounds, minutes, three point percentage (a biggie because he had never attempted more than one 3-pointer per game before last season and was suddenly hitting them at a 33% clip), free throw percentage, free throw attempts (crucial), and, of course, wins. Not only was Rose playing his best basketball, but it was fun to watch, fun to root for, and, again, had nothing to do with LeBron, who had just crapped on every basketball fan's collective heart (outside of Miami). 4) Rose was the best player on the team with the best record. 5) Every other MVP candidate had a weaker case than Rose. We covered LeBron. Wade's team was too good for him to get enough credit for their success. Kobe had his lowest scoring season in eight years. Dwight Howard hadn't really won anything and therefore anyone over to his camp. Chris Paul was rehabbing surgically repaired knee still. And that's it.

Rose won the MVP and inspired Scottie Pippen and writers everywhere to wonder if he could win more titles in Chicago than Michael Jordan, but at what cost?

Despite missing only five total games in his previous three seasons, Rose missed twenty seven this season (a little over 40% of the season). I tweeted that this season was like the follow up to a 400-carry season for a running back in the NFL. His body saw too much mileage in too short a time frame and it was betraying him as a result. Rose's acrobatic, explosive, athletic style of play is a large part of what makes him so special as a player and MVP. When healthy, he can get to the basket at will and create for his teammates based on that ability. The Bulls have developed into a premier jump shooting team thanks to Rose's playmaking (and learning how to space the floor with the best of them). Without Rose this season, the Bulls maintained the best record in the league thanks to a top defense and the application of those floor spacing and jump shooting skills developed around Rose. It's a offense now built for a point guard to thrive, so it's no wonder that C.J. Watson and John Lucas III have flourished with Rose out.

Every time Rose came back from one of his myriad of injuries this season, I wondered why the Bulls didn't hold him out for longer. He's the most important person on the roster. He's the foundation of their offense. He's their best hope for a NBA title. The offense depends on his intense style of play, yet Tom Thibodeau inserted Rose back into the starting lineup when he obviously wasn't 100%. I'm sure Rose was also pushing to play and trying to get back on the court as soon as he could (it's a huge part of what endears him to the fans and media), but I have to question the wisdom of Thibodeau repeatedly putting him back on the court when Rose was still injured.

The evidence wins out. Rose played no more than eleven games in a row all season. Seven times Rose played two or fewer games before being benched for injuries again. In those games he average over 35 minutes (roughly equal to his season average). That means that when Rose did return to the lineup, the Bulls were riding him just as hard as they would if he were completely healthy. He was still playing the clutch minutes and bearing the burden of creating offense in those late game situations. The Bulls needed him. They were built around him. And he wasn't about to let them down, no matter what it did to his body.

In cases like this, someone (probably the head coach or a veteran player) needs to sit down the star player and tell him to save his body for the playoffs. Working Rose back into the flow of the offense was less of an issue than having a completely healthy Rose, who could better run the offense built around his intense playing style. The problem in Chicago was that there was no coach or veteran who would tell Rose to sit out. (If anything, this is the biggest reason why Thibs didn't deserve to be Coach of the Year this season despite keeping his team playing at a high level without their star.) Rose, as the star and leader of the team, wields too much power.

Lately we've seen this problem rear its ugly head in the form of a pending free agent hold his team hostage (Melo, LeBron, Dwight), but this is another, more insidious consequence because not everyone is paying as much attention to it. Derrick Rose's ACL tear was, in the broadest sense, a product of the star power that dominates the NBA. Rose's injury highlights the sad reality that the NBA's celebration of individuals over teams can even get into the head of the teams that play well without their star. The Bulls had the best record in the league, but still rushed Rose back time after time and met another injury as a result with each return to the starting lineup.

I'm not saying there's a way to reduce the power wielded by NBA star players, because as a sport, basketball is easily swayed by the excellent play of any one out of the ten players on the court at any time. I'm merely pointing out that it's a problem that isn't fully understood and can be bad for the league, teams, and players on multiple levels. Rose's season-ending injury broke my heart and I don't want to see it happen to anyone else. It shouldn't have taken an injury of this magnitude for fans to finally turn on Thibodeau. They should have been yelling at him all season to save Rose for the playoffs.

Rose went from the league's MVP and brightest rising star to barely playing half the possible games this season. That should worry people. Don't chalk it up to "Maybe he just doesn't have the body to play that way." He does. He did it for three straight years and is still only 23 years old. The problem isn't Rose's body. It's rushing back from injuries.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Seahawks Draft and Roster Philosophy Under Pete Carroll

Arguably the most maligned draft class this year, the Seahawks shocked the media when they took West Virginia defensive end Bruce Irvin with the 15th overall pick, two Utah State Aggies, Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson, no receivers, and one offensive lineman who played defensive tackle in college.

There's been plenty of explanations for this unusual draft class. I am of the school that believes this could be a product of a better understanding of the new CBA that includes a strict rookie wage scale that has reduced the emphasis of 3-down value at positions, opening up high draft picks to scheme and specialist selections such as Irvin. The claim here is that the money paid to that pass rushing specialist as a first round pick is still a bargain in comparison to a free agent pass rusher of the same value. For example, at this point it would cost more to sign someone like Osi Umenyiora, than it would for the Seahawks to have Bruce Irvin on the roster. That rookies cost less than veterans is not a new revelation, but what the Seahawks have done with this notion is astounding.

Consider this: The starting Seahawks secondary (Thomas, Chancellor, Sherman, Browner), whom SI's Peter King claimed before the draft is the best secondary unit in the NFL, has a combined salary cap hit of $2,568,856 according to spotrac.com. That's three Pro Bowlers and one borderline Pro Bowler for around a quarter of what New York Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie alone will make this season. The Seahawks know how to work the hard salary cap and recognize (as many others do, admittedly) that the best value resides in rookie contracts.

Further, the Seahawks are drafting players (or signing in Browner's case) with specific roles in mind for them. The scouts do a good job of letting the coaching staff know exactly what each player they bring in does well and does poorly on the field. Chancellor, Sherman, and Browner, the bargains in this secondary were all knocked down in value going in their respective drafts because they were only good at one or two things and lacked the all around skills to ever be prototypical, traditional safeties or corners. Well, the Seahawks don't use any of those players in traditional roles. For example, they use Chancellor in the box or in a mid-level zone where he can keep the play in front of him, but still be a short distance away so his lack of top-flight range isn't exposed. He's not good in coverage and the Seahawks don't often put him in coverage.

Similar things can be said for Browner and Sherman, who both thrive as press corners, but can struggle in other areas. Smartly, the Seahawks line them up in press coverage as much as they dare to without getting too predictable in their scheme. Even in off man coverage, the Seahawks trust both players' length and pursuit speed to make up for their slow turn around caused by their height. The coaches do their best to ask their players to do exactly what they are capable of and nothing more. That's what makes their draft strategy so interesting.

Where the Seahawks get a little advanced in comparison to other teams is their philosophy of high volume picks. The Seahawks traded down twice this year to accumulate a total of ten draft picks. Having that many picks affords them some flexibility in that 1) the higher number of picks, the higher number of good picks, 2) late round draft picks are easy to get off of the roster and cap if the players don't work out due their low salaries, and 3) the low salaries translate to tremendous value when the players do work out. Because the Seahawks emphasize volume (and their recent success with UDFAs), it's important to consider all of the new players coming in, not just the drafted ones.

Including the undrafted free agents who have signed with the Seahawks, the team will be bringing in twenty rookies this season (see the list of drafted and undrafted). Most of them will most likely not make the final roster, but that doesn't matter nearly as much to the Seahawks as getting to coach them and practice them and get a better feel for what the exact strengths and weaknesses are of each player. First round pick Bruce Irvin will get the highest salary of the twenty rookies, but don't expect the others (with the possible exception of LB Bobby Wagner and QB Russell Wilson) to make more than a million dollars against the cap this season.

The advantages of bringing in so many players with so many chances to find the exactly right player for the exactly right role on the team include the flexibility to draft on need instead of perceived value. It's the main reason fans shouldn't panic when the Mel Kiper's of the world blast this organization for not getting better value out of their picks (along with the obvious reasons that these guys are wrong all the time and draft grades are ridiculously premature). The Seahawks are able to make these picks because they aren't making "need" picks in isolation. They're doing it as a piece of a larger roster philosophy that incorporates role needs, on-field scheme, salary cap, and accurate scouting.

The selection of Bruce Irvin a round ahead of where most media experts had projected him was immediately met with rebuke because they didn't understand what the Seahawks are doing. It's not hard to do. The organization is running a different system than what people are used to seeing. Since Pete Carroll is the head of both the front office and the coaches, he is in a unique position to more fully incorporate those two branches of the team. That means the front office isn't drafting players with the coach's scheme in mind. The coach is drafting players with roles in mind for each one. Cue Bruce Irvin again.

With his combination of speed and raw pass rushing ability, Irvin is the ideal Leo defensive end, the same position that Chris Clemons currently plays. Irvin offers similar speed and burst to 2011 Defensive Rookie of the Year Von Miller and will play a position that practically manufactures sacks. Clemons has had back-to-back 11 sack seasons after only getting more than 4 sacks once in his five seasons prior to coming to Seattle. He is a pass rush specialist whose weakness against the run is compensated for with a combination of Red Bryant, Kam Chancellor, and linebacker scheming. The same accommodation will be given to Irvin. To me, his sack totals will be directly correlated to how many downs he plays. The more third downs, passing downs, and Clemons substitutions there are, the more Irvin sacks we'll see. Expect him to get more time on the field as the season goes on, much like pass rush specialist Aldon Smith did last year with the 49ers. Like Smith, Irvin has the potential to get double digit sacks this season if the rest of the defense is clicking around him (and it has a very good chance to).

That's what the Seahawks are looking for in each player they bring into camp: a role that they can thrive in. Some roles are harder to fill (Earl Thomas and Red Bryant are two hard-to-replace pieces due to their physical gifts) and some roles are easy to fill (the team didn't bat an eye when they let David Hawthorne and LeRoy Hill test the free agent market). The Bruce Irvin pick especially demonstrates that the Seahawks value physical talent and a high motivation over anything else. Throughout this draft the Hawks selected for speed and physicality. You can't teach speed, they say, and the Seahawks are firm believers in that adage. Look at the players who would be hard to replace on this defense: Thomas and Bryant. Both are specimens that are simply hard to replace on a physical level. I think this is the template for how the Seahawks are drafting.

The Bobby Wagner selection is an example of the Seahawks desire to have insurance in other places on the roster in case their main cog, Earl Thomas, goes down with injury. Wagner possesses the kind of range and pursuit that can free up Earl Thomas on the next level when he's on the field and allow the coaches to put more pass rush on the field when both are out there covering the majority of the field between them. Wagner's speed and competitive nature are the reasons why he is on this team. He's a physical specimen. He ran a faster 40 yard dash than his college teammate and fellow Seahawk draft pick running back Robert Turbin. Seattle is using their top draft picks on amazing athletes that aren't available later in the draft and using later picks on players that they can get the most out of when the amazing athletes are able to cover up their flaws. It's the secondary all over again. Wagner will essentially be the Earl Thomas of the front seven, allowing players like Bruce Irvin to do exactly what he is capable of doing.

Why I trust the Seahawks front office so much is because they have a system, execute it well, and have the coaching to back it up. Over two years, they've had so many hits and have flashed so much savvy and potential, that they've quickly won me over. They use the draft to get the players they need before other teams can claim them. They use rookie free agency to find role players who can contribute in significant ways, like Ricardo Lockette's two long touchdowns last season. They use veteran free agency to get players who can fill gaps until they can get cheaper, younger replacements (Atari Bigby last season, for example). More than anything, the coaching is fantastic (especially Tom Cable--he is the reason I wasn't concerned they didn't draft an offensive lineman early). If you're a Seahawks fan, you should be very excited about this draft rookie class and what it reveals about the Pete Carroll Era.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Quick NBA Playoffs Predictions

Before I go watch the next two rounds of the NFL Draft, I wanted to get out some thoughts on the NBA Playoffs that start tomorrow.

-The Lakers will be in the Finals after beating Denver, OKC, and Memphis.

-The Eastern Conference is up for grabs, but won't produce a champion unless it's the Celtics. The Bulls won't make it without MVP-level play from Rose and the Heat will choke again when Lebron plays into his growing legacy of choking in big games. The Celtics are the only team with enough veteran leadership to have a chance, but if they meet the Lakers, their lack of big men will be their downfall.

-Clippers-Grizzlies will be the best series of Round 1, not Knicks-Heat.

-Joe Johnson will be the hero of the Celtics-Hawks series with clutch shots that force a Game 7 that his team will eventually lose.

-The Lakers win it all. Kobe gets ring number six and wins the Finals MVP despite Gasol's key impact plays all series.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Bruce Irvin's Comparisons and Role on the Seahawks

In the few short hours after the Seahawks shocked everyone by selecting West Virginia pass rusher Bruce Irvin, he was compared by Pete Carroll and others to Von Miller, Jevon Kearse, and Clay Matthews. So let's actually look at these comparisons.

Irvin stands at 6'3" and weighs in at 245 lbs. He was mostly projected to be a 3-4 outside linebacker due to how closely his size resembles Miller (also 6'3", 245) and Matthews (6'3", 255). Matthews ran the fastest 10-yard burst at his position. Miller ran the fastest 40 time in his. Miller lit up the Combine last year and all of Irvin's numbers are in the neighborhood or better than his. Both Miller and and Matthews racked up double digit sacks in their rookie seasons in defenses that let them focus on rushing the passer and minimized their responsibilities in dropping back into coverage. In short, Irvin looks like a Von Miller clone, but no one realized it because they wrote him off due to his run ins with the law.

Pete Carroll told the media that Irvin would be playing the same position that Matthews played at USC, the Leo. The Leo position is a defensive end hybrid position that emphasizes speed and edge rushing over size, length, and strength. Irvin is perfectly suited for it thanks to his next-level athleticism and barrage of pass rush moves. That's what Carroll and company got with the fifteenth overall pick in the draft: exactly what they needed to improve the pass rush and help Chris Clemons. Exactly what people have been saying they need since the last draft.

I'm excited to see what this coaching staff can do with Bruce Irvin in their system.

Seahawks Select Speedy Bruce Irvin and Other NFL Draft Thoughts

With their first pick of the 2012 Draft, the Seahawks selected West Virginia pass rusher Bruce Irvin.

Since the pick, head coach Pete Carroll has said Irvin will play the same position that he had Clay Matthews play at USC and compares Irvin's speed and first step to Von Miller. Let that sink in for a second. Clay Matthews. Von Miller. That's some amazing company. So why haven't you heard of this guy?

Irvin wasn't rated highly due to perceived character issues. He has been arrested on several occasions, didn't finish high school, and went to two different junior colleges before ending up at West Virginia, the school that also produced Pacman Jones and Chris Henry.

What Irvin does have is rare athleticism. He ran a 4.5 40 yard dash and Carroll claimed that he has run faster than a 4.4 before. Whether Irvin can deliver on that athletic potential remains to be seen, but on 710 ESPN he said he didn't get coached at West Virginia and encouraged Seattle fans and media to "Imagine if I got some coaching" while he explained how he was second in the nation in sacks on pure athleticism. Carroll elaborated on that unique athleticism by saying he's been looking for an athlete like Irvin his whole career. He even tried to recruit him to USC, but Irvin didn't qualify academically.

In response to the character concerns surrounding his arrests, Irvin said that he is past all of that. He even changed his named from BJ to Bruce to symbolize his commitment to a better lifestyle. This is a player that has gone through a lot to reach this point in his life and career. I don't see anything stopping him now. When given the choice of any pass rusher in the draft, the Seahawks chose this man. He has the rare athleticism to thrive in the Leo pass rushing position where he can use his burst, pursuit speed, and high motor to make a strong positive impact on a defense that is already on the rise.

The initial shock of hearing a name that was completely unexpected has worn off for me. Irvin will be compared throughout his career to Quinton Coples, Chandler Jones, and Melvin Ingram--all of whom would have been laudable choices at the 15th overall pick. Only time will tell if Irvin will have a better career, but one thing is sure: He's a better fit for the Seahawks. And no draft pundit can argue against that.
The Seahawks have listed Irvin as a "Leo"
Along with moving back to #15 from #12, the Seahawks picked up two mid-round picks in the 4th and 6th rounds, bringing their total picks up to eight. I expect them to move around some more (especially after revealing that they wanted to move back again, but "didn't want to get too cute") and bring their total pick number up to at least ten. I look forward to what they'll do in the next two days, but especially on Saturday where they've proven to be able to pick up playmakers.

Other Draft thoughts:

-The Buccaneers won free agency by being the biggest spenders and rebuilding their offensive line. Now they're winning the draft too. They already have two studs in Alabama safety Mark Barron and Boise State running back Doug Martin. They have a new coaching staff and they still have one of the best young QBs in the league, Josh Freeman. Look out.
-The other big winner of the draft so far is the New England Patriots. They traded up twice to snag Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower, two highly rated defensive prospects that will aid their woeful pass rush. They seem to have filled their biggest roster hole and still have a lot more draft to go.
-The biggest losers so far are the Kansas City Chiefs who got a workout warrior/future bust in DT Dontari Poe at the 11th pick. Have fun with that one, Romeo.