The Hasheem Thabeet Problem

February 26, 2011

Hasheem Thabeet – the #2 draft pick in last year’s NBA Draft – was shipped from Memphis to Houston on Thursday in a trade that barely registered on anyone’s radar screen. The Rockets dealt Shane Battier and Ishmael Smith for Thabeet, DeMarre Carroll, and a first-round pick.* Smith does not figure into the Grizzlies’ future plans and Battier’s contract is up in four months, so they essentially traded away the second pick in the 2009 draft, the 29th pick in the 2009 draft, and a first round draft pick in 2013 to rent Battier’s services for a potential playoff push. Wow.

* Carroll was the Grizzlies’ 29th pick in the 2009 draft. He has scored eleven points this ENTIRE SEASON. Not a good draft for Memphis. These are things that happen when Chris Wallace is your GM.

I am not sure what is more stunning: that Memphis gave up on a #2 draft pick that soon or that the trade was completely lost in the shuffle over the weekend. It’s fine to be overshadowed by the Carmelo trade…but it’s pretty sad to see Thabeet being overshadowed by Baron Davis to Cleveland for Jamario Moon and Mo Williams.

When I say stunning, I mean theoretically stunning. On a personal level, I am not at all surprised that Thabeet has been an absolute train wreck. I knew he was going to be a huge bust on February 16, 2009 – a full four months before he was drafted. On that date, I had my longest career ESPN Streak for the Cash streak going. Sitting on eleven consecutive wins, I went with #1 Connecticut at home against #4 Pittsburgh. A couple minutes into the game, this happened:

DeJuan Blair finished with 23 points and 22 rebounds, while Thabeet put up five points, four rebounds, and two blocked shots. And just like that, my streak went up in flames. So did my faith in Thabeet.

What NBA team could watch that video and not realize that Thabeet’s CEILING was a Tanzanian Shawn Bradley? Blair is 6’7″ and 265 pounds and put up 22 rebounds on Thabeet – what made anyone think he could handle the bigger and taller centers in the NBA?

I understand the arguments for drafting him. You can’t teach height. Even if he can’t rebound, he will block and re-direct shots. He has only been playing basketball since he was 15, so he will learn more. And so on. I get the arguments. I just think they are all stupid.

It is true that you can’t teach height. I should know – I am pretty deadly from three-point land, but no NBA team has drafted me yet because I am only 5’10”. If I could grow nine more inches, I would absolutely be playing in the NBA or be the top porn star in the world, depending on where that nine inches went. It is also true that you can’t teach instincts in the NBA. You can try, but you probably won’t be successful. Try to name a skinny, raw young center that actually filled out his frame to become a dominant center after being thrown around for his first couple of years int he league. Seriously…I’ll wait.

Moses Malone maybe? He was a skinny high school center. I’m not even sure he counts though, because he had some of the greatest rebounding instincts of any player in NBA history. Beyond that, the list of “project” centers is littered with a bunch of stiffs. I didn’t think Thabeet would be any different, so I’m not sure why any other team would think Thabeet would be any different?

I swear I don’t mean to sound like Bill Simmons, but Thabeet is a perfect example of the upside phenomenon in the NBA Draft. NBA teams are obsessed with upside, but there is a catch-22. An NBA team can only carry 15 players, 12 of whom are active for each game. Realistically, an NBA team cannot develop a raw player with upside other than by being patient as he gets torched by better players. The NBA Developmental League is not a feasible solution. It could be, but there is a stigma with sending draft picks to the league. Look no further than Thabeet’s two-week journey to the Dakota Wizards last season for proof of that. The media KILLED him.

All American sports leagues are obsessed with upside, but none more so than the NBA. Just watch an NBA Draft – as Simmons observes in his annual NBA Draft Diary, they speak in code words: wingspan, great feet, long arms, incredibly athletic, etc. NBA teams love players with upside. They look to what players can be, rather than what they already are.

Unlike the NBA, other sports leagues actually have the ability to develop players. MLB teams are well aware that every single draft pick is a developmental project, hence the five levels of minor league baseball. Rarely do you see any top pick make an impact in the majors in less than three years, so busts don’t really hurt teams. Similarly, the NHL draws players from leagues all over the world. Other than a few standout prospects each year, a team does not really know what they are getting, so busts really don’t sting these teams either. In the NFL, a team can carry 53 players plus another eight on a practice squad. If a player isn’t ready, you let him learn and watch from the bench for a couple of years while playing on special teams.

Most NBA teams play nine or ten man rotations. That really only leaves two spots for a developmental prospect. But you really can’t even use those for an extended amount of time because of the stigma attached to them. Analysts expect top draft picks to contribute right away. When they can’t, they are forced into action when they aren’t ready. They don’t learn anything but getting destroyed constantly and their confidence is shot.

To top that off, if a team is actually a contender, they cannot even afford to develop a project. Memphis drafted Thabeet knowing that he was an extremely raw center they would have to develop his skills to make him an NBA center. The team turned out to be surprisingly good this year but are a piece away from contending. Project over. Now it is the struggling Houston Rockets’ turn to try to develop him into an NBA center.

All of this leads to a unique phenomenon in the NBA in which you can actually pick out the busts before they happen, and teams draft them anyway. In the last five years, I saw the biggest three busts from the top three picks well ahead of time. In addition to Thabeet, I had a long debate with a Portland fan at my work on why they should draft Durant over Greg Oden in 2007. Sadly, I could not find a video of Oden running, but any 19-year old that runs like a 38-year old probably shouldn’t go first overall. Portland drafted him anyway because they did not want to be the team that let a franchise center slip away. Four years later, Oden has played 103 career games, Durant will win his second scoring title this year, and “Oden over Durant” has already joined “Bowie over Jordan” in Portland lore.

Adam Morrison with the #3 pick in the 2006 Draft was also a bust waiting to happen. This one is just a matter of common sense. Watch this video for all the proof you need:

How many unathletic white guys who wore a t-shirt in college and cried on the floor after a game were worthy of a #3 overall pick in the NBA Draft? Zero. Adam Morrison was no exception.

Before that, there was Darko Milicic in 2003 and Michael Olowokandi in 1998. Both Detroit and the Clippers took raw prospects in an attempt to hit a home run. Both failed miserably. Their failures are only exasperated by the players drafted after them: Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade for Milicic, and Vince Carter, Dirk Nowitzki, and Paul Pierce for Olowokandi.

As these failures keep adding up, you’d think that NBA teams would forget it out. But I doubt it. Taking a big swing to try to hit a home run is always more exciting than a base hit.

In the meantime, I will get to brag that I saw all these busts coming before they happen. Now I even have a blog to commit these predictions to writing.


The Luckiest Fan Bases in Sports

February 1, 2011

It is no surprise that sports fans tend to be obsessed with tortured fan bases. After all, rooting for a team is inherently masochistic. At the end of every MLB, NBA, and NHL season, 29 of 30 teams’ fans are frustrated. That number jumps to 31 of 32 for the NFL.

Of course, all sports fans know this going in, so it’s hard to feel sorry for them. That doesn’t stop fans from complaining about how tortured they are. It’s a badge of honor for fans of crappy teams – sorta like how when my family complains about how cold it is in Omaha, I get to say “you know nothing about cold! NOTHING!”

You can’t really blame these fans for wearing the tortured franchise tag with pride. At least they’re first in something. Residents of no other major city in the US get to complain to me about how cold it is, just like how residents of any other major city can complain about their teams to Cleveland residents. This seems fair enough.

Many fans from Cleveland, Buffalo, Seattle, and (fill in the tortured sports city here) like to argue that theirs is the most tortured fan base. A Google search of “most tortured sports cities” brings up a whopping 247,000 results. Every crappy sports city wants in on the action.

But what about the luckiest fan bases (or whatever the opposite of a tortured fan base is)? I couldn’t seem to find any lists ranking these cities. Apparently no one cares…complaining about our failures is way more rewarding than gloating about our successes. So I set out to write my own list of the luckiest sports cities.

Two quick notes. First, overall city-wide performances are important since not every city resident likes each sport equally (i.e. the rule that keeps New York from being #1 just because of the Yankees). So while two Super Bowl championships are a good start, 1 Super Bowl championship and 1 World Series win ranks higher in my mind. Second, these numbers are skewed somewhat towards recent history. I think of lucky sports cities as a fluid concept. Sports are about what have you done for me lately – yes, history is important, but that Super Bowl III victory isn’t doing much for the Jets fans these days.

I started by looking through a few lists of the most tortured sports cities to eliminate these teams from consideration. The first six lists I looked at on said Google search named the following as “tortured”: Seattle, Atlanta, Phoenix, Buffalo, San Diego, Cleveland, Washington D.C., Baltimore, Kansas City, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Houston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, Cincinnati, Tampa, New Orleans, Calgary, Charlotte, Detroit, Denver, Milwaukee, Miami, Portland, Sacramento, Montreal, Vancouver, Toronto, Ottawa, and Edmonton.

That leaves only 17 professional sports cities that are not tortured: New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco Bay Area, Dallas, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, Nashville, Orlando, San Antonio, Columbus, Salt Lake City, Raleigh, Jacksonville, Oklahoma City, Memphis, and Green Bay. And seven of those have had professional teams for less than twenty years, so we can’t really count them.

Now we have only ten cities that supposedly aren’t tortured: New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco Bay Area, Dallas, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, San Antonio, Salt Lake City, and Green Bay. Of those, I’m going to toss out Green Bay, since it seems fair to group it in with Milwaukee as a city (and the Bucks and Brewers drag down the Packers’ three Super Bowl victories). Salt Lake City gets tossed too. Salt Lake’s only team is the NBA’s Jazz and while they’ve mostly been good for their entire existence, they have yet to win a championship. I just can’t name a city as a lucky fan base without a single title.

That leaves us with eight cities, but since the first of those lists came out in 2004, I went back to look at the champions in the four major sports since then to see if we should remove the tortured tag from those teams. Boston jumps back on the list because their teams’ performances in the 2000s might be the best run of a major sports city in recent history – certainly enough to erase 86 years of Red Sox misery. Chicago also gets back on the list, mostly because I’m not sure how they made it on in the first place for reasons I will explain later. Same with Miami.

I did not put Philadelphia and Detroit back on the list. Philadelphia, because one World Series win doesn’t quite erase all those years of sucktitude from the city’s other three teams. And Detroit stays off because, well, Detroit probably shouldn’t be on the list for luckiest anything.

So that leaves us with the eleven luckiest sports cities. In reverse order:

11. Indianapolis (1 Super Bowl win, 3-time ABA champion)

Talk about a city with major ups and downs. The ups tend to outweigh the downs, so Indy gets the #11 spot on this list. They fell ass backwards into not one, but two, professional sports franchises. And both franchises are fairly successful to boot.

The city’s first team was the ABA’s Indiana Pacers in 1967. The Pacers won an ABA-high three championships and made the finals on two more occasions. On the strength of their ABA performance, they fell into an NBA franchise when the ABA and NBA merged. They were unable to duplicate their success in the NBA, but did contend in the 1990s and early 2000s (and won one Eastern Conference final). Unfortunately, the Pacers’ down came in a nationally televised brawl when Ron Artest decided to charge into the stands and attack a doofy guy who didn’t throw a drink at him. That embarrassment alone knocks Indianapolis down a few spots on this list.

The Colts came to Indianapolis in an overnight move. They literally hijacked the team from Baltimore.* Really, the only shame of the whole situation is that it didn’t happen today, with our current 24-hour news cycle. The 15 Mayflower trucks that moved the Colts all took slightly different routes so that the state troopers couldn’t stop them…can you imagine the news helicopters above tracking these chases? Adam Schefter would spontaneously combust.

* Interesting sidebar: when the Baltimore Colts were flirting with a new home, Phoenix emerged as the favorite until owner Robert Irsay was blown away by a tour of the newly constructed RCA Dome. Instead, Phoenix got stuck with the Cardinal franchise five years later. Now that alone is enough to make Phoenix a tortured sports city.

After that, the Colts story in Indianapolis is pretty simple. They were terrible for their first ten years or so, then drafted Peyton Manning and have been one of the best teams in the league since then. The Colts won the Super Bowl in 2007, the first championship for the city in one of the four major sports leagues.

Indianapolis is the fifth smallest metropolitan area to have two or more sports franchises, and they are by far the most successful of the five. Milwaukee, Buffalo, and New Orleans are all named in the most tortured cities (Buffalo usually ranks near the top) and Nashville did not have a team until 1998. Buffalo’s NFL team and New Orleans’ NBA team are perpetually named in the list of franchises that might move. In short, the city has two moderately successful franchises when they barely have any business having two franchises period.

10. Dallas (5 Super Bowl titles, 1 Stanley Cup, 0 NBA titles, 0 World Series titles)

Tough call to have Dallas so low on this list with the Cowboys’ Super Bowl successes, but with the ineptitude of the other sports teams in the city, I couldn’t have them higher than #10. Dallas sports franchises really are the tale of two cities.

On one hand, we have the NFL Cowboys and their five Super Bowl titles. After the team won three Super Bowl titles in the 1990s, they held the record for most all-time Super Bowl titles until Pittsburgh passed them in 2009. ESPN.com ran a debate this week about which team really was “America’s team” – Pittsburgh, Green Bay, or Dallas. If someone can make an argument that your team is America’s team in America’s most popular sport, that’s a pretty good indication that your team is something special. Even if it hasn’t won a playoff game in over a decade.

But then we have the NBA’s Mavericks and MLB’s Rangers, two of the most historically inept franchises in their respective leagues. The run-and-gun Mavericks were actually decent in the 1980s, although they were beaten by the Showtime Lakers each of the three times that they made it out of the first round of the playoffs. And then they managed to make it through the entire 1990s without a winning season, including a staggeringly bad 11-71 1992-93 season. Mark Cuban’s money turned the team into a contender in the 2000s and they finally made it to their first NBA finals in 2006. They were promptly robbed of the title by the referees and the underdog Heat (or so Maverick fans say).

Historically, the Rangers are even worse. Prior to the 2010 season, the team had won one playoff game in their entire 40-year history (50 if you include ten years in Washington). That’s not one series win – that’s one game win. They were one of three franchises to never play a World Series game. In 2010, they finally broke through and won their first two playoff series and entered the World Series as the favorite against the Giants. They lost.

The NHL’s Stars have actually been fairly successful since they relocated from Minnesota in 1993. They won a Stanley Cup in 1999 and finished runner-up the next year. Of course, that doesn’t really count since no one in Dallas cares about hockey. Eventually someone will push Gary Bettman out and the Stars will move back to a northern city and everyone will forget about the Stanley Cup. Seriously, all seven of the warm weather cities that Bettman expanded to are in the bottom third of the league’s attendance. In twenty years we will all laugh about the time that someone thought it was a good idea to move an ice hockey team from Minneapolis to Dallas.

Aside from the Cowboys, Dallas is basically a warmer-weather Cleveland. Unfortunately for Cleveland, the Cowboys are the difference between the tenth luckiest sports city and the hands-down unluckiest sports city. Well that and “The Decision.”

9. Los Angeles (11 NBA championships, 6 World Series titles, 1 Super Bowl, 1 Stanley Cup)

Another city that gets on the luckiest city list based on the strength of one team. Fortunately for them, LA residents don’t have a problem jumping on a bandwagon, so the Lakers’ success is probably enough for all 12+ million of them.

Like the Cowboys, the Lakers are one of the few teams that can make a legitimate argument for the best team in their sport’s history. Unlike the Cowboys, the Lakers have never really had a bad stretch of seasons. Since they moved to Los Angeles in 1960, the Lakers have only missed the playoffs four times, won 11 NBA titles and 14 Western Conference titles. They have won the NBA title an unbelievable 22% of the time and won the Western Conference 50% of the time. Seven of Bill Simmons’ top 15 players of all-time played the majority of their careers with the Lakers. That’s lucky.

But the rest of the LA sports teams have been almost as bad as the Lakers have been good. By pretty much any measure, the NBA Clippers are the worst franchise in basketball. In 26 years in Los Angeles, the Clippers have three winning seasons and one playoff series win. They are the exact opposite of the Lakers, and it really bugs all 14 Clipper fans.

The Kings are the NHL’s answer to the Clippers. Since they entered the league in 1967, they have reached the final four in the playoffs only one time – in 1993, when they lost in the Stanley Cup final. And that includes eight seasons with the greatest hockey player who ever lived.

For their part, the Dodgers have won five World Series rings since they moved to Los Angeles in 1958. However, three of those came before 1965 and no Dodger fan younger than 22 has even seen the Dodgers make the World Series (11 different National League teams have made it since the last time the Dodgers did). On the plus side, they did get to witness Kirk Gibson hit the most famous home run of the past thirty-five years in the 1988 World Series. On the down side, that was the last time the Dodgers made a highlight reel.

The two Anaheim teams have done well recently for those Anaheim fans in the metropolitan area. The Ducks have somewhat unfairly made three conference finals (to the Kings’ one) since their expansion season in 1993. They won the 2007 Stanley Cup, although it’s unclear if anyone in LA actually cares. The Angels have the 2002 World Series ring to fall back on, but they were pretty terrible for the first forty years of their existence. I’d call it a wash though, since the Angels’ futility led to the Danny Glover/Tony Danza classic Angels in the Outfield.

But the biggest reason that Los Angeles is so low on the list is the lack of an NFL team. Both the Rams and Raiders moved following the 1994 season. Though seemingly every franchise in the NFL has flirted with moving to LA at one time or another, the city has been NFL-less since then. Eventually LA will get another NFL team and they will instantly shoot up a couple spots unless it’s the Cardinals that move. Pretty much any other franchise, including an expansion team, would be a trade-up from the Raiders and Rams.

8. Miami (2 World Series titles, 2 Super Bowl titles, 1 NBA title, 0 Stanley Cups)

How Miami made it on someone’s most tortured city list is beyond me. First, Miami fans live in Miami, so they can’t be that tortured. Second, as I’ve talked about before, no one in Miami cares about their sports teams. This season, the MLB Marlins finished 28th in attendance, the NFL Dolphins finished 16th, and the NHL Panthers are currently 23rd. Sure, the Heat are selling out their games, but it took Lebron James and Dwayne Wade to do that. With just D-Wade last season, the Heat finished 15th in attendance and averaged 300 more fans per game on the road than at home.

Miami is the opposite of tortured – their fans don’t really deserve any titles, let alone five. The Marlins have won two World Series titles in their first eleven seasons of existence. The Heat have one title in their 22 seasons and now have two of the three most popular players in the league. And in the year I lived in Miami, I met only one person who had ever attended a Panthers game, so the fact that they are consistently one of the worst teams in the NHL doesn’t seem to bother anyone.

Yeah, I admit that the Dolphins have come up empty since winning the 1973 and 1974 Super Bowls. They managed only one AFC Championship with Dan Marino at quarterback. But 14 of the 32 NFL teams have never won a Super Bowl; seven more have only won one. I’m sure it was frustrating for Dolphin fans during the Marino era, but the Dolphins probably don’t even crack the top half of long-suffering NFL fans.

Even if the Miami franchises weren’t all that good, I still wouldn’t call their fans tortured. If “The Decision” taught us anything, it’s that teams are only in Miami because that’s what players want. They get to live on South Beach and pay no state income taxes. Miami fans will ditch crappy teams in a heartbeat – they should never be mentioned in any tortured fan base discussion.

7. San Antonio (4 NBA titles)

San Antonio is this low because they have only one professional team. Yet no city comes anywhere close to winning titles at a percentage as high as the Spurs. They have won four NBA titles in 36 seasons – a solid 11% of the time. Sure, those titles have all come since 1999 and the Spurs perpetually came up short in the playoffs before that. But it’s still hard to feel sorry for a fan base that got to see three all-time greats in George Gervin, David Robinson, and Tim Duncan in their primes.

The Spurs have only missed the playoffs four times in 33 NBA seasons. Even in those seasons they got unbelievably lucky. They won the NBA Draft lottery twice. Those #1 picks? Robinson and Duncan. In the other two seasons, they drafted future All-Stars Alvin Robertson and Sean Elliott. That’s quite a track record.

6. Chicago (6 NBA titles, 5 World Series titles, 4 Stanley Cups, and 1 Super Bowl)

I know, I know, I can hear the Cubs fans whining too. Now I admit that just five years ago Chicago wouldn’t be anywhere close to the top of this list, but let’s start out with the good Chicago teams.

First we have the NBA’s Bulls. The Bulls were never good before Michael Jordan arrived and haven’t been that good since he left. Yet for those 13 seasons, Chicago won six titles (third most in NBA history) and saw some of the greatest seasons in NBA history. Every other city except Boston and LA would gladly trade their entire histories for those six seasons. I’d call that lucky.

The NFL’s Bears have only one Super Bowl win, but like the Bulls, what they lack in quantity they make up for in quality. Most analysts rank the 1985 Bears as the best Super Bowl champion in history. Granted, this is similar to the “what have you done for me lately” argument I made with the Dodgers, but the 1985 Bears were different. 25 years later, all football fans can name the cast of characters from the Super Bowl Shuffle – Jim McMahon, Walter Payton, The Fridge, Coach Ditka, and the like. The most recognizable Dodger from the ’80s is announcer Vin Scully.

MLB’s White Sox and NHL’s Blackhawks both ended long droughts of terribleness recently. The White Sox won their first World Series in 88 years in 2005 and the Blackhawks won their first Stanley Cup in 49 years in 2010. Neither team was particularly good in the years between their titles – the White Sox last made the World Series in 1958 and the Blackhawks last made the Stanley Cup in 1992. But as I said above, recentness matters.

Finally we get to the Cubs. 102 years and counting. Blah blah blah. Have you ever actually met a Cubs fan? They are much more content talking about how long it has been since their last World Series title than about their current title chances. Which makes sense, because the last time they even made the World Series was 1945. It’s not that painful to lose if you always suck. Losing four World Series in Game 7 like the Red Sox did…now that’s painful. So I would argue that it’s even lucky to be a Cubs fan. The fans can wear their pink and green hats and complain about how hard things are as a Cubs fan, all while not really caring all that much.

5. San Francisco Bay Area (7 Super Bowl titles, 5 World Series titles, 1 NBA title, 0 NHL titles)

The best thing about the Bay Area? Remarkably little heartbreak. The NHL Sharks have yet to make a Stanley Cup despite being the #1 seed several times. The MLB A’s lost five of six playoff series in the 2000s. The Giants lost the 2002 World Series; three months later, the Raiders lost the 2003 Super Bowl. But that’s about it. If that’s the only heartbreak that comes with 13 titles, then the city can’t really complain about much, World Series earthquakes notwithstanding.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the 49ers had one of the best dynasties in NFL history. 49er fans witnessed two of the best quarterbacks in history (Joe Montana and Steve Young) and the best receiver in history by far (Jerry Rice). They went five for five in Super Bowls – the only franchise that has won more than one Super Bowl without losing one.

Before the 49ers were any good, the Raiders also had a solid team, winning two Super Bowls in 1977 and 1981. They had a brief affair with Los Angeles in the 1980s and early 1990s, but moved back in 1995. Now Raiders fans just have to wait for Al Davis to die.

Prior to the 2010 season, the MLB Giants were the only Bay Area franchise that could be considered tortured. But they finally won their first World Series since moving to San Francisco to go along with the four Oakland World Series championships.

The NBA Warriors and NHL Sharks drag the Bay Area down somewhat – if they didn’t exist, the Bay Area could have probably cracked the top couple spots on the strength of 12 World Series and Super Bowl titles in the last 38 years. A 1975 NBA title is pretty much the only thing separating the Warriors and the Clippers. Since 1977, the Warriors have only made the playoffs six times. Unfortunately for the Bay Area, their fans actually care about the team. While the Clippers have approximately 14 fans, the Bay Area continually supports the perennial loser Warriors.

In 18 seasons in the league, the NHL Sharks have only missed the playoffs five times. In their third season in the league, they burst on to the scene as a #8 seed in the Western Conference playoffs. A year after finishing 11-71-2, they upset the #1 Red Wings in the first round (back when a #8 over a #1 meant something) and took the Maple Leafs to seven games before falling in the second round. Since then, their playoff appearances have been disappointing. They have five division titles and only eleven series wins. They have never made the Stanley Cup finals and have only made the Western Conference finals twice. Unlike the other expansion teams of the past twenty years, Sharks fans still care – they are one of only 12 teams to draw 100% attendance this season.

4. St. Louis (10 World Series titles, 1 Super Bowl title, 1 NBA title, 0 Stanley Cups)

St. Louis doesn’t have the multi-sport track record that the other teams on this list have. Instead, the city gets the #4 spot for its uncanny ability to buy low and sell high on sports teams.

The MLB Browns made only one World Series in the 53 years that they were in St. Louis (a loss in 1944). The city cut their losses and sent them to Baltimore in 1954. The Orioles did win three World Series titles…but let’s just say that being a Cardinal fan is significantly more rewarding than being an Oriole fan. For evidence, the Cardinals finished fourth in the MLB in attendance last year; the Orioles finished 24th.

The NBA Hawks were in St. Louis between 1955 and 1968. In those 13 years, they made four NBA finals and won one NBA title. The owners wanted to build a new arena (man, were they ahead of their time), but the city refused, so the team relocated to Atlanta. Since then, the Atlanta Hawks haven’t even made it back to the conference finals, let alone the NBA finals.

The NFL Cardinals were located in St. Louis between 1960 and 1987. Give the St. Louis fans credit – they supported the team for 27 years before attendance started to dwindle. This despite the fact that the Cardinals never won a single playoff game in St. Louis. The Cardinals moved to Phoenix; eight years later, the Los Angeles Rams moved to St. Louis. Four years after that, the Rams won the Super Bowl. Now that is a trade-up.

That would be enough luck alone to get St. Louis towards the top of the list. As an added bonus, the ten World Series titles for the Cardinals are the second most in baseball history. Although the Cardinals have never had a dominant dynasty, they tend to reward their fan base. Since they won their first World Series title in 1926, the longest they have gone without a title is 24 years (between 1982 and 2006). Every generation of baseball fans in St. Louis has experienced a World Series title. Only the Yankees can say the same among MLB franchises.

The NHL’s Blues keep St. Louis from breaking into the top three. No NHL team has toyed with their fans more than the Blues. Between 1979 and 2004, they made the playoffs 25 straight times. They qualified for exactly zero Stanley Cup finals. In fairness, Blues fans probably knew what they were in for: the team made the Stanley Cup finals in each of their first three seasons (1968-70). They were swept all three times. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make being a Blues fan any less painful.

3. New York (35 World Series titles, 8 Stanley Cups, 4 Super Bowls, 2 NBA championships)

Tough call on New York only finishing third, but for all the Yankees’ history, the other New York teams really haven’t done a whole lot. I’ve said before that every city has a second-class citizen when it comes to sports. Well, the New York area has two teams in each major league…they basically have a second-class citizen in every sport. So the problem with ranking New York is that New Yorkers can go one of two ways – a first-class route and a second-class route.

They could go the easy route and stick with the Yankees, Giants, Knicks, and Rangers. Those four teams have combined for 36 all-time championships. Although 27 of those came from the Yankees, the other three teams have each won at least two championships.

The significantly more difficult route leaves New Yorkers with the Mets, Jets, Nets, and Islanders. Those four teams have seven titles between them, four of which came when the Islanders won four consecutive titles between 1980 and 1983.

If we leave out NHL teams, it gets even worse. Both New York NHL teams have lackluster histories. The Rangers have won only one Stanley Cup (1994) in the last seventy years. Take away the years between 1980 and 1984, and the Islanders have never been to a Stanley Cup final. Even if you give the Islanders those titles, there’s no real evidence that there are any die-hard Islander fans – the team has finished in the bottom three in attendance in each of the last six years.

So that leaves 32 titles for the first-class citizens of the New York era and 3 for the second-class citizens. On the plus side for the second-class teams, the Mets’ last World Series title came in 1986 when they beat the city’s natural rival Boston with help from Bill Bucknor’s still-tough-to-watch error. On the down side, the Mets’ title was the only title for those teams in the last forty years.

I wasn’t entirely sure how to deal with New York because of this. Depending on which teams you root for, they could be the best sports city in the United States. They could also be one of the most tortured cities. I decided to split the difference and put them at #3 on the list.

2. Pittsburgh (6 Super Bowls, 5 World Series, 3 Stanley Cups)

As I mentioned earlier, the NFL Steelers are one of only three teams with a legitimate argument as “America’s Team” in America’s most popular sport. They have won an NFL-best six Super Bowls while losing only one. Their success to heartbreak ratio is probably the best in NFL history. Not a whole lot more to say about them.

The NHL’s Penguins one-upped the Spurs’ NBA Draft record. The Penguins have had the #1 draft pick three times in their franchise history. Two of their picks? Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux and future Hall of Famer Sidney Crosby. The third pick was goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who is now in his sixth season as the Penguins’ goaltender. Add three Stanley Cups in the last twenty years, and the Penguins have a pretty solid resume going.

Unfortunately, now we get to the MLB Pirates. The Pirates have actually won five World Series titles, although you wouldn’t guess it from their current state. In 1992, they were only 13 years removed from their last World Series title. They were the team of Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell, Ralph Kiner, and the Waner brothers. Second basemen Bill Maseroski hit the only Game 7 walk-off home run in World Series history in 1960. History was in their favor.

Then Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS happened. The Pirates led 2-0 heading into the ninth inning. A double, error, walk, sac fly, and single later and the Braves won 3-2 when the impossibly slow Sid Bream scored from second on David Justice’s single. Since then, the Pirates have had 18 consecutive losing seasons, the most ever in any sport. And it’s not getting any better: the Pirates clinched a losing season on August 21 this year.

Pittsburgh still gets the #2 spot on the list thanks to the Steelers and Penguins. In the words of Meat Loaf, “two outta three ain’t bad.”

1. Boston (17 NBA championships, 8 World Series titles, 5 Stanley Cups, 3 Super Bowls)

Who’d have thought this was possible ten years ago? At the end of the 20th century, the Red Sox had gone 82 years without a World Series title; the Patriots had never won a Super Bowl; the historically successful Celtics hadn’t won an NBA title in 13 years; and the Bruins hadn’t won a Stanley Cup since 1972.

And then Boston went on an unprecedented run of success in the past decade. The Red Sox turned into the Yankees with better PR. They spent a katrillion dollars on players and won the 2004 and 2007 World Series titles. Now the team is a perennial contender and the favorite to win the American League next season. With the Curse of the Bambino out of the picture, we can now focus our attention on the fact that the franchise has won the fourth most World Series titles in MLB history.

The Patriots built themselves into an improbable juggernaut in an era of NFL parity. Prior to 2001, the franchise did have two AFC Championships to their name. Aside from those, they were generally a team of losers. Besides the 1985 and 1996 championship seasons, they won only two playoff games in forty years. Amazingly, they then won nine straight between 2001 and 2004. The end result: three Super Bowl titles and one of the best four year runs in NFL history. Although Bostonians are still upset about the Tyree catch in the 2008 Super Bowl, they were the only team to have a winning record in every season in the 2000s.

Boston fans always had the glory days of the Celtics to fall back on – between 1957 and 1986, they won 16 of 30 possible titles. No other team in sports history even comes close to a run like that. But even that went dry for Boston sports fans in the 1990s and early 2000s. In 2007, that changed when the Celtics traded for Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. They won the 2007-08 NBA title – their first in 24 years (their previous longest drought was seven years). They also narrowly lost the 2010 finals and are the favorites to come out of the Eastern Conference this season.

As for the Bruins? They still suck. But three outta four is even better than two outta three.


Oh, those power-hungry refs

January 13, 2011

The NBA expanded the guidelines on technicals over the offseason. Most seemed to think it was crazy at the time. It took almost half of the season, but we finally have some visual evidence that cracking down on player behavior was, in fact, crazy:

For those counting at home, that’s five total technicals on three players and a coach in less than ten seconds. The game descended from a competitive game to a complete farce in less than ten seconds.

That scene is really a microcosm of why no one cares about the NBA. At least when other sports’ games turn into a farce that quickly, it gives fans some form of entertainment. A bench-clearing brawl in baseball, a hockey fight, a massive car wreck in NASCAR – these are all perversely exciting. In the NBA, a team gets five free points because three players apparently sighed.

It is hard to tell based on those camera angles exactly what the players did to deserve technicals, but it could not have been that bad. By my estimation, there were only 47 people in the crowd for the game.* If one of those players actually said something worthy of a technical, we would have heard it echo.

* The Timberwolves drew a reported 11,209 to the game against the Spurs, the team with the best record in the NBA. The Target Center’s capacity is 19,500. Even using the Timberwolves’ very generous attendance figure, the arena was barely half full for the game.

LeBron recently was criticized for suggesting contraction. If your product is a distant fourth among major sports teams in only the 16th largest metropolitan area in the United States…well, contraction can’t be THAT bad of an idea.

I have lived in Minneapolis for four years but I have never gone to a Timberwolves game. The $10 ticket price is about $8.75 more than I think they are worth. But if I was a fan, I would be pretty upset about these technicals. At this point in the game, my 9-29 T-Wolves were only trailing the 31-6 Spurs by six in the second half. Just like that, the lead expands to eleven and the game is pretty much over. Minnesota did not get back within eight the rest of the way.

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You’d think this would be the part where I rip on the referee for getting a little out of control. That would be too easy.

The real problem is with the league. A new rule or a rule change/interpretation should be implemented for one of these four – and only these four – reasons:

1. A rule is ambiguous as written;

2. A team has an unfair advantage under the current rules;

3. There are safety concerns;

4. Modern technology becomes available to make certain calls easier.

That’s it. Sometimes these rules do not pan out. Changing the rules on helmet-to-helmet contact in the middle of the NFL season was silly. But at least it was understandable. In principle, nobody thinks that launching at somebody’s helmet with your own helmet is a good idea. The increased fines midseason was a poorly executed plan, but the idea behind it was reasonable.

The commonality between these four reasons is simple: they are all real problems for a sport. The new rules seek to solve the problems. #1, 2, and 4 go to the integrity of the game. #3 goes to safety. Most people would agree that integrity and safety are important issues – perhaps even the most important issues in sports.

You know what’s not a real problem? Whiny players that complain. Granted, in certain situations, players that complain could be a problem, but it is a made-up problem, not a real one. Of course these are sports and to a certain degree all of these problems are made up, but let me explain what I mean by a real vs. a made-up problem.

A real problem means that something is intrinsically wrong with your sport. A real problem is not sport-specific; it would affect any sport the same way. For example, “a lot of our players are dying of brain-related problems in their 40s, and pretty soon our sport might die out because no parent in their right mind will let their kid play.” Or “our fans are starting to really question our impartiality because we refuse to fix our umpire’s blatant mistakes with readily available technology.” Those are real problems.

A made-up problem is context-specific. It is only a problem because someone said it was a problem. As in, “grrr…it makes me so mad when that player shows emotion after an amazing touchdown run.” Or “how dare that man sigh to the referee when he is already overpaid by $8 million a year.” Those are only problems because someone with power decided that they were. Nothing about those problems are intrinsic to sports. If that were the case, European soccer would spontaneously cease to exist.

The NBA argued that the problem was equivalent to the umpire problem in baseball. According to the ESPN.com article, the senior vice president of referee operations said that audience research was a major factor in making these changes. I’m not buying it. First, who made up the audience in this research? Unless it was made up of 70-year old white dudes longing for the good ol’ days and angry columnists that are running out of story ideas, I’m not sure the audience is representative of NBA fans as a whole.

Second, even if the audience was mildly annoyed by the player complaints, I can’t imagine that giving the other team five free throws would be their answer to the problem. At least the 82 Timberwolf fans in the audience would agree. Unless the secret goal was to further turn off an already fragile fan base, I would say the crackdown failed miserably.

So was the referee power hungry? Absolutely. But I don’t blame him. I blame the out-of-touch NBA executives that empowered him to pull off such nonsense. That’s what happens when you use real solutions to solve made-up problems.*

* And yes, I will be republishing the same article next fall when the NCAA starts punishing after touchdown celebrations as live-ball fouls. I give it until Week 3 before the first game-changing touchdown gets called back in the closing seconds. Hell shall be raised.