Thursday, May 8, 2008

Pro-Sports Filler

Unless you are a potted plant in Tom Crean’s office, we’re in the quiet period on the college sports calendar. The major coaching vacancies have been filled, the early entry deadline has passed, and we are left to wait for some of the early entrants to remove their names from the draft list.

(By the way I’m thrilled as a college basketball fan that Tyler Hansbrough and Darren Collison are coming back next year. After Collison performed so poorly against Memphis, I’m glad to see him come back. And as much as I root against Hansbrough in the regular season, his intensity and energy are a perfect reflection of what college basketball is all about.)

No, instead we’ve come to the time of the year when I take a casual peak at the NBA. And despite numerous columns reporting how this is the greatest year of NBA basketball in recent memory, I’m just not seeing it. Other than a handful of great endings (West jumper, Butler lay-up, Duncan three pointer), the slate of games has been ridiculously predictable. Jason Kidd was slow just like everyone said. Shaq didn’t have enough left in the tank just like everyone said. Tracy McGrady lost again in the first round. And the teams seeded 1-4 won every single first round series. “The NBA, where predictability happens.”

But wait a minute, didn’t I praise the Final Four that included all 1 seeds? Yes, but that’s because the Final Four produced three great games where I had no idea who would win. The second round of the NBA playoffs has had no more drama than the first round. The second round has opened up with the better seeds taking a 2-0 advantage in every series and again there is little drama.

Sadly, it isn’t a new trend for the favored team to keep winning in these NBA playoff series. The NBA playoffs do a fabulous job of determining the best team at the expense of a potential Cinderella. As Charles Barkley has said numerous times, the best team might not win a five game series, but they’ll usually win a seven game series. While the NCAA tournament does a horrible job of picking the best team in the country (great teams can often lose one game), the NBA model often results in the favored teams eventually crushing all hope of an upset.

That’s all fine and good as long as there is some similarity in quality between the very best teams so there is some uncertainty about the best team. And at the start of the playoffs, we thought we had that. In fact, all 8 Western Conference teams looked legit, with 4-5 Eastern Conference teams looking pretty good too. But after a month of NBA playoff basketball, instead of looking forward to future potential match-ups, things have become all too clear: The Lakers are the best team in the NBA. After acquiring Gasol, they were the most dominant team in the regular season, and after crushing in 6 straight playoff games, it is hard to picture anyone from the East, or even the New Orleans / San Antonio winner slowing this team down. (Those brutal Boston – Cleveland games are particularly disheartening.)

So since the NBA has taken only 3 weeks to crush all my enthusiasm (Chris Paul and Dwight Howard notwithstanding), let’s move on to the NFL. I loved the shortened draft. It was almost watchable. Normally I sit around waiting, and waiting, and waiting for my team to pick. This year, with my Vikings trading out of the first round, I flipped it on as a casual viewer and I was still hooked. Nice job NFL.

The Vikings pre-draft trade for DE Jared Allen received mostly positive reviews, but I have a few comments on it.

1) The coaching staff must have a lot of faith in Tarvaris Jackson because Brad Childress has basically put himself in a position where he’s either going to win with Jackson or get fired.

2) I have no idea which of those two things will happen.

3) I feel a lot better about the trade after Jacksonville traded a virtually equivalent package of picks to draft rookie DE Derrick Harvey. Would you rather trade a bunch of picks for an untested rookie or for the NFL’s leading sack-getter in 2008? (OK, the Vikings also had to pay a lot more, but they had the cap room for it.)

4) I hear some minor criticism that Allen is often out of position against the run, and isn’t the most complete DE in the NFL. I still don’t care. Last year the Vikings were great against the run and opponents often abandoned the run for a highly successful, all-pass strategy. The issue was that no one on the Vikings could lay a hand on the QB and that teams could pass with impunity. Even if Jared Allen was so weak against the run that he could only play in obvious passing situations, he would still be a worthwhile acquisition because he fills such a glaring weakness for the team.

5) Dimitrius Underwood et al. One of a long line of failed DE’s drafted in the first round of the NFL by the Vikings. Hey, maybe Derrick Harvey will be a star, but you can only fail at drafting a DE so many times.