Ray Ratto

In the NBA, it takes a lot more than want-to and fresh faces to kill the king


In the NBA, it takes a lot more than want-to and fresh faces to kill the king

If Houston and Golden State do as expected and close out their second round playoff series at home Tuesday evening, we will have re-learned a valuable lesson we seem desperately to want to forget.

That in the NBA, it’s hard to be the king, but it’s exponentially more difficult to kill the king.

The NBA has always been aggressively monarchical that way – a steady stream of dynasties and dynast-ettes that only a few times have included as many as two teams simultaneously, usually the Lakers and Celtics.

But as we saw again Monday, even the players give in to the gravitational pull of the established order. The Philadelphia 76ers beat the Boston Celtics to stay hanging from the cliff’s edge, as young and precocious teams often do when faced with desperation, while the Toronto Raptors simply surrendered to the inevitable and mailed in the end of their sweep to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

And in the West, the much-raved-about Utah Jazz and New Orleans Pelicans are looking at a brief and pitiless end to their series against the Rockets and Warriors. We painted them as worthy counterpunchers and they have, with all due respect to their rises from potential nonentity-hood, not met the challenges of the second rung.

Not because their players lack heart or skill (although Toronto’s ventricles seem awfully clogged right now) or because their coaches have suddenly become stupid. Those are idiotic tropes pundits use when they need to kill a day burying the unworthy.

They lost or are about to lose in almost record time (assuming the Rockets and Warriors hold serve, only three quarterfinal series have produced fewer total games since the format changed to best-of-seven in 1967) because they came in as underdogs in a sport that elevates favorites.

Even the Warriors did not become the Warriors overnight. This is their sixth year as a playoff team since the day Andre Iguodala became the first free agent ever to say, “I’d like to play . . . THERE.” Mark Jackson changed the attitude and defensive focus after decades of “let’s play to 135,” then Steve Kerr changed the offense to allow them to do both, then they won, nearly won again, lured Kevin Durant, won again and are now in their fourth consecutive run with the best team.

Not the best player, or the best singular force. That remains LeBron James, who apparently has been promoted to extinct creature in his dismemberments of the much-hyped Raptors and Indiana Pacers.

But the Warriors have replaced the Spurs, who replaced the Heat, who replaced the Lakers, who replaced the Bulls, who replaced the Pistons, who replaced the Lakers and Celtics. And that takes you back to the start of the 1980s.

In short, the chalk is advancing, even if it doesn’t necessarily correspond to the seeds. Higher seeds are of course helpful but in the devalued regular season era being second or fourth isn’t the same as being the second or fourth-best team. Those who were born to the purple or seized it remain so for multiple years, and the road to the palace is strewn with the bodies of intriguing challengers who ultimately weren’t.

We should know that by now, but we get sucked into “The Process” and “Toronto’s time has finally come” and “Fifty Threes Shall Set Us Free,” and we keep getting sucked in because we don’t accept the history of the league which is simply this:

It takes a lot more than want-to and fresh faces to kill the king, because the king strikes back with better weapons.

The biggest problem with what Bill James said about baseball players


The biggest problem with what Bill James said about baseball players

Bill James, one of the founding fathers of baseball analytics, is not an idiot, despite what he said about Major League Baseball players being replaceable. Technically, after all, he is correct, because all baseball players except those current active have in fact been replaced.
But of course, that isn’t what he’s saying at all, and not what he said in a Twitter discussion. Here, indeed, is what he did say:
“If the players all retired tomorrow, we would replace them, the game would go on; in three years it would make no difference whatsoever. The players are NOT the game, any more than the beer vendors are.”
Now THIS is idiotic, and given that he is a consultant for the Boston Red Sox, who just won the World Series with 25 particularly gifted beer vendors, a source of great embarrassment to his employers (they pay for his consultation time, after all). It was at least embarrassing enough to him that he deleted it later, and has been doing the Twitter perp walk today to clarify, expand and, in some cases, limit his remarks.
In short, he replaced his remarks.
The Red Sox fled his first bit of typing immediately, of course, given that they have built a team they wish to maintain with people one of their contributing brains regarded, at least in one context, as “replaceable” by commingling them with anyone who can yell, “BEER!” repeatedly while walking up and down stairs.
And don’t get me wrong here. Beer vendors are fine and contributing members of society, and part of the entertainment that surrounds baseball. We hail them, their throats, and their arches.
But James dismissed them as replaceable, too, even though which is exactly the kind of logic one would expect to hear when collective bargaining negotiations begin, either with the Major League Baseball Players Association or with the concessions unions.
The problem, of course, is not that James said something silly/stupid, or that he retreated from it. That happens all the time.
It is that baseball is in a particularly fragile state culturally, and the idea that players are interchangeable is diametrically opposed to where the market of professional sports consumption is heading. 
In other words, baseball is not in a place to want to get smarmy about its product, even if the smarmer in question is “only a consultant” rather than an employee, a distinction the Red Sox took great care to make in its statement of repudiation of James’ analysis of players’ market value.
But even more than that, James’ gift to baseball is analytical, and measuring players and their deeds and making projections from those measurements is what made him worth hearing in a baseball context. All that work flies in the face of a statement that can and has been construed to lump them all into a congealed heap of disposableness.
Willie McCovey was by no means replaceable in any context, which is why the Giants held a memorial service for him before thousands at the ballpark Thursday. Mookie Betts is by no means replaceable because the city of Boston feted him and his teammates in a gigantic parade through its streets.
And baseball is popular entertainment, and entertainment is built on the basic notion that some people are exceptional at a thing other people wish to enjoy and perhaps even pay for the ability to see or hear. Those exceptional people may be replaceable in the biological sense, but not in any rational cultural sense.
Thus, James’ walk-back recognizes both the wasp hive he disturbed and the flaws in his expression. But the original words will linger far longer than his mea culpae, and will be referenced when the fun and games of collective bargaining negotiations begin. In short, he said something which ignored nuance and created an unintended and emotional backlash.
In short, not very analytical at all. 

Time for 49ers, Raiders fans to turn to Gandhi on Thursday Night Football

Time for 49ers, Raiders fans to turn to Gandhi on Thursday Night Football

OK, no more whining. You’re all done. We’re all done. Thursday night is coming, and unless you’re planning to leave the planet either physically or ethereally, there is no point going on about it all week.
The Oakland Raiders will play the San Francisco 49ers on Thursday night, and it will be horrific. Two of the three worst records in the NFL (2-13), the two worst records against the spread in the NFL or CFL, and all but three teams in college football, and two teams going nowhere at Warp 2 will face each other in what will NOT be for Bay Area bragging rights. Nobody is bragging about this, trust me.
That’s the set-up, kids. Nothing good comes out of this whatsoever, and not even the notion that the teams will never play each other again while sharing the same geographical area saves it. It is the very essence of athletic toxicity.
And now we’re done. These are the conditions that prevail, and since you well might be fans of either team (or both, if you’ve been raised poorly), your choice is clear.
You have to Gandhi the week, accept the scorn, and move on.
You have no arguments to “Your team sucks” to offer even each other, so why raise your blood pressure? You cannot even dog New York Giants fans; at least they have a tougher schedule and the inside track for the Justin Herbert sweepstakes, so why agitate yourself needlessly? You don’t even get the satisfaction of firing your coach like Cleveland did Monday morning after Cleveland fired its NBA coach on Sunday morning, thereby doubling its civic pleasure, so the road from Hell has not yet been graded, let alone paved.
Your game -- sorry, this game -- is the worst prime-time game BY STATISTICAL FACT after Halloween in the history of television, so just deal with it as Gandhi did -- with non-violent resistance in the form of enduring what you must now and gathering the strength in time to refuse what cannot be accepted.
And by “deal with it,” we mean agree with every taunt, every snide remark, every chunk of ill-intended smack. Nod knowingly and say, “Yep, you got me there, champ. My team sucks the concrete off the sidewalk, no question. You’re very smart to point that out to me. I wouldn’t have realized it without your generous help. Thank you.”
And then walk away. Sticks and stones might hurt you, but your only response can be abject agreement followed by tactical retreat. Verbal abuse needs something flammable to keep it lit, and whether you’ve moved to the other end of the bar, the other end of the street or the other end of the galaxy, they can’t hit what they can’t reach.
Plus, smack without response really is just bullying, and if your bullying needs someone else’s team allegiance as tinder, then your skill is not a quality skill. Anyone can punch down; the best punch up.
And you, who cannot punch at all, can only get through the week by accepting your fate: “Yes, your team is better. Yes, your team’s record is a direct result of your superior character. Yes, you are a genius by wearing the correct piece of laundry. I can only apologize for stealing air that rightfully belongs to you.”
And then absent yourself, silently plotting your revenge.
Now that last part isn’t what Gandhi would do. He did resist the injustices of colonial rule and repression over decades, but he knew in the end that he would get his back. And the Raiders and 49ers cannot be bad forever – that job is apparently reserved for the Browns.
That’s when you get yours back, and double. All you need is patience, and for your team to stop decomposing.
Oh, you Raiders fans might give in to the temptation of badmouthing the 49ers in the months you have left to bother before they leave for Las Vegas, but it won’t be a satisfying experience. Beating the 49ers when they’re good is better, because beating the mighty is always better than beating the equally lame.
And the same is true of 49ers fans. If your team has beaten the Raiders, what exactly are you winning? A slightly lower draft choice? Hardly seems worth it.
So, as you are inundated this week by the well-earned negativity your teams have presented you, escape quietly to a more peaceful place. Watch the game if you must, pass on it if you can, and spend your time in more fruitful pursuits.
Say, alphabetizing your children’s candy and take out the good stuff when they’re not looking. Sure, it’s punching down, but when the reward is a Three Musketeers that you didn’t work for -- well, every bit of sound advice comes with an asterisk.