2017 NBA Draft Preview

Five years ago, I wrote my first ever NBA draft preview. Rather than a grading system, I divided the potential draftees into two groups, Bigs and Littles, and tried my best to come up with adequate comparisons. Rtaher than predicting the order they would be selected in, I just ranked them.
Among the ones I got right..
Anthony Davis.  “Lock to be the number one pick.  And with good reason.  He’s as close to Kevin Garnett as we are going to see for a while.  He’s a tall, athletic, aggressive defender.  In addition, he has shown pretty nice touch on an outside shot.”
Andre Drummond “ I’m not ready to compare Drummond to Dwight, but I can definitely see his career arc mirroring that of 
Tyson Chandler.”
Terrence Ross.  “Could be like Ron Harper.  And either Ron Harper.  Meaning, he might be high-flying, high scoring Cavs/Clips Ron Harper, or defensive stalwart Chicago Bulls Ron Harper.  But he won’t be both.  At least not at the same time.  You know, like Ron Harper.”

 Austin Rivers.   “Rivers has a lightening fast first step.  He can knock down game winners without his pulse raising a beat.  He thinks he’s Kobe Bryant.  And that’s his biggest problem.  Because what he really is, is a cocky, undersized shooting guard that is praying some team with a lottery pick tricks themselves into thinking he will ever be able to play the point.  Sounds to me like another guy who should have stayed in school a few more years to develop his game, Jamal Crawford.  The bad news for him? He will never be a two time Finals MVP.  The good news? He might win a 6th man award.”

and there were ones I got wrong…
Kendall Marshall.  (ranked ahead of Brad Beal.. ouch) “He’s slow.  He doesn’t have a great jumper.  He might be a liability on defense.  But Roy Williams calls him the best passer he’s ever coached.  I like Marshall because he is somewhat of a throwback.  And the guy he reminds me of is one of the most under rated point guards to ever play in the NBA.  Like Mark Jackson, I expect Marshall to be on the winning end of games more often than he is on the losing end.”
Andrew Nicholson. “I really hate to say this, but the closest guy I can compare him to is 
Paul Pierce.  Seeing as Paul Pierce might end up in the Hall of Fame, I will settle on referring to Nicholson as a poor man’s Pierce.  Andrew, please don’t make me feel like an idiot for that statement.”

Then there were ones that make me want to stop writing anything. Forever.
Royce White.  “I might be being a bit optimistic here, but I think this player out of  Iowa State might end up being Ron Artest, only without the crazy.”

oops.

And yet, I am so excited about this incoming crop of talent, that I am going to once again, attempt to preview the NBA draft. Rather than dividing the group into Bigs and Littles, I have decided to just rank my top 20 and go through their comparisons.

1. Markell Fultz– He’s a guy that can shoot from all over the floor. Can play bigger than his size. Is in the top 95 percentile of athletes, but not an OH MY GOD Giannis or LeBron or RW type athlete. He can run an offense or make his own offense. When I watch him, he reminds me a bit of Dwayne Wade. But he isn’t quit as explosive. His versatility reminds me somewhat of James Harden, but he is not quite as smooth. I really had to wrack my brain to come up with the proper comparison, but take a look at this line, and tell me you it doesn’t seem like the type of production we are expecting out of Fultz..
20.1 PPG,
8.1 APG
4.4 RPG
42/32/73% splits
Those are Baron Davis‘ stats while he was on the Golden State Warriors. Now, I imagine Fultz is going to be maybe 5-8% better on his shooting percentages, meaning he might score a few more points per game, and be a tad more efficient. But in terms of overall impact on the game, I expect Fultz to be the type of player that can carry a team for a series, and be just as effective on and off the ball, and for periods of time, be the best player on the court, even in elite company.

2. Lonzo Ball– Ball is incredibly difficult to compare to anyone.. Guys that have his passing ability just don’t shoot the ball as well as he does. Guys that are as efficient at shooting either lack the size or playmaking ability of Ball. This leads people to crazy talk, comparing him to hall of famers like Magic Johnson (not a chance.. sorry Lonzo), Jason Kidd (uhm.. not even close to the same type of player- Kidd was stronger, quicker, and smarter but also couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn with his jumper for the first ten years of his career) or Penny Hardaway ( if we’re talking pre injury Penny, we are insulting Hardaway’s athleticism, and if we are talking post injury Penny, we are just plain insulting Lonzo). In reality, I think Lonzo is going to be very similar to a player that many are comparing to Fultz, James Harden. Like Harden, his physical tools don’t exactly jump off the screen when you watch him. However, like Harden, he seems to get to where he wants to go most of the time. Also, much like Harden, he is a selfless player. He gets his assists within the flow of the offense, rather than forcing zippy passes like Lebron or Westbrook. He is somewhat enigmatic like the Beard, as he will dazzle you with statistical gems one night, only to disappear at the most inopportune moments the next night. Either way, his skill set might translate to today’s NBA more than any other player in this draft.

3. Josh Jackson– More than any other guy in this draft, Jackson LOOKS like a modern NBA player. He has ideal size and incredible athleticism. The incredible thing about Josh, is that on top of his natural gifts, he goes all out almost the entire game. He can switch onto multiple positions on the defensive end, and when his shot is falling, he can kill in multiple ways on the offensive end. He has been compared to his fellow Kansas Jayhawk Andrew Wiggins, but unlike Wiggins, Josh Jackson is an above average passer for his position. Its a pretty straight forward comparison actually. I think he will be pretty close to Paul George. He may not be able to carry the offensive burden as well as George, and he may never be as good at defense as George can be. But on the bright side, he seems like a pretty hard worker, that isn’t going to screw his team out of any trade leverage by publicly stating he is opting out of his contract an entire year before he has to. So, at least the team that drafts him has that going for them.

4. Jayson Tatum– I really, really wanted to put Deaaron Fox here. But, after watching some extra tape on Tatum, I just can’t put him any lower than 4. And really, maybe I watched too much tape on him, because now I’m starting to wonder if this guy shouldn’t be going number 1. His offensive game is THAT good. I had originally likened him to Shareef Abdur Rahim. Someone with a few clever moves and enough size to be a solid rebounder. And hey, if you can be as good as Rahim, that is in and of itself an acheivement. After all, Abdur rahim is often overlooked, but in his first seven seasons, he averaged 21/8/3 on 46/30/80 splits, numbers 90% of NBA players can only dream about. He was named rookie of the year. Im sure Tatum would be thrilled if you told him that was his destiny. But the truth is, I think he is destined for more. He can straight up put the ball in the hoop. And the ease in which he does so makes me think of one player and one player only- I think he can be the next Carmelo Anthony. The Carmelo Anthony that existed before the NBA nightmare that is the New York Knicks crushed his basketball soul. Tatum is the only player in this draft that has any chance of one day leading the league in scoring.

5. Deaaron Fox– In February, I said Fox would probably turn out to be like Jeff Teague. A guy that could get you 16 and 6, make a couple all star teams, be a solid contributor on a good team, but that he wasn’t really all that special. Then the NCAA tournament happened, and all of a sudden, this guy that had been overshadowed by the scoring feats of Malik Monk through the regular season, showed up, and turned into a vicious, non stop ball of havoc. The last time I felt that way watching a college guard was when Kyle Lowry was the sophmore prowling the perimeter at Villinova. I’ve heard people compare him to John Wall, but I think that is a combination of recency bias paired with Kentucky association. Make no mistake, he is extremely fast, and very long. But he is not even close to the playmaker John Wall is. And as athletic as Fox is, John Wall is just a notch above him when it comes to speed and hops. John Wall is probably one of the best 3 pgs in the NBA and one of the best 5 players in his conference. Fox will never get there, But he will be a guy that other teams fear. One thing I think he might do better than Wall, is play through contact when driving the lane. Depending on the situation he lands in, he might make a few All Star teams, and he is definitely good enough to be the starting pg on a championship team. I had to fire up the delorean and go waaaaay back to find a good comparison, but I believe I found a pair in Rod Strickland   and Kevin Johnson.  Strickland dealt with a ton of injury issues, and it seemed like he was playing for a different franchise every year, but when he was healthy, and allowed to lead a team, he could make your jaw drop with the way he could outplay supposedly superior guards, much like Fox will be able to do. (ahem.. lonzo ball). Deaaron Fox is our chance to see how good Strickland could have become had he not dealt with nagging injuries his whole career. Kevin Johnson,  also dealt with injuries, but certainly proved he could run a championship caliber team when healthy.  Fox’s athletic ceiling might be a little closer to Johnson, but he has the playmaking ability of Strickland.


6. Dennis Smith– Go watch Steve Francis highlights. Dennis Smith might be a defensive liability. He might lose focus for stretches of games. He may not always make the extra pass. But the guy is going to put grown men on posters. Earlier, I wrote Tatum might be the only guy from this draft class that could lead the league in scoring. And I still think that is true. But Dennis Smith is going to lead this draft class in highlights, and when they have all retired, I would not bet against Smith having the highest single game point total out of everyone picked in 2017, except for maybe….

7. Malik Monk– The guy is a living heat check. He has 26 foot range, and a beautiful shooting stroke. On top of that, he is very athletic, has ideal size and length, and can play some pretty good defense when necessary. In many other years, he’d be a top 5 selection without question. But, because of the depth of this draft, he may be the most likely to fall further than he should, much like the player he reminds me did back in 2011. The 2011 draft had quite a few steals. Jimmy Butler went 30th. Kawhi Leonard went 15th. Isiah Thomas went 60th(!). And Klay Thompson went 11. But, stuff like that happens when you are just seen as an NBA talent at a school like San Diego State or WSU, that make little noise in the tournament, and don’t exactly scream Basketball powerhouse. But it shouldn’t happen when you are the best player on a national champion Connecticut team, as happened to Kemba Walker. Like Walker, I expect Monk to just continually improve, adjsusting to the size and speed of the NBA game, until one day, you are playing fantasy basketball, and see his name on the first page of overall rank, and you wonder, how the hell is this guy averaging 23/5/4 on 44/40/85 splits? And you will kick yourself for taking Deaaron Fox ahead of him, as he kills you with nights where he shoots 4/19 with no threes.

8. Frank Ntilikina– If I’m being 100% honest, everything I know about this guy came from watching his draft express Strengths video. I didnt even bother watching his weakness video. Because immediately, this guy made me think of Shaun Livingston before he got hurt. And kids, before Livingston got hurt, he was a BADASS.

9. Jonathan Isaac– Isaac, as you have no doubt read over and over again, is the highest risk/reward player in the draft. He has the sort of frame and athletic ability every NBA scout drools over. An almost 7 footer with long arms and great hops. He actually flashed a decent jump shot at FSU, but he was really at his best when going to the rim, either taking advantage of a slower big off the dribble, or by making smart cuts to the basket. On the defensive end, he is very similar to Nerlens Noel, but with less instinctive ability to be in the right place in the right time. He’ll be able to carry your offense for brief stretches, and he is going to be a very helpful defender. He is one of the most difficult guys to compare, mostly because of his height. But if you ignore the fact he is almost seven feet tall, and focus more on the way he will be able to contribute, I’d liken him to Shawn Marion.


10. John Collins– If it were any other era of basketball, John Collins would be a top 5 draft pick. But, in an era where perimter players and small ball dominate, Collins appears to be overlooked. All he did was average 20 and 10 in the ACC as a sophmore. He hustles down the floor, and does so with speed. He isnt afraid of contact. He has a well developed post game. He doesnt have the outside shot that is becoming a requirement of big men, but he can still generate offense. When I watch him play, his combination of height, quickness, and skill reminds me of Jermaine O’Neal, who’s career started off a little slow, but eventually became a six time all star and 3 time all NBA player.


11. Jordan Bell– Yeah, I have him about 20 spots higher than anyone else in America. I don’t care. In a league that craves bigs that can cover the entire floor, Jordan Bell should have GMs salivating. You can find TJ Leafs all day for the veteran minimum. You cannot find Jordan Bells. As for a comparison, lets see, can anyone think of a 6’9” high motor guy that had insane shot blocking skills that could pull down rebounds and chase guards and battle with centers? In January, I could not tell you who Jordan Bell was. But after watching him go beast mode on Michigan, Kansas, and UNC I can tell you exactly who he is. He is Ben Wallace. He’s going to go in the second round, and in five years, he is going to get a max contract while Tyler Lydon hopes to catch on as a 10
th man somewhere. Lets just hope his coaches in the NBA teach him to box out on free throws.

12. Lauri Markkanen– I’m not a big fan of tall guys that are known for shooting 3s. Back in 2012, I didn’t like Meyers Leonard, and my non belief in him has been borne out. However, when I started looking at the numbers, it dawned on me that Lauri is not just another Kelly Olynyck. He is not just a good shooter for a big man. His is a good shooter, and he is big, man. Almost more impressive than the numbers he puts up, is the way in which he puts up his shot. It is F-A-S-T and is released from a basically unblockable height. Now, I have seen him compared to Dirk. Nope. Dirk has a post up game that this guy may never even be allowed to develop, considering it just isn’t done anymore. I have seen him compared to Porzingas. Nope. Kristaps can protect the rim. This guy is going to get abused on defense. Considering how much smaller he plays than his size, the closest comparison I can think of is the 6’8” Mike Miller.

13. Justin Jackson– In the NBA, there will always be a job for a guy that can play minutes without getting his team killed. A place holder to give a starter a blow for a few minutes that has the potential to knock down a few shots and play committed defense. Every once in a while, you hope they can catch a little bit of fire, and you might leave them in for extended minutes. On a bad team, they will look like a decent starter, and on a good team they will be helpful bench players. But, Jackson also seems to be a leader, and even though he may never be one of the best 4 players on his team, he will always be a welcome face in the clubhouse. Essentially, he is going to be Jared Dudley. That really is the destiny of Justin Jackson.

14. Derrick White– I like guys that are crafty. Guys that make up for a lack of athleticism with a little bit of panache to their game. Derrick White isn’t going to wow you with killer speed or with unstoppable 27 foot range. He is never going to be the solution at pg for a championship level team, but he could very well run the point for a playoff contender, or come off the bench and give quality minutes to a very good team. My first thought was George Hill, but I don’t think White will ever be the defender Hill can be. However, I do think White has the potential to do the same sort of things Jarret Jack can do.

15. Caleb Swanigan– As of right now, Caleb Swanigan is projected to go in the late first/early second round. And it baffles me. He is 6’10, but has a 7’3” (!!!) wingspan. He led the Big Ten in rebounding and the nation in double doubles. He can play inside and out (44.7% from 3). He may be a little underwhelming when it comes to his vertical, but he punishes people under the rim. He’s a bit of a throwback player. And so the comparison I’m going to give him is a throwback player. When I think of a big guy that can grab boards, and get buckets even though he may appear slow, I think of one guy, Big Smooth himself, Sam Perkins. Perkins never made an all star team, but he was a valuable contributor on 3 finals teams. I believe Swanigan can fill the same type of role, by doing the same types of things.

16. Sindarious Thornwell– Much like Swanigan, Thornwell is higher on my list than most because I actually saw him produce at a high level in college. I know that NBA scouts are paid to see past the college stats, and project what a player might become, but at some point, I think it is better just to simplify the evaluation process and ask, “How does this guy look compared to the people that are on the floor with him in real life?” and if you are asking that question, no one faired better than Sindarious Thornwell. He was the best individual player in the tournament. Like most players that are that good in college but are being projected this low, he lacks the desired athleticsim. But he reminds me of a guy who year after year, teams are going to try to deal for for their playoff push so they can have a tough defender that can stretch the floor on offense. He’s never going to take an NBA defender to the hole off the bounce, but Sindarious Thornwell can definitely be PJ Tucker.

17. Jarrett Allen– Allen is pretty much the opposite of the last two guys mentioned. He is ALL potential. He is a true 7 footer with a 7’6” wingspan. He can jump out of the gym. And yet, he merely averaged 6 boards and 1.5 blocks per game. As of right now, he is projected to go right about here, which would be the Bulls pick. Which is a little convenient for my comparison, as he reminds me of Joakim Noah. It is easy to forget after Noah’s back to back championships and Most Outstanding player fo the Final four award, that , as a freshman, he barely got any playing time at all. In fact, Allen’s freshmen numbers from UT compare favorably to Noah’s sophmore numbers at UF. If his motor is even half of the one that drove Joakim, Allen has the potential to be a prototype rim defender and roll man that is becoming a necessity in the NBA.

18. Frank Mason– Lets face it. This guy is going to get drafted by the spurs. And he is going to become a better version of Patty Mills. And then in 4 years, the Pelicans are going to overpay him to become their starter. He will outplay the rookies that teams keep drafting to replace him, like DJ Augustin. But he will despite his long career and consistent efficient play, he will be remembered like Travis Best, Steve Blake or Kirk Heinrich, the perceived weak link on underachieving teams.

19. Josh Hart– The definition of a servicable player. He’s not going to be great at anything, but he will be slightly above average at everything. The way he plays under control he reminds me a lot of Brandon Roy, but Roy had an incredible first step that Hart lacks. He is likely going to be turned into a 3 and D guy that can sometimes initiate the offense. And the closest comparison I can think of is Evan Turner. Which luckily for him, means at some point a team is going to feel way to confident in his ability to lead a team and overpay him by a lot of money.

20. Dwayne Bacon– As an FSU grad and fan, no player was more thrilling and at the same time more frustrating than Dwayne Bacon this year. He would have stretches where it was clear the other team could not guard him, but before he could take the game over, he would inexplicably stop getting the ball. I’m not sure if it was poor strategy by the coaches or if it was just him being passive. Either way, his lack of involvement in key moments reflected poorly upon him. Which is a shame, because he is physically gifted enough to compete at the NBA level, and skilled enough to thrive in a complimentary role. In any case, though he will never be a star, I can see him having a similar career as Aaron Afflalo. And if Aaron Afflalo, a guy who has averaged 29 minutes a game over a 10 year career, is the 20th best player in a draft, its a pretty good draft.

In five years, I fully expect to look back in shame at all the mistakes I made here. But at least there is no way I can make a prediction any worse than the one I made about Royce White.

 

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How Athletes are Labeled

Black vs White sports juxtposition Hansborough and Sheed Lambeer and Artest Lane and Raheem Namath and Deion Peyton and Dez Reggies and Johny Riggins and Ocho CInco Romanowski and Merriman Wisniewski and Suh

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Joey Crawford calls them like he sees them.

Joey Crawford calls them like he sees them.

In his spare time, Joey offered his skills to the NFL during the NFL Officials lockout.

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Losing Objectivity

The following is an actual conversation that occurred during the Sunday Night football game.

Who is knee?”

“Pardon?”

Which team is knee?”

“What are you talking about?”

Which team is knee.  En, Ee?”

“You mean New England?”

I guess.  And who is ball?”

“You mean Baltimore?  They are the purple team.”

Oh, ok, well who is Brady on?”

As you can tell, she is not a very big football fan.  But, why would she?  She didn’t grow up in a country that has football, let alone a household that embraced it.   She was never brain washed. So, it is a constant challenge of mine to justify to her why I regard it as my favorite form of entertainment.  As we sit watching a game, she comes up with these absurd questions and remarks.  Sometimes they are legitimate observations.  But many times, I think she is just trying to annoy me to get back at me for not taking her out to brunch.

“Hey, lets freak out the Europeans by having this huddle. Matt, how’s the wife and kids.”

They just stand around the whole time in a big circle.”

Ah, the huddle.  A most perplexing spectacle to the foreign eye.

Why can’t the running back get sacked?”

Nothing like questioning the terminology of a game to try to make it seem more confusing than it is.

Why do they have to wear those helmets?  Rugby players must be tougher than them.”

Very true.  In fact, the ferocity of rugby players is in high demand in the NFL.  That’s why the NFL makes them punters.

If it is so entertaining, why is football only in America?”

I don’t know.  Why do the English chase a block of cheese down a hill?

I have to answer questions like this the entire time we watch a game together.   And worse, I have to explain to her why I find Gymnastics and figure skating (sports that she enjoys) so terrible.

And the argument always comes down to the subjectivity of the outcome.

“No one judges you in football!” I tell her, “It comes down to how many points you have scored against your opponent.  There isn’t some judge with repressed memories from a childhood vacation in Holland that will make her score anyone that’s Dutch a point lower than the rest of the skaters. Football is objective.”

So,” she’ll ask, “Why do you say the Giants got lucky in the two Superbowls against the Patriots?  What you’re saying is that in football, the better team always wins.”

“You’re right, “ I’ll say, “But at least the outcome was decided by the players, and not some judging committee hiding out in some dark room in the back of the stadium, that said the Giants looked like the better football players.”

Baseball has umps that make bad calls.  Tennis has line judges that can’t track a ball.  Basketball has refs that take bribes.  But in football, a team loses because of a player’s shortcomings, or the coach’s poor decision making.

So as I watched the game winning field goal sail over the top of the right field goal post, I knew the game was going to come down to the subjective decision of a bunch of overwhelmed officials who had made several questionable calls over the course of the game.  And my argument that the beauty of football lay in its unquestionable objectivity was going to crumble like an Oreo dunked in milk for too long.

During the Sunday night half time show, former safety Rodney Harrison was asked how the inconsistent officiating would effect him as a player.

Harrison:  You just block it out.  You don’t worry about it because its something you can’t control.

Sorry Rodney, you are mistaken.  The players have the most power in controlling who gets to be an official in an NFL game.  I don’t care whether they take the immature route of starting fights that the refs can’t control, or if they take the high road by threatening to sit out the first quarter of a game on behalf of their own safety.  Either way, the players have all the power in the world to make sure this year’s champion doesn’t get stuck with an asterisk*.

*Super Bowl played with replacement officials.

But the players will instead choose to put the onus on the league, and the fans that continue to watch.  In truth, all sports are subjective, but until this year, pro football had me convinced that it was the one sport that was more equal than others.

I guess on the bright side, I have always enjoyed mimosas and French toast.

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The Boogieman Comes to Tallahassee

Every year, Florida State’s football team plays Miami, and the University of Florida.  Those two teams are often just as talented, if not more so than the Seminoles.  An outsider would think that these would be the games that keep the Seminole Nation awake on Friday nights, nightmares of McGahee and Tebow causing Noles fans to toss and turn in their sleep.  But ask any Noles fan who the boogieman really is, and the answer would be Clemson.

You see, losing to a team that is more talented is upsetting, but not disturbing.  It can be frustrating to see Percy Harvin break free on a reverse, and it can be maddening to witness Andre Johnson repeatedly make your secondary look like the special needs kids getting stiff armed by Matt Dillon in “Something About Mary.” It is never fun to watch your championship hopes go down the drain as Najeh Davenport and Clinton Portis drown you in a flood of NFL caliber talent. You never want to see a guy like Maurkice Pouncey control your defensive line, let alone see his twin brother Mike simultaneously duplicating his dominance. But you take a little solace in knowing these guys will be embarrassing defenders in the NFL next year.  We Florida State fans loved Geno Hayes and Tommy Polly, but if you asked us whether they were better players than Jonathan Vilma or Brandon Spikes and hooked us up to a lie detector, the needle would be skipping like the Dark Side of the Moon record you bought at a garage sale for 50 cents.

It is hard to be too disappointed when you knew the odds were stacked against you from the beginning.  It is much more difficult to deal with the notion that you lost to an inferior opponent. When you lose to a team that started the season unranked, and fields two guys that are worthy of playing at the next level, calamity ensues.

The Noles have had their fair share of blown opportunities.  The Philip Rivers Wolfpack comes to mind.  I can still remember screaming at my T.V. as some unknown miniscule receiver from Louisville named Deion Branch tore us up on a rain drenched field in Kentucky on a Thursday night.  But those losses could be written off as flukes, one hit wonders on the Billboard Upset Charts. But when it happens over and over, you begin to think curses are real, and that the Devil himself created the Clemson Tigers, just to keep FSU out of the National championship race.

What started as a cute, media driven rivalry known as the Bowden Bowl, pitting Father versus Son in 1998, transformed into a full-fledged game of consequence in FSU’s decade of darkness.  Since 2003, Clemson has beaten Florida State six times.  FSU has won three times in that same span.

This passed weekend, USC was upended again by Stanford.  When I saw the score on Sports Center, the first thing that came to mind was my alma mater’s similar inability to beat Clemson.  I got a queasy feeling in my stomach, knowing that once again, FSU is in position to get back to the BCS championship game, and once again, the Clemson Tigers are standing in the way.

Once again, the boogieman comes to Tallahassee.

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Waiting on A Rival

In 2002, the Buccaneers won the Super Bowl.  The team had all the characters you could ask for.  Derrick Brooks and Warrick Dunn were the definition of hometown boys done good.  Warren Sapp and Keyshawn Johnson were the arrogant sound bite machines that backed up their brash words with their dominant play.   John Lynch was the prototypical punisher in the defensive backfield, and battering ram Mike Alstott was his counterpart on offense.   This was the sort of team that owners depend on to build fan bases for the long haul.  And yet, as I mentioned in yesterday’s column, just a decade later, the Glazer family can’t even get enough people in the stands to broadcast the game to the local market.

Watching football in Tampa has always been a little weird.  Even before the blackouts began in 2010 when the fair weather fans started to abandon Raymond James Stadium, Bucs football has always lacked something most franchise take for granted.  The Bucs have never had a true rival.

I can hear Bucs fans disputing that fact as I type this.

“You’re wrong.  We’ve always had a strong rivalry with Atlanta…”

Look, just naming teams in your division and does not mean you have actual rivalries with those teams.   Ask a Redskins fan who they want to beat the most, and 9 times out of 10, the answer will be the Cowboys, and the other time will almost certainly be the Giants or the Eagles.  They might not even remember that the Cardinals were ever in their division.  In 1993, Marcus Allen went to Kansas City out of sheer spite, just because he knew it would piss off Al Davis more than had he gone to any other team.  That’s a rivalry.  When Warrick Dunn relocated to Atlanta, Bucs fans just wished him well and were glad they’d get to cheer for him once a year.

“Well, when Dungy was here, we started a pretty good rivalry with the Eagles.”

Just as randomly naming teams in your division does not create a rivalry, neither does naming the team that used to own you in the playoffs.  The legitimacy of some mythical rivalry with the Eagles can be summed up in a short anecdote.  When I was visiting my brother at Villanova in 2008, I struck up a conversation with a middle aged guy wearing a Flyers hat.   We got talking about football, so I took the opportunity to ask him what he thought of the Bucs.  He got this confused look on his face.  His bushy eyebrows furrowed, and he wiped the foam away from his beer stained beard.

“I don’t know.  I don’t watch much baseball. Why? Are the pirates doing good this year?”

It is hard to claim a team as a rival when their fan base does not even acknowledge your existence.

And that’s the biggest hurdle facing the Bucs ownership as they try to get fans to pony up for $50 tickets for a middle-of-the-road team. Some people blame it on the fact we have great weather, and people would rather spend their Sundays in their pool, or at the beach. Some blame it on the severe impact of the real estate collapse in the Tampa economy.  And some people are honest enough to claim that the team just isn’t worth watching.

I’m not buying it.  You see, even the Browns can count on a sellout when the Steelers come to town.

Look, its not as if Florida isn’t a football crazed state.  Take a gander at your NFL team’s roster, and chances are a good third of the players listed grew up in the Sunshine State.  So, it is not a lack of interest that fails the Bucs.  I blame it on poor timing.

The NFL decided to give Tampa a franchise in 1976.  By late 1977, the Bucs were 0-26.  Though they eventually managed to win a game, things did not improve by much for the next 20 years.  The Buccaneers were the perennial doormats of the NFC Central.  Growing up in Chicago, I took relief in the fact that no matter how bad the Bears got, at least we got to play Tampa twice a year.  The Bucs were so far from even competing, that it was impossible to consider them a rival.

Tony Dungy took over in 1996.  Soon thereafter, the team climbed into the ranks of respectability.  The creamsicle colored gay pirate was replaced by a pewter imitation of a Raiders helmet.  By 2001, the Bucs had finally become a force to be reckoned with.

Then came the realignment, and the formation of the NFC South.

Here, they had waited a quarter of a century to claim vengeance on the Vikings, Bears, Packers, and even the Lions, who had taken turns body slamming Tampa to the bottom of the NFC Central, and now they had to take out their pent up aggression on… the Saints? The division was a hodgepodge of middling franchises.  The Panthers were an expansion team whose shininess had just worn off.  The Saints had yet to endear themselves to America.  And the dirty bird Falcons had fallen so far that they held the number one pick in the draft. (I know, they traded it up for it, but still, they only moved up from number 5).

When the Bucs won the Super Bowl that year, there was no doubt they had won the respect of the league.  This was a team that the rest of the NFL was going to have to fear for the near future.

But league wide dominance is fleeting.  There can only be one champion each year.  It’s the intensity of rivalry games that serve as oasis of life in the deserts of mediocrity. Even when the Bills are struggling, everyone shows up to Ralph Wilson Stadium to root against Miami.   Buffalo fans come out in part to watch their Bills win, but mostly to watch the Dolphins lose.  And that is the secret lifeblood of any NFL franchise.  The Yin and Yang of fanship.

But who is Tampa’s “Miami”?  Which team is the Yin to their Yang?

The Bucs will never fill the empty half of their stadium, until they find the other half of themselves.

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Something Missing

This weekend, my brother and I met up at a local dive bar to witness the unveiling of Jay Cutler to Brandon Marshall.  I got to the bar at about 12:45, fifteen minutes before game time.

As usual, the Bills fans were tucked away in a back corner already finishing up their sixth basket of wings.   The Jets fans behind them were taking bets on which quarter Tebow would take over at QB.  The Eagles fans were acting as if they had already won the Super Bowl, and complementing one another on how cool their Randall Cunningham throwback jerseys were.  The Browns fans sitting next to them were doing their best impressions of sommeliers, deciding what beer goes well with losing.  The lone Saints fan sat amidst a sea of Burgundy and Gold, as the Redskins fans tried to convince anyone within earshot that RGIII should have gone number one in the draft, but they were glad he fell to them.  A guy in a Cam Newton jersey agreed, and pulled up a bar stool next to them, championing the necessity of a mobile quarterback in today’s game.  A couple of Vikings fans had a T.V. to themselves, and had evidently spent the offseason becoming experts on knee surgery, as they discussed the possibility of Adrian Peterson returning to form in just nine months.  A guy in a Tony Boselli jersey was using his iPhone to find out who was behind Blaine Gabbert on the depth chart.  There were two guys in Michigan hats with iPads, bragging about how they got Stafford and Calvin Johnson in their fantasy leagues.  The girl sitting next to them in a Kurt Warner Rams jersey was not impressed.   An obnoxious guy wearing a Cortland Finnegan jersey was trying to determine which guy on the Titans was the biggest trash talker, so he could correctly select the next Tennessee jersey he would order from the NFL.com store.  The “cute girls in Tom Brady jerseys” quota was fulfilled, albeit not until the middle of the second quarter, when they marked their arrival by asking, “How much are we winning by?”  A Chiefs fan wandered around aimlessly, looking for a friend that was almost certainly at another bar.  An Atlanta fan followed him around, believing that the Derrick Thomas jersey would eventually lead him to the T.V. showing the Falcons game.  A Colts fan sitting near us was still trying to talk himself into believing that giving up Manning to develop Andrew Luck was a good decision for the long term.

While all the hues of the NFL rainbow seemed to be represented, one particular set of colors was conspicuously absent, and as a result, the bar felt a bit empty.  There was not one person wearing pewter and red.  Not one person in a Bucs jersey.  How could this be?

Oh yeah, that’s right.  My brother and I live in Tampa.  Around here, you can’t watch the Bucs game on T.V.

 

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