Monday, July 14, 2014

Houston Rockets: Dreams of Hope and Glory come crashing down.

As the Rockets emerge from their horrible, no-good, disaster of a start to the free agent season it's tempting to say while the team has regressed there are still some options for the team to improve but doing so requires taking the secretarial path and ignoring the fact that Morey has taken the team down this road before.

In fact, it's probable that what we're seeing now are the inevitable results of having a General Manager who cannot quit tinkering with the team despite himself. There was a school of thought that suggested the Rockets could move Lin and Asik, wait on the Parsons decision and spend the off-season shoring up the point and the bench. This would have been the prudent pathway, and would have improved the team, but it wouldn't go very far in the way of scratching Morey's seemingly unreachable itch for big FA signings.

So, for now, the Rockets are re-visiting a previous mistake (Ariza), admitting they made a mistake on two previous "big splash" FA signings (Lin, Asik) and are left scratching their heads as Mark Cuban and the Dallas Mavericks pulled a Daryl Morey on Daryl Morey.  Hardly something befitting Morey's media-generated reputation as the "smartest guy in the room".

In their current iteration, the Rockets appear to have regressed. Where last year they finished the season as a four-seed (who flamed out in the first round of the playoffs) this season, with this roster, they appear to be headed toward a sixth-or-seventh (or even eighth) seed and another first round playoff dismissal. At least, for now, the East seems to have benefitted the most from the movement of off-season talent while the West figures to have stayed mostly pat.

One thing that has not received a lot of run among the so-called "smart-set" in the Houston media is whether or not Houston is setting itself up for return of the Dwight-mare.  Given that Lin, Parsons and Dwight were tight and that Morey has destroyed that core by first dissing Lin and then letting Parsons walk raises the real potential that Howard could once again decide that he's not happy in his current situation and move to get out.

It doesn't seem, a this point, that Howard is all that thrilled to be sharing the court with James "Sixth Man" Harden and I can't see him being happy with an off-season that's currently the equivalent of trading Asik, Lin, Parsons and a 2nd round pick for Ariza.  Even if the Rockets can trade for Rondo, is he really all that much of an upgrade over Patrick Beverley given this team, and this line-up? As an individual talent yes, but in McHale's scheme I don't think Rondo move the needle all that much, possibly lifting the Rockets to a potential fifth or sixth seed at best.

More concerning is the fact that the laundry list of Morey failures is getting long. From Lin to Asik to Bosh (twice) to Anthony to (amazingly) LeBron to Parsons to Ariza (again?) to Royce White to a host of draft picks and free agents that seem overvalued by Morey and undervalued by everyone else the Rockets appear to be a ship that's listing along minus the engine of discipline.

There's no doubt that Morey is a smart man and that he can, at times, come out the best in a deal against another General Manager. However, there is significant doubt as to whether or not this same man has the discipline and long-term planning that's required to build a championship team.

Monday, July 7, 2014

The NBA Rumor Mill: The only certainty is that nobody knows.

And so it has started, breathless reports that LeBron James could be taking his talents back to Cleveland have started the annual NBA silly-season with a bang. Of course, King James hasn't met with the Heat yet nor has their been any word as to what the man himself is thinking so take all of this with a grain of salt.

Also comes word that the Rockets, having lost out on Kyle Lowry, seemingly out of the LeBron sweepstakes and having nothing the Timberwolves want in return for Kevin Love are recreating the embarrassing courtship of Chris Bosh that is eerily similar to their spectacle of 4 years prior. This after rolling out the red carpet for Carmelo Anthony and..... by all accounts getting soundly rebuffed.

Despite some well deserved praise of Rocket's General Manager Daryl Morey, the fact remains he's too much a gambler and tends to chase the brass ring despite the fact it's firmly on someone else's finder.

That's the point of the NBA free-agency season however. Despite all of the rumors and projections of players leaving for greener pastures, the NBA rules are made to ensure player stability.  Both the Bird rule and the increased max offers that current teams are allowed to write usually ensure that movement is minimal.

So as we approach July 10th, the date when signings are allowed to happen, let's remember one thing: Most of the rumors you are hearing are false.  If anything, the media has developed a system that's designed primarily to fill air.

In reality, there is NO movement on any of these stories, no rumors or change of teams that mean anything.  We won't know where the players are headed until the day they can sign a contract.

I would suggest tuning out until then.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

USMNT: Just like that, it's over.

There are a lot of people on Twitter, on message boards, and on talk radio this morning trying desperately to sort out some semblance of meaning behind the US Men's National Team's 2-1 loss to a far superior Belgium side yesterday with varying degrees of success.

While it's true that the USA 23 showed heart what they didn't show was a competitive level of talent, athleticism and skill. Of the 10 best players on the pitch yesterday only 1 (Goalkeeper Tim Howard) was on the USMNT roster.  Players like Kompany, De Bruyne, Lukaku, Mirellas, Origi, Hazard and Mertens were just too big, too strong and too fast for the United States side to control. And while players like Julian Green and Yedlin had outstanding moments of joy, these were entwined too deeply with moments of heartache (Yedlin not getting back on Lukaku's goal for instance) as to make them too high a hill to over come.

What still remains for the US side is their long-term bugaboo: No reliable offensive attack, and an inability to gain and maintain possession from top-tier teams. The USMNT is one that relies on brilliant goal play first, good defense second and then a set-piece, hit 'em and hope style of offense. As ESPN commentator Ian Darke put it "the US is looking for a searchlight robbery here".

Such has been the case with all USMNT's dating back to the start of the so-called "soccer turn-around" of 1994. The US hosted World Cup saw a fundamental changing of the laws of the game to make the sport more "US Friendly".  This was the beginning of the "no kick-back" rule that prevented the goalie from handing a ball played back to him by his own teammate unless it was struck by the head. Even the ball during that WC was redesigned to be more aerodynamic in a hope that it would lead to more scoring.

This World Cup also led to the formation of Major League Soccer which was a condition of the US getting the games, and was designed with the mindset of creating a future generation of US players who could compete at the highest levels of the world stage.

So we find ourselves, 20 years on, looking at pretty much the same level of talent comparatively that we saw in 1994. Back then the names were Meola and Lalas and Jones. Today the names are Howard, Beasley and Dempsey. Through the years the US has trundled along with a cast of characters including Donovan, Keller, Caligiri, Onyewu, Johnson and Wynalda. All of these players and still, very little in the name of advancement.

Part of the reason is the MLS itself. Instead of modeling a league such as the Jupiler in Belgium, the club has decided to make use of glorified club level players interspersed with some name US and aging European stars.  The game is slow, plodding, and there's little encouragement for the team owners to improve their lots due to the absence of a system of promotion and relegation as one finds in almost every serious football league around the world.

The biggest mistake that MLS bigwigs made was choosing to copy the NFL league model and not, as they should have, the International football model that fans have grown to love.  Make no mistake about it, the Barclay's Premier League, Serie A, and La Liga are bigger TV draws in the USA right now than is MLS.  And there's rising interest in smaller leagues such as the NASL and the USL Pro.

This is not to say that Pro/Rel is the be all-end all for an American football ascendency. There has to be a total revamping of how the game is handled from the youth leagues on up. Player development at EVERY level is lacking in the US, as youth teams teach too much structure and strategy and don't focus on the important bits like scoring and creativity.

There's a reason some of the worst players on the USMNT this World Cup, Bradley (who had a horrible Cup) and Brad Davis (Who might as well have been invisible) were MLS players. They struggled because they've not faced the best players in the world on a consistent basis.

Don't get me wrong. Both of these players are very good, top-flight players at the MLS level but, when you ask them to play above, they are out of depth.  This is not their fault as much as it is the fault of the league and it's shoddy development system.

So, the USMNT is out, American soccer is stagnant, and a majority of the Country has just tuned out of the game for another four years.  The good news is this means the rebuilding and infighting will occur outside of the public eye. The bad news is no one will really understand what it all means.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Thoughts/Prediction: USA vs. Belgium

For most Americans, Belgium is that place with Brussels which they think might be a name for a vegetable they hated as a kid or they might have heard something on the news about how it's the Capitol of the EU. (It's not, because the EU HAS no official capitol but it's as close as the Euros are going to get.)  For most Euros, Belgium is the traditional place where France and Germany hash out their differences. Mostly though the Belgians are famous for one thing. Inventing what is now known as the French Fry. Of course, in Belgium, they put mayonnaise on theirs (which is actually preferable to ketchup I promise).

In football, most Americans, even the so-called "hard core" soccer fans don't pay much attention to the Jupiler League or even realize it exists. But exist it does and while it's glory days seem firmly in the rear view mirror there's still a ton of talent developed there which is usually swept up in fairly quick fashion by the more wealthy leagues in England, France, Italy and Spain.

Unfortunately, Belgium enters this game in front of a backdrop of political turmoil on the home front and without the services of top mid-fielder Steven DeFour.  The latter is especially good for the USMNT because they tend to struggle against teams that have brilliant control and possession throughout the midfield. (Think Germany Light)

With all things USMNT today's game is going to be determined by two things: 

1. Can they control the ball AT ALL in the mid-field?
2. Can they score enough?

With DeFour out and Kompany possibly having health issues I think it's fairly safe to say that the US has a much better chance at winning this game than the game w/Germany.  That said, I think the Belgians are just that much better and their superior play in the midfield will carry the day and lead them to a 1-0 win.

Monday, June 30, 2014

The State of Poker: Thoughts fresh from a recent trip to Las Vagas.

I have been a poker player, in one game or another, since around age 16.  I started playing 7-Stud for pennies, moved on to Texas Hold-em out of necessity after the Moneymaker boom, and have recently been more interested in different variations of Omaha, Razz and other games, preferring to play in mixed-game tournaments more recently since I find the action to be more interesting.

All of that said, my days playing poker in casino poker rooms likely came to an end last week while I was in Las Vegas.

The short reason is that I just don't find the current environment of poker to be all that attractive.

The longer reason is a little bit more nuanced.

Let me first say this. If you're a level 2 or above card-sharp there is now more money to be made in poker rooms across the country than ever before. The preponderance of level 1 players, calling stations, and TV wannabes can make sitting down to a poker game very lucrative if you have the time, patience and ability to make the right reads and plays. I'm not walking away from the game because I'm losing money at it. I'm walking away because it's just not fun.

There was a time you had a better than average chance of having to play real hard at a 1/2 NL game. Not any more. The modern poker room has become a mish-mash of either grumpy old men (possibly myself recently if I'm honest) and young players with little regard for poker etiquette or an understanding of what costs them money.  Over the last week I saw the following:

 - Players at 4/8 L or 1/2 NL games wearing sweaters and sunglasses.
 - A guy who would holler "BOOM!!!" every time he did as little as sweep the blinds in a 1/2 NL game.
 - A lady get called a "donkey" who checked her blind (no raise in front of her) flopped a set of 4's and beat a guy with KK despite having only a 4-2 in her hole cards.
 - Got verbally thrashed by "BOOM!!!" guy when he went all-in with 8-4, I called with AA, and he caught an 882 on the flop.
 - A gentlemen took 5 minutes to call into a $10 bet, all the time acting as if it was a cool $Million on the line.
 - More rules calls and arguments than I've seen in 25 years playing the game.

Poker now is being ruled by two groups.

 1. The rules Nazi's.
 2. The wanna-be poker brats.

Neither of these two groups is all that much fun to sit down and play with.  As I said earlier, there is money to be made in poker rooms these days, but I'm not a professional poker player and (to be honest) I'm not going to make a living playing poker for the small amount of time that I play it.

At the end of the day, for me, poker is about having fun. 

I used to enjoy sitting down at a table, swapping stories with different people, talking about sports and other things. Playing poker was a release. When you got beat you said "good hand" or "nice river" and play went on.

These day's almost every hand is viewed as a referendum on one's ability to play. Small wins are greeted with histrionics, small disagreements over rules turn into repeated verbal squabbles and bad beats either turn into personal insults or worse. Poker has been taken over by a young-ish group of punks and, as a means of entertainment, it's fairly dead right now.You're more likely to be entertained at blackjack or even penny slots than you are the poker room. That might come off as a little "get off my lawn" but it's true. Bad beats I can handle. Bad sportsmanship on top of a bad beat?  Life is just too short.

Because of that, and because gambling for me is pure entertainment, I'm walking away from the casino game for good.  Sure, you'll still probably find me at a home game swapping cigars, beers and stories but when it comes to spending my casino dollars wisely?

I'll see you at the blackjack tables.

Monday, June 16, 2014

#USMNT vs. Ghana - World Cup 2014

Let's start from the top:  Jurgen Klinsmann is correct, this is a must-win game for both teams. And while I agree with the writer of the linked article that Group G is not the "Group of death" (I reserve that title for Group D with Italy, Uruguay, Costa Rica and England all having a chance to advance) this is a trouble group for the US and I just don't see them being all that competitive against the teams within.

For anything to happen for the USMNT however a win over Ghana is a must, and given the lack of quality in the US back-line in a World Cup that's already being marked by offensive play I just don't see the US withstanding a Ghana attack that includes some top level players including the Ayew brothers and top striker Asamoah Gyan who is faster than any US defenseman at any level.

The US is going to have to rely on Tim Howard who is still one of the better keepers in the world and will have to get in the way of some direct shots on goal often in this game.  One questions whether or not the US will have to refrain from sending their defensemen forward because of the threat of Gyan? Or will they be able to attack from the back in a game that is going to require that some goals be scored?

It's not as if the US doesn't have talent. While they have always lacked a true No. 9-style player, Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey are a quality pair of forwards despite Altidore's much publicized scoring drought (broken, thankfully, in the last US WC warm-up game). And with the Black Star's star midfielder Messian questionable with an injury, you would think that Michael Bradley and Co. could have a little easier time of it controlling play in the middle 2/3rds.

But this is a World Cup where the Americans seem to be building for the future, one where Klinsmann is trying to show us that we still need player development beyond the current level.  Looking at the current roster as compared to the rosters from 2006 and 2010 it's hard to see much evidence of any progression whatsoever.

The USMNT is still missing a number 9 (the great white whale of American football), still has unproven players in both the defensive side and the midfield, still has a couple of stars who are asked to do things they're not ideally suited for, and is still waiting for their big breakout star. (In 2006 & 2010 it was the vastly overrated Oguchi Onyewu, this year it appears to be either Altidore, or possibly Julian Green)

Either way I think that this team, FIFA's silly world rankings notwithstanding, is going to find itself out of it's depth. I think the speed and offensive talent of Ghana is going to be the difference, especially when you consider the offensive flavor that is becoming dominate early on.  Both teems need three points here, only one is going to get them.

My bet is it will be Ghana at a score of 2-1.

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