Friday, March 31, 2017
In 2014, the NBA (National Basketball Association) signed a 9 year television deal with Turner Sports and ABC/ESPN worth 24 BILLION DOLLARS, which represented nearly a tripling of the previous television deal. The ‘raise’ was well-deserved since the NBA is globally popular, televised sports is one of the few ways television networks can separate themselves from new internet competitors like Netflix and Amazon, and the NBA’s 82 game schedule plus playoffs provide plenty of content.
Last season ABC introduced a Saturday night prime-time game of the week that featured the top teams in the league over the last two months of the season. The broadcast was well received and the games were generally top notch with the highlight being a Warriors-Thunder classic won on MVP Steph Curry’s buzzer beating shot in overtime. The game was the highest rated regular season NBA game not held on Christmas Day.
This year the Saturday night prime telecasts kicked off in January with the games serving up a heavy dose of the top teams in the league (the Cleveland Cavaliers, Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs who have won the last three championships). On February 11th, a highly publicized matchup between the Warriors and Spurs was on the prime time schedule. The Spurs top two players were ruled out when all-star Kawhi Leonard suffered a concussion during the week and former all-star Lamarcus Aldridge was ruled out with a heart arrhythmia. The Warriors were in the middle of a long road trip and had played an overtime game against the Minnesota Timberwolves the night before the game all in the middle of their worst stretch of basketball in three years after losing all-star Kevin Durant to a strained knee. The Warriors decided to rest their other three all-stars Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, and Klay Thompson for the Spurs game. The game was a prime time nightmare with both teams playing backups while the ABC cameras seemed to feature forlorn San Antonio children wearing Stephen Curry jerseys to a game that their hero was skipping.
The Warriors were heavily criticized for the decision and rebutted the criticism by stating that if the NBA wanted to have their stars available for a big prime time game they should have arranged for it to not be in the middle of a long road trip and part of back to back games. That seemed to deflect much of the criticism from the team to the league.
The very next Saturday the prime time game had the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers on the road against the Los Angeles Clippers. The Cavaliers were scheduled to play in Los Angeles on Sunday night against the Lakers and decided to rest their top three players LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love for the prime time game and play them on Sunday against the hapless Lakers. The Cavalier backups were blown out by the Clippers and squeaked by the Lakers the next night. The two spoiled prime time games were a source of embarrassment for the league and ABC.
Five years ago, the San Antonio Spurs were fined a quarter of a million dollars for resting four of their top players for a game against then champion Miami Heat in a nationally televised Thursday night game (the Spurs came within a few shots of winning the game anyway). Five years later Spurs coach Greg Popovich is viewed as a visionary by being willing to sacrifice a game or two to rest his players and develop his reserves. Today many NBA basketball teams monitor their players for signs of stress and will give a player a night off in the belief that it will prevent injuries. But the money is much greater now – I doubt ESPN/ABC was thrilled with having two marquee Saturday Night games relegated to ‘Must NOT See TV’. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver didn’t fine the teams but instead wrote a letter to the team owners to ask that they have more of a hand in the decisions to rest star players for nationally televised games.
The Warriors and the Cavaliers had much the same reasons for resting their players: the players were on back to back games and being injury free and rested for the playoffs in April trumps any regular season game. The Warriors know this especially well as they set a league record of 73 wins last year but had that effort expended to set the record questioned when they failed to win the championship. The NBA allows teams to put patches of their uniforms to represent their teams championships and discussions of great players seem to always turn to how many championships a player won to somehow validate their greatness. The culture the NBA has built or allowed to be built clearly values championships over regular season wins and it seems hypocritical to try to override a team’s desire to rest some players anytime they see fit, nationally televised game or not.
There were quite a few suggestions offered on how to prevent this situation of resting players for prime-time games or on a superstar’s single visit to a city. One suggestion was to ruin resting player’s statistical averages by counting a ‘rest’ game as a game played with no points, rebounds, or assists. Other suggestions ranged from fining the team the amount of the player’s salary to suspending the resting player for a number of games. None of these solutions will ever work because if they are enacted every team will stop using the term rest and simply sit their star players for a ‘tweaked knee’ or a ’24 hour flu’.
I was disappointed at the ruination of the two prime time games because I wanted to see the games and I wanted to bet on the games. Once the possibility of resting players was raised the games came off the board at the Bovada betting site. The problem of resting players can be eased by making sure teams playing nationally televised games have no games the day before and after the games but teams will still rest players or hold them out of big games. Kevin Durant had one of the better takes on the subject when he told ESPN "The truth about it is, it's only for a couple of players in the league...They don't care if the 13th man on the bench rest. It's only for like LeBron [James], Steph [Curry], [James] Harden, Russell [Westbrook]. It's only for like five players, so you want a rule just for those five players?" Thar's very true - the top players are being targeted because that's who the fans want to see when they tune into a nationally televised game or pay for a ticket to a game. And there are already rules made just for these players to allow them to get higher salaries and longer contracts than the 13th man on the bench. There are benefits of being a star player and one of the drawbacks is that the fans and television executives expect them to be playing.
Based on Durant's comments I do have sort of a solution to the problem. The NBA collective bargaining agreement with the players slots certain players as ‘max contract’ players meaning these players receive the maximum allowable salary under the current rules. Almost every team has 1 max contract player and most have more than 1. The next collective bargaining agreement should stipulate that ‘max contract’ players cannot play more home games than road games in a season. The ‘max contract’ players are the ones that the fans pay to see and if such a player misses a road game they should be held out of a home game also. This wouldn’t eliminate the problem but I believe it would make teams have to plan their rest for their star players more carefully and possible rest their stars for home games knowing that a road game missed for ‘rest’ will sit the player out for an additional game in front of the home town fans as well.
Friday, March 24, 2017
I found Netflix's new Marvel super hero series 'Iron Fist' to have lots of talk with little action...
The Iron Fist is Danny Rand, only child of billionaire Wendell Rand. While taking a plane trip to China, the Rand Corporation jet hits turbulence, breaks apart, and crashes over the Himalayan mountains, killing all aboard. All that is except Danny who survived the crash which conveniently occurred at the once every 15 year opening of the interdimensional portal between Earth and the mystical land of K'un-L'un. In the land of K'un-L'un, Danny is trained in the martial arts, taught his mission in life is to destroy the Hand (the source of the never ending supply of ninjas in Daredevil 2), and reaches the height of his training by being chosen as the Living Weapon who can summon his life energy (chi) into his hand (the Iron Fist).
After 15 years the inter-dimensional portal opens once again and Danny heads to New York to take his life back. The first three episodes are very slow moving, with Danny having no proof of his identity but since his company is under the control of his childhood friends (and children of his father’s late business partner Harold Meachum) he continually tries to convince them of his identity until he is locked away in an insane asylum. At the end of the second episode we finally get to see Iron Fist in action but the first three episodes are full of flashbacks to the plane crash, training in K'un-L'un, and a smattering of action as Ward Meachum sends goons to kill Rand along with a sampling of what must pass for eastern mystic wisdom (“If you want to see the truth then hold no opinions.”)
In the next three episodes we see Danny convince Joy Meachum of his identity. Joy helps Danny get his company back although no mention is made of how he wasn’t declared legally dead and had his assets distributed many years ago. Danny proves to be a neophyte in business but popular with the masses as he sells a miracle-cure drug at cost and shuts down a factory that is suspected of causing cancer but has met all governmental regulations. He also buys the Hell’s Kitchen building where his girlfriend and fellow martial artist Colleen Wing runs a martial arts school. We also learn the Harold Meachum is alive, having been restored to live by the Hand (personified by the mysterious Madam Gao from past Netflix/Marvel shows) in exchange for them using Rand’s corporation to distribute a new pure form of synthetic heroin. Danny gets wind of the heroin operation and sets about using his powers to destroy the hand.
I was hoping that the action would heat up in the second half of the 13 episodes but it did not. Finn Jones portrays Danny Rand as the 10 year old who is traumatized by his parent’s plane crash instead of the living weapon that he is. Each episode is full of Danny’s pent up adolescent and teenage angst saved from years of living in the K'un-L'un monastery being trained to be the Iron Fist and when Danny is not on screen we are treated to Ward Meachum’s anxiety attacks leading to a heroin addiction, Harold Meachum’s angst over being owned by the Hand, the ‘drama’ of a hostile takeover of the Rand corporation, Joy Meachum’s angst over her brother and Danny and the takeover of the corporation, and Colleen’s own teenage angst mixed in with pontifications from Claire Temple, the omnipresent nurse who tends to all the Marvel heroes in the Netflix sub universe. Each episode has a few minutes of action and between 40 and 45 minutes of angst. While I understand that angst is part of the territory of all Marvel super heroes Iron Fist was way over the top and closer to a 13 hour long version of Breakfast Club or Sixteen Candles than a superhero series. Maybe all this angst is what people find so attractive about the vampire sagas that are so popular - I prefer lots of action.
Things started picking up slightly in the last two episodes of the series with more action as friends were revealed to be villains and villains revealed to be uneasy allies. At this point I was mostly watching to see how it turned out since I already invested 11 hours in the series. The action scenes were well done and used standard martial arts fighting techniques of statuesque poses with fingers, toes, and limbs frozenly contorted in odd angles just before exploding into action, super-fast punches and kicks transforming into super slow motion as someone narrowly escapes a knockout blow, and a copious amount of swordplay. I would have liked to see the fighting in more dangerous locales than alleys, courtyards, apartments, and office buildings. Martial arts fighting can get pretty repetitive pretty fast and having the fights on the edge of a rooftop or the Brooklyn Bridge or even some subway tracks would have livened things up. There was one fight on a rooftop but no one got very close to the edge. My take on the Iron Fist series was that it was exceptionally slow moving with minimal action. The acting was fine but there was far too much angst on everyone's part. I like my heroes to be heroic and this series seemed to want me to feel sorry for everyone involved instead of giving me someone to root for.
The ending of the show led to barely any closure with more questions than answers very much like the end of Luke Cage. This was likely done as a set up to the next chapter in the Marvel/Netflix saga which is to team up Iron Fist, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, and Daredevil in a new series called the Defenders. I was wondering how Netflix was going to be able to effectively develop the characters in a 13 hour series but after seeing the lameness of Iron Fist I think that the answer is that there will be little character development and we will spend hours of watching our heroes upset over one circumstance or another with a few minutes of action to liven up the boredom.
Friday, March 17, 2017
No matter the quality of any of the individual wares or their lack of payment to me as an affiliate I do appreciate that every week ichess.net offers a product sample and instructional webinar on their YouTube channel and the occasional samples that can be downloaded. In the past couple of months ichess.net has given out free samples of a series branded as the ‘Master Method’ along with half price offers if I wanted to purchase the entire set.
On December 24th Carlos from ichess.net sent me an offer for a free sample from the Naroditsky Method along with a 50% discount on the $149 entire course. Carlos mentioned that by using the Naroditsky Method "I’ve already gained 150 points on my tactics rating and finally got my opening repertoire sorted!” Daniel Naroditsky was a chess child prodigy, world youth champion, and until someone younger publishes a chess book the youngest published chess author ever. I received an hour long lesson on ‘Becoming a Tactical Beast’ which gives Naroditsky’s ideas on how to get better at tactics. In addition to the free lesson, ichess.net put another lesson from the course on their YouTube channel featuring Naroditsky’s thoughts on opening play.
I found the lessons interesting and reasonably easy to follow. Naroditsky didn’t sugar coat the hard work involved in chess improvement but his advice was practical. I was thinking about purchasing the course when on January 11th I received an email from Carlos at ichess.net offering a free sample of the ‘Lê Quang Method’ where super grandmaster Lê Quang Liêm explained the secrets of the Isolated Pawn structure. Carlos explained “grandmasters base every decision, every move on the pawn structure. Which is why learning how to play in the most common structures is the quickest way to developing your chess beyond 2000 Elo” as well as a 50% discount on the $49 course. I reviewed the lesson which was also available on the ichess.net YouTube channel.
I found the Lê Quang method hard to follow despite or possibly due to his being one of the top 30 chess players in the world. The plans for playing with and against the isolated pawn certainly made sense but at some point the positions would break down into a tangle of tactics that probably seemed simple to the super grandmaster but were impossible for me to follow. I went back to considering the Narositsky method when on January 24th I received an email from Carlos at ichess.net offering me a free sample of the ‘Paco Vallejo Method’. Carlos explained that in the free lesson I would "discover exactly how to avoid blunders in your games" along with a 50% discount on the complete $99 course.
I downloaded the two free lessons on the Francisco Vallejo Pons method and viewed the method of the 2700+ rated super GM. In one lesson Vallejo shows a game he lost from a great position because he didn’t understand his opponent’s ideas. In the other free lesson Vallejo makes a mistake and then makes another mistake which costs him the game, offering the sage advice to not follow one mistake with another mistake. This all made sense to me. Since I am not playing 2700+ super GM’s I should be able to understand their ideas and while I can certainly see the wisdom of not making mistake after mistake I would rather have had a lesson in not making the first mistake which would remove the possibility of following a mistake with another mistake. Another free lesson was made available on the ichess.net YouTube channel where Vallejo gets a great position and ran into time trouble where he only made one mistake but it was enough to cost him the game. Vallejo then offered the solid advice not to get into time trouble.
I was pondering Vallejo’s method and was considering buying it when on February 20th I received an email from Carlos at ichess.net offering me a free sample of the ‘Alex Lenderman Method’ along with a 50% discount on the entire $119 course where I would learn “this course will give you a brand new skillset for handling dynamic positions of any type.” The sample I received was the chapter called ‘Opening Gambits Explained” where as Carlos from ichess.net wrote “he reveals the nuts and bolts of explosive gambit play in the opening”. I downloaded the free chapter in which the young American grandmaster mostly went over games played between computers to demonstrate how one computer would sacrifice a pawn for the initiative and win the game in computer-like fashion.
I was pondering how the ‘Lenderman method’ seemed to require me to be able to think and calculate like a computer when on March 7th I received an email from Carlos at ichess.net offering me a free chapter from the “Sam Shankland Method” along with a 50% discount on the $119 course. Shankland is one of the top 100 players in the world and Carlos’ email said “The Shankland Method teaches you not only techniques, but the mindset required to become a chess champion.” and that I would “learn counter-intuitive skills and ideas that only masters understand”.
I downloaded the course and it was pretty impressive. Shankland’s main idea seems to be that when you see a move that makes sense in a positional way but doesn’t work tactically to ask yourself “what happens if I make the move anyway?” and try to find hidden resources in the position that make the move work tactically. The idea makes a lot of sense and Shankland gives a number of examples (one of which is on the ichess.net youtube channel here.
The Shankland method seems to work but only if you can calculate tactical sequences well enough to make the counter-intuitive moves work. Judging from the examples I was not quite ready for this level of tactical acumen. I was a little depressed on not being ready for the Shankland Method but luckily on March 11th I received an email from Carlos at ichess.net offering me 50% off the Naroditsky method…
Friday, March 10, 2017
Logan is the latest (and last?) move of the Hugh Jackman/Wolverine franchise.
Jackman has done a great job at capturing the essence of the comic book Wolverine I remember – a savage force of nature prone to going on berserker rages yet with a streak of kindness toward strangers and unwavering loyalty to his friends. The kind of guy you wouldn’t want to mess with but not the kind that messes with anyone either. Wolverine was the central character of the X-Men comic reboot of the mid-80’s and the movie X-Men franchise. ‘Logan’ take place in a distant future of 2029 where mutants are all but extinct and not even being born except for a secret hospital in Mexico where experimental mutants are grown in the womb with specific DNA to be used as government weapons. The mutants are born and being trained when they are rendered obsolete by a new method that can clone fully grown mutants from DNA. As the young mutants are being rounded up for execution by the villainous gang called the Reavers the hospital workers help them to escape and they are all headed to a spot in North Dakota that an X-Men comic book used as a safe haven called ‘Eden’.
Wolverine gets involved when he discovers one of the mutants was created using his DNA which makes her his daughter kind of sort of. Logan has his own problems. His healing power doesn’t seem to be working very well and we discover during the movie he is being poisoned by his Adamantium skeleton and claws. Logan is making money as a limo driver and is taking care of the 90+ year old Professor Xavier who has to be heavily medicated or else he has seizures that cause debilitating pain to everyone within a half mile of him. Professor X is kept in a giant tank in the desert and the pair are aided by the mutant Caliban whose powers to track mutants come at the cost of an albino appearance that causes him to burn when exposed to sunlight.
After some plot explanation, Wolverine, Professor X, and Laura (Wolverine’s DNA daughter who has her own adamantium claws on her hands AND feet) are discovered by the Reavers and embark on a road trip to North Dakota’s Eden even though Logan knows that the comic book tale is just a tale and there is no safe community for mutants. The chase leads through a convenience store where Laura attacks the clerk and an Oklahoma casino where Professor X has a massive seizure just as the Reavers discover the group. Eventually the group is befriended by a farming family but is found by Reavers yet again but this time the Reavers unleash their new weapon – a freshly DNA-generated Wolverine with all Logan’s powers and no conscience to speak of.
I don’t want to give away too much of the plot so I’ll just say that after chasing through the United States to North Dakota there remains hope for mutant kind gained at the cost of some painful losses. An entire group of mutants were introduced along with the junior Laura-Wolverine with powers ranging from the fearsome (one mutant can create earthquakes) to the freaky (another mutant can control nature, dissecting one Reaver with a pine needle barrage and mummifying another in grass), to the mundane (the normal assortment of electrical barrages, flamethrower arms, and freeze breath).
The intense savagery of the movie made attempts at humor like the beginning of this trailer seem unfunny and out of place.
As well-made as the movie was I have to rank ‘Logan’ in the bottom half of the franchise’s efforts. I like to see my super heroes be super and not shells of themselves. I was looking forward to watching Wolverine going into berserker rages in bars and battling super villains but this movie had the famed Wolverine limping around and dragging himself through fights along with a decrepit Professor X and was not the way I like to see my super heroes. There was one fight scene where a chemically enhanced Wolverine fights like the good old days and that was much more to my liking. Laura-Wolverine fight scenes had a lot of energy but she was so young that her berserker rages seemed more like temper tantrums. I get that the movie was a ‘coda’ for Wolverine but I see no reason he couldn’t have been dying of his poison or had reduced healing powers but still with his full strength and fighting abilities.
The mutant theme of X-Men has always thrived in dystopian settings where mutants are at war with each other and human led governments but ‘Logan’ takes this theme a little too far in a future where mutants are eradicated except for those conceived in a laboratory. I don’t mind seeing my heroes in desperate situations but I do want to see hope for the future at the end of the day. Logan doesn’t provide much hope for the future of mutantkind. I felt it was a disappointing end to a great character’s story.
So long Wolverine...I was sorry to see you go out this way...
Friday, March 3, 2017
Cousins was the 5th selection in the 2010 draft and is considered one of the best centers in the NBA. He made 2nd team All-NBA the past two years which would seem to indicate he is one of the 10 best players in the league although not in the top 5. He was due for a contract extension at the end of the year and the new collective bargaining agreement would have placed him as eligible for a $209 million dollar 5 year contract under the ‘Designated Player Veteran Extension’ which rewards players who are with the same team they were drafted by (or traded while under their first contract) and made All NBA first, second, or third teams in two of the previous three seasons. By being traded, Cousins will not be a designated veteran and can ‘only’ sign a 5 year extension for $179 million dollars.
Cousins is always among the league leaders in technical fouls. He has been suspended twice by the Kings and three times by the league. After trading Cousins, the Kings made references to changing the ‘culture’ of the team. This makes Cousins sound like a bad guy. But bad guys and bad teammates aren’t usually selected to play on the U.S. Olympic team and Cousins is known for his many charitable works in the Sacramento area.
Talent is like stones on a pyramid. There are very few stones at the top of a pyramid and very few top NBA talents. To trade a top talent like Cousins for very little return makes me think that the Kings just didn’t want to pay him the huge extension at the end of the year. The Kings moved into a brand new arena this year and this presumably will allow them to sell enough season tickets and luxury box suites to make money even with a losing team for a few more years. Of course the Kings have been a losing team for the past 10 years and almost left Sacramento to move to Seattle before being rescued by new owner Vivek Ranadivé. Ranadivé’s ownership of the Kings has been marked by constant changes in coaches, general managers, and the overall direction of the team. Trading Cousins seems to make a reboot for the franchise but just two years ago the Kings traded their first round pick in the upcoming draft in order to get the Philadelphia 76ers to take three players off their hands to get enough salary cap room to sign players that are no longer with the team.
It is no surprise that a mismanaged team like the Kings couldn’t win with Cousins and it won’t be a surprise to me if they don’t win without him even though there is generally a short term ‘Hawthorne Effect’ after losing a top player.
To me it makes no sense to trade a top 10 player without getting either two top 20 players or a top 20 player and a top 10 draft pick in return. Rebuilding winning teams is hard enough but building teams from scratch rarely works. The Philadelphia 76ers have lost 60 games for the last 3 years, stockpiling draft picks in the hopes of drafting a championship team. This year they have had such a marked improvement they may only lose 50 to 55 games games out of 82. After getting to the Eastern Conference Finals for six consecutive years the Detroit Pistons lost a first round playoff series in 2009 and hadn’t made the playoffs for 6 years when they slipped into the 8th spot last year.
There are only two teams I can think of in the last 20 years that were able to rebuild teams on the fly. The Los Angeles Lakers assembled a championship team featuring Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal in the early 2000’s and when that team fell apart a new team was built around Kobe Bryant to win two more championships in 2009 and 2010. During the rebuild the Lakers missed the playoffs only one time. Two years after winning the championship in 2006 behind Dwayne Wade and Shaquille O’Neal, the Miami Heat descended to being a 15 win team but after obtaining LeBron James and Chris Bosh to pair with Wade in 2011 went to four straight NBA Finals with two championships.
The team I have my eye on is the Boston Celtics. After Danny Ainge took over as the head of basketball operations in 2003, a promising Celtics team struggled and missed the playoffs in 2006 and 2007. With his job on the line, Ainge managed to assemble a ‘Big 3’ of Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Paul Pierce and surrounded his stars with talented role players as well as hitting on a great draft pick in point guard Rajon Rondo. The team won the 2008 championship and went to the finals in 2010. The team could not get past the Miami Heat in the next two playoffs and after losing in the first round to the Knicks in 2013, Ainge traded Garnett and Pierce to the Brooklyn Nets for a handful of journeymen players and the Nets first round picks in 2014, 2016, and 2018 as well as the right to swap picks with the Nets in 2017. None of the picks were protected.
The Celtics missed the playoffs in 2014 and have drafted guards James Young and Jaylen Brown with their first two picks from the Nets. Brown has shown more promise but neither are considered All-Star level players at present. This year the Nets are by far the worst team in the league and the Celtics have a great chance of owning the top pick in the draft because of the right to swap picks. Meanwhile Ainge has slowly assembled a playoff team that has gotten better in each of the last four years. He picked up guard Isiah Thomas from the Phoenix Suns for a player and a draft pick in 2015 and Thomas has blossomed into an All-Star. Former All-Star Al Horford was obtained in free agency last summer and the Celtics currently have the 5th best record in the league.
So while teams like the Lakers, 76ers, and Timberwolves have been accumulating top draft picks for years and are still near the bottom of the league standings and teams like the Lakers and Heat were able to rebuild their teams around a star player to win multiple championships Danny Ainge has completely rebuilt the championship Celtics teams to be back near the top of the league while missing the playoffs only once AND has the top draft pick of the worst team in the league for the next two seasons. I don’t know if Ainge is the smartest guy in the room when NBA general managers get together but he has to be on the short list. If I was the owner of one of the long suffering losing teams the first thing I would do is try to find someone like Ainge to run my team.