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May 30, 2008

Sports Beat, 5-30-08

We're back from a long trip to China that included all kinds of fun. Now it's time for some regular posting:

--Congratulations to the Lakers for reaching the NBA Finals! The team's first trip there since 2004 represents about the quickest rebuilding period in NBA history. There were some who left the organization for dead after they traded Shaquille O'Neal, and there were plenty of others who kept them dead before this season started.

Even Mitch Kupchak admitted that he didn't think it would all come together so quickly, especially since it seemed like Kobe Bryant was on his way out the door back in October. But the Lakers had shown flashes of success in the previous two seasons, and with a healthy Bryant, a healthy Lamar Odom, the stellar early play of Andrew Bynum, and the trade for Pau Gasol after Bynum got injured, the purple and gold were able to realize their potential to the fullest.

To date, the Lakers have played the best basketball of any team in the postseason. I was very surprised with the ease that they defeated San Antonio, especially since Greg Popovich had supposedly been resting his team all season for the playoffs. It's true that Manu Ginobili wasn't 100-percent, but the Spurs are the defending champions and have plenty of experience, and I think just about everyone expected them to put up a tougher fight. Now, it seems as though the Spurs dynasty is over, and they'll go down as one of the few great NBA teams that failed to repeat as champions.

Mitch Kupchak has received plenty of praise for building this Laker team, but I think two other people deserve credit. First off, for the 14th time in Jerry Buss' 29 years of ownership, the Lakers are in the finals. Buss has built the sport's premier franchise, and he held steadfastly to his vision over the past few years. The Lakers are in the finals because of it. Also, if Phil Jackson isn't the greatest coach in NBA history, then I don't know who is. Jackson hasn't been out-coached once in the playoffs, and his system and general team management over the course of this season have proven to be perfect for this group. A win in the finals would give Jackson his 10th NBA title, and he would pass the legendary Red Auerbach.

At the time of this writing, the Celtics and Pistons are locked in a close Game 6 contest. I don't care which team poses a better a matchup for the Lakers... I want the Celtics to win. Lakers-Celtics is the flagship rivalry in the NBA, and the first final between these two teams since 1987 would truly be special.

Now that we're back from China, I'll have full analysis of the NBA Finals, once the Lakers have an opponent, before and after every game.

--I didn't think I overestimated the Dodgers talent and potential before the season started, but they're sure making me look bad. Baseball's most inconsistent team has taken turns struggling at the plate and on the mound. At the time of this writing, they were ahead of the Mets 9-5 at Shea Stadium after Clayton Kershaw struggled in his second start. Kershaw is being hailed by some as the savior of this Dodger team. It's obvious that he was too talented to keep in the minor leagues for much longer. But Joe Torre and Ned Colletti need to be very careful with Kershaw in terms of managing expectations and performance. Kershaw is the youngest Dodger pitcher to start a game since Edwin Jackson beat Randy Johnson on his 20th birthday. The talented Jackson had plenty of difficulties thereafter, although he's off to a promising start to the 2008 season with my first-place Tampa Bay Rays. Every pitcher is different though and if Kershaw realizes his talent, then he will be one of the best in the game.

--Last November, we bemoaned KSPN 710's decision to let John Ireland go, and questioned their new lineup. Well, six months later, after watching their ratings drop 50-percent across all shows, it appears that KSPN got the message.

Tom Hoffarth of the LA Daily News reports that the station has re-hired John Ireland, and will once again pair him with Steve Mason. Give credit to KSPN for recognizing that they made a mistake and for making the decision to reunite Mason & Ireland for a third time. The chemistry between those two is some of the best in sports talk radio, and Los Angeles is better when they're together.

Mason and Ireland will now be on the air from 1 PM to 4 PM and go up against 570's Loose Cannons, who have an excellent radio show themselves. Steve Hartman has established himself as the dean of LA sports talk hosts, and it's always fun to listen to the Vic the Brick. As TJ Simers writes today, the city is full of Vic the Bricks in light of the Lakers success.

May 14, 2008

Sports Beat, 5-14-08

--The Lakers earned a crucial Game 5 victory tonight to maintain their home-court advantage over the Utah Jazz.

Kobe Bryant was clearly limited by his back injury, but he toughed it out, and played a valuable role as a facilitator. Bryant scored 26 points, but only attempted 10 shots. Five Laker players scored in double figures, including Lamar Odom (22), Pau Gasol (21), and Vladimir Radmanovic (15). Overall, it was a sloppy game, but credit the Lakers for forcing the Jazz to speed up their offense which led to 18 turnovers.

Now the series shifts to Utah, where the Lakers will have to hope that Bryant's back is just a bit better. The Lakers are at their best when everyone is involved. But they can't beat Utah if Bryant isn't at least 80-percent. Also, the Laker bench needs to step up, as it only scored 13 points tonight.

--I have no idea whether or not the allegations about OJ Mayo receiving money from an agent are true. If they are though, then I do believe it's a greater NCAA problem rather than a USC problem.

Based on everything I've read, it seems highly unlikely that USC or Tim Floyd knew or participated in any of the activity that has been alleged about Mayo. And while this is a player who has been showered with attention since the age of 13, he was cleared to play by both the NCAA and the Pac-10. This isn't a situation in which USC was sending out boosters or paying its own recruits and players under the table. In fact, it is widely known that Mayo was never recruited by USC, and that he had effectively decided to be a Trojan before even speaking with Tim Floyd.

ESPN's Pat Forde's column claiming that USC should receive an SMU-style death penalty is absurd. In that case, SMU was already on probation and the university and its boosters were actively funneling money to football players. In the cases of Mayo and Reggie Bush, the allegations are related to slimey grease-ball agents who appear to be operating outside the sphere of the university in trying to take advantage of impressionable young athletes. Also somewhat absurd is that idea that Tim Floyd should be going into Mayo's dorm room, finding out whether or not he has a flat screen TV, and then questioning him on where he got it. Dorm rooms usually aren't a place that coaches, professors, or any college authority figure besides an RA are ever welcome.

Clearly though this is a stain on the university. But I'm not sure what more USC and other colleges can truly do to prevent this type of contact with agents. Pete Carroll has been known to throw agents out of Heritage Hall in the event that they dare try to lurk around campus. All teams lecture their student-athletes about NCAA rules pertaining to agents. And all players have to go through a rigorous approval process through the NCAA clearing house. But at the end of the day, it's still theoretically possible for a one-and-done basketball player to take money under the table from an agent, to not have it discovered until after he's gone, and then for that individual player to face zero consequences once he's a professional.

There are a few things that can curtail this problem. In the NFL, Pete Carroll has already lobbied NFL Players Association Head Gene Upshaw to punish agents who knowingly break NCAA rules. Likewise, now that the NBA has an age minimum, the league or the players' union should also work to decertify or suspend agents who give money to college students. Based on the account of former Fresno State guard Tito Maddux, it sounds like Rodney Guillory is one such individual who should not be allowed to represent any NBA prospects.

There are two other more radical ideas could be considered. On one end, the NFL and NBA could consider suspending and/or fining players who take money from agents while they're still amateurs. That way they will actually face consequences for violating the rules after they've left their school. Another option could be for the NCAA to simply allow players to hire agents. An agent is effectively a representative, and why can't a legal adult hire someone to represent them? I've always wondered if NCAA rules prohibiting the hiring of agents could stand up in court, if those rules were ever challenged.

In the meantime, USC's top incoming basketball recruit DeMar DeRozan may ask out of his scholarship if the Trojans are punished in the Mayo incident. I don't think DeRozan has much to worry about though. First off, these investigations typically take years, and it would be surprising if this were completely settled before DeRozan leaves for the NBA. Secondly, it is going to be very difficult to prove that USC knew about Mayo's dealings with the agent. If wrongdoing by Mayo is proved, then in all likelihood the Trojans would have to forfeit all of their wins from this past season, and may be penalized a scholarship or two. But a postseason ban (which it appears is most concerning to DeRozan) seems highly unlikely. At least that's the view of where things stand at the moment. It could all change.

--Across town, UCLA's basketball team is about to receive a boost from J'Mison "Bobo" Morgan, who had initially committed to LSU, but now appears Westwood-bound after LSU's recent coaching change. Morgan adds some much-needed size and strength to a Bruin front-line that will likely be without Evan Love and could be missing Luc Richard Mbah a Moute as well. Many recruiting analysts claim that UCLA already has the best class in the nation coming in, and this addition will only help.

--The Dodgers got a much-needed victory tonight over the MIlwaukee Brewers thanks to a 3-run ninth inning against former Dodger reliever Guillermo Mota. Since I wrote that the Dodger fans shouldn't be concerned so early in the season, the team lost six in a row before tonight's game, and are now just one game above .500.

It's rather astonishing to see how different the Dodgers are offensively without Rafael Furcal, and that's a bad sign. No team should ever be so dependent on one player. But Furcal's absence hasn't been the team's only problem. The "vets" are letting down the Dodgers. Jeff Kent is starting to look his age. Andruw Jones is still hitting well-below his Atlanta Braves weight and now is further embarrassing himself by telling TJ Simers that he doesn't play for the fans. And established pitchers Brad Penny and Derek Lowe have struggled in recent weeks. In fact, the entire Dodgers rotation has been down this year, and the bullpen already seems overworked.

The Dodgers still have the talent to be a playoff team. But they've been a streaky team throughout the Ned Colletti era, and they need to play more consistent baseball in order to realize their potential. I think it's possible that Joe Torre's guidance can keep the Dodgers focused, but it may not happen overnight.

--I'm going to China for the next two weeks, and I'm hoping that I'll be able to keep up with Laker playoff games and such while I'm in Shanghai and Beijing. That being said, the sports beat will take a break for a bit, but it should be back shortly after Memorial Day.

May 10, 2008

Sports Beat, 5-10-08

--The Lakers fell last night to the Utah Jazz 104-99, and saw their series lead cut to 2-1. Still, there's no reason for Lakers fans to panic. No rational basketball observer thought the Lakers would go undefeated in the playoffs, and Utah is one of the toughest places to play in the NBA.

In the Lakers' first two games against the Jazz, the purple and gold were so impressive that people were saying they were operating at a different speed than Utah. Now, many of those same people are claiming the Lakers lack toughness and Pau Gasol may be a liability in the middle.

The truth is that the Lakers have a more athletic team than the Jazz, and LA's big-3 (Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, and Lamar Odom) are better as a unit than Utah's big-3 (Deron Williams, Carlos Boozer, and Mehmet Okur). Before the series began, I thought that Andrei Kirilenko would be the wild card that could potentially cause problems for the Lakers, but after three games it's evident that he's a shadow of his former self. Kirilenko's contributions are not that much greater than Vladimir Radmanovic's offensively, although he does a bit more away from the ball. Instead, the real wild card for Utah is Okur, who has skills, but seems to be a tad less athletic than the Jazz need him to be. Still, if Okur can be a commanding presence inside, and complement Boozer inside, then the Jazz are dangerous. Additionally, Deron Williams has been inconsistent all series as Derek Fisher has effectively defended him. Fisher is very familiar with Williams' game, from when they were teammates in Utah last year, and he's evidently taking advantage of his knowledge and experience. I've seen Williams play so well at times that one could argue he's just as good as Chris Paul. But he's not playing at that level in this series.

The Lakers lost last night because they had a bad game. It's as simple as that. They had been coasting through the first six games, and were bound for a let-down on the road in the loud Energy Solutions Arena. Pau Gasol got too whiny with the officials, and was virtually a non-factor. Lamar Odom only took three field goals the entire game. Yet, remarkably, the Lakers still had a shot to win the game late, and they may have escaped with a win, if not for turnovers. That is evidence of just how much more talented this Laker team. So in order for the Lakers to put away the Jazz, they will need Gasol to keep his head on his shoulders and for Odom to stay involved in the game plan. Gasol isn't a banger on the boards, and that's not necessarily a knock on him... that's just not his game. To slow down Boozer or Okur, the Lakers could afford to give a little extra playing time to guys like Ronny Turiaf, Chris Mihm, and DJ Mbenga. I'm not quite sure why Mihm has seldom played since coming back from injury, unless he's still not really 100%.

Overall, I still think the Lakers are the better team, and that they will win this series with at least one victory in Salt Lake City.

Finally, I haven't had a chance yet to note Kobe Bryant's MVP Award. Obviously it's well-deserved. This season, Bryant took his game to another level, as he finally learned how to involve his teammates, while still leveraging his tremendous individuals skills. His game has evolved to the point where it is now fair to say he's the best player in the NBA.

--The Dodgers are 7-3 since I wrote on April 28 that fans shouldn't be concerned. They're now 19-16, and back among the elite teams in the National League. Matt Kemp has taken his game to another level, and if he continues playing this well, then he might very well be the face of the franchise in the next few years along with Russell Martin. Kemp has the talent to be a regular 30-30 man, and his presence in the lineup every day is virtually required. In the meantime, Martin has rallied after a slow start, and may wind up as the NL starting catcher in the All-Star Game again.

Also quietly having a great season is Rafael Furcal. He's healthy for the first time in years, and as a shortstop with an OPS of over 1.000, he's been one of the NL's best players through 35 games. Juan Pierre has gotten hot, and has supplanted Andre Ethier in the lineup for the moment. Apparently, being benched early in the season has lit a fire under him. Either that, or resting a few games and not going after Cal Ripken's streak has helped keep him fresh. Either way, Pierre's style is still counter to the patient approach that Joe Torre and hitting coach Mike Easler preaches, so I'd expect the player nicknamed "Juan-for-five" to be back on the bench once he cools off.

At third base, Blake DeWitt's play has been so strong, that he's keeping a healthy Andy LaRoche in the minor leagues. Expect one of those two players to be traded within the next year, with LaRoche being the most likely to go.

Still, all is not completely right with the Dodgers. Andruw Jones remains an $18 million-a-year albatross, hitting .174 with one home run. Derek Lowe has become a concern as he's pitched 7 or more innings just once this season. In general, the rotation has been up and down all season, yet they still have to be careful in their handling of Clayton Kershaw. The 20-year old lefthander is one of the game's most talented prospects, but allowing him to pitch in the big leagues before he's ready could have serious consequences for his career. It's a difficult balance to strike.

--I will be broadcasting tonight's USC-Cal State Northridge baseball game tonight on KSCR with Bryan Fischer at 7 PM. You can find the broadcast at 1560 AM, or by logging onto KSCR.org and clicking on the sports live stream on the top right-hand portion of your screen.

May 4, 2008

Behind the scenes with LAT Lakers Bloggers

Pretty sure I was sitting behind Andrew and Brian Kamenetzky of the Los Angeles Times Lakers Blog this afternoon, but not positive.

To confirm e-mail jacob@laobserved.com.


May 2, 2008

NFL Considers LA for Draft

For the past few weeks, pundits have been saying that LA isn't a priority for the NFL. Well apparently, it's enough of a priority for the NFL to consider holding its draft here. Today, the Times reports that the Nokia Theatre is being considered as the site for the 2009 NFL Draft.

The NFL has discussed moving the draft around to different cities, and LA seems like a great choice. ESPN covers the draft and they plan to open a new studio at LA Live next year. The NFL Network also broadcasts the draft and they're located in Culver City. Aside from the proximity for the event's two broadcast carriers, LA could bring a new Hollywood feel to the draft. And while Jets fans may bemoan the lost opportunity for booing their draft pick, SoCal would represent a neutral location for NFL teams.

This doesn't necessarily mean LA is getting a team, but holding the draft here would certainly generate more NFL-to-LA discussions. With Ed Roski's new stadium plan being introduced to the public and San Diego Chargers fans seemingly concerned, it appears there is some bit momentum behind an NFL return to LA for the first time in a while.