December 29, 2012

Wizards Basketball Card Optimism

Now that I have a blog mostly about basketball (although it's really about me), I have an excuse to do stuff I couldn't in all good conscience do before, like buy basketball cards. I'm currently tracking down the Wizards players in the sixth of at least 12 basketball card series that Panini America, the officially licensed card manufacturer of the NBA, is producing this season. Who knew there was such a market for this stuff? There are cards which sell on the secondary market for over $2,000. Admittedly, there are some which are absolutely gorgeous but paying that much for a 3" by 4" piece of cardboard is insane! I'm not spending anywhere near that much money on these things; I may be obsessed and waste way too much time and money on this team but I'm not THAT stupid!

Just like the baseball and football cards I collected as a kid, the fronts of the cards show an image of the players and the backs of the cards contain stats as well as some random facts or future projections. I don't know who at Panini America writes the stuff on the backs of the cards, but some of it is pretty ironic with the Wizards off to a 4-23 start this season. In fact, you could make the case that some of it is just downright deluded. I thought I'd share some of my favorites. Or perhaps considering the context, my least favorites.

Hoops Card No. 175, Nenê
"Nenê has only hit the court 11 times with the Wizards, who acquired him from Denver via a trade. Assuming those 11 games were a preview of how it will fare with the Brazilian in 2012-13, Washington could be in for a gripping season." 

Gripping is probably a good word to describe our season so far, but I'm sure it's not what the author of the quote above quite had in mind. It's hard for me to pick on Nenê because he's far and away the best player on our team. There's no question we are a way better team with him on the court than on the bench.

Hoops Card No. 176, Kevin Seraphin
"Only 22 years old and in his second NBA season, Seraphin had an amazing closing kick to the 2011-12 season. He started all 15 of the Wizards' games and averaged 15.5 points and 7.0 rebounds while putting the ball through the net 53 percent of the time. April may have been his launching point."

Well, maybe not. While Kevin started the season strong, he's tailed off. He's currently averaging 10.7 points and 5.4 rebounds, which are both career highs, but his field goal percentage has dipped from last year to 45.1 percent. He needs to get better at recognizing double teams. Once he does that, I'm hopeful we'll see great things.

Hoops Draft Night Card No. 3, Bradley Beal
"There's not a whole lot this guy can't do on the basketball court. Beal is a great 3-point shooter, first and foremost."

Some nights this season have clearly been a struggle for Bradley as he gets used to being in the NBA on a bad team. But there's no question we are still waiting for "greatness" from the three point line: Bradley ranks 131st in the NBA from downtown and Martell Webster, A.J. Price and Jordan Crawford are shooting better from that range on our team.

Prestige Card No. 109, Emeka Okafor
"Okafor has been good for a double-double just about every night for his eight-year career."

Well, not this year. Okafor is averaging 7.5 points and 6.5 rebounds this season and has tallied a double-double in only two games. It's clearly the worst statistical season of his career. What is it about Washington that does that to people?

Prestige Card No. 178, Jan Vesely
"His popularity is on the rise in Washington."

I have no facts to dispute this claim, but it's not. It's just not. Sorry. And I like Ves a lot. I hope it all turns around when Wall returns.

Prestige Card No. 193, Shelvin Mack
"He was steady for Washington all season long, earning high marks from his coaches."

Not disputing the steady claim here but I doubt the high marks from the coaches considering we cut Shelvin during training camp. But...since we just re-signed him after firing his replacement (Jannero Pargo) and his replacement's replacement (Shaun Livingston), maybe he should have been on the team all along. Welcome back, Shelvin!

Totally Certified Card No. 8, Trevor Ariza
"After the club acquired him from the Hornets in the offseason, Ariza told The Washington Post, 'I definitely believe this can be a playoff team.'"

Well, believe away, Trevor. It's not going to be in 2012-13. The Wizards currently have the worst record in the NBA and it's not really that close. Admittedly, we are only 9-1/2 games out of the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference but it looks bleak, especially since we have only won four games so far. I believe the team deviated from the rebuild plan when trading for Okafor and Ariza in the hopes those two would get us over the hump. Doesn't look that way so far.

Totally Certified Card No. 28, Trevor Booker
"In his first two seasons since leaving Clemson, Booker has developed into a potentially dominant force on the glass for the Wizards."

I'm afraid I'm going to have to take issue with this whole statement. While Book has had some nice games, he's far from a "dominant force" or even a potential one. In his first two years, he averaged 3.9 and 6.5 rebounds per game but this year has dipped to 5.6 while only playing in nine of our first 27 games.

Totally Certified Card No. 158, Emeka Okafor
"After three seasons with the Hornets, Okafor now joins a young Wizards team with a strong nucleus that is looking to make a big jump in 2012-13."

We're still looking to make that jump. So far, our winning percentage has dropped from .303 last year to .148 this year. Even though I can feel good about last night's win over Orlando,  there is still a long way to go.

Totally Certified Card No. 236, Jan Vesely
"With Vesely, former No. 1 overall pick John Wall, and 2012 first rounder Bradley Beal, Washington has the makings of a high-speed, high scoring team this year."

I know this is unfair because Wall hasn't played a single minute yet, but "high scoring" absolutely positively cannot be used to describe the Wizards this year. The team is dead last in scoring  in the NBA this year at 89.2 points per game, a full 2.2 points per game behind the next highest (or should it be lowest?) team. We are also on track to set a franchise mark for fewest points per game in a season.

My friend Mike asked me a couple of weeks ago why every other team seems to get better and the Wizards don't. I don't have a good answer to that question. No doubt injuries have killed the Wizards in the first third of the season, probably making anything we do in the rest of the season irrelevant. And it's difficult to judge based on what happened last year, but most of our guys are clearly struggling. I'd be a much happier guy if just some of the stuff above were true and believe me, I really really want it to be true. Maybe when John Wall finally plays this year. Or maybe next year, right?

December 26, 2012

Missing Games

From late October to mid-April (and sometimes later if I am really really really lucky), I organize my life around the Washington Wizards schedule. That may sound extremely sad, but it's true. That means a few things.

First and big picture-wise, I schedule no vacations from October to April without first understanding how the basketball schedule lays out. That doesn't mean no vacations during this period, just none without understanding how our home schedule works. In really good years, and quite honestly during the beginning of every year when playoff optimism runs high for me, I extend this window to June in case (and don't laugh), we make the NBA Finals. OK, go ahead and laugh. It IS funny, after all.

Second, I reserve certain days for basketball related activities. That means a half day off work on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day for the mostly annual matinee game (except for inauguration years, meaning no MLK Day game this year for me); a whole day off work for the NBA trade deadline; and no plans at night during weeknights in late October for the Meet the Team Party. The NBA trade deadline, which surprisingly, is not one of my company's floating holidays, has only been an annual event once (in 2012); I just got tired of surfing the internet at work during the afternoon for trade rumors and decided I would just go ahead and take the whole day off this past year. The Meet the Team Party is especially important; I once left a regional management meeting in Roanoke early so I could get back to DC for that one year. Thanks to my boss for covering for me on that one.

And third, I check the schedule magnet on my fridge at home before committing to any plans during the season. For some reason, this annoys some people (I can't imagine why!) but my friends are mostly tolerant of my neurosis and somehow manage to accommodate me. Sometimes, I have to take risks and commit to things ahead of knowing the schedule but if that's the biggest risk I have to take in life, then I think I'm OK with that.

Sometimes, despite my best efforts, I miss a game or two. I missed the November 30 thrashing by the Knicks in New York this year to go see Neil Young at the Patriot Center and I'll miss west coast games every year because it's just not worth it to stay up really late to watch the Wizards lose to the Kings/Lakers/Clippers/Warriors/Trailblazers (just pick one) on a school night and have to feel like a zombie the next day at work. If we win, it would be worth it; but let's face it, most times, we don't.

While I'm OK with missing road games once in a while, I hate missing home games. Absolutely hate it! I am a fan and feel it's my duty to show up and cheer on the home five, no matter how bad it gets. Despite my best efforts, I've only once made it to all the home games in a year (in the 19-63 2008-2009 season) so I'm used to missing at least one a year. I still don't like it.

Worth missing a game for? I think so. She's already equipped with her own stuffed G-Wiz!
But sometimes, there are things in life which are more important than basketball. That is not a typo; it's true and I really believe it. And Christmas with my family, and especially my six month old niece, is one of those. Even though she has no idea what's going on and won't remember any of this, I wouldn't miss her first Christmas for anything. Usually I spend Christmas within driving distance of Verizon Center so I can get to home games even though I am away for the holidays. This year, I am not within reasonable driving distance of VC so with the Wizards sitting at 3-22 and riding a seven game losing streak, I am missing tonight's game. I'll have to "watch" the game on the NBA Game Time app on my iPad and hope that the Wizards somehow pull it out against the still hated Cleveland Cavaliers with what I presume will be 11 healthy players, two of whom we signed three days ago. It'll be alright, even if we lose, it's more important to be here right now. Merry Christmas!

Let's go Wizards!

December 7, 2012

Beating LeBron

Randy Wittman: "That was a complete game for us, start to finish. I'll be able to sleep tonight."
This past Tuesday, the Miami Heat came to town to take on the Wizards in what looked like a laugher: the reigning NBA Champions against unquestionably the worst team in the league. The Heat came in sporting a Southeast Division leading 12-3 record and the Wizards were still struggling to find their second win of the season. Even worse for Wizards fans, when you looked at the upcoming schedule, you could maybe, and I stress maybe here, circle the December 11 game at New Orleans as a game which we had a shot at. The Wizards were home underdogs to the tune of 10.5 points Tuesday night; even with that line, I'm not sure too many would have put some money out there on us.

However, what emerged was the Wizards best effort of the season, a game in which we outshone Miami in almost every statistical category and came away with a four point victory. The fourth quarter was rough as the Heat just failed on a comeback attempt that  featured two missed three point shot attempts in the last couple of minutes by the league's supposed best player, LeBron James himself. It's games like this that make it worthwhile to buy season tickets.

Over my 12 plus years as a Wizards season ticket holder, my team hasn't had a lot of statement victories against the Heat. In fact, I think it's fair to say that we have had none. We've pretty much been dominated by Miami over that period of time. Since the 2000-2001 season, the Wizards are 14-37 against the Heat, a run which included a paltry eight home wins. We were swept six of the last 12 years, including three consecutive season sweeps from the 2003-2004 season to the 2005-2006 season. It got so bad in 2004-2005 that we actually got swept twice by the Heat: going 0-4 in the regular season and 0-4 again in the second round of the playoffs.

But if there's one team the Wizards have been able to beat regularly (at least at home), it's teams with three-time league MVP LeBron James on them. And beating those teams, whether it be the Cleveland Cavaliers or his current team, the Heat, is so special because LeBron has been such a villain over the years in Washington. The latest win continued that tradition and allowed us fans to feel for a moment that we might be way better than our 1-13 (now 2-13) record indicated. Now our team needs to build on that game and our fans need to start believing again. Oh, and start booing LeBron every time he touches the ball as we did in the past few years. I'm confident he couldn't hear my solo booing from Section 402.

While Tuesday's win made me feel hopeful again, it's probably the fourth best win over LeBron teams I've attended. So in honor of our two days of post-win game-free gloating, I feel it's appropriate to re-live the top three wins over LeBron in my time at Verizon Center. It always feels good to reminisce about these games. And yes, I know I'm hung up on this whole hating LeBron thing and I don't care. I'm in good company: Dan Steinberg and Michael Jenkins are right there with me.

Bronze Medal Winner: January 4, 2009 a.k.a. the Crab Dribble Game.
The 2008-2009 NBA season saw the Wizards fall precipitously. After four consecutive playoff appearances and three hard-fought postseason series against LeBron's Cleveland Cavaliers, our team was officially lottery bound again. By the time this game rolled around after the 2009 new year, the Wizards were mired in last place with a 6-25 record and the Cavaliers were riding high at 27-5. The two teams had met a couple of weeks earlier on Christmas Day where the Wizards made a game of an early blowout and ended up losing by four. This game went the exact opposite way, with the Wizards building a sizeable lead before the Cavs made a run and the Wizards did their best to fumble the game away. What made this game special was how it ended.

With 10.5 seconds remaining, the Wizards led by 2 and the Cavaliers had the ball. Of course, the last play started with LeBron who drove the lane into traffic and drew a whistle. But incredibly and clearly audible and visible from our spot in Section 109, the whistle was for traveling. Traveling? On LeBron? Is that possible? LeBron of course went nuts, stupefied that the referees dared to call a travel. I've sat through enough games with LeBron calls that went against our team that I was similarly stunned. If only we'd had some of those calls for charging in past playoff years when Jared Jeffries was in place in front of LeBron. Despite LeBron's protests, the call stuck and we won the game.

But after the game, LeBron wouldn't let it go. The move, which he claimed the referees didn't understand, was a crab dribble. I guess when you get away with this stuff for long enough, you start to believe you are in the right. The post game quotes say it all.

LeBron James: "Bad call. That's one of my plays. You know, it kind of looks like a travel because it's slow, and it's kind of like high steps, but it's a one-two. I think they need to look at it again and need to understand that's not a travel."

Antawn Jamison: "He said he's seen the play a couple of times and didn't think he traveled, but we all know what traveling is. They got the tape to prove the history of that signature move that he has, but it was a travel, hands down. When he beats us on end-of-game situations or finds a way to get it done, we give him credit, but it didn't happen and the right call was called."

Caron Butler: "It's a travel. It was the exact same move two years ago in the playoffs. I definitely knew he traveled, but I didn't think they were gonna call it. You know, two years ago, looking in hindsight, it was the same thing that happened in the playoffs. And we get that call, who knows what would have happened with everybody healthy. But that was one of them situations in which a great player made a move, good officiation, and they called the call. And I was just like, 'Aw, man. There is a God. There is a God.'"

LeBron James: "WAAAAAAAHH!" OK, so that's a made up quote; he probably didn't actually say that. Probably.

Runner Up: November 18, 2009 a.k.a. DeShawn Stevenson Bobblehand Night.
When the Wizards put together the giveaway schedule for the 2009-2010 season, they chose the first home game against the Cavaliers as DeShawn Stevenson Bobblehand Night. That's right, bobbleHAND, not bobbleHEAD, in recognition of D-Steve's I can't feel my face move (where he waves his open palm in front of his face) as a celebration of big shots made. This is by far the coolest bobble I own and I assume the Wizards picked this night for the giveaway in recognition of DeShawn's history of verbal sparring with the Cavaliers' star.

Like the Crab Dribble Game, this game featured an underachieving 2-7 Wizards team playing an 8-3 Cavaliers team on its way to a second consective first place conference finish. Also like the Crab Dribble Game, the two teams had met a couple of weeks prior in Cleveland and the Cavaliers had emerged victorious. The Wizards were in the midst of an abyssmal start (or at least it seemed abyssmal back then) and needed a good game to get on track.

The Wizards killed the Cavs that night. It wasn't even close. But the best part was LeBron's behavior. The Wizards put DeShawn Stevenson on LeBron on the defensive end, which is really matching our shooting guard against the Cavs' small forward, and LeBron seemed to be pissed off about that, as if we would have the nerve to think that DeShawn could cover him. LeBron ended the game with 34 points but the kind of basketball he played was not team basketball and it killed the Cavs. Basically DeShawn got inside LeBron's head and made him give up the game. It was perfect. LeBron even managed to hurt his hand a little when he dunked aggressively on a fourth quarter breakaway when the game was far out of reach just to show how hard he can dunk.

For another perspective, I recommend you read Dan Steinberg's article about this game. OK, so it's pretty much the same perspective, just funnier and with more pictures. This may be the finest piece of sports writing ever.

The Champion: April 24, 2008 a.k.a. the Soulja Boy Game.
How is there ever going to be a game more fun than this one in the near future? I'm not sure that there is going to be, is the answer. Let's go to the transcripts.

March 13, 2008: The Wizards beat the Cavaliers at Verizon Center 101-99. DeShawn Stevenson after the game: "[LeBron's] overrated. And you can say I said that."

A few days later: LeBron James: "With DeShawn Stevenson, it is kind of funny. It's almost like Jay-Z saying something bad about Soulja Boy. There's no comparison. Enough said."

March 19, 2008: The Wizards beat the Orlando Magic in Orlando 87-86. DeShawn Stevenson after the game: "I hope we play Cleveland. I'm going to get Soulja Boy courtside seats and have him wear a DeShawn Stevenson jersey."

Sure enough the playoffs rolled around and the Wizards ended up in the first round against Cleveland. And sure enough, just like DeShawn promised, he sat Soulja Boy in the first row in a DeShawn Stevenson jersey. Trailing 0-2 in the series, the Wizards came out strong in game three. It was a 16 point game at the half, a 26 point game at the end of three and at the final buzzer, the Wizards had won by 36, the largest playoff margin of defeat for the Cavaliers and the largest playoff margin of victory for the Wizards ever. It was gloriously not even close and the building rocked.

The best moment came in the fourth quarter when Soulja Boy danced from his front row seat while making DeShawn's I can't feel my face motion. Moments later DeShawn hit back to back threes. Over James. The absurdity of this situation is not lost on me but it's one of my most cherished moments as a Wizards fan ever.

Now we just need to start winning more games like Tuesday's game this year. Atlanta up tonight.