Monthly Archives: May 2013

There are fanbases that would kill for this. Remember that, when the not-that-good Capitals inevitably fall in the first or second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, again. This postseason appearance is Washington’s sixth consecutive, a mark matched by only nine other teams, out of 60, in the 16-playoff team NBA and NHL.

Of course, the Capitals, along with the Atlanta Hawks, are the only team of the 10 not to even reach the conference finals, never to play for a banner.

The Capitals, though, are not the Hawks. The Hawks are NBATV fodder for a reason: They know their place, in a league where place is everything. Atlanta, in the Al Horford-Josh Smith era, has never lost a series to a lower-seeded team, and only once — and that’s counting a 4/5 “upset” — beat a higher-seeded team. There’s never been much doubt about how the Hawks’ season will end.

The Capitals appeared set to ride a linear trajectory to June glory, the way Pittsburgh and Chicago did in transforming young cores into Stanley Cup champions. There was the run to the Southeast title in 2008, the accession to elite status in 2009, the Presidents’ Trophy in 2010. Then, of course, there was Montreal — or, more devastatingly, the club’s reaction to Montreal, i.e., Bruce Boudreau playing a trap. Japers’ Rink has you covered in greater detail, but in summary: The Capitals’ front office has spent the last few years making the team worse. This isn’t just a new-age, advanced stats thing — the Capitals have gone from back-to-back No. 1 seeds to back-to-back final week playoff qualification.

It’s very hard to root for a team that explicitly rejected the group you fell for in the first place. My hockey identity became so wrapped up in the Capitals’, circa 2008-10, that to a certain degree I wasn’t just rooting for the Washington Professional Hockey Team, but what they represented: A fast-paced, offense-first club that drove xenophobes crazy. And when George McPhee essentially said, “You know what, Mike Milbury, Pierre McGuire — you were right,” well, what the hell am I supposed to do? How do you watch Dale Hunter stick Ovechkin and Alex Semin on the bench and play coin-flip hockey with Jay Beagle without a heavy dose of nostalgia, sadness, and, of course, bitter anger? (Granted, Adam Oates has reversed course to an extent, but this isn’t 2009, either.)

The worst part is, if the Capitals do win, we’ll hear how it’s because they fired Boudreau and let Semin walk. And Capitals’ players will probably say it, too, because they’re trained enough in the media lingo to know you can’t tell ESPN, “Yeah, my mindset was exactly the same as in 2010, we just hit fewer posts this time.” When teams win playoff games, nowadays, it’s because they’ve learned from some previous moral or psychological failing, like having too many Russians on the team.

These Capitals have already risen, peaked, and fallen. Now they’re just … around, in the playoffs mostly because their division is terrible and because it’s the NHL, where making the playoffs isn’t the hardest thing in the world. Sure, there’s less pressure on them, but that’s mostly because everyone accepted this team has “failed” and moved on to another target. And, no, that’s not in some way a good thing. I want all the fucking pressure you can scrounge up. Teams face pressure because they’re contenders and because they matter. Pressure is a good thing.

But to get back to the Hawks, a far-too maligned team, in my opinion — things could be worse. The playoffs, even in leagues where more than half the teams make the playoffs, are still an incredibly pulsating and involved experience. For all the JaVale McGee .gifs and fantasy drafts and sports peripheral entertainment, this is why we watch sports, for those playoff moments when everything stops and it’s just you, your TV screen, and your favorite team, win or go home. As long as the Capitals keep giving me that — and, incredibly, the Capitals have played six Game 7’s in the last five years (with all but one decided by one goal) — I can’t complain too much.

And the Capitals still have Alex Ovechkin. Russian Machine Never Breakssubhead now depressingly mentions only “Alex Ovechkin and his Russian bros,” because all his Russian bros are spread across the country, no longer playing for the Capitals, but he’s still here, and perhaps the best player in hockey once again. Since Ovechkin claimed his second MVP award in 2009 (and he may have earned a third in 2010, if not for a specious suspension), the latest figures anointed as the one to lead D.C. sports from its 20 years in the desert have included John Wall, Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper, and of course, Robert Griffin III. For now, at least, they’re all still pretenders to the throne. They will, hopefully, get there, to a point where playoff games are a given and championships are an expectation. But Ovechkin’s already been there, and especially in Washington, that has to mean something.

Oates certainly appears to like Ovechkin, so we’re at least free from the Dale Hunter Experience and the mess of contradictions that surrounded last season’s playoff run/series of coinflips. But … puck possession isn’t just some fancy concept Neil Greenberg invented. This awesome graphic doesn’t lie.

I’d rather put my faith in the numbers than hope we’re the outlier. And it’d be far easier to hope we’re the outlier if we didn’t have to be.


Here’s a stat for you. Former Maryland Terrapins have made three all-NBA teams, ever. Two of these appearances belong to Gene Shue, so if we’re talking about all-NBA appearances in the era when the league had more than eight teams, we’re talking about Buck Williams in 1983. (Wake Forest, a much less accomplished basketball school, has 11 first-team appearances between Tim Duncan and Chris Paul alone)

Williams, having looked this up now, is actually a fairly underrated player, ranking 13th all-time in rebounds and collecting four all-defensive team honors while playing an important role on some early ’90s Portland Trailblazers teams unfortunately relegated to the non-Michael, Magic, and Isiah section of that era’s history. But when Buck Williams is probably the program’s best NBA player (Steve Francis made three all-star teams, but this is completely attributable to being Yao Ming’s teammate, since he made all of them as a starter), there’s something of a schism between the Terps with NBA relevance and those who left a mark in College Park. (Not that Williams wasn’t a great Terp — he made two all-ACC teams — but you don’t see his name on too many hypothetical Terps’ historic starting fives.)

This strange relationship between the program and the NBA leads us to the latest Terp to depart for the NBA, Alex Len. Assuming Len goes in the top 10, as most draft experts seem to be predicting, he will join a pretty impressive list:

Gene Shue
Al Bunge
Tom McMillen
John Lucas
Buck Williams
Albert King
Len Bias
Walt Williams
Joe Smith
Steve Francis
Chris Wilcox

Len is far from the first Terp to leave College Park early by way of a pleasant send-off presser (as opposed to, say, how John Gilchrist left). But most of the others left a far more lasting impact on the program, even if they were, for one reason or another, largely disappointments in the pros.

Chris Wilcox started on a national champion; Joe Smith was the consensus national player of the year on an ACC regular-season title-winner. Even Steve Francis, a ju-co transfer who played a single season at Maryland, was the best player on a No. 2 seed and, to that point, the first Terps team with legitimate title hopes since sometime in the Lefty days. Smith and even Francis have numbers hanging from the Comcast rafters for a reason: They weren’t four-year players, but there was a Joe Smith year, there was a Steve Francis year, in College Park. (And, again, Chris Wilcox started on a national champion.)

For whatever reason, this fanbase doesn’t have much experience sending relatively unremarkable college players into the NBA stratosphere. Maryland doesn’t have guys like Chris Bosh or Derrick Favors, top-5 picks out of Georgia Tech who went a combined 14-18 in ACC play. can go crazy when an announcer casually notes that Wilcox or Steve Blake went to Maryland because, well, for the Terps to even have a 10-year pro on a playoff team actually registers as a meaningful accomplishment here.

Alex Len? He had a less distinguished Terps career than Jordan Williams, who left after his sophomore season and then never got in shape because he thought the season would be cancelled. (And on that second-round contract, that was definitely a risk worth taking.) Based on his tally in all-ACC voting, Len was the 19th best player in the conference. Williams at least left as a first-teamer, on a similarly flawed team.

This isn’t entirely Len’s fault, of course. His lack of college success is partly an indictment of him, but more a casualty of terrible timing; if Len warps time and replaces Williams on the 2010 Terps, he’d have a share of an ACC title, too. Damn right he should go pro; everyone who can secure a first-round contract should go pro. He should’ve been getting paid, in a currency he can use, for two years now. Mark Turgeon said Len’s game is better suited for the NBA, and he’s probably right. Len’s inability to handle double teams should matter a little less when he isn’t on the floor with four 19-year-olds.

Len had his moments. There was his opening-night display at Madison Square Garden, his 19-point, 9-rebound outing against Mason Plumlee in the Terps’ first win over Duke since 2010, and his game-winning putback against N.C. State. But these are moments, not a season, and definitely not a career. His Terps went 8-10 in ACC play, and he threw up a few absolute stinkers along the way. Had Len not gotten himself in foul trouble and posted terrible, 4-point games against mediocre opposition like Florida State and Boston College, maybe the Terps make the NCAA Tournament, with Len as the driving force behind a return to March Madness. Len simply wasn’t good enough, albeit as a sophomore from Ukraine who didn’t even get a full freshman year, to sufficiently accelerate the Terps’ rebuilding process. Someone will be that guy, but at this point it’ll likely be Dez Wells, who already has a sparkling ACC Tournament performance to his name.

Plenty of fans, myself included, look at Len’s draft prospects and scream “Darko!” This really is lazy ethnic sports-comparison at its worst. Len actually seems to enjoy playing basketball; that alone should make him more successful than Darko Milicic. The scary part is, if Len can sneak his way onto a few all-star teams or a third-team all-NBA, he’ll have a legitimate claim, thanks to the accidents and tragedies of history, to being the best Terp pro of all time.

I really have no idea how Len will fare in the NBA. But I do know that I’ll care far less about probable lottery pick Alex Len than I did about late-first rounder Greivis Vasquez. Whatever thrill I might derive from watching Len do something in the league won’t compare to seeing Greivis Vasquez – our Greivis Vasquez! — knock down a huge 3-pointer in a double-overtime playoff game against Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. This is the program we’ve claimed to want. Now we’re getting it.