Author Archives: Alex

Are we there yet? Have we crossed the Rubicon? One day, LeBron James will lose a playoff series – for the record, the guy’s 11 for his last 12 – and America will have to react. And I think it’s all Michael Jordan’s fault.

The Jordan narrative, more than anything else, is excruciatingly linear. Like LeBron, he didn’t win a title for the first seven or eight years of his career. LeBron couldn’t get past the Celtics; Jordan couldn’t get past the Pistons. Is LeBron too passive; is Jordan too much of a ball hog? But then Jordan wins his first title … and he never loses a title in a full season again. Once he becomes champion, he remains champion forever, in easily digestible three-peats. We’re smart enough not to apply this logic anywhere else. After Peyton Manning finally beat New England in the playoffs on the way to a Super Bowl title, we didn’t expect him to play perfectly in every playoff game since (and have mostly stood idly by has he hasn’t). Even in sports that actually are individual, not just perceived as such, we understand this: No one tried to take back Andy Murray’s elusive U.S. Open title when he lost in the Australian final a few months later.

This postseason, though, with the slowly awakening Western frontier town, to take Dan Le Batard’s analogy, convinced me we’re not prepared for LeBron not winning the championship. Bill Simmons poked his head out from under the table, doing sky-is-falling, trade-everyone podcasts with Brian Windhorst after every big loss; the old ghosts crept to the fore. Should the Spurs have won Games 6 or 7 – and, lest we ever forget, they were one Kawhi Leonard free throw, one offensive rebound, or two hurried 3-pointers from doing so – LeBron, last season’s conquering hero, would have lost a series in which he played perfectly competently, but far from extraordinarily. It would probably have been considered a failure by many (we were, after all, having a National Discussion about whether three straight trips to the Finals is anything but an enormous success), because we don’t know what to do with a basketball player who’s anointed the best player since Jordan whose career arc doesn’t exactly follow Jordan’s.

I don’t think we have this problem if Jordan drops just one series over those two three-peats – if he, as very plausibly could have happened, doesn’t always defend his title and loses to New York, or to Phoenix, or to Indiana, or to Utah. Somehow, whether thanks to Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Phil Jackson, the role players, or dumb luck, that never happened, and we don’t have the memory of Jordan walking off the court in a deciding game, defeated. San Antonio is a fantastic basketball team, one of those basketball teams other fantastic basketball teams should be allowed to lose to without being called names. But because Jordan avoided that fate, LeBron must do so, too. Jordan just might’ve ruined sports analysis for everyone else.

By this point, I would hope, the scales have swung convincingly enough in the right direction. The entire LeBron-as-clutch-failure narrative is based on a stunningly small, albeit high-profile sample – Game 5 against the Celtics in 2010, and Games 3-6 against the Mavericks the next year. Five games. On the other side is pretty much everything else he’s ever done. Sure, LeBron could throw up a stinker in his next elimination game, but he’d still probably have the highest points per game in elimination games in league history. It’s time we retire even the gentler trope, the “LeBron’s so interesting because we don’t know what he’ll do in this big spot” column that Joe Posnanski wrote nicely enough for most readers to forget it’s still psycho-analytic crap.

Maybe it’ll be different now, with the Heat having transitioned from loud new kid on the block to venerable champion looking to complete the set (In the NBA, everything comes in threes). I hope LeBron, after Game 4 in Indiana, Game 6 in Boston, Game 4 against Oklahoma City, Game 7 against San Antonio, has so earned our trust that when he inevitably goes down, we’ll celebrate him, too, the way we celebrated Roger Federer’s gripping Wimbledon defense against Rafael Nadal in 2008 or Djokovic valiantly holding off Murray for hours last year in Flushing. There’s too much variance in sports, too many injuries, too many subjective calls, for LeBron to win every time, even when he is the best player on the court. I don’t think we were there yet in 2013, which – I suppose I’m a little disappointed I determined a rooting interest this way – pointed me toward the Heat in the battle between my two favorite non-Wizards teams. Whenever someone does knock off King James, I hope they get full credit for dethroning a champion — and I hope “choked” is nowhere to be found.


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.

There’s something surreal about watching your favorite sports moment of all time unfold without all the flim-flam, without Greg Gumbel intoning the Ravens’ season is on the line, Dan Dierdorf saying Dan Dierdorf things, and a collage of CBS graphics cluttering the screen.

This is the greatest play in Ravens history, completely unfettered.

As you probably know, I’m quite skeptical of the “clutch gene.” Everyone who isn’t in the stadium views the game from the perspective of a network with a vested interest in reaffirming how very important these moments are, how much pressure the athletes face. On the field? I’m very confident Joe Flacco was not thinking about any of that.

Flacco reared back and chucked a ball far down the right sideline. It’s something he’s been doing his entire career; he is, after all, the “big-armed oaf who saved Baltimore.” Jacoby Jones caught it and sprinted into the end zone. A few Ravens met in the end zone; you can see them celebrating — Anquan Boldin gives a mock Mile High salute. You can hear an anguished Broncos’ fan, a drawn-out “no!” followed by, “Are you fucking kidding me?”

No, no we aren’t.

Bill Simmons often laments that the Celtics, thanks to Kevin Garnett’s injury in 2009, Kendrick Perkins’ injury in the 2010 NBA Finals, and Perkins’ trade to Oklahoma City the following year, never got a true chance to defend their 2008 title. Celtics fans play cute with the facts here — Andrew Bynum missed the 2008 Finals, after all, and injury is part of the risk with an aging team — but the basic premise remains. Boston put together a talented, cohesive core, that with a few breaks could’ve won two or three straight titles. At the time, that championship looked like the start of something new.

Last month’s Super Bowl win, though, was a culmination. Since then, Ozzie Newsome’s expressed a clear refusal to sacrifice the franchise’s long-term health for another run at Super Bowl glory. He has his second ring, and now he’s moving on.

The Ravens will not defend their title in any meaningful sense of the word. Yes, they’ll get that prime-time Thursday NBC slot to open the season. But they’ll be without the emotional leaders who defined the era the title validated, with a transition long in the making finally having been formalized, although as of now its main beneficiary appears an Aberdeen McDonald’s.

The heart of this team was 37; its soul was 34. Dismembering an “old guard” is one of the most delicate tasks management can perform. But like a band-aid, it’s actually less painful to remove all at once.

On Twitter, Ravens muse Kevin Van Valkenburg noted fans should view this team as a class of graduating seniors. Savor their accomplishments, but welcome a new group.

Still, it’s only natural to want to return to battle with the troops you had — especially when the players we’re parting ways with include football “warriors” like Anquan Boldin and Bernard Pollard. (Belittle the war analogy all you want, but the Ravens celebrated their title by riding around the city in tanks, and no one really seemed particularly off-put by the whole thing.)

But we have to accept this. You can’t embrace the last-ride mentality in January and renege by March. Winning a Super Bowl doesn’t change that. If anything, it solidifies our direction.

The Ravens weren’t built to be a dynasty. That ship sailed when Chris Redman, Kyle Boller, and Anthony Wright took meaningful snaps for top-5 defenses.

We’ve locked up Joe Flacco, because when you have a quarterback who just threw 11 touchdowns and 0 interceptions over four playoff games, that’s what you do. I’ll gladly accept the risk Flacco regresses to whatever exactly his mean is rather than risk returning to the quarterback wilderness. You just can’t win Super Bowls with Trent Dilfer anymore. Locking in slightly above-average players like Dannell Ellerbe and Paul Kruger to near superstar-level contracts is, regardless of the sport, the surest way to mismanage a payroll. Boldin will be 33 next season, and the list of receivers who age gracefully is a short one. Pollard? Yes, the Ravens beat New England partly because we beat their skill players into submission. But that’s clearly a decreasingly sustainable defensive model, and at some point John Harbaugh probably deserves a team he can fully call his own, despite my personal affinity for player old guards that have de facto locker room control.

Having feared the worst only a few months ago, I don’t want to watch this team slowly disintegrate before our eyes.

If you love something, let it go.

* A quick Ed Reed note that will only make sense with some European soccer knowledge: Does it sting every time I see Didier Drogba play for a club called Galatasaray, a Turkish side I’d never heard of before it plucked Drogba from his strange Shanghai excursion? Absolutely, and it probably would even if Fernando Torres’ play didn’t resemble a lifeless imitation of Fernando Torres. But the final ball Didier Drogba ever kicked for Chelsea quite literally won the club the Champions League, and sometimes you shouldn’t mess with a perfect ending, particularly a Super Bowl that clearly meant so much to him.

Ideally, Reed would retire — I don’t want to see him play for another team, and I don’t want to see him disappoint in a Ravens uniform. But I don’t think Ed Reed cares what I want him to do.

The Super Bowl is fundamentally different from almost every other championship round. In the NBA, the conference semifinals lead into the conference finals; the conference finals lead into the NBA Finals. It’s a seamless, uninterrupted transition. The move from championship weekend to the Super Bowl, with its extended waiting period and neutral-site location, is far from it. Given the three-tiered AFC dominance Ravens fans have long suffered under, I think it’s fair to say the Super Bowl long felt like a party we were just never quite cool enough to get invited to.

For two weeks, everyone’s been talking about us. Without making the Super Bowl, we probably don’t get the features on how awesome Ed Reed is, on how awesome Ozzie Newsome is. And no, these aren’t first downs or defensive stops, but a two-week celebration of your team is still something worth getting excited about. But is getting to the party enough?

I wrote two weeks ago that the AFC championship means more, and I stand by that. Like nearly all Super Bowls, I really couldn’t care less about the specific opponent — that the 49ers are an exceptionally good team pretty much summarizes my opinion of them. But now that we’re here, now that we’re at the party … well, we may as well win. Not for this year, necessarily; this year is still a roaring success if we lose 37-3. I want to win this year to validate the last 10. For better or worse, the descriptor “champion” absolves a team from blame or ridicule. Past losses are suddenly just building blocks, and future losses are just losses, not moral failings. The Steelers missed the playoffs this year largely because Ben Roethlisberger threw terrible interceptions against Dallas and Cincinnati, and no one had a conniption. The Spurs had a 20-game win streak and a 2-0 conference finals lead last spring, lost four straight games, and no one noticed because LeBron James might choke again. I don’t think anyone ever accused the Ravens of losing big games because they lacked mental toughness, but there’s certainly a sense they talk a lot for a team that doesn’t beat its biggest rivals a lot. We’re on the precipice of erasing that now.

The trouble with a precipice, though, is getting back if you fail. Of course, the Ravens were on a lesser precipice last year, failed in the most agonizing fashion imaginable, and then came back to the scene to complete it. But doing the same for a Super Bowl is even more difficult — it’s a round deeper, with a few more teams to outperform. At some point, you’ve had your last chance.

We never really know when a team’s window has closed (see: every discussion about the Boston Celtics over the last four years), but even if the franchise’s window remains open — which, given the young skill position talent and front office ingenuity at our disposal, could be longer than we instinctively believe — it is obviously the “last ride” for the Ravens as we know them.

The Ravens will probably play in another Super Bowl one day, because they’re not the Browns anymore. But it probably won’t be the final game in a Ravens jersey for the two best players in franchise history; it probably won’t come after a string of two AFC championship losses and five playoff appearances in the previous six years; and it definitely won’t be the game culminating the formative years of our sports fandom.

It all boils down to a single three-hour game that will start about three hours from now. It’s exhilarating, but utterly terrifying. And all we can do is watch.

We were told things had changed. Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder – the Dan Snyder of seven head coaches and 14 quarterbacks in just 13 seasons – had mellowed out. Even Dave McKenna, the former Washington City Paper writer who penned the invaluable Cranky Redskins Fan’s Guide to Dan Snyder – the Dan Snyder who subsequently sued the Washington City Paper over the article (yes, that really happened; yes, he eventually dropped the lawsuit) – became a fan.

This season, the Redskins went 10-6 and won their first NFC East title since 1999, behind star quarterback Robert Griffin III. They even pulled ahead 14-0 in the first quarter of their playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks. But then, well, you know what happened. A few ineffective Griffin quarters and one gruesome fall later, the Redskins fell to Seattle, 24-14, and Griffin damaged his ACL and LCL, requiring offseason surgery.

A few points to consider here: Griffin had already sprained his LCL in a December game against the Baltimore Ravens; Griffin clearly tweaked his knee shortly before the Redskins’ second touchdown, in the first quarter, and ran gingerly afterward; Griffin is possibly the most valuable commodity in the entire NFL. Yet Redskins coach Mike Shanahan – the man to whom Snyder has turned over nearly every important football decision – left Griffin in the game until midway through the fourth quarter, when his knee gave out as he chased a snap.

The Redskins traded three first-round picks and a second-rounder for the No. 2 overall pick in last year’s draft, which they used to take Griffin. “For the Redskins to get the equivalent value from RGIII as they spent acquiring him,” the Harvard College Sports Analysis Collective wrote, “he must produce at least as much as Tom Brady.” Griffin’s health (and performance, but if he’s hurt, he certainly can’t perform) will be quite highly correlated with the long-term success of the franchise. Griffin’s even more important to the Redskins than Stephen Strasburg is to another local team, the Nationals.

The Nats caused some local consternation when they shut Strasburg, the No. 1 pick in the 2009 draft who injured his elbow and missed the entire 2011 season, down for the season in early September, despite the team having the best record in the National League. Griffin’s injury doesn’t prove Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo correct – I, at least, think the Nationals overreacted to pitcher overuse in earlier eras and didn’t necessarily save Strasburg from further injury – but it illustrates a crucial difference between franchises: the Nationals had a clear plan for handling their young star – cut him off at about 160 innings – while the Redskins evidently let their 22-year-old phenom, bred in a culture of macho toughness, make his own health decisions, parsing “injured” and “hurt.”

Redskins team doctor James Andrews told USA Today he didn’t even get to examine Griffin before he re-entered the Ravens game. Andrews’ sideline interaction with Shanahan was later termed a miscommunication, but there shouldn’t be any miscommunications among Redskins management about Robert Griffin III. And if there are – if the team’s “handling” of Griffin only involves shuttling him into a small red shed on the Fedex Field sideline before sending the gimpy No. 2 overall pick back onto the field to run dangerous quarterback options – that ultimately falls on Snyder. Just because he’s less visibly involved doesn’t mean he’s less to blame; merely handing control over to another short-sighted megalomaniac doesn’t mean he’s changed at all.