Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Splotch of Hodge Podge

If that doesn't soak your denim cornfed britches even a little bit, than I would rather not check your vegetative pulse. Haters may dub that cheesy Hawkeye propaganda, but true-blue Iowans will feel more than a twinge of pride and a waterfall of tears just watching the first two minutes of that. Big props go to Scothawk there. As you can tell, Iowa football can't come soon enough of me. Long nights of aimless boredom inevitably lead to me watching a treasure chest full of nostalgic Hawkeye successes, and my daily bouts of "living the dream" usually just consist of me imagining myself planted among a sea of gold next fall. Though my loyal readers may be wavering in their interest, and the summertime has just begin, I think some Hawkeye football chatter is in definite order.

Besides Hawkeye football being on the cusp of possessing my brain, it is the NBA offseason for my Houston Rockets, and there are 5 main concerns that immediately spring to my mind for Daryl Morey and his brainiac crew to tackle.

1) Keep T-Mac on board (for now)- He likely won't be healthy and ready to play until January, so it's not like he'll screw up team chemistry for the 1st half of the season, when the Rockets will be defining their team and style of play. The ideal scenario would be for Houston to get off to a solid start to next year, developing a core and a foundation, so that McGrady's return would be a seamless one and the Rockets would gain that closing time scorer that they so desperately lack at this point. Next year is the final year of Tracy's massive bust of a contract, and with only half of a year in his creaky knees I don't see the benefit in trading him unless the other players absolutely abhor him. I realize my ideal scenario is highly unlikely, as anyone who watched a hobbled T-Mac limp around, hogging the ball and stalling any semblance of offensive movement or consistency, last season can attest that McGrady wasn't good for team chemistry. But saying that Houston is better without him is absurd. When healthy, he brings the explosive offensive force from the perimeter that could have pushed Houston over L.A. in the playoffs this year. I just don't see the big risk in giving him one last chance to prove himself in the last half of a contract year, when he'll likely be much more motivated than he was to start this season.

2) Keep Yao Ming- Yes, his foot injuries have been as routine as massive dumps after eating at a Chinese buffet, but the guy is Houston's rock and cornerstone. Houston is the only American home he has ever known, so besides being rash and illogical, getting rid of Yao because of his injury woes would also be unethical! I can't picture Mr. Ming getting around so easy in a place like New York. The value of a true, dominate big man cannot be stressed enough, and though there are many Rockets fans who argue that Houston is a better offensive team without Yao because they can push the ball and run the fastbreak, that is utter bullshit. Just watch the L.A. series when the shots weren't falling from three, and tell me that with a straight face. Just look at Dwight Howard and the Magic. It's such a rarity to have a large guy who you can just throw the ball into and expect a layup or free throws everytime, and Yao can be that guy when healthy. His size, his greatest asset, is also his biggest problem, however, as a man of his stature and weight (360 pounds) cannot support those quick feet of his. He only has one year left anyway, so I say Houston keeps the plan to build around the Great Wall unless another foot injury decimates next season. Then it's time to seriously look at getting rid of him, or find the Yao Ming voodoo doll sitting in Greg Popovich's office.

3) Keep Aaron Brooks!! At all costs- There have been minor rumblings of Houston looking at Steve Nash. I have one word for that-NO. Brooks is Houston's most exciting young player, and the future at the point guard position. He may be the lightest player in the league, but his scintallating range and 1st step are both rare in this league and traits that the Rockets need to embrace. Getting a washed up veteran like Nash would keep Houston competitive and competing for a spot in the Western finals, but it would heavily stunt their growth for the future and leave Houston in a similar position as Dallas is now with Kidd, stuck in an expensive rutt going nowhere. Who knows what effect it would have on Brooks, if he was still on the
team at all, and the chemistry of this team. I think they showed their heart and unity in the playoffs this year, pushing the much better Lakers to the brink and playing with reckless intensity every night. There are those who would argue that a stoic, pinpoint passer like Nash would be an instant energy boost for Houston and supercharge the other players, but either way, Houston needs Brooks!

4)Get another big man...ASAP- Houston's lack of any post depth was horrifically exposed in this year's playoffs, when 40something year old backup center Dikembe Mutombo went down with a career-ending knee injury and Yao was forced to be overworked, lacking any legitimately tall backup, and play the majority of the game. Not good for a guy his size. When Yao went down, it became like some surreal nightmare, with 6 foot 6 Chuck Hayes starting at center. I love Houston's guys at power forward (Luis Scola, Carl Landry, and Hayes), but a backup for Yao is a necessity, and I don't know how they will get one without trading some of their valuable assets. I would love a Jason Maxiell from Detroit, but I don't know how much of a center he is or what it would take to get him, as he appears to be an integral part of their future. I would even take an effective, skilled stiff like Brad Miller, though his price might be too hefty. I'll leave that up to Morey and Rick Adelman, but it's stunningly apparent that Yao needs a big man. With T-Mac not coming back 'til January, I don't see too many tradeable folks. I would consider Shane Battier an untradeable player because of his defense and value to team chemistry, as well as Aaron Brooks and Ming (obviously), maybe even Lowry because he's the only point guard backup, but other than that everyone should be looked at as a trade option for a good backup.

5) Ron Artest? Von Wafer?- Artest was only signed to a one-year deal, as Houston was hoping for a "all cards on the table" moment with the Big Three healthy and a title in the future, but with all the injuries and problems with defining chemistry and a consistent playing style, that plan obviously didn't work out. Artest was a leader all season, and a fantastic, hard-nosed defensive player who gave Houston a physical presence they had lacked before, but his offensive game and shooting were horribly inconsistent. In the playoffs, he would go from 25 points one game to 8 the next, usually with a 4-16 shooting percentage. Every player goes through cold spells and brickfests, but Artest's problem was that he didn't know when to quit shooting and just take it the basket. There were none of those infamous attitude problems or mental breakdowns he had been known for, but is it worth it to re-sign him again? I think it's a must to nab him again for another couple years, at least for next year because Houston will really lack offensive weapons until T-Mac comes back. I would beopen to not re-signing him if they could get a better offensive player, as Shane Battier can occupy the defender's role, but I haven't heard of any players yet. Stay tuned. As for Von Wafer, he may become expendable with McGrady back, but his offense off the bench was a surprising spark for the Rockets. His venomous athleticism and deadeye three point shooting were invaluable for stretches during the regular season when Houston was undermanned, and he provided a force off the bench, but he often found himself in verbal sparring matches with Adelman over playing time and his reckless, shoot-first pass-later playing style. He's a fringe player and I could easily see him leaving or getting traded, but he may have earned a spot with his instant offense. I see him being used as trade bait, but in all honesty I'd rather see him stay. I love watching him play. Stay tuned, guys...

My next blog posts will all be centered around my upcoming trip to Europe, stocked with pictures, comments, observations, and hopefully witty, entertaining stories. Enjoy!

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Game 7


Ignoring the big red elephants in the room (keep T-Mac? Yao Ming's contract?) for the time being, it's time to all convince ourselves that Houston has a chance today, right? With the game's top closer, Kobe Bryant, in his legendary, celeb-stocked home arena, with two 7-footers in the post and a 6 ft. 10 guy waiting in the wings, undermanned and offensively challenged Houston shouldn't stand a chance against L.A. But this series has flashed a blazing middle finger to all convention and predictability, as Houston has scratched and clawed, playing stifling defense and hustling with a reckless energy juxtaposing heaviliy with L.A.'s rather lackadaiscal, arrogant sense of entitlement that they come out and play with. The Lakers are the most talented team in this league, at least in my opinion, and they've looked like it at times in this series, such as Game 5's 40 point blowout, but then there have been the double digit 1st quarter leads for Houston in games 3 and 6 that lead to blowouts on Houston's side. Starting a 6 ft. 6 offensive non-entity at center in Chuck Hayes and relying on great drive and kick passing and three point shooting to score points, Houston is playing with a fire that could go out at anytime. It's a testament to the work ethic and attitude of the Houston role players that they are even taking this thing to a Game 7; Aaron Brooks has emerged as one of the quickest, most explosive scoring points in the league, while Artest and Shane Battier are stellar perimeter defenders who will be asked to score plenty as well. Shane needs to hit his open threes, while Artest needs to play within the offense and take it the hoop instead of shooting one-foot fadeaways and jacking up a plethora of threes that slowly chip away the paint off the rim. Hayes and Scola MUST stay out of foul trouble because of lack of post depth and height in the paint. Hayes plays the best defense on Gasol because of his stout base and strength, while Scola was a major factor in Houston's Game 6 victory with his scoring and rebounding. He's the only guy on the team right now who can score down low. Carl Landry, Von Wafer, and Kyle Lowry will need to provide scoring sparks and some up-tempo energy off the pine as well, and the big thing will be getting off to a good start. Every time Houston has won since Yao Ming went down, they have exploded to crazy fast starts in the 1st quarter, developing a cushion firm enough to withstand LA's inevitable scoring runs. Since that has been the trend of the series, I would assume a fast start is essential, but we all know in Game 7 rulebooks are torn to shreds when nerves and adrenaline are running rampant. I sure wish Houston would have the chance to close out at home, but what more could you ask for than a Game 7 against the arrogant, Charmin-soft Lakers at the Staples Center? Houston should prolly get smashed today, but with the "heart of a champion" and the way we never know which Lakers team will show up or how much energy they will come out with, anything truly is possible. Just ask Kevin Garnett

Monday, May 11, 2009

The A.C.T.S. Conundrum

First of all, I would highly recommend reading Father David's post from today. As usual, he articulates perfectly what I'm trying to say, especially in the paragraph where he talks about the spirutal "high" of retreats and how real faith comes after the high has subsided, abandoning the superficial "addiction" that the good feeling of Jesus brings and developing a truly meaningful relationship with him. My big beef recently, the thing that had really been gnawing at my bones for a couple weeks, has been trying to stand up for the ACTS retreat, something that has benefited my life in so many ways but something I have so many doubts and questions with myself. Sometimes I wonder what my purpose/intention in leading ACTS is, and if I am actually doing anyone (or myself for that matter) any good. I am SO sick of having to defend the validity of ACTS to the throngs of passionate doubters as well, not because I don't have respect for them, but because more often than not I agree with their attacks and the only counter-defense I can erect is one that is flawed and littered with holes. It becomes impossible to stand up for the values and spiritual lessons imparted by ACTS when my fellow leaders are living a life of blatant hypocrisy...this shatters the impact it has on the retreatants and prospective retreatants, and alienates me from the people who I call my friends yet have no been on a retreat. They cannot accept a retreat that leads to one week or so of spiritual fulfillment and excitement, only to rot and decay back into the selfish, materialistic life that they were living before. And you know what? Neither can I. So how can I continue to stand up for something that I believe so strongly in, but that is crumbling from the inside due to the moral corruption of the so-called leaders? I just feel that the impact is so foggy and so lost in the translation due to the poisonous mouths of those who are doing the false preaching themselves. This has been my major gripe, and really my only gripe, since going on my first ACTS retreat 4 years ago. I cannot look at the disgusting hypocrisy of my "peers" and continue to believe fully in the message we are spreading, just because I know they are not living it and it cheapens my experience and my dedication to these values. I want with everything I have for all my friends and loved ones to go on these retreats and experience the amazing gift of grace that one receives, and I encourage anyone who has any doubts or misconceptions to speak to Father David, but I realize that you may not want to be a part of something that from the outside appears to be a huge facade of Jesus-worship manafactured only to mask the rancid life that you live on the weekends. But also realize that one person does not make the ACTS team: it is a community, a flawed one, but a community that is strong and made up of enough staunch, passionate people that it has a powerful impact. Just like all of humanity, not everyone can be perfect in their morals and beliefs, but the struggle and the effort is what makes these retreats so powerful and the struggle so tragic. The struggle is not meaningful without the effort, and that is my main concern. There are too many who are not even willing to change their lifestyle, stuck in the muck of their own selfishness and even, horrifically, making this retreat all about them and their own struggles, a pity party replacing a drenching rain of God's gifts. The retreat is about gratitude, about forming bonds and strong relationships with God and the people around you, and about overcoming struggles with faith, passion, and a belief in something more than the material, not about embracing a cocaine faith that feels thrilling for a few moments but soon disappates before anything of substance can come of it. I'm not going to divulge the secrets of ACTS...that is something that must be discovered on your own spiritual journey, an unexplainable event experienced tangibly, and I'm not trying to recruit, but it strikes me like a funeral bell that there are these misconceptions out there, breeding hypocrisy, that ACTS is a pushy, cultish group of God-fueled puppets only reading from a dry manuscript that means nothing to them and only creates the illusion of being God-driven. ACTS is a thriving, struggling, loving community, and though I have my own struggles and doubts about its power, I know at the end of the day that I gain my own self-fulfillment and contentment from it, and recognizing that others are struggling with me in solidarity makes the journey all the more meaningful.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Tired Madman

I've never been much of a sleeper, but this past year or so I've taken up my new profession as an Insomniac. Raging imaginations and a brain belching with satisfaction from a day's busy feast do little to satisfy the anxieties, stresses, and problems that keep me up all night. This only morphs me into a walking corpse the next day, and the next, and the next, basically setting me in some hallucinatory world where nothing makes sense and reality is surreal. Understanding me now? Because I sure don't. At least I don't look like Jeff Van Gundy yet, but when my hair starts falling out and big purple bags hang from myeyes, then I'll start to feel concern. My esteemed buddy Paul brings up the big, general existential fear of purpose, death, and the chilling realization that maybe we are just here, renting this place out until the great landlord evicts our sinful asses. With the end of everything innocent and connected to my seemingly brief childhood bombarding me these past few months at a rapid clip, it's pretty easy to lose track of life's importance and that an end always signifies a new beginning. Just with different people, and different places. That's the depressing part. Losing sleep just leaves you isolated too, as I wander the halls in a sleepy stupor just struggling to push a few funny words out to remind myself that I have a pulse. My madness is the opposite of divine sense, and my eye is anything but discerning. This year has been gratifying in various ways though, as I've always been toiling behind the scenes and I'm finally getting some gratification and assertions from people I care about that I don't go unnoticed. It's the kind of thing that helps one rest easier...

I can't leave without mentioning Yao Ming and the Rockets. Last week, good ole' prophet Fries pointed out the underrated characteristics of Ming and how valuable his free throw shooting would be in the playoffs. How does 10-10 and a Game 1 victory over the Lakers sound? I refuse to gloat, but I will say that I'm basking in the glow of my right-ness. But even I couldn't imagine the Rockets winning, and really outplaying in every area, the Lakers in the Staples Center last night. Anyone who watched the game, including even the most staunch Spurs' fan (cough cough), should have been able to see that the game wasn't a fluke. Battier and Artest played great, stingy defense on L.A.'s big three of Kobe, Odom, and Gasol, forcing guys like Trevor Ariza and Derek Fisher to beat them with threes. It didn't happen. If Houston can continue that kind of defensive effort, then Clutch City will indeed be back. Stay thirsty my friends

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Does Houston have a shot? Eh, not really...

With the city bursting over the edges, bathed in a crazed excitement not seen since the "Clutch City" days back in the early '90s, does anyone really believe that the Houston Rockets have a chance to upset the Los Angeles Lakers, widely viewed as the most talented team in this entire playoffs and the already-crowned Western Conference Champs? Probably not, unless you live in Houston or happen to be Chinese. The Rockets are a fantastic defensive team, with two stout perimeter stoppers in the physical Ron Artest and charge-taking Dukie Shane Battier, and they have the advantage of L.A. having a few extra days of rust (along with a cross-your-fingers moment in Kobe missing practice today), but there isn't enough individual offensive talent on this team, and they are simply missing that go-to scorer in crunch time that can take over a game and send shivers down an opponents' spine (see Brandon Roy, followed by the Black Mamba). A healthy T-Mac in his prime would have filled that role, but all that whiny team-killer is good for now is looking dapper in a suit coat and cursing Houston's chances from the bench. Does it say something about the poor guy that Houston wins their 1st playoff series in around a decade with McGrady sidelined, or is it just a product of bad luck? You be the judge. Either way, I can't see Houston faring too well against the Lakers' bevy of talent. The regular season matchups tilted 4-0 (with a heavy 20 point scoring advantage) in L.A.'s favor, and Artest's boneheaded attempts to talk some trash and land in Kobe's head only resulted in more scoring outbursts for Bryant and embarassment for Mr. Artest, who was left with the painfully true remarks that Kobe had just "kicked his ass." Active, athletic bigs like Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, and Lamar Odom are the types that give plodding Yao Ming fits, as he struggles to keep up with their foot speed, but with his size and touch I think he should be able to get his 20-10, he just might be giving up that much and more defensively. The only reason anybody is giving Houston a shot is their defense, but if Yao can't contain the big men, does it matter if Artest can lock down Kobe? Houston beat a good, talent-heavy Portland team that just wasn't ready to make a deep playoff run yet, but L.A. is seasoned, much better, and they have Kobe Bryant in the 4th quarter. Enough said. I can't see this series going past 5 or 6 games in L.A.'s favor.

At the point guard spot, Aaron Brooks is matched up with veteran Derek Fisher. Brooks is crazy-fast with big testicles range and a smooth motor, allowing him to get in the lane against much bigger foes, but he still needs to learn how to play balanced and under control, and when to take his own shot instead of creating for others. He is immensely talented, however, and I think with his speed he should eat the slower Fisher alive. Point guard is L.A.'s achilles heel, and Fisher is a tad past his prime, but the guy can still lead a team, hit big shots, and get the ball in the hands of the Lakers' playmakers. He will be solid and fulfill his duties, but if Brooks can bring some of that Oregon Ducks' swagger, than he could be an offensive x-factor in the series. Photobucket

Shane Battier will probably be matched up with Kobe most of the time on the perimeter, as he moves his feet better than Artest, takes more charges, and doesn't foul as much as Ronnie. No matter how good of defense Shane plays, however, Kobe dictates how many points Kobe gets, not anyone else. The guy is unstoppable, and there is only so much Shane can do. Battier was actually a big offensive player for Houston against Portland, knocking down the majority of his set three point shoots, and will need to continue to do so, along with playing stout defense, if Houston will have a chance to win. He probably has the biggest role of anyone in this series, and we will see if he has the legs to hang in there. If Houston takes this to a Game 7, you guys know who to thank-most underrated player around. Stay tuned.

Artest will also do his share of guarding Kobe, as his bulky frame and pushy tactics might get under Bryant's skin moreso than Battier's and fire up this team, but like I said above, getting under Kobe's skin might not always be the best strategy. Lost beneath his defensive effort and fabulous Game 6 in Round 1 was Ron's relatively horrible offensive series. Whether it was the tiresome work of keeping up with Roy or just a side-effect of his broke jumpshot, Ron couldn't hit anything consistently except layups and free throws. That would be okay if he didn't think he had to take every three pointer or 18-foot fadeaway shot that came around. If Ron can play with offensive discipline, stay stringent on his defensive duties, and get his Humvee body to the free throw line, than the Rockets will be okay. Trevor Ariza has been a big surprise for the Lakers, as his shooting has skyrocketed and athleticism been on full display. he will most likely be the guy Houston most often ignores on defense, so if he makes shots, than watch out. All I can say is, don't mess with the "Tru Warier" dawg.

Luis Scola has been a godsend at power forward, scoring with his arsenal of quirky, herky-jerky fakes, jives, and awkward hook shots. He can also hit the 15-footer with consistency, and plays physical, hard-nosed defense with his opponent. Unfortunately, he is matched up with Odom, who will exploit all of his athletic weaknesses. Odom is one of the most versatile players in the league, a 6 foot 10 forward who can run point, attack the basket, post up, and hit the outside shot. He will test all of Scola's abilities, and I see this being a major matchup problem for Houston.

At center, big Yao Ming takes on Pau Ga-Soft, whose Charmin-grade post moves and French pastry physicallity in the lane are screaming for an Artest body slam or a Yao Ming jump hook at the least. Gasol really is a talented, athletic player with freakishly long arms and a great shooting touch, and his quickness and solid range will test Yao's defense and rebounding ability. Big men like Gasol and Boozer (the past two years) have given Yao major defensive issues with their ability to hit 15-18 foot jump shots, as Yao doesn't have the speed to close out on them. He should be able to score at will, but like I said above, he will give up just as many points. This matchup is even.

Finally, the bench. Laugh if you will, but losing Mutombo was a big deal. He was Yao's only official backup, and since he was rested the entire regular season he had the energy to play major minutes, providing a defensive presence at the rim and great rebounding help despite his age and lack of mobility. Now, the only backup big men Houston has are Carl Landry, still looking a step slow from a scary gunshot wound, and Chuck Hayes, an undersized fullback of a power forward known more for his hilariously bad free throw hitch than for his basketball ability. Landry is a guy who can score and clean up around the rim, a really valuable bench guy, while Hayes, despite being only 6 foot 5, can guard anyone in the paint with his strength and rebound with the giants, even if he cannot make a layup. The major two bench guys for Houston, at least offensively, are Kyle Lowry and Von Wafer, two unheralded players who are enacting HUGE roles. Lowry was an afterthought in the Rafer Alston trade, but has quickly proved his mettle by stepping in at the backup point guard role and often outplaying Brooks. Lowry can bull his way into the lane and score at anytime with a body made for driving, while Wafer, who barely even made Houston's summer league team, played so well in the preseason that he earned a roster spot and made Luther Head expendable. Wafer plays with reckless abandon and doesn't know when to turn the switch off, but has an incredibly explosive first step, shocking leaping ability, and an unconventional but deadly three point shot. He is instant offense off the bench, and some much needed scoring punch/energy for a relatively dry, defensive-minded squad. That's what makes him and Lowry so valuable. The Lakers have Bynum coming off the bench now, and we all know what he can do when healthy. He will give Yao problems with his size and athleticism, and if any of Houston's bench is forced to guard him, look for Bynum to dominate inside. Not a good depth matchup here. Shannon Brown has been playing like Wafer as of late for L.A., so look for those two to trade buckets, while Sasha Vujasic is an x-factor with the three point shot. I give the bench advantage to L.A. just because of Bynum. Let's hope Yao makes him his bitch:)