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Tuesday, April 20, 2010

It Can’t Hurt to Leave Nothing to Chance

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The Milwaukee Bucks’ odds of springing a first-round upset in the NBA playoffs plummeted with Andrew Bogut on April 3, when the center suffered season-ending arm injuries. Multiply Bogut's value and Milwaukee's expectations tenfold and you're in Cleveland, where LeBron James has two playoff options: Lead the top-seeded Cavaliers to the NBA title or be considered a flop.

Given the stakes, the Cavaliers kept James safe on the bench for the last four regular-season games. That angered some fans who had paid to see James play, and some critics in the blog world. The issue goes to the heart—if there is any—of the mega-business called pro sports: How much does a team or a star player owe the paying customers?

Frank: I missed most of the Bucks’ opening loss at Atlanta, but I reckon they missed Bogut big-time.

Artie: As they fell behind by 22 the Hawks' big guys were killing them by backing down, backing down into the paint. And when the Bucks packed the defense in, Mike Bibby killed them from the outside.

Frank: Without Bogut, Kurt Thomas and Ersan Ilyasova probably will get worn down as the inside guys.

Artie: Brandon Jennings was a real leader with 34 points. But without the inside-outside game that Bogut gave ’em, it's mighty tough to beat a solid team like Atlanta.

Frank: Cleveland handled Chicago in their playoff opener, so the "protect LeBron" strategy dodged the risk of leaving him rusty. But how do you feel about shelving him for a whole week going into the postseason?

Artie: Totally the right decision! I can't fault LeBron or the Cavs. They already had locked up the NBA's best record and home-court edge through the Finals. They had everything to lose if LeBron got hurt.

Frank: Which can happen anytime. Just ask Mr. Bogut. I'll bet Scott Skiles wishes he'd been able to rest Bogut down the stretch, but the Bucks were still battling for their playoff seeding.

Artie: And I'll bet Bogut's injury was one reason LeBron parked his butt. Holy cow, what if he came down from a monster jam, landed on someone's foot and broke an ankle?

Frank: But can't you turn that "it can happen anytime" argument around and ask: Why risk LeBron in a sure-thing game against, say, New Jersey in November? NBA fans don't get ticket discounts for absent stars. Shouldn't they get the same product all the time, if the players are healthy?

Artie: But what's the bigger goal for a Cavs fan? See LeBron coast for 25 minutes in a nothing game or see the team win an NBA title? He goes to the rim all the time, which means he takes a pounding all season long.

Frank: Interestingly, one of the games LeBron missed was Fan Appreciation Night in Cleveland.

Artie: Sure, it's disappointing if you pay good money and don't see him. But it's always a crapshoot. He might get hurt the game before, or on the first play of the game you're at. When the Cavs were in Milwaukee in March he didn't play, and there probably were parents who brought their kids to see him. It's a shame, but there's never a guarantee.

Frank: Welcome to the world of tough luck, huh?

Artie: It's not just sports. Let's say a few years back you took a trip to New York and had $200 tickets for The Producers on Broadway, and that night they said Nathan Lane had a sore throat.

Frank: Some James critics noted that Michael Jordan played all 82 games in each of the Bulls' final three championship years.

Artie: And if he had been hurt in one of those Game 82s, he and Phil Jackson would have been crucified.

Frank: I understand the "crapshoot" argument. Before the Brewers’ ’09 season I bought a lot of tickets to the final week of home games, against the Cubs and Phillies, thinking they might be huge. But by September the Brewers were toast.

Artie: In December the Indianapolis Colts were 14-0 when they pulled their starters during a game against the Jets and lost. Well, they had home field for the AFC playoffs clinched, and decided that staying healthy was more important than trying for 19-0. I doubt their fans were too angry when they reached the Super Bowl. The playoffs are what the season is about!

Frank: And if the Cavs had still been fighting for the overall home-court advantage, I guess LeBron would have been playing. But hovering over all this is the question of whether he'll still be with Cleveland next season. Cavs fans have seen him wearing a New York Yankees cap and acting coy about signing with the Knicks as a free agent this summer.

Artie: It's like the coolest guy at school strutting around saying, "Who will I go to the prom with?" LeBron already gets all the calls in games. As soon as he gets the ball he packs it in a Samsonite bag because he's going traveling! And if that ain't bad enough, he's still only 25! I might add him to my "Mickelson file" of most disliked athletes.

Frank: But you still think he doesn't owe it to his fans to play, at least a little, if he's healthy.

Artie: Not if the game means nothing; the playoffs are Priority One. Here's another case: Prince Fielder can be a free agent after the 2011 season. The fans here have supported him well, but does Prince owe it to us to take less money to stay with the Brewers?

Frank: It'd be nice if he did, but there's no obligation there.

Artie: Again, welcome to the real world. The best advice on buying tickets to see an NBA superstar: If you have a choice between December and April, take December.

Frank:
Still, I'd like to see LeBron announce he's donating four games' worth of his salary to charity.

Artie: I think he can spare the dough, ain’a?



Time to Pick, Nitpick

Frank: Not that I watched the NFL draft when it lasted two days, but this week I'll really avoid it. With the first round Thursday, the second and third rounds Friday and the rest Saturday, that's an extra day of Mel Kiper Jr. to hide from!

Artie: I know he's scary, but he's gotta make a living. That's assuming he isn't a robot, as we speculated last year.

Frank: As we speak, the Packers’ first three picks are the 23rd, 56th and 86th. That could change, of course, with some dealing by Ted Thompson.

Artie: Ted has a fascination for "trading down"—getting a lower pick in a round in return for more picks overall. Although last year he "traded up" for a second pick in the first round, who was linebacker Clay Matthews. That worked out fine.

Frank: We're no experts about specific players, but what positions should the Packers look at?

Artie: First and foremost the offensive line, especially tackle. They've got dinosaurs there, Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher, and who knows how long they can hold up? Then there's always a need to add a cornerback, and especially with Al Harris coming off a knee injury. And there's a need at outside linebacker with Aaron Kampman in Jacksonville now.

Frank: How about the glaring weakness in punting?

Artie: A Sporting News mock draft had the Pack going in the third round for Michigan's Zoltan Mesko, listed as the top punter available. I'm fine with that as long as the O-line and cornerback come first.

Frank: I recall another punter, picked in the third round, who didn't work out well.

Artie: The immortal B.J. Sander, a star at Ohio State, drafted by Mike Sherman in 2004 and cut by the summer of 2006.

Frank: Surely that can't happen again, right?

Artie: In 2007, at No. 16 Teddy picked injury-plagued before-and-after DT Justin Harrell; so heck, anything’s possible, you betcha.