Lower Your Expectations, Raise Your Happiness

Life can easily be viewed through the lenses of investment and expectation.

Usually, those are correlating figures. The more we invest, the more we expect. If I pay $200 for a 1982 Honda off Craigslist, I won’t be surprised or terribly disappointed when it doesn’t start in two weeks.

If I get a babysitter and take Missy to a nice dinner, I’m disappointed when the restaurant fumbles the reservation and we have to wait an hour for our table while some douchey OSU fans ham it up on the table that’s supposed to be ours. Not that that’s ever happened to us.

If I had gone to an inferior restaurant that didn’t take reservations, I wouldn’t have been surprised to have to wait an hour for a table on a Saturday night. I probably would have gladly bought a beer and waited at the bar. Instead, the house gave me free beer and I was still unhappy because my expectations were not met.

In poker, when you miss a draw and end up with bubkes, you might be a little disappointed. But losing a pot of the exact same size when you have a full house and your opponent makes four of a kind stings worse because you expected to win the pot.

The same applies to our sports fandom, and after this weekend’s games it seemed like a good time to look further into this truism.

On Friday, the Thunder beat Philadelphia in overtime to improve to 5-7 on the season (this is being written before the Monday/Tuesday games vs the Clippers and Lakers). Had this exact game been played last season, OKC fans would have been something between relieved and annoyed. In fact, last season the team started 0-4 and you’d have thought the Devon Tower was collapsing, the way people talked around here.

This year, different story. Russell Westbrook and Paul George are gone, and with them went the expectations that this team could make a playoff run. Now we can just enjoy Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and look for the pieces that might surround him when OKC returns to national relevance.

The win against Philly was cool and unexpected because the Sixers are legit title contenders and OKC simply outplayed them.

This current version of the Thunder is a little weird. Three of their top players — SGA, Chris Paul and Dennis Schroeder, all have similar builds and similar games. The team’s top shooter, Danilo Gallinari, will surely be traded to a contender sometime before February.

This team isn’t going to win a ton of games, especially in a loaded Western Conference. But it’s proven it can beat a top-level team when it plays its A game. That and the youthful energy that’s been lacking in OKC over the last several years make it a team worth watching, even if you have to turn off the TV in the third quarter of a blowout loss once every few games.

The last two Thunder seasons have been frustrating as all getout. Games that should have been won were lost. Playoff runs that should have been long ended in the first round, and those series weren’t all that competitive. If this year’s team gets knocked out in five or six games in the first round, we’ll be thrilled. It’s all about expectations.

One more Thunder/expectation note: Chris Paul has been a little disappointing. Not that he isn’t a solid player, but I expected more out of him than he’s produced so far. I enjoy watching the savvy veteran moves he produces and he rarely makes mistakes, but he can also go fairly significant stretches without making any impact on the game whatsoever. If he were, say, D.J. Augustin making the veteran minimum salary, I’d be thrilled. But for $40 million a year I expect a little more. Just sayin’.

Was hoping for more of this from CP3.

This season of OU football has been all about managing expectations. I bought into the Alex Grinch hype, at least a little bit. Things had to get somewhat better on defense, right? And sure, the offense is going to take a small step back without a Heisman winner running it, but with Jalen Hurts you figured you’d get a steady hand who wouldn’t lose the game for you. I thought the Sooners had a pretty good chance to be a playoff team.

For a couple of months, they stayed on that path. The competition was weak, but that wasn’t their fault and they blew the doors off of everyone. Hurts looked great.

Then came Texas, Kansas State, Iowa State and Baylor. Yes, OU ended up winning three of those games. But the Sooners have pretty convincingly shown that they aren’t a playoff-caliber team.

And that’s fine. We just need to lower our expectations.

The Big 12 is a solid league this year, but there aren’t any great teams in it. West Virginia and Kansas are clearly at the bottom of the heap, but everyone else is capable of beating everyone else. A playoff-level team like OU’s last two iterations wouldn’t be playing four coin-flip games in a row against decent but not great competition.

I’m not making any long-term judgments on Grinch at this point, but it’s clear that he can’t do anything significantly better than Mike Stoops with the exact same guys on the field. Hopefully he can when he gets better talent on the roster, but the talent isn’t changing this season.

It’s also clear that Hurts doesn’t protect the ball the same way that Mayfield and Murray did. OU also clearly misses having Hollywood Brown and a loaded offensive line. It’s still an excellent unit that can score any time, but it’s not on the unstoppable level of the last few years.

If you put this OU squad in roughly the same basket as the top six teams in the conference, it’s been a great season. Nothing wrong with 9-1 and almost assuredly being the favorite in yet another Big 12 title game come December.

The Baylor game this weekend was a good example of both ends of the expectation meter. You went in hoping the Sooners could revert to their September form and show the world they were in fact national championship contenders. Those crappy halves against K-State and Iowa State were just flukes.

Any ideas like that vanished somewhere between when Hurts just laid the ball on the ground and when Baylor’s mediocre offense waltzed into the end zone for the fourth time in a quarter and a half.

When it looks like your team is going to lose 52-21, you just hope they fight back and make it respectable. When everything breaks right and you pull off the greatest comeback in school history, that’s pretty cool.

Entering the game, most OU fans would not have been thrilled if you told them the final score would be 34-31. The way it played out, everyone was happy.

Yes, I understand that technically OU is still alive for the playoff. I wouldn’t be shocked if everything breaks right and the Sooners get in. We’ve seen it several times in the recent past. But this team probably has at least one more loss left in it, and if it gets to the playoff it’s not going to be a pretty sight. Personally, I hope the Sooners run the table, continue their dominance of the Big 12 and then face Alabama in a non-playoff New Year’s Day bowl. That’s a game they can win, and it would be cool to see the Hurts v. Bama thing.

A college football expectation segment wouldn’t be complete without a shoutout to the Texas Longhorns. Enter every season with a top-five recruiting class and a top 10 national ranking, which gets your fans talking all kind of silly mess. Then go 7-5 and roll the dice in the Independence Bowl. But those recruiting classes…

Suck it, Texas.

My other two teams are on opposite ends of the expectation spectrum. The Cubs had a meteoric rise that took them from terrible (2014) to the NLCS (2015) to World Series champions (2016) in a three year span. With loads of young talent, everyone assumed it was a dynasty in the making. Under those circumstances, the next three years were very disappointing. Take the expectations out of it, and reaching the NLCS (2017), having the best regular-season record in the National League before losing in the first round of the playoffs (2018), and narrowly missing the playoffs while still finishing with a winning record (2019) would be a pretty solid three-year run.

On the flip side, my Philadelphia Eagles went into 2017 expected to be an average team. Picked to be in the 8-8 neighborhood by just about everyone. Somehow, everything clicked and the Eagles jumped out to a great start. Then Carson Wentz, who was a lock to win the MVP award, tore his ACL and Philly had to turn to journeyman Nick Foles. Again, expectations were set back to zero. I didn’t think they would win any of their playoff games, but everything broke right. They took down the New England dynasty and won their first Super Bowl. It was pretty freaking cool.

Last year’s Eagles lucked into the playoffs and somehow won a playoff game when a Bears field goal bounced off the upright and the crossbar before landing in the end zone. That wasn’t a Super Bowl, but it was pretty freaking cool.

This year’s team is 5-5. I expect them to lose every game the rest of the season. Wink wink.

Disharmony and Displeasure

I’m sure many of you saw the feel-good story about George W. Bush and Ellen Degeneres attending the Cowboys-Packers game this weekend.

If not, here’s a link to it.

Seems like the kind of story you couldn’t possibly dislike — two people reaching across the aisle and embracing a friendship that transcends political beliefs. It’s exactly what our country needs right now, to realize that we all want what’s best for the country even if we disagree on what that means.

And yet, it’s 2019 and we can’t have nice things.

About 10 seconds after I read the first story, I started reading the backlash to it from people on Facebook and Twitter. Many on the left think Bush is literally pure evil and undeserving of any positive attention whatsoever. They’re still mad about him trying to thwart same-sex marriage and appointing conservative justices to the Supreme Court, which is currently hearing a case on whether it’s OK to fire people simply for being homosexual or trans. (For the record, I definitely do not think you should be able to fire people for no other reason than that).

Many also pointed out that since both Bush and Degeneres are wealthy and white, they are nothing more than an example of privilege and shouldn’t get to teach any of us anything because they don’t know what it’s really like out there.

I’ll go on the record and say that overall, I didn’t approve of the Bush presidency. I blame him for getting the Republican party away from being fiscally responsible. Now the reds spend as much as the blues and neither side is interested in doing anything about our country’s massive debt.

I still think he was genuinely trying to serve our country and take it in the direction he thought best, just like his successor Barack Obama. Can’t say I was a big fan of his either but I also believe he thought he was doing what was best for our country.

Could we as a country just start with that premise? It would make a world of difference. Sometimes I disagree with Missy’s parenting decisions (and I’m sure the feeling is mutual), but I know she wants what’s best for our kids and our family. If I focused only on those differences and said that Missy was an evil person who wants our household to fail, we probably wouldn’t be married for long.

Do you really think George W. Bush is sitting there at the Cowboys-Packers game thinking about how to suppress LGBTQ rights? Could we possibly just have one positive political story without assuming that half the country is evil and wanting to ruin everything?

You survived Bush. You survived Obama. You have survived Trump, so far anyway. If you don’t like Trump, please vote against him next year. Get other people to vote against him. One of the beautiful things about our electoral system is that you’re never stuck with anybody for very long.

That brings us to Ukraine and this whole impeachment mess. Really, it’s more of a joke than a mess. Let’s just be honest, democrats can’t believe they lost to this clown and they don’t want to wait the 4 or 8 years to get rid of him. They’ve been talking about it literally since before he even took office.

Is he doing improper stuff? Of course he is. We knew he would and he has. Is it impeachable? Not unless you want impeachment talks about every president from now until the end of time.

If Trump just flat out said you won’t get your aid unless you find something on the Bidens, then I’d possibly think it’s worthy of removal from office. I have no problem with further investigation on the subject. But so far, the quid pro quo has only been heavily implied. When directly asked, it was made clear that there was no quid pro quo. Also, the funds were released before any of this became news.

Kicking someone out of the highest office in this country for implying something seems pretty damn stupid to me. I missed the official list of what qualifies as “high crimes and misdemeanors” but I doubt implications are on it.

I’d be willing to bet that every president in our country’s history has implied a quid pro quo in a similar situation. You know what they call that? Politics. It’s been three years since you lost the election. Better to move on to the next one.

Judge Judy, your verdict please.

Now that you’ve all quit reading, let me move on from complaining about all of you to complaining about two specific businesses. We can all get behind that, right?

A couple of weeks ago I took our van into Eskridge Honda to take advantage of the “oil changes for life” thing that we got when we bought it. Quite a ripoff that program is. It’s supposed to be free but you have to pay $30 for an oil additive every time you get one or else your engine warranty is voided.

So I get the oil change and they tell me I am also in need of a new battery and some transmission fluid. Those things haven’t been changed in a long time so I make an appointment for that too.

The morning after the battery and transmission fluid were changed, there’s a massive puddle of oil in our driveway. I take the van in and they say it was either a faulty gasket or someone screwed up. They fix it for free but it cost me 30 minutes of my life waiting for it.

Just a few days after that, our van won’t start. Battery = no bueno. I take it back in and ask if the same guy who changed our oil put in the battery. Didn’t get a response on that but evidently there was nothing wrong with the battery itself. The connection from the battery to the van was loose. So far, we haven’t had any more issues with it.

The crazy thing is that Missy’s parents came down to visit last weekend and their car battery died when they tried to leave. Had to get it replaced (not at Eskridge). And the other day, I took our other car to Riverwind to play poker and when I tried to leave it was dead. Riverwind jumped it for me and when I went to O’Reilly’s to get a new one, they said my old one still tested out OK. I don’t think I left a light on or anything but I don’t know what happened. It’s worked fine the last few days.

What hasn’t worked fine is the basketball shoes I bought a couple months back. I’d had my previous pair for about five years and they were great, just finally wore down. My feet are shaped weirdly so for whatever reason I’ve always had to wear Nike’s. They’re the only brand that isn’t super uncomfortable.

So I went to the Nike store in west OKC to get new ones. My options are always limited because I wear a size 14 and they don’t carry 14s for every model, but I thought I lucked out by finding some KD’s (Kevin Durant’s shoe) on sale in a 14. They fit great and felt fine, but after playing only 7 or 8 times the sole on the right shoe literally came out. And I can promise it wasn’t because I was so quick and explosive that the shoe couldn’t handle it.

So there you have it. KD has no soul — I mean sole.

Poker Cheating Scandal

“There’s no such thing as bad publicity.”

“Bad press is better than no press.”

The game of poker is putting those sayings to the test this week with the Mike Postle scandal.

If you aren’t familiar with what I’m talking about, here’s the gist of it: a guy in California named Mike Postle has been (very credibly) accused of cheating in poker games that are being broadcast on the internet.

If you’ve ever watched poker on TV, you know there is special technology which tracks every card in the deck so they can show the players’ hole cards. At Oklahoma City’s finest casinos, they just use a regular deck of cards. But for these live streams, which bring free publicity to the card rooms that air the games, they use the technology (called RFID) to track the cards. And when there is technology to track every card, we know there is technology (not to mention plenty of financial motivation) to pass along that information to a player in the game.

This particular case is fascinating, both because of the scant evidence available on the surface and the overwhelming amount of evidence available once you get into the weeds. You can spend hours poring over this stuff, feeling like you’re solving the JFK murder. I don’t need to do that here. Other people have already done it and they are better at it.

This Ringer story does an excellent job summarizing the whole affair. I highly recommend reading it even if you care nothing about poker. If you’re more of a visual person and want to see some video evidence, I’ll link to one of the many, many YouTube clips on the subject. Joe Ingram, Doug Polk and others have been on top of this case from the get-go, and they’re seeing their online viewership skyrocket like Mike Postle’s winrate.

I’ve been getting texts about this pretty regularly over the past 48 hours, some from people who don’t really follow poker much but ran into something on Twitter or saw Scott Van Pelt’s segment on SportsCenter last night.

It’s good for poker in the sense that it gets people talking about and interested in poker. It’s bad for poker in the sense that it reinforces old stereotypes about the seediness of the game and those who play in it.

Poker has come a long, long way in the 150 years or so since it became a thing. It used to be played in bars or on riverboats where it was less a game of skill than a game of who could cheat who more effectively. Or shoot a gun the fastest. The only rule involving cheating was to not get caught.

But 50 years ago the World Series of Poker was created, and gradually over that time poker has become a more and more legitimate and socially accepted game. I’m confident that my mom is at least a little bit less worried about me getting shot, robbed or cheated than she was 15 years ago.

At it’s best, poker is a really interesting game of skill involving players seated around each other at a table. The table setting allows for joking around, watching sports together and occasionally having an interesting discussion. There’s a sense of community.

Any time you inject money into the equation, there’s motivation and opportunity for cheating.

I remember a few cheating “scandals” from my Lawton days. There was a particular home game. I never played in it, but I kept hearing stories about how one guy would win these crazy pots — a straight flush against four of a kind, or four of a kind against a top full house. After a couple of these highly improbable hands (I’ve played for 15 years and never been involved in one like that), people got suspicious and found out that the guy was rigging the deck. Not regularly, just for these specific pots.

In a sense, that’s the low-tech version of the Postle scam. People in Lawton got suspicious because of the unlikely nature of those crazy pots, and people in California got suspicious because Postle was literally winning more than was humanly possible. His results were so far beyond the norm as to be impossible without knowing what cards other players held, and from that premise the investigation sprung.

On their own, the videos really don’t prove anything. You have to combine them with the fact that he essentially never lost or never made an incorrect decision to know something was up. Had he been less greedy, he could have gotten away with this for much longer and made much more money in the long term. All he had to do was throw away the absurd hands (many of which you can find in the videos) and stuck to making the right decisions on the halfway decent hands or the ones that would make a shred of sense if you were watching the live stream consistently. Just like the guy in Lawton could have kept getting away with it if he had settled for slightly less improbable hands that might have netted slightly smaller pots but would never have been detected.

Another “scandal” in Lawton involved a guy who supposedly put fingernail marks in the aces so he could tell if you had one. At other times, there were rumors of two players signaling each other what their cards were. Sure, those things have value. But to capitalize fully on that value, you’d probably have to be smart enough or good enough at poker to be able to beat the games straight up. And if you can do that, you don’t need to cheat and risk being banned from the casino. The people involved in those rumors were terrible players who lost most of the time, so as far as I was concerned they could do whatever they wanted and I wouldn’t mind playing against them.

There isn’t one single instance in which I thought I was getting cheated in a poker game. At the same time, I’m 100 percent sure I have been cheated at some point. I’ve played too much for it to never have happened.

The point is, it’s not something I worry about in the least. Maybe if I played in those live stream games it would be something to consider. But like I said, poker is a community. And around here, I know about 98% of the people I play with. We have fun and joke around with each other.

So have fun with the Postle investigation; it’s entertaining as hell. But don’t let it taint your perception of poker or the fine, upstanding people — specifically those named Matt Franklin — that play it.

Boycott Football?

It’s a hard time in history to try to enjoy anything.

You’re not allowed to make fun of anyone, and you’re not allowed to watch anything written, acted, produced or directed by anyone who has sinned. A recent study found that two in three Americans have been Me-too’ed.

I can’t even make the above statement without adding a disclaimer that sexually harassing people is totally not OK.

I recently watched the latest Dave Chappelle special on Netflix. I loved it, mainly because he goes out of his way to make every single viewer feel uncomfortable at least a few times. In doing so, he exposes the hypocrisy of the entire present-day culture, where you’re allowed to be as mean as you want to people you philosophically disagree with but can’t say anything to anyone else. Chappelle just scorches everyone.

While I wholeheartedly approve of everyone taking themselves a lot less seriously, I am having a bit of a personal crisis over the great game of football.

The other day there was a great story in The Oklahoman about Rickey Dixon. Dixon was a national champion and All-American at OU before playing several seasons in the NFL. But because of football, he now has ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). He’s only 52 years old but his quality of life has steadily been declining for the six years since he was diagnosed and it seems he doesn’t have much time left.

It’s not an isolated case. In the past 15 years or so the long-term toll of football has become more and more evident. We’ve learned a lot about CTE and the brain damage caused by football, which leads to ALS, dementia, migraines, severe personality changes, and other side effects that can best be described as no bueno.

If every single football player had these symptoms, nobody with a conscious would watch football. But of course that’s not how it is. Many ex-players are fine. And football is undoubtedly safer than it’s ever been before, although it will take several more decades before the current generation of football players is old enough to examine what kind of difference better helmets, less hitting in practice, and stricter penalties are having.

Where do we draw the line? If we can all agree that we shouldn’t watch football if 100% of players are facing ALS or early-onset dementia, where is the tipping point? 50%? 25%? 10%? 5%? 1%? Does it make a difference if the players with these bad outcomes made life-changing money because of football? Should I boycott college football but not the NFL?

Prominent author Malcolm Gladwell is among those leading the charge to boycott playing or watching football. I have a couple of friends who have decided to join him.

Personally, I find it much harder to watch football games that don’t involve OU or the Philadelphia Eagles. No matter who is playing, I hate seeing guys laying on the ground writhing in pain. Nowadays it’s enough for me to turn the channel if it’s not one of my teams.

Nevertheless, I enjoy watching my teams play now as much as I ever did. I’m sure that’s partly because both of my teams have been really good lately and entertaining to watch. OU is winning Heismans and breaking offensive records like nobody’s business. The Eagles have won a Super Bowl and the “double doink” game in the past two seasons. But there’s also a nostalgia involved. I can’t imagine a day when football is completely canceled and Missy and I are walking on the OU campus on a Saturday and looking at six-foot weeds growing on Owen Field, nary a soul in sight. Football is such an integral part of the experience of attending that school.

Football is also an integral part of the American Sunday experience. My dad didn’t even have a favorite NFL team, but every Sunday after church he parked on the couch and we watched whatever game was on TV (unfortunately this always involved the evil Dallas Cowboys). Now that I’m the dad, I love killing a Sunday afternoon by parking in my big recliner and watching the Eagles or the Red Zone channel.

I’ve never been a fan of boxing or the UFC, simply because those sports seem barbaric to me. The whole goal is to hurt a fellow human being. It’s not that far removed from a time when people crammed into the Colosseum to watch lions rip apart slaves or prisoners. At least in football, the goal is move the football into the end zone. People getting hurt is merely a byproduct of that, not the actual goal. Still, I’ve seen a handful of boxing/UFC pay-per-views with my friends, purely for the social aspect of it. Is that wrong?

My dad was ahead of the curve when it came to football parenting. He wouldn’t let me play, specifically because of the long-term health risks. Even before I had two boys, I’ve said they won’t play football. There are lots of other sports out there that won’t scramble their brains, and of course the overwhelming majority of football players will never even get a college scholarship from the game, much less a lucrative NFL career. Is it OK for me to watch a game I won’t let my sons participate in because it’s unsafe?

Yes, I understand the whole “there’s risk in everything” argument. I accept the risk of my son tearing his ACL playing basketball because that can be fixed with little-to-zero long-term effects. I accept the risk of dying in car accident or being gunned down by a madman in public because you can’t live life being scared of everything that could possibly go wrong.

Football has always been in third place on my list of favorite sports. I would say the CTE revelations have widened the gap between football and my top two sports, but I still can’t get there as far as boycotting it completely.

To me, football carries too great a risk to allow my sons to play. And yet I still feel OK about watching other people play for my entertainment.

Is that hypocritical? I really don’t know. For better or worse, that’s just where I am with it right now.

Letters to Westbrook and Presti

The Thunder is in turmoil.

Paul George demanded a trade and got one. The Thunder gave Jerami Grant away for basically nothing. Now it seems like Russell Westbrook will be the next to go.

Things are happening so fast that Russ might be traded before I finishing writing this column.

Sam Presti may or may not have asked for my opinion before pulling the trigger on the George deal. He really didn’t have a choice on that one — it would be supremely foolish to pass up that bounty of players and picks while also digging most of the way out of luxury tax hell. Presti may or may not care about what I have to say when it comes to Westbrook. Sam’s a busy guy right now, so I’ll just leave my minority opinion right here for him to get to when he has time, probably while pooping.

Dear Sam Presti,

Don’t trade Russell Westbrook.

Oh wait. You kind of have to trade him if he wants to be traded. Would be bad for the locker room and unfair to him after everything he’s done for us. Give me a minute Sam, I’ll be right back.

Dear Russell Westbrook,

Stay here.

We rolled out the red carpet for you when you decided to stay, and we’d love to roll it out for you again. We’ll roll it out 41 times a year. That doesn’t include preseason games but it does include postseason games, of which there will probably be zero. Which is your uniform number, if that somehow makes it cool.

We’ll go bonkers every time you’re introduced with the starting lineup. You might win a few more games in Miami, but they won’t go bonkers for you during the intro like we do. They don’t even show up until the end of the first quarter.

You might win a few more games in Detroit, but they won’t go bonkers for you during the intro like we do. Their pregame intro cheers are drowned out by all the car alarms going off in the parking lot.

You might win a few more games in Houston, but they won’t go bonkers for you during the intro like we do. Their cheers are drowned out by James Harden and Chris Paul flopping and trying to get fouls called on their opponents for pregame handshakes.

And Orlando? Surely that’s not a real thing.

We love the passion and effort you play with. Sure, we’ve complained about how you can’t shoot, rarely play defense and start chucking even more than usual when the game is on the line. Those things were frustrating when we actually had a chance to win something, but now that we suck you’re free to do any and all of those things as often as you’d like.

We know you like to occasionally glance at the stat sheet, get those triple-doubles and 20-20-20 games and whatnot. It’s probably not great for the team but whatever, keep it up. Think about all of the franchise records you could absolutely smash if you stay here four more years.

KD who?

He’s number two.

Russ gave him a toothache.

Smashin dem records like a cupcake.

(copyright pending)

No matter what you decide, your legacy here is safe. You’re getting the statue and the jersey retirement. But if you finish your career here, you could be the guy everyone immediately thinks of when anybody says “Oklahoma City” for the next 30 years. Like Stockton and Malone with Utah, MJ with the Bulls, Bird with Boston or Magic with the Lakers.

I went to some games that first season the Thunder were in OKC, your rookie season. You were backing up Earl Watson for God’s sake. Those teams were boring. I don’t mind sucking but I don’t want to be boring.

Flaws and all, we love you, Russ. And no matter what, you’ll never be boring. So please stay.

Dear Sam Presti,

OK, I talked to Russ. Pretty sure he wants to stay now.

So please don’t trade him.

I’ll concede that it would be the best thing for the team. You just traded for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who is also a point guard. He needs to have the ball a lot and be the starting point guard. Russ will also hamstring the payroll because he makes more money than God.

But in this age of player empowerment and superteams chasing dynasties, it’s easy to forget what it is that the NBA sells.

It’s entertainment. The product is entertainment. Season ticket holders are attending a Thursday game in November to be entertained. There are no championships on the line that night. Or on Tuesday in March. Or at the All-Star game. Or even at a conference semifinal in May. Sure, those high-stakes playoff games are more entertaining than the regular season games, but without fans buying tickets to see all 30 teams play 82 games per season, none of the rest of it is possible.

I’d prefer it if OKC could have another title contender, but those things are hard to come by under optimal circumstances.

I’ve been hearing about all the great players and assets Boston has stacked up over the last eight years and at the end of the day their best player just bolted and some might call them the Oklahoma City of the East, a decent squad with no real chance to win anything important.

I’ve been hearing about how smart Daryl Morey is, but at the end of the day he’s stuck paying a disgruntled and half-washed Chris Paul $45 million a year because no other team wants him, and the Rockets seem to be clearly behind both L.A. teams in the Western pecking order.

Of course you don’t need me to tell you any of this, since you had three Hall of Famers on your roster at the same time and never won a championship. (You wanted me to give you the unvarnished truth, Sam. Take it like a man.)

The point is, championships are hard to win, even moreso for a small market. It seems like Oklahoma City is more like Utah, Sacramento and Portland than any other franchise, cities where the NBA is the only major league in town. Utah and Sacramento have never won a title and Portland hasn’t won one in my lifetime. So while it would be awesome if we could win one, the reality is that may never happen.

Which brings me back to entertainment. You’re in the entertainment industry, and 11 years ago you drafted one of the most entertaining players in the history of basketball. People watch Thunder games just to see what he is going to do. Re-read the first four words of that last sentence. People watch Thunder games. Russ singlehandedly makes the Thunder relevant and watchable. Entertaining. Just by drafting him, you’ve successfully done the most important aspect of your job.

So don’t screw it up now. With Russ on the floor, we will buy tickets and turn on Fox Sports Oklahoma. Even if you don’t replace the crappy announcers.

It’s not like you were going to get a great young player in a trade for Russ. The main benefit would just be dumping his salary. But he more than earns his salary for what he provides in entertainment value to the fans of Oklahoma City. So just keep him.

You’re a bright guy, you can figure something out. Thunder Up.

Oklahoma City Thunder pre-obituary

I’m not going to wait until the Thunder lose another game to put the bow on a second consecutive disappointing season.

Let’s start by counting our blessings so we can spend the rest of the blog griping about this incredibly frustrating team. First, how cool is it that we have an NBA team? If you grew up in Oklahoma City and are old as dirt like I am, you remember when downtown OKC was a Spaghetti Warehouse, poorly maintained brick streets and a few random drunks. I never imagined we’d ever have a major sports team, especially after we got rejected by the NHL of all things.

Second, we’ve obviously been spoiled by some great teams. By all accounts we should basically be the Sacramento Kings, generally irrelevant and happy just to have a team that almost made the playoffs. Instead we’ve been in the playoffs nearly every year, made an NBA Finals and multiple conference finals, and had two sure-fire Hall of Famers wear our jersey (with a third possible in Paul George). So it could be a lot worse.

But dang if these last two seasons haven’t been frustrating as all getout. The league has turned into a 3-point shooting league and the Thunder is one of the worst shooting teams in the league. When OKC is defending at an elite level it can beat just about anybody, but it’s hard to beat good teams when you essentially start the game down 10-0, accounting for extra points opponents get on 3’s and free throws most nights.

And then there’s Westbrook. He seems to be the the top target of Thunder fans’ frustrations, and not without reason. It was really cool when he took over the league two years ago, single-handedly carrying an average roster into the playoffs, averaging a triple-double for the first time in modern basketball, and winning a much-deserved MVP (no matter how much arguing the Russ haters do, he absolutely deserved that thing). It’s less cool when the bad shots he’s always taken are going in at their lowest rate ever and his personal vendettas are driving down the ceiling of what this team can accomplish.

We can all quit waiting for Russ to drastically change the way he plays. If it weren’t for the perpetual chip he carries on his shoulder, he might not even be in the NBA. So it’s not going to disappear now. Let’s also not ignore the organization’s role in all of this. From the top down they’ve built Russ into this machine. They strategically play in a way to pad his rebounding and assist numbers. They let him ignore orders from the coaching staff (shaking off a substitution in a blowout was but one of the more obvious examples). They let him be a jerk to the media.

I get it. This is a players’ league, and guys like Paul George aren’t going to choose to play in Oklahoma City if everything else is equal. So the Thunder makes this the easiest place to play in the league. And if it weren’t for Russell Westbrook, we would be Sacramento. Or out of the NBA entirely. If Russ bolts when KD left, there is no Paul George. There are lots of empty seats at Chesapeake Arena. The Thunder either strikes gold again in the lottery and is relevant in five years or it whiffs and gets moved back to Seattle.

But Russ isn’t changing, and he’s not getting better at basketball. He’s only 30 years old but that’s fairly ancient by NBA standards. He has thrived on being an athletic specimen but when you’re over 30 and have your knee scoped after every single season you’re not going to be standing out in that department for too much longer in this league. So let’s accept the fact that Russ is what he is and that he’s likely to keep declining a little more every season from here on out.

Target #2 is Billy Donovan. In 2016 he was a genius for throwing Adams and Kanter out there together against the Spurs and scoring a huge upset. And if Russ and KD don’t fall apart in the final minutes of Game 6 against the Warriors we might have one of those pretty banners in the rafters that seem like such a pipe dream three years later.

Since then everyone seems to think he can’t coach. Personally I think it’s pretty hard to tell whether he can coach since the two guys who have the ball in their hands 90% of the time are more or less freelancing out there, and the team wins or loses based on how those two play most of the time.

In Donovan’s defense I would argue that the players who might possibly listen to him seem to generally improve, be it Adams, Grant or Ferguson. The team as a whole seems to play hard almost all of the time, Game 4 the other night being a notable exception. (Also, that could be attributed more to Westbrook, who certainly sets the tone with his tenacious play). On the flip side, critics can fairly point to underachieving regular seasons the past two years and a failure to make adjustments within the playoff series. OKC has had equal or greater talent than Utah and Portland yet hasn’t even come particularly close to winning either series.

Personally, I’m ambivalent about Donovan. I have a hard time seeing anyone else come in and do a significantly better job, just like Donovan hasn’t done a significantly better job than Scott Brooks did before him. For some unknown reason the team decided to pick up Donovan’s option for next season early in this campaign instead of letting the year play out and then making a decision. Had they not done that, I’d probably be in favor of moving on. But it seems kind of dumb to pay two different coaches to say things that Russell Westbrook won’t listen to so they may as well keep him for another year.

Going forward, it’s hard to say there’s not much Sam Presti can do because nobody dreamed he could land Paul George and get him to sign here long-term. We also couldn’t imagine him trading away a key piece of a potential 10-year dynasty but he did that too. But I’ll say it: there’s not much Sam Presti can do. Unless he just wants to trade Russ and Paul George and completely reboot, which seems highly unlikely. Steven Adams makes too much money to get anywhere near equal value in return on a trade, and the two-man game with he and Russ is one of the few things this team has going for it anyway. Grant is very valuable relative to his salary, but why trade him? It would just make the team worse without any benefit. If you traded George it would all but guarantee that no star would ever sign with OKC again. Westbrook is way more valuable to this city than he is to anyone else, especially at $40 to $50 million per season. After that, you’re talking about guys who aren’t relevant enough to bring about any significant change to the organization.

The only chance this team has of making any noise in the playoffs in the next season or two is to pray that Andre Roberson can somehow come back and still be an elite defender (I’d put that at about 5%) and that Grant and Ferguson keep getting better, enough so that it offsets the decline of Westbrook. Then you still need George to get whatever is wrong with his shoulder fixed and go back to the MVP-level of play he displayed for a couple of months this season. All of that, plus KD leaving the West and the Lakers front office continuing to be a clown show.

Otherwise (and credit to Brant Hale for this line) the only things this team is going to be good at is talking trash and whining to referees.

Make Sports Fun Again

Growing up, we had a crappy basic cable system (It wasn’t Cox but I can’t remember what it was called. If anyone remembers what it might have been let me know). Anyway, we didn’t get very many channels but we did get WGN and HSE (Home Sports Entertainment, a precursor to Fox Sports Southwest).

WGN would eventually cost me a lot of time, money and emotional trauma as a Chicago Cubs fan. They would also occasionally show Bulls games, which provided a rare glimpse at regular-season Michael Jordan. HSE was a mostly-worthless station but they aired quite a few Dallas Mavericks games.

You didn’t need cable to watch the NFL back then, and whether you had cable or not you were put in a headlock and forced to watch the Dallas Freaking Cowboys every single week. Even on the bye week they just showed the Cowboys playing golf, snorting coke or killing puppies.

Anyway, we already know that millions of years ago Satan had sex with himself and gave birth to the Dallas Cowboys. That’s not the point of this post. This post is about how terrible all of those professional teams played — and how that made them all much more fun to watch than sports today.

First let me put this in terms of poker. One table is full of pros wearing sunglasses and hoodies, taking for-freaking-ever on every decision. The other table is a bunch of drunks cracking jokes and making calls and bluffs that make no sense whatsoever. There’s no question which table is displaying better poker. There’s also no question which table you’d rather play at or watch on TV.

I’ve always thought this would make for a great poker TV show. Instead of high stakes games with great players, just televise a small-stakes game with funny people and plenty of alcohol. I never watch poker on TV but I’d watch that show every day of the week.

Over the years since the poker boom, players got better and better. This lowered the chances of weaker players winning and drove many out of the game entirely. It’s a natural Darwinistic cycle and there’s not much you can do about it. I’m certainly not going to purposely cost myself money for the benefit of everyone else. But as a consumer of professional sports on TV, it’s a little sad to see the same things happening there. 

Basketball

The NBA is the most obvious example of this. Just to be clear, I still love the NBA, and the overall quality of play is better than it’s ever been in the history of the game.

Remember those 90s Mavericks teams I watched on HSE? They played terrible and they looked more terrible. But guess what? By the standards of today’s NBA, those Jordan-led Bulls of the same era also played terrible.

George McCloud obviously taking a bad, long two-point shot on a bad 1990s Mavs team with ugly uniforms

Kind of crazy that basketball has been around for 130 years and the 3-point line has been part of it for about 40, yet only recently did teams figure out that shooting nothing but layups, free throws and 3s is an optimal strategy. James Harden has perfected the art, and he’s the best offensive player of the modern era. But there are lots of players more fun to watch on TV than the reigning MVP, especially when the refs are whistle-happy and he’s shooting 20 free throws in a game. There’s no question it’s optimal basketball strategy, but watching the same 3-point shot, pick-and-roll dunk and manipulated foul call every possession isn’t great for viewing.

When Jordan was running the show, he could literally shoot from anywhere on the court. When James Harden dribbles inside the 3-point line, you know he’s not pulling up for a shot unless he can get all the way to the rim. If he stops or pulls up it’s to draw a foul, not to actually try to score. Jordan could shoot a 3, he could shoot a 2 with his foot on the line, he could shoot from 15 feet, etc. He might spin around and shoot a baseline fade-away. A few years later Kobe Bryant was the same way. Nobody pointed out that Jordan took a lot of terrible shots, and anyone who said that about Kobe was labeled a jealous hater. Those guys won titles because every team in the NBA played that way and those guys were a lot better at it than everyone else.

Last year’s Rockets team, which didn’t even make it to the NBA Finals, would have smoked the Jordan Bulls or the Kobe Lakers. You can tell me I’m wrong about that but I’m not. Because math. (Of course, those older teams could adapt their games and then it’s a different story, but I’m only talking about how they actually played at the time).

Now every team plays some version of this style, and it’s not as entertaining as watching Jordan score from all over the court or Bill Laimbeer give a forearm to the face of someone who tries to score in the paint. The game evolves and there’s no stopping it, but it just isn’t as fun.

Baseball

Baseball is my favorite sport, but it’s in danger of moving toward irrelevancy, largely because of teams getting too smart.

First, after 150 years teams finally figured out that players not named Tony Gwynn don’t spray the ball randomly and evenly across the diamond. They tend to hit them in certain areas much more than other areas. So instead of evenly distributing fielders like frickin’ idiots, they put more defenders in the areas where the ball is more likely to be hit.

Clearly this is smart baseball, and also clearly it’s more exciting to watch a single or have guys on base than watch a routine groundout to second.

Hitters reacted to this by saying, “If all of my ground balls are going to be outs, I’d better hit the ball in the air.” Again, smart thinking but also frequently boring baseball. Home runs are fun, but the uppercut swings also led to a lot of flyouts and strikeouts. And because everyone started thinking this way, many players wound up with about the same stats. Low batting average, a lot of strikeouts, a lot of walks, 20+ home runs. Seems like there six guys in every lineup that fit this bill now.

Math guys also realized that stolen bases are not worth the risk of an out. So there’s really no place for Lance Johnson or Eric Young anymore, slap hitters who could cause havoc on the basepaths. Triples and stolen bases are the two most exciting plays in the game and they are going extinct.

Lance Johnson, aka “One Dog.” He hit triples and stole bases.

Another idea somehow just now gaining steam is that a guy who has thrown 140 pitches probably isn’t as good as a fresh pitcher who the opponent hasn’t seen. So now managers yank their starters after four innings, or in the case of Tampa Bay last year they don’t even use a starting pitcher. The Rays won a lot of games just putting 9 random guys in for one inning each.

Yet again, smart idea but bad for baseball. We want to see Randy Johnson throwing gas into the 9th inning. We don’t want to see 20 pitching changes (and 20 TV commercial breaks) that push the time of game over three hours. Most baseball fans don’t mind three hour games if they’re filled with action (i.e. triples and stolen bases). But those aren’t good plays anymore.
The game evolves and there’s no stopping it, but it just isn’t as fun.

Football

Football is a little behind the other two sports in terms of optimizing strategy. Teams still don’t go for it on fourth down as often as they’re supposed to, although it’s trending in that direction. Also, math says NFL teams should be passing the ball on about 70% of their plays, which nobody does.

The good news for football fans is that when teams start to fully embrace these things, they’ll make the game more exciting. (The Super Bowl sucked this year because of punts, and because the Eagles didn’t win it).

Unfortunately, football is becoming harder to watch because of what we now know it does to the guys playing it. There was a quaint time in my youth when Philadelphia Eagles coach Buddy Ryan put a bounty on the Cowboys’ kicker and stole my heart forever. (You should check out that link, the back-and-forth between Ryan and Jimmy Johnson is gold.)

Cowboys kicker Luis Zendejas got his butt whooped by the Eagles.

Stories like that are much more funny when you assume the guy will get up off the ground, shake it off like a man and be none the worse for wear. But it’s not cool that a very high percentage of NFL players will have some kind of negative lingering side effect for the rest of their lives. And those are the lucky ones who won’t lose years off their life or have their personalities forever changed.

The NFL has tried to change the rules to make the game safer, but there’s only so much you can do without changing the game completely. College games are even harder to watch because the players are exposed to the downside without reaping the financial rewards of the NFL.

I still like football and I’m sure I’ll watch the Sooners and the Eagles as long they still field teams. I can promise you my sons won’t be playing football though.

The game evolves and there’s no stopping it, but it just isn’t as fun.