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. 


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 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 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.

The Baseball Hall of Fame

One of the best things about writing for the Lawton Constitution was getting to fire off an opinion column just about any time I wanted to. I was lucky to have a sports editor in Joey Goodman who allowed and encouraged me to write as often as I wanted to, on just about any subject that I wanted to write about.

In the summer, when the local sports scene in Lawton was pretty much dead, that meant getting to write about Major League Baseball. In the seven years I worked at the Constitution, the only job I ever applied for was with a Washington, D.C. paper to cover the Nationals when they first moved there from Montreal in 2005. Even had I gotten that job, I would have had to work my way up the chain before I was allowed to write opinion pieces, and I would likely have had to find a different job entirely if I wanted to write opinion pieces about bigger MLB topics outside of Washington. Although my audience was much smaller at the Constitution, I could do that just about any time I wanted to.

Now I can do it again, even if that means that 90% of you who started this post are about to move on down the road. I’ll admit, this blog is catering to serious baseball fans.

This week, the Baseball Hall of Fame announced its inductees for the Class of 2019. Longtime Yankees closer Mariano Rivera became the first player ever to receive 100% of the vote, which mainly just shows how ridiculous it is that at least one person didn’t vote for Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, and Willie Mays when they were on the ballot. But he deserves to be in the Hall, as do fellow inductees Roy Halladay, Edgar Martinez and Mike Mussina. The same can’t be said of longtime decent hitter Harold Baines, who somehow got in via a new committee. But that’s not the point of this post. (No sense in dumping on Baines, he didn’t do anything wrong.)

I’d rather talk about some guys who didn’t get in.

Two of the best players of my lifetime, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, each got 59% of the vote (it takes 75% to get elected). Also falling short was Curt Schilling, who got a few more votes despite being a clearly inferior player to those other two.

Of course we all know the reason for the discrepancy. Although neither actually tested positive for a banned substance, Bonds and Clemens used and benefited heavily from PEDs (performance enhancing drugs). They didn’t fail a test because there was no testing back then, and we know they used PEDs because both were dragged into court over it, with eyewitness testimony that they used. Besides that, their careers took ridiculous trajectories.

No players, particularly not ones who were putting up HOF-caliber numbers in their primes, put up significantly better ones after they reach age 35. Like literally no examples of this. In fact, while traditional thinking was that most players peaked in their late 20s, it’s now believed to be closer to 25. When Bonds turned 36, he magically hit 24 more home runs than he ever had in his career, going from 49 the previous season (probably also steroid-induced) to a Major League-record 73. Clemens left the Red Sox at age 34 after four average seasons and suddenly won back-to-back Cy Young awards. At age 41 he won another Cy Young in one of the most hitter-friendly stadiums in baseball (Houston) and the next year he posted an absurd 1.87 ERA.

Also unusual is one’s head growing four hat sizes after the age of 35. This is a known side effect of PEDs and was particularly evident in Bonds’ case.

Both of these guys were Hall of Famers before they ever touched steroids, and Bonds was on an inner-circle trajectory with his combination of power, speed, patience and defense.

But they don’t deserve to be inducted into the Hall of Fame because they cheated the game, gaining a significant advantage over their peers over a significant period of time.

I know this opinion puts me in the minority, but allow me to rebut the arguments from the other side.

It’s impossible to quantify the effects of PEDs, they may have been insignificant or even completely ineffective.

While it’s true that PEDs affect everyone differently, and outside factors may also play a role, you have to be in full-on Bird Box mode to pretend PEDs didn’t make any difference.

Even without looking at a single statistic, just look at these dudes’ bodies. Look up the before and after pictures of Bonds or Sammy Sosa. They’re cartoonish. Today we have more knowledge about nutrition and workouts than ever before, and they aren’t nearly this ripped. (OK, I’ll admit Giancarlo Stanton is quite cartoonish, but he’s always been built like that. Imagine if he looked like Ben Zobrist 2 years ago. That’s what happened with Bonds and Sosa).

The anti-aging thing, though, is what really makes it obvious. Father time is undefeated, so they say, unless your pharmacist can make him disappear. It would be one thing if Bonds had merely maintained his amazing numbers into his mid-to-late 30s. But to obliterate his old numbers like nobody in the history of the universe is to make it obvious how effective these drugs were.

I’ve heard people say. “OK, but Barry Bonds was just a freak. There aren’t many other examples.” There aren’t that many proven steroid users to begin with, and nobody wants to throw names out there without anything to back them up. But even just looking at people with some corroborating evidence of PED use blows this theory to bits.

I’ve already noted Clemens’ unlikely career arc, being better at age 42 than he was at 32. Sosa was a consistent 35-homer guy who jumped into the 60s. Ken Caminiti was an average player who suddenly won an MVP. Jose Canseco became the first player ever to hit 40 homers and steal 40 bases in the same season. Manny Ramirez had one of the best half-seasons in baseball history at age 36, then flunked a test and went back to playing the way a really good player who’s that old is supposed to play.

There are lots of other guys I could point to who have been accused of PED use and probably did use. Some of them are in the Hall of Fame. But there’s not enough actual evidence to name them or keep them out of Cooperstown.

Personally I break the era down into three different types of players. I am only naming a few players in each list; it’s not meant to be comprehensive.

  1. Beyond a reasonable doubt, based on something other than just being named by an anonymous source or in Canseco’s book — Bonds, Clemens, Sosa, Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, Alex Rodriguez, etc.
  2. Accused but not enough evidence to hold anything against them — Pudge Rodriguez, Mike Piazza, Jeff Bagwell, etc.
  3. Played in the era and were great, somehow avoided accusations — Ken Griffey Jr., Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, etc.

Only those in Group 1 deserve banishment from the Hall.

Those who discredit the effectiveness of PEDs point to other factors at play in the era, such as new, smaller ballparks and MLB’s expansion from 26 to to 28 to 30 teams. But enough time has passed between now and then that if those were the main factors, you’d be seeing guys consistently hitting 50, 60, 70 homers a year, because there are still 30 teams and the parks haven’t gotten any bigger. MLB was even using a juiced ball for awhile in there and yet the records stand. Notably, we also aren’t seeing guys who are 35 to 40 putting up career-best numbers any more.

Everyone was using PEDs, these guys were just better players.

There’s some truth to this, although clearly not everyone¬†was using. It seems like the conventional thinking now is that somewhere between 1/3 and 1/2 of players were using some form of PEDs. Even if it’s somehow more than 50%, that’s a lot of guys who weren’t using.

Which isn’t even really relevant. You’re cheating, doing something illegal in order to gain an advantage over your peers. There was no testing during the era of Bonds and Clemens, which means there were no suspensions. You probably thought there would be no consequences whatsoever, but it turns out this is your consequence. You don’t get to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame.

Certainly some guys who used ended up in Group 2 or Group 3 and will be enshrined in Cooperstown. That’s life, it isn’t fair. Just because your neighbor also cheated on his taxes doesn’t mean you don’t owe.

Many players throughout history, like Willie Mays, admitted to using amphetamines. Like steroids, those are PEDs that were illegal but not tested for and gave users an unfair advantage over the competition.

This theory pretends that the advantages are the same. There wasn’t much difference between the “greenies” of Mays’ era and drinking a Monster before a game today. They made you less tired and more focused for a few hours.

They didn’t make you stronger or faster, like steroids. Also they were placed in the middle of the clubhouse for anyone to consume without repercussion. As much as Bud Selig and baseball turned its head to steroid use around the turn of the century, they didn’t place syringes next to the ham sandwiches on the postgame spread.

The CEO of a major company would be lauded for doubling the value of his business, even if it was a poorly-kept secret that he took Adderall or snorted an occasional line of cocaine so he could work 20 hours a day. But it would be a different story if he were involved in a price-fixing scheme. That’s the difference we’re talking about here.

It might be immoral to cheat, but the Hall of Fame isn’t about morals. Are we going to kick out all the racists and wife-beaters in Cooperstown?

This is the most common argument, and it absolutely drives me bonkers. Can you not see the difference between being a racist and using PEDs? Only one gives you an advantage on the field.

The Hall of Fame is full of racists, jerks and a-holes. If it were the Jesus Christ Hall of Fame it would look a lot different. Nobody is going to Cooperstown to get moral guidance. These guys were the best baseball players, period.

Using PEDs gave certain players an undeniable advantage over the players they were competing against. Not just the San Diego Padres or whoever Barry Bonds happened to be facing that day, but against Mickey Mantle, Stan Musial and Dave Winfield. Now we can’t even compare them historically because the numbers are meaningless.

This brings us to Curt Schilling. Schilling should be in the Hall of Fame. He’s not a first ballot-type guy like Bonds and Clemens would be sans steroids, but you have to reach to argue that he doesn’t belong. He was a great pitcher for 20 years. Pitched in the World Series four times (for three different teams), won three titles and was the MVP of the Fall Classic in 2001 with Arizona.

So why isn’t he in the Hall? Because he’s a jerk. His HOF voting percentages were on an upward trajectory consistent with other players of his caliber, reaching 52% in 2016. That’s when he got fired from ESPN after a series of PR snafus.

At various times, he spoke out against gay marriage and the North Carolina transgender bathroom law. He also compared Muslims to Nazis. He’s an outspoken Republican and most of what he has said (outside of the Nazi thing) is just standard Republican fare. But his HOF vote went from 52% in 2016 to 45% in 2017.

That means a significant number of people who looked at his career and thought he was worthy changed their minds 10 years after he last threw a pitch. There were no new PED allegations or any news at all that was relevant to his career.

This is both wrong and absurd. Even if you think he’s a backwards jerk, that didn’t give him any advantage on the field. If you want to make a baseball argument that he simply wasn’t up to HOF standards, that’s fine. But there’s no justification for pulling your vote because you disagree with his opinions.

In 2018 Schilling rebounded to 51% (still shy of where he was two years prior), and this year he surged to 61%. The political BS basically cost him three years, and now he only has three years remaining on the ballot. I’m not passionate about his HOF-worthiness as a baseball player, but I am passionate about his candidacy being judged strictly on its on-field merits.

When I was 17, I got to visit the Hall of Fame. It’s the only time I’ve ever been there in my life, and we just had one day. It’s a huge museum, one room of which is devoted to the plaques of the enshrined members.

I spent about 15 minutes looking at the plaques, and seven hours going through the rest of the museum. The rest of the museum is way more interesting anyway. Obviously this isn’t a life or death situation no matter who is in or out.

The steroid era shouldn’t be ignored. Bonds and Clemens should be featured in any section of the museum that has to do with their era, because they were the best players in that era. If they create a “best humans” wing of the museum, it probably shouldn’t include Curt Schilling or Ty Cobb. But Bonds and Clemens don’t deserve to have a plaque, and Schilling doesn’t deserve to have his baseball career judged on the basis of his political or social views.