Category Archives: Michael Knapp
I almost did a column on the worst moves of the Ernie Grunfeld era but that would have meant writing a piece longer than Moby Dick, which I’m still working through in preparation for a 2011 ninth grade English exam. So far I know that there’s a whale, and that the whale serves as a metaphor for mankind’s maniacal obsession with revenge, and that we’ll channel all of our suffering onto the thing we’re seeking vengeance from, and OH MY GOD Moby Dick might be an allegory for Wizards fans’ hatred of Ernie Grunfeld, except he is more deserving of our resentment than is the whale. (And now you’re wondering: Did this guy actually read Moby Dick? And I’ve got you right where I want you.)
Putting America’s favorite fictional sperm whale to the side for a moment, and focusing in on its metaphorical DC Sports equivalent, Ernie Grunfeld was canned on April 2nd, 2019. It was a day of hope, celebration, and, above all else, reflection, because how exactly did he last 16 years?
Before exploring all the ways by which Ernie tried to ruin my childhood – if it’s not clear by now, I should note that I’m a native Washingtonian and a diehard Wizards fan – it is worth mentioning that Grunfeld wasn’t exactly taking over a top-tier franchise when he arrived in D.C.
In the 15 seasons prior to Ernie’s 16-year tenure, the Wizards made a single playoff appearance, losing in the first round in 1997. They won 40 games just twice between 1988 and 2003. For those of you unfamiliar with basketball, I’ll simplify things: they sucked.
Ernie was hired in June 2003 – the same month the Cavaliers drafted a guy you might’ve heard of: LeBron James – and brought with him a solid reputation. He oversaw two Knicks teams that made Finals trips, and he also helped revitalize a struggling Bucks squad in the late 90s.
So, overall, this looked like an okay hire. Ernie had experience turning around struggling franchises, and the Wizards were ready for a fresh start in the post-Michael Jordan era.
At first, things went well (by D.C. sports standards). Washington made the playoffs every season from 2005 to 2008, and built a solid core around three all-stars: Gilbert Arenas, Caron Butler, and Antawn Jamison. They kept running into a young LeBron in the postseason, losing to him and the Cavs three times during the Arenas-era, but Gilbert was still in his mid-20s. There was no rush.
And then things fell apart.
(For what it’s worth, the following is NOT Ernie’s fault.)
In April 2007, towards the end of another stellar All-NBA season, Arenas tore his meniscus. He missed the rest of the year.
He returned in time for the beginning of the following season, but quickly re-injured the same knee, undergoing a second procedure in seven months.
Arenas would come back at the end of the 2008 season, but he was a shell of his former self. From 2005 to 2007, Arenas averaged 27.7 points in 234 games with Washington. Over the three seasons following the initial knee injury (the 2008 season through 2010), he averaged 21.3 points over just 47 games.
Now, brace yourself, because the following IS Ernie’s fault (as is basically everything else for the rest of the column):
In July 2008, Grunfeld signed Arenas, fresh off of TWO KNEE SURGERIES, to a 6-year, $111 Million contract. Arenas played in just two games during the 2009 season, 32 in 2010 (the season he infamously brought guns into the locker room to intimidate a teammate over a gambling debt), and was dealt to Orlando by 2011. The Wizards didn’t pay off the last of his contract until 2016. Sports Illustrated called it the worst deal in NBA history.
While the Arenas contract is the easiest move to point to as the telltale sign of Grunfeld’s incompetence, it is really just the beginning in a long line of blunders that have prevented the Wizards from ever becoming a serious championship contender. Washington still hasn’t won 50 games since 1979 – the same year that Kramer vs Kramer somehow beat out Breaking Away for Best Picture at the Oscars.
The next inexplicable move was in 2009 when Ernie traded the fifth overall pick (Stephen Curry was drafted seventh that year), along with a bunch of dudes you’ve never heard of as salary filler (although shout out to Etan Thomas), for Mike Miller and Randy Foye. Instead of trying to accumulate young assets, Grunfeld traded the pick away for mediocre-to-bad veteran depth.
This was a recurring theme during the Ernie era. He routinely traded away first round picks for overwhelmingly average veterans.
He did it again in 2016, trading a lottery pick for Markieff Morris. Then in 2017, when he had to attach a first-rounder to the abominable Andrew Nicholson contract in order to offload the slow-footed big man, just to get less than half a season of Bojan Bogdanovic. Bo-Bo bolted DC in free agency a few months later since the Wizards always refuse to go over the luxury tax – and avoiding that penalty is maybe the one thing Grunfeld WAS good at.
Ernie’s draft incompetence extended out into the second round as well, seeing as how he gave away second round picks like they were Oprah goodie bags. (YOU GET A PICK! AND YOU GET A PICK! AND YOU GET A PICK!)
They traded away their 2014 second-round selection for cash considerations, had ZERO picks in 2016 and 2017, and Washington already gave away, or might lose, their 2019, 2020, and 2021 second rounders. So much for rebuilding.
This isn’t to say that Ernie has never succeeded in the draft, as taking Wall number one in 2010 was a solid, yet obvious, choice, and Beal at three in 2012 has proven to be a good selection as well. But the core developed outside of the two all-stars has been laughable. And it all comes back to the fateful summer of 2016, the one christened by DC sports fans in the years leading up to it as the summer of “KD2DC.”
Durant was entering free agency following his ninth year in the NBA, and given his DMV roots many Wizards fans assumed, based on literally nothing, that he would consider returning home.
Washington didn’t even get a meeting with their supposed savior.
At the end of the day, KD2DC was a fan-driven construct concocted in NBA Reddit threads. But regardless of whether or not the front office ever thought they had a chance at the 2014 MVP, they hinged all their hopes on 2016 free agency. For better or worse, Ernie and co. decided they were going to blow all of their money and hold the organization financially hostage for the foreseeable future.
This wasn’t a phenomenon occurring solely in the nation’s capitol, as teams around the league were spending their cash freely after the cap jumped from around $70 Million in the summer of 2015 to over $90 million the following year.
So the Wizards, along with the rest of the league, had cap space – a lot of it. And they weren’t going to get Durant. Fine. They had a contingency plan: All-Star free agent Al Horford.
One of the more versatile bigs in the league, Horford wasn’t going to win MVPs anytime soon like Durant already did, but he was nonetheless the sort of blue color, defensive-minded, pass-first center that would fit perfectly next to Beal and Wall.
Washington almost had him. They were so close. According to David Aldridge, 24 hours prior to inking a deal with Boston, Horford supposedly had his mind made up on DC for an instant.
So, what now? Washington’s been hoarding cap space since they let Trevor Ariza walk in 2014, planning to make a splash in 2016 free agency, and the one big name that they had any shot at signing is going to Boston.
I’ll tell you what happens now: Ernie Grunfeld happens.
Ernie gives $106 Million combined to Ian Mahinmi, Andrew Nicholson and Jason Smith. You could be an NBA scout and still have minimal familiarity with any of these guys. For all I know they were involved in the Operation Varsity Blues college admissions scandal and just picked up basketball as an extracurricular to get into better schools.
Nicholson’s fate was covered earlier – after half a season they had to package him with a first rounder just to offload his disastrous deal. He hasn’t played in the NBA in two years.
Jason Smith averaged five points per game in three-and-a-half years in DC. He is not currently on an NBA roster either.
Ian Mahinmi – who’s by far the highest paid of the group at four years, $64 Million – has averaged five points and four rebounds over three seasons with Washington. He has failed to reach 40 games played in two of those years.
The Wizards did extend Bradley Beal in 2016 – to the tune of five years, $128 Million – which has looked like a solid contract given his All-NBA level play this season, but they gave another max extension to a less deserving player the following summer: Otto Porter.
Due in large part to their idiotic expenditures the previous year, Washington had no way to acquire new talent through free agency in 2017, even if they didn’t re-sign Porter. They found themselves trapped, with no real choice but to match the Nets’ four-year, $106 Million offer sheet to the restricted free agent, keeping him in D.C.
After the huge cap jump in 2016, things started to level off by 2017, when Porter was signed. There wasn’t as much money to throw around, and Washington found itself suffocated by its previous contracts, unable to maneuver in any way to clear up substantial cap space.
Porter, the third overall pick in 2013, was dealt this past February to the Bulls for two expiring contracts and a second round pick. Sure, Washington was able to get out of his ridiculous deal, but the situation in itself is a microcosm of the Ernie Grunfeld tenure: the front office digs itself into a hole, and then expects a pat on the back when they dig themselves out of it.
But it’s not like they come out of their metaphorical ditch any better off, or having learned anything from their mistakes. They just keep doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result, which, I’m pretty sure, is the definition of insanity.
Offloading Porter’s contract was a good thing. Getting rid of the Nicholson deal was a win. Shedding Jason Smith’s salary was necessary. But the question isn’t whether or not the salary dumps were successful, the question is: why in the hell were they holding themselves financially hostage year after year, with no clear plan other than to tread water until the next disaster needs to be averted?
And, speaking of that next disaster, it’s coming a little sooner than you may think.
John Wall signed a four-year, $170 Million max extension the same summer Porter inked his deal. Wall was coming off the best season of his career, making an All-NBA team. Given the lack of free agent attention Washington garners, the move seemed necessary.
But now, a couple years later, the signing officially looks like a train wreck. The deal doesn’t kick in until next season, and Wall will miss AT LEAST the first 50ish games of the contract with a ruptured Achilles. Wall, a point guard reliant on his explosiveness, could very well be 30 the next time he suits up for the Wizards, coming off a notoriously difficult injury to rehab from. If he does come back struggling, it will be a difficult pill to swallow given the fact that he is owed between $37 and $46 Million in 2020, 2021, 2022 and 2023.
It’s easy to say that the Wizards had to extend Wall, as he was coming off an All-NBA season, but the same team that knocked Washington out of the 2017 playoffs – the Boston Celtics – entered the following year with an entirely new core; and this was done completely by choice.
The Celtics only retained one starter from opening night in 2017 to their first game in 2018. They even traded away their MVP candidate, Isaiah Thomas, who averaged 29 points in his final year with Boston. The Celtics had foresight that Washington has never had in understanding that yes, they can trot out the same team again and end up in a similar spot, but a pre-finals exit was their best case scenario under their current construction. They wanted to be great; the Wizards always settle with good enough.
If Wall doesn’t return to form, a strong case can be made that Ernie doled out four of the worst contracts in NBA history: Wall, Arenas, Porter and Mahinmi. Yet, somehow, he stuck around for 16 years – the fourth longest tenured GM in the league behind Danny Ainge, Pat Riley, and R.C. Buford. He’s the only one of the four who hasn’t won an NBA championship; Grunfeld never even made the Conference Finals in D.C. The other three all average at least 45 wins a season. Ernie averaged less than 38.
Here’s the craziest part about all of this: I’m leaving so much horrible stuff out.
There was trading away a first round pick acquired from Memphis for Mike James and Javaris Crittenton in 2008. Then there was giving Andray Blatche a $35 Million extension, shortly before he was benched for poor conditioning. And, one-upping himself yet again, Grunfeld then took Jan Vesely fifth overall in 2011, which can be traced DIRECTLY back to Ernie because the Wizards’ head coach at the time, Flip Saunders, reportedly wanted to select the still-available Klay Thompson.
Even just rewinding nine months back to the summer reveals multiple blunders. The most notable signing was Dwight Howard. He’s played in just nine games. Marcin Gortat was swapped for Austin Rivers. Rivers is now on the Rockets. And let us not forget the 2018 first round pick that was spent on Troy Brown Jr., a teenager who plays the same position as the Wizards’ 2013 first rounder (Porter) and 2015 top pick (Kelly Oubre Jr.). Both Porter and Oubre have since been dealt away from D.C., the latter for a veteran wing (Trevor Ariza) that was supposed to help with a playoff push that never came close to materializing.
Oh and, by the way, Ted Leonsis gave Grunfeld an “A” offseason grade for the moves laid out in that last paragraph. Seriously. It was a classy gesture by Leonsis to grade on such a generous curve.
So, where the hell do we go from here? (And so much for keeping this shorter than Moby Dick.)
Rebuilding is basically off the table given the $170 Million owed to Wall through 2023, and Beal is entering the prime of his career, coming off a stellar season, and could be entitled to his own super-max extension if he makes an All-NBA team this year, which is very possible.
I love Beal. He’s one of the more entertaining players to compete in any D.C. sport in my lifetime. But signing him to another max extension would be disastrous.
Best-case scenario if Beal is retained: Wall comes back at 100% and the Wizards make… what? The playoffs a few more times? Maybe a conference final? Is there any real chance they compete for an Eastern Conference title with Giannis and the Bucks in the mix? Or Kawhi and the Raptors? Or Embiid, Simmons and the 76ers? Or Kyrie, Tatum, a healthy Gordon Hayward, Brad Stevens and the Celtics? Let’s not even entertain what would happen in a potential finals matchup with the Warriors, since getting that far is a pipedream anyway.
In order to build a contender, you have to be willing to bottom out – just ask the 76ers. Philadelphia averaged less than 19 wins per season from 2013 to 2017. Now they’re wrapping up a second consecutive 50-win season, and feature an MVP candidate (Joel Embiid) and a rising superstar (Ben Simmons). They were also able to swap some of their assets for a third All-Star (Jimmy Butler), as well as one of the NBA’s premier role players (Tobias Harris).
Ernie was fired this season, according to Owner Ted Leonsis’s April 2nd press release, because Washington didn’t make the playoffs; this revelation scared me. Not making the postseason, and getting a top-ten pick, is what the Wizards need to be doing right now. Ernie’s job should have been just as vulnerable during one of the many years when Washington was winning games in the low-to-mid 40s, with no clear road to getting appreciably better.
Grunfeld is gone, but Leonsis’ statement makes it clear that he wasn’t the only problem. Carving out a path to the playoffs next season will come at the expense of building towards any sort of realistic championship contention moving forward. I want the Wizards to be consistently bad more than I want them to be consistently mediocre. The former is risky, but could lead somewhere special. The latter means more of the same, and I think the entire fan base is ready for something new. Getting rid of Ernie was an important first step, but it’s just the beginning of what should be, and needs to be, a complete overhaul of Washington Wizards basketball.
I’m pretty sure I’m a millennial. I’m not sure if I actually make the cut-off that would allow me to proclaim myself a millennial, but I wear the moniker proudly because I embody all of their stereotypes: I’m always on my phone, I have to Shazam any song that was released before 2000 (if you don’t know what Shazam is, congratulations; you’re not a millennial), and I have a genuine affection for avocado toast.
Despite the many ways in which my millennial counterparts and I see eye-to-eye, we have one major divergence: baseball.
Millennials don’t like baseball for the same reason that they don’t like having dinner with their parents (except for you, mom and dad): it takes too long. In a sports landscape dominated by tweetable moments – dunks, big hits, crazy catches, ankle-breaking crossovers, more dunks – baseball is sorely lacking in highlights. The best Sportscenter material the game offers is diving catches where the outfielder really might not have had to dive.
The average age of a baseball fan is 57; up five years since 2000. By most any metric you can find, America’s pastime is quickly becoming, well, just that: an artifact of the country’s past, as sports like basketball and football dominate the present, and soccer looks like the most likely competitor to their cultural dominance in the future.
Baseball is in a dangerous place. If it doesn’t act prudently, it could quickly become a relic of a bygone era, a time before light-saber fighting was a sport (this is really a thing).
As we move towards Opening Day on March 28th, a date I still look forward to (even though my millennial friends swear that I’m kidding), I thought it would be appropriate to look back on the 2019 MLB offseason and figure out how exactly baseball is responding to its decreasing popularity. In other words, judging by the precarious position the game finds itself in, what is helping baseball re-establish its important position in the American sports landscape, and what isn’t?
(WARNING: This is basically three columns in one so, if you feel the need to space them out in between episodes of Queer Eye – THE NEW SEASON JUST DROPPED – I completely understand.)
Helping: Bryce Harper
Not Helping: Mike Trout
I wrote about Bryce and his new contract at length here, so feel free to check out my thoughts on the deal if you’re interested.
Harper was the highest paid player in MLB history for a couple of weeks, before Mike Trout destroyed his record-setting deal in terms of both total value and per-year pay, with a 12-year, $426.5 Million contract.
This makes a lot of sense. Trout and Harper came into the MLB at the same time, are very close to each other in age, and even though they’ll always be compared because of their parallel timelines, Trout should be getting significantly more money because he’s significantly better.
Since entering the league full-time in 2012, Trout has posted an absurd, Babe-Ruth level 64.2 WAR (wins above replacement); far and away the best number in the MLB. Over that same stretch, Harper has posted a WAR of 30.5. Bryce has one season where his WAR eclipses nine. Trout has FIVE such seasons.
So, Mike Trout is better. There is no question about it.
But, here’s the catch: while Trout might be better at baseball, Harper is better for baseball.
Trout has a couple things going against him in the marketability department. His first hiccup isn’t exactly his fault, and doesn’t make a lot of sense at first glance, but bear with me here: even though he’s playing in Los Angeles, he’s competing in an unfavorable market.
Now, you’re probably thinking: Los Angeles, the second biggest city in the U.S., is an unfavorable market? That doesn’t make any sense!
Great point and question.
While the city itself might be a great sports market, a different LA baseball team is the recipient of most of the city’s business and attention: The Dodgers.
The Angels’ cross-town rival has a million things going for it that Mike Trout and company does not. The Dodgers are, historically, one of the biggest names in baseball; point one. They have made it to two consecutive World Series (Trout’s never won a playoff game); point two. On average, over the last five years, they’ve spent roughly $80 Million more annually, boasting a historically hefty payroll; point three. Their ownership group features some major star power, including Magic Johnson; point four. The Angels’ most recent TV deal was worth $3 Billion over 20 years. The Dodgers’ is worth over $8 Billion (!!!) over 25 years; point five.
Okay, I can keep going, but I’ll leave it there. While one of the most talented players ever racks up historically great seasons as easily as Thanos does infinity stones (this is an Avengers reference and shame on you for not getting it), he has to face the fact that he’s doing it on the second most popular team in his city.
Beyond the Dodgers dilemma, Trout also faces an annoyingly notable issue in that he’s just not particularly charismatic. The New York Times did a profile on him last year entitled: “Baseball’s Best, Without the Brand.” The LA Times had one called: “‘Just Mike’ Trout is Angels’ leader by example.” You don’t have to read past the heading to get the gist of the problem.
Baseball’s best player – given the most boring nickname possible by his local newspaper: “Just Mike” – doesn’t care about being its best salesman. Arguably the most talented player ever couldn’t have picked a worse time to come along, when the MLB needs its stars to be marketable more than ever.
In steps Bryce Harper.
While he doesn’t necessarily come across as the most gregarious of people, he does have a certain swagger about him that makes him polarizing – which is a good thing. A recent poll at the Athletic asked MLB players to rank their fellow competitors in a variety of different categories, the most lopsided of which was “most overrated.” Bryce won handily.
Harper is good enough, outspoken enough, and prominent enough as to where he is worthy of both admiration and hate. Having detractors comes with the territory when you’re the face of a major sports league; just ask LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Tom Brady, or even Aaron Rodgers.
Harper uses bats with emoji’s painted on. He flips those bats almost as routinely as he flips his hair. He wasn’t afraid to stare down Cole Hamels after stealing home as a 19-year-old rookie. Bryce even has some memorable sound bites:
Harper definitely isn’t the best player in baseball, but he is its most recognizable figure. Trout will probably put up another historic season with the Angels in 2019, and, for an eighth straight year, I doubt anyone notices.
Bryce looks to be in position to have a renaissance with the Phillies and, honestly, the MLB needs him to. A league is much better off when its most recognizable player is also one of it best.
Helping: Free Agency
Not Helping: Extensions
Any press is good press. I’m not sure Bill Belichick’s curmudgeonly media-hating personality would agree with this but, nevertheless, that’s how the saying goes.
The MLB was getting a lot of press this past offseason because of the indecision, and lack of a market, its two most notable free agents experienced: Bryce Harper (who I feel like I’m mentioning 11 times per column) and Manny Machado.
Their late signings perturbed a lot of baseball fans, and some of this anxiety was justified. The lack of a market for two of the game’s brightest stars, specifically among baseball’s giants – The Yankees, Red Sox, Cubs and Dodgers – is alarming.
But their drawn-out free agencies represented the most coverage the MLB has had in a long time. I can’t remember any baseball-related story that was as widely covered as Harper and Machado’s free agency.
This speaks to a larger point, which is that free agency is really good for league notoriety. The NBA is successful because of its plethora of young stars and the fact that it’s tailor made for the Internet age, but it’s also so popular because it’s a 12-month league.
When the season ends, free agency begins just a few weeks later, and NBA fans follow the different moves closely on Twitter. It’s not too much of a stretch to say that, in a way, the NBA is responsible for the boon in sports coverage on social media.
The NBA also undergoes a ton of roster turnover each summer. This is a good thing. Free agency isn’t exciting because players sign with teams; it’s exciting because they often change teams. This isn’t happening as often right now in baseball.
Over the last month, after all the attention shifted away from the two notable free agent signings, an INSANE amount of top MLB stars – a lot of whom would’ve been free agents next summer – signed extensions with their current teams. This includes, but isn’t limited to, the following names: Trout, Jacob deGrom, Kyle Hendricks, Justin Verlander, Paul Goldschmidt, Chris Sale, Blake Snell, Alex Bregman, and Nolan Arenado.
All of these deals took place in the last six weeks, and I’m leaving a number of extensions out. (It’s also worth mentioning that two of the top 2019 free agent pitchers remain unsigned: Dallas Keuchel and Craig Kimbrel.)
This is boring. The tense, anxiety-inducing dance fans and front offices partake in during the free agency of top players is half the fun of rooting for sports teams; extensions eliminate that.
Players locking into deals early could be a byproduct of fears over a possible labor stoppage in 2021, when the current collective bargaining agreement (CBA) expires, and they also might have been scared off from the open market by the troubles Machado and Harper faced this past offseason.
Their legitimate reasons for re-signing early aside, this boon in extensions is bad for baseball. There is very little to talk about when players extend existing contracts, because it essentially means more of the same, and it highlights the unfair power dynamic between owners and players (more on this last point in a second).
Helping: Young Studs
Not Helping: Service Time
There are four especially promising rookies who all look poised to have strong year one showings: Vladimir Guerrero Jr (Blue Jays), Fernando Tatis Jr (Padres), Eloy Jimenez (White Sox), and Victor Robles (Nationals).
So, this is great, right? There’s a lot of young talent in baseball and they’ll all be playing on Opening Day.
Not so fast.
Because of the MLB’s ridiculous service time rules, some of these players may begin the season in the Minors so that their teams can hold on to their contracts for an extra year.
Service time rules are basically this: 172 days of service time – or days spent with the big league club – out of a possible 187 constitutes an MLB season. If you fall short of this mark as a first-year player, teams don’t have to count that first season as the first year of your major league experience and, as a result, the time clock on the years until you enter free agency hasn’t actually started.
Players are eligible for free agency after six years of MLB service (which is ridiculous in itself). But, if you’re brought up more than 15 days after Opening Day during your first year as an MLBer, you technically don’t start your first year with the Big League team until the following season. (This is all way too confusing, I know.)
Point blank: this is stupid. All it does is push off talented players’ impending free market possibilities, and it forces them to take a pay cut for an extra year (although they are eligible for arbitration in years four-through-six – but even this is put off because of service time restrictions). This strategy will be employed with at least one star this Spring – Vladimir Guerrero Jr. – who is CLEARLY ready for the big leagues judging by his on-base percentages of .449 and .414 in AA and AAA respectively last year.
While this particular rule is ludicrous, it speaks to the MLB’s larger issue: these sorts of rules need to change, but it takes WAY TOO LONG for anything to happen. Baseball’s traditionalist attitude is preventing its modernization, and as a result driving away younger fans.
Right now, there is a clear power imbalance in baseball between owners and players. The absence of a salary cap has led to some astronomical figures in MLB deals over the last couple decades, especially in comparison to other sports that do have caps, but as television revenue rises and leagues become more and more profitable across the board, baseball deals are looking less and less impressive in comparison.
This might seem counter-intuitive judging by Trout’s recent near-half-billion-dollar deal, but that contract in itself is indicative of the problem. The marker has been set for what the top player in the game is making, so now all other deals will fall in line below that. In a sense, the Angels’ star set an unofficial salary cap with his signing.
Coupling this with the hesitancy owners showed in getting involved in the free agent market, there is going to be a clear urgency among players moving forward to sign extensions before entering free agency. Owners can take advantage of this and put off their stars’ open market prospects until they’re past 30, when long-term deals are tough to come by.
Less free-spending teams, like the Oakland As, use the unfair pay-system to their advantage as well by employing way-too-cheap talent through the first couple years of their prime without having to dole out much money.
I love Moneyball as much as the next guy, but this NEEDS to be worked out in the next CBA.
Just for fun, I’ve outlined some predictions for the upcoming season below. I’ve provided absolutely no justification or reasoning because this column is long enough, but feel free to plagiarize my picks for gambling purposes (just kidding – please don’t do that):
Division Winners: Nationals, Brewers, Dodgers
Wild Card: Cubs-Phillies
MVP: Bryce Harper (Phillies)
Cy Young: Max Scherzer (Nationals)
Division Winners: Red Sox, Astros, Indians
Wild Card: Athletics-Yankees
NLCS: Red Sox-Yankees (I can dream, can’t I?)
Pennant: Red Sox
MVP: Matt Chapman (Athletics)
Cy Young: Chris Sale (Red Sox)
World Series Champion: THE WASHINGTON NATIONALS
It’s a homer pick, I know, but Richard Justice of MLB.com just called them a “perfect team” on the Tony Kornheiser show. That’s got to count for something.
This Thursday and Friday is my favorite 48-hour stretch of the year. From noon until well after midnight, on back-to-back days, I watch my NCAA Tournament bracket crash and burn while I guzzle down coffee for focus and indulge in junk food to soak up the excess caffeine.
Over the course of 32 games, we will see buzzer beaters, upsets, crying fans, enraged coaches, crying fans, mediocre college bands, absurdly long television timeouts, coaches crying because their beloved senior leader is graduating, crying fans, people claiming their one successful bracket is “honestly the only one” they did, hilarious Charles Barkley commercials, seniors crying because their career is over, and, above all else, crying fans.
There’s no crying in baseball. There is, however, a TON of crying in March Madness.
Just to ensure you don’t miss a minute, I have worked up a few excuses that should get you out of any of the following: class, work, meetings, meal plans, and the birth of your firstborn child. You’re welcome:
“I wish I could come but I have back-to-back-to-back doctor’s appointments! All of them are on different sides of the city so I won’t have a free minute! Next time maybe!”
“Professor, I apologize for the late notice but I have contracted a rare form of the Tibetan Bot Fly Flu and will not be able to make it to class.”
“Can’t make the meeting today. I have to go to my niece’s Quinceneria in Millersville, Pennsylvania. Her brother’s Bar Mitzvah is the next day so I’ll be out Thursday and Friday.”
“Hey, sorry, won’t be able to make it. There’s a backup on 405. Please name him after me.”
Okay, you’re good to go. Now, in preparation for the Madness, I have worked up a quick and dirty NCAA Tournament Primer. I’ll cover some players and matchups to watch, potential Cinderella candidates, as well as some of my own predictions.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Ignas Brazdeikis, Michigan
I have a personal connection to Brazdeikis, so bear with me here:
I saw Michigan dismantle Maryland in College Park a couple weeks ago. Early on in the game, when Brazdeikis – the Big Ten Freshman of the Year and Michigan’s leading scorer – was at the free throw line, the Maryland student section started chanting, “You Are Ugly!”
Terrapins head coach Mark Turgeon, in a classy move, asked the PA Announcer to tell the undoubtedly drunk college kids to stop, and they did – at least with that specific chant.
Brazdeikis went on to lead the game in scoring, with 21 points, including a game-sealing three and a couple clutch free throws. After every bucket, “Iggy” was looking straight into the Maryland student section, blowing them kisses, pointing at them, and just generally enjoying annihilating their beloved team.
Brazdeikis made A LOT of enemies that night. But he also became my favorite college basketball player.
Iggy is a 6’7” swing man who is already built like an NBA vet, despite having just turned 20. He’s a knockdown shooter – 42 percent from three – and can finish at the rim with both hands, using his impressive physique to his advantage.
The Lithuanian-Canadian Freshman will beat you down and let you know about it. On an unrelated note, he also has a killer haircut. This is a guy you HAVE to watch at least once during the Tournament (even if it’s just to check out his hair).
Ja Morant, Murray State
Player comparisons are so stupid and arbitrary and I hate them and swore to myself that I would never do them. But Morant plays EXACTLY like Russell Westbrook.
The sophomore guard is eighth in the country in scoring (24.6 points per game), and first in assists (10 assists per game). He led Murray State to a conference tournament championship over a tough Belmont team – who made it into the field as an at-large selection – with a 36-point outburst.
Morant is the most electrifying player in the country (excluding the guy I’m going to talk about last). He’s a one-man fast break and virtually unstoppable going to the rim. He’ll be a top-five pick this June so make sure you catch him in college before he bolts for the NBA.
Tanner Rockefeller, Yale
Oh wait, sorry. He doesn’t actually play basketball – the extracurricular just looked good on his application to go along with his Dad’s donations. My bad.
Zion Williamson, Duke
Zion has done the impossible: He’s made people actually kind of root for Duke.
When he went down against UNC in their Obama-attended February meeting, the basketball world collectively gasped at the prospect of never getting to see the 6’7” 285-pound athletic marvel compete at the collegiate level again. Luckily for Blue Devil fans, he came back in time to lead Duke to an ACC Tournament championship, averaging 27 points and 10 rebounds on mind-boggling 77-percent shooting over their three-game run.
Williamson is the most uniquely dominant collegiate athlete I have ever seen. He is both the strongest and most athletic player on the court – and no one is particularly close to him in either category. He bulldozes his way to the rim, needing absolutely no space or momentum to take off and dunk on your entire team, and he also has a surprisingly soft touch with his left hand when he’s prevented from getting all the way to the basket.
Jay Bilas is the king of corny analogies, but he has one for Zion that is along the lines of “a mack truck dancing ballet.” It honestly makes no sense, but it’s only marginally more confounding than a near-300-pounder who can do things like this (WATCH ALL THE REPLAYS):
Do yourself a favor and watch Zion Williamson before he’s the number one pick in the NBA Draft a few months from now.
FIRST ROUND MATCHUPS TO WATCH
Murray State (12 seed) versus Marquette (5 seed)
Ja Morant, whom I already noted is eighth in the country in scoring, will be going up against Marquette’s own prolific scoring guard in Markus Howard, whose 25 points per game (ppg) is good enough for sixth in the nation.
Marquette looks to be a heavy favorite due to their superior front line – thanks in large part to the skilled Hauser brothers – but watching the two talented guards fill it up will be some of the best entertainment the opening weekend has to offer.
Winner: Murray State (I am not at all confident in this upset pick. Highlights of Morant might have me in a trance.)
Seton Hall (10) versus Wofford (7)
This is another matchup that features two talented scoring guards: Myles Powell of Seton Hall (23 ppg), and Fletcher Magee at Wofford (21 ppg). The two also average a combined 19.3 three-point attempts per game…which is a lot.
This is Seton Hall’s fourth consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament, after missing the field the previous nine years, and they’re coming in confident, having beaten Marquette twice and Villanova once over the last three weeks.
Wofford is playing at an equally high level, as they have yet to lose in 2019. Boasting the 12th most efficient offense in the country, per KenPom, to go along with the second most prolific three-point attack, they’ll give a tough Seton Hall team all they can handle.
Winner: Wofford (I actually have them making the Elite Eight. They have an All-American caliber guard in Magee, and their aforementioned top-notch offense. If they get hot they can play with anyone.)
Yale (14) versus LSU (3)
LSU head coach Will Wade has been suspended indefinitely due to a suspicious “offer” he made in the recruitment of a potential player. The exact details of the situation are unknown, but what we do know is that LSU has looked lost so far without their coach – losing to a mediocre Florida team in the SEC Tournament – and Ivy League schools always seem to be tough outs in March.
Every year, it feels like there is one seed-line that features four unusually dangerous teams; this season, it is without a doubt the six-seed:
Maryland is coming in slumping, having played their best basketball in December and January, but they nonetheless feature Bruno Fernando at center – a future first-round pick – and Anthony Cowan manning the front court, one of the best veteran guards in college basketball. A dangerous team with NBA-level size, they can beat anyone, but also might still be too young to make a run.
Villanova has won two of the last three NCAA Championships. While this 2019 team is a far cry from either of those squads, they’re still one of the more efficient offenses in the country. They also play at one of the slowest paces in college basketball – 333rd out of 353 Division I teams, per KenPom – and their patient, sharpshooting offensive attack always causes problems.
Iowa State is coming off a dominant Big 12 Tournament performance, beating Kansas by double-digits in the title game, and they feature a balanced offensive attack that includes senior guard Marial Shayok, who’s averaging 19 points on the season. I don’t know if this theory has any merit, but I’m ALWAYS wary of teams that win major-conference tournaments, as you’d think they’d come in playing with some swagger.
And, rounding things out, the University of Buffalo is coming into the Tournament playing as well as anyone in the country. The only mid-major six-seed, Buffalo is top-20 in the nation in both offensive efficiency and tempo. They’re led by Senior guard CJ Massinburg, the likely MAC player of the year, and they already have 31 wins on the season. They also boast an impressive 12-point non-conference victory over Syracuse.
If you’re looking for a not-so-bold Cinderella pick, any of these four teams could make some noise. (Although I honestly don’t have a lot of faith in Maryland.)
My actually-kind-of-bold Cinderella picks are below.
New Mexico State
Already with 30 wins on the season and boasting a deep rotation, New Mexico State is a popular Cinderella pick. They’re going up against an Auburn team that’s coming in hot, having just won the SEC Tournament with a convincing victory over a loaded Tennessee squad, but New Mexico State’s biggest strength is on the boards. Auburn has struggled to corral defensive rebounds all season. Don’t be surprised if New Mexico State gets at least one win this weekend.
Probably the second most popular Cinderella pick behind New Mexico State, UC Irvine has lost just once in 2019. And, like New Mexico State, they also spread their minutes around– featuring a 10-to-12-player rotation.
They have nine guys averaging at least six points, and just as many averaging at least 16 minutes. Kansas State, their first round matchup, will more than likely be without one of their best players – Dean Wade – and UC Irvine looks to be in a great position to knock off the Big 12 regular season co-champs.
This is one of the most dangerous teams in college basketball.
Belmont is second in the nation in points per game, first in assists, and third in effective field goal percentage. They dismantled a solid Temple team in the First Four Tuesday night, winning by double-digits despite the fact that their star wing, Dylan Windler, only managed five points. He averages 21, to go along with 11 rebounds, on the season.
They face off against Maryland in the first round and they have a really good shot to beat the Terps, and perhaps make it all the way to the Sweet 16. I know I’ve already established Maryland as one of four dangerous six seeds, but they’re by far the most vulnerable of the group because of their youth, inconsistency, and difficult first round matchup.
Belmont will give the Terps all they can handle. I’m listing this under the Cinderella candidates, but this is a must-watch opening round matchup as well.
They have a chance to make a deep run, as I mentioned earlier in breaking down their matchup with Seton Hall, but I’m not positive a seven-seed warrants a “Cinderella” moniker. And the stupidity of debating what warrants a “Cinderella” moniker is not lost on me.
Barring upsets, they will face second-seeded Kentucky in the second round. I think they’ve got a great shot to win that potential matchup.
A TOP-HEAVY TOURNAMENT
I know this is boring to say, but I think it’s very likely that the Final Four is composed entirely of one and two seeds (and I’m not the only one saying this). Duke, Virginia, Gonzaga, North Carolina (the four one-seeds), and Michigan State, Michigan, Kentucky, Tennessee (the four two-seeds), are far and away the best eight teams in the nation.
I could be convinced that Michigan doesn’t belong in this category, as they aren’t quite as talented as the other seven, but they more than make up for it with one of the craftiest veteran point guards in college basketball (Zavier Simpson), their aforementioned freshman phenom (Brazdeikis), and quite possibly the best head coach in college basketball (John Beilein).
Go ahead and ride your double-digit seeds into the Sweet 16, and feel free to carry your beloved Cinderella through to the second weekend, but don’t take them any further. I wouldn’t be surprised if I were wrong, since it’s called March Madness for a reason, but this Tournament, more than any other year, is shaping up to be fairly uneventful in terms of underdogs dancing into April.
(All this being said, I stand by the six-seeds being four unusually strong teams. I honestly think that more six-seeds make the second weekend than three seeds. You can quote me on this, since I have the ability to edit these posts in the future should my predictions not pan out. All hail the death of print journalism – every mistake is now correctable (but on a more serious note, support your local newspaper.))
I’m just going to get straight to the point:
Final Four: Duke, Gonzaga, Tennessee, North Carolina (boring, I know)
Championship: UNC vs. Duke (The first NCAA Tournament matchup between the ACC rivals comes in the championship)
National Champion: North Carolina (75-70)
UNC is deep, talented, well coached, and their three-headed monster of Luke Maye, Coby White and Cam Johnson is one of the best offensive trios in college basketball. It’s probably not as good as Duke’s three star freshmen, but their close enough as to where Carolina’s superior depth should win out (…I think). They were one shot away from beating the Blue Devils a couple weeks ago, and this time around I predict they’re on the winning side of what would definitely be a close game, since UNC and Duke are basically incapable of pulling away from each other.
Carolina wins their second title in the last four years.
Miscellaneous thoughts, predictions and observations
- Michigan State was screwed. They are undoubtedly the best two-seed in the Tournament, yet they got placed in Duke’s region – the number one overall seed.
- Villanova is 25-9, Marquette is 24-9. Both teams are in the Big East, and Nova won the regular season and conference tournament championship. Somehow, Marquette is seeded higher. This makes no sense.
- Overall, though, this is one of the better jobs the committee has done in terms of seeding in recent memory. I usually have more complaints.
- Gonzaga is easy to dismiss because they’re in a mid-major conference. The Zags are, however, really, really good – they’re number one in the country in offensive efficiency and effective field goal percentage, per KenPom. DO NOT underestimate them.
- Nevada’s a popular Cinderella pick because they’re seeded pretty well for a mid-major – seventh – and they made the Sweet 16 last year. They’re easily the most overrated team in the country. Don’t buy the hype.
- I don’t have Virginia in the Final Four, but it feels like no one else does either because of their 2018 embarrassment. Don’t be scared off by last season’s result, this Cavaliers team has been as consistently dominant as anyone in the country, and they have a sizeable lead on KenPom in adjusted efficiency margin, which is a sort of catch-all metric that takes into account a team’s overall performance. So, according to the preeminent college basketball advanced stats site, they’re BY FAR the best team in the nation. Don’t sleep on UVA. (Even though I am.)
- I’ve referenced stats from KenPom ten million times, and if you’ve clicked any of the hyperlinks you may have noticed you can’t access certain pages without a membership. If you are a college basketball enthusiast I definitely recommend subscribing. It’s like Disney World for sports nerds.
The Nationals lost game five of the 2012 National League Division Series (NLDS) in crushing fashion to the St Louis Cardinals. I know a playoff series from seven years ago seems like an incredibly random place to start, but the game has been stuck in my head the last couple weeks.
They were up 6-0 after three innings on the back of a teenage-Bryce Harper RBI triple and homerun. They survived multiple rallies to go into the ninth up 7-5 with their reliable reliever Drew Storen coming in. He boasted a 2.37 earned run average (ERA) on the year, and came within one strike of sending the Nats to the League Championship Series on two occasions.
They ended up losing 9-7.
Washington would go on to lose in the NLDS four of the next six seasons, three of those losses coming in game fives. But, in the wake of Bryce signing with the Phillies last week, I keep finding myself coming back to that 2012 meltdown.
Maybe it’s because they were up six runs. Maybe it’s because they won 98 games in 2012, the highest total in franchise history (Expos included). Maybe it’s because it was their first trip to the postseason since they came to DC.
But, more than likely, it was the toughest pill to swallow because I was in the stands that night as a sixteen-year-old high schooler, watching a fellow teenager put the finishing touches on a historic rookie season.
Bryce was cocky, outspoken, talented and, above all else, really freaking good. He was the Nationals’ future, but judging by his 22 homeruns and .270 batting average he was also their present. Now, seven years later, he’s only one thing: gone.
By now, everyone knows some version of the soap opera that was Bryce Harper’s 2019 free agency: He played a game of cat and mouse with multiple MLB teams over the last few months – most notably the Giants, Dodgers, Padres, and, of course, the Phillies – and finally inked a record breaking 13-year, $330 Million deal with Philadelphia on February 28th.
Pretty simple, right? The guy that Sports Illustrated christened the LeBron of baseball in 2009 signed the biggest contract in sports history. Poetic Justice. That’s all there is to it. End of column.
But, of course, there’s A LOT more to it. (This is almost as bad a false ending as the fake credit sequence in Vice… how did Adam McKay get a Best Director nod over Bradley Cooper?)
In the waning days of the 2018 season, when it was becoming clear that the Nats would miss the playoffs, they offered Bryce a 10-year, $300 Million extension. Harper and super-agent Scott Boras turned it down, and probably did so while laughing and using 100-dollar bills as kindling wood.
There was a time when Boras and his star client probably thought they were all but assured something north of $400 Million, and a deal that wouldn’t break records just wasn’t going to cut it.
They busted through the free agent doors this past offseason expecting to be showered with cash.
Things didn’t work out that way. It’s tough to know exactly what types of deals Bryce was being offered fresh out of the free agent gates, but they were unappealing enough for him to wait to sign until midway through spring training. When his Phillies deal was official, rumblings trickled out about some of the other contracts he was considering. Most notably, a 12-year, $310 Million deal with the Giants, and a lucrative short-term contract with the Dodgers thats exact details are still relatively unknown.
To get the sort of record-breaking average annual value (AAV) Boras and Bryce were all but assured a year ago, Harper would’ve had to take a short-term contract like the one the Dodgers offered. But he was adamant about his prioritization of long-term security. So, in the end, he went with the Phillies’ offer, just beating Giancarlo Stanton’s $325 Million in terms of total value, but the $25ish Million a year he’ll be getting through 2032 (that’s insane to say) isn’t even close to breaking AAV records.
As far as the long-term stability a 13-year deal provides, the contract makes sense. The no opt-out and no trade-clause seem a bit excessive, but the MLB market has been leveling off the last few years so leaving Philly to get more money in the future seems like it would have been improbable regardless. Not to mention the possible labor stoppage baseball could be facing in 2021, and the deal seems solid – and I know how absurd it sounds to call $330 Million just “solid.” So, that’s it. NOW we’re done…?
Nope; false-ending #2 (Vice only had one but it’s still a terrible excuse for a movie).
In the weeks leading up to Harper finally inking his deal with the Phillies, the Nationals had all but disappeared from the Bryce talks. The assumption at first was that he was just asking for way too much, and Washington already boasts a pretty hefty payroll – thanks in large part to their three ace starting pitchers – that will be getting even more substantial in the coming years as some of their young stars enter free agency.
But just a few months ago they offered him $30 Million in AAV over 10 years. Bryce ended up signing for a $25.4 Million AAV over 13 seasons. Harper had been emphatic in the past about how much he adored DC, and it seems like he really did have a genuine affection for the city and fan base, so it’s hard not to wonder why Washington never re-entered his contract negotiations. Was there really no middle ground between 10 and 13 seasons, when he was willing to forgo a pretty sizeable amount of per-year money to do so?
This is where the plot continues to thicken – something that never happened in Vice. (This is the last Vice reference. I promise.)
The Washington Post, aka the best sports section in print journalism, reported last week that the extension offered to Harper in September was, in theory, 10-years, $300 Million, but a SIGNIFICANT portion of that money was going to be deferred, as Jon Heyman at MLB Network sums up nicely:
This is far from uncharted territory for the Nats. A lot of money in contracts for two of their aces – Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg – is deferred. But they will be paid in full within seven years of their deals ending. Bryce would have had to wait until 2053 for the last of his money under the Nationals’ proposed contract. That’s 34 years from now. The only thing I’m positive about in the world 34 years from now is that the Rolling Stones will still be touring.
Washington’s refusal to re-enter the Bryce sweepstakes despite his price tag being much lower than initially presumed, combined with their HEAVILY deferred contract-offer that Harper and Boras probably perceived as a slap in the face, leads into an even more interesting question surrounding the Bryce Harper 2019 free agent soap opera. A question that deserves its own paragraph:
Did the Nationals ever actually want to re-sign Bryce Harper?
Nats General Manager Mike Rizzo and Owner Ted Lerner always said the right things; in terms of being emphatic about wanting to bring him back. But actions speak much louder than words; and not just Washington’s front office actions, but also Harper’s on-field play.
Bryce has posted one Major League season that would warrant the most lucrative deal in baseball history: his 2015 MVP campaign. Harper delivered a .330/.460/.649 slash line (batting average/on base percentage/slugging percentage) in his historic 2015 season, while also posting an absurd 10.0 WAR (wins above replacement – 2.0 is about a league-average MLB player), the best mark by a National League position player since Barry Bonds in 2004*. (We all know what the asterisk is for.)
Putting his otherworldly age 22 campaign aside, Harper has been incredibly inconsistent. Sam Miller at ESPN says it best: “Over the past four years [Harper] has hit .283, a strong batting average, but he has never hit within 30 points of .283.”
|Year||AVG (batting average)||OBP (on-base percentage)||SLG (slugging percentage)||WAR (wins above replacement)|
There have been some highs – hitting well over .300 twice – and then also some lows – hitting in the .240’s a couple times as well.
It’s entirely plausible that the Nationals looked at his inconsistency, considered the talented and expensive team they had assembled outside of their prodigal slugger, and decided he wasn’t worth the money.
On the mound, the Nationals bring back three-time Cy Young winner Max Scherzer ($210 Million contract), career 3.14 ERA starter Stephen Strasburg ($175 Million), and all-star reliever Sean Doolittle.
In terms of position players, they bring back the absurdly consistent Anthony Rendon, a healthy Adam Eaton and Ryan Zimmerman ($100 Million), and could-be-future superstars Trea Turner and Juan Soto, along with top-ten prospect Victor Robles.
This isn’t even mentioning the plethora of aggressive offseason moves they made over the last few months, bringing in a new starting second basemen, two solid catchers, two new relievers, and two starting pitchers. Most notable among these moves is the 6-year, $140 Million deal they shelled out to southpaw hurler Patrick Corbin; a Cy Young candidate in 2018.
On top of all the spending they did this offseason – $189 Million in free agent money – the Nats are well aware of another star coming off their payroll next summer who’s in position to receive a massive contract: Anthony Rendon.
The Nationals and Rendon narrowly avoided arbitration this offseason, but the 28-year-old third baseman could be due for a sizeable deal considering what some other notable players at his position received last month:
Manny Machado signed for 10-years, $300 Million with the Padres, and Nolan Arenado inked an 8-year, $260 Million extension with the Rockies. This could mean there is a lot of green in Rendon’s future because, honestly, he’s every bit as good as those two, even if he doesn’t have Machado’s flair and notoriety or Arenado’s individual accolades (3 time home run king, 6 time Gold Glover).
Here is a comparison of the three players’ WAR’s over the last few seasons, courtesy of Fangraphs:
Rendon has been just as valuable, if not more so, than two guys at his position that received a combined $560 Million over the last month. Keeping Harper this offseason and retaining Rendon next year would mean paying upwards of $50 Million for two position players, on top of the nine-digit contracts the Nats have already given to their three-headed pitching monster.
The Nationals might have decided that, based on his prior performance, Harper just wasn’t worth the money. And, honestly, they’re probably right.
I hate this. I hate admitting that perhaps the most iconic DC athlete of my lifetime was a necessary casualty of the Nationals’ hopes for championship contention.
As a baseball fan, the move, or lack of a move, makes sense. Rendon needs to be re-signed, and big deals for Turner and Soto are forthcoming as well.
But, as a Nationals fan, I feel like I’ve been robbed of the best years of Harper’s career. Bryce never brought a championship to DC, but he did bring some memorable moments – his MVP, the home run derby at Nats Park, stealing home as a rookie after getting pegged by Cole Hamels.
Even though it was basically impossible to retain him and stay anywhere close to the luxury tax moving forward, I can’t help but wish he were dressing in the home locker room when the Phillies come to town for the first time this April.