Saturday, May 22, 2010

Floyd The Fraud

In July of 2006, American cyclist Floyd Landis gave us a thrill. He dominated a mountain stage of the Tour De France--an epic, Merckx-style, solo breakaway. He won the stage, and the yellow jersey. That was the last good day in the life of Landis.

Soon after that stage win, it was revealed that he had tested positive for testosterone. He was stripped of his Tour win. He was banned by the UCI, cycling's governing body, for two years. He had hip surgery. He was without a team. His wife left him. All the while, he maintained that he had won the '06 Tour without drugs. He wrote a book, "Positively False", proclaiming his innocence for 250 pages. He fought his suspension in court, but it was costly. He went through his life savings. He started the "Floyd Fairness Fund" and raised over $500,000--all donated by people who believed that Landis was telling the truth.

He claimed that he had taken a shot of whisky the night before his stage win, saying that's what caused the positive test. He then claimed the French labs had botched his samples. He then threw Greg LeMond under the bus during his protest trial, when it came out that Landis had blackmailed LeMond, using a story LeMond told Landis in confidence about his being sexually abused as a child. Landis lost his court appeal. Landis had lost everything.

He went away--for a while. He's raced (poorly) for domestic teams the last couple of years. Then, this week, his name resurfaces. After four years of proclaiming his innocence, he now says he was lying. He says he did dope during the '06 Tour. He says he doped as far back as 2002, with all of his then-US Postal Service teammates, including Lance Armstrong. He even went as far to say that the UCI accepted money from Armstrong to cover up a positive doping test during a race in '02. Strong accusations. Or are they, when they come from a scumbag like Landis?

Some specifics from the Landis emails to cycling officials are hard to believe. He claims he went to Armstrong's home to pick up his first dose of EPO, and that Lance met him in the hallway, with his then-wife watching, and gave him the drug. As much as Armstrong is tested and watched, would he really serve as the guy on the team who hands out the EPO to his teammates? Would he really store it in his home, where drug testers show up, unannounced, 50 times a year? Would he really hand out EPO so casually at his home, like he was handing out candy to neighborhood trick-or-treaters on Halloween?

Armstrong's team released a series of emails that Landis had sent to Lance, and to other cycling officials--including some to the organizers of the Tour of California, trying to blackmail them into letting him race in their event. Clearly, Landis has hit rock bottom. He also appears to have lost his marbles. He has no career, no money, no family, no friends, and no credibility.

What if he's now telling the truth? Too late. Had he come forward with these accusations the day after he tested positive in '06, a lot of people would have listened. Now, he's seen as a bitter, axe-grinding, has-been who is simply trying to drag the cycling world into the gutter with him.

And to top it all off, Landis has no proof of any kind. It's just his word against US Postal's word, and as Armstrong said this week, "We like our word."

Armstrong has had to fend off drug rumors before. There is always speculation, but never any evidence or proof of any kind. No doubt, cycling has been a dirty sport--filthy, in fact. But it's also been the most vigilant sport in the world when it comes to testing and penalizing it's athletes. Practically every big name in the sport in the last 10-12 years has failed a drug test--except for Lance. Is he just a genius at staying ahead of the posse? Maybe. Or, perhaps he's just that one-in-a-million athlete, like Jordan or Gretzky or Merckx, who is simply better than everyone else.

Only Lance and a precious few of his confidants know the truth. From the outside, all we have to go on are the test results. Armstrong has, by 100 miles, been the most tested athlete in the world for the past decade. He's never failed one. Those are the facts. Odds say that at some point he's tried something illegal to improve his performance. But the odds also tell us that he's a genetic freak--the same freak that, since he was a teenager, has been head-and-shoulders better than just about everyone else in his sport. Are we to believe that he was doping at age 15 when he would show up at the Tuesday Night Crit in Richardson and blow away the field? I doubt it. Odds also tell us that when you train harder, plan better, and out-think your opponent, you have a better chance to win. Lance has always done those three things.

Armstrong has superior genetics and a clean testing record. Landis has a history of lying, blackmail, and positive dope tests. So who should we believe? Once again, Armstrong ends up the winner. In this case, a yellow jersey for Lance, and scarlet letter for Landis.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

The Mavericks Paradox: Their Greatest Asset Is Also Their Greatest Weakness

Here we are yet again, left sorting through the wreckage of the latest Mavericks playoff disaster. What is left for them to not accomplish? They've authored the greatest collapse in NBA Finals history. They are the only team in modern NBA playoff history to lose in the first round as a 1st AND 2nd seed. Expectations are consistently high for the franchise each postseason, and those expectations consistently come crashing down like the Hindenburg each year. So what is the problem?

A Different Animal

Dirk Nowitzki is one of the 50 greatest players ever. He's a future Hall of Famer. He's one of the most destructive offensive forces in the history of the game. He is also the only constant in a decade's worth of Dallas playoff failures. Coaches, point guards, wingmen, centers, bench players--they've all been switched out dramatically over the past 10 years, but the team's leader and superstar has stayed the same--and so has the end result each year.

What Dirk gives you on the offensive end (and even that can be somewhat limited, as we'll get to in a moment), he also takes away on the defensive end and in the leadership department. He presents a real challenge for a franchise that tries to build around him--can you win a title when your best player is your worst defender? And not just your worst defender--he's a guy who plays power forward, which is traditionally a very important defensive position. Practically every NBA champ has had a power forward who was able to get down and dirty--able to defend the rim, clean the glass, play good/great man to man defense, and be an enforcer. Sometimes you can get away with an average defender at power forward and still win a title, but you better have Russell or Kareem or Shaq as your big man, not Haywood and Dampier.

Your best player can't be your worst defender. Your best player must lead by example. Kobe, Duncan, Jordan, Kareem, Russell, Walton--they were all able to hold their teammates to higher standard because they were playing at a high standard at both ends of the floor. Even Magic and Bird, not world-class defenders, were still very smart, very hard working, very effective defenders. Teammates respected them and listened to them because they knew they were squeezing every last ounce of defensive ability out of their DNA. Their teammates would think to themselves "I can't slack on defense because he's not slacking, and I don't want to let him down--or have him get pissed at me and kick me in the nuts on national TV!"

Does Dirk have that kind of respect? Can Dirk ever jump on his teammates for not playing defense? I don't think so--because HE doesn't play defense. So, Dirk can't feel comfortable assuming the Kobe-Duncan-Jordan role of true leader, demanding excellence on both ends of the floor. That is a huge fundamental problem. Teams need to be led. They need to be led by their superstar. They need to be led vocally and led by example, and those two are not mutually exclusive.

Dirk: Power Forward?

Every year in the playoffs, games turn into a layup drill for the Dallas opponent. Why? One big reason is because the Mavs have a 7 foot power forward who plays like a 6'8 small forward. Let's face it--Dallas would be a considerably better team if Dirk had stopped growing at 6'8. That would allow him the ability to play the 3 (the position that his game his designed for), and the Mavs could go and get a true power forward to play alongside the center of their choice--greatly fortifying thier interior defense. We all get upset with Haywood and Dampier for not protecting the rim enough, but consider their plight: they have no power forward to help them. Even a great defender like Duncan has struggled to control the paint without a Robinson or Horry or other long defender to help.

Watch the tape from any playoff series (last year's Denver series was a great example). Most of the time you will see a flat-footed Dirk on 'defense'--reaching instead of moving his feet, not blocking out, not rotating in time, and generally playing sub-par man to man and help defense. It's my opinion that, unless you put Dwight Howard next to Dirk on that front line, you can't win an NBA title with your best player playing front-line defense like that. NBA champs always do two things well: protect the rim, and attack the rim. Dirk rarely does either.

Dirk: Unstoppable on Offense?

Pro-Dirk historians will look back at this latest playoff series and cry "it wasn't Dirk's fault--he averaged 27 points and 8 rebounds per game!" It's what they always do--point to his series averages, but it's a tremendously shallow look at his impact on a series.

Look at his game-by-game in this series for a better idea of his impact against the Spurs. He had a poor game 2 (Mavs loss at home), a poor game 4 (Mavs loss) and a poor start and finish in game 6 (Mavs loss). And, he was barely double-teamed the entire series.

Game 6 is a prime example of the Dirk myth. History will show that he scored 33 points on 13 of 21 shooting--great numbers, no doubt. But the box score doesn't show that Dirk lost his composure in the first 16 minutes of the game, and helped dig a giant hole for his team in an elimination game. Silly fouls, missed shots, poor defense, and lots of yelling. Not any way for a superstar and leader to respond. And, while he was great in the third quarter helping the team comeback to tie the game, in the final 7 minutes of the fourth quarter, Dirk made only one shot, and wasn't exactly a huge help on defense. It was a two-point game with 7 minutes to play, and then Dirk disappeared. The pro-Dirk historians will, a few years from now, simply remind you that Dirk scored 33 that night, and that it wasn't his fault. I would strongly disagree.

That 18 footer, which is money in the bank during the regular season, is not a lock in the playoffs. Teams apply a bit more pressure, which makes that shot a bit more difficult, as do the circumstances. If Dirk could take it to the rim on a nightly basis, like he did in game five of the Spurs series, his legend might have a happier ending.

The Solution?

Make no mistake: Dirk is THE reason that Dallas has won 50 games for 10 straight seasons. Not Nellie, not Cuban, not anyone else--Dirk is the man. For the regular season. It's hard for any of us to criticize Dirk because he's such a nice guy and such a great asset to the Mavs and the community. But you would be ignoring the elephant in the room if you think that he is not a primary reason for their playoff failures. NBA basketball changes in the postseason--regular season heroes often can't duplicate their greatness in the second season. Karl Malone, George Gervin, Patrick Ewing--and Dirk, are prime examples of that.

It's simple: you can win a title with Dirk on your team, but you better go and get LeBron or talk Bill Russell out of retirement (and into a fountain of youth), or it's not going to happen. You need a transcendent player or truly dominant center to win with Dirk. The Big German is what he is--that will never change. And something else will never change--to win in the NBA, your best player can't be your worst defender. It undermines his leadership credibility--and that is what is known as a fatal flaw.