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Thursday, December 31, 2009

Korked Bats' Athletes of the Decade - Part 2

Here's the feedback I received after my first post about sportsmen of the decade:

"" -Anonymous

"" -Nobody

"" -Unattributed

Judging by everybody's responses, I think it's safe to say yesterday's post was a bit lengthy. And that's fine. I knew it was too long. But it was either break yesterday's posts into two parts and release this thing in way too many installments, or do what we did.

We opted for the latter because, well, it was easier. So there.


Best Athlete in
a Team Sport

I briefly touched on this in yesterday's post, but this group of athletes refers to the best athletes this decade that not only excelled individually, but also as a member of a team, whatever that really means. The first group that we ran through yesterday was the best athletes this decade that were not such great teammates, but still individually outstanding.

Yesterday's list was probably the most lesser of the three, but the last two are, to me, essentially in the same tier.

I did everything I could to narrow this list down, but I couldn't find any way to have less than six. Also, with the exception of player number one, the argument could be made that any player belongs in any of the five remaining slots.

At any rate, here we go.

6. Martin Brodeur
THE NUMB3RS:*
No NHL goalie has started more games between the posts than Brodeur. No goalie has ever had more shutouts, either. Now, I don't claim to know much about hockey. Really, I know nothing. But people that know far more about hockey than me seem to think that those are two pretty incredible records to hold, and I tend to agree with them.

He also won two Stanley Cups this decade and, although I've made it quite clear that championships don't carry as much weight with me as some other thinkers, he had a lot to do with that. Again, according to people that know a lot more about hockey than me, a great goaltender in hockey might be the most effective position in any team sport in terms of winning games by themselves. And that makes sense to me.

*I forgot to mention on yesterday's post that the whole substituting a '3' for the 'E' in NUMB3RS was intentionally lame and done, really, just because I find it funny. I don't really think it's clever or cool or really likable.

THE CASE:*
I felt like it would've been a bit near-sighted of me to only take players from the NBA, NHL and MLB and I really do believe that Brodeur belongs on this list. I put him at six because, unfortunately, I just don't know enough about hockey to argue that he belongs in front of any of the next five guys.

I'm sure there are plenty of smart people out there that could argue that he belongs at number one, but I just don't know enough.

That's called transparency, friends, and according to some old, dated journalists called Kovach and Rosenstiel, every journalist needs it.

*I considered putting a soccer player in this spot, but no footballer dominated the decade like Brodeur. Ronaldo dominated the start, Ronaldihno the middle part, and Lionel Messi and Christiano Ronaldo have split the last third.


5. Tom Brady
THE NUMB3RS:
I've never been super-wooed by Tom Brady the way the rest of the world has. I understand the draw to revering him. He's set some single-season passing records. He's won three Super Bowls and played in four. He's stupidly handsome and married to one of the most coveted women in the world.

The fun thing about sports, though, is that sometimes you'll take to some people, and sometimes you don't. I found ways to defend Kobe Bryant, even when he was indefensible, and I've just never taken to Brady.

I guess the numbers are a good place to start as to why he doesn't do it for me. A lot of people will tell you that the most important statistic for a starting quarterback is wins. I'm just not the type to always follow dated logic. I happen to think that some of those numbers that are often discounted are more telling than just how many games a QB wins. I could be wrong but, again, this is my post. If you disagree, that's what we have the comments section for.

Anyway, Brady has only had 3 seasons of 4,000+ passing yards and 25+ passing TDs. You may think those numbers are shallow. That's fine. Again, I don't. At any rate, when there have been QBs out there that have won nearly as many, or more, games than Brady while posting better passing numbers, I feel obligated to put them in front of him.

And you can't really blame those numbers on the Pats being a run oriented team, as they've only had a 1,000 yard rusher twice since he took over in 2001, and only a 1,200+ yard rusher once.*

At any rate, I view the regular season to be more statistically significant than the postseason, as there are far more games to sample from. Also, to those that love to make the 'Big Game Tom' argument, Brady has lost the Super Bowl and lost to the team everyone argues he owns in his last two trips to the playoffs, respectively.

*Not coincidentally, the year that Corey Dillon ran for over 1,600 yards was the Pats' second best regular season, behind only the one when they had three receivers that would've been a number one option on most teams, plus an offensive line that didn't let anyone get to Brady...until the Super Bowl.

THE CASE:
Brady definitely belongs in this group. Even if his numbers don't completely jump off of the page, they are still rather impressive. And there is something to be said for those drives he set up in the Super Bowl.

I just can't shake the modest statistics from five of his eight seasons as a starter, and the fact that he shouldn't have even made it to his first Super Bowl, coughtuckplaycough. If the Raiders had made it to the Super Bowl in '01 like they deserved to,* Brady would've only won two of three Super Bowls.**

Now I realize that 'only' two Super Bowls sounds outlandish, but who knows where things go if the refs had made the right call on the Tuck Play. Maybe the Pats go back to Bledsoe. Keep in mind that, although the Pats had a fantastic season with Brady at QB, Bledsoe was still a top-tier NFL QB and Brady, while impressive in winning all of those game, wasn't individually incredible. Maybe the Pats trade him if the fumble stands? I'm not sure.

Also, the coach argument can't be overlooked, as Belichick might be one of the best ever, note the fact that Brady had great defenses in his Super Bowl winning years.

I guess I just can't shake all of this stuff. The sum of the parts add up to put Brady behind some truly incredible athletes. There really isn't any shame in that. Really.

And if that really does upset you, Tom, I'll direct you over your right shoulder where your lingerie supermodel wife is waiting to jump your bones.

*It's crazy that the Tuck play happened almost eight years ago, isn't it? I feel like it's been forgotten, but you can really play the 'What-if' game for hours if the tuck call goes the other way. I would like to see Spock about some red matter to figure all of this out.

**You'll have to forgive me for all the random musing, but I need to vent something really quick: If you ever hear a Pats fan complain that Eli Manning's escape and the ensuing helmet catch by David Tyree was a fluke play, and thus the Pats should've won Super Bowl XLII, feel free to slap them from me. The Tuck Play was nothing less than divine intervention, so the Pats were owed a bit of bad luck. Plus, at least the helmet catch was a legal play made on the field. The Tuck Play was decided by a clueless referee and a fuzzy issue in the rule book. The Raiders deserved the win.

4. Tim Duncan
THE NUMB3RS:
No doubt, Tim Duncan will go down as the greatest power forward of all time. He was actually ahead of the next guy on the list for most of the decade, and I can explain why he's recently fallen behind when we get there.

Anyway, Timmy's 21.3 points and 11.7 rebounds per contest this decade are impressive enough before you figure in how dynamic Duncan's post game was, the fact that he invented post moves, the way he made the 15-foot bank shot cool again,* and the way he was able to command and pass out of double teams.

Duncan was also, along with Kevin Garnett, the most consistent post defender of the decade, and averaged at least 2 blocks a game each season except for two- and he posted totals of 1.9 and 1.7 blocks a contest in those seasons.

I should also point out Duncan's back to back MVPs in '01-'02 and '02-'03, his three rings this decade, and his two Finals MVP trophies. Also, for all of you PER buffs out there, Duncan has been incredibly efficient this decade, especially given his terrible free throw shooting.

*A lot of people find Duncan to be boring, and I see where they are coming from, even if I disagree. Jordan has forever put an end to mainstream sports culture's ability to find enjoyment in watching an incredibly fundamental big man get 22 points a night by exercising 1,234,098 different post moves. I suppose his calm voice and chill demeanor on the floor don't help. I can't help but love the guy, but I get it. He's kind of boring compared to high-flying wing players.

THE CASE:
If such a thing as 'being a great winner' exists, Duncan is a 100 on NBA live in that attribute. He's so dynamic as a power forward that he can help his team when in a billion different ways. Again, I could easily argue that he belongs at number two on this list, but the fun in this stuff is creating arguments.

At any rate, Duncan's team-first attitude coupled with his individual brilliance should make him one of the most memorable athletes of the decade. But, for some reason, he kind of gets lost in the shuffle with all the Kobes and Shaqs and LeBrons out there.

As an aspiring journalist, it's infinitely interesting to me to see how an athlete's interaction with the media shapes his (or her) public persona. By all accounts, Duncan is a lovely guy to chat with and interview, and I would wager that you could have some fascinating basketball conversations with him.

But I would almost say that Duncan is too far on the other side of the media-friendly spectrum. He's so non-controversial that he's just a little too forgettable. If you look at the NBAers that most people discuss as the players of the decade, you'll notice a recurring theme with all of them: an edge.

Duncan has been so non-controversial, so well-behaved, and so business-oriented (I just set a record for hyphenated-style words in a sentence. Ah, there's another!) that he's just become lost to the average fan.

I love the guy and, again, he was ahead of the next guy on our list for most of the decade. I hope I get the opportunity to meet him someday because, damn, he's smart.


3. Kobe Bryant
Ok, can we all agree that I'm showing a fair amount of non-bias in putting him at three?
THE NUMB3RS:
With the exception of LeBron James,* no player this decade has filled up the stat sheet like Kobe Bean Bryant. He's currently averaging over 30 points per game, something he's doing for the fourth time this decade. Despite playing most of the decade in the Triangle offense (an offense not conducive to really high assist totals for any individual players), Kobe averaged 5 or more assists a game eight seasons, and at least 5 rebounds each year.

In NBA history, only four players other than Kobe have averaged at least 25 points, 5 rebounds and 4.5 assists a game for their career: one is LeBron, one is the best ever, one is the NBA logo, and the other remains the only player in NBA history to average a triple double for an entire NBA season. Pretty good company.

Then there's all that six-NBA-Finals-appearances-four-rings-Finals-MVP-and-regular-season-MVP business.

*You might wonder where LeBron is on this list. I felt it best to leave him off altogether, not because I disrespect him, but because he missed the first three seasons of the decade. I realize I put Barry Bonds on my other list, but he's only missed the last two seasons, and I just like writing about him. Sorry. Again, transparency, friend, has got to be worth something.

THE CASE:
No player has vacillated more times this decade from yesterday's list to today's list than number 8, er, 24, but I ultimately decided that Kobe spent more time this decade helping his team than sabotaging it, and that's good enough for me.

Now, I mentioned earlier that I had Duncan ahead of Bryant most of the decade, but what pushed Kobe ahead was his ability to adapt. He's gone from an athletic wing that dominated games with his length, quickness and hops, to a perimeter player with an improved three-point touch and devastating foot work to essentially a power forward playing shooting guard in the last chunk, punishing guards down on the block.

And the incredible thing is that with each new innovation, Kobe was still one of the top two or three players in the NBA. He's just as effective now at age 31 as he was as a 21 year old.* Duncan spent most of the decade as one of the top two or three players in the league, but has faded over the last three or so years. He hasn't reinvented himself to stay at the top of his game.

All the while, Kobe's remained one of the best perimeter defensive players in the league, and should go down as one of the best ever in that category as well.

Was peak Duncan better than peak Kobe? Maybe, but Kobe has been able to stretch his peak out for so much longer that I couldn't, in good conscience, leave Duncan in front.

*A fun debate I like to have in my head because, well, I'm as big a nerd about sports as someone else may be about comic books -- who would you take in a game of 1-on-1: 21 year old Kobe or 31 year old Kobe? Do 31 year old Kobe's smarts outdo 21 year old Kobe's sheer athleticism? I don't know the answer, but how many players in NBA history could we have this argument about? The short list is Jordan, Bird, Russell, Chamberlain, West and, bizarrely, Steve Nash. Discuss amongst yourselves.


2. Peyton Manning
THE NUMB3RS:
You might think that Tom Brady's NUMB3RS section earlier left a bit to be desired. That was intentional, because I wanted to compare the numbers of these two guys.

Peyton: 11.5
Tom: 10.25

Those are the wins per season for each QBs team with them as the starter. Now, again, I'm not as in love with QB wins as other thinkers, but I'm going to break down the argument that Brady is a better winner.

Look, I get it. Tom has three rings, Peyton one. Tom has 14 playoff wins, Peyton seven. But, look a little closer and you'll notice a few things.

For one, throw out the tuck game. Tom lost that game and was gift-wrapped a win. Then, the 2003 Pats were the tops in the NFL in points per game allowed, and the 2004 Pats were second.

As a matter of fact, the two years that the Pats finished outside of the top 10 in scoring defense- 2002 and 2005- the Pats missed the playoffs, and lost by two possessions to the Jake Plummer-lead Broncos, respectively.

Peyton, on the other hand, didn't get such defensive help earlier in the decade. For the fist five years (00-04), you know, when everyone was saying the Pats OWNED Peyton, the Colts had ZERO top 10 scoring defenses.

Since 2005, when the Pats' defense started going south and the Colts' defense started improving, Tom is 5-3 in the playoffs and Peyton 4-3. Not a ton of difference, especially when you figure in the fact that the Colts beat the Pats in their only match-up since the Colts have actually had a defense.

All of this, and I neglected to mention that the Patriots' most notable win over the Colts, the AFC Championship Game in '03 in which Peyton was picked four times, featured the Pats' secondary frisking Colts receivers so aggressively that the NFL changed it's downfield contact rules following the game.

So, even if Tom had more postseason success than Peyton, a lot of that can be explained by terrible defense and, as much as I hate to call on stuff like this, poor refereeing.

We won't quite call it a wash, but it's way closer than it's made out to be. Then you figure this in:

Peyton: 31.4
Tom: 28.1

Those are the touchdown totals per season. Then there's that one thin where Peyton has passed for over 4,000 yards nine times to Brady's three.

So, Tom has been the better 'winner' (again, if that really exists) but by a fairly slim margin, while Peyton has won far more regular season games and is definitively better at doing stuff like scoring touchdowns for his team, and moving them down the field. You know, that stupid stuff that no one really thinks matters.

Ok, so if you're head doesn't hurt and your eyes aren't crossed from reading all that, read on!

THE CASE:
I'll try to keep this short, because I feel like the statistics argument was pretty comprehensive.

The bottom line is, Peyton could go down as the greatest QB of all time. He's been remarkably consistent in not missing a start all decade (whereas Brady missed an entire season due to injury- thanks Bernard Pollard!- and didn't play in '01. I don't penalize him for that, necessarily, but the fact that Peyton has been so consistent all decade can't be overlooked), and, let's face it, Tony Dungy doesn't really stack up very well with the Hoodie.

Don't get me wrong. Tony is a great guy and all that, but comparing him to Belichick is like comparing Drexler to Magic.

I'm a Peyton guy. Love watching him audible. Loved him on SNL. Love his commercials. Love him. As long as its pertinent, I'll continue to bring it up- I try to keep bias out, but I'm really partial to Peyton. I'd like to think my argument is sound, though.


1. Tim Tebow
Nah, I'm just messin' with you. I'm just never going to stop making jokes about him.


1. Albert Pujols
THE NUMB3RS:
...stack up with the all-time greats. His career OPS (on base percentage plus slugging percentage) is 1.72 times the league average, and it ranks him behind only Ruth, Williams, Bonds, Gehrig, Hornsby and Mantle. And, unlike any of those guys, he's done it all in our little decade.

If you like more traditional stats, Pujols has posted a line of .310+/30+/100+ each year of his career. He's won three MVPs and probably should've won more.

Then there's this -- of the 23 players in baseball history to post a better career batting average than Pujols' .333, only Gehrig, Ruth and Williams posted better career slugging percentages. Basically, that tells us that Pujols is one of the greatest EVER power/contact combo guys, and the greatest in some 50 years. So yeah, he probably belongs at the top

THE CASE:*
Look, I'm a Royals fan. Inherently, I am to despise Pujols because everyone knows that the Royals hate the Cardinals and the Cardinals don't know that the Royals exist. So understand that a fan like myself thinking Pujols is the unequivocal team sports player of the decade must mean something.

I don't know how else to spell how how consistent his dominance it's been, but understand that Pujols, like it or not, is probably the best pure hitter since Ted Williams. And he plays for the team I hate most in sports.

The hell will never end.

*I don't know that any particular credit is due to Pujols for never being linked to performance-enhancers, but I suppose it is worth mentioning.

For the sake of humanity, we'll end this post here and get our final list- athletes in individual sports- out in the next day or two.

Again, feel free to comment- no really, feel free, you don't have to have a log-in name- and we'll be back to finish this fight.*

**I figured I'd work a Halo reference in, as this is a decade review blog, of sorts.


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