Aug 2, 2009

Blazer Analysis

This has been a tumultuous offseason for the Portland Trailblazers. Whether you're pumped or baffled about the moves and the direction of the franchise, you have to agree to that much.

Living in Portland, my 45 min morning commute is comprised of 35 min of Blazer analysis on the radio. After digesting the reaction of callers and radio hosts, there are a few points I'd like to touch on as we head into next season.

1. Jerryd Bayless - Which Side are You On?

It's amazing how much can change in a year.

Just twelve months ago, Bayless was heralded as (an integral piece of) the future for the Blazers. Today, the overwhelming majority seems to have given up on him, calling for his head and hoping a trade ensues. While I'm somewhere in the middle with regards to Bayless as a player, I am beyond annoyed by the overnight shift from a fanbase of Bayless believers to a fanbase of Bayless haters.

What caused this shift? A few summer league games. Summer league? Yep. This is the same summer league that Oden averaged 42 fouls/game in last year. What was fans' response to Oden's lack of discipline last summer? That he's still young and has plenty of time to learn. So why hasn't the same patience been offered to Bayless? You got me. More on Oden later in this post.

On Bayless, most fans are just now coming to the realization that he isn't a point guard. This is the primary reason for the abandonment of the fan base in recent months.

I knew Bayless wasn't a point guard from day one, but who really cares? The same point guard experiment failed on Monta Ellis in G.S. and Ben Gordon in Chicago. Both of those guys have managed to make a good living in this league, despite their lack of height and lack of a distributor's mentality.

So he can't pass. Big deal! As soon as Blazers' brass stops pushing him as a point guard and gets creative with lineups, he'll be just fine. The fact remains, Bayless is a FREAK athlete... you don't believe me, just youtube his high school and college highlights. He gets to the rim at ease and finishes. He can pressure point guards better than anyone else on the roster save Andre Miller. Let's stop focusing on what he isn't and focus on what he is.

Failed Transactions

Much has been made of Portland's failure to land Turkoglu and Millsap. What do I think? I think the Blazers are better off. While I love both of those players, they would have put a tremendous burden on Portland's future cap space.

Will Turkoglu really be worth $10mil+ in 5 years, when he's in his late-thirties? I doubt it. Plus, he excels with the ball in his hands as a point-forward of sorts. B Roy is still the pick-and-roller late in games, and I can't say with certainty that Turkoglu would have been as effective playing off the ball.

Millsap would have brought some toughness, but at the expense of $10mil per? Remember, he would have been coming off the bench. It's hard to justify paying that kind of money for 25-30 min per game.

In short, the death of those proposed deals could be a positive in the long run.

On Oden: Sam Bowie or Dwight Howard?

Let me start by saying that Greg Oden will be a much better player than Sam Bowie ever was. However, there are certain things about the former #1 that I am a bit worried about.

Did anyone else find it concerning that Greg opted against training with the team in favor of academic pursuits in Columbus? For a guy who underwhelmed in year one, I would think he'd dedicate every minute of his summer attention to getting better. Not saying he hasn't been working hard, but to even divert some of his attention to the books seems foolish to me at this point. If anything, it just strengthens the argument that Oden just isn't THAT passionate about basketball... at least not compared to the all-time greats people have been likening him to. That worries me.

As I mentioned earlier, the unwavering support for the big fella has been astounding. It's like people forget that free passes aren't given to #1 picks. People so desperately want to see him succeed that they are blinded by all of his shortcomings. This wasn't intended to be Oden bashing hour, but from what I've seen he 1) has no offensive awareness WHATSOEVER, 2) is extremely undisciplined on defense, 3) shows little aggressiveness or passion for the game, and 4) is injury-prone. Yet, somehow, people up here still think he was a better pick than Kevin Durant. Unbelievable.

The Blazers did the right thing by hiring Brian Grant to be Oden's personal trainer this summer. He should do wonders for the big man.... Grant was always a tireless worker and brought toughness to the court. If he can help Oden in these facets of the game, he should be a big-time contributor this year.

Despite all my criticism, I'm not gonna give up on the big guy yet. He is still VERY young and has years to come into his own. He's got the God-given tangibles that can't be taught, now it's just a matter of him taking it upon himself to improve every year. I hope this happens.

This Season and Looking Forward

The Blazers should be a contender this year, even more so than they were last year. I'm expecting a win total in the 55-60 range, which would be good for 3rd or 4th in the West. They aren't quite a championship-caliber team at this point (especially with the offseason improvements by the Spurs & Lakers), but they should make it past the first round. If they can lock down Roy & Aldridge to long-term deals, and Oden makes Pryzbilla expendible, this team could be downright scary in a couple years. There is not a team in the league that is more loaded with young talent. Should be fun to watch!

Jun 25, 2009

Trades Out-Hype the Draft

It is fitting that the draft commonly thought of as the weakest in years was outdone by trades.

When Orlando and Cleveland met in the Eastern Conference Finals, Orlando walked away with the last laugh. On draft night, Orlando laughed last again by countering Cleveland's Shaq acquisition with their Vince Carter pickup. Coincidence? I think not.

Clearly, O'Neal and Carter are both on their way down the peak of their respective careers. In fact, this night's draftees were still in grade school when Carter and O'Neal came into the league.

These moves were made out of desparation. Cleveland knows that now may be the only time to convince Lebron to stay. Orlando could taste supremacy this season, only to watch it slip away in the final round.

So what do these trades mean for these teams? Do these elderly statesmen have enough in their tanks to make a difference? Do they even fit with their new teams' rosters? Let's take a closer look.

Shaq to Cleveland:

On paper, Cleveland didn't risk much in this transaction. Shaq's gargantuan contract expires next year, and the departed (Ben Wallace & Sasha Pavlovic) will hardly be missed. In reality, Cleveland risked everything. Lebron may pack his bags if the Diesel isn't the right piece and Cleveland can't win a title next season.

Shaq's presence will be felt one way or another. That's what immovable objects do. Whether this presence will be positive or negative is the real question.

Best case scenario, the double-teams commanded by Shaq will give Lebron more room to operate and free up Cleveland's array of one-dimensional shooters. His body will wear down Cleveland's newest nemesis (Orlando) and neutralize Dwight Howard. Cleveland's undoing in the ECF was largely due to the inability of the Wallace/Illgauskas combo to slow down Dwight Howard. Finally, Mo Williams won't have to be the #2 option, a role he wasn't ready to play against Orlando.

Worst case scenario, Shaq's immobility will be a problem in defending pick-and-rolls. His loitering in the offensive lane will clog things up for Lebron, who's jumpshot isn't good enough to remain on the perimeter. His ego will be damaging when Lebron steals all of his publicity.

I'm guessing the Cavs' regular season record will be impacted negatively by this transaction. It will take the team weeks, if not months, to become accustomed to having Shaq on the court. Defensive rotations will change, offensive spacing will change, and Lebron's development as the team's leader will by stymied.

However, Cavs didn't make this trade to win the regular season. They made this trade to win the postseason. Acquiring the Diesel was monumental for Cleveland's chances to outlast Boston and Orlando in the 2010 playoffs. As those playoffs will probably make or break the franchise's future with Lebron, this was a great move.

Carter to Orlando:

Bringing in Carter shows Orlando's commitment to the here and now, sacrificing the future promise of Courtney Lee to get a few twilight years from Carter.

First question I have is: who's going to take the last shot on this roster? Lewis and Turkoglu showed icy veins time and again this postseason. Carter has provided late-game heroics throughout his career. I suppose this dilemma is a good problem to have. The only thing I know for sure is that Dwight Howard won't be taking the last shot.

Best case scenario, Carter will flourish in the pinstripes. His three-point proficiency and ability to finish in the open court will mesh perfectly with Orlando's open style of play. If teams struggled matching up with Turkoglu and Lewis in '09, adding Carter to the mix could make the matchups nightmarish in '10. Now all five Magic starters are all-star caliber players.

Worst case scenario, Carter is lost in this offense. He isn't accustomed to sitting in the corner awaiting a kickout, which is what Magic players not named Dwight Howard do best. He doesn't handle the ball enough to play his game, and his ho-hum attitude takes the fire out of Magic bellies.

I think the Carter pickup will solidify Orlando's domination of Lebron's Cavaliers. Lebron couldn't cover Hedo and Rashard simultaneously this season, and nobody else on that roster could cover either of them. With Carter and Turkoglu interchangeable as ballhandling wings, Orlando will pick-and-roll Shaq to death. With a healthy Garnett, however, I still don't see Orlando beating Boston in a seven-game set. Carter will help the Magic if they make it back to the finals, but getting there will be a tall task.

Jun 23, 2009

Picking Apart the Top Picks

Admittedly, it's all speculation at this point. . . but this year's draft class seems pretty weak.

Browsing the sports cyber-world, I came across's consensus mock draft, and was shocked by how many players with glaring weaknesses were projected as lottery picks. In fact, every player not named Blake Griffin (and potentially James Harden) seems destined to underwhelm at the pro level, in my estimation.

Normally, I focus my pre-draft analysis on team needs and overlooked "sleepers." This year, I'm going to be as pessimistic as possible. For each consensus lottery pick, I will present my arguments for why he shouldn't be drafted so high. I've excluded #1 (Blake Griffin) because I don't see any glaring flaws in his game.

2) Hasheem Thabeet: Where do I start? I contemplated writing this entire piece on Thabeet's shortcomings. He's a flimsy, one-dimensional shot-blocker with no resemblance of an offensive game. He got manhandled in college by DeJuan Blair, who is 9 inches shorter than him. He ain't gonna sell any tickets. But he's tall... and he has upside. Yeah, we've heard that before. Think Mutombo at best and Sam Bowie at worst.

Thabeet Rocking the Pink Throw Sweater in Defensive Stopper Fashion

3) Ricky Rubio: The Pistol Pete comparisons are tiresome. If the videos I've seen aren't lying, the Pistol could shoot. Ricky can't. In fact, he shot below 40% from the field last season in EuroLeague. And for all of the press on his remarkable ball-handling, Rubio turned it over 3 times a game in only 23 minutes per. That projects to around 5 turnovers playing starter minutes. But he's excited to play in the NBA. As long as he's not in Memphis. Or OKC. Or Sacramento. Or Minneapolis. Good luck with that.

4) James Harden: Harden's college stats point to a well-rounded game. I saw him play a lot, and he was clearly the best player on the court. When he was engaged. If Harden is going to be a bona fide shooting guard in the NBA, he's gotta be more aggressive. 13 shot attempts per game (like he had at ASU) isn't gonna cut it. I also think he's a little slow for a 6'4 guard.

5) Tyreke Evans: Apparently GM's searching for their franchise point guard aren't putting much merit in Evans' college stats. 3.9 assists, 3.6 turnovers, 27% on threes, 71% on free throws. Shaq can get away with those kind of stats. Point guards can't.

6) Jordan Hill: Meat and potatoes guy. Every team needs a power forward who can rebound and hit the mid-range jumper. There are a lot of guys in the NBA who can do that. That's why you pick one up through free agency -- not with the 6th overall pick.

7) Stephen Curry: Curry should be a 2-guard, but isn't really big enough to play the position full-time. He has the stroke to fill that Vinnie Johnson/Ben Gordon microwave role, but this is the lottery we're talking about here. You don't use a top-7 pick on a role player.

8) Jonny Flynn: I'm having DaJuan Wagner flashbacks...

9) Demar DeRozan: For all the "De"'s in his name, this dude doesn't play much "de"-fense. That's problematic for swingmen trying to cover Lebron, Kobe, and the rest of the multi-talented offensive juggernauts at that position. Oh, did I mention he shot 17% from three? And that's from the college three-point line.

10) Jrue Holiday: He can do a lot of things. He's just not great at any of them. 8.5 ppg & 3.7 ppg as a frosh at UCLA. Impressive.

11) Brandon Jennings: When drafting a point guard, leadership should be as important a factor as scoring, ballhandling, or passing. Jennings didn't get the memo. When Jennings couldn't skip college for the NBA, he thought he was too big for the NCAA, making headlines with an international rotation. Then he made those laughable pre-draft comments. He's sure got a lot of confidence for a guy who put up 6 ppg and 2 apg while in Rome. Rubio's international stats don't look too bad after all.

12) Gerald Henderson: The last 5 guards drafted out of Duke? J.J. Redick, Daniel Ewing, Chris Duhon, Trajan Langdon. That worked out well.

13) Earl Clark: Last year, he put up 14 points on 12 shot attempts per game. Not terribly efficient for a 6'9 guy. To be honest, I haven't seen him play much. I did a little research, and it came as no surprise that "shot selection" was listed as one of his weaknesses. Another listed weakness was "focus." That would worry me.

14) DeJuan Blair: It's no wonder Blair can't block shots. He's just a hair over 6'5" without shoes on. Only one post player has ever excelled in the NBA at that height: Charles Barkley. Will Blair be the next Barkley? I say no.

Jun 19, 2009

Memorable Draft-Day Moves: LA Lakers

Now that the season is over, draft talk is in full swing.

While this year's class bores me overall (although I contemplated a piece on Ricky Efron-Rubio), years past have provided all kinds of intriguing moments. Franchises have been built by ingenius picks and destroyed by negligent picks.

Over the years, the Lakers have been a model of consistent success. So what moves have they made to build greatness and which ones were temporary missteps? In honor of their '09 championship, let's take a look back at the most monumental decisions made by Laker brass on draft day.

5. 1977 NBA Draft -- Kenny Carr (6th overall pick)
In a baffling decision, L.A. selected Kenny Carr with the 6th overall pick of the 1977 NBA Draft. In doing so, L.A. passed on future all-stars Bernard King (7th), Jack Sikma (8th), Rickey Green (16th), and Eddie Johnson (49th). So how did the Forward from NC State fare in Purple & Gold? Carr put up 6.2 and 7.4 ppg, respectively, in his first two seasons in the league before the Lakers gave up on their investment 5 games into his third season. Carr would later travel around the league for another 8 seasons as a journeyman, with mildly effective stops in Cleveland, Detroit, and Portland. To the Lakers' credit, they did steal Norm Nixon with the 22nd pick in the same draft year.

4. 1962 NBA Draft -- Leroy Ellis (6th overall pick)
Even great franchises make bad calls sometimes. The Lakers selected this "promising" young big man with the 6th overall choice, bypassing John Havlicek (who was picked next at #7). Ellis was decent in his four seasons with the Lakers, but capped out at 12 ppg in his last season in L.A. However, it wasn't so much what Ellis didn't do, but more what Havlicek did do that came back to haunt the Lakers. Havlicek was a thorn in L.A.'s side for the next decade-plus, one of the key reasons L.A. kept finishing a close second to Boston in the NBA playoffs.

3. 1996 NBA Draft -- Kobe Bryant (13th pick via Charlotte)
Jerry West took a chance in trading long-time crowd favorite Vlade Divac for the unproven, college bypassing Bryant. I don't even think the Logo knew how fortuitous this decision would become. We know the history: Bryant went on to team up with Shaq for 3 titles, and won a 4th without the Big Fella this season. Equally impressive is the fact that in a league marked by player movement and free agency, Bryant has remained in Laker gold for his whole career. Wise decision, Mr. West.

2. 1975 NBA Draft -- David Meyers (2nd overall pick)
After appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated in college, Meyers was picked 2nd overall in the 1975 draft, only behind future Hall-of-Famer David Thompson. Meyers went on to play only four seasons in the L, putting up modest averages of 11.2 points and 6.3 boards per outing. Dumbest pick in NBA history, right? Not so fast. After being drafted by the Lakers, he was packaged with three other half-wits and shipped to Milwaukee for Lew Alcindor. We all know what happened next...

Lone remaining jpg. of David Meyers on Google Search

1. 1979 NBA Draft -- Earvin 'Magic' Johnson (1st overall pick)
The Lakers struck gold in landing the first pick in the 1979 draft and made the no-brainer choice to select Magic. The four picks that followed L.A.'s selection? David Greenwood, Bill Cartwright, Greg Kelser, and Sidney Moncrief. I'd say the Lakers made the right decision here. Magic went on to team with Kareem and James in bringing home 5 NBA championships and a plethora of close second's. He was the catalyst of the "Showtime" era and solidified the franchise as the second-best in all of pro basketball.

Final Words:
I flirted with the idea of including the Jerry West and Elgin Baylor selections on this list, but kept them off in the end. Going through the team's draft history, it is easy to see why the Lakers have remained good (or great) for most of their history. Unlike many franchises (ahem, Sam Bowie), they made the right decisions in the offseason.

Jun 11, 2009

Live Game 4 Blog

Keep in mind, this is coming from a Laker fan. Thus, the below observations are completely biased.

1st Quarter:
- Kobe line-drives an 18-footer. 78 seconds in, we get our first teeth-clenching moment.
- Gotta give it to Courtney Lee, he's got an awful lot of confidence for a rookie who blew a game-winning layup and missed two wide open threes to start the game.
- Bynum picks up the obligatory 2nd foul with 8:42 left in the first. True to form, his foul was wasted, not hard enough to prevent a three-point play, not soft enough to avoid the whistle.
- Kobe forces another shot early in the shot clock. Will he ever take the ball to the basket again?
- Skippy throws in his second prayer of the game. He's a different player at home.
- Kobe FINALLY decides to take the ball to the basket and gets a three-point play. The NBA: where amazing happens.
- This is the "hardest" Jeff Van Gundy has seen Howard play for a six minute stretch... in this series... in the games in Orlando... while the Magic have had the lead... and Courtney Lee has two fouls. Riveting stuff.
- Was it irresponsible for ESPN to have the coach's brother commentate these games?
- Speaking of the Van Gundy's, the interview of Papa VG was priceless in game three.
- I love it when Turk complains that he got fouled. It's kind of like watching Bobby Brown protest against domestic abuse. If Bobby Brown had been born with fetal alcohol syndrome.
- Tony Battie sighting.
- Orlando fans boo when Kobe rips through, raises up, and draws the foul. Have they ever watched Turkoglu play?
- DJ Mbenga sighting. Drumroll please... Josh Powell sighting.
End of 1st: Magic 24, Lakers 20

2nd Quarter:
- Luke Walton starts things off with a feathery jumper. He has played terrific basketball all playoffs long.
- Proof positive that Breen is an idiot. "J.J. Redick has become a facilitator this year under Stan Van Gundy." I checked the stats: Redick averaged an eye-popping 1.1 apg this season.
- Turk is making himself some money this series. He's playing all-star ball.
- Magic by 10. Maybe their game three shooting (and the Lakers' defense) wasn't a fluke after all.
- In case you were wondering, Marcin Gortat cannot guard Pau Gasol.
- Bynum makes his first legitimate post move in 96 hours. In other news, Americans elect their first black president. Wait...
- Dwight Howard grabs his 47th rebound of the half.
- With no other low post options, L.A. subs-in trainer Gary Vitti. Maybe he will box out Howard.
- Mark Jackson criticizes SVG for not subbing Turkoglu on the last offensive possession. Shockingly, JVG quickly changes the topic of conversation.
Halftime: Magic 49, Lakers 37

3rd Quarter:
- Since when did Brian Scott become the spokesperson for the Lakers?
- Bryant pulls up and hits a three on the slow break. Camera pans the Magic bench as Pietrus drops his warmups.
- Ariza hits his third straight shot, and it's a five-point game. And the Magic just lost 10% of its playoff fan base.
- In breaking news, Kobe likes Hedo as a player.
- Question for SVJ: when a player is one-dimensional and that dimension is failing, why would you keep him in the game? Sub-out Redick.
- The refs confer with Fisher, who calls it Laker ball.
- Maybe Howard shouldn't have sprinted every possession in the first half... he looks winded.
- Orlando looks lost without Turkoglu on the floor.
- In the most amusing play I've seen in recent memory, J.J. Redick tries a Hedo/Kobe pump, lean, & chuck and actually expects a foul to be called.
- I stand corrected. Kobe trying to man up on Howard is the most amusing segment I've seen in recent memory.
End of 3rd: Lakers 67, Magic 63.

4th Quarter:
- SVG tries to weather the storm by starting the fourth with Tony Battie in the lineup. Nice.
- Why doesn't Shannon Brown play in this series? He would give Skippy fits.
- Wow. Pietrus blows the 1-on-0 break. That's a game-losing play right there.
- Did Jameer Nelson gain weight and shrink during his layoff? He looks like Muggsy Bogues tonight.
- After Pietrus hits a three, Kobe hits an impossible three, check that, two, in Pietrus' face. Coincidence? I think not.
- Even JVG is annoyed by the "hand down, man down" phrase at this point...
- Whenever Dwight Howard makes a free throw, I feel like a flock of seagulls has just crapped on my head.
- Pietrus is one of those Stephen Jackson/Travis Outlaw players, the player who has no concept of good basketball play vs. bad basketball play. These types of players tend to play well at the end of games because they have no filter and aren't bothered by the moment (because they don't understand what "the moment" is). 76-75 Magic.
- The lost 10% of June Magic fans are back again.
- David Stern walks over to the Laker's bench and takes back the embroidered "best closer" chair when Kobe misses a wide open three.
- Mark Jackson offers his apologies to SVG for questioning his playing "Muggsy" Nelson in the fourth quarter. JVG bites his tongue.
- Does that "best closer" chair belong to Trevor Ariza?
- Stern calmly walks the chair over to the Magic bench and slides it under Turkoglu as he sits down. Magic by 5 at the timeout.
- Kobe takes a horrendous three as the rest of the team watches. This is getting old.
- Howard misses first of two. This one could make it a two possession game. Shot's up... and out. The Lakers have life.
- Fisher hits the second-biggest shot of his career, and JVG's partiality comes out as he chastises Jameer Nelson for leaving him open.
- 4.6 left, tie game. SVG is contemplating subbing-in Courtney Lee.
- Pietrus misses the buzzer-beater. So much for my above theory.
End of 4th: Lakers 87, Magic 87.

- Lewis starts things off with a "magical" three. Okay, I apologize to anyone who just read that.
- Kobe with two straight. Stern sneaks back to the Magic bench to reclaim the "best closer" chair.
- Pietrus blatantly whacks Bryant on the wrist. No call.
- Howard hits 1-of-2 to make it a tie game with 1:30 left. The Magic team doctor resuscitates SVG.
- Gasol swears in espanol as Nelson hooks his arm on the rebound attempt.
- Fisher hits the third-biggest shot of his career, and Breen finally gets a chance to talk again. Lakers by 3.
- After a Bryant elbow, Nelson's teeth would be intact if he ever kept his mouthguard in his mouth.
- France and Spain square off. Advantage: Spain.
- Game, set, match. Series over, folks.
Final: Lakers 99, Magic 91.

Jun 10, 2009

The 5 Most Polarizing Athletes of this Era

Polarize (v) - "To cause to concentrate about two conflicting or contrasting positions."

In my previous post about Kobe Bryant, I called him the most polarizing figure in sports. With some inspiration from Knee Jerk, I put a little more thought into this claim, identifying the professional athletes who have elicited the most bipartisan reactions from fans in recent years. I started by brainstorming the historical players who met this criteria, but quickly learned that that was far too difficult an exercise. There is no way I could create a responsible list of the all-time most polarizing/controversial players when I either: a) wasn't alive or b) wasn't coherent enough to really get a feel for the reactions they brought forth in fans and the media. Consequently, I've narrowed this list to the 5 most polarizing athletes of the past twenty years.

Honorable Mention: Roger Clemens, Curt Schilling, Ron Artest, Dennis Rodman, Allen Iverson, Charles Barkley (retired), Randy Moss, Chad Johnson, The Manning Brothers, Pete Rose (retired), Mike Tyson, Jose Canseco (retired).

5. Shaquille O'Neal
The Diesel didn't make this list because he is the center of controversy (like Roger Clemens or Ron Artest). He made this list because ever since he has entered the league there have been two camps: one camp calls O'Neal the best center and most dominating force of his generation (or even all-time), the other says he was simply bigger than anyone else and did not dedicate himself to the game (pointing to his free throw percentage and lack of conditioning). Perhaps the biggest factor in including O'Neal on this list is his media-fueled feud with Kobe Bryant. Since Kobe is the most polarizing athlete in the game, anything Kobe creates a rift amongst fans. Stemming from the Kobe-Shaq feud, Kobe's supporters generally dislike (or even hate) O'Neal and Kobe's naysayers generally praise O'Neal and his accomplishments.

4. Terrell Owens
T.O. stirs up self-inflicted controversy every year. From calling out every quarterback he has ever played with, to crying after a playoff loss, to overdosing on pills, to contract disputes, to self-proclaimed greatness, to crunches in his driveway on ESPN, to trend-setting touchdown celebrations, he is constantly the center of attention. The only reason T.O. isn't higher on this list is that there is a sizeable disparity between the amount of fans who love him and the amount of fans who hate him. Every sports fan with a pulse in San Francisco, Dallas, or Philadelphia dislikes him. Older generation fans generally dislike him, and younger generation fans are split. At one time or another, most fans have at least admired his on-field accomplishments or physical attributes, even if they later made the switch and became T.O.-haters.

3. Alex Rodriguez
Any time a player is dubbed the next big thing, there is bound to be a mixed reaction. That's exactly what happened when Rodriguez came into the league as a protypical young talent. Any time a player gets those types of accolades and clearly believes them to be 100% true, the eaction is even stronger amongst fans. When that player suits up for the most polarizing team in professional sports, these reactions are only further magnified. Rodriguez's record-breaking contract, postseason struggles, MVP trophies, relations with Madonna, and steroid admissions have all elicited mixed reactions and been the focal point of the media. Just like the team he plays for, you must love him or hate him -- there is no middle ground.

2. Barry Bonds
Barry has never been a media darling, even while compiling some of the most prolific stats in his sport's history. There isn't much debate as to whether Bonds is a "likeable" public figure -- he is standoffish, arrogant, and unapproachable by fans. The debate, and the cause of the mixed reactions to Barry, are his statistics. The general assumption is that Barry took steroids for at least a portion of his career. In the process, he broke baseball's most hallowed record and took it from a former player who was endeared by the fans and was still around to witness the feat. Many fans have embraced Barry despite the controversy and have recognized him as a top-5 player of all-time, many others have chastised him and called his statistical contributions fraudulent. In a way, Barry personifies the greater steroid issue that has plagued baseball over the past decade. The rampant use of steroids has created a divide between baseball fans of old and new, where records and history play a bigger role than any other sport. For these reasons, Barry Bonds is the second-most polarizing figure in sports.

1. Kobe Bryant
Kobe wins the top spot on the list by a wide margin, in my opinion. Shaq receives more love than hate, and the other three athletes on the list receive more hate than love. What makes Kobe the most polarizing figure, in the true sense of the word, is that he receives equal parts love and equal parts disdain. For every attribute praised by a Kobe-lover, there is a rebuttal for a Kobe-hater. For every accomplishment, a caveat. Kobe ran Shaq out of L.A. /Shaq couldn't handle sharing the spotlight. Kobe is a "ballhog" / Kobe is the best scorer in the game. Kobe can't win without Shaq / Kobe hasn't had the supporting cast to win without Shaq. The list goes on... and on... and on. The love/hate divide began when Kobe came into the league and grew when he was compared to the most sacred name in hoop history: Michael Jordan. Like A-Rod, Kobe plays for the most polarizing team in his sport, which only intensifies opinions about him. No matter how you slice it, Kobe is the most loved, and hated, player in the NBA. Winning both of these imaginary awards simultaneously makes Kobe Bryant the most polarizing athlete of this era.

In Winning, the Magic Proved They Have No Chance

The Magic played nearly flawless basketball, shooting an astounding 63% from the floor. Five Magic players scored at least 18 points, and Rafer Alston looked like he was a legitimate player (for once). Pietrus went French M.J. on a few shots, and most of the bounces went the way of the home team. A normally cash money Kobe missed five of his ten free throw attempts, and the Lakers had multiple late-game brain freezes. Despite all of these positive factors, the Magic only led by two points with 0.2 seconds left in the game.

After game two, I thought the remainder of the series was a formality. Despite the ultimate outcome of game three, this feeling only got stronger. The Lakers played pretty well, but the Magic played out of their minds. I'd venture to guess Orlando won't have another record-breaking game of 63% rain. I'd also bet Bryant doesn't miss 5 of 10 free throws again in this series. Every key player on Orlando's roster played well, and nobody on Los Angeles' roster exceeded expectations (save Jordan Farmar). Simply put, Orlando hit their historical peak and Los Angeles was at best slightly above their average.

To me, this game provided the most concrete evidence that the Lakers are a better team than the Magic. Orlando played the best they could possibly play, on their home court, against an average Laker performance. Yet they still barely won. This game provided the most concrete evidence that the Magic may hang around for a bit, but they aren't going to win the series. If anything, I expect a split in the 4/5 set and a trip back to L.A. with the Lakers up three-two. If so, the Magic would need ninety-six minutes of game three basketball to win the series. Not happening.