Wolves firm up roster; and the hot Cubs-Brewers rivalry

Wolves Sign Telfair and Gomes

Both of these deals are far better news than the earlier locking up of Craig Smith for two years. Although the Wolves now have 15 guys under contract for the coming year, Telfair is the only one who could accurately be described as a point guard. Randy Foye is a "combo" guard, more Brandon Roy than Jose Calderon. Nobody will ever accuse Bassy of being able to play any other position.

The local hype machine tried to portray Al Jefferson as the most pleasant surprise of the package wrought in the KG deal, but Big Al was a distant third on that count behind Telfair and Gomes, in that order. Jefferson put up monster numbers during the second half of his final year in Boston and showed every sign of being the low-post load that appeared wearing #25 last year. His inconsistent and underdeveloped defense was likewise no surprise. Bassy, on the other hand, was almost universally considered an immature bust, his premature career beset by clanking jumpers, lousy on-court decision-making, and a weapons incident that fed the stereotype of a NYC prep star fallen prey to too much playground ball veneration.

From his first day in Minnesota, Telfair was anything but that guy, proving himself to be nearly as modest off the court as he was industrious, and increasingly sage, on the hardwood. He still couldn’t swish a jumper if his reputation depended upon it (and leave-’em-alone defenses indicated that it did), but his ability to step up and give his teammates a taste of what the various sets in Wittman’s half court system looked like with a true point on the perimeter proved to be invaluable in the development of Jefferson, McCants and the rest of the team’s scorers.

The Telfair signing feels like a rare bit of good news for those hoping Rashad McCants doesn’t get lost in the personnel shuffle. Bassy and Shaddy always felt like a complementary backcourt duo, and sure enough, Telfair’s plus/minus numbers with McCants are easily better than with anyone else on the perimeter. The Wolves averaged 93 points per 48 with Telfair last season, but that number jumped to 100 pp48 when McCants was riding shotgunner on the wing, without inflating the 103 pp48 the Wolves ceded on D in Telfair’s minutes. One hopes that Foye is paired in the starting lineup with Mike Miller and that Telfair and Shaddy come in together.

Ryan Gomes was a bit of a surprise only in that you hear about guys doing the "little things," but it is very tough to appreciate until it’s laid out on a daily basis. Gomes was an inconsistent shooter early last year, especially from long range, and he suffered the embarrassment of being the woefully undersized power forward beside Jefferson’s undersized center, but naturally registered no complaint. I’ve extolled his virtues in other fairly recent threads and think whatever Glen Taylor and co. forked over to get him was well spent, so long as it was below the MLE. Gomes provides flexibility, continuity, an easy-going balm in the locker room during a long season. He’s bright and well-spoken with the media and fans, enhancing the image of the star-crossed franchise. And I suspect that he will be thrust in different roles and also see his minutes fluctuate quite a bit–being able to accept that uncertainty without getting sour or mopey is a huge benefit to a ballclub still rapidly and comprehensively building on the fly, without anyone being really certain how things are going to shake out. Put it this way, if Craig Smith is worth $4.8 million over the next two years (more than had been previously reported) than Gomes is worth double that, and is probably receiving less. In contrast with Smith, Bassy’s near-identitical $4.8 m over two years, with a $2.7 m option on a third, is more of a bargain.

As mentioned earlier, Minnesota now has 15 players signed, with Kevin McHale expressing the opinion that Chris Richard will also join the fold. Presumably this means goodbye to Kirk Snyder, who showed promise last season and should find a spot at the end of a good team’s roster (I’d say the Celts, who remain a little thin and wouldn’t hurt their defensive identity with Snyder on board). I’d say there is also a pretty good chance we won’t see Calvin Booth ever suit up.

My starting five on July 26 looks like a front line of Collins-Jefferson-Gomes, with Miller and Foye in the backcourt. Kevin Love and Corey Brewer would be my first off the bench, with Collins and either Gomes or Miller sitting, depending on the matchups. Then McCants and Telfair would be in the second wave, with Smith coming in for Jefferson along with Collins to beef up the front line. At crunchtime, I’d seriously consider Foye, McCants and Miller spreading the floor and giving Jefferson room to operate, with Collins, Love, Brewer or Gomes being among the choices for the fifth guy, again depending on the matchup. I’ll try and remember to look back on this in mid-winter and read how silly (or less likely, prescient) that sounds.

Last but not least on the Wolves for now, while Vegas Summer League doesn’t often mean anything, Brewer’s inconsistency there is a slight cause for concern. It is amazing to me how much personality plays a role in how a player is regarded, more so sometimes than actual performance. You rarely, if ever, hear McCants mentioned by the front office, while the gushing for all the things Brewer supposedly brings to the table remains unabated. But all the talk in the world doesn’t obscure that this is a crucial year for Brewer, who needs to demonstrate that he can parlay great defense against large swingmen like Paul Pierce into a reliable asset–a consistent, kamikaze pace-setter–*and* not be a Telfair-like nonfactor when scoring. If Bowen and Raja Bell truly are the templates, he’s got to learn to stick an open jumper, and have a little nastiness besides. And please, no more Dennis Rodman comparisons. They are somewhat similar in the way they move their feet and try to make a catalytic effect without the ball, but Rodman also happened to be one of the top two or three rebounders in the game during his heyday.

Cubs and Brewers Fight For A Pennant

For the first time in my life, I went to Summerfest, Milwaukee’s huge, 10-day music gathering out on the shore at the end of June through the 4th of July. It was a glorious time, as I saw at least a dozen bands in three days/nights that I would have ventured out to see headlining all by their lonesome, climaxing in a stupdenous show by The Roots, who are really featuring a tuba player now, and a guitarist who totally tears it up. It is a long way from when the dual rappers, ?uestlove (the second greatest rock timekeeper in history behind Charlie Watts) and the beatboxer, Raheim, ran the show. Jesse Helms had died just earlier that day, and ?uest gave him his due, noting that he’d vehemently opposed almost every bit of civil rights legislation ever enacted in this country, and finishing off the aside by saying "good riddance" and "rest in peace" in the same sentence. A half-hour later the band was pinwheeling their way through a massive, psychedelic rendition of Dylan’s "Masters of War," which segued into Hendrix’s "Machine Gun." Maybe my best 4th of July ever.

But I digress. What was particularly noticeable at Summerfest, from a sports standpoint, was the somewhat edgy and yet good-natured bristling that continually took place between fans of the Cubs and Brewers. In late March, I took the great 95-year old blues pianist Pinetop Perkins down from a gig a few miles north of Milwaukee to catch a plane in Chicago (I was writing a Pinetop profile for No Depression magazine) and it struck me how incredibly close these two cities are from each other. As an east coast resident, it reminded me of Baltimore and Washington, or, to a slightly lesser extent, the Boston/NY/Philly triplets. Officially I guess it is 90 miles, but it is a straight shot down the highway and if you press the metal you can go round-trip and spend an entire day at whichev
er one you are visiting. Vikings fans love to claim this huge rivalry with the Packers, for instance, but anyone who has ever lived near Green Bay tells me that the Bears are the rivalry that matters.

Anyway, when a Milwaukee DJ introduced the Chicago band Alkaline Trio and half-kiddingly tried to whip up a little Cubs-Brewers frisson, the hefty response he received was eye-opening. From that point on, I began to notice the plethora of both Cubs and Brewers clothing worn by the festival patrons. It was really pretty extraordinary. (And this prompts another digression about sports and Summerfair. The Milwaukee Bucks had a booth at the fest and Yi jerseys were going for $5! Of course Yi is now a New Jersey Net, but that fact makes the dirt-cheap Yi merchandise *more* desireable–I almost bought one, and why not; it costs labout the same as a slice of pizza or a brat. On the other hand, I am not aware of exactly how bad Yi underperformed for the Bucks last year, and whether he contributed to the mightly sense of ennui that wafted off that ballclub whenever I saw them play. I know the Wolves have deeply discounted Ricky Davis merchandise on the gift-shop side of their website, and I would buy a RD jersey for a plugged nickel to give to my worst enemy. The karmic juju would be too dangerous. Okay, back to the Cubs-Brewers.) The drunken yahoos that are the real unofficial logo for any of these big music confabs also enjoyed egging on their rivals, be they Cubs or Brewers fans, whenever there was a moment of quasi-silence in the prevailing din and crush of bodies.

Then, a few days after I came home, the Brewers acquired ace and reigning Cy Young Award winner CC Sabathia from Cleveland. A day later, the Cubs responded by filching Rich Harden from the A’s. Harden is more injury-prone and less experienced in knowing how to pitch than is Sabathia, but the price the Cubs paid–no prime prospects or on-field starters–was far less than what the Brewers gave up, and the rest of the Cubs rotation is stronger than Milwaukee’s sans CC.

For some reason I’m giddy over this. The Brewers started becoming one of my favorite teams when they brought up Rickie Weeks and Prince Fielder two or three years ago, and then Corey Hart and Ryan Braun. Once they had finally rid themselves of that gasbag Bud Selig and the rest of his dunderheaded family, they drafted and traded smartly and then, after bagging a new stadium, waited for the kids to come through. And now they have. Ben Sheets has stayed healthy enough to start this year’s All Star game for the National League, and with Sabathia gives the Brewers a dual-ace top side to their rotation, one of the key ingredients for going far in the playoffs.

Sabathia has been phenomenal. A huge kid–large-boned, physically gifted and fat all at the same time–he’s thrown three complete games in his four starts thus far for Milwaukee, with the Brewers winning all four while CC has yielded just 5 runs and struck out 31 (walking just 8) in 33 innings. Meanwhile, Harden likewise has been as good as advertised. He’s fanned 30 batters in just 17 and 1/3 innings in his three starts, while surrendering a measly 8 hits and two runs over that span. The problem, however, is the 17 and 1/3 in three outings. As a power-oriented strikeout pitcher, Harden throws a lot of pitches, and as a chronically injured young hurler, the Cubs have been wise to limit his pitch counts. Unfortunately that makes him much less valuable than Sabathia–a complete game helps your entire pitching staff by resting your bullpen and thus not taxing your other starters should they need to be lifted. Today, for example, Harden gave up only two hits and one run while striking out ten (his fourth straight game in double digit K’s), but the Cubs lost to Florida, 3-2 in extra innings. As gaudy as Harden’s numbers were today, and as much fun as it is to watch him pitch, Chicago’s bullpen still labored seven innings on a day when he was given the ball. By contrast, Sabathia has been relieved for a grand *total* of three innings in his four starts.

As even casual baseball fans know, the Cubs haven’t won a championship in exactly 100 years, replacing the Red Sox as the quintessential underdog baseball franchise. I don’t have much sympathy for their drought–Wrigley Field is a huge cash cow which the Cubs’ various ownership groups have dutifully and increasingly milked in the past couple of decades. But with the feisty Carlos Zambrano (who got into fisticuffs with his catcher last year) as the rubber-armed ace, and Harden mixing in with former reliever Ryan Dempster and the sharp but risky fly-ball oriented lefty Ted Lilly in the middle of the rotation, rounded out by above-average journeyman Jason Marquis (and with 16-game winner Rich Hill still battling baffling control problems in the minors), the Cubs have a marvelous cadre of starters.

But the Brewers appear likely to give them a legitimate run for their money. Sheets and Sabathia make them dangerous in any short series (although Sabathia was terrible in his last post season appearances), and the rest of the rotation, while not on a par with the Cubs, isn’t too shabby, with Dave Bush and the young lefty Manny Parra. (If only another talented youngster, Yovani Gallardo, hadn’t gone down with a knee injury in May.)

The point is, neither the Cubs nor the Brewers (who last went to the World Series in 1982 and have never won it all, although the Milwaukee Braves turned the trick a mere 51 years ago behind Warren Spahn) are dynastic franchises. Both have occasionally spent (and overspent) to try and win, but are a long way from the Yankees and Red Sox. Both have long-suffering fan bases and a wonderful collection of players on their respective rosters. I think they are the two best teams in the National League and wouldn’t be surprised to see them in the NL Championship series in October. Just thinking about Zambrano versus Sabathia and Harden versus Sheets, with hitters like Fielder and Braun for Milwaukee and Derek Lee and Aramis Ramirez for the Cubs working for runs…It’s enough to make a hoops freak patient before the opening tap of the 2008-09 NBA season in November.