It's high time for the NBA to rid itself of the incentive for teams to lose games

It's high time for the NBA to rid itself of the incentive for teams to lose games

OK, so Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban went public Wednesday morning, becoming the first owner I can recall to admit that his team tanked games:

"The Mavs, once we were eliminated from the playoffs, we did everything possible to lose games," he admitted Wednesday on the Dan Patrick Show.

Wow. I suppose we should salute the man for his honesty and he certainly didn't admit to doing anything that we know a substantial number of teams in the league do every season.

But really, shouldn't we take a more global view of the whole situation? I mean, what does it say about a league where a significant number of teams are trying to lose as many games as possible for a good part of the season? Is that fair to the paying customers? I don't think this happens in any other sports league. But the way the NBA lottery is set up, there is so much incentive for teams to get high draft picks in the rare sport where one player can turn a franchise around.

I don't like tanking and think any league with a conscience would do everything it can to stop such things. How? Well, there's a decent idea out there that's been around for a couple of years. It's been called "The Wheel."

I'm not going to attempt to get into the mechanics of it (you can go to the above link for that) but suffice it to say it involves simply rotating the draft order each year with everyone getting an equal shot at top picks. I didn't like the idea at first but I'm convinced now it's the best way to combat a league full of teams willing to temporarily dismiss the moral responsibility of trying to win every game.

Am I the only one in the world who is offended by a league half-full of teams intentionally trying to lose games? Honestly, I find it appalling and always have.

And maybe the wheel would help some of the mid-level teams escape the limbo of not being good enough to compete for a title and not being bad enough to hit the lottery. It might also help those borderline teams battle the super teams, which are dominating the league. You worried, with the wheel,  about one of the league's best teams ending up with the top pick every three decades?

Well, wake up! It has happened this year under the current system, with Boston holding the No. 1 choice.

I know this, as someone who watches a ton of NBA games every season, I think I saw more lousy regular-season games this year than ever before. There is too big a disparity between the bad teams and average teams. And too much difference between the great teams and the good ones.

Something must be done and it has to start with doing away with the incentive to lose games.

"Pop" is engaging in some situational ethics with his rant about Pachulia

"Pop" is engaging in some situational ethics with his rant about Pachulia

I've always kind of liked Gregg Popovich. But I've respected him even more than I liked him. He is one heck of a coach who has been able to adjust to changing times and players.

But he's been getting on my nerves lately.

I'm not a fan of the way he treats sideline reporters during games, seemingly turning ridicule into his favorite sport. And is it just me or does he seem to pick on the women more than the men? Either way, every other coach in the league has to put up with those in-game interviews and I'm not sure why he thinks he's so special that he shouldn't have to do them. And he seems to treat the people doing the interviews as if they were the ones compelling him to do the chats. Trust me, Coach, they are no more excited to talk to you than you are to them.

But Popovich's rant about Za Za Pachulia stepping under the airborne feet of Kawhi Leonard, which resulted in a Leonard ankle sprain, bothered me. Popovich, of course, is trying to intimidate officials into giving him a few more calls during Game 2 of the series against Golden State and intimidating officials is something the Spurs' coach does better than anyone in the league.

But he's also engaging in some situational ethics.

Bruce Bowen used to play for Popovich in San Antonio and he slid under so many sneakers that the ploy used to be called "the Bowen." But Popovich, when he heard the league had called Bowen and threatened his player with a suspension for such actions, sprung to Bowen's defense:

“So why did they call Bruce? Because it’s happened to him twice? Bruce guards an All-Star every night. If he was doing what they’re accusing him of doing, wouldn’t it have happened a higher percentage of times?”

And:

“The league is just trying to cover its ass,” Popovich said. “I told Bruce, ‘You be Bruce Bowen. You’re the best (expletive) defender in this league. You will NOT change the way you play defense.’

In other words, keep doing it Bruce. If they don't like it, too bad.

Now I will say that I've seen more incidents of this thing happening in recent seasons than I ever did in the old days. But is it intentional? Probably not, in most cases. But I would go along with Popovich that it doesn't matter if there is intent or not, players should not be allowed to slide under jump-shooting players.

Not that Popovich felt that way when his own player did it.

Red-hot Michael Conforto flourishes wherever he bats in New York Mets' order

Red-hot Michael Conforto flourishes wherever he bats in New York Mets' order

PHOENIX -- All Michael Conforto needed to hear was, "How 'bout those Beavers?"

With wide eyes and big smile, he started talking about what one New York Mets beat writer said is his favorite subject -- his college baseball team.

"What a season," he said. "Forty-one and four? I remember when I was there we were ranked No. 1 and I think we lost 13 or 14 games and it seemed like we never lost. I don't know what just four losses would feel like."

Conforto is proud of his alma mater and its coach, Pat Casey. "He's just what everyone says he is -- someone who cares about you on and off the field. He transformed me as a player and a person."

Conforto broke in with the Mets in 2015 after a meteoric rise through their farm system. He made an immediate impact at the age of 22, hitting .270 with nine home runs in 56 games. And when he followed that by hitting .333 with two homers in the World Series, the New York hype machine kicked into high gear. He came into the following season as a rising star. In New York, which is a bigger deal than anywhere else.

But the 2016 season was anything but easy for Conforto. He hit just .220 and found himself back in Triple-A.

"I learned a lot," he said. "I think I was trying to do too much. Then I started pressing. But I went back to the minor leagues and played well. I think some of that was good for me."

Evidently it was because he's off to a terrific start this season. He went to spring training knowing he was going to have to scrap just to get into the team's starting lineup. With Yoenis Cespedes, Curtis Granderson and Jay Bruce making big money in the New York outfield, Conforto seemed a good bet to be the odd man out.

"I knew I would have to battle to play," he said Monday before the Mets' game against the Diamondbacks.

And battle he did. He's hitting .343 (sixth-best in the National League) with nine home runs, a .686 slugging percentage and a whopping 1.116 OPS. A big part of that story is his move to the leadoff spot in the batting order. And this from a player who has always projected as more of a power hitter, a No. 3-4-5 hitter in the order. Well, actually, he still is a power hitter, as his slugging percentage proves.

Conforto has started 19 games in the leadoff spot this season and has hit three leadoff homers. He's hitting .471 with four homers, six RBI and 10 runs scored just in the first inning!

"It doesn't really matter where I hit," he said. "I'm just trying to be patient."

He moved to the No. 3 slot in the batting order Sunday and responded with a double, triple and home run at Milwaukee, missing the cycle by the easiest of the four hits. But Monday night he was right back in the leadoff spot.

"It doesn't matter," he said. "I haven't changed my approach at the plate much."

And while acknowledging that living in New York is nothing like living anywhere else, he's made the adjustment.

"It's nothing like Corvallis," he said with a laugh. "All the media and everything. But I've grown to like it. I like New York."

And he still loves his Beavers.

"I try to keep up with what's going on," he said. "There's only one player left there who I played with but I know a lot of the guys there now. We were recruiting them while I was there. They have some really good players."

A big night for those monitoring our local big leaguers

A big night for those monitoring our local big leaguers

I always try to keep track of our state-of-Oregon connections who move on to the top level of pro sports. And Sunday was big for three of them, who won games for their teams. Check it out:

Great job, guys.

History tells us Rockets' margin of victory means nothing

History tells us Rockets' margin of victory means nothing

Not many people picked the Houston Rockets to defeat the San Antonio Spurs in their second-round playoff matchup that began last night in San Antonio. But I did. So you would think I'd be feeling pretty good about the Rockets after their 126-99 thrashing of the Spurs Monday night.

And even though San Antonio appeared to be way overmatched in Game 1 of the series, I feel worse about my prediction than you might think. That's because I was in the old Boston Garden on May 27, 1985 for the first game of that season's Finals when the Celtics ran the Los Angeles Lakers out of the gym with a humiliating 148-114 defeat. They called it the Memorial Day Massacre.

I was one of many people after that game to write about how washed up the Lakers -- and 38-year-old center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar -- looked in that game. Abdul-Jabbar finished with 12 points and three rebounds and just didn't look as if he could keep up with Boston's talented front line. I thought the series was over right then and there.

And I was very wrong. The Lakers won four of the next five games and closed out the Celts in Boston in Game 6 -- behind Abdul-Jabbar, who won the MVP award for the series. It was the only time the Celtics ever lost an NBA championship in that arena.

So that whipping Houston put on San Antonio didn't make me feel all that much better about its chances. It was just one game and next one doesn't start with the Rockets holding a 27-point lead.

I'd say the series hinges on the play of LaMarcus Aldridge, who scored just four points Monday night. When Aldridge left Portland for the Spurs, I'm sure he was satisfied with the salary he'd be making and the winning tradition of his new team. But I'm wondering now if he understood the sort of responsibility he'd be having to shoulder as the Spurs moved through the playoffs. Tim Duncan isn't going to be walking through that locker room door during this series.

There were times in Portland when I thought Aldridge wanted very much to be a superstar but didn't always respond like one. He had the talent... but did he have the heart?

He better find his way in a hurry for the Spurs because Kawhi Leonard can't be expected to carry that team by himself.

Could Joshua bring heavyweight boxing back from the dead?

Could Joshua bring heavyweight boxing back from the dead?

OK, stick with me here because for some of you, this is going to be a new subject. But remember, Google is your friend and you can always get more background on this if you need it.

So way back in my youth there was this sport called "boxing." It was a combat sport kind of like mixed martial arts but without the cage. Now I know you're asking yourself, how can you keep a guy from running from the other guy without a cage to keep him there? I know, it seems impossible.

But stick with me here because this is where it gets complicated. Two people fought in a square area with ropes wrapped around it that they called "a ring." I know, makes no sense. They also called it a "squared circle," which is even more difficult to understand. And ropes? Well, they weren't really ropes but they called them that. They looked more like garden hose but were actually cables wrapped in some form of rubber or plastic, I think.

Anyway, it was pretty entertaining stuff because these guys were allowed only to punch each other -- not knee them, kick them or grab them and take them down to the "canvas." Yes, it wasn't a "mat" but a canvas -- which had nothing to do with painting.

They did this for 10 or 12 or even, in the old days, 15 rounds and it was, for a time, one of the most popular sports in the world. It's almost vanished in America these days, buried under Dana White's UFC. You may have seen some boxing in recent years but it was probably involving guys in the lighter weight classes. But let me tell you there is a very big difference between watching 145-pounders go at it and seeing two men about 250 pounds attacking each other.

And I must tell you, there's a real chance boxing could make a comeback. I watched a fight from London Saturday night that made me yearn for the days of yore when boxing was a big deal. I watched one of the best fights I've ever seen -- and I was on hand that crazy night in Las Vegas when Mike Tyson bit Evander Holyfield's ear off.

And no, people, that wasn't legal in the sport called boxing. Tyson just couldn't help himself. Hungry, I guess.

Anyway, this fight in London featured Wladimir Klitschko, a Russian who was the heavyweight champion (an amazing 64-5 with 54 knockouts) for nearly a decade, against the new champ, England's Anthony Joshua. When I tuned in, I didn't expect much of a tussle because Klitschko is 41 years old and lost his crown 17 months ago to Tyson Fury. And he hadn't fought since then so I didn't know how much he had left in the tank. I must confess, I'd not seen Joshua fight previously but found out right away he's pretty talented.

This epic fight aired on Showtime and I'm going to tell you to check your listings and find a replay if you can. It was an incredible battle held in front of 90,000 fans in Wembley Stadium. Joshua, 27, had Klitschko down and almost out. Then Klitschko knocked Joshua down -- for the first time in his career -- only to have Joshua get up off the canvas and win via TKO in the 11th round. And that doesn't begin to describe the intensity of this fight.

Klitschko went down three times in the scrap but just kept coming back for more. Joshua appeared at one time to be letting the whole thing slip through his fingers. These were two huge men fighting their hearts out and, again, you couldn't ask for a more entertaining bout.

You can find it somewhere on the web, I'm sure. And keep an eye on this kid Joshua. He's one tough fighter.

And who knows, maybe he can bring that sport back from the dead.

    USC hits the "bull's-eye" on Beavers' back in extra innings

    USC hits the "bull's-eye" on Beavers' back in extra innings

    CORVALLIS -- Something very unusual happened at Goss Stadium Saturday afternoon on the campus of Oregon State University. The Beavers, ranked No. 1 in the country, lost a baseball game.

    As you might expect, the USC Trojans (19-21 overall and 6-11 in the Pac-12) had quite a celebration on the field after the final out in the 10th inning of their 7-5 win. And why not? When you're No. 1, you're the biggest game on everyone's schedule. There isn't anybody in sports who doesn't get excited about playing against the very best team in the nation. And the Beavers have been dealing with that for weeks.

    "We've got a bull's-eye on our backs and we're No. 1 in the nation and we need to embrace that," said OSU third baseman Michael Gretler, who had a home run and a single in a losing cause. "That's what we want. That's why a lot of us came here. That's our goal every year. We just need to do a better job of coming out and being ready to go."

    Oregon State Coach Pat Casey had a  more succinct way of putting it:

    "We've got to respond to everyone's desire to kick our ass every day and we probably didn't do that today," Casey said. "You don't play anybody in this league who can't beat you."

    "I say this every day... USC, if they're playing somebody else, there's probably not that kind of energy, We didn't do some of the things we typically do well and it caught up to us today. Baseball's an unforgiving game, that's for sure.

    "We've got to do some things better."

    To be fair, the Beavers are 33-4 overall and 17-3 in the conference and should be forgiven for a loss once in a while -- especially when it's the first home defeat of the season. Stanford sits a distant second in the conference at 11-7 and California is 12-8. Oregon State has responded to challenges all season, but this wasn't its usual day. In front of a regular-season record crowd of 3,420 the Beavers didn't play the way they normally do.

    "Pitching and defense win games and offense determines by how much," Casey said. "We needed to pitch and defend and we didn't do it. You're playing a team that's offensive as heck and when you give them extra opportunities..."

    A two-out, nobody-on throwing error cost the Beavers two runs in the middle of the game and then a bobbled grounder led to two more in the 10th.

    It really wasn't the Beavers' day. But there haven't been many of those this season.

    The rubber game of the series is scheduled for 1:05 Sunday at Goss.

    This is going to be a very critical summer for the Portland Trail Blazers

    This is going to be a very critical summer for the Portland Trail Blazers

    Now that the Trail Blazers have finished their season, it's a good time to step back and assess what we have learned about the team and where it's headed. A few thoughts on the morning after it all came to a crashing halt:

    • The biggest takeaway from this season was the impact of Jusuf Nurkic and what it means to the franchise's future. Before his injury, he had the look of a franchise center -- a player with the ability to impact the game at both ends of the floor. This, as you know, was no small development. It's the most difficult position to fill in today's game.
    • It must also be pointed out how poorly this team played prior to his arrival. Before that blockbuster deal with Denver, the Trail Blazers were on their way to one of the most disappointing seasons in recent history. And they certainly were not going to be a playoff team. Nurkic carried them into the postseason. But those early struggles -- and the duplication of them after his injury -- should not be forgotten. Lessons were learned about this team and its players during that time and they should be used to help shape the future.
    • This franchise has three valuable building blocks -- guards Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and Nurkic. I believe that every other player on the roster is a possible trade piece.
    • Those three first-round draft choices could also be used in trades. In fact, I'd be surprised if Portland keeps all three.
    • That said, aside from the Trail Blazers' Big Three there isn't an awful lot to trade that would bring a talented veteran player in return. There are some high salaries for players who didn't have banner seasons and who may not be desirable to many other teams. The draft picks aren't exactly premium ones, either. Putting those pieces together and acquiring anything of value is not going to be easy.
    • What do the Trail Blazers need? Without a doubt, a forward -- either a power forward or small forward -- who can shoot and defend. Some deep playoff experience would be a big plus. There is not enough outside shooting on this team and it's time to deal with that problem. The frontcourt provided very little firepower. A proven scorer is a must and I doubt that player is available in the draft.
    • This team needs to add a veteran presence to the locker room and on the floor. And I'm not talking about a guy who isn't going to play much. Not someone just stealing another season in the league for the money, who isn't going to play much. Leadership on the court is going to be as critical as off the court. He wouldn't have to be a starter but I think it would be important that he contributes as a rotation player.
    • I would not expect an important player to come via the draft unless Portland finds a way to move up. This team's window of opportunity is growing near and waiting two or three seasons for a youngster to develop might not work. Ideally, a way would be found to add a savvy veteran. But again, that won't be easy.
    • This is a very important off-season for the franchise. Neil Olshey is going to have his hands full. It's time for this team to fill out its starting lineup with at least one more core player who can grow up with the Big Three. I would expect some major changes involving the roster. I'm not certain which of the other players has value to other teams but I wouldn't be surprised to see several of them move on to other teams. It's time for that.
    • For fans, this is no time to panic.  I believe this is potentially a very exciting time to be a fan of the Portland Trail Blazers. With three outstanding players as the foundation, this team can move forward with confidence to add a couple of new pieces that should clarify the squad's personality and eventual future.
    • It shapes up to be a very interesting off-season.

     

    Stotts: Nurkic's presence "spoke a lot to who he is and what kind of teammate he is"

    Stotts: Nurkic's presence "spoke a lot to who he is and what kind of teammate he is"

    Terry Stotts did not hesitate Sunday afternoon to rule Jusuf Nurkic out of Monday night's Game 4 of the Portland-Golden State series in Moda Center.

    "No," he said when asked whether Nurkic would play. "He's out."

    Why?

    "Just, more than anything, he didn’t do any further damage but there was soreness, tenderness and it just wouldn’t be wise to have him play through that," said the Portland coach.

    Stotts had plenty of good things to say about Nurkic and the decision to play Saturday night against the Warriors.

    "I was really pleased that he (played)" Stotts said. "He had a really positive impact on the game with his passing and his presence and his rebounding. He takes up some space and I thought he gave his teammates a lot of confidence.

    "It was a really good effort. He’s a big part of our team. Not only a good effort for these playoffs and this team but, I think, moving forward.  It spoke a lot to who he is and what kind of teammate he is."

     

    It wasn't a Trail Blazer win, but it was a chance to see the Nurkic Effect

    It wasn't a Trail Blazer win, but it was a chance to see the Nurkic Effect

    For quite a while Saturday night during the interminable telethon that NBA playoff games have become, it appeared that the Trail Blazers had found the right formula to beat the Golden State Warriors.

    Jusuf Nurkic was back, if but a shell of his usual self. The Trail Blazers seem to take inspiration from his return to the lineup, even though he was dragging a broken leg up and down the court. But it wasn't just the inspiration. Nurkic got his team off to a great start with just his presence. The Portland pick-and-roll offense was suddenly potent again, with Nurkic planting a brickwall of a pick and then rolling down the lane toward the basket. There was either an open three or a pass to Nurkic -- and he'd find the open man with his usual knack for such things.

    It was nice while it lasted -- he had 11 rebounds and four assists -- and the Nurkic Effect lasted much longer than the 16 and a half minutes he spent on the court. There was an obvious lift. The Blazers played gallantly until the inevitable Warrior surge, about midway through the third quarter. At that point, the Blazers were hanging on for dear life -- trying to get an open shot for Damian Lillard or CJ McCollum against a defense that was willing to allow open shots for anyone but them.

    Moda Center was loud and proud most of the night but the tale of this playoff series was never a mystery. The Blazers lost for the third time and there's a fourth one headed their way Monday night. This Golden State team is too much for them and probably too much for anyone else in the league.

    But for just under 17 Nurkic minutes Saturday night there was a glimpse of the future, a snapshot of things to come.

    Nurkic makes this team better. Much better, even in the condition he was Saturday.

    He confessed to a lot of pain after the game and I think it would be unwise to put him through all of that again Monday. I don't think it was a mistake to play him in this game because I trust Portland's medical staff to know what's best for him and the franchise. He got a taste of the playoffs and his teammates found a rallying point. He was pretty much the last card the Blazers had left to play in the series.

    Throughout the last few weeks none of us knew exactly what kind of shape he was in. There was hope that when he came back he would be near 100 percent. As it turned out, he was nowhere close ("I'm not the same guy," he said). And for just 15 or 16 minutes a game, I don't think it's worth doing it again. He tried it and it was what it was -- a fun time for us if not for him. He showed the kind of impact he can have when he's right and tried his best to help his squad win one game.

    The mission of getting him on the floor was accomplished, if not the part about winning a game. But at this point, it's all about being healthy for next season.

    And all about the dreams of what a franchise center can do for this team.