VICE Sports feed for https://sports.vice.comenWed, 12 Dec 2018 20:51:43 +0000<![CDATA[Don't Let Troy Tulowitzki's Sad Decline Take Away from His Greatness]]>, 12 Dec 2018 20:51:43 +0000It's not a tragedy when a player destined for greatness has to settle for "immensely wealthy and universally respected by his peers" but watching athletes turn to shadows of themselves is never easy.

The Toronto Blue Jays just paid Troy Tulowitzki, one of the greatest shortstops of his generation, a 34-year-old player who was above average at the plate and in the field as recently as two seasons ago, $38 million to go away.

Unable and unwilling to fit the perennial All-Star into their plans or their lineup, a highly paid and potentially bothersome roadblock to the development and assessment of future franchise cornerstones was cast aside with a sympathetic smile and lukewarm words of encouragement.

Players who make the impossible routine, who are somehow bigger, faster, and stronger than life trick us into believing anything is possible, when reality and gravity bide their time and come for us all. Just because this roster move seems logical doesn't mean it doesn't sting a little, seeing someone who seemed to operate on a higher plane land in an undignified heap back on Earth.

It was never going to end well for Tulo in Toronto, a player who was acquired on the backend of his career once decline had settled in. Most Blue Jays fans never got to see the real Troy Tulowitzki, a player in the conversation for the game's best for the better part of a decade.

Tulowitzki hit .300/.375/.524 between 2007 and 2014, averaging 22 home runs and 26 doubles a year while playing all-universe defense at shortstop the entire time. Across this peak, the former seventh overall draft pick amassed more Wins Above Replacement than all but 13 position players, despite ranking 101st in games played during the same span. Tulo got on base, hit for power, turned heads with his arm strength and defensive play and had a run where he posted a .900-plus OPS in five of six years. He won Silver Slugger and Gold Glove awards and made five All-Star teams. There was no disputing his greatness. Then he was traded to Toronto in a 2015 blockbuster stunner and things would never be the same.

He would show occasional flashes of his brilliance on the sickly green carpet of the Rogers Centre while manning shortstop for the Blue Jays. His defense remained a revelation, though something of a slowed down version of himself. He remained smooth, accurate and sure-handed as ever. At the plate, he didn't quite look the part, as wear-and-tear robbed him of bat speed during a moment in baseball's history when the ability to get around on the hard stuff makes or breaks a hitter's fortunes.

Instead of watching a renaissance, we watched a once-great player break down. In 2017, as the front office began disassembling an aging group with its best days in the rearview mirror, Tulowitzki struggled and then disappeared, as another freak injury in a career full of freak injuries knocked him out, and he never returned. Now a free agent following his release, Tulowitzki enters the 2019 season having not played a major league game since July 2017.

Class is an overused sports cliché, just as judgments of character are often misapplied in the professional sporting context. Good luck and good genes conspire to dictate the legacy of most players, as few are lucky enough to walk off the field on their own terms at close to the top of their games.

Not everybody gets to go out like Ted Williams, homering in their final at-bat. The final pitches Roy Halladay threw in the big leagues registered on the radar guns in the low 80s, and were misclassified as changeups even when they weren't. His shoulder had had enough and his career was over.

Carlos Beltran won a ring in his final year but limped to the worst season of his career, posting career lows in every imaginable category while looking a husk of his former dynamic, five-tool self as a designated hitter. He got his title but was used sparingly during the postseason, managing just three hits in 20 at-bats.

Alex Rodriguez returned from suspension in 2015 with a brilliant comeback season, only to crater the following year. The then 40-year-old, still looking every bit like a cyborg programmed to play baseball, posted such grim numbers that he hung up his spikes in August. The less said about Albert Pujols, the better.

The ability to bow out gracefully is a luxury most can't afford, as the abuse professional athletes heap upon their bodies sometimes demands its reckoning all at once rather than slowly over time.

Healthy players are healthy until they aren't. They're great until they aren't. Some declines we can chalk up to bad luck, others bad decisions or an inability to read the writing on the wall. But when a great player falls so far, so fast, it sticks with us. How could this happen? To HIM?! Those capable of the extraordinary somehow seem less believable when performing the mundane.

There are so many factors that contribute to steep declines or injury-ravaged careers. Maybe a player is drafted by a team without a strong track record for keeping players healthy. Sometimes they play their home games in a ballpark that produces soft tissue injuries at a dizzying rate. Sometimes they work themselves too hard, allowing motivations both internal and external to drown out the sound of their body saying "that's enough."

Troy Tulowitzki showing off his arm on the Colorado Rockies. Photo by Rick Giase/EPA
Tulowitzi, during better days with the Rockies, showing off his arm. Photo by Rick Giase/EPA

Tulowitzki came to Toronto amid a cultural shift in the front office. Gone were malcontents and players without winning pedigrees, in came consummate professionals who lived, ate, and breathed baseball. Tulo fit this mould, the prototypical baseball gym rat, tireless in his efforts to improve and stay at the top of his game.

It was that reputation that allowed his former team to invest so heavily in him, seeing his grit and determination as positive indicators of continued production even as he aged. But modern sports medicine prizes rest as much as repetition. There's a strong chance the injury-prone superstar was the author of his own demise in some ways, pushing a body that needed to recover too many times.

The word "sunk cost" is going to get a workout this week. Baseball and its economics are inseparable today, as much a part of the fan experience as sunny days at the ballpark and dramatic home runs. "Sunk cost" might accurately describe Tulo's contract, but the bold gambit that brought him to Toronto represents the best of what sports can offer.

Hope and awe wore No. 2 in Toronto, as in Colorado before. Fans couldn't believe this guy—Troy Tulowitzki!—played for their team. A larger-than-life figure in the sport with unbelievable numbers and a game that only looked better the closer you looked. But the inevitable came quickly, and the MBA calculus of a braintrust saddled with, rather than blessed by, his presence took the drastic step to end the relationship.

Many fans won't remember the Troy Tulowitzki Era in Toronto as fondly as they remember his acquisition. Fans of rival NL West clubs likely remember the strong feelings of dislike they had for the brash guy with the stunt mullet to hit everything thrown his way and sucked up every grounder hit anywhere near him.

Sports fans love to turn injury-prone players into punchlines, which seems doubly shameful when the player in question was capable of incredible things on the field. Sometimes the notoriously short memories of sports fans serves a purpose, as wondering what might have been tends to gnaw at us more than remembering the wonder they provided.

4395xdDrew FairserviceChris TomansportsmlbBaseballToronto Blue Jayscolorado rockiestroy tulowitzki
<![CDATA[Oklahoma City's Defense is Dominating in an Unusual Way]]>, 12 Dec 2018 18:41:14 +0000We’re waist deep in an era of NBA basketball that’s defined by offensive favoritism. Rule changes are viscerally accelerating the game's migration towards quicker shots from deeper distances. It’s a joy to watch, but has also nudged defensive strategy to the edge of its own dark age. And it’s there, in the shadows, where the Oklahoma City Thunder refuse to bow.

They don’t own the Western Conference’s highest winning percentage because the three-point line is their best friend, and their two All-Stars don’t turn every game into a fireworks display. Instead, games are won with the league’s best defense, one currently limiting opponents to fewer points per possession than any previous team in franchise history. Since they started 0-4, the Thunder has the NBA’s best net rating by an insane 4.1 points per 100 possessions. (That same gap stands between the league’s second and 11th most successful teams.)

Like any great defense, Oklahoma City has found synergy between its personnel and playing style. They’re long, quick, rabid, and experienced enough to let Billy Donovan conceptualize a formula that peels the roof from what those qualities can accomplish. They’re succeeding with an admirable degree of difficulty, too; their identity is aggression, and requires air-tight rotations sans safety net.

“They’re a little different from a lot of teams,” Brooklyn Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson said. “They’re coming. They’ll blitz that pick and roll. It’s a little different from what a lot of teams are doing now, you know, dropping their big, playing more conservatively, not giving up threes.”

It’s essentially a trust exercise and everyone on the team happens to trust everybody else. (This should make Jason Kidd—who actualized the same idea when head coach of the Milwaukee Bucks—feel emboldened and depressed at the same time.)

In theory, it’s a brilliant way to force turnovers, sow chaos, and mitigate their own offensive weaknesses. At their best, the Thunder turn each possession into a galactic struggle over every inch. At their worst, they’re a house of cards. So far, they have turned theory into practice in a way that will either carry them to the Western Conference Finals or, as we saw last year against the Utah Jazz, blow up in their face. Their personality offers very little grey area.

But even without Andre Roberson, Oklahoma City’s defense cedes little ground. They know it’s impossible to take everything away on a nightly basis, but their reach and anticipation turns an ostensibly elusive goal into reality more often than not. They collectively take pride in wanting to get a stop every time down the floor, headway that’s encouraged by new and improved characters who aren’t afraid to tap dance on a tightrope.

Terrance Ferguson and Jerami Grant are good, bordering on great, in the larger roles they fill. Nerlens Noel is an ideal backup center in this particular context. Dennis Schröder takes nothing off the table. Hamidou Diallo is anti-gravity. Paul George might be the Defensive Player of the Year. Steven Adams is one of a handful of seven footers who flourishes on the perimeter more often than he merely survives.

“The athleticism pops out,” Atkinson said. “Also it seems like they’re connected...they have a lot of continuity there, so guys know what the heck they’re doing.” On the play seen below, Ferguson illustrates what that looks like.

“I saw my teammate was fronting, so I knew I had to be on the backside whenever he threw the ball over,” Ferguson told VICE Sports. “And when he got the ball I was already there. I’ve got my teammates back at all times. I know my teammates got my back.”

Even with internal improvement and new pieces filling meaningful space, George’s growing comfort in year two has sanctioned enough institutional knowledge for him to dip in and out of passing lanes without ever being too reckless. Just like every other help defender on this team, he lives at the nail and in the paint, baiting skip passes that are ripe for a steal. (The Thunder rank third in deflections and first in defensive loose balls recovered.) He’s more familiar with teammates, and isn’t totally caught off guard when one of them (for example *clears throat for 25 seconds* Westbrook) flies off script for a steal.

But even as they dominate, meaningful questions remain. One being: Will their asphyxiating energy sustain against the best of the best? So far, OKC has breezed through the easiest schedule in the league. Their two games against the Golden State Warriors came on opening day and the night before Thanksgiving (when Steph Curry and Draymond Green didn’t suit up). They’ve already been blessed with the opportunity to pulverize Phoenix three times and Cleveland twice.

“The encouraging part is Andre has not played in any games this year and I know that we haven’t played ‘all the best offensive teams in the league’ yet. Our defense will be tested there,” Donovan said. “But...I think we’ve been a pretty consistent team defensively, and I still think we can get better.”

And, as Atkinson alluded to, most teams don’t defend like the Thunder because A) they don’t have the length, mobility, and cohesiveness, and B) they can’t stomach how vulnerable it’ll leave them against spot-up looks on the perimeter. It’s only one series, but the Thunder allowed a wide-open three on nearly one out of every four shots the Jazz attempted during last year’s first-round battle. That’s awful, and wasn’t a total outlier, either. In the regular season, they finished last (in a tie with the Atlanta Hawks) by allowing 20.8 percent of their opponent’s shots to be wide-open threes, per Unsurprisingly, the Thunder also allowed the most corner threes.

It’s tempting to compare this group to what the Thunder were last year, particularly before a ruptured patella tendon ended Roberson’s season. (They had the fifth-best defense at the time, and were 16th from that point on.) Schematically they are similar, a “no middle” team that fundamental desires to keep the ball on the sidelines. When facing a pick-and-roll, they bring their big up to the screen, pull help defenders in from the opposite side, and direct the ball-handler towards his screener’s man. It deters penetration and typically forces at least one difficult pass. (In the screen capture below, Alex Abrines is all the way over, persuading Rodney Hood to skip the ball to Collin Sexton in the opposite corner.)

Alex Abrines is in the paint

“[Last year] we wanted to take away the middle of the floor, and in doing that you’re going to give something else up. And a lot of those straight line drives or drives to the basket put us in rotations,” Donovan said. “I think trying to put more of an emphasis on guarding the ball, squaring up, more of an emphasis on the three-point line, more of an emphasis on not fouling. I mean these were things we talked about last year—I don’t want to make it seem like we just totally blew everything up and started over from scratch—but there were some minor changes that I felt like from watching film that we needed to make.”

Today’s difference also comes from who they play—more minutes for Grant, Ferguson, Schröder and Noel, fewer minutes for Ray Felton, zero minutes for Corey Brewer and Carmelo Anthony—and how those players keep the ball in front of them while sprinting in and out of help positions. This roster is built to switch, too. And they’re more willing to do that for extended stretches, without fear of getting beat on the boards or off the dribble.

"Our length," Schröder said when I asked what stands out about Oklahoma City's defense. "Everybody is so long."

Their opponent’s three-point volume is down overall, and teams are only converting 29 percent of their open threes—the second-lowest number in the league. It’s an aggressiveness that’s yet to burn them, but keep your hand on the stove for an entire season and shots like this will eventually fall. (They still forfeit a bunch of corner threes, just not as many as last year.)

It’s reasonable to wonder if this is sustainable. The Thunder want to generate a ton of turnovers and they do so more than anyone else. But they also want to keep offenses off the glass and contest shots without fouling, two objectives harder than they have to be when trying to pull off a game plan that demands continuous rotations, pulls bigs out to the perimeter, and sucks guards into the paint.

But the Thunder swarm with purpose. Back-line rotations are crisp and there’s always someone with freakish tentacles waiting down low, either forcing another pass or protecting the basket. Only five teams are allowing a lower shooting percentage at the rim. Grant is a special brand of menace in this area. Instead of putting out fires early on, he’ll (intentionally!) wait for an opponent to go up with the ball and then disintegrate them in midair.

The Thunder get back on defense and drag out possessions, be it after a missed shot or a turnover. That discipline matters. (The Houston Rockets are the only team that chokes a higher percentage of their opponent’s field goal attempts with seven or fewer seconds on the shot clock.)

"Yeah, there’s a bunch of shit that goes into it.”

“It comes down to effort,” Adams said. “Wanting to actually get stops, forcing them to take shots that they probably don’t want. Yeah, there’s a bunch of shit that goes into it.”

The Thunder wouldn’t play the way they do if Adams couldn’t comfortably glide his 250-pound frame along the perimeter. Same goes for Noel, who’s so incredible at poking the ball from ball-handlers as they drive towards the rim. But the Thunder know they can’t trap every screen and rely upon help defenders to bail them out in the paint. Here’s what happens when Adams is a step too low and Ferguson is a step slow:

And so they’ve adopted a few new principles and tweak how they want to play based on different matchups. Sometimes they’ll switch everything and help accordingly, looking like an even more horrifying and clenched version of last year’s Rockets. (Don’t be surprised if in a few months this is how they treat most defensive possessions; fluidly switching every screen is the only way to stifle the Golden State Warriors, and if the Thunder aspire to make the Finals that’s the offense they’ll need to stifle.) Sometimes they’ll have both weak-side defenders in the paint before a roll man can gain any momentum.

“You’re not going to in today’s NBA have one cookie cutter defense that’s going to work for everybody,” Donovan said. “For instance, the other night against Blake Griffin, we felt like with our power forwards we needed to come a lot of times and provide help. There’s a lot of games where maybe at the power forward spot we don’t have to provide help, so those situations create different challenges schematically. But in terms of the things that are important to us, like contesting shots, defensive rebounding, trying to eliminate layups, trying to take away silly fouls and putting people in the bonus, those things are going to carry through for 82 games.”

Defense matters, but for them to actually defeat the very best teams in the league four times in seven tries, they’ll need to score a lot of points that aren’t directly leveraged by their excellence on one end. That means the Thunder need to add another three-point shooter, someone opponents won’t go out of their way to attack in the playoffs.

They can’t trade their own pick this year because they owe a first to Orlando in 2020 (and a first to Atlanta in 2022), but how about Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, Abdel Nader, and a future second-round pick for Wayne Ellington? Or TLC and a second-round pick for Sterling Brown? Or Patrick Patterson and two future second-round picks for Justin Holiday? For a variety of reasons, seeing these transactions through won’t be easy. Outside shooting is at a premium for a reason. The Thunder have instead chosen to secure the other side of the ball, then hope those players would eventually develop enough to balance everything out.

But they have a right to feel impatient. This is a championship-caliber defense right now, one that matches up well with the defending champs, along with the Eastern Conference’s most elite teams. Westbrook isn’t getting any younger, and there’s only so many years of embracing a frenetic struggle before the players who bought in start to lose focus. It’s far too dramatic to label this Oklahoma City’s last stand, but with a defense this good, it’d be a damn shame if their front office didn’t treat it that way.

This article originally appeared on VICE Sports US.

bje38vMichael PinaSean NewellBasketballsportsnbarussell westbrookOklahoma City Thunderpaul george
<![CDATA[For One Glorious Moment, the NHL Had a Ref's Dick Goal]]>, 12 Dec 2018 18:40:51 +0000There are certain goals that you'd give your left nut (or ovary?) just to take back. And then there are goals that are taken back that literally caused someone to lose their left nut.

Last night, during a game between the St. Louis Blues and the Florida Panthers, Blues defenseman Robert Bortuzzo dumped the puck into the Panthers zone, but ended up finding the boards blocked by a twig and berries. The unwitting referee, Tim Peel, tried to get out of the way, but instead, moved into direct range of the black biscuit—only to hit the biscuits.

There are a couple of extraordinary things about this clip. First of all, it's the range of deflection. If I were to read the headline, "NHL Player Scores Goal Off Ref's Dick," I would think it would be some kind of dinky, short-range, wacky situation. But nay, dear headline-clicker, you have been rewarded. Because this is Big Dick Energy's cousin, Big Dick Deflection. That puck must travel 20 feet before reaching the net! My God.

The other thing that's pretty extraordinary is that there is actually a rule about these kinds of things. While a ref is considered to be a part of the ice—yes, including his dick—the NHL has a rule set down—rule 78.5 (iii)—that a goal will be disallowed when it has "deflected directly into the net off an official." Which is exactly what happened here. So, Panthers goalie (and all around solid dude) Roberto Luongo was spared the indignity (indicknity?) of having his name attached to this goal.

As for Peel, he took a quick break to reassemble himself in the dressing room, and eventually returned to the game.

The Blues beat the Panthers by one goal anyway, but I'm sure they still want that one goal back. Just to say they got a dick goal.

This article originally appeared on VICE Sports US.

59vqzqLiam Daniel PierceSean NewellsportsNHLHockeyflorida panthersSt Louis Bluesrefereerobert bortuzzodick goal
<![CDATA[Kawhi Leonard Cares Not for Your Human Christmas Nonsense]]>, 12 Dec 2018 18:33:40 +0000To call Kawhi Leonard a boring-ass robot is kind of unfair to whoever designed him. Sure, the man is unfeeling—but however he was built, his maker at least had a razor-sharp sense of humor. Because the man is just a too-perfect glitch of human emotion.

Earlier this year, we were treated to his laugh, which is an all-expenses-paid trip through the uncanny valley. Then there's the fact that the multimillionaire still uses coupons at Wingstop and often drives a rehabbed '97 Chevy Tahoe, claiming, "it's paid off."

And after last night, it's safe to say that Kawhi is officially having A Moment.

Kawhi's Toronto Raptors defeated the Los Angeles Clippers (who are rumored to reciprocate his interest in playing there) 123-99—Kawhi was confronted with the biggest litmus test of human emotion, at least in the Christian-dominated world. Kawhi sat for the game with a hip injury, and it seemed like the right time to ask something fun or zany, but when he was asked about his favorite Christmas memories, this is how he responded:

"Not right now," the man said.

Happy Christmas, Mr. Scrooge!

Not right now, Bob.

See, if Kawhi were designed by some kind of hack, the response would be something like (insert robot voice), "Christmas is a holiday that is beyond my comprehension." Something like that. But no. "Not right now," is the perfect joke response because we know we're not getting a better answer later.

It's not like next game Kawhi is going to expound on his thoughts about the holiday of lights and giving and love. It's almost like a Magic 8 Ball shook you back for another try, just to have the same answer written all over that jiggly cube in the middle.

Whatever minimalist programming it took to make the man this comically devoid of human emotion, it surely saved some room for basketballing. Because the man can ball.

This article originally appeared on VICE Sports US.

3k9483Liam Daniel PierceSean NewellBasketballsportschristmasnbaToronto Raptorscouponskawhi leonardBah Humball
<![CDATA[With All Elite Wrestling, Pro Wrestling Might Never be the Same Again]]>, 12 Dec 2018 18:33:20 +0000Much as WWE tries to define pro wrestling as largely static outside the confines of its shows, things move in smaller promotions and with independent wrestlers. TNA is still kicking as Impact Pro Wrestling, there are a host of indies with solid shows, and we all know about New Japan’s renaissance. Somewhere in the middle of all of that, yet to fully cohere, something big is brewing. It’s going to change the way outlets like Ring of Honor and Impact work, shake NJPW to its core, and may end up turning into the first legitimate contender to WWE’s dominance in the United States since WCW folded.

It’s all still hazy and not a little complicated, but the possibility of a new, well-financed wrestling promotion goes back to All In, Cody Rhodes's and the Young Bucks’ one-off indie mega-show. It was a roaring success, the first non-WWE show to pull 10,000 fans in 20 years. It would’ve been natural for the minds behind that show to consider what more could be done with that sort of momentum.

In November, rumors began to swirl that it wasn’t just another All In show, but a brand new promotion, with monthly pay-per-views and a possible television deal. At almost the same time, parallel rumors started up that Chris Jericho and Jim Ross were looking at starting something of their own, with the backing of Shahid Khan, owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars and Fulham F.C. in the Premier League.

Both Jericho and Ross played coy with the rumors, with Ross hilariously sneering that there’s no way either of them would take the money they’ve earned and put it back into the pro wrestling business, but it didn’t matter. Through whispers, momentum, and a few confirmable tidbits (like Cody and Brandi Rhodes appearing in Khan’s owner’s box at a Jags game the other week), it became clear that it wasn’t just nonsense; Rhodes and the Bucks were up to something, there was real money involved, and the Jericho/Ross connection may not be made up. Toss in some trademark filings by the Bucks on terms like “All Elite Wresting” and “Tuesday Night Dynamite” and it seemed all but confirmed.

Because of that, there’s no way to behave other than to act as though a major new pro wrestling promotion, with a non-passive billionaire’s backing and established names throughout, is imminent. There’s simply too much noise around this for it to be nothing, and the ramifications extend well beyond simply WWE getting some competition.

One of the quirks of this process is that all three of the primary actors—the Bucks and Cody—are under some sort of contract with NJPW until after Wrestle Kingdom 13 on January 4th. Which is fine, but if they’re splitting as soon as the show is done, we know who’s winning the matches they’re in. That lessens the intrigue surrounding a third of the matches on NJPW’s biggest show of the year, and a show which has been a devastatingly good watch for five years.

That includes lessening the intrigue around the biggest match of the show, between IWGP Heavyweight champion Kenny Omega and Hiroshi Tanahashi, because Kenny Omega’s contract is also up and he’s rumored to be heading out, too. Toss in Chris Jericho’s Intercontinental title match and a significant portion of the show is guys who are very likely to not be there a scant few days after it’s done.

If you’re confused as to why Omega would leave a top of the card career and sustained flirtation with icon status, you’re not alone. Omega is an amazing talent, but there’s something about his sublimated, anime-tinged goofiness which feels like it may not play week after week in front of a North American audience, at least not in the superstar fashion it does in NJPW and the bite-sized chunks we get in the US.

But there’s also a sense of unease about just how prominent The Elite (Omega, The Bucks, Rhodes, Marty Scurll, Kota Ibushi, and Adam Page) have become in NJPW. Their YouTube series, Being The Elite, is a genre-changing production, offering quasi-real backstage glimpses at a group of men deeply into irony and each other’s camaraderie. It’s great stuff. It also often feels as though it’s taking place in a parallel universe from everything else in NJPW (and the other promotions, like ROH, the wrestlers show up in) and that The Elite are working for themselves more than anything.

The Elite leaving en masse to form a promotion informed by the web series would confirm that and would rankle a bit. NJPW may end up being better off in the long run, but there would have to be a sense of betrayal, given that the gaiijin champions were a key part of a plan for global appeal.

WWE, for its part, has been snatching up exclusive contracts as much as they can. This has happened primarily in the UK, where NXT UK wrestlers were given new contracts with WWE exclusivity. This is obviously worth looking at with a primarily UK-centered lens, with WWE slowly strangling the thriving British indie scene, but it’s hard not to see an edge of WWE locking down even regional wrestlers in the hopes of preventing a nascent AEW from fleshing out their rosters. WWE’s reported signing of WALTER, an Austrian big man who’s a superstar on the European circuit, seems less about using him—he’s only going to be on NXT UK, and everything from his mannerisms to his body type scream that Vince McMahon would unjustly bury him if he ever made it to the main roster—and more about keeping anyone else from using him.

That’s going to continue. As AEW creeps toward a possible debut, expect WWE to accelerate tossing NXT contracts to anyone who might remotely get over. With WWE’s television at genuinely unprecedented levels of awfulness and some of the worst ratings in its history, the promotion is going to do what most big corporations do, which is try to strangle competition in the crib rather than improve.

The current state of WWE (outside its pay-per-views, which have been nearly as good the past four months as its television has been bad) might create an unexpected problem for AEW: its television has been so bad, with such abysmal ratings, that it might make any prospective home for AEW skittish. If WWE can’t pull ratings, and if Sinclair won’t throw its full weight behind an already established ROH, what hope does a brand new promotion have, big backing or not?

All of that is even if it happens. Maybe this is all a clever ploy to make an unbelievably convoluted angle for Being The Elite, which would be simultaneously amazing, overly indulgent, and kind of shitty. The base truth is that the wrestlers in The Elite have an indisputably good knack of figuring out what gets the postmodern pro wrestling fan buzzing. However this shakes out, pro wrestling will never quite be the same again, and the first half of 2019 should be fascinating.

This article originally appeared on VICE Sports US.

nep97zIan WilliamsSean NewellWRESTLINGeliteWWEbruisedaycody rhodesall elite wrestling
<![CDATA[Danny Green Is Not a Fan of Bagged Milk]]>, 11 Dec 2018 19:11:22 +0000Once again, a migrant American is attacking the Canadian way of life.

And by "way of life" I of course mean one of the methods in which we purchase and ingest one of our most controversial beverages: milk. Sweet, sweet milk.

It's no secret by now that our milk storage and distribution methods are seen as controversial by much of the outside world and by many of those visiting or living in Canada for the first time. We've grown to learn this is especially true when it comes to athletes.

On a recent episode of Yahoo Sports' Inside the Green Room podcast, Danny Green revealed that he's the latest to join the anti-Canadian-milker movement after his co-host asked him for his thoughts on the state of milk in this country. In short, Green doesn't understand why some people here drink milk out of plastic bags.

"And I may be wrong about this, but I'm pretty sure that most of the milk here comes in a bag. It's not very efficient, it's not convenient, it's borderline a pain in the ass to pour milk in a bag," he said. "You have to buy your own container—I was almost late today to practice because of going to the store, the container store, to find some containers to put my milk from out of this bag into containers.

"Couldn't just be like the rest of the world and put it in like you know, a gallon, or glass, something that you can pour it out of. You can't really store in a bag or pour out of a bag. It needs to change. I don't know who we need to talk to, but that needs to change."

As much as a pure-blooded Canadian like myself wants to instinctively jump on this and defend bagged milk's honour to the death, the man does raise some valid points. (We should note that bagged milk is not a thing in all parts of the country, and we aren't the only country in the world that consumes it this way. But it is most certainly a thing in Canada's biggest province, Ontario, home to Toronto.)

It is pretty insane to have to transfer one carrying vessel (milk bag) and drop that into another (milk container) and then cut a slice in the corner of the bag to pour the milk out of. That's certainly the case when you consider the alternative, which allows you to pour it straight out of a jug or bottle. I get that. It's weird as hell.

Other imported US athletes have had their own issues with our bagged dairy before, too, including former Blue Jays pitcher J.A. Happ, who made his feelings clear on the situation back in 2016.

"You guys sell milk in bags and I don't really get why, or what you do then with the bags. Other than that it seems like Canada's doing a pretty good job. [Laughs.] But I don't get the milk. Put it in a gallon jug so you don't have the sloppy, messy bag."

You know what's actually crazy, though? You can literally buy sealed containers of milk in Canada, like almost everywhere except certain parts of Ontario. There's one- and two-litre cardboard cartons (and even smaller sizes) available, as well as larger, plastic jugs with the screw-off lid in basically any part of the country. And you can go the organic route and buy milk out of glass containers. You can literally buy milk here almost every single way it’s possibly packaged, but apparently once our American friends see the bagged milk and container combo, they can't let it go.

We out here milkin' with the best of them, you just have to dig a little deeper to see it.

nep9m7Kyle CantlonChris TomanBasketballsportsCanadianaTorontonbamilkbagged milkToronto Raptorsdanny green
<![CDATA[Why Don't Sweet-Shooting Point Guards Believe Science?]]>, 11 Dec 2018 17:58:18 +0000Sometime around the beginning of the last century, scientists discovered that at the smallest levels of existence, the vibrations of molecules and electrons and whatnot that compose the atoms which in turn compose the matter we see and touch and are made of, were, more or less, ruled by weighted probabilities. The whole world, solid to your eyes, is actually a mass of unceasing chaos, humming along in ways we can’t fully measure or understand.

After we discovered this, humanity lost its fucking mind. World War II, existentialism, the breakdown of narrative. With that, individuals were let loose from the tether of tradition and religion and order and sent adrift, compelled to openly question whether or not ANYTHING can be true, or if we are living in a series of projections and simulations, drifting around in a pile of not-truth, left to sort it out and maybe create something meaningful in a world that may or may not be meaningful itself.

No one, it seems, is more susceptible to the sense of truth coming apart at the seams than sweet shooting NBA point guards. Yesterday, in an episode of Vince Carter and Kent Bazemore’s podcast over at The Ringer, itself an object of the chaos of modern life, Curry said that people don't really know what dinosaurs sound like, and then he dropped the big one:

He doesn’t believe we went to the moon.

Stanley Kubrick is mentioned.

Steph is, of course, not the first high volume three point shooting guard to express support of, let's call them "Fringe Beliefs." Kyrie Irving has, famously, expressed some suspicion about whether or not the Earth is round. Eventually, The Man got to him and he apologized, but the real truth was laid bare: he hasn’t seen the Earth from space, so who was he to say?

Even the world’s first volume three-point shooting point guard talent is susceptible to conspiratorial thinking. In a 2017 interview with Outside the Lines Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf expressed his believe that the 9/11 attacks were an inside job, a staged act designed to give cover for the United States desire for regime change in Iraq.

Why are dudes who can pull up off the dribble from behind the line prone to Questioning The Truth like this? It makes sense, I think. Countless hours alone in the gym, the ball in your hand, obsessing over every imaginable micro movement in your motion, attempting to see every angle on the floor, perhaps even the ones that aren't there. Lifting weights, running on elliptical, eliminating every imaginable flaw from your upper body in motion, it gives the mind space to wander, fertilizing the soil and allowing seeds to take root and blossom into flowers of conspiracy and suspicion.

And then, once they leave that environment, they get to the actual games themselves, which is a whole other exercise in mindfuckery. The nature of shooting is so random, so subject to the whims of fate and chance. You let loose a ball from some absurd distance, a round object colliding with another round object, going in or plunking out on for no reason whatsoever, all those hours in the gym, shooting and shooting and shooting and crafting the perfect arm-motion, all while you sit and stew in your own brain, and the ball just DOESN’T GO IN more often than it does. The concept of "truth", in and of itself, must seem completely asinine when that is the reality of your world night after night. You very well might start to question everything. How can ANYTHING be true if a bricked open jumper that I watched go in 500 times earlier in the day is true?

A pure shooter, I suspect, can handle this. Klay Thompson doesn’t seem like a dude who believes anything too wild. But the point guard has another source of stress that clearly puts the feather on the anvil and breaks the stick of the mind: teammates. These dudes’ NBA productivity is or was determined by two things: if the threes go down and if your horrible, horrible teammates fuck up or not. Klay can let that shit slip off his back, but for the point guard, every teammate's missed shot is an assist down the drain.

Big men, with these stone-ass hands, botching passes that should be perfect dunks. Wings, taking the opportunity of erasing a perfect pass from you to dribble like an asshole and post up in the lane. It must give you a dim view of humanity somewhere deep inside. And, sure, you try to cover it up—but in quiet moments, sitting on the couch, shooting in empty gyms, as your eyes close and you slip off into dreamland, you must—MUST—feel like the world is set against you. It destroys your faith in humanity, in the truths they are telling you. The mind can set itself to different conclusions quite easily.

So can anything free these men from the prison of conspiratorial thinking, or is their lot in life to be afflicted with this artificial wokeness? Are they destined to live out their own Twilight Zone episode where gradually they realize, to their horror, they were the fake moon landing video all along?

Were their talents, given to them from birth and honed from a life of practice, their gift and their curse, the key to a life in the mental spaces most of us would dare not tread?

I have given you the evidence.

Decide for yourself.

This article originally appeared on VICE Sports US.

59vjknCorbin SmithSean NewellBasketballSciencesportsnbaSteph CurryThe Moonwe went to the moon
<![CDATA[Pee Wee Kirkland: The Streetball Legend Who Chose Drug Trafficking over the NBA]]>, 11 Dec 2018 17:57:46 +0000Richard "Pee Wee" Kirkland began playing basketball in the streets of Harlem when he was nine years old. By age 13, he split his time between playing ball and committing robberies to help finance a growing drug empire.

In college, Kirkland was the 1968 MVP for Norfolk State, turning down an offer from UCLA to play alongside Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Kirkland was then drafted by the Chicago Bulls but turned down their offer when he realized he could make more money in the drug game than the pro game.

With law enforcement on his tail, Kirkland found himself behind bars twice between 1971 and 1988. From there, he made a change, becoming a motivational speaker and inspiring young, inner-city athletes to take a different path out than he did.

RED CARDS, presented by Ryot, is a six-part series exploring some of the most notorious true crime stories in sports. New episodes available each Tuesday.

This article originally appeared on VICE Sports US.

vbaxx8VICE Sports StaffVICE SportsBasketballsportscollege basketballred cardsRed Cards Presented by Ryotpee wee kirkland
<![CDATA[Kawhi Leonard's Handle Is the Secret to His Success]]>, 10 Dec 2018 17:36:21 +0000Kawhi Leonard is 27 years old, enjoying the prime of a career that’s already turned him into the most complete basketball player in the world. He can score efficiently at all three levels, shoot, rebound, create for teammates, and, without help, defend just about every player in the league.

But when Phil Handy—an assistant coach for the Toronto Raptors who specializes in skill development and has worked closely with LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, and Kyrie Irving, among many others—met Leonard over the summer and asked what part of his game he most wanted to improve, the two-time Defensive Player of the Year had ball-handling at the top of his list.

“Great players are great players, and I think they become even better players when they’re willing to get out of their comfort zone and just work on different things,” Handy told VICE Sports. “Kawhi was already a good ball-handler. I just think a lot of people didn’t really get to see that part of his game. It was there.”

They started with simple combinations and focused on improving his balance, base, and footwork, then blended in additional moves with multiple variations. Repetition was key. The objective wasn’t necessarily to teach Leonard new ways to transport himself from Point A to Point B on a basketball court so much as it was to plow what he already knew even deeper into his psyche. Now, when Leonard does something with the ball, his reflexes kick in before his brain has time to process what’s going on.

“Sometimes the dribbling exercises you put guys through, it may not be something they actually use on the floor but it gives transference. Their instincts become better,” Handy said. “They just instinctually start to go from one handle to another to another when they’re in different situations in games.”

He's availing himself with a broader palette. Here’s Leonard getting hounded by Minnesota Timberwolves rookie Josh Okogie. When he goes between his legs and Okogie reaches in for the steal, Leonard spins baseline fast enough to convince viewers the move was directed by a choreographer.

The result of Leonard's hard work during the offseason is clear every night. After a lost year in which he only appeared in nine games, Leonard has not only re-inserted himself into MVP and “best player alive” debates, but has also emerged in his first year with the Raptors as arguably the best ball-handler at his position. Plays like the one seen below are already typical.

On the San Antonio Spurs, Leonard’s handle felt like a pencil sketch of the Mona Lisa. Greatness was imminent, but operating in place of flair and spectacle was a robotic efficiency that never really needed to evolve. Every dribble inside Gregg Popovich’s system was a wasted opportunity to pass or shoot, and who was to argue with that calculus? His straight line drives regularly led to tomahawk dunks. The Spurs were a juggernaut. That doesn’t mean Leonard was stagnant, though. He itched to journey past the fundamentals which had already been mastered. There was strobe-light training and a demand to create more than separation for his own shot, particularly in the playoffs, as Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili aged out of their responsibilities.

“He always was able to get to his spots, but now he is so comfortable anywhere,” Jamal Crawford told VICE Sports. “His handle is to the point where he does things to hop into shots, along with getting to the rim, along with using it to get his space in the mid-range.”

Today, Leonard’s ball-handling is an ideal marriage between style and substance; it’s grown from garnish to bedrock. There's more fluidity and jazz at a higher volume. His dribbles per touch are at a career high, and shots attempted after at least three dribbles account for over 57.2 percent of his own offense. (Two seasons ago that was 42 percent, and one before that it was 37.1 percent.) Leonard is also averaging 5.3 more drives per game than he did three years ago, and 1.5 more than his last healthy season with the Spurs. (So far, only 36 percent of Leonard’s shots have been assisted. His previous career low was 48 percent, and in his third year that number was all the way up at 59 percent.)

"San Antonio did a phenomenal job developing Kawhi and helping him become a better player. I just think it was a different system." Handy said. "The flow of our offense puts him in different situations where he’s able to expand a little bit more."

The hard work is paying off, but a change of scenery hasn’t hurt. When I asked why he’s been able to showcase his ball-handling a bit more this season than in year’s past, Leonard acknowledged Toronto’s system and how he’s being utilized: “It’s pretty much just the offense that we’re running. I’m just able to come off pin downs and there’s a lot of cross screens and dribble hand-offs. Nick’s just doing a good job of spacing out the floor.”

Where lineups earlier in his career rarely prioritized offensive gravity over defensive intimidation, Leonard now operates with four three-point shooters by his side (including Pascal Siakam, who's making a relatively impressive 34.6 percent of his threes right now), in an era designed for stars to take advantage of extra room. When he receives a pick high above the three-point line, Leonard skis downhill and sticks the screener’s defender on an island. It’s impossible to guard, but switching isn't much of an alternative.

“We knew he could score in and out and off screens and all those kind of things. Play in transition some. And now we’re kind of getting him more in the screen-and-roll game, so he’s learning. And I think he’s starting to see things a little bit better too. He’s finding some kick-outs and passes out of there, and those guys are gonna need to step in and make them,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said. “So he can do everything, right? He can do everything, and we’ll just keep progressing with keeping it in his hands in all situations.”

Sit 15 feet away when he warms up at the free-throw line, as I did before a recent Raptors game, and it’s impossible to ignore just how small everything looks in his hands—if the basketball is Earth's surface, Leonard’s hands are its oceans. At the NBA combine in 2011, his hands were 11.25 inches wide—which is wider than every player measured at the last four combines—and served as exclamation points at the tip of his 7’3” wingspan. They’ve always been his closest friends, around to help deflect passes and tally unreachable steals, sky for a rebound or finish a contested layup. And now more than ever, it’s hard to negate their usefulness when he handles the ball, too.

“Kawhi is really long, so my tendency when I’m working with guys that are long is to help them tighten their handle,” Handy said. “It makes sense biomechanically with your body, if you’re sitting in a wider stance it’s going to help you keep your length in.”

Leonard has more control over his entire body than the average person does over their big toe. Merge that discipline with unparalleled physical dimensions that directly impact his ability to manipulate a basketball, and what you get is a unique handle that defenses can’t really stop. He’s even more compact and under control than he used to be, which, when talking about someone who already takes care of the ball better than any star in the league, is really saying something. It allows him to alter tempos whenever/wherever he wants.

“He doesn’t play at a breakneck speed, but when he changes speeds he’s fast,” Handy said. “He just kind of puts you to sleep with the way he plays, and then boom. He’s really deceptive like that.”

The first time I re-watched this video, I thought the fourth dribble was a glitch; I’m still not 100 percent positive the ball physically travels went between his legs:

Already one of world’s best players, Leonard’s growth in this specific area has elevated his ceiling and made it even less possible to slow him down. Try and trap him and he'll turn the corner, draw two defenders and still create enough space for a baseline fadeaway. Leonard regularly rips the ball off the rim and goes coast-to-coast, swiveling through defenders with an in-and-out move that's executed to perfection at top speed. His between-the-legs crossover is lightning and his one, two, three-dribble pull-ups are virtually unguardable. Leonard's handle isn't the entree of his skill-set, but it complements everything else that makes him a franchise-altering talent. And just like every other gem who thrives in the same rarefied tier, the best is yet to come.

“I don’t care who you are, Kyrie, Steve Nash, Chris Paul. I don’t think you ever get to a point in your career where you say ‘OK, that’s enough with my ball-handling,’” Handy said. “You always have to constantly continue to get the rhythm of the basketball, and keep your handles tight, so wherever you are on the floor there’s any combination of dribbles you can use.”

This article originally appeared on VICE Sports US.

a3mydgMichael PinaBasketballsportsnbaToronto Raptorskawhi leonard
<![CDATA[Max Holloway Defends Crown in MMA Striking Masterclass]]>, 10 Dec 2018 17:35:07 +0000 In a sport where plenty of fighters still awkwardly circle with seven feet of space between them and the opponent, then wing full-power swings while trying to run in the opposite direction, Max Holloway’s comfort in trading range might as well be considered a superpower. It took all of a minute for Holloway to work Brian Ortega out and to start taking chunks out of the challenger. Round one was a beating and Holloway simply did the same thing, with more intensity, every round after that.

Of course, the one thing that everyone knew coming into this fight was that Brian Ortega is an opportunist and not a perfectionist. In fact Ortega had not convincingly won a round in years before he fought Cub Swanson. Ortega takes shots, lands a few of his own, and then finds the finish seemingly out of nowhere. This fight was always going to be the man who can find the finish at any time, against the man who only gets stronger as the fight progresses.

The disparity in striking skill was obvious before the fight: Ortega is finding his feet as a striker and Holloway has already developed into one of the best to ever compete in the UFC. The things that Ortega was doing—attempting to get down behind his lead shoulder and time big counters—would work against lesser strikers, but Holloway was having none of it.

From the get go, Holloway’s jab interrogated Ortega and squeezed his intentions out of him. If Holloway jabbed and Ortega retreated, a second jab would cover Holloway’s second step, and a right hand would fly towards Ortega’s head or body on the end of it. Whenever Ortega lingered, the second step would never come but the right hand would slip in early. And when Ortega went to his shoulder roll—which we have discussed not working against Renato Moicano—Holloway would jab him deep into it and then crack him with the right hand all the same.

Ones and twos were the diet that Holloway fed Ortega for the majority of his five hundred thrown strikes in this bout, but there was plenty of variety in there too. Holloway is one of the best in MMA history at getting to his opponent’s body. Where Takanori Gomi and Fedor Emelianenko pioneered the body punch in MMA, neither mounted them on the kind of scientific boxing that Holloway uses to sneak them in. In addition to wide rights and right straights to the body, Holloway will often throw a left handed body shot off the jab, requiring some serious dexterity and a gauge on his opponent’s reactions.

The fight was called off by the doctor before the fifth round could start. This was merciful, as Ortega had absorbed over three hundred strikes in the previous four rounds and was a swollen, bloody mess. But there is no doubting the heart of Brian Ortega, who was quite prepared to go out and take another hundred strikes just to look for that one perfect elbow or snap down.

Ortega’s striking looked amateurish against Holloway, but Ortega still has plenty of time left to improve. His striking has come on in leaps and bounds through his short UFC tenure already so being able to absorb the best shots from Holloway for four rounds will probably only give him more confidence to experiment and grow comfortable under fire. If he can use that confidence to shore up the defensive holes and tighten up his form, he could trouble even the better strikers of the division. And don’t forget that jiu jitsu is what Ortega is known for in spite of his almost complete lack of takedowns. There is so much missing in Ortega’s game and he has still made it this far. With attention in the right areas there is certainly a lot more to look forward to in his future.

For Holloway the next step is unclear. He has only defended his featherweight crown twice, but he has already fought the majority of top featherweights on his way up. If Frankie Edgar can successfully pitch yet another title shot, there will always be an audience for Holloway vs. Edgar. There are rumblings of Holloway going to lightweight though, and Dana White has expressed his desire to see Holloway there. Max missed out on a late notice title fight with Khabib Nurmagomedov a few months back, but more than that there is the prospect of a rematch with Conor McGregor which would certainly garner great interest and provide Holloway with an enormous payday. Either way, it is great to have Holloway back in action and looking so damned sharp after the worrying symptoms that took him out of the originally scheduled Ortega fight back in July. Holloway is one of the best to ever play this game and every time he steps in the cage it is a joy to sit back and spectate.

This article originally appeared on VICE Sports US.

439bd9Jack SlackSean NewellMMAUFCFIGHTLANDcombat sportsmax hollowayufc 231