King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Only fools write off the Lakers. Plus: NHL playoffs all the time. And: The Smarty Jones bandwagon.

By Salon Staff

Published May 17, 2004 7:00PM (EDT)

I bet those fools who wrote off the Lakers after Game 2 of the Spurs series are really feeling silly now. What a bunch of boobs!

The lesson: Write off the Lakers at your peril. Yes, they're crazy. Yes, they seem to just turn it off and on at random, not an impossible strategy but a dangerous one.

But they also have the most dominant big man in the game, the player most able to take over a game single-handedly and, while two great players playing well are probably enough to win an NBA title, they also, incidentally and by the by, have a couple of future Hall of Famers. Faded ones, but still. Even a faded Karl Malone and Gary Payton can still do some things, especially on defense, to help a team win big games.

David Steele of the San Francisco Chronicle watched Games 5 and 6 of the Kings-Timberwolves series, and presumably both Eastern Conference semifinals, and wrote, "L. A. fans might as well avoid the rush and start overturning police cars right now."

I don't know if I'll go that far, because the Lakers are still weird, capable of not just losing to the Kings-Wolves Game 7 winner but also to the Eastern Conference champion and, let's face it, Coppin State on the right night. But I'll say again what I said before I foolishly proclaimed them dead last week: When the Big 4 are healthy, they're the team to beat.

The Kings and Timberwolves don't match up well against the Lakers. Neither has a big man who can handle Shaquille O'Neal and I don't think Latrell Sprewell or Doug Christie can stop Kobe Bryant on an inspired night. The Kings would stand a better chance because of the potential offensive explosiveness of Mike Bibby and Peja Stojakovic, but many wallets have been emptied by betting on the Kings over the Lakers in the last few years.

And please save your typing fingers before you compose that e-mail in which you inform me that both the Kings and T-Wolves went 3-1 against the Lakers during the regular season. A 3-1 regular-season record and a ticket will get you into the NBA Finals.

I got some e-mails last week complaining that I've been ignoring the Eastern Conference semis. For the record, the Pacers lead the Heat 3-2 and the Pistons and Nets are tied 3-3. I'm trying to stay interested, but the only team in the bunch that I think has a chance to beat any of the Western Conference teams is the Pacers, and I'm not even sure of that after watching them lose two games in Miami.

Then again, I vaguely remember being wrong about something recently.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

A modest proposal for the NHL [PERMALINK]

Remind me again why they play a regular season in the NHL? Right, to pick the 16 playoff teams and jockey for home-ice advantage.

What a waste of time. We get seven months of sludgy, goonish, half-speed hockey to decide that, and then it's all about whoever heats up and gets good goaltending. A team like the Calgary Flames, ordinary in the regular season, can look like a Stanley Cup favorite in no time.

And home ice? Home teams are 45-32 in the playoffs, which is nice, but all of that advantage came in the first round. In the last two rounds, home teams are 15-15, including 2-6 in the current round, the semifinals. (Both series, Sharks-Flames and Lightning-Flyers, are tied 2-2, with the Sharks and Flames playing Game 5 Monday night in San Jose with no day off.)

Oh, right, it's all about getting the home ice for Game 7. Home teams are 1-2 in Game 7s.

As the patron columnist of lost causes, here's my solution for how to fix the NHL, which is headed for a monumental work stoppage, by the way, and may be in need of some radical thinking.

Ditch most of the regular season, and just keep repeating the playoffs. The playoff tournament lasts two months. There's time to get that in twice from mid-September to early June -- the current hockey "season" -- and still have time for two brief regular seasons, plus a Stanley Cup Finals, pitting the winners of the two playoffs.

Each regular season would be 14 or 15 games, a quick round-robin against all of the teams in your own conference the first time, all of the teams in the other conference the second time. Then start the playoffs same as now, with 16 teams going. The seedings would be a little less telling than they are now, but they don't mean a lot now. The winners of the two tournaments would play each other for the Cup. If it's the same winner both times, that team would play a runner-up -- chosen by a one-game playoff if the two runners-up were different -- but with every game on the home ice of the double champ.

And what would the non-playoff teams do during those two-month periods when the tournaments are going on? To answer that question, allow me to introduce my assistant ... if I ever get one.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Smarty Jones and a good read [PERMALINK]

For anyone of a certain age -- and I mean roughly my age and older -- it was probably impossible to watch Smarty Jones pulling away in the stretch of Saturday's Preakness Stakes without thinking about Secretariat at the Belmont.

What I don't know about horse racing would fill the Marianas Trench, so all I can do is listen to the wiseguys about whether Smarty Jones is a superhorse, but I've got Smarty fever. The wiseguys seem impressed too. Even Gary Stevens, a Hall of Fame jockey who's ridden three Kentucky Derby winners -- and is four months my senior -- compared him to Big Red after the Preakness.

Five of the last seven Kentucky Derby winners have also won the Preakness, then lost in the Belmont Stakes, but I don't remember this much Triple Crown optimism with any of them except maybe War Emblem in 2002. That horse stumbled at the start of the Belmont and finished eighth.

This despite Smarty Jones being small and having a sprinter's pedigree, meaning he's not supposed to be winning at these longer distances. In other words, three weeks ago you'd have been hard-pressed to find a railbird optimistic about his Triple Crown chances, even though he was undefeated. He'd been winning against chumps. Think of Smarty Jones as the Kurt Warner of the barns.

I was 9 when Secretariat ended a quarter-century Triple Crown drought in 1973, and it was just a magical thing to witness. Then Seattle Slew and Affirmed won back-to-back crowns in 1977-78, and by Affirmed's year the Triple Crown, which I'd been taught was a near-impossible dream, seemed diminished, too easy to win. Now it's back to being a near-impossible dream. I even read somewhere recently that the way horse racing works today, it is an impossible dream. When I read that I figured some horse would win one soon.

Anyway, between Funny Cide's similar underdog run last year, "Seabiscuit" and now Smarty Jones, horse racing is hot. The Belmont Stakes figures to break attendance records. I like that. I'm a fan of any sport in which the people involved are at least as interesting as the competition. I say that at the risk of being mistaken for a bass fishing fan.

If you're all het up like me on the subject, I'll recommend a book that came over the transom recently: Robert L. Shoop's "Down to the Wire: The Lives of the Triple Crown Champions," a serial bio of the 11 Triple Crown winners and the people around them, plus Man o' War, arguably the horse of the 20th century, who wasn't entered in the Kentucky Derby but did win the Preakness and Belmont. (You can win some bar bets by naming Man o' War and some obscure Derby winners and asking which didn't win the Run for the Roses.)

Shoop is a Colorado Springs lawyer, business professor and sometime racing columnist. "Down to the Wire" isn't artfully written, but it's a fun read. I won't lie to you: I have no idea if there are better books on the subject. But I liked this one.

Previous column: Road wins and NBA timeouts

- - - - - - - - - - - -

  • Bookmark to get the new Kaufman column every day.
  • Send an e-mail to King Kaufman.
  • To receive the Sports Daily Newsletter, send an e-mail to

  • Salon Staff

    MORE FROM Salon Staff

    Related Topics ------------------------------------------