It's an NBA cliché that a playoff series doesn't really start until somebody wins a game on the road. That always seemed a little strange to me because what happens if home teams win seven in a row? Can a series go the full seven games without really starting?
But if there's a kernel of truth in it, and let's just say there is so we can get to the next paragraph, what are we to make of the Utah Jazz-Houston Rockets series, where the home team can't buy a win through three games? The Jazz won twice in Houston, and Thursday night the Rockets won a humdinger in Salt Lake.
The other three series in the West haven't really started, so to speak. All that's happened, according to the cliché, is that the Los Angeles Lakers, New Orleans Hornets and San Antonio Spurs have held serve by winning two home games against the Denver Nuggets, Dallas Mavericks and Phoenix Suns.
The same is true with three of the four Eastern series. The Boston Celtics are up 2-0 over the Atlanta Hawks after two in Boston and the home teams have won every game as the Orlando Magic and Cleveland Cavaliers have taken 2-1 leads over the Toronto Raptors and Washington Wizards.
The Philadelphia 76ers stole a win in Game 1 at Detroit. That series is 1-1 heading to Philly.
It's amazing what going home can do. In a pair of games that set some kind of record nobody's ever going to care about, the Cavs beat the Wiz by 30 points in Game 2 Monday in Cleveland, then three days later in Washington the Wiz beat the Cavs by 36.
What on earth? Were these the same teams? Was this stumbling group in blue Thursday the same bunch that just three days and one change of rompers earlier had looked like legitimate title contenders, like they'd finally figured out how to play together after the blockbuster midseason trade that transformed their roster?
It's usually not such a severe effect -- the Cavaliers went 18-23 on the road this year, after all -- but obviously something happens to all teams when they go on the road. Or when they go home, if you want to put it that way. Home teams win about 59 percent of the time in the NBA.
Road teams have to shoot at an unfamiliar background and deal with a hostile crowd, though that's probably less of a factor than the home team getting an energy boost from its own fans. But of all the major sports, basketball seems like it should be least affected by location. The courts are standard. There aren't funny caroms or odd dimensions or confusing corners or unusual weather factors. A game on one court ought to be more or less like any other game on any other court.
I know it's not. It's obviously not. But it seems to me that a lot of the difference is mental, and if that's the case it can be overcome. I think the great coaching frontier in basketball is for some genius to figure out how to overcome the home-court advantage, how to build a team that plays as well on the road as it does at home.
Drafting QBs or linemen: A little study [PERMALINK]
We were talking the other day about NFL teams that have the first overall pick in the draft using it on an offensive lineman, which the Miami Dolphins are doing this year, and which I think most teams should do when they're not using it on a defensive lineman. Build from the inside out is the idea. Teams use that top pick on quarterbacks and other ball handlers way too much, I think.
I did a little study of recent drafts, comparing the first quarterback taken with the first offensive lineman and the first defensive lineman. I'd love to tell you that the linemen were clearly more valuable than the quarterbacks and I'm right and all those NFL executives out there are wrong about this whole thing. I can't really do that, but I don't think I'm wrong either.
I went back as far as 1990. That's a significant date because by the time I got to it, I was really sick of looking at NFL drafts, which I generally find about as interesting as jury duty. The 2008 draft is this weekend. Committee meetings punctuated by Chris Berman. No thanks.
But anyway that's 18 drafts, so I was looking at 18 men at each position, counting offensive line and defensive line as one position each.
Using Pro Football Reference, I added up how many times the 18 men at each spot had been first-team All-Pro selections, which are determined by the Associated Press, how many Pro Bowls they'd made and how many years they'd spent as their team's primary starter at their position.
The quarterbacks had the worst of it. The 18 of them have spent a total of 77 years as primary starters, compared with 101 years for the offensive linemen and 106 for the defensive linemen. The quarterbacks only have three first-team All-Pro selections, all of them for Peyton Manning. The offensive linemen have combined for 14 by six different players, the defenders eight by five different players.
The quarterbacks have made 21 Pro Bowls, the offensive linemen 39, defensive linemen 22.
Now, I hear you. Quarterback is one position. The offensive line is five and the defensive line is three or four. But almost all of the offensive linemen have been left tackles when they were drafted. And even if a top pick moves from left tackle to right tackle or guard and starts for several years, isn't that better use of a draft pick than a quarterback who doesn't start? It's still a failure, spending a top pick on a right guard, but it's not as bad a failure as spending it on a backup or, worse, unemployed quarterback.
Also, the results get skewed a little bit by 1996 and 1997. In those years the first quarterbacks taken were Tony Banks and Jim Druckenmiller. They combined for five seasons of mediocre starting, all of them by Banks. Meanwhile the first two offensive linemen taken were Jonathan Ogden and Orlando Pace and the first two defensive linemen were Simeon Rice and Darrel Russell. All four made multiple Pro Bowls -- Ogden's been to 11 of 'em.
To be fair, Banks and Druckenmiller were taken way later than most first quarterbacks. Banks went 42nd overall, in the second round, and Druckenmiller 26th, near the end of the first. NFL execs simply dismissed those years as down ones for quarterbacks, and rightly so. Peyton Manning was the first pick the next year.
But if we take out those two years, quarterbacks still trail the other positions, though not by much. The years as starters become defensive linemen 90, offensive linemen 79, quarterbacks 72. First-team All-Pro is offensive linemen seven, defensive linemen six, Peyton Manning three. Pro Bowls it's 21 for both quarterbacks and offensive linemen, 17 for defenders.
I can't point to my little study and say, "See? You clearly have to take a lineman." But I do think it hints that linemen are a little more projectable than quarterbacks. And I think just watching football for a few years ought to convince anyone that a team that's starting from scratch needs to start with the lines.
Which is more likely to succeed: A team that has mediocre ball handlers behind a good offensive line or a team that has good ball handlers behind a mediocre offensive line?
Know whom we should go to with that question? Peyton Manning's dad.
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