Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Renting an inactive All-Star

(Posted on Frostburg's The Bottom Line here)

After contemplating a return with different teams such as the Detroit Pistons and the L.A. Lakers, Chris Webber officially signed with the Golden State Warriors on Tuesday. The Warriors hope that he will be ready to play in early February or after the All-Star break in the middle of the month.

Although his role on the team will not officially be determined until he gets back on the court, Webber will probably land a starting role at center in the second half of the season as the Warriors push for a playoff spot. In the crowded Western Conference, the Warriors are currently 28-19, which is good enough for eighth place.

Webber faced an interesting choice last season when he was waived by the Philadelphia 76ers after only 18 games. Webber sat back and went through his options, and he eventually chose to join a very strong Pistons team right around the second half of the season.

Starting at center for 42 out of 43 games, Webber averaged 11.3 points, 6.7 rebounds, and 3 assists during the regular season for the Pistons. The Pistons, the number one seed, advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals to face the Cleveland Cavaliers, who eventually prevailed in six games due to the outstanding play of LeBron James. Webber contributed 9.9 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 1.5 assists during the playoffs.

Webber, at the time of his signing by the Pistons, seemed like an ideal fit for the team. He had the ability to play solid defense and hit mid-range jump shots. He was also still one of the best passing big men of all-time. He played well at times and gave the Pistons another talented frontcourt player.

But with his recent decision to join the Warriors, an up-tempo team that always looks to run and push the ball, Webber’s contributions may be limited.

Webber turns 35 in March, and his most athletic years are behind him. In his recent stints with the 76ers and the Pistons, Webber played in slow-tempo offenses. Only time will tell how well he can adjust to Don Nelson’s style with the Warriors.

In most cases, when athletes get older, they usually start to break down and are not able to do the same things they could do when they were younger. Webber has lost some of his athleticism, which is something that the Warriors thrive on.

The top eight players on the Warriors, in no particular order, are as follows: Baron Davis, Monta Ellis, Stephen Jackson, Al Harrington, Andris Biedrins, Kelenna Azubuike, Matt Barnes, and Mickael Pietrus. Each of these eight can play a large amount of minutes if needed, and with the exception of Biedrins, all of them are interchangeable at different positions. They can all run the floor and are excellent in an up-tempo game. Webber’s addition will take away minutes from some of these eight players, which could possibly alter how the Warriors play when he is in the game.

Obviously, though, Don Nelson and the Warriors’ front office are simply making a move that they feel is right for the team. They think that a talented player like Webber can help push them over the top. Usually, though, teams do not bring an inactive player into their organization in the middle of the season, especially when they are already doing so well.

While Webber’s return may not seem like such a big deal, the same can not be said for the last few years of Roger Clemens’s career. Choosing to retire in 2003 after playing with the New York Yankees for several seasons, Clemens instead decided to play for the Houston Astros in his native state of Texas. The Astros paid Clemens enormous amounts of money, and he rewarded them by putting up excellent numbers in 2004 (18-4, 2.98 ERA, 218 Ks, Cy Young winner) and 2005 (13-8, 1.87 ERA, 185 Ks).

Led by timely hitting and the excellent pitching of Clemens, Roy Oswalt, and Brad Lidge, the Astros reached their first World Series. Unfortunately for Clemens and the team, the Chicago White Sox swept the series.

After the season Clemens again said that he would retire and that he was done pitching in the MLB. Not many people were surprised when they found out that Clemens was interested in returning in the middle of the 2006 season.

Because the Astros had declined arbitration on Clemens, he could not be signed until May. After either deciding which team he would rather play with or wrestling with the idea of actually retiring, Clemens came back to the Astros in June and stayed for the rest of the season. Clemens, as usual, posted a solid 2.30 ERA, but the team won only seven of his 19 starts. The Astros finished 82-80 in 2006 and missed the postseason.

Shockingly enough, Clemens retired again -- but not really. Amid another dose of annual speculation that he would return to the league, he eventually did. At a Yankees game on May 6, Clemens, then 44 years old, announced to the Yankees’ home crowd that he would be coming back to play in New York.

What Clemens did not tell the fans that day was that the Yankees would be paying him around $18.5 million dollars for the rest of the 2007 season -- almost $4.5 million per month and over one million per start.

ESPN and other sports channels found themselves unable to stop talking about Clemens’s return to New York. They repeatedly pondered how well he would perform, and they speculated just how great the team would be with him. They even televised his first start back in the minor leagues with the Class-A Tampa Yankees, and they broke down his performances against minor league hitters. John Kruk could hardly contain his excitement.

Unfortunately for the Yankees, Clemens finally hit a bump in the road and did not pitch that well when he returned to the majors. He compiled a 4.18 ERA, but he finished 6-6 and the Yankees won just six of his 17 starts. For the whole circus he caused, his performance did not live up to the hype or the huge salary.

When bringing in an extremely talented player in the middle of the season or after retirement, teams need to make sure the move actually makes sense. Chris Webber’s return to Golden State does not make sense on the surface, especially since his various skills, besides his passing, do not seem like they will mesh well with the other players on the floor. But they could -- no one saw Don Nelson leading his eight-seeded Warriors over the Mavericks last year in the first round.

Similarly, many baseball analysts figured that Clemens’s return to New York would help push the Yankees over the top. It did not, and they lost in the first round to the Cleveland Indians.

Sometimes teams should think a little bit more instead of just trying to make a bold move. Sure, these are just two examples of many in sports over the years, especially since athletes in many sports often can not cope with leaving the competition and glory behind.

But in the end, unless Michael Jordan is coming back from retirement wearing number 45, who knows exactly what a team is going to get?

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