Month: September 2013

How to Reach A Bad Conclusion: Omit Relevant Facts

RG3

Writing for Yahoo! Finance, Tony Manfred proclaimed that the 2012 trade of Robert Griffin III has been bad for both Washington and St. Louis. It’s not like there’s no evidence to support this theory — and Manfred cites some good ones:

  • both teams have bad records
  • the Rams need a better QB, and
  • Washington has needs at multiple positions that could have been filled with draft picks.

The problem with Manfred’s analysis is that he left out some relevant details. First, the draft is not the only mechanism for NFL teams to acquire talent. And second, Washington was handicapped in its efforts to fill holes at other positions by a preposterous, unfair, and in all ways ridiculous $36 million salary cap penalty.

And let’s keep in mind that the salary cap penalty was announced on the eve of free agency — after Washington made the trade for Griffin. Had the penalty been assessed earlier in the off-season, the team’s draft strategy may well have been different.

Just theorizing here, but if Mike Shanahan and Bruce Allen had that $36 million in cap space, they likely would have spent on it some of those problem areas like offensive line, cornerback and safety. You know, instead of bargain shopping for the likes of Will Montgomery, Tyler Polumbus, Brandon Meriweather and Reed Doughty.

It’s improbable to think they really thought that a sixth round pick (Baccari Rambo) would make for a competent starter. There’s just no way they’d be using a four-cornerback, one safety alignment if they had that cap space available.

All that said, Manfred may be correct when it comes to the Rams. I pay little attention to the team. That said, their reasoning in trading Griffin was clearly that they thought Sam Bradford would become a franchise quarterback.  That’s turned out to be an error.

From Washington’s side, I wouldn’t quibble too much if someone wanted to argue the team paid too high a price for Griffin — the price was steep. But for that argument to have merit, all the relevant facts need to be included.

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What Else Would They Be?

Eric Maynor is supposed to be an upgrade at backup PG. Unfortunately, he's not.

Mike Lee offered up this piece about Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld, Coach Randy Wittman optimistic about upcoming season. Leaving aside the “well, of course, what else would they be?” factor, there were some tidbits that are worth a little scrutiny.

Grunfeld on expectations for upcoming season: ”We’re excited about the upcoming season. We finished last year off strong. Obviously, our young players have worked hard in the offseason. They’ve shown improvement and we want to build on what we started to establish last year. Obviously, our initial goal is to be a playoff contender and ultimately, by the end of the year, make the playoffs.

Standard GM babble that doesn’t mean much of anything. The first sentence that catches my eye is that one about young players working hard in the offseason. This is a story being repeated right now in every NBA city by owners, executives, coaches, players, journalists, pundits and fans alike. It sounds and feels good, but if every team’s young players are working hard and getting better…how much advantage does one team get over another?

In reality, a large number of those stories are chicken manure. Some guys worked hard; others didn’t. Some guys used their time well and improved their games; others didn’t.

And there’s yet another thing to consider — let’s say for the sake of discussion that Kevin Seraphin, Jan Vesely and Chris Singleton all put in a ton of work this offseason and really, truly, genuinely got better. How much will it make a difference? These guys were among the league’s least productive players last season. They’re each coming from such a low level that they could make major improvements and still be bad.

Wittman on his expectations for Kevin Seraphin: “I have high expectations for all of our guys coming in. Do I have expectations for Kevin to have a better year than he did last year? Yes. … Kevin…his confidence level now, and how he holds himself now, being here pretty much all summer working on his game to make that next step. Yeah, I expect that from our young guys to continue that growth. I think we saw it with Jan. Jan had a good summer, whether it was just with us in the summer league or what he did, playing with his national team. You know, those are positive things and you hope that now they can carry that over into the season.”

The team is still prepping for training camp so they’re still peddling optimism. You’re not going to hear a coach saying something like, “Seraphin was really bad last season and we’ll have to see if he’s improved before we’ll count on him as a part of the rotation.”

It would surely be nice if Seraphin could somehow regain the form he showed at the end of the season before last. That guy was at least a competent NBA player. Last season, he was awful — the league’s least productive center, according to my analysis. Seraphin is a weird bundle of contradictions. He has a massive, muscle-bound frame (he says he currently weighs 277 and has a body fat percentage 0f 9.5%), but he rebounds like a small forward. He has a smooth looking post-up game, but those smooth-looking shots miss more often than they hit. And he’s a turnover machine.

Confidence is wonderful, but it needs to come with competence. After his terrible play last season, I’m skeptical about whether he’ll ever be a useful NBA player. By all means give him a chance in training camp to show he’s improved. But I wouldn’t count on him as part of the rotation.

Grunfeld on meeting offseason goals: “I think we had some goals of what we wanted to accomplish. We wanted to upgrade our backup point guard position and Eric [Maynor] has been with us now, three weeks in a row. He’s very solid, very steady. He brings a little poise to the game. He knows how to play. So we feel we’ve upgraded that position. We wanted to get a stretch four and Al [Harrington] will provide that for us. And we also wanted to make sure our young players continue to develop. Our young players, like Seraphin and Vesely, as Randy just spoke about, and Bradley Beal. I think one of the things that Brad also did was improve his ball handling, and try to play better in the pick and roll. He worked on his body and is outstanding shape. As all of our young players are. So, we wanted to see improvement from within and we wanted also address some of the positional needs that we felt like we had and I think we have. And I feel like the continuity of having 11 players back from last year’s roster will also help us.”

Here, Grunfeld is making the same assertion I’ve been seeing all summer — the Wizards have upgraded at backup PG by signing Eric Maynor. Maybe Grunfeld and “everyone” will turn out to be correct, but I don’t think so. My analysis reveals Maynor as unproductive throughout his career — both before and after his knee injury.

Last season, A.J. Price was better. Per 36 minutes, Maynor generated exactly one assist more than Price. But, Price shot better from the floor and the free throw line, got nearly twice as many rebounds, and had 1.2 fewer turnovers per 36 minutes.

For what (in my analysis) is actually a DOWNgrade at backup PG, the Wizards spent their biannual exception. On the first of day of free agency. Which meant that they didn’t have the BAE to spend later when they could have signed other reserve PGs who would have been upgrades over Price, or when they could have signed a reserve big man like DeJuan Blair. But, hey, who needs depth in the frontcourt when you have Seraphin and Jan Vesely?

Wittman on maintaining continuity: “We’re going, as a coaching staff, the last two or three weeks, evaluating how we want to conduct camp, and it’s so much easier when you’ve got … 11 that understand why we’re doing things, how we’re going to do things. That makes it a lot easier in my mind, in terms of evaluating how much you throw at them and how they handle it and all that. So that’s a positive. We established ourselves from a standpoint defensively, and that’s not going to change. That’s got to be first and foremost as we head into camp, that foundation that we built and that they built. They bought into this system and that system won’t change. They know what that system is already compared to last year with as many new faces as we had, that you had to teach that new system. That’s always a positive.”

The team has been selling “continuity” as part of its plan since they made the trade to get Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza. As I’ve written in other places, I think they have the “let’s keep everyone together” part too early in their plan. Continuity is outcome, not a goal. When a team starts winning, it makes sense to keep it together. When a team loses, it’s nuts to say, “We’ll start winning if we keep these guys together.”

No, teams are bad because the players are unproductive. The GM of a bad team shouldn’t be thinking about continuity, he should be thinking about how he get rid of dead weight on his roster and bringing in better players.

Then of course there’s consideration given to what the team’s goals are. In this case, their goal is to compete for a playoff spot. When you’re 178 games under .500 over the past decade (by some weird coincidence, the number of years Grunfeld has been at the helm), I guess that qualifies as a stretch goal. And, they have a realistic goal of achieving it, especially if Okafor’s neck heals. Still, it might have been wise to get another big man (not a SF masquerading as a PF like Al Harrington) in case something happened to one of the team’s 30+ year old bigs.

Speaking of Harrington — while it made Wall (and some fans) happy to sign an officially designated “stretch four” (a power forward who shoots jump shots and doesn’t rebound much), Harrington’s biggest contribution will be to keep Vesely, Singleton and (possibly) Seraphin off the floor. Each of that group landed among the league’s 15 least productive players last season, and it’ll be a net gain if some combination of Harrington and Trevor Booker can consume some of the 3,246 minutes they played last season.

Think about that a sec. Three of the 15 least productive players in the game last season were on the floor for 16.3% of the team’s minutes. Wow.

So, Harrington can help just by playing reasonably competent basketball (which he’s done in the past) and keeping those three on the bench. That said, I continue to think that the team’s best stretch four is Trevor Ariza — a tough-as-nails competitor who can shoot the three.

The Opening Line Problem

catcher-in-the-rye-opening-line

I’m working on the final revision to my mystery novel, which will be available for purchase in about a month. This is supposed to more of a proofread — just double-checking for typos, misspellings, wrong words, etc. But as I keep reading, there’s a thought nagging at me: the story is starting in the wrong place.

Back story: Many revisions ago, I kidnapped a chapter from the middle and lashed it to the front of the book. Chapter 1. Why? I loved the opening line it gave me:

As best I can remember it was the first time I’d awakened naked and face down in a pool of my own blood.

See what I mean?

Chapter 1 then became about the protagonist extracting himself from a no-tell motel — an event that actually happened in the middle of the story’s timeline. Chapter 2 leaps back a few weeks to the “beginning.” From there the story is told chronologically.

This is a fairly common dramatic technique, and it worked for me as I wrote the book. But now? I’m thinking it might be better pluck what’s now Chapter 1 and replant it in its original home — Chapter 13. That means I have to write a new opening.

Which isn’t really that big of a problem. It just wasn’t what I expected to be doing at this point.

The real challenge, of course, will be crafting a new opening line. And, I admit I’m more than a little nutty about opening lines. I often wander bookstores reading opening lines to see what grabs me. I’ve read dozens (maybe hundreds) of books out of my normal reading genres based strictly on a killer opening.

Some of my favorites:

  • Call me Ishmael. — Herman Melville, Moby-Dick
  • The office of the university president looked like the front parlor of a successful Victorian whorehouse. — Robert B. Parker, The Godwulf Manuscript
  • Maman died today. Or maybe yesterday; I can’t be sure. — Albert Camus, The Stranger
  • When the car stopped rolling, Parker kicked out the windshield and crawled through the wrinkled hood, Glock first. — Richard Start (Donald Westlake), Backflash
  • All this happened, more or less. — Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five
  • You better not never tell nobody but God. — Alice Walker, The Color Purple
  • He was awake a long time before he remembered that his heart was broken. — Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls
  • I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice — not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God. — John Irving, A Prayer for Owen Meaney
  • It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. — George Orwell, 1984
  • I am an invisible man. — Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
  • If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. — J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye
  • I was arrested in Eno’s Diner. — Lee Child, The Killing Floor
  • I sat across the table from the man who had battered and tortured and brutalized me nearly thirty years ago. — Lorenzo Carcaterra, Sleepers
  • It was a diamond all right, shining in the grass half a dozen feet from the blue brick wall. — Dashiell Hammett, The Dain Curse
  • When the phone rang, Parker was in the garage, killing a man. — Richard Stark (Donald Westlake), Firebreak

That’s enough for now.

Writing Lessons from Kennedy Center’s Page-to-Stage Festival

Image

On Monday, the Kennedy Center dropped curtain on its 12th Annual Page-to-Stage festival — a weekend of script readings and open rehearsals of plays and musicals being developed by DC-area theater companies. I’ve been going for awhile now, and I watched all of two live reads and part of another this weekend.

The two I watched in full — Ella Fitzgerald: First Lady of Song and The Music of Nina Simone — have great potential as the individuals involved in those productions continue to raise money and do the work necessary to bring them to the stage. The “partial watch” play — Civilizing Lusby — has a good premise (and therefore good potential), but didn’t hold my attention.

For a writer, live reads are useful because they put the spotlight on the written word. There’s no staging or pyrotechnics or spectacle to distract from what the writer has put to paper. That’s slightly less true in musicals, such as the two diva plays, because there’s singing (and the singing was fantastic), but most of the audience’s experience is in hearing actors speak words and in hearing a narrator read scene descriptions.

Here are some writing lessons I took from the weekend:

  1. Thou shalt avoid exposition. Don’t write anything “so the audience will understand.” A couple years ago, I saw a Page-to-Stage read of a play about Lincoln. There were lines like, “Hello Mary, my dear wife of 19 years…” In the Ella production, there were multiple lines of dialogue that had characters saying they were backstage at X venue or saying what year it was or talking about another character using first and last name. The trouble with these lines is that a) they’re boring; and b) the delivery ends up being stilted because they’re not words actual humans would speak. Work necessary exposition into the story as ammunition for conflicts.
  2. Thou shalt get to the point. In Civilizing Lusby, the first 10 pages or so were devoted to a family dispute about a rambunctious teen aged girl who smiled at too many men for her mother’s comfort. Yawn. There was a little tidbit thrown in about the father needing some banker’s son on his side for something, which I assume they got to later on because I left at that point. According to the description in the program, the play was about a Chesapeake waterman taking his revenge after a couple businessmen have his shack condemned so they could build a railroad. The high-spirited daughter flirting with every man she meets was worth a couple minutes — not the first 10.
  3. Thou shalt present characters, not characterization. Civilizing Lusby did this best. The wild girl, the disapproving mother, the adoring father trying to be stern for the sake of his wife but not quite making it — these felt like real people. The Nina Simone show did a reasonable job as well, presenting a first-person “as told by” story that gave her take on her story. The Ella Fitzgerald show — not so much. They characterized her by talking about the pictures on her dressing room wall, having her fire her cousin/assistant, and having her say “shit” now and then. But, the non-linear presentation left the feeling that Ella mainly had stuff happen to her — NOT that she was an active and aggressive force in achieving personal goals. Which leads me to…
  4. Thou shalt give your protagonist clear goals. The contrast between the Nina Simone and Ella scripts couldn’t be more evident on this one. At any point, the director could have called a stop and asked the audience what Simone wanted. The answers would have flowed — to be the first black classical pianist, to get into Curtis, to find love, to avoid the IRS, to come to peace with her father, to contribute to the Civil Rights Movement…and so on. Simone had a series of goals that shifted as she moved through her life — many of which she failed to achieve. But, the point here is that the audience always knew what they were. Not so, in Ella’s story where she never seemed to want anything except to “sing pretty for the people.” They presented major events in her life, of course, but Ella seemed almost a bystander to them, not the cause of those events. While that can happen “in real life,” it a) makes for bad drama, and b) is unlikely for someone who accomplished as much as she did in life.

Those are the lessons I got from Page-to-Stage this year — avoid exposition, get to the point, create characters NOT characterization, and give your characters clear goals.