Saturday, December 27, 2014

New York Tri-State Area Sports: Dysfunction Junction

Here are the 9 major league sports teams of the New York Tri-State Area, ranked in ascending order of current dysfunction:

9. New York Giants.

The Good: Of all 9 franchises, since getting their house in order in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Giants have given off the greatest continuous aura of competence. Even when they've been bad, as they are now, an objective observer would tend to believe that the system is in place where they could get better. Co-owners John Mara and Steve Tisch are sound men, and not meddlers. General manager Jerry Reese usually knows what he's doing. Head coach Tom Coughlin is said to be about to be fired, but if he does stay another season, it wouldn't be a terrible thing.

Eli Manning has had a bad season, but he's still a competent quarterback. Odell Beckham Jr. gives the team hope. And the defense, when healthy, is as good as any in the NFL. The stadium situation is settled for at least the next 50 years, so there's no danger of the Giants moving.

The Bad: Eli may well be in decline. The running game is not good. The defense has serious injury issues. Coughlin seems like an old man whom the game has passed by.

Dysfunction Level: 4. Once a new head coach is hired, this will drop to a 3 or even a 2. The Giants need work, but they probably need less work than any of the other local teams. If that scares you, you might want to stop reading.

8. New York Islanders.

The Good: For the first time in ages, the Isles not only are playing well, but look from the top down like they know what they're doing. They seem to have sound management in place in owner Charles Wang, GM Garth Snow and head coach Jack Capuano. They have good young players that the fans believe in, led by captain John Tavares. They've got a little Playoff experience.

The arena situation is settled for at least the next 50 years: After they leave the Nassau Coliseum in the spring, they move into the Barclays Center in Brooklyn in the fall. After being on the verge of going somewhere for a few years, it's now clear that the Isles are staying on Long Island (geologically if not culturally).

The Bad: They haven't proven anything yet, not even over half a season; said Playoff experience is minimal. This is a team that, since the players from their early 1980s dynasty got old in the late 1980s, has never enjoyed prosperity for long, so their current good form could well be a mirage. Nor have Capuano or Snow proven anything in the long term. And they still play in the inadequate Coliseum until April (or maybe May).

Dysfunction Level: 5.

7. New York Rangers.

The Good: Alain Vigneault is a good head coach, and GM Glen Sather hasn't made too many missteps the last few seasons. They have genuine superstars in Martin St. Louis, Rick Nash and Henrik Lundqvist. They're battle-tested, having gotten to a Stanley Cup Finals and an additional Eastern Conference Finals in the preceding 3 seasons. Aside from St. Louis (who's 39 years old) and Dan Boyle (38), they're a fairly young team. Despite all the Devils achieved from 1995 to 2012, right now, they'd love to have the Rangers' problems, if the Rangers' strengths came with them.

The Bad: Charles Dolan is still letting his son James be the operating owner. Lundqvist is still a choker when it counts, and only an idiot would call him a "king." The whole team showed a lack of heart in losing to the Devils in the 2012 Conference Finals and folding in overtime to the Los Angeles Kings in the 2014 Stanley Cup Finals. For all the talent that the Rangers have had since the 1994 Stanley Cup, in 20 years they have proven very little: The only banners they've hung in that stretch are a Division title in 2012 and the Conference title from last season.

And, alone among the 6 venues that will be in use in the Tri-State Area starting in October 2015, the arena situation is up in the air for the Rangers and Knicks: The current Madison Square Garden's lease is up in 2023, and the City government wants a new Penn Station on the site of the Farley Post Office (across 8th Avenue from the current Garden and Station) very, very, very, very badly. And, having just spent more money to "transform" The Garden than (even with inflation factored in) it took to build the thing from scratch in the 1960s, even though they can afford to start all over again, the Dolans are not keen on having to do so -- which they might have to do within the next couple of years, given how long it generally takes to get sports buildings erected around here.

(I'm still surprised that the new Yankee Stadium, Citi Field and MetLife Stadium opened on time. The Barclays Center sure didn't. The Devils had to spend the first month of the 2007-08 season on the road because the Prudential Center wasn't going to be ready in time. Nor did Ebbets Field or Shea Stadium open when they should have, and there were still a few wrinkles to work out on Opening Day of the renovated old Yankee Stadium in 1976.)

Still, even with the Garden question unsettled, the Rangers are better off than most teams in the Area. Dysfunction Level: 5. If we knew what was going to happen with The Garden, this would be no more than a 3.

6. Brooklyn Nets.

The Good: By Net standards, mediocre (13-15 after yesterday's win over the Celtics in Boston) is good. The ownership situation appears to be settled: Mikhail Prokhorov (who owns 80 percent) and Bruce Ratner (who owns the other 20 percent) can afford to keep a New York sports team running. The arena situation is settled for the next 50 years.

The NBA's Eastern Conference is weak: If the current standings hold until the end of the season, the Nets will have the 8th seed in the Playoffs in spite of their sub-.500 record. If that remains the case, they would face the top seed, currently the Toronto Raptors, who scare no one, so the Nets could actually advance in the Playoffs. Indeed, right now, the Nets stand a better chance of making the Playoffs in 2015 (counting the next Giants and Jets season as "2015" even though the Playoffs will be in 2016) than any Tri-State Area team other than the Rangers and Islanders, and stand a better chance of winning a Playoff round than any Tri-State Area team other than the Rangers.

The Bad: By the standards Prokhorov set when he bought the team, mediocre is unacceptable, especially since this is now his 5th year as majority owner. (I know: Using the term "five-year plan" in connection with a Russian is risky -- but then, Josef Stalin was Georgian, not Russian.) With the way the Russian economy is going, the possibility of Prokhorov going under can't be simply brushed off. Billy King is the general manager, and he didn't do much in the same job with the Philadelphia 76ers. Lionel Hollins was a very good player in his time, but he hasn't shown much as a head coach in the NBA.

The Nets are old: Of the 15 men on the roster, 5 are at least 30, and only 6 are under 25. The current best player, Deron Williams, is already 30, and I suspect he won't have much left by the time he's 35. Leadership is an issue: The closest thing the team has to a veteran with significant presence is Kevin Garnett, and at 38, how much playing future does he have left? If the Nets don't bring in some new people between now and the trading deadline, and then in the 2015 off-season (including drafting well), any good done with a nice Playoff run might vanish quickly.

Dysfunction Level: 5 -- and if you grade the Nets on a curve, relative to their history, that could be as low as a 3.

5. New York Yankees.

The Good: Management is stable: Hank Steinbrenner is operating owner, Brian Cashman is general manager, Joe Girardi is field manager; all have things to prove, but all have proven things before. A major weakness in coaching, hitting instructor Kevin Long, has been removed. Injuries are healing. Dellin Betances looks ready to step in as closer in place of David Robertson. The stadium situation is settled for at least the next 50 years.

The Bad: Veteran leadership is an issue in the wake of the retirement of Derek Jeter this year, and of Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte the year before. Injuries are still an issue for stars like Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, Carlos Beltran and CC Sabathia. It's impossible to know for sure if Betances is ready for the closer role until he's had a few outings in it. The rotation currently consists of 4 guys who would be very good if healthy but are currently injury-induced question marks (CC, Masahiro Tanaka, Michael Pineda and Ivan Nova), and a new acquisition who isn't exactly proven (Nathan Eovaldi, and the Yankees have been burned by former Miami Marlins pitchers before).

The cloud of A-Rod's PED use still hangs over the team. On a (more or less) separate note: Even though he is eligible to play for them again starting on Opening Day, he's 39 (he'll turn 40 in July), and he's essentially been sidelined for a year and a half; nobody can seriously expect him to both be healthy and produce like the A-Rod of 2009, or even that of 2012.

The American League East is as balanced as it's been since the late 1980s; there is no creampuff team in the Division. And just because Hank, Cash and Joe are in charge doesn't mean all of them should be.

Dysfunction Level: 6. If the injuries clear up, and everybody plays the way they were expected to, this could drop to a 2 -- through September, and October would be likely. But in October, with the history that some of these guys have, it would go back up to a 4.

4. New Jersey Devils.

The Good: Never count out GM Lou Lamoriello. No matter how bad it gets on the ice or on the bench, Devils fans will always have faith that "Lou's working on it." There's some good young talent, including both goalies, Cory Schneider and Keith Kinkaid. (Hard to believe, but replacing the great Martin Brodeur turned out not to be a major issue.)

The ownership and finance issues, which for the 2nd time in 19 years raised the possibility (even with the Prudential Center) of the NHL allowing the Devils to be moved out of the Tri-State Area, have been put to rest. The arena situation is settled for the next 50 years; while we don't know how far the team is going, as far as the Playoffs are concerned (if at all), the franchise isn't going anywhere.

The Bad: The team is owned by Apollo Global Management, an investment firm, with Joshua Harris as operating owner. Through him, AGM also owns the 76ers. The Sixers lost their 1st 18 games this season and are currently 4-24 -- though that does mean that they're a reasonable 4-6 since that horrible start. So, as bad as the Devils are, they're not the worst team their owners own. But how discouraging is it that the Sixers' owners also own the Devils?

The coaching situation just went from bad to huh? Firing Peter DeBoer was a necessity, but replacing him with Adam Oates and Scott Stevens? With Lou himself also being on the bench? You can't replace somebody with nobody, but, essentially, Lou replaced a nobody with 3 somebodies who might not add up to 1 somebody.

Overall, the team is among the oldest in the 4 major North American sports leagues. (Counting MLB's 2 "leagues" as 1.) Having the aging, oft-injured, uninspiring Bryce Salvador as captain is awful. The defense needs serious work, although having Stevens, a man you cross at your own peril, handling it is a plus. And the team needs more goals, and having Oates, one of the great assist machines in NHL history, on the staff can only help so much.

Dysfunction Level: Dropped from a 7 to a 6 yesterday. Much depends on how the coaching triad works out. Depending on who the Jets hire, the Devils currently stand as the Tri-State Area's biggest sports question mark.

3. New York Mets.

The Good: Rebuilding is underway. Sandy Alderson has a sound baseball mind. Terry Collins is not a terrible manager. The Mets have David Wright who, in the wake of Jeter's retirement and A-Rod's suspension, is now, beyond any question, the biggest baseball star in New York. (This is the first time the Mets have had that since Tom Seaver's 1983 comeback; even at the Mets' peak, Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry were not bigger than Don Mattingly.) The one major injury, to starting pitcher Matt Harvey, is healing, and he should be ready to go for Opening Day.

The rotation, while not having anyone spectacular (not even Harvey), is solid, so the Mets should, at least, be in most of their games: Barring a disastrous injury patch, they are not likely to be 90-or-more-games losers. The stadium situation is settled for at least the next 50 years.

The Bad: As usual, if the Mets had the Yankees' problems, and no worse, they'd be a lot better off. Fred Wilpon is still letting son Jeff be the operating owner, and the Wilpons make the Dolans look brilliant by comparison. The team's finances are still in disarray: The chances of signing, say, Justin Verlander or Mike Trout when their contracts run out are remote at best. Collins has never been an especially good manager.

Aside from Wright, the team doesn't hit enough: Too many players are in the Dave Kingman mold of hitting the ball far when they connect, but striking out enough to still be a liability. And Wright has nearly always disappeared in the clutch -- not that the Mets have had very many big games since September 2008. The National League East is likely to be tough again.

Dysfunction Level: 8.

2. New York Knicks.

The Good: Phil Jackson is (supposedly) in charge. Derek Fisher had no coaching experience coming into this season, but is universally respected for what he did, and how he conducted himself, as a player. Carmelo Anthony is still capable of being one of the most exciting players in the game.

The Bad: At this writing, the Knicks are 5-26; only the 76ers (by 1 game) have a worse record. Fisher looks in over his head. Speaking of over his head, guess who's hanging there? It may not be what Jackson intends, but it sure looks to an observer as if Jackson is the general, telling the regimental commander (Fisher), "You launch the first wave of the attack, and take the brutal losses that will lull the enemy into a false sense of security. And if you die in their counterattack, well, that's just too bad. I'll tell your wife you died a hero... and then seduce her out of her grief with my charm, my general's salary, and my 13 winning wars." (Two as a player, 11 as a head coach.) No matter what happens this season, people will blame the players, Fisher, Dolan, previous head coach Mike Woodson, actual GM Steve Mills, previous GM Glen Grunwald, the inventor of the salary cap, maybe even still find a way to hang this on Isiah Thomas... anybody but The Zen Master.

'Melo is a selfish player, not a team guy. Aside from him, the biggest names on the Knick roster are Stoudamire (Amar'e, not Tim), Tim Hardaway (Jr., not Sr.) and J.R. Smith (not that one). Like I said, the biggest names, not the best players. Seriously: Aside from Carmelo, is there any player on the Knick roster likely to make an opponent say, "Aw no, I don't wanna play against him"?

Also, James Dolan is the operating owner. Since he got that role, 14 years ago, the Knicks have won exactly one Playoff series. And then, of course, there's the question of where the Knicks are going to play when The Garden's current lease runs out. Can you imagine the Knicks playing a home game anyplace not named Madison Square Garden? Can you imagine the Knicks playing at the Barclays Center? I think the Nets would have something to say about that, something along the lines of, "Oh, hell to the no!" Can you imagine the Knicks playing in the Prudential Center, or at an oh-so-slightly refurbished Meadowlands Arena -- the New York Knickerbockers in New Jersey? If the Dolans and The City don't come to some sort of agreement soon, it may come to that.

Dysfunction Level: 9 -- and it hasn't been lower than an 8 since Jeff Van Gundy was still the head coach, nor is it likely to be in the near future.

1. New York Jets.

The Good: Um, don't help me, don't help me... Owner Woody Johnson does appear to be about to fix the team's 2 most visible issues: Firing GM John Idzik and head coach Rex Ryan. (There's a rumor going around that Rex has already cleaned out his desk.) If both firings happen, Jet fans will be overjoyed, and will probably give both new hires, whoever they turn out to be, a pass on whatever goes wrong next season, chalking it up to rebuilding and the damage left behind by the previous regime. And... uh... well, the stadium situation is settled for at least the next 50 years.

The Bad: Just about everything else, at least until Idzik and Ryan are replaced. The Rexperiment, which was so close to ultimate success just 4 years ago, has utterly and spectacularly failed, as the Chris Christie of Coaches never figured out that bluster is no substitute for leadership, and swagger is no substitute for competence.

And speaking of competence, there was a video on the team website which suggested that Idzik was out. It's been taken down, but the damage is done: No matter what Idzik has done (and it certainly wasn't done with intention of malice), he deserved better than that. This is the kind of horseshit thing that has marked the Jets as a joke franchise through most of their 55-season history, in the AFL and the NFL, in the Polo Grounds, Flushing Meadow and the Meadowlands.

The offense is a shambles: It turned out that Mark Sanchez wasn't the problem after all. The defense, so often the Jets' hallmark when they're good (as it usually is for the Giants as well), and supposedly Rex's specialty, has become awful. The roster needs just about a complete overhaul. No matter who gets hired as HC & GM, it would be a shock if the Jets got back to .500 in 2015. It will probably take 3 full drafts & free-agent seasons to make them a contender again. So, judge the new hires in December 2017. (Yeah, I know, it seems a long way off. I'm old enough to remember when 1990 seemed like "the future.")

Dysfunction Level: 9.8. The only thing stopping the Jets from being a perfect imperfection of 10 is the belief that Woody isn't going to stick with Idzik and Ryan. If he does, well, in the immortal words of Christopher Guest, "These go to 11."

So, to recap:

9. Giants: 4
8. Islanders: 5
7. Rangers: 5
6. Nets: 5
5. Yankees: 6
4. Devils: 6
3. Mets: 8
2. Knicks: 9
1. Jets: 9.8

Understand this: I take no pleasure in the Jets being so dysfunctional. Besides, if you're a Jet fan... Tell me that you disagree. Go ahead. Give me your reasons.

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