Life after Never: The 2017 Chicago Cubs

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It had been over a century since the Chicago Cubs last won the World Series, and their last National League Pennant came just six months after the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt. While the 2016 Cubs winning the World Series should not have been a shock to baseball fans–they were loaded with young talent and good veteran starting pitching, their roster was built by Theo Epstein, and they were in the NLCS the year before–they shocked the world because of the lovable loser legacy of their jersey and their ballpark. If you thought nothing in the world could top 2016 for the Cubs and your fans, you would not be wrong, but their 2017 season has been underwhelming to this point, even without the context of history, fate, and destiny.

The Cubs currently hold a record of 43-43, four and a half games behind the surprisingly good Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Central. They struggled early on, and they could very well go on a run, take back the division, and finish 2017 right where they were the last two seasons. But they are not the juggernaut they were before. They are not the only expected good team that has underperformed in the first half–the San Francisco Giants currently hold the second worst record in Major League Baseball–but the Giants were not expected to be right there with the Los Angeles Dodgers and Washington Nationals (or perhaps better than both) the way the Cubs were–and the Giants have three World Series titles in the bank for this decade after not winning any in their first 50 years in San Francisco. 

As the Cubs’ struggles are going on–from Jake Arrieta’s drop in velocity, to Kyle Schwarber getting sent down to the AAA Iowa Cubs, to Miguel Montero getting traded to the Toronto Blue Jays for publicly criticizing Arrieta–I know the baseball operations people are still working long days trying to put out the best possible product, but it seems like Cubs fans are still just happy to have 2016. On the field, the Cubs are proving that chemistry is overrated, that it’s a product of winning, not the other way around. Off the field, Cubs fans are experiencing a long-awaited championship hangover of their own.

In 2016, the Cubs had five position players (Anthony Rizzo, Ben Zobrist, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, and Dexter Fowler) and two starting pitchers (Arrieta and Jon Lester) elected to the National League All-Star team. In 2017, all those players except Fowler (who signed with the St. Louis Cardinals as a free agent) are still on the Cubs, but their only All-Star representative (prior to announcing replacement players) is new arrival closer Wade Davis. This would make the Cubs the first World Series champion to not have any players from their World Series team in the following All-Star Game. I defend Cubs fans by pointing out the fact that the last time they won the World Series was a quarter century before the first All-Star Game, and they might not know any better, but they had seven guys voted into the game last year, so they clearly know how it works.

The plight of the 2017 Cubs reminds my of the 2005 Boston Red Sox, but with significant differences. The 2005 Red Sox experienced a greater amount of roster turnover from the curse-breaking season before, as Theo had built that team more through free agency and trades than through the farm system like he would go on to in Chicago.

Pedro Martinez signed with the Mets. Derek Lowe signed with the Dodgers. Orlando Cabrera signed with the Angels. Pokey Reese signed with the Mariners, but never played in another Major League game. Dave Roberts was traded to the Padres. The 2005 Red Sox had a different look to them, with guys like David Wells, Matt Clement, Edgar Renteria, and Jay Payton taking their places. It wasn’t the same. Renteria struggled, and my uncle referred to him as “Rent-A-Wreck” that year. Payton was designated for assignment after publicly complaining about playing time (Trot Nixon was Boston’s everyday outfielder in those years, and with Manny Ramirez in left and Johnny Damon in center, the fourth outfielder mostly played when there was a lefty starter and Nixon was sitting). In spite of all that, the Red Sox still went 95-67 and made the playoffs as the American League Wild Card. They were swept in the ALDS by the eventual World Series champion Chicago White Sox. It was not a bad season by any stretch of the imagination, but after the emotional lows and highs of 2003 and 2004, it was dull.

As a Red Sox fan, I wondered if the 2005 Red Sox were all baseball ever could be after seeing 2004 happen. I did not have to live through most of the drought, and it still felt like a once in a lifetime thing at the time. My grandfather was born in 1925, died in 2000, was a Red Sox fan his whole life, and never got to see them win it all. I saw them win it twice while I was in high school. Nobody alive today remembers the 1908 Cubs. Most Cubs fans alive today did not even remember them in the World Series, and even then, it was before television and before the Major Leagues were integrated. Even the 1945 Pennant team was ancient history.

This is why I was actually pulling for the Cleveland Indians  in the World Series last year. Beyond my personal affection for Terry Francona, Mike Napoli, Francisco Lindor, and Andrew Miller, the plight of the Indians fan seemed more like the plight of the Red Sox fan before 2004. They had not won since 1948, and in my lifetime, transformed themselves from being Cubs-esque to being Red Sox-esque. The quintessential Cleveland sports movie is about a down on their luck Tribe team that improbably has a great season, but they don’t even get to the World Series in that movie! Major League came out in 1989, but then the Indians took the World Series to seven games in 1995, before falling to the Atlanta Braves, and again in 1997, before falling to the Florida Marlins. They lost the World Series again in seven games in 2016, and just like that, they are as far removed from their last title as the Red Sox were in 1986, when they lost the World Series in seven games for the fourth time since 1918.

I thought the Cubs needed to get close and feel the pain of losing in the World Series before actually winning it. I thought it was Cleveland’s turn. I thought it would be best for baseball to still have this incredibly long drought intact. But baseball is not pro wrestling, and the best storyline is not what always happens. While the Indians can add this to their legacy, and that will make it even sweeter if and when they do win it all, it’s the Cubs and their fans who have to figure out what comes next for them. For a century, their identity was losing, and their fans, like Red Sox fans, wore it as a badge of honor. It takes time to figure out life after that championship you never thought would happen, and even if the Cubs turn their season around, their new identity is still a work in progress.

Oklahoma City Takes a Chance on Paul George

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Three years ago, I wrote a “Now What?” column on the futures of the Oklahoma City Thunder and Indiana Pacers. In 2014, they were the teams that reached their respective Conference Finals, but were no match for the San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat, who went on to meet in the NBA Finals for the second straight year. Neither team has advanced farther than they did in 2014. While the Thunder remained competitive, they still lost Kevin Durant in free agency last summer. The steady decline of the Pacers led to Paul George informing the team that he intends to leave when he becomes a free agent next summer. With Oklahoma City’s looming threat of Russell Westbrook’s future, GM Sam Presti had to roll the dice. Three years removed from being the third and fourth best teams in the NBA, the Thunder and Pacers traded with each other to attempt to stay relevant, or at least not lose their assets for nothing.

The Pacers sent Paul George to the Thunder for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis. I have a hard time believing that was the best offer Indiana GM Kevin Pritchard could have gotten, but everyone knowing the Pacers were not going to be able to re-sign George left the team with their hands tied. I was surprised they did not get any draft picks in return, but George’s impending free agency significantly diminished his value. At least by trading him to Oklahoma City, he’s out of the Eastern Conference, and not making a team like the Boston Celtics better.

While George made it clear that his first choice when he becomes a free agent is the Los Angeles Lakers, a trade with the Lakers did not make the most sense for a couple of reasons. For one thing, the Lakers would not want to give up more than they have to for a player they can acquire for only money next summer. Free agent destination teams learned from the Carmelo Anthony trade to the New York Knicks in 2011. Melo wanted to go to the Knicks one way or another, but if he left the Denver Nuggets for the Knicks in the summer, he would not be able to make as much money. Instead, the Knicks gave up a bunch of assets to acquire Melo midseason, making the team Melo joined measurably worse when they could have gotten him without giving up anything.

The Lakers presumably also learned from their own trade to acquire Dwight Howard a year before he was to be a free agent in the summer of 2012. When he was with the Orlando Magic, Howard dreamed of being a Laker, leaving Orlando, getting paid, and mingling with celebrities like Shaquille O’Neal did a generation before him. The Magic, to their credit, got out ahead of it and traded Howard to the Lakers so the wouldn’t lose him for nothing, as they did with Shaq. But that disastrous season in Los Angeles showed Howard how dysfunctional the Lakers were, and how miserable he would be playing with Kobe Bryant, and how Lakers fans would have Kobe’s back over his. Howard signed with the Houston Rockets in the summer of 2013, and this time it was the Lakers losing a star player for nothing. One year on a rebuilding Lakers team might just be enough for Paul George to look elsewhere in 2018.

Oklahoma City is no prospective free agent’s dream destination, and Presti knows that. He built that roster initially through the draft, beginning when they were still in Seattle. What they do have is the NBA’s reigning MVP, who led them to 47 regular season wins in spite of Durant’s departure. If Presti wants and chance of keeping Westbrook in OKC, he needs to put a better team around him, and there is no time to do that through the draft. The Golden State Warriors are not going anywhere, and the semi-contenders in the Western Conference need to take bold chances if they want any chance of taking down that juggernaut. The Rockets and Los Angeles Clippers both rolled the dice with the Chris Paul trade earlier this week, and now the Thunder are raising the stakes even higher with the high-risk, high-reward deal for George. If all goes well, the Thunder could get handed the Larry O’Brien Trophy from Adam Silver. If the pieces do not fit, they could go the way of the 2012-13 Lakers, miss the playoffs, and lose George and Westbrook. This is it.

The Lakers will not be terrible forever(I’m assuming), the Minnesota Timberwolves are the young and building team that they Thunder were seven years ago, and LeBron James could leave Cleveland for a Western Conference team next summer. The Warriors have made gamblers of many teams, and even if nobody can catch them, their pursuit has certainly made their rivals more interesting.

Dolan and Jackson Deserved Each Other, Knicks Fans Deserve Better

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With the New York Knicks and team president Phil Jackson parting ways, it’s hard to argue that the arrangement they had wasn’t working. But these are the Knicks, and as bad as the current regime is, I cannot help but think the next executive James Dolan hires will be even worse. If there’s any reason for fans to hope it’s that Jackson did not manage to trade Kristaps Porzingis before his tenure ended.

When Jackson took over the Knicks in 2014, it seemed like a good idea on the very surface, but if you did any digging at all, it was incredibly baffling. Sure, fellow championship-winning Los Angeles Lakers coach Pat Riley made the transition from coach to executive with great success, but Jackson was 68 at the time, had never been a GM before, and was rooted in Los Angeles, engaged at the time to Lakers owner Jeanie Buss. From the Knicks’ perspective, yeah, the team had not won a championship since Jackson was still playing for them in 1973, and yeah, Jackson went on to win 11 titles as head coach of the Bulls and Lakers, but in an age when NBA GMs are constantly exploring new ways to make their teams better, through advanced metrics, sports science, and domestic and international scouting, they hired a 68 year old man with no front office experience who had been retired and was engaged to the owner of the Lakers. Only the Knicks could make hiring the Phil Jackson into a colossal mistake, but Jackson deserves just as much blame.

Jackson the executive proved to be even more arrogant than Jackson the coach. In an age when teams like the Warriors, Rockets, and Spurs are reinventing the game of basketball to great success, Jackson’s Knicks toiled in obscurity as Jackson stubbornly swore by the Triangle Offense, a system that peaked in popularity 20 years ago. While he won a lot of games with the Triangle over the years, I always thought it had more to do with the players on the court. Any system can be effective if you have Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen at one stop and Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal (and later Pau Gasol) at the other. Changes come slow–it took nearly 30 years of the three point line’s existence for NBA teams to realize its full potential–but Jackson was so set in his ways he failed to acknowledge what good basketball was. 

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Jackson’s love of the Triangle was hardly his only sin. He alienated Carmelo Anthony, and trashed him so publicly it killed Melo’s trade value, making it impossible to find a worthy trade where the player would also waive his no-trade clause. His tenure was not a complete failure. Taking Latvian superstar in the making Kristaps Porzingis with the #4 overall pick was a great selection, and Porzingis has a bright future in the NBA. But just last week, Jackson was openly complaining to the press about how Porzingis skipped his exit interview, and that he was open to trading him. Fortunately for Knicks fans, Dolan stepped in before Jackson could do something foolish. He had already done enough. As if alienating Melo wasn’t enough, he was already doing everything in his power to make Porzingis hate playing in New York. Jackson’s handling of the Knicks’ star players makes me wonder about his reputation for getting complicated stars to play together as a coach. Was he really the Zen Master, or were Jordan and Pippen really that good? Shaq and Kobe probably really did hate each other (that’s too big a feud to fabricate, right?), but maybe rather than manipulating them and getting them to work together, perhaps they bonded over their mutual feelings on how much of an arrogant moron Jackson was. I have no evidence to back that up, particularly the Shaq and Kobe stuff, but Jackson’s time as president of the Knicks makes me think about it. I thought he would be bad at running the Knicks, but not this bad.

The real losers are not Jackson (he made $12 million annually with New York) or Dolan (he’s a billionaire). The fans of the New York Knicks deserve a real basketball team, and I say that as a Celtics fan. They are great fans in both quality and quantity, their team has iconic uniforms and an iconic arena in a city where players should want to play. It takes a particularly amazing level of incompetence to not get it together with so much going for them. Hopefully they turn it around, but I have my doubts about it actually happening.

Jeremy Jacobs is an Insult to Hall of Famers

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I should be excited for Teemu Selanne, the Finnish Flash. I should be excited for Dave Andreychuk, who scored 640 goals and should have gotten in years ago. I should be excited for Paul Kariya, who is the first Hall of Famer from the University of Maine. I should be excited for Mark Recchi, who won three Stanley Cups with three different teams, and who was the old man mentor on my favorite hockey team ever. I should be excited for Danielle Goyette, because I have cousins named Goyette and maybe they’re related, however distantly. Instead, I’m just annoyed that Jeremy Jacobs is going into the Hockey Hall of Fame, in the “builder” category, along with them.

Jeremy Jacobs is the worst owner of any of the Boston teams. Of the four current ownership groups in town, he is now also the only one in a Hall of Fame. Bruins hockey has always been defined by being good, by being tough, but also by not winning as much as fans want or expect. Since buying the team in 1975, Jacobs made a name for himself pinching pennies and valuing fiscal responsibility over on-ice success.

To be fair, when the NHL got a salary cap, the Bruins spent to it, rebuilt in that system, and won the Stanley Cup in 2011 and reached another Final in 2013. But also to be fair, for decades before the cap, Jacobs under-spent, took Ray Bourque and Cam Neely to salary arbitration, and was the among the driving forces in the NHL’s board of governors who locked out the players three times–even cancelling the 2004-05 season–to demand a salary cap.

The rigidity of the NHL salary cap also ended up being the Bruins’ undoing, and mismanaging it is the reason the B’s went from a President’s Trophy winning team in 2014 to out of the playoff picture the next two years. Jacobs put the well being of his fellow millionaire and billionaire owners ahead of the devoted fan base that went to his games and watched his team on TV. A seven year run after the rules changed in the favor of the owners should not undo the thirty years of frustration that led up to that era.

I was just thinking about Jacobs and the frustration he put Bruins fans through this weekend when I was working on my David Ortiz column. I thought a lot about life was like before Ortiz and Tom Brady, before winning in Boston was the norm. The lowest points came from the Celtics and Bruins, the teams with the more recent traditions of winning who had both hit low points in the mid and late 1990s. For the Celtics, Rick Pitino’s “not walking through that door” moment in 2000 was the perfect illustration of how far they had fallen. For the Bruins is was the rally in Boston in the summer of 2001 for Stanley Cup champion and fan favorite Ray Bourque… of the Colorado Avalanche. The rally was attended by thousands, paying respect for the Bruins’ former captain, but also serving as a giant middle finger to the Bruins organization by a disenfranchised region of passionate hockey fans.

In the spring of 2010, I watched the Bruins blow a 3-0 lead in a Game 7, and in doing so blew a 3-0 series lead to the Philadelphia Flyers in my friend Mark’s dorm room. For a long time, I was not convinced I would ever have a more joyful professional hockey watching experience than the night Ray Bourque raised the Cup with the Avs, and nights like that were why. The team, for all its endearing on-ice qualities, was run by a cheap old billionaire who was never going to change as long as fans kept going. There was no reason for the team to extend themselves. Hockey fans are loyal to a fault. There are few things better than watching a hockey game in the arena, and nothing better than playoff hockey anywhere. Even when things looked bleakest, Bruins fans knew deep down they could not quit forever.

Alvy Singer, Woody Allen’s character in Annie Hall said “I would never want to belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member.” He attributed the quote to Groucho Marx and Sigmund Freud, but the sentiment is universal, or at the very least incredibly resonant within my own brain. If I were an NHL player, a Bruin or otherwise, after decades of lockouts and business as usual, I would never want to be in a Hall of Fame that would have someone like Jeremy Jacobs as an inductee. I know it’s hyperbolic, and the Hockey Hall of Fame is obviously a huge honor for any player, but there’s something particularly wrong about spending more time thinking about Jeremy Jacobs on the day of the Hall of Fame announcement than I have been about the great players who were also inducted today.

In Boston, David Ortiz Only Had One Peer

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The Boston Red Sox formally closed the door on the David Ortiz Era this weekend by retiring. No Red Sox player will ever again wear #34. Maybe JetBlue overdid it by dedicating Gate 34 at Terminal C of Logan Airport for him, and maybe the City of Boston overdid it by also renaming part of Yawkey Way “David Ortiz Drive,” and maybe they rushed into things by waiting less than a year after Big Papi played his last game before retiring his number–they waited until induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame to honor Carlton Fisk, Jim Rice, Pedro Martinez in this way–but there is no one like David Ortiz in Red Sox history. The team’s and the city’s reaction was to be expected.

From a numbers standpoint, David Ortiz was not the best player in Red Sox history. For position players, Ted Williams, Wade Boggs, Carl Yastrzemski, and Carlton Fisk all had more career WAR by the Baseball Reference calculation (Ortiz is #231 all time, which is still impressive for a guy who was mostly a designated hitter and could not contribute in the field), and Williams and Yaz racked up all their Major League numbers with the Red Sox. But before David Ortiz, every great Red Sox player post-Babe Ruth was defined, fairly or unfairly, by not getting it done in October. Ted Williams was one of the greatest hitters ever, but only made the postseason once in his career. The signature moment of Carlton Fisk’s career was his walk-off home run off Fenway’s left field foul pole in the 1975 World Series… but that was in Game 6, and Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine won Game 7.

David Ortiz was one of many stars on the 2004 team, but it always seemed like he was in the batter’s box when it mattered most. Cast off by the Minnesota Twins, it’s almost as if David Ortiz’ MLB career did not really begin until he joined the Red Sox in 2003, one of the first of many moves that gave Theo Epstein the baseball genius reputation he enjoys today. Ortiz was the only member of the 2004 World Series Champions who was also on the team when they won it all in 2013, and he was the World Series MVP.

Ortiz had too many clutch moments for their to be a singular career defining moment. I keep going back and forth between his walk-off against the New York Yankees in the 2004 ALCS and his grand slam that turned the Fenway Park bullpen cop into a folk hero in the 2013 ALCS against the Detroit Tigers. Then again, there is also his “This is our f*cking city” moment after the Boston Marathon bombing. On and off the field, no player meant more to Boston than David Ortiz.

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Ortiz’ accomplishments in Boston sports this century are matched only by Tom Brady. Like Ortiz, Brady turned the fortunes of a long-downtrodden franchise almost as soon as he arrived. Together, they transformed the Boston teams from ones devoid of titles to ones defined by them. The success of the Red Sox and Patriots was so infectious that even the post-Larry Bird Celtics and Jeremy Jacobs-owned Bruins followed suit.

Like Ortiz, Brady is as good as ever as he enters his 40s. He was already firmly in the Greatest Of All Time discussion before he won two of the last three Super Bowls. The comeback he orchestrated against the Falcons this February is one I still stop and think about in semi-disbelief that it really happened, and may be the best game he’s ever played. Both Ortiz and Brady proved themselves time and again after most had written them off. Obviously–purely based on the impact of an NFL quarterback compared to that of a MLB designated hitter–Brady is the more important player in the overall history of his sport, but given the historical importance of the Red Sox in Boston (their World Series drought predated the Patriots’ inaugural season by 42 years) makes the Ortiz vs. Brady discussion a debate.

As crazy as the David Ortiz farewell tour of 2016 that spilled into 2017 may have been, don’t be surprised if it’s even crazier if Brady ever retires. Then again, Brady’s end might come in another Super Bowl, which was the only thing missing from the end of the Ortiz Era. The 2016 World Series was the Series That Boston Built. It validated so much of what I have believed about baseball for years. If I wanted to build a title contender from scratch, I would want Theo Epstein running my front office. Even though his team lost, Terry Francona out-managed Joe Maddon, and Tito is the guy I would want managing my team. I would want Jon Lester starting the biggest game of the year, and Andrew Miller pitching the innings of highest leverage. The Red Sox had all of those guys on the payroll as recently as 2011. If that wasn’t enough, former Boston World Series champions John Lackey, David Ross, Mike Napoli, and Coco Crisp also played in the World Series.

David Ortiz went into his last postseason with a cast that was not good enough, and got swept in the ALDS Francona’s Cleveland Indians. The only thing missing from the Series That Boston Built was Boston, and by extension, David Ortiz. David Ortiz was Boston baseball. Boston celebrated him the way they did because he was the best we ever had when the games mattered most.

The Bitter Irony of Injustice

The following post contains spoilers from fifth season of Orange Is the New Black.

My Netflix viewing habits are weird. When I first subscribed, I was fully subscribed to the idea of “binge watching” that has been made popular by the increased accessibility of TV shows in the Internet Age, but I drifted away from that method and made a conscious effort to savor watch shows more often. Save some for later, I thought. I did not want to burn through a season in a weekend and then have to wait a year for more.

In the age of Peak TV, or more aptly, the Age of So Much TV Compared to So Few Hours in the Day, there is no right or wrong way to watch. The shows you like will always be there, unless they leave your preferred platform and you find yourself racing against the clock like I currently am with Futurama. Last year, I had a bachelor party to go to in Maine the weekend Netflix dropped Season Four of Orange Is the New Black, so the pressure to finish it was off to finish it right away, and I took my time with the season.

I did not end up finishing Season Four of OITNB until the week before the fifth season dropped on Netflix, and I am glad I did not have to wait a year based on the way the fourth season ended. After the COs, under the command of captain of the guard Desi Piscatella (played by former Denver Broncos defensive lineman Brad William Henke), reacted violently to a peaceful protest, and killing Poussey Washington (played by Samira Wiley), a nonviolent and universally liked inmate, in the process. Had I binged Season Four, I would be waiting a year with the prison on the verge of riot, with an inmate pointing a gun at a corrections officer.

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The events that concluded Season Four set up a Season Five that spanned only a couple of days, as the inmates rose up, took the COs as their hostages and in an effort led by Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson (Danielle Brooks), attempted to negotiate for justice and better living conditions at Litchfield. After eight or nine episodes, I had a warm fuzzy feeling that change might actually get accomplished. Things were looking up, but then I remembered: Wait, there are still five episodes left. This won’t end well. There was too much time left on the clock and Taystee was playing the negotiations as aggressively as the Atlanta Falcons in the second half of Super Bowl LI. Also this show is grounded in reality, and in this reality, there has never been a prison riot that changed the world for the better.

One peculiar thing about the way we watch TV these days is that it’s hard to tell when to talk about it. When there were only three networks, everyone was watching at the same time. In my early college years, you had to give 12 hours to allow people to catch up on Hulu in case they went out the night before and missed Community, or The Office, or 30 Rock, or Parks and Recreation (RIP NBC’s last great Thursday night comedy lineup). My friends and I would usually make a point to watch the Thursday night NBC shows online between classes Friday morning so we could talk about them at lunch. Now, it’s chaos. There are network shows, cable shows, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, Seeso, and probably a dozen other platforms I’ve never heard of. All of it is available at the same time, and if you do have friends or co-workers who watch the same shows as you, they’re probably not on the same viewing schedule as you. Stay off Twitter. Stay off Reddit. Stay off everything until you finish.

My favorite dramatic television series of all time is HBO’s The Wire. For better or for worse, I use The Wire as context in my head for pretty much any drama show I watch. Game of Thrones is basically The Wire, but in a realm with dragons and magic. The moral ambiguity and lack of a true protagonist also helps my case against accusations of oversimplification. OITNB is a lot closer to The Wire because it takes place in the present in the United States of America, was inspired by a bestselling work of nonfiction, and both shows say a lot about the country as a whole, not just one prison or city. What The Wire did for illustrating the problems with the War on Drugs from all the points of view involved, OITNB is doing now for one of its byproducts, the Prison Industrial Complex. 

What impressed me about The Wire is that there were no wasted characters, and at the end of the final season, the viewer had closure–not satisfaction, but closure–with every interesting personality who came on screen, and it felt like a good stopping place, even though the world did not end and nothing really got fixed. It all came full circle, and that was the point. 

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As I was watching Season Five, I was talking about it with my friend Ally via Facebook Chat. We went back and forth exchanging comments about the show, frequently announcing how many episodes we had seen, in an attempt to not spoil anything. At one point, Ally expressed how upsetting it was that Poussey was the one to die. Why couldn’t it have been Brooke? Poussey was a universally liked character within the walls of the prison, and made a star out of Samira Wiley. Even characters like Kate Mulgrew’s Galina “Red” Reznikov and Dale Soules’ Frieda Berlin, two of the toughest, most cunning inmates on the show, were visually broken up about Poussey’s death. That was the point.

Unlike Game of Thrones, OITNB does not kill of most of its characters–at least not yet–but the system of narrative justice is every bit as cruel as what George R.R. Martin might have written. While not as heavy-handed as valuing honor more than life itself, compromising honor to save your daughter’s life, only to be executed with your own sword for confessing to a crime you did not commit, Poussey’s story is written in a similar spirit. Any inmate could have been killed in the peaceful protest, but the fact that it was Poussey made it particularly tragic. She was too violent for West Point, yet too peaceful for prison. On top of all that, Poussey was the prison’s librarian. Nobody would have gotten a bigger kick out of this terrible tragedy than Poussey Washington the literary buff.

On the other side of the coin, the brand of justice that is served to Piscatella is not nearly as satisfying as I would have hoped. It seemed that the same judicial system that came down hard on the inmates would also go out of its way to protect Piscatella. He was protected by his uniform, but he was just as bad as, if not worse than, any inmate in that prison. Instead, before he could be investigated, before he had to answer for the revelations of torture and draconian disciplinary measures, he was shot by a trigger-happy squad clearing out the prison at the end of the riot. It goes both ways. I wanted justice for the inmates, but I also wanted Piscatella to get what was coming to him, but the irony of reality would not allow for it, and that was the point.

I don’t know what the show does going forward. I am sure Season Six will be really good, but I don’t know how it can top what happened in Season Five. This was the most impressive season of Netflix-original television, and I did not think I would feel that way about a fifth season of any show. Now the long wait begins.

It Was Fun While It Lasted, Markelle

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Since the Boston Celtics won the NBA Draft Lottery a few weeks ago, I had been watching a lot of Lonzo Ball and Markelle Fultz highlights on YouTube. When Ball refused to work out for the Celtics–and when his father insisted the UCLA point guard would play for the Los Angeles Lakers–I focused much more heavily on Fultz, who had far less video available because he played for a bad Washington team that did not make the NCAA Tournament. What I did see of Fultz, however, was exciting. The kid is a great athlete with a pretty-looking shot and the wingspan of a seven-footer.

With the news that the Celtics have traded the #1 overall pick to the division rival Philadelphia 76ers, my pre-draft video attention will be shifted to Josh Jackson of Kansas, Jayson Tatum of Duke, and De’Aaron Fox of Kentucky. In exchange for the top pick, the Celtics get this year’s #3 pick from the Sixers and either the Lakers’ 2018 pick (if it falls between #2 and #5) or the Sacramento Kings’ 2019 pick (unprotected). While it is underwhelming right now to go from having the top pick, and dreaming of a guy who has been described as a “right handed James Harden,” a “taller, more defensively stout Damian Lillard,” and a “6’4″ Tracy McGrady” as the next great Celtic, it keeps Boston’s options open for years to come, rolling over the window to built through the draft. And again, Danny Ainge is operating from a point of power, and channeling his inner Bill Belichick.

By trading down and allowing the Sixers to draft Fultz, Philadelphia has a Baby Big Three in Fultz, 2016 #1 overall pick Ben Simmons, and 2014 #3 pick (who was the consensus top prospect but fell when he broke his leg days before the draft), and after years of tanking finally appear to be building a team, something Philly fans and NBA fans as a whole have waited far too long to see. 

The Sixers were tanking way back when the Celtics were still tanking in 2014. The second round playoff between the Sixers and Celtics, featuring Doug Collins, Jrue Holiday, Andre Igoudala, Elton Brand, Doc Rivers, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Rajon Rondo may have been in 2012, but it feels like a million years ago, considering how different the two teams have become. After the Sixers traded Igoudala to the Denver Nuggets and acquired Andrew Bynum in the disastrous Dwight Howard Trade, and after Ray Allen signed with the Miami Heat and the Celtics were eliminated in the first round by the only good New York Knicks team of the last 15 years, both teams were headed for a rebuild in the summer of 2013. Collins retired and Holiday was traded to the New Orleans Pelicans, while the Celtics traded Rivers to the Los Angeles Clippers, and traded KG and Pierce to the Brooklyn Nets.

Both teams took the long view in hiring their next coach, with the Sixers hiring longtime San Antonio Spurs assistant Brett Brown, and the Celtics hiring Butler University coaching wunderkind Brad Stevens. Both teams spent the 2013-14 season vying for top position in the Draft Lottery, only for the Cleveland Cavaliers to land the #1 pick as well as the ultimate lottery by convincing LeBron James to come home. This is where the similarities between the Sixers’ rebuild and the Celtics’ rebuild end.

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Philadelphia drafted Joel Embiid and Dario Saric in the 1st round of the 2014 Draft, but neither played in an NBA game until 2016. Former 76ers GM Sam Hinkie called it “The Process:” the method of drafting high-upside prospects, even if they will miss years due to injury or due to playing in Europe, and keeping the present-day 76ers team as bad as possible, staying in the lottery and increasing the chance of landing a franchise-changing superstar. 

The Celtics, meanwhile, drafted Marcus Smart with the #6 pick in 2014, and continued to incrementally build their team. In 2015 and 2016, they made the playoffs, and in 2017, made the Eastern Conference Finals. The Celtics had their own version of The Process, but it was built on Brooklyn tanking for them, free to compete within the conference at the same time.

While it makes me nervous, on one hand, to trade the top pick and a potential superstar to a team in the division, I’m not about to doubt Danny Ainge. He did, after all, trade my two favorite Celtics of all time to division rival Brooklyn, and that turned out pretty well. While Embiid, Simmons, and Fultz are loaded with tantalizing potential, they also haven’t done anything yet. Philly’s Baby Big Three have played a combined 31 NBA games, with Simmons (another #1 overall pick whose college team missed the tournament) missing the entire 2016-17 season with an injury. As a fan of the NBA, I want there to be more good teams and more great players, and I want the Sixers’ young core to compete, but at some point they have to play. Embiid and Simmons have been highly anticipated, but the Celtics are giving their young players valuable experience. Ben Simmons hasn’t played a game yet, and Embiid has 31 games played in the three seasons since getting drafted, but Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier, and Jaylen Brown have won playoff rounds.

Going forward, the Celtics still have one more Brooklyn pick, and have the ability to tank vicariously through the Lakers, Kings, Clippers, and Memphis Grizzlies. Danny Ainge was willing to gamble and pass on Fultz, even if it means being mocked in the short-term. This is guy who pulled the trades for Allen and Garnett, sold off Pierce, Garnett, and Rivers when their values were still quite high, and turned the Boston into a franchise that is in as good position as anyone in the East to wait out LeBron’s prime. He didn’t turn stupid overnight. As much fun as rooting for Markelle Fultz might have been, I have trouble doubting Ainge’s plan right now.