Monthly Archives: February 2012

A modest proposal to save the slam-dunk contest

“America,” Charles Barkley intoned Saturday night, just before the NBA slam dunk contest began, “got a better chance of knowing who Dwyane Wade’s kid is.”

He was referring to this year’s slam dunk contestants, the most anonymous ever assembled for an event that . . . how to put this kindly . . . is well past its prime.

We know something about this. The slam dunk contest was invented in Denver, by former Nuggets general manager Carl Scheer. It was inaugurated in Denver at halftime of the final all-star game of the old American Basketball Association, in 1976.

Julius Erving, then playing for the New York Nets, edged David “Skywalker” Thompson of the Nuggets. Watching high-flying dunks was still novel back then. The dunk had just become a legal play in college basketball. When the ABA merged with the NBA later that year, Scheer’s innovation was lost in the tradition-bound older league.

Eight years later, in search of a little buzz for its own mid-season exhibition, the NBA brought its all-star weekend to Denver for the first time and added a dunk contest to spice it up. Dr. J reprised his soaring throw-down from the free-throw line, but Larry Nance won.

In the early years of the NBA version, many of the game’s biggest stars took part. Dominique Wilkins, The Human Highlight Film, won twice, in 1985 and 1990. Michael Jordan took back-to-back dunk titles in 1987 and ’88.

Spud Webb, at 5-foot-7, beat Dominique, his Atlanta teammate, in Dallas in 1986, providing both the appeal of the underdog and the thrill of the upset. Alas, the contest has rarely had either since.

Props were rare in those days. Gerald Wilkins, Dominique’s brother, jumped over a folding chair. That was about it.

By the late ’90s, the thrill was gone. Pretty much every way to dunk a basketball had been tried. Star players quit taking part. The league finally shut it down. There was no slam-dunk contest in 1998 or ’99. They brought it back in 2000 and got a brief bump from Vinsanity, named for Vince Carter, which preceded this year’s Linsanity, named for Jeremy Lin. Pretty much everything comes back around if you wait long enough.

Last year, there was at least one report that the contest was rigged for rookie-of-the-year Blake Griffin, who jumped over the hood of a car he endorses on the side. The contest was veering dangerously toward a cheap imitation of Cirque du Soleil.

This year it sank lower still. The contestants were Chase Budinger of Houston, Jeremy Evans of Utah, Paul George of Indiana and Derrick Williams of Minnesota. If you could pick any of these people out of a lineup, have a Cheez Doodle.

None has been in the league more than three years. Three of the four average fewer than 10 points per game. Evans, declared the winner in a fan vote (this year’s innovation), averages 1.7 points a game for the Jazz.

Introducing one of them, announcer Kevin Harlan began, “Not a lot of people know about him . . . “

Replied Barkley: “You can say that again.”

Having run out of new dunks, they jumped over players, motorcycles and, in one case, a short comedian. They are not only out of compelling contestants, they are out of ideas.

LeBron James suggests a $1 million prize to encourage marquee stars to participate again, a tacit admission that only bribery can breathe life back into this thing.

I have another idea. Some of the most compelling contests have been won by the shortest dunkers. There’s no thrill in watching tall guys dunk. Of course they can. Webb’s win was mesmerizing and 5-foot-9 Nate Robinson proved that short human trick could be duplicated, triplicated and quadruplicated when he won in 2006, 2009 and 2010, becoming the first three-time dunk champion.

Watching little guys dunk is fun. Watching tall guys dunk is boring. So make it a 6-foot and under contest. Because the NBA measures players with their shoes on, adjust it to a 6-2 and under contest, which would still leave it a 6-foot and under contest in real life.

Fifty-one players on current NBA rosters would have been eligible this year, including Rajon Rondo of the Celtics, Kemba Walker of the Bobcats, Jason Terry of the Mavericks, Ty Lawson of the Nuggets, Nate Robinson of the Warriors, Chris Paul and Mo Williams of the Clippers, Brandon Jennings of the Bucks, Jimmer Fredette of the Kings and Tony Parker of the Spurs. Here’s the full list:

Avery Bradley, 6-2, Boston

Rajon Rondo, 6-1, Boston

Jannero Pargo, 6-1, Atlanta

Jeff Teague, 6-2, Atlanta

D.J. Augustin, 6-0, Charlotte

Kemba Walker, 6-1, Charlotte

John Lucas, 5-11, Chicago

C.J. Watson, 6-2, Chicago

Daniel Gibson, 6-2, Cleveland

Rodrigue Beaubois, 6-2, Dallas

Jason Terry, 6-2, Dallas

Ty Lawson, 5-11, Denver

Andre Miller, 6-2, Denver

Will Bynum, 6-0, Detroit

Walker Russell Jr., 6-0, Detroit

Nate Robinson, 5-9, Golden State

Jonny Flynn, 6-0, Houston

Kyle Lowry, 6-0, Houston

Darren Collison, 6-0, Indiana

George Hill, 6-2, Indiana

A.J. Price, 6-2, Indiana

Eric Bledsoe, 6-1, L.A. Clippers

Chris Paul, 6-0, L.A. Clippers

Mo Williams, 6-1, L.A. Clippers

Derek Fisher, 6-1, L.A. Lakers

Mike Conley, 6-1, Memphis

Jeremy Pargo, 6-2, Memphis

Josh Selby, 6-2, Memphis

Mario Chalmers, 6-2, Miami

Norris Cole, 6-2, Miami

Brandon Jennings, 6-1, Milwaukee

J.J. Barea, 6-0, Minnesota

Luke Ridnour, 6-2, Minnesota

Jordan Farmar, 6-2, New Jersey

Sundiata Gaines, 6-1, New Jersey

Mike Bibby, 6-2, New York

Toney Douglas, 6-2, New York

Chris Duhon, 6-1, Orlando

Jameer Nelson, 6-0, Orlando

Ishmael Smith, 6-0, Orlando

Louis Williams, 6-1, Philadelphia

Ronnie Price, 6-2, Phoenix

Sebastian Telfair, 6-0, Phoenix

Raymond Felton, 6-1, Portland

Nolan Smith, 6-2, Portland

Jimmer Fredette, 6-2, Sacramento

Isaiah Thomas, 5-9, Sacramento

T.J. Ford, 6-0, San Antonio

Tony Parker, 6-2, San Antonio

Anthony Carter, 6-1, Toronto

Earl Watson, 6-1, Utah

That’s a lot of potential contestants. And if enough of these guys aren’t willing, embarrass them by showing this video of Webb dunking at age 47. Now, that’s entertainment.


Rockies would rather not be our punching bag

To understand the Rockies’ decision to take manager Jim Tracy’s contract status underground, you have to understand the relationship between ball clubs and old media — newspapers, radio and television.

This is difficult for most people to do because you don’t hear much about this relationship. That’s because, until very recently, you got most if not all of your information about ball clubs from old media, which are neither inclined nor equipped to examine their own role in this dance dispassionately.

As you may have noticed, things are changing rather rapidly in this respect. Many athletes now bypass the old media filter and communicate directly with their fans through new media, Twitter and Facebook being the most obvious examples. Clubs are beginning to do the same. The Broncos have taken to breaking their own news through the organization’s Twitter account or that of John Elway, the face of the front office. They have their own videographer, Chris Hall, who posts news conferences and edited video features on the team’s web site.

The Broncos also issue a media credential to a former employee and current independent blogger, Andrew Mason. Using his own resources, Mason covers the team both at home and on the road pretty much as a traditional old media beat reporter would, except that he is more comfortable with a variety of platforms — photography, videography, the written word — than most old media reporters. He posts his work on the web site MaxDenver.com.

Both the Broncos’ and Mason’s sites are aimed at the Broncos’ very substantial fan base, both locally and nationally. They emphasize the good news and minimize the bad.

The Nuggets, too, have brought news dissemination in-house in the person of former Associated Press and Rocky Mountain News writer Aaron Lopez, who tweets and writes for the organization’s web site.

To date, this self-dissemination of the news remains limited. Although the Broncos were well aware of the investigation into Spygate II in Josh McDaniels’ final season as head coach, they were not about disclose it publicly. Still, once the Denver Post broke the story, the Broncos took immediate control of it, calling a news conference the same day — a Saturday — to announce the investigation was complete and the NFL had fined both the organization and McDaniels for breaking league rules by videotaping a San Francisco 49ers walk-through at London’s Wembley Stadium four weeks before. In effect, they were announcing that the story was over before old media had a chance to sink their teeth into it.

The Broncos have become even more pro-active about public relations under Elway, who was hired a little more than a year ago. One could imagine them beating old media to the punch the next time, announcing both the infraction and resolution simultaneously, thereby providing the story as little shelf life as possible for old media to chew on afterward.

At first glance, this looks like the traditional inclination of any organization, public or private, to manage the news and minimize negative publicity, and it certainly is that. But it is also something more. It is one result of old media transforming themselves as their monopoly on information slips away.

While those of us who grew up in old media are loath to admit it, pandering to web hits — internet page views — has become a fact of the modern age. Page views drive digital advertising, and digital advertising is the key to the internet land grab.

Years ago, people in the media business had the luxury of debating whether to provide the information people needed or the information people wanted. Even then, reader surveys indicated we could not provide too much celebrity news. And they suggested we could very easily provide — and often did — more information than most people wanted about the Zoning Board of Adjustment.

But we had a monopoly on the existing platforms for news dissemination, so we got to decide. Generally speaking, we tried to strike the balance they teach in journalism schools. Many people resented this gatekeeper function, but what were they going to do? Where were they going to go?

Fast forward to today. Old media institutions are fighting for their lives amid the creative destruction of capitalism that has brought down so many old industries and delivered so many new ones. I worked for one of them. TheRocky Mountain News went under three years ago after 150 years of existence. Given such cautionary tales, the surviving institutions of old media are now focused primarily on survival.

In this brave new world, all media, old and new, are in a battle to the death for your eyeballs. As recently as ten years ago, writers had no idea how many people read this column or that one, just as advertisers had little or no idea how many of their sales grew out of any particular print or broadcast ad.

Today, thanks to the internet, we know exactly how many page views each column gets, and we have learned a few things that do not, in the end, come as any great surprise:

Provocation sells. Extreme, even absurd claims, often get more web hits than moderate, reasonable ones. Thanks to something called search engine optimization, celebrity news gets the most attention of all. If you think the amount of media attention devoted to Tim Tebow is very nearly insane, you haven’t seen the web analytics. If you saw local page view counts for anything including Tebow’s name, you would understand why so many apparently unrelated pieces find a way to throw it in there.

The web rewards extremism not necessarily because readers are becoming more extreme in their views, although they might be. Mainly, the web rewards extremism because extreme claims drive curiosity. If I write a column saying Tracy has some good traits and some bad ones as a big league manager, it will get far fewer clicks than if I declare he is either the Rockies’ savior for the next ten years or he is a joke and has no business in a major league dugout. Either of the latter claims is likely to provoke a heated dispute, preferably in the comments section of my employer’s web site. The former claim is not provocative enough to fully stimulate that partisan debate and will therefore almost certainly be less successful in attracting eyeballs to my employer’s web site.

Which brings us back to the Rockies. The Rocks have not yet been as pro-active as either the Broncos or Nuggets in managing and disseminating their own news, but they are getting there. They have begun tweeting from an organizational account and they publish the writing of correspondents who work for mlb.com on their rapidly improving web site.

More than most organizations in town, they have been battered by old media’s recognition that extreme stands attract more attention than moderate ones. When the Rocks are good, as they were in 2007 and 2009, old media lavish attention on them. When they are bad, as they were in 2008 and 2011, old media rip them as if they had never accomplished a thing.

So the decision to quit making public announcements about the contract status of their top executives and manager is just a way of giving old media fewer fat pitches to hit. After all, who else does such a thing? Does the Post announce that it is re-upping a sports editor or columnist, opening the door for the public to chime in on whether that’s a good idea? Does KOA declare how long it intends to keep me around? Does CBS4 announce the term of any anchor’s contract?

The Rocks remember well the beating they took in old media when they announced on the first day of the 2007 season that they were re-upping general manager Dan O’Dowd and manager Clint Hurdle for two years apiece. They were slapped around for weeks. What had O’Dowd and Hurdle ever done to deserve these extensions? Didn’t it prove that the organization didn’t really care about winning?

Six months later, the Rocks went to the World Series. They got no apologies. Old media were too busy capitalizing on the club’s success with special sections and special programming glorifying an organization they had excoriated earlier that same year.

This drives the owners and executives of sports organizations nuts. They see it as a total absence of accountability and intellectual honesty. Old media executives don’t much care. They believe their accountability is to the marketplace, where there’s a referendum every day.

Old media are doing what they must to survive in a world in which anyone with an internet connection and an inspiration can self-publish in an instant, a world in which advertisers have a broader array than ever before of media platforms from which to choose. In a (relatively) free market economy, old media institutions have every right to do what they feel they must to survive.

And organizations such as the Rockies have every right to chart their own course, to do what they can to avoid being punching bags. All they announced last week is that they will provide fewer artificial occasions for us to slap them around. Tracy will be employed in his current position until he’s not. Just like you or me.


NCAA chief: Eight-team college football playoff possible

Frustrated by the glacial pace of progress toward a true college football championship, fans appear willing to settle for the four-team playoff now under discussion as the best they can do. So it came as something of a surprise when Mark Emmert, president of the NCAA, suggested the possibility of an eight-team playoff Wednesday during an appearance on the Dave Logan Show.

In fact, Emmert, who has been promoting a variety of reforms since taking over the NCAA 22 months ago, said “there’s a good probability” some form of playoff will be approved by the end of this summer.

“In 1A football, football at the highest level, there’s never been a championship, there’s never been a systematic way to determine who’s No. 1,” Emmert said.

“All the other college sports do have such a championship. The BCS was in my opinion a very good step in the right direction where we finally, after 80 years, had No. 1 playing No. 2. If the conferences and the university presidents that I work with would like to move toward a championship, and I think there’s movement in that direction, then we’re more than happy to run it for them. We know how to run championships. We’re really good at that.

“I think we’re likely to see some significant change to the BCS or movement toward a four- or maybe even an eight-team playoff system, but we’ll have to wait and see. It will probably be decided this spring and into the summer. There’s a good probability that we’ll get some kind of model like that, I think.”

As Emmert, the former president of the University of Washington, tries to drag the tradition-bound NCAA into the 21st century, he also faces a more complicated problem — whether to provide some form of revenue sharing to the collegiate athletes in football and men’s basketball who collectively generate billions of dollars in television revenue for the NCAA and its member institutions.

Emmert said he would never support paying salaries to players or making them employees because that would make them professionals. But faced with a particularly ugly season of scandals in 2011 — from a booster providing players with prostitutes at the University of Miami to athletes exchanging memorabilia for tattoos at Ohio State — Emmert has been pushing a proposal to enhance athletic scholarships with an extra $2,000 stipend.

That plan was tabled last month at the NCAA convention after many schools objected, expressing concerns about the cost. Another reform to allow multi-year scholarship commitments to athletes was approved, although that too had its critics among schools fearful it would tie the hands of new coaches.

“I’ve been really clear, as have all of our university presidents, that we should never, ever pay students to be athletes, that that’s not the business that we’re in,” Emmert said. “We’re in the education business. And our student-athletes should be just that, serious students who happen to also play sports.

“But on the other hand, we also want to make sure that they’re getting a fair shake. So we just, for example, last week approved a new policy that allows universities for the first time in 40 years to actually make multiple-year commitments to student-athletes, so they know that they’re going to have scholarship support for more than one year, assuming they do everything right in the classroom, assuming their behavior is right. They take care of their stuff, the universities will take care of them,” Emmert said.

“The other thing that we’re working on right now that’s still in the construction phase but will probably be rolling out here in a few months is the idea of covering the full cost, the real cost, of being a college student. A college athlete right now, if they’re on a full scholarship, they get tuition, fees, room, board, books and supplies, which any of us would love, but above and beyond that, we also know that there’s travel costs, there’s miscellaneous expense costs, there’s clothing allowances. And that shortfall between what an athletic scholarship is today and what (the real costs are) on average across the country is about $3500. So we’re looking at what we can do to close some of that gap, so that students who are spending so many hours a week and a year on their sport, who rarely have a chance to work part-time jobs, in fact have everything that they need to be successful in their university studies.”

It’s a complicated proposition. At the many schools where the athletic department does not operate in the black, adding $2,000 a year to the cost of every athletic scholarship would require cuts elsewhere. Critics point out that many of the same schools complaining about the cost pay enormous salaries to their football and basketball coaches.

Emmert seems aware that the NCAA has to deal with two growing problems. The first is a widely-held perception that all its high-minded rhetoric about amateur athletics and student-athletes conveniently allows it to collect and distribute billions of dollars in TV revenue to member institutions without sharing any of it with the athletes who generate it.

The other, more immediate, problem is that many of the athletes generating that revenue in football and men’s basketball come out of poverty, leaving them susceptible to boosters, agents and others willing to circumvent NCAA rules by providing cash and other benefits under the table. That, in turn, leads to a never-ending parade of embarrassing scandals like those at Miami and Ohio State last year.

The NCAA has always been reluctant to admit that the university system represents a de facto farm system for the NFL and NBA. As a result, some college athletes do not quite meet the “student-athlete” ideal. High school basketball prodigies, for example, could once jump directly to the NBA, as stars such as Kevin Garnett and LeBron James did. Today, such players are required to spend a year in college (or overseas) because of a minimum age instituted by the NBA.

Many college coaches, including Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, have complained this rule leads to a “one-and-done” mentality among the nation’s top basketball players that takes away from college basketball and makes a joke of the “student-athlete” ideal.

“Coach K and I are in complete agreement,” Emmert said. “I want young men and young women who play our games to be in college because they want to be in college, not because they have no choice or because they see it as simply an intermediate step.

“I love when somebody has the skill and ability to go make a living playing sport. I think that’s fabulous. But to have them just come to us for one year — or, let’s be honest, one semester — simply because they have no choice and they don’t want to be there and they’re not serious students, I think that detracts from intercollegiate  athletics and doesn’t help and I’m hoping that the NBA and the NBA Players’ Association can see clear to change that rule.”

Alas, that’s not likely considering the debate during the most recent NBA labor dispute was between maintaining the 19-year-old minimum age and extending it to 20.

The NCAA has long faced a dilemma it would prefer not to acknowledge. Among most of the 26 sports, 89 championships and 400,000 athletes under the NCAA umbrella, the student-athlete ideal is alive and well. But the constant stream of scandals in football and men’s basketball taints them all and makes the organization’s pious claims sound hollow.

There are certain contradictions that neither Emmert nor anyone else can do much about. College football and basketball are, in fact, the main feeder system for the NFL and NBA. That’s not changing. The NCAA and its member universities represent a free farm system for those professional leagues. Football and men’s basketball generate billions of dollars in commercial revenue that support many other sports and university expenses. So neither the pro leagues nor the NCAA are about to abandon the current system.

But the NCAA does have an interest in cleaning it up because the scandals, predictable as the seasons, are embarrassing and undercut the credibility of everything else the organization does. Since taking over the NCAA in April 2010, Emmert has aggressively pursued an agenda of reform and greater transparency. He deserves credit for doing so. How successful he is remains to be seen.

“I’ve been focusing on the integrity questions,” he said, “making sure that our rules actually make sense and that we apply them in ways that promote the kind of behavior that we’d all like to see around college sports.”

As part of his ongoing outreach efforts, Emmert will be in Denver on March 8 to speak to a City Club of Denver luncheon at the Marriott City Center downtown.


Just what sort of quarterbacks are the Broncos looking for?

Here’s what we know: Tim Tebow is the Broncos’ starting quarterback going into training camp this summer, but with only two quarterbacks under contract — Tebow and second-year undrafted free agent Adam Weber — the Broncos are planning to add at least two more to the roster between now and then.

Here’s what we don’t know: What kind of quarterbacks do the Broncos want to add? Do they want someone like pending free agent Jason Campbell of the Raiders, a career-long starter who would want a genuine opportunity to compete for the starting job? Or do they want an older veteran, someone like 37-year-old Jake Delhomme, who has a long history with head coach John Fox and would likely be willing to accept a role as Tebow’s backup and confidant?

If Broncos’ brass knows the answer, it’s not saying.

“We’re in the process right now of going through that, going through the free agency,” John Elway said Monday on the Dave Logan Show.

“We got done with our free agent meetings today, going through the process of ranking every position, not only the quarterback position but obviously every position. So I think as we go over and discuss each position we’ll come to a conclusion of what we’re looking for at each position, whether that be the quarterback or the defensive line position. I think the bottom line is you’re always looking at a chance to try to get better and bring in somebody that is going to come in and compete and make the people they’re competing with better.”

Coach John Fox was no more forthcoming, telling the Denver Post: “Who, what, where, when, what market — it’s still way too early (to say) how we get those quarterbacks.”

Actually, it may be a little early, but not much. The NFL free agent market opens March 13 — three weeks from today. A long and varied list of quarterbacks will become free agents that day if their current teams don’t sign them to new contracts in the interim.

It begins with an impressive name that won’t actually be available. Although they’ve been talking about it for 18 months, the Saints and Drew Brees still haven’t reached agreement on a new deal. Nevertheless, Brees will be back in New Orleans next season, even if the Saints have to slap a franchise tag on him.

Alex Smith of the 49ers is in approximately the same situation. If his success under coach Jim Harbaugh last season didn’t make his return to San Francisco obvious, his decision to carry Harbaugh’s bag at the Pebble Beach Pro-Am did.

There’s also Matt Flynn, the 26-year-old Packers backup with two career NFL starts. Thanks mostly to one really good start at the end of the season, he’s about to hit the free agent jackpot, probably in Miami, where Green Bay’s former offensive coordinator, Joe Philbin, is now head coach.

Then there’s Peyton Manning, who could be waived prior to March 8, when the Colts owe him a $28 million bonus. Manning will be 36 next month and missed all of last season with a neck injury. His health and arm strength remain question marks after four surgical procedures. Some team that believes it’s one quarterback away from a Super Bowl — say, the Jets — might take a shot if Manning and the Colts can’t rework their deal, but it won’t be the Broncos.

After that, the list of available quarterbacks goes downhill pretty fast. Campbell, 30, is probably the best of the lot. Like Tebow, he was the 25th pick of the draft, in his case the 2005 edition. Campbell has never been a backup, starting 70 of the 71 games in which he’s appeared, so it’s unlikely he’s signing anywhere he doesn’t have at least an even chance to win the starting job.

Also on the free agent list: Delhomme, Kyle Orton (uh, no), Brady Quinn (not if he can help it), David Garrard, Chad Pennington, Chad Henne, Vince Young, Kyle Boller, Dennis Dixon, Shaun Hill, Byron Leftwich, Luke McCown, Charlie Whitehurst, Kellen Clemens, Derek Anderson and . . . well . . . you get the idea. The usual suspects.

Tebowmania is another variable likely to cull the list. On some teams, the backup quarterback is the most popular guy in town. Not on this one.

The other addition to the quarterback depth chart is likely to come from the class of 2012. The top prospects, Andrew Luck of Stanford and Robert Griffin III of Baylor, will be long gone by the time the Broncos exercise their first draft pick (No. 25). Most of the rest should be available, either there, later in the draft or in the aftermarket of undrafted free agents.

Among them: Ryan Tannehill of Texas A&M, Brandon Weeden of Oklahoma State, Nick Foles of Arizona, Brock Osweiler of Arizona State, B.J. Coleman of UT-Chattanooga and Kirk Cousins of Michigan State.

The Broncos have to answer an interesting question here, too: Do they want a traditional pocket passer in the mold Elway prefers? Or do they want somebody on the roster other than Tebow who can run the read option? That, in turn, depends on whether they believe Tebow will progress enough as a pocket passer this offseason to render the read option a one-year experiment rather than a staple of their offense.

If they want another mobile quarterback who could run last year’s offense in a pinch, they might take a look at former Rockies prospect Russell Wilson of Wisconsin or Darron Thomas of Oregon.

In short, given the available alternatives, it’s not clear that Tebow will have any serious competition for the starting job.

With Fox entering his second year as coach, the Broncos’ emphasis remains on the defensive side of the ball, where they need help along the interior of the line, in the backfield and potentially at middle linebacker, depending on their current view of Nate Irving, the third-round draft pick last year who was unable to supplant Joe Mays as a rookie.

The many and varied Tebow-oriented debates aside, he went 8-5 as a starter last season, putting him pretty far down the Broncos’ list of immediate issues. So while the club will be adding bodies at his position, it’s looking all but certain Tebow will get a chance to build on his successes in 2011 as the Broncos’ starter in 2012.


Nuggets in survival mode

If you watched the Nuggets during the first 19 games of their lockout-compressed NBA schedule, you saw a deep, relentless, energetic team perpetually in attack mode. They went 14-5, were among the top seeds in the West and led the association in scoring.

If you’ve watched them since, you’ve seen a lethargic version of that team, lately trying to compensate for the loss of leading scorer Danilo Gallinari to a high ankle sprain that could keep him out a month (he was injured Feb. 6 in a home loss to Houston). They are 3-9 since Jan. 29 and have fallen to the bottom of the Western Conference playoff bracket.

Although they remain one of three NBA teams averaging at least 100 points a game, they are also one of only five surrendering at least 100. The other four teams in the latter category — Sacramento, Golden State, Charlotte and Washington — have a combined record of 32-86.

“I hate excuses,” coach George Karl said on the Dave Logan Show. “You don’t coach excuses. You coach how your team is playing and you work hard through it. But when you communicate with your players, you’ve got to be realistic. There are some things out there that are having an effect, not only on our team but every team in the NBA.”

In particular, Karl said he saw a change in his team earlier this month after it played three games in three cities in three nights, normally a scheduling no-no but permitted this season because of the compressed schedule that followed a long labor dispute.

“I’ve seen our team since those three games in three days, there’s been a reciprocal kind of backlash,” Karl said of the games in Los Angeles on Feb. 2, Denver on Feb. 3 and Portland on Feb. 4.

“Some nights we have it and some nights we don’t have it. The injuries have shrunk our skill set so the running game and the attack game, we’re still leading the league in attacking teams’ defenses, but we’re not having that talent of power that wears teams out. We’re not wearing teams out as much as we did earlier in the season, and I’m hoping it’s just because of injuries. I mean, we’re missing almost 85, 90 minutes of the game from our starting lineups and we’re trying to fill that in with guys that are playing hard and trying.”

Gallinari, the starting small forward, has missed the past six games. Starting center Timofey Mozgov missed seven in a row before returning for a one-point loss in Memphis on Friday night. Starting power forward Nene has missed the last three.

Karl’s trio of veteran bench players — Andre Miller, Al Harrington and Rudy Fernandez — has played well together, so he has looked farther down his bench for injury replacements to his starting lineup. The result has sometimes been a starting group that is not competitive early in games. Starting shooting guard Arron Afflalo carries a team-worst plus/minus rating of minus 68. Three of the team’s top four plus/minus ratings come from the bench — Miller (plus 144), Harrington (plus 88) and Fernandez (plus 83). The fourth is Gallo at plus 107.

This presents a couple of dilemmas for Karl. One is whether he should continue bringing Miller off the bench. The Nuggets’ top eight five-man groups in plus/minus include the veteran point guard. In part that’s because the Nuggets’ bench is better than most of its counterparts, but the stats also show that five of the team’s top eight groupings include both Miller and starting point guard Ty Lawson.

The second, related dilemma is whether Karl should break up the bench crew to help the starting lineup. For the time being, he is compromising, leaving Miller with the second group but moving one of his three key bench scorers into the starting lineup.

“What we talked about is maybe we’ve got to put Al in the game with Ty a little bit more often and let Andre have the second unit and try to find some shots and scoring without Al,” Karl said.

In Memphis on Friday night, he moved Harrington into the starting lineup in Nene’s place. Harrington didn’t get much done, but another bench player, Corey Brewer, scored a game-high 26, all of them in the second half, starting for Gallo.

Another option is to increase the minutes of the team’s rookies, who haven’t played enough to have the tired legs some of their veteran teammates are showing. First-round draft pick Kenneth Faried came off the bench for 25 minutes in Memphis and responded with 18 points and 10 rebounds.

“I don’t deny that I’ve had the thought of trying to expand maybe one or two guys going into a game after three games in four nights or something like that,” Karl said. “Maybe instead of going with nine guys, try to maybe go with 10 or 11 guys. But you know what’s kind of funny about it is two guys that don’t look energized are two guys that from a standpoint of performance I think have done a great job with us, and that’s Andre and Al. They’re our oldest guys, and now Bird (Chris Andersen) has come back and played very well and he’s one of our older guys, too.

“It’s kind of trying to balance that out because we’re still in a good place from the standpoint of record and schedule. I think we’ve got to stay positive on trying to get a good seed in the playoffs, that our goal is to win as many games as possible and not maybe experiment too much to where you lose a game because of your experimentation.”

One option that has pretty much disappeared is practice. You remember practice. It used to be how teams solved problems and tightened up — particularly on defense — during the season.

“Practice is becoming an obsolete piece of the league right now,” Karl said. “There’s just no way, with the energy . . . . Practice has now become kind of drill stations and maintenance stations for your younger players.”

So Karl is left to hope the injury bug will pass and the Nuggets will be able to bring their aggression in waves again before they fall too far behind in the standings.


Is Denver’s skyline for sale?

Is Denver’s skyline for sale? And, if so, what’s it worth?

The first of these questions has gotten a lot of attention in the debate leading up to today’s hearing before the city planning board on The Sports Authority’s proposal to install three 178-foot, lighted signs along the metal band that undulates around the top of the stadium where the Broncos play in northwest Denver.

The second question has gotten almost none.

The Sports Authority, a Denver-based nationwide sporting goods retailer, took over the stadium naming rights deal from Invesco Funds Group last summer. It has proposed amending the comprehensive sign plan that governs signage at the stadium to permit much larger, more prominent signs than Invesco installed to identify it as the naming rights holder.

Opponents of the signs — each of which would be nine and a half feet high and 178 feet long — include a host of neighborhood organizations, a handful of Denver City Council members and at least one editorial columnist who generally opposes government interference in the free market.

“I object to it on aesthetic grounds because the stadium is an attractive stadium and that’s no accident,” Denver Post columnist Vincent Carroll said on the Dave Logan Show.

“I object to it on commercial grounds since the taxpayers get nothing in return for the addition of these huge signs in their faces. And I object to it on procedural grounds. Nobody warned anybody when this transfer of naming rights occurred at an Aug. 16 meeting of the stadium board that these sorts of signs were in the offing. And yet, lo and behold, all of a sudden there’s this proposal and it seems to be just taken for granted by city bureaucrats, by the stadium district, by the Broncos’ management team, the stadium management team, that this is going to be a fait accompli.

“And you know, maybe it is. Maybe it’s a juggernaut that can’t be stopped. But I, at least, and a whole host of neighborhood organizations that were on this case long before I was, think it’s bad policy, it’s bad for Denver and it’s going to mar the skyline.”

You can read Carroll’s columns on the subject here and here.

The Broncos, through a subsidiary that manages the stadium, now known as Sports Authority Field at Mile High, stand behind their corporate partner.

“The proposed signs celebrate a couple of things,” said Andy Gorchov, general manager of Stadium Management Co. “They celebrate, obviously, the naming rights partner and the new name of the stadium. The one thing that people may say is this is a form of advertisement. But it’s not. It’s actually the name of the building. So that’s an important distinction to make.

“It also incorporates the Broncos’ logo as part of the combined sign elements. That’s something that has not had any kind of a presence on the outside of the stadium before. As the home of the Broncos, to be able to incorporate the Broncos’ logo is something that we’re definitely excited about.

“But additionally, it also incorporates the legacy ‘at Mile High’ term. So combining all three of those was the intent of the design, as well as giving it enough of a size where it has sufficient legibility and visibility from a reasonable distance away. I think we believe that the old signs, though everybody liked them, they were small and they were difficult to read from a distance. The proposed sign was designed to improve that.”

You can find the application to amend the comprehensive stadium sign plan here.

Last week, the city’s community development and planning staff completed its review of the proposed amendment to the sign plan and recommended that the planning board approve it.

“The criteria, some are very concrete and very scientific, others are more subjective,” said Kelly Leid, Denver’s director of development services. “I think the aspect of the city’s role in this is to say, ‘Look, we have a responsibility to, one, follow a clear and consistent and transparent process.’ The comprehensive sign plan has a process we follow and we’ve done that.

“The second is we’re obligated to review the application when it’s submitted, which we have done. To the extent there are impacts on the surrounding neighborhoods, we take those very seriously and we have to evaluate those and look for, are there any mitigating factors that can be taken into consideration that may impact the neighborhoods?

“And then lastly, and I think of equal importance, is that we have to have a system that is predictable. And by that I mean, in this case the applicant relied on a set of rules that were in place for the comprehensive sign plan, they’ve submitted a request to amend that sign plan based on those criteria, and we have to make sure as a city that we’re providing a system of predictability in the review of that plan.”

Area neighborhood organizations describe the likely local impacts of the signs in somewhat stronger terms.

“The neighborhoods surrounding the stadium, believe it or not, are kind of a nice, quiet, serene place to live and raise families,” said Michael Guiietz, co-president of Jefferson Park United Neighbors, the neighborhood that abuts the stadium to the west.

“We’re all aware that there’s 10 Bronco home games that are going to happen and they’re going to create a certain amount of energy. We just don’t want that energy to be translated to these giant, red, lighted signs that are going to be on 365 days a year up until 2 a.m. in certain instances.”

As I understand the most recent negotiations on that issue, The Sports Authority has agreed to turn off the signs facing west and north, toward residential neighborhoods, at midnight. The sign facing east, toward downtown, would remain on until 2 a.m.

The web site for the campaign against the signs is here.

The city skyline is often photographed from the east so as to include the Rocky Mountains as a backdrop. Depending on the angle, these photos often include the stadium. In photos of the skyline taken from the west side of town, the stadium is in the foreground. Putting aesthetic objections to the proposed signs aside for a minute, one would think that the right to put a commercial brand on a public building that is part of the skyline would be a fairly expensive proposition.

So perhaps the most surprising aspect of the debate is that at no time has the city or the stadium district asked The Sports Authority to pay an additional fee for the right to vastly augment the signage that went with the original naming rights deal. The money from the naming rights deal — approximately $6 million a year — is divided between the Broncos and the stadium district, which uses its share for upkeep of the facility. If there is excess, it is supposed to go back to the counties that provided the public funding that got the place built.

I don’t know where in the bureaucratic process this possibility should have or could have been raised, but the failure of public officials to broach this topic raises the question of their fiduciary responsibility to taxpayers to maximize revenue from the facility.

If the free market allows The Sports Authority to put its brand on the Denver skyline, then the free market should also require it to pay a market rate for the privilege. And that doesn’t mean just picking up the existing naming rights fee, which included much more modest signage rights.

At least, that’s how it looks from here.

Today’s public hearing before the planning board is at 3 p.m. in the Webb Municipal Office Building, 201 W. Colfax Ave., 4th floor. Those who want to speak should arrive early to sign up.


Tiger-Lefty rivalry finally comes of age

The New York Times published a column Sunday with a headline that sounded like a dispatch from the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.

Alas, The Front-Runner’s Missing Magic turned out to be about another front-runner.

But watching Tiger Woods falter on a Sunday once again was a reminder that for all the predictions he is this close to climbing back on top, the golf world is still upside down.

For years, Woods waxing the over-hyped Phil Mickelson was what passed for competition atop the PGA Tour. When Mickelson was even close enough to be paired with Woods on the final day of a tournament, you could pretty much count on Woods doing his relentless, almost robotic winning thing while Mickelson made some daring, high-risk play that blew up in his face and sent him careening down the leader board.

But a funny thing happened as the two golf prodigies became tour veterans. Mickelson has found his game and Woods has lost his. Tiger won his first major at age 21. Lefty, perennially disappointing early in his career, didn’t win his first until he was 33.

When they showed up at Pebble Beach on Sunday to finish this year’s Pro-Am, Woods had 14 major championships, second only to Jack Nicklaus. Mickelson had four — not much of a rivalry if you remember the days of Nicklaus (18 majors), Gary Player (9), Tom Watson (8), Arnold Palmer (7) and Lee Trevino (6).

So it might have surprised casual fans to know that while Woods has won three tournaments while paired with Mickelson in the final round and Mickelson only one, Lefty had outplayed Tiger the previous four times they’d been paired on the final day of a tournament, as they were again Sunday. The Pebble Beach Pro-Am is not a major, of course, but the course is in the U.S. Open rotation, so it’s a pretty fair measuring stick. In fact, Woods won the Open there in 2000.

The decline of Woods since 2008, when he last won a major, has been the stuff of supermarket tabloids. His marriage to a Swedish model, Elin Nordegren, fell apart amid spectacular revelations of Woods’ serial infidelity. Tiger apologized, got divorced, underwent knee surgery, fired his swing coach, fired his caddie.

In stark, almost too obvious contrast, Mickelson was simultaneously at the center of a sorrowful, heartwarming family tale as both his mother, Mary, and wife, Amy, were diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009. When he won the 2010 Masters with the recovering Amy on hand, there was hardly a dry eye in Augusta.

“That’s a win for the family,” Jim Nantz of CBS said when Lefty holed out.

Fast forward to Sunday. Supposedly, Tiger was finally back. He had put up three consecutive rounds in the 60s for the first time in more than two years. He entered the final round four shots back of leader Charlie Wi, but as Wi imploded, the door opened.

Instead, Woods stumbled, as he has so often on Sundays lately when he has been in a position to contend. He finished with a 75.

Mickelson charged, holing putts from long distance and posting an eight-under 64 that gave him the tournament title, his 40th on the PGA tour.

“I just feel very inspired when I play with him,” Mickelson told reporters afterward. “He brings out some of my best golf. I hope that he continues to play better and better, and I hope that he and I have a chance to play together more.”

No wonder. It’s now five consecutive times Mickelson has bested Woods when they’ve played together on a Sunday.

Looking ahead to the year in which he turns 42, Mickelson predicted there might be more wins out there waiting for him. Woods, five years younger, is still waiting for that feeling to return.

Lefty will never catch Tiger by the numbers, but the rivalry that never really was has finally become a pretty good show.