June 15, 2007

NBA 2007-2008 preview

First, barring injury, I’ll take the Spurs as the favored team to win the Western Conference again, and thus actually persuade me to consider them as a dynasty. (See my previous post on this subject.

No big free agency issues, and though they’re the league’s oldest team, if they’re as good at containing minutes last year as they were this year, that generally shouldn’t be a problem. (Michael Finley possibly moving on is not a ‘big’ free-agent issue; that said, I think Manu is better coming off the bench anyway; he has classic sixth-man energy and craziness.)

Add in the fact that Manu seems to be OK with the sixth man role, and the quantum leap that Parker took in the Finals, and you have an even more offensively diverse team than ever before.

The only concern I see, and it is age-related: Bruce Bowen. At some point, advancing years are going to take away some defensive reaction speed, especially lateral foot speed. How much, and when?

Bowen, the second-oldest member of the Spurs after Robert Horry, turned 36 on the night of Game 4 against the Cavs. And, loss of foot-speed reaction time will affect him more than an interior-oriented defensive player like Horry. Horry, Finley and Brent Barry are the other three real oldsters on the team; 2 minutes less per game for each next year, if necessary as part of keeping them fresher, should be the only big adjustment. Elson and Oberto together showed enough this year that Pop will be OK with lowering Horry’s time; Manu can soak up Barry and Finley minutes.

As for the rest of the league? Well, let’s take a brief look around the West first.

The Suns? Somebody’s moving, but who, where and for what? And, speaking of old, how much is in Nash’s tank?

Jazz? On the rise, as the playoffs showed, and will continue to move upward. Not enough to catch the Spurs, though.

Mavs? First, is Dirk the Brad Lidge of the NBA now? I want to find out in next year’s playoffs. Otherwise, I’m not convinced this team is ready to get over the hump, or even the conference hump.

Rockets? Can Yao and T-Mac stay together healthy the whole year? How much will the Howard-for-James trade help them? Or not?

Lakers? Please. Kwame will get no better, Kobe and Lamar will mesh no better, and Bynum won’t project much better.

On to the East.

The Cavs did plow through a relatively weak conference. Problem is, some teams will get better this year, as teams, more than Lebron as an individual.

Take Toronto. A young team with several good players. How good of a coach can Sam Mitchell be? I could see this team in next year’s Finals.

The Bulls? Could certainly see them there. They’re my favorite right now.

Nets? Aging

Heat? Most the team outside of Wade again. Miami blew its salary cap for Shaq and the one title. (Speaking of that, I loved the ABC broadcasters debating Shaq/Duncan, with the comments about Shaq’s lack of self-care. If he keeps his weight at 320 and does a real offseason program, he’s still destroying one-quarter of the league, easily dominating one-half beyond that, and consistently challenging the final one-quarter.)

Orlando? Improving, but not with Toronto’s growth curve. And, if the rumors about Grant Hill to Toronto are true …

So, the best prediction is Spurs-Bulls next June. Spurs in six.

Now, the health of the league.

Will David Stern wake up and smell some coffee about stinky basketball, playoffs dragging out, etc.?

My suggestions, more tinkering than radical.

Move the first round back to three-of-five. Eliminate some excessive travel days.

And, resize the court. Make it two feet wider, and add one foot depth behind the backboard on each baseline, kind of like international hockey. No, a foot isn’t a lot, but once players got used to it, I think it would open up a lot of playmaking angles.

The Spurs are NOT a dynasty

They’re very close, and a great team over a number of years, but, the San Antonio Spurs need to do me one thing —

Repeat.

Since Bill Russell retired in 1969, five/six different teams have repeated as champions: The mid-’80s Lakers, the late-’80s Pistons (who were one cheap foul call away from beating the Lakers in game 6, 1988, and thus getting the first of a three-peat); the 1990s Bulls (two separate incarnations, if you will), the mid-’90s Rockets, and the 2000s Lakers.

Heck, the Spurs haven’t even BEEN to the Finals back-to-back, let alone repeated. By that standard, the ’80s Celtics are more a dynasty than the Spurs.

Until the Spurs can at least make two consecutive visits, let alone repeat, no, they don’t count.

June 14, 2007

A wrap on the Texas Legislature

Note: This is adapted from a June 13 op-ed column

State Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, speaking in Navasota June 7, said she was “generally happy” with the 80th regular session of the Texas Legislature.

Well, given the results of a poll on my newspaper's website, many of our readers would appear to disagree, even though applauding Kolkhorst for her stand-up work on blocking further action on the Trans Texas Corridor.

Outside of blocking the Trans Texas Corridor now, this year’s Lege — or, at least, those of the membership who were around two or three sessions ago — has to bear some of the blame for some of the problems that were on this year’s plate. How did problems at the Texas Youth Commission’s juvenile facilities get as bad as they did before anything was done? How did the Texas Transportation Commission get as powerful as it did before being reined in at least a little bit? How did we jump from the original version of the Texas Tomorrow Fund, to diminishing state support for public universities, to deregulated tuition with its attending quashing of reopening the TTF or the possibility of any successor version of it? (The core of the Texas Tomorrow Fund was a prepaid college tuition fund, the Texas Guaranteed Tuition Plan, wsa started about a decade ago, then closed for enrollment in 2003 because of tuition deregulation; the Legislature has discussed a limited reopening of it in the past couple of years but taken no action.)

Those aren’t things that can be totally fobbed off on Gov. Rick Perry, unlike his state homeland security boondoggles.

On the first two items, the state of Texas does have sunset legislation mandating various state commissions come up for legislative review and renewal on a regular basis rather than existing in perpetuity. In addition to the recommendations of the independent Texas Sunset Commission, the Legislative Budget Bureau has enough review powers to do a little bit of rein-pulling on state commissions, too.

And, lo and behold, the Texas Department of Transportation comes up for sunset review in 2009. So, too, does the Texas Youth Commission. For that matter, so does another state agency that needs a good look-see, the Department of Family and Protective Services. On the third issue I mentioned above, the Prepaid Higher Education Tuition Board was up for sunset review this year, which should have been an opportunity for the Lege to address this whole issue of college costs.

But, sunset review is about more than dollars and cents. It’s about organization, management and accountability. With the 2009 commissions mentioned above, let’s hope the 81st Legislature takes a hard look at exactly those three issues.
In fact, given the contentiousness of the two TTCs, both the Texas Transportation Commission and the Trans Texas Corridor, maybe a late-2008 pre-Legislature special session to flex some “sunset muscle” isn’t a totally bad idea.

As for the idea of treating universities more like businesses, it might have its high points, but could be taken too far, too. Will a academic program of study, or major, be deleted not just from one college but across most or all of the University of Texas, Texas A&M or Texas State University systems if it doesn’t perform well enough financially? If so, how tough will the criteria be? What will that do for learning for learning’s sake? Will private businesses be invited to be “sponsors” of college academic programs? What would that do for learning?

No, colleges and universities shouldn’t be financial black holes. But, the university as business institution idea should be approached carefully.

Short of a draft, the Army wants a few good (illegal) men

No Spanish-language “Be All You Can Be” posters are sprouting in Juarez, Tijuana or Nuevo Laredo, but, some of the people there or elsewhere on the border could find similar posters in U.S. barrios if a new immigration bill ever passes Congress.
A senior defense official expressed hope today that a provision in the stalled immigration bill that would have allowed some undocumented aliens to join the military won’t fall off the radar screen.

The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors, or DREAM, provision in the immigration bill was expected to help boost military recruiting, Bill Carr, acting deputy undersecretary of defense for military personnel policy, said today during a telephone conference with veterans’ group representatives.

The DREAM provision offered a way for high-achieving children of undocumented or illegal residents to join the military and, ultimately, become citizens, Carr explained.

“In other words, if you had come across (the border) with your parents, yet you were a minor child and have been in the U.S. school system for a number of years, then you could be eligible to enlist,” he said. “And at the end of that enlistment, then you would be eligible to become a citizen.”

Because the provision would have applied only to the “cream of the crop” of students who have demonstrated top aptitude, it would have been “very appealing” to the military, Carr said. “It would have been good for readiness,” he said.

Even with all these caveats and apparent protections, count me out.

First, I’m not sold on the present immigration bill in several ways.

Second, even if we had an immigration bill that was OK in other ways, this still strikes me as “predatory recruiting.”

June 13, 2007

Military draft talk comes up again

That’s according to Robert Brown in the British magazine The First Post.

The story is two weeks old, but I just saw it.

He says:
The US is considering introducing a limited military draft if it is to keep its present force levels in Iraq and Afghanistan, Pentagon advisers have warned British colleagues. Next month, US forces in Iraq will peak at around 170,000, and GIs in the new units are being told they could be on operations for at least 15 months.

I don’t know who Fox’s British sources are, or what connections they have in the Pentagon, but this doesn’t seem totally fly-by-night.

Housing market continues to slide; foreclosures jump 90 percent

Could a recession be looming? If so, or potentially so, can Democrats handle this and Iraq as well?

The story reports two additional concerns beyond the headlines stat.

First, the foreclosure rate jumped 19 percent from April.

Second, we aren’t about to turn the corner.
A jump in foreclosures at a time of year that traditionally is the busiest for home sales means the slide in prices probably isn't over, said James Saccacio, chief executive officer of RealtyTrac. Typically, more than half of all home sales occur in the April to June period, according to Freddie Mac, the No. 2 mortgage buyer.

“Such strong activity in the midst of the typical spring buying season could foreshadow even higher foreclosure levels later in the year,” Saccacio said in the report. That will add “to the downward pressure on home prices in many areas.”

I’ve been blogging about this for months; I totally agree. Unfortunately, Wall Street and the Federal Reserve refuse to face the music.

Gun-show regulations do work

Take notice, Texas; your gun-show regs are among those found to be falling short.

Gary Wintemute, a professor of emergency medicine at the University of California-Davis and a gun control advocate, reports gun-show regulations do work, and do so without driving away buyers, even if they are stringent like in California.
(He) covertly observed and documented illegal gun sales at 28 gun shows; eight were in California, where shows are tightly regulated, and the rest were in Nevada, Arizona, Texas and Florida.

California requires that gun show promoters be licensed, while the other four states (the leading sources of guns used in crimes in California) don’t regulate shows at all.

Result? He found a lot more “straw-man” or “cut-out” gun buyers, people with clean records buying for criminals, in all the other states besides California.

The not-a-senator factor and early handicapping of the 2008 presidential race

Will the not-a-senator factor continue to be a factor in 2008? (John Kennedy and Warren Harding are the only sitting senators in more than a century to be elected president.) Parallel to that, will the governorship factor, or some sort of “executive” factor, be a plus?

If so, don’t be surprised to see Romney and Giuliani continue to run high on the GOP side, despite the various degrees of distaste they generate within the Religious Right. Thompson has been out of the Senate long enough to get half credit on this issue, perhaps.

On the Democratic side, Clinton has been in the Senate long enough for it to probably tell against her, while Obama’s brief tenure is probably too short to hold much against him. I’m not sure about how Edwards’ one term, and a couple of years out of the Senate, now, will play out.

The only Democrat who can make serious claim to the “executive” issue is New Mexico governor Bill Richardson. But, beyond him still seeming a second-tier candidate at this time, he has a well-rumored (Bill) Clinton problem with a few women around the statehouse in Santa Fe.

At some point, Giuliani is going to self-destruct. So, we’re looking at Romney or maybe Thompson against Obama, most likely.

Of course, this political trend could change at some point. After Washington and John Adams, we had four former Secretaries of State move up (looking at Jefferson that way rather than as pre-12th Amendment vice president).

Senate Dems plan Iraq timetables again: an analysis

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid plans to attach two Iraq timetable amendments to the 2008 defense appropriations bill.

Without immediately looking at the possibility of success, there are two incidents which do bring this back to the forefront (not counting Congressional Democrats’ sagging approval ratings as an “incident”).

First is Gen. Martin Dempsey’s admission that training of Iraq army and security forces remains inadequate, even woefully so:
Describing the U.S. effort in Iraq as a labor of Sisyphus, he said the metaphoric stone is “probably rolling back a bit right now in Baghdad. But I don't think it's going to roll over us.”

Dempsey depicted the level of violence tolerated by Iraqis as “mind-numbing” and acknowledged that a dearth of security has made some Iraqis nostalgic for the rule of Saddam Hussein, who was ousted by the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. “You’ll hear people say, ‘You know, we were a lot more secure and safe during the Saddam regime,’ “ he told the oversight panel of the House Armed Services Committee.

Second is Maine Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe’s direct blaming of Bush, and Bush’s stubbornness MO, for the 2006 loss of the Senate:
Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) said she thinks her former GOP colleagues Sens. Mike DeWine (Ohio) and Lincoln Chafee (R.I.) lost reelection because of Bush’s unpopularity.

“It’s definitely because of the president and his policies, more from the standpoint of immovability and not being willing to adjust policies in response to real-time circumstances,” she said. “It wasn’t just the fact that things weren’t working well in Iraq, it was the president wasn’t willing to adjust his policy to recognize and acknowledge that.”

Last year’s losses at the polls have shaped her Republican colleagues’ view of the president in 2007, she said, adding, “All of that had manifested itself in ways this year, leading to concerns about the president’s policies.”

Now, we’ve heard enough of this in the past, but, as the drip, drip, drip of not-so-good news from people like Gen. Dempsey picks up, senators and representatives may in fact start distancing themselves more.

So, where does this all lead?

Key for seeing how Republicans move is seeing how this plays out in their presidential primaries battle. Already, while trying to out-macho each other on terrorism in general, most GOP candidates not named McCain are trying to detach from Iraq itself, and even Big John has been somewhat critical.

Reid has plenty of GOP senator sound-bite quotes, in other words. Let’s see how well he plays his cards.

Because, between discontentment over Democrats’ previous “cave” and knowing how the Rovian PR machine works, Reid (and Speaker Pelosi) need to have their own PR work ready in advance. That’s where quotes from GOP presidential debates and elsewhere on the hustings will come in handy — rhetorically asking GOP senators if they want to be sticking their necks out at the same time their would-be presidential nominees are drawing theirs in?

Creation museum actor owns porn website

Now, the new creationist museum of “science” in Kentucky has been taking a lot of hits for its lack of scientific accuracy.

But, it looks like it dropped its moral pants, too:
The man picked as Adam by a museum based on the Bible's version of Earth's history led quite a different life outside the Garden of Eden, flaunting his sexual exploits online and modeling for a line of clothing with an explicit mascot.

Registration records show that Eric Linden, who portrays Adam taking his first breath in a film at the newly opened Creation Museum, owns a graphic Web site called Bedroom Acrobat. He has been pictured there, smiling alongside a drag queen, in a T-shirt
brandishing the site's sexually suggestive logo.

Linden, a graphic designer, model and actor, also sells clothing for SFX International, whose initials appear on clothing to spell "SEX" from afar and serve as an abbreviation for its mascot, who promotes "free love,"
"pleasure" and "Thrillz."

Egg on creationist faces aside, and claims that “We’re not perfect, just forgiven” also aside … wasn’t Adam nude before he bit what was likely a pomegranate, based on similar legends? (The Bible/Tanakh never identifies the fruit and certainly does NOT call it an apple, which isn’t native to that part of the world.)

June 12, 2007

An officiating gripe about the NBA Finals

No, not the foul on Lebron at the end that wasn’t called. Bowen did foul him, BUT, Cavs fans, it was a non-shooting foul, Van Gundy in the announcing slot aside.

No, my gripe is:

Why does the NBA use a different set of refs for each game? I know Major League Baseball doesn’t do this with postseason umps; I don’t know, and really don’t care, about the NHL stance.

It seems that it would affect continuity and consistency across a series. Is David Stern worried that a prima donna like Crawford is gonna imprint himself on the Finals (were Crawford not suspended)? Or is he even worried about refs throwing a series? Or is this just some dumb thing that nobody’s changed?

June 10, 2007

This is tragic, that vets aren’t getting better mental health insurance

The biggest problem, other than Tricare’s stinted coverage and lack of therapists in its coverage, is that Guard and Reserve troops called to active duty aren’t getting active-duty level mental health insurance coverage.
Soldiers returning from war are finding it more difficult to get mental health treatment because military insurance is cutting payments to therapists, on top of already low reimbursement rates and a tangle of red tape.

Wait lists now extend for months to see a military doctor and it can takes weeks to find a private therapist willing to take on members of the military. The challenge appears great in rural areas, where many National Guard and Reserve troops and their families live.

Tricare itself needs to be improved, and Guard and Reserve on active duty should get 100 percent payment of premiums while called up.