July 17, 2013

Summer League Side Trip: Rediscovering Deschutes

In 2011, I spent two weeks driving across the United States with my friends Mike and Bryan. I had wanted to see this country from the ground for a long time so the trip was literally years in the making. Eventually, I came to view it as almost a rite of passage of being an American. I've known other people who have taken similar journeys and I think everyone I know who has made the cross country trek took a few weeks after college before starting their first real job. I waited until I was 43. Oh well!

Our trip across the continent took us on a northern route to the Midwest cities of Cleveland, Indianapolis, St. Louis and Kansas City; through the South Dakota badlands to the town of Deadwood in the Black Hills; on to Yellowstone National Park in the Rockies; and then over the Cascade Mountains to Seattle before ending up in Portland, Oregon and flying home. It was truly one of the great trips I’ve taken. We saw so much that will stick with me for the rest of my life before we likely cheated by taking a plane back home. If I ever do anything like that again, maybe I’ll fly out to Oregon and drive east to D.C. through the south.

On our way across the country, we tried to sample local craft beers in each city we visited: Great Lakes and Thirsty Dog in Cleveland; Sun King in Indianapolis; Schafly in St. Louis; Boulevard in Kansas City; Moose Drool in Yellowstone; and Pike Place Brewing in Seattle. Despite all the great beer we had on our way across the nation, the trip’s real beer destination (because every good trip needs a beer destination) was our last stop of Portland. And the best beer we had in Portland, hands down, was at the Deschutes Brewing Company Pub on Northwest 11th Avenue. It was so good that in the two nights we were in town, we visited the place both nights.

Since we left Portland two years ago, I’ve been craving Deschutes’ Hop In The Dark and Chainbreaker White IPA beers weekly (ESPECIALLY the Chainbreaker). Both beers are what I would call hybrid beers, applying a hop character to beer varieties that are not traditionally heavily hopped. They are, in my experience, unique among beer varieties and it totally works. They are both absolutely delicious.

As of right now, Deschutes distributes as far east as Illinois, which means I can’t find their beer near my home in Washington, D.C. I noticed a Deschutes bar takeover here just a day late last year and I’ve been kicking myself ever since. But Las Vegas is west of Illinois, so while I was out there for NBA Summer League I decided to look for some of what I’ve been craving these last 24 months, with the help of the Find Our Beers section of Deschutes’ website.

So all these words I’ve written essentially amount to a love note to Chainbreaker White IPA. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I’m just saying, that's all. I found some in bottles at Burger Bar at Mandalay Bay a couple of hours after touchdown and had two with a make your own bison burger (American cheese, chopped jalapeños, jalapeño bacon and chipotle aioli if you must know) as soon as I sat down at the bar.

Chainbreaker was perhaps not the perfect pairing with my burger considering my choice of toppings but it was wonderful nonetheless. The beer is a Belgian style witbier which is hopped like an IPA. So where a typical witbier, which I don't drink that often, finishes a little weak and watery in my experience, leaving just a vague yeasty aftertaste, the hop finish on the Chainbreaker adds a finish which is robust and totally in contrast to the rest of the taste of the beer. I savored those two beers, knowing that I could always go back, if I had to, for more. I didn't, as it turned out, but I know where to find it. And next summer, I might just do that unless Deschutes finds a way to distribute to the east coast. I'm still looking for some more Hop In The Dark.

July 16, 2013

Summer League 2013

As of this post, NBA Summer League in Las Vegas is in full swing. It started last Friday and runs through next Monday. The Wizards first two games of the summer were this past Saturday and Sunday and I was able to get out to Vegas to see our guys play before heading back to D.C. and back to work. In case I haven't made it obvious in prior posts, let me state once again for the record that I love Summer League. Despite getting back from a European trip just five days before leaving for Vegas, there was no way I was missing this.

The Las Vegas Summer League this year is a tournament, with the championship game on the final day, and that format has completely affected the scheduling of games. In the four prior Summer Leagues I have attended, the Wizards usually completed all five of their games over a seven day span, playing three games and two games on consecutive days sandwiched around two days off. This year, every team plays three games in the first five days with anywhere from two to five additional games in tournament play. This new schedule had the Wizards playing Saturday and Sunday but not again until Tuesday, which didn't allow me to take in three games in the three night stay I typically allocate to a Vegas trip. I'm not going to get upset about missing the third game; it just is what it is. But I might change my philosophy in coming years.

One of the reasons I love Summer League is the opportunity to talk to players, coaches and general managers about the Wizards, the NBA or the game of basketball in general. Last year I was able to bend Wizards' general manager Ernie Grunfeld's ear for five minutes or so after a game and spent some time talking to Chris Singleton. Friday morning, I was sitting at the gate at National Airport when head coach Randy Wittman walked in to the boarding area. The team flew out a day earlier but Randy had another commitment so he ended up flying first class on the 9 a.m. direct flight that I happened to be on.

"Surveillance photo" of me grilling Randy Wittman about the Wizards.

I usually manage to only get a couple of words in with our head coach at Summer League over the aisle between the general admission seats and the roped off VIP coaches and players section so it was great to get a few questions in uninterrupted while we waited to board. And I actually had stuff I wanted to know this year. I always claim that this blog is not about the game of basketball (and it's not) but I have learned a thing or two about our team here and there while writing this and it definitely prepared me to talk hoops with Randy.

We didn't talk long but I managed to ask about turnovers, the Ariza/Okafor for Rashard Lewis trade, the log jam of young players in the frontcourt and Jan Vesely's free throws. Not surprisingly, turnovers drive Randy nuts and the Wizards committed a lot of them last year. He acknowledged that the team is likely to have more turnovers than other teams because of the pace the team wants to play but also credited John Wall with improvement at the end of last year which he hopes (as we all do) will carry over to this year.

I next asked about the difference that Trevor Ariza and Emeka Okafor made to the team's success last year. Randy pointed out that a lot of people panned the trade to begin with because it added another year of salary cap burden which could have been used to sign free agents but that in the end the team needed veterans who can play. I admitted I was one of the trade's detractors at the beginning of the season and I thought the use of the term "veterans who can play" was interesting. There's no question Trevor and Emeka logged heavy minutes last year and were not just in the locker room for leadership alone. We need these guys to play and contribute in a big way.

On the subject of our young big men, Randy noted that either Kevin Seraphin, Trevor Booker, Jan Vesely or Chris Singleton has to start distinguishing themselves from the pack to get heavy minutes. He also acknowledged that there is probably only room for two of those four in the future. Finally, I asked about how Vesely can improve his free throw percentage. Randy confirmed for me that it's all mental, just as we heard from A.J. Price at the end of last season, and that Ves is seeking help from a sports psychologist to improve his performance at the line. What a great start to summer league; I hadn't even left Virginia yet and already had gained the kind of inside information you get sometimes when you hang around the right spot at the right time.

2013 first round draft pick Otto Porter during a timeout in game 1.
As far as the Wizards' play while I was in Las Vegas...well, big picture-wise, we lost both games. We managed to set a Las Vegas NBA Summer League all time record for fewest points scored in a game by both teams (108 points total) in Saturday's turnover filled game against the Golden State Warriors. We followed that effort on Sunday with a close-through-three-quarters affair against the New York Knicks before collapsing in the fourth quarter to the tune of 23-12 and ultimately losing by 13 points. I realize wins and losses don't mean much in Summer League but it's nice to win just the same, especially after traveling 2,000 miles for a game or two.

This year's Summer League team featured four players who are likely to be on the Wizards' 2013-2014 opening day roster and probably nobody else considering we theoretically only have one open roster spot unless we manage to make some adjustments via trade prior to the start of the season. 2011 first round draft picks Jan Vesely and Chris Singleton were back for their second Vegas stint and were joined by this year's draft picks Otto Porter and Glen Rice, Jr., so it was an opportunity to see if Ves and Singleton would fare better against Summer League opponents than they did in the regular season in addition to getting a first look at our two rookies.

Through our first two games, Chris Singleton had another uneven Summer League. He led the team in scoring with 13 points in our 52 point game against the Warriors on 4 of 9 shooting but fared far worse against the Knicks in the second game. It appears the team is once again experimenting with Chris bringing the ball up court just like he did last summer and it's just not working. I am much more nervous with Chris handing the ball in Summer League than I am having Trevor Ariza do it in the regular season and that's saying something. If there was somewhat of a bright spot for me in Chris' first two games, it's that he knocked down some open jump shots in game one after seeming highly reluctant to take those shots at first. No doubt he's still a work in progress. Chris has an uphill climb at the three spot this year so it seems like his best chance for significant playing time is at the power forward position. Knocking down open Js will help his court time.

In contrast to last year's Summer League, I thought Jan Vesely played very well this year. He was fairly aggressive offensively, testing out some post moves with limited success, and played some good defense deflecting passes and blocking some shots inside. While he had an errant pass or two, Ves continued to show in my opinion some strong passing skills, especially when starting the fast break. I also thought he rebounded fairly effectively. It's difficult to gauge the performance of an athletic power forward in Summer League. He needs someone to facilitate his offense too much to flourish in that type of atmosphere. The couple of alley oop attempts thrown Jan's way being clearly off the mark served as a perfect example of his need for quality point guard play for his game to succeed. One really bright spot: he looked very comfortable going two-for-two from the free throw line.

Me in my Jan Vesely t shirt with Vesely himself.
The first two games of Summer League were a mixed bag for number three overall draft pick Otto Porter, who started at shooting guard. I thought his first game was far more effective than his second game. He looked comfortable on the court, unlike Bradley Beal in his first game last year, but he was certainly not an offensive force. He showed his full game on Saturday defending, rebounding, scoring and hustling for loose balls. He played some heads up ball and managed to get out and run on some fast break attempts, finishing efficiently at the rim.

Glen Rice, Jr. on the other hand showed some game. Of our four players likely to be on the roster on opening day, Glen's performance exceeded my expectations by a ton. His shooting was perhaps less than remarkable, making only five of his 15 shots over the first two games. What stood out to me though was the rest of his game, including his ability to rebound the ball and defend his opponent. He also managed the most impressive dunk of the first two days for the Wizards. Hopefully his Summer League performance can translate to the regular season, although I realize that's a lot to ask of a rookie second round draft pick. I noticed Glen looked down at his feet to make sure he was behind the three point line in each of the two games I watched. I wish he wouldn't do that; just catch and shoot in rhythm and learn where to place your feet over time. He missed both shots by the way.

This brief all too short trip to Las Vegas was my fifth Summer League excursion. If there's one thing that's obvious from this past weekend, it's that the event is clearly picking up some momentum. I realize I showed up on the first Saturday in the smaller Cox Pavilion when both the Warriors and Sacramento Kings were playing, but the place was packed. I've only seen it more full than it was Saturday afternoon once and that was during John Wall's first game three years ago. It's great to see people packing the arena even if it was kind of nice to watch hoops in a mostly empty arena in years past.

I also noticed increased visibility in talking with cab drivers. I think every cab driver I've had before this year had no idea what was happening over at the Thomas and Mack Center and getting rides back to the strip was a complete crap shoot. You just had to be there when someone else was dropped off. But this year on both days I exited the arena there was a cab line outside the arena, which is great to see. I've been back only one day and I wish I was still out there. The Wizards' final game of group play is tonight at 10 p.m. Eastern time.

Oh...by the way, the odds of the Wizards finishing with the best record in the NBA: 100 to 1. I didn't place a bet.

Finally! A cab line outside the Thomas and Mack Center.

July 8, 2013

What?!?! You Missed The NBA Draft?!?!

Yes, I missed the NBA Draft. Despite the Wizards having the third overall pick and the Draft being at the brand new Barclays Center in Brooklyn, I skipped it. I also missed the start of free agency, perhaps critical to the Wizards this year because we actually have a free agent in Martell Webster that I desperately want our team to re-sign. I skipped both of these "events" (the start of free agency isn't really an event) because sometimes, other stuff gets in the way. I know, it's hard to believe, but it's true. And from June 27 to July 7 this year, I was off exploring Bavaria, and the history, geography, food and beer it has to offer and that kept me away from the draft and the subsequent start of free agency.

But being out of the country doesn't mean a complete break from being a Wizards fanatic. I took a few shirts with me on the off chance that anyone in Germany wanted to talk Wizards hoops with me. I also followed the Draft on Twitter on my phone from the runway during our flight delay and free agency every day on my laptop and (until I left it in a bathroom) my iPad.

So, a lot happened while I was gone. I managed to stay dialed in to the Draft to the seventh pick by the Kings, so I knew before I left the U.S. that the Wizards selected Otto Porter out of Georgetown University or exactly the player we wanted. I'm glad we resisted the temptation to take Nerlens Noel despite my opinion that our biggest need for a young player is at center. After five years missing the playoffs, it seems that we needed to be more realistic about taking a solid player and not shoot for the stars taking a flyer on a freshman center coming off an ACL injury. Good restraint there.

I had to wait until 8 a.m. Germany time and our connection in Frankfurt to find out that we  traded our two second round picks to the 76ers in exchange for the draft rights to Glen Rice, Jr. meaning the organization stayed true to its word about not wanting three rookies on the roster on opening day. I saw Rice down in Hidalgo playing for the Rio Grande Valley Vipers during my February Texas road trip. While his 18 points in the game I watched didn't stand out (the Vipers scored 139), his 33 and 25 points in two NBDL Finals games sure did.  Hopefully Glen can occupy a more deluxe sort of role that Cartier Martin had on last year's team.

Hanging out at Castle Neuschwanstein in the German Alps.
Then free agency hit July 1st and the Wizards made short work of that whole process. The organization wasted no time wrapping up Martell Webster for the full mid-level exception for three years with a partial guarantee on a fourth year (pretty much exactly what I asked for by the way). Good for Martell. He deserved it with his play last year and he really wants to be in Washington. It's so refreshing to get a team first guy who can contribute and wants to be here. I'm just remembering the whole Gilbert Arenas contract negotiation/blackmail ploy. Now I can finally order my Martell Webster jersey and relegate my Chris Singleton jersey to games I watch from my upper level seats at VC. Sorry, Chris.

In addition to re-signing Martell, the Wizards picked up point guard Eric Maynor to back up John Wall and re-upped Garrett Temple on a guaranteed one year deal. I think Maynor's a good move. I appreciate what A.J. Price brought to the team last year but the Wizards get a guy in Maynor with a little more experience in the NBA and probably a little more upside. I'd have preferred someone with a little more experience here to mentor Wall but it's too late for that now, I guess. I already put it out there that I think it's worth giving Garrett Temple another shot so I'm OK with that move.

If there's a concern here, it's that the Wizards are essentially sticking with a team that won just 29 games last year. I realize that's grossly unfair to characterize it that way considering the number of injuries to, well, pretty much everyone except Emeka Okafor last year but that's really what we are doing. The organization is clearly counting on the magic (not kidding here) that our starting five (Wall, Beal, Webster, Nenê and Okafor) brought last year while on the court together and hoping they can make it happen for close to the whole season this year instead of about 25% of the season. 

The strategy also counts on Wall, Beal and now Porter getting better month over month and contributing more. Don't get me wrong, I know this is how it's supposed to work with young players. I also agree with the overall strategy and wouldn't have asked for anything else. I think this team can be a playoff team and with the offseasons that the Celtics, Bucks and Hawks have had this year, there may be room for some different teams in the top eight come next April. I'm just hoping that pressing the repeat button and having everyone together more allows the turnovers to go down and the offensive rebounding to go up.

Summer League starts for the Wizards Saturday and I plan to be in Las Vegas for the first two games. That means this coming weekend I'll be eight time zones removed from where I was this past weekend. I hope the liter glasses of beer in the two pictures in this post suggest I had a great time while in Bavaria. It took me all the way to the last full day there to get a reaction to my Wizards attire. I ran in to a "John Wall fan" from Boston at the Hofbrauhaus gift store and got a "Wizards! Yeah!" from a passerby on the Marienplatz later that same night. I'm assuming there will be more Wizards fans in Vegas. Can't wait until Saturday.

Part way through a half liter of Spezial Hell at Andechs Abbey.