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Sunday, September 4, 2016

Quinoa Chicken Rolls

A tasty, healthy option for Sunday dinner...or any other night of the week, for that matter.

2 Whole (or 4 half) boneless skinless chicken breasts
1 cup cooked red quinoa (season with 1 tbsp olive oil, 2 tsp Goya Adobo®, and 2 tsp Mrs. Dash® Tomato, Basil, Garlic seasoning, then cooled)
2-3 cups raw baby spinach
2/3 cup sliced baby portabella mushrooms
1/4 cup diced sweet onion
1/3 cup feta cheese
1 box Oven Fry® Extra Crispy (chicken) mix
1/2 cup parmesan cheese
1 egg
1/3 cup coconut milk
1 teaspoon lime or key lime juice

Brine chicken in warm water with 1 tbsp natural maple syrup and 2 tsp soy sauce for approximately 2 hours. Rinse thoroughly and pat dry.

Heat oven to 400° and spray glass baking dish with olive oil cooking spray.

Mix seasoned cooked quinoa with roughly chopped spinach, roughly chopped mushrooms, diced onions, and feta cheese. Set aside.

Pound the chicken breasts to approximately 1/2 inch thickness. Mix egg, coconut milk, and lime juice. In separate dish, mix Oven Fry® and parmesan cheese.

Dip chicken in egg mixture, then cover both sides with Oven Fry® mixture. Add 1-2 tbsp of the quinoa mixture and roll the chicken breast with mixture inside. Place rolled, filled breasts seam down in the glass baking dish. Spread remaining quinoa mixture between/around the chicken rolls.

Bake for 25 minutes.

GREAT SIDE DISH SUGGESTION:
Heat olive oil in large skillet. When hot, add diced garlic, then sauté asparagus and butternut squash. Serve when asparagus is al dente.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Audience of One Writers Retreat

As a late-comer to the wonderful(ly frustrating) world of writing, I had much to learn.

OK, truth be told, I still have much to learn. But that's another story for another time.

Like many writers at the beginning, I believed my story and my voice were worthy of being heard, that simply jotting down my brilliant insights and clever bon mots would result in droves of fawning readers, agents, and publishers beating a path to my door, demanding the I share more unfiltered thoughts so they could put them before the word-buying public where we would all get rich and famous.

With apologies to Stephen Sondheim, a funny thing happened on the way to the fortune...

I discovered that the writers I loved who made things seem so easy were liars. The finished product that I held in my hands was the result of months (and in some cases, years) of hard work, pain, sacrifice, and editing, editing, editing.

They only made it look easy because they were really, really good at their craft.

And I discovered that I kind of sucked at mine.

So in an effort to suck less, I began exploring how the good ones got good. The formula, apparently, was quite straightforward:
  1. Write.
  2. Don't suck at writing.
  3. Edit.
  4. Don't suck at editing.
  5. Repeat ad nauseam.
It all seems so simple...

So in order to plot my own course, I followed good writers around (virtually and literally, though I've so far dodged any restraining orders), picking their brains whenever possible. Writers like Tim Dorsey, John Lescroart, Perri (Mary and Pam) O'Shaughnessy, and Joshilyn Jackson were all gracious and generous enough to share their experience and practices with me.

And as a result, today I suck just a little bit less than before.

I'm in the midst of a collaborative project with a dear friend of mine with whom I'd wanted to work for years. What started out as a twisted response to an email then morphed into a challenge to make each other laugh (and/or cringe, apparently). We exchanged "chronicles" which soon became chapters in what will be our first book together.

We set a couple rules for our endeavor. First we determined that we would simply take the other's latest work and build upon it. Sort of an improvisational exquisite corpse. "Yes and..." became the only real theme of the story.

And our only real goal was to entertain the other. We were truly writing for an audience of one.

We also established a rule that we would use footnotes. Lots and lots of footnotes. No particular reason why. It's our goddam book and if we want footnotes, we'll have footnotes.

When we got to about forty pages, we decided the story was worth pursuing. When we got to fifty, we decided that Radley, Sloe, Karm, Lizza, Ebay, and most of all, Shameus deserved a world in which they could live.

We decided it was time for a writers' retreat.

I love the definitions of retreat offered by those rascals Merriam and Webster. All seemed to fit our intention:

  • An act or process of withdrawing especially from what is difficult, dangerous, or disagreeable: Nothing is more dangerous or disagreeable to a writer than the banality of day-to-day work life. So we will retreat from that.
  • The process of receding from a position or state attained: Both of us have attained a modicum of success in our professional lives (i.e., we're both still drawing a paycheck), positions from which we will recede for a few days.
  • A place of privacy or safety: We found a place far from the madding (and maddening) crowd where we'll be safe to follow the gang down whichever rabbit hole they descend.
  • A period of group withdrawal for prayer, medication, study, or instruction under a director: Well, we won't really have a director but we do have direction.

So we created the Audience of One Writers' Retreat. We rented a cabin halfway between our respective homes in Pace, Florida (him) and Jacksonville, Florida (me). And lest this become simply an opportunity to fish, eat badly, and try to out-fart one another, we established some specific goals, along with a plan to meet them.

Our primary objective is to feed the beast that is the story. We are there to serve it. We have characters (and oh boy, are they characters!) and a rough idea of the challenges they face. But we will spend the weekend doing the dirty work of outlining the story to make sure they actually end up somewhere entertaining.

We also established a detailed schedule. It will not be all sitting in front of each other, dueling laptops at the ready. We've built time into the long weekend to feed the creativity that fueled this project from the beginning. We'll fish and eat and nap and, yes, probably try to out-fart each other. After all, we're writers not statesmen. Writers write. And sometimes they try to out-fart each other.

So I'll let you know how it goes. Time will ultimately determine if carving this time we made in the midst of our busy lives results in a finished product but we'll know after this weekend if we spent our time well, investing wisely in our art.

And who knows? If all goes well and our weekend is productive, we may even open up the Audience of One Writers' Retreat to others going forward, to share our approach.

But don't worry. Any other writers we invite won't need to participate in any fart competitions.

Unless, you know, you really want to.


Thursday, July 21, 2016

Independence Day: July 21, 1996

On July 21, 1996:

  • Bill Clinton was still in his first term as President of the United States
  • The number 1 movie in the United States was "Independence Day" with Will Smith (et al)
  • The number 1 record in the country was 2Pac's "How Do U Want It" (A side, featuring Jodeci) / "California Love" (B side, featuring Dr. Dre and Roger Troutman)
  • Robin Williams turned 45
  • We were 1,878 days away from September 11, 2001
  • My Father was still alive
  • I was a 34-year old college dropout and an underachieving Air Force Master Sergeant whose second marriage was circling the drain

And...

  • I launched on a journey to an unknown destination, that I never wanted to take, but that has changed my life in ways I never knew needed changing.

Since July 21, 1996, I have:

  • Retired from the Air Force
  • Graduated college
  • Transitioned into a satisfying, good-paying career
  • Become a published writer, including a stint as an 84-year old Southern woman named Matilda Mae Sugarbottom (of the Andalusia Sugarbottoms)
  • Hosted a sports-talk radio show, which is where the nickname "Smokey Joe" was given me by one of our loyal listeners
  • Performed stand-up comedy
  • Buried my Father
  • Moved nine times
  • Worked for eleven different employers (not counting the Air Force). OK...it hasn't all been satisfying.
  • Formed adult relationships with my adult children. Most of them, anyway.
  • Been a son to my Mother, a brother to my Sister, a father to my Children, and a man among men
  • Developed a connection with a God with whom I was able to negotiate terms agreeable to both of us
  • Married the greatest human being I've ever known

"Thank you" is so horribly insufficient but my deepest, sincerest heartfelt thanks go to some of my guides along the way:

  • Mark Bartoloni
  • Dhulkti Springhawk
  • Dr. John Doyle
  • Leo Donnely
  • Ron Raby
  • Mike Greenstein
  • Dick Bower
  • Craig Bracey
  • Richie Hayward
  • My Sister, Malinda
  • Dr. Amy Karbasi
  • Innumerable others without whose love and support, who knows what might have happened

But most of all, I simply cannot imagine my life without my best friend, business partner, lover, greatest cheerleader, and wife, the future Dr. Lisa Marie Mayes.



It's been an amazing twenty years.

I'll see you again on July 21, 2036.

Peace,
Smokey Joe

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Could Any Laker Start for Another Western Conference Team?

Back on July 1, after watching Jim “Fredo” Buss and Mitch Kupchak make some of the most questionable free agent decisions I’ve seen in nearly fifty years of following the Los Angeles Lakers, I tweeted the following:
Do the @Lakers have a single player on the roster who could start for anyone else in the Western Conference?
 (To be fair, this was after the Mozgov announcement but before Deng.)

I was immediately called out by a Twitter friend, Le Musicien ‏(@LironDayo) who responded:
Russell, Clarkson, Randall, Mozgov....and maybe Ingram
I stewed for a few moments, wondering if someone with fewer than 1,000 followers could enter into something that would actually be called a Twitter “beef” before replying:
Meh...maybe. I'll analyze this weekend but am not convinced."
So I decided to eschew my emotional response to the Lakers’ free agent activity and analyze the facts to determine who was right, me or arch-Twitter nemesis, @LironDayo.

The short answer is that I have to begrudgingly acknowledge that I was possibly wrong. It is possible that a player on the current Lakers roster might be able to start for another team in the Western Conference.

But LeMusicien was wrong, too. Based on my analysis of the 2015-16 NBA season, the only Laker likely to be able to start for another team in the West isn’t D’Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson, Julius Randle, Timofey Mozgov, or Brandon Ingram.

It’s Lou Williams.

(While it’s possible that Ingram may turn out to be a pretty decent NBA star, it’s not likely that he’ll be ready to start in the NBA by the start of the 2016-17 season.)

Before we dive down the advanced statistics rabbit hole, it’s important to point out that I’m an old-school basketball fan. I grew up with statistics like points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks as points of comparison between players. But most of all I relied on what I call the “Floor Test.”

It’s a simple test, really: Does a guy on the floor look like he belongs on the floor?

There weren’t many moments during the 2015-16 NBA season where any of the Lakers looked like they belonged on the floor of an NBA game. They were individually and collectively overmatched. At least according to my Floor Test (and the ol’ reliable wins/losses test).

But I’m nothing if not open-minded and progressive so I decided that instead of just relying on traditional statistics and my “you damn kids get off my lawn” eye for the game, it might be worthwhile to look at some of the more reliable advanced metrics to see if there was something in purple and gold that I was missing.

(Note: All statistics taken from Basketball-Reference.com.)

Now, I don’t want to open the debate over the value of advanced metrics. As I mentioned, I’m an old-school guy (also an old guy but that’s another column for another time) so I’m not sold on measures like Player Efficiency Rating (PER), Value Over Replacement Player (VORP), and Box Plus/Minus (BPM). But these seemed like a good starting point if I were to get an objective look at the 2015-16 Lakers as they compare to the other Western Conference teams.

As I mentioned, I’m not sold on all of today’s advanced metrics. For example, let’s take a look at PER. This advanced statistic can be a particularly misleading because in its raw form, it doesn’t necessarily reflect...well...sanity.

You may know that the PER was developed by John Hollinger to distill all of a player’s contributions into a single number by use of a complex algorithm that includes (but is not limited to):
  • -       Field goals
  • -       Free throws
  • -       3-pointers
  • -       Assists
  • -       Rebounds
  • -       Some squiggly lines
  • -       Rum
  • -       Blocks and steals
  • -       Block and tackle
  • -       Man of Steel
  • -       Personal fouls
  • -       Impersonal fouls


These factors are all cooked in a crock pot, then divided by minutes played to establish the PER. Every year the league average is normalized to an average of 15.0. This allows for year-to-year comparisons between players.

Now, here are the top 10 players in the NBA for 2015-16, according to raw PER:

Rk
Player
Pos
Age
Tm
G
MP
PER
1
Jimmer Fredette
SG
26
NYK
2
5
47.4
2
Briante Weber
PG
23
MIA
1
3
39.3
3
Thanasis Antetokounmpo
SF
23
NYK
2
6
32.9
4
Rakeem Christmas
PF
24
IND
1
6
32.0
5
Stephen Curry
PG
27
GSW
79
2700
31.5
6
Bryce Cotton
PG
23
MEM
5
6
29.1
7
Kevin Durant
SF
27
OKC
72
2578
28.2
8
Boban Marjanovic
C
27
SAS
54
508
27.7
9
Russell Westbrook
PG
27
OKC
80
2750
27.6
10
LeBron James
SF
31
CLE
76
2709
27.5

Notwithstanding the fact that the only list atop which Jimmer Fredette should be is a “Whatever happened to...” list, look at the G (Games) and MP (Minutes Played) columns. The top four PER ratings are players who played in a collective six games for a total of 20 minutes. Obviously players with five or six minutes played do not provide a decent representation of a player’s value. So it was clear I had to refine the measure.

The average number of minutes played in the last season was 1,105 so I limited the list to only those players who played a minimum of 1,000 minutes (>1,000 MP), then took another look at the PER ratings:

Rk
Player
Pos
Age
Tm
G
MP
PER
1
Stephen Curry
PG
27
GSW
79
2700
31.5
2
Kevin Durant
SF
27
OKC
72
2578
28.2
3
Russell Westbrook
PG
27
OKC
80
2750
27.6
4
LeBron James
SF
31
CLE
76
2709
27.5
5
Chris Paul
PG
30
LAC
74
2420
26.2
6
Kawhi Leonard
SF
24
SAS
72
2380
26.0
7
Hassan Whiteside
C
26
MIA
73
2125
25.7
8
James Harden
SG
26
HOU
82
3125
25.3
9
Anthony Davis
PF
22
NOP
61
2164
25.0
10
Enes Kanter
C
23
OKC
82
1721
24.0

This looks like a much more representative list of the top NBA players (Enes Kanter notwithstanding) so I used the 1,000-minute threshold as a starting point to determine where the Lakers fell in 2015-16.

And it ain’t pretty.

Here are the PER ratings for the 2015-16 Lakers, with their two new acquisitions -- Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng -- added into the mix:

Player
Pos
Age
G
MP
PER
Lou Williams
SG
29
67
1907
17.7
Brandon Bass
PF
30
66
1342
17.4
Luol Deng (MIA)
PF
30
74
2394
15.0
Kobe Bryant
SF
37
66
1863
14.9
Timofey Mozgov (CLE)
C
29
76
1326
14.6
Jordan Clarkson
SG
23
79
2552
14.3
Julius Randle
PF
21
81
2286
13.9
Larry Nance Jr.
PF
23
63
1266
13.4
D'Angelo Russell
PG
19
80
2259
13.2
Roy Hibbert
C
29
81
1878
11.2
Nick Young
SG
30
54
1033
9.1

When evaluating PER, the highest rated Laker was again Lou Williams, with a PER of 17.7.

To put this into perspective, here are a few facts about where Lou Williams -- the higest PER rated Laker among players (>1,000 MP) -- and the rest of the Lakers fell in evaluating PER:
-       Every team in the Western Conference had at least one player with a higher PER than Williams. 71% of them (10 of 14 teams) had two or more.
-       With the exception of the historically bad Philadelphia 76ers team, every other team in the NBA had at least one player with a higher PER.
-       The average PER for players (>1,000 MP) was 14.8. There are only two Lakers from last year’s roster with PER higher than this average (Lou Williams at 17.7 and Brandon Bass at 17.4). Kobe Bryant (barely) finished higher than the average at 14.9 and Luol Deng tallied a 15.0 for Miami.

But trying to use a single statistical measure to perform this kind of analysis is like trying to watch ‘one sex tape to determine which is the trashiest Kardashian. So I looked next at Box Plus/Minus.

Box Plus/Minus uses a player’s box score statistics and the team’s performance to estimate a player’s performance relative to the league average, stated as a per-100-possessoions statistic. (Explanation courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com).

Here is a look at BPM scale in general:
-       0.0 is the league average
-       +5.0 means the player is 5 points better than an average player over 100 possessons
-       -2.0 is considered to be “replacement level”
-       -5.0 is really, really bad

Again setting 1,000 minutes played as the threshold, here are the top ten BPM scores in the NBA in 2015-16:

Rk
Player
Pos
Age
Tm
G
MP
BPM
1
Stephen Curry
PG
27
GSW
79
2700
12.5
2
Russell Westbrook
PG
27
OKC
80
2750
10.0
3
LeBron James
SF
31
CLE
76
2709
9.1
4
Kawhi Leonard
SF
24
SAS
72
2380
8.3
5
Kevin Durant
SF
27
OKC
72
2578
7.9
6
Chris Paul
PG
30
LAC
74
2420
7.8
7
Kyle Lowry
PG
29
TOR
77
2851
6.8
8
James Harden
SG
26
HOU
82
3125
6.7
9
Draymond Green
PF
25
GSW
81
2808
5.8
10
Paul Millsap
PF
30
ATL
81
2647
5.3

Here’s an interesting coincidence: the players with the top five BPM ratings for the 2015-16 season also finished 1-5 in the Kia NBA MVP Award voting. And almost exactly in the same order, too, with the only exceptions being Westbrook and Leonard finishing 2 and 4 in the BPM rankings, reverse of the finish in the MVP voting.

So I think it’s safe to say that the BPM rankings for 2015-16 provided a fairly decent representation of the top players in the Association.

So now let’s look at how the Lakers fared:

Player
Pos
Age
G
MP
BPM
Luol Deng (MIA)
PF
30
74
2394
1.9
Brandon Bass
PF
30
66
1342
0.8
Lou Williams
SG
29
67
1907
0.3
Timofey Mozgov (CLE)
C
29
76
1326
-1.2
Roy Hibbert
C
29
81
1878
-1.3
Jordan Clarkson
SG
23
79
2552
-1.4
Larry Nance Jr.
PF
23
63
1266
-1.4
D'Angelo Russell
PG
19
80
2259
-1.8
Kobe Bryant
SF
37
66
1863
-2.5
Julius Randle
PF
21
81
2286
-3.6
Nick Young
SG
30
54
1033
-4.8

Clearly 2015-16 Luol Deng will be a significant upgrade over the top rated Laker last year, assuming he hasn’t already peaked at age 30. So Deng’s signing could turn out to be a bright spot for the Lakers going into the 2016-17 season.

Unfortunately, that’s where all the good BPM news stops. The top 2015-16 Laker was Brandon Bass, who finished with a BPM of 0.8, just barely above average. He was the only Laker to rank in the top 100 BPM (again, players with more than 1,000 minutes). He finished tied for 96 with Dwyane Wade and J.J. Redick.

The only other Laker to finish above the league average of 0.0 was Lou Williams, at 0.3.

Every other Laker was below average, as compared to the rest of the NBA.

Fortunately, as bad as Nick Young was at -4.8, he did not finish dead last in BPM among players (>1,000 MP). He finished fourth from the last, ahead of Ty Lawson (-5.1), JaKarr Sampson (-5.4), and Rashad Vaughn (-6.1). But he was second to the last in the West, ahead of only Houston’s Lawson.

Looking at how Lakers compared to other rosters from the West, all fourteen teams had at least one player with a higher BPM than Bass and 70% of them (10 of 14) had three or more. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Spurs, Warriors, Thunder, and Jazz all had four or more. The Spurs almost had enough players with BPM higher than Bass (9) to be able to put two full five-man teams on the floor.

So as far as BPM is concerned, the Lakers were bad but at least had two players above average. There’s a marketing slogan Jeanie Buss could use:

“We Have Two Returning Players Who Were Above Average! Renew your season tickets now!”

Now let’s take a look at Value Over Replacement Player or VORP.

VORP is “a box score estimate of the points per 100 TEAM possessions that a player contributed above a replacement-level (-2.0) player, translated to an average team and prorated to an 82-game season.” (Basketball-Reference.com)

You then multiply by 2.70 to convert to wins over replacement.

Here are the top VOPR-rated players (>1,000 MP) for the 2015-16 NBA season:

Rk
Player
Pos
Age
Tm
G
MP
VORP
1
Stephen Curry
PG
27
GSW
79
2700
9.8
2
Russell Westbrook
PG
27
OKC
80
2750
8.3
3
LeBron James
SF
31
CLE
76
2709
7.6
4
James Harden
SG
26
HOU
82
3125
6.9
5
Kevin Durant
SF
27
OKC
72
2578
6.4
6
Kyle Lowry
PG
29
TOR
77
2851
6.3
7
Kawhi Leonard
SF
24
SAS
72
2380
6.2
8
Chris Paul
PG
30
LAC
74
2420
6.0
9
Draymond Green
PF
25
GSW
81
2808
5.5
10
Paul Millsap
PF
30
ATL
81
2647
4.9

Once again, the usual suspects; the players we already have determined simply by watching the game to be the best in the game.

The only other point of note is that Draymond Green is severely underrated if some of these advanced statistics are to be believed. That also translates into severely underpaid but that’s another problem for Warriors GM Bob Myers to figure out once he gets done laughing at the league for pulling off that Kevin Durant coup.

Anyway, how did the Lakers fare in VORP rating compared to the rest of the league?

Player
Pos
Age
G
MP
VORP
Luol Deng (MIA)
PF
30
74
2394
2.3
Lou Williams
SG
29
67
1907
1.1
Brandon Bass
PF
30
66
1342
1.0
Jordan Clarkson
SG
23
79
2552
0.4
Roy Hibbert
C
29
81
1878
0.3
Timofey Mozgov (CLE)
C
29
76
1326
0.3
Larry Nance Jr.
PF
23
63
1266
0.2
D'Angelo Russell
PG
19
80
2259
0.1
Kobe Bryant
SF
37
66
1863
-0.2
Nick Young
SG
30
54
1033
-0.7
Julius Randle
PF
21
81
2286
-0.9

Again, the addition of Deng is a positive. His 2015-16 VORP was more than double the highest rated Laker, Lou Williams who finished at 1.1.

However, considering that the 2015-16 NBA average (>1,000 MP) VORP was 2.4, not a single Laker on the roster finished as high as “average.”

But as bad as these numbers are, here’s where things get really ugly for the Lakers: all 29 other teams in the NBA -- including Philadelphia -- had at least one player with a higher VORP than the Lakers’ highest rated player, Williams. Twenty-eight of the other twenty-nine teams had 2 or more.

And since this debate began with my assertion that not a single Laker on the pre-Luol Deng roster would be able to start for any other team in the Western Conference, I looked and who on these rosters anyone from the Lakers might be able to replace.

Of the teams in the Western Conference, all had two or more players with higher VORP than Lou Williams.

Half of these have five or more.

Tm
# VORP > LAL
Spurs
9
Nuggets
5
Warriors
5
Clippers
5
Thunder
5
Trail Blazers
5
Jazz
5
Mavericks
4
Rockets
4
Grizzlies
4
Timberwolves
3
Pelicans
2
Suns
2
Kings
2

CONCLUSION: My analysis of these advanced statistics support an argument that there may have been players on the Lakers roster (before the Deng signing) who could have cracked the starting five for another Western Conference team.

So the winner is Le Musicien.


But after looking closely at some of these advanced statistics, it’s clear that the loser is anyone who is a Lakers fan.