The Thunder, Pau Gasol and the salary cap

The Thunder are still relatively new to the Oklahoma City area, which means there are a lot of fans who still are not very familiar with the NBA salary cap and how it works. To really appreciate what moves are possible in free agency, you first need to have a basic understanding of how the system works.

I struggled with ways to explain this to the layman without over-complicating the matter. There are full NBA collective bargaining agreement FAQs available, but these often contain overly complex descriptions without examples that casual fans can relate to.

But then the universe provided me with an easy out: The Thunder reportedly are going after current Lakers big man Pau Gasol. Explaining how and why OKC is able to pursue Gasol will also give me the chance to explain some of the details of how the salary cap works. There are three possible avenues OKC can take to sign Gasol, but first let’s start with the basic question:

What is the salary cap?

A lot of casual fans think “salary cap” roughly translates to “teams have this much money, and once they spend it all, they’re out. They have no more.” That is what’s known as a hard cap, and that’s true in the NFL, but that’s not how it works in the NBA.

In the NBA, “salary cap” roughly translates to “this is the amount of money all teams can spend on contracts however they want.” If a team is under the salary cap, they can offer money to any free agent until they reach the cap. They don’t have to worry about exceptions, trades, salary dumping or non-guaranteed contracts; they can just spend on whomever they want until they reach the cap.

Teams that are consistently competitive and have given out big contracts are almost guaranteed to be over the cap. For context, last season’s salary cap was $58.679 million. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka will make approximately $47.96 million combined next season, and that’s only on three players.

Just about any team worth its salt will naturally be over the cap. They are still able to spend money, but going over the cap restricts the ways in which they’re able to do so. This is also why the amnesty provision doesn’t do what many fans think it does.

For example, let’s say the Thunder are over the cap by $7 million and Kendrick Perkins makes $9 million. Many fans think the Thunder can just amnesty Perkins and then will have $9 million to use on free agents. That’s not how it works.

Because OKC is over the cap by $7 million, losing Perkins’ contract (they’d still have to pay him; his salary just wouldn’t count against the cap) would put them $2 million under the cap. That means they only have $2 million to freely sign new free agents. Losing big salaries can prevent teams from going into the salary tax (more on that in a bit), but it doesn’t create space that can be used freely unless that team is already under the cap. The only other way to acquire players is to use salary exceptions, which would still be true with Perkins on the team. And that’s where the Thunder’s pursuit of Pau Gasol comes in. Here are the three ways in which OKC can acquire him:

1) Use the mid-level exception

Any team that is over the cap must make use of a series of different exceptions in order to spend their money. The most commonly used in free agency is the mid-level exception, and there are actually two different versions: one for taxpayers and one for non-taxpayers.

To be labeled a taxpayer, a team must be so far over the salary cap that it dips into the league’s luxury tax. Last season, the tax limit was set at $71.748 million, or approximately $13 million more than the salary cap. If a team goes over the tax limit, it must start paying additional money on top of every dollar it spends.

The Thunder are under that tax limit, which means they have access to the non-taxpayer mid-level exception. That exception is a set number every season, and this offseason it’s $5.3 million. Basically, that means OKC has $5.3 million to spend on any free agents.

That $5.3 million can be divided up for multiple free agents or spent completely on one. So the Thunder could extend this offer to Pau Gasol, hoping he is willing to take a significant pay cut – he made more than $19 million last season – to pursue a championship.

This would provide the Thunder with the most contract flexibility. Gasol would be signed to a straightforward free-agent contract, meaning OKC could sign him to a one- or two-year deal if it wished. That would keep Gasol from still being on the books when the Thunder need to negotiate the next contracts for Durant and Westbrook.

It’s difficult to gauge how likely this outcome is, since it requires Gasol to take such a significant pay cut. Reports have indicated he is at least willing to listen to mid-level exception offers from championship contenders, so it may not be too farfetched. A more likely scenario, however:

2) Use their traded player exception

Do you remember good old Kevin Martin? Well he’s still a major factor in the Thunder’s decision-making process. When OKC lost him to Minnesota last season, they executed a sign-and-trade for him. The way that works: A potential free agent negotiates a new contract with a new team, but instead of signing directly with that team, they sign with their current team and allow themselves to be traded.

So last offseason, the Thunder signed Martin to a $6.5 million contract (which he negotiated with Minnesota) and then instantly traded him to the Timberwolves. OKC did not get back any salary in return, which creates a traded player exception. Basically, anytime you send away salary without getting back an equal amount, a traded player exception makes up the difference.

So since the Thunder traded away $6.5 million and received zero dollars in return, a $6.5 million trade exception was created. The NBA collective bargaining agreement says a $100,000 buffer is added to such exceptions, so the actual operating amount of the exception is $6.6 million.

These sorts of deals are often known as “non-simultaneous trades.” Essentially, the Thunder traded away Kevin Martin and had a year to figure out who they were actually trading him for. For two teams that are over the cap to trade players, they normally have to match salaries. But this trade exception allows OKC to acquire a player who makes $6.6 million or less without sending anything in return, regardless of their cap situation.

So now the Thunder can do the opposite of what they did last season with Minnesota. Gasol can sign a $6.6 million deal with the Lakers and be instantly traded to the Thunder for nothing in return. Just like OKC last year, the Lakers would then receive a traded player exception of their own, which they would have a year to complete.

Now you may be asking “Why would the Lakers do that? Why wouldn’t they just sign him to $6.6 million and keep him?” The CBA has a specific rule on sign-and-trades, and these deals are specifically negotiated and teams are not allowed to go back on their word. The signing carries an automatic trade with it; it’s part of the negotiation process. And Gasol wouldn’t take such a pay cut to stay in LA, where he can’t win a championship.

So Gasol would negotiate his new contract with the Thunder and tell the Lakers he plans to leave. The Lakers would then execute the trade for the purpose of getting something – the trade exception – back in return instead of just losing Gasol outright.

So, essentially, the Thunder would have traded Kevin Martin for Pau Gasol, they just would have waited a year to do it. The traded player exception must be used within a year of acquiring it, and the Thunder traded away Martin on July 11, 2013. That means they now have a week to use the exception before it disappears and becomes useless.

Using this traded player exception would allow Gasol to make more money and it would allow the Thunder to save its mid-level exception to use on other free agents. OKC has been pursuing guard Anthony Morrow as well, and he isn’t as valuable as Gasol. So it would make sense for the Thunder to use their trade exception on Gasol, then the mid-level exception on Morrow, allowing them to address their two biggest needs — an offensive post presence and strong outside shooter.

So while this may be the most likely scenario, there’s still one more possibility:

3) Use a sign-and-trade with matching salaries

As I mentioned in the above scenario, trades normally require both teams to match salaries in any deal. The concept for this scenario would be similar to the one above: Execute a sign-and-trade so the Lakers get something in return and don’t let Gasol walk for nothing. But in this case, the Thunder would send players instead of their trade exception.

Because Gasol would likely be worth at least $10 million per season on the open market, the most obvious candidate for the Thunder to trade away in this deal is Kendrick Perkins. He’s scheduled to make more than $9 million, he’ll be on the last year of his deal and he’s obviously a disposable piece on the Thunder.

However, because the Lakers wouldn’t receive a traded player exception in this scenario, they would need the pot to be sweetened. It would be naïve to think they would just take Perkins for Gasol straight up. OKC would need to toss in a young asset – most likely Perry Jones, though Andre Roberson or the rights to foreign player Tibor Pleiss are other possibilities – and a future first-round draft pick.

Then, depending on how much salary the Thunder send away in the deal, they could indirectly sign Gasol for the same amount. So let’s say OKC sends away Kendrick Perkins and Perry Jones, who are scheduled to make $10.2 million combined next season. The Lakers could sign Gasol for that amount, then instantly trade him to the Thunder for Perkins and Jones. Because the salary would be acquired by trade instead of through free agency, that would be doable.

The downside to this: Per the CBA, players acquired by sign-and-trade must be signed for at least three seasons. That could put a potentially big financial burden on the Thunder in the third year of Gasol’s deal, which is when Kevin Durant will need a new contract. If Gasol is still making $10 million, the Thunder will be more limited in what they can offer KD.

This basically would require OKC to negotiate a frontloaded contract with Gasol. Give him big money in his first year in Oklahoma City, then let that number diminish in the following two seasons, giving the Thunder more financial flexibility.

This is the win-win-win scenario. Gasol would still make good money, the Thunder would dump the Perkins contract and get a big man with offensive skill, and the Lakers would get a young asset and draft pick in return for a player who was leaving anyway. Perkins’ contract would also be an expiring deal next season, which could be attractive for any mid-season trades to make salaries work.

In case some of this has been a little too confusing, lets break down the three Gasol scenarios in note form:

1) Use the mid-level exception
– Because OKC isn’t in the luxury tax, it has $5.3 million to spend
– That number can be spread across multiple free agents or spent on one
– This would require Gasol to accept a $5.3 million deal, a significant pay cut

2) Use the traded player exception
– Because OKC traded Kevin Martin, it has a $6.6 million trade exception
– This allows OKC to trade for anyone who makes up to that much money
– The Lakers could sign and trade Gasol to get their own exception
– This would allow OKC to save the MLE for other free agents

3) Use a sign-and-trade with matching salaries
– Would need to be centered on sending Kendrick Perkins to the Lakers
– Would allow OKC to sign Gasol for approximately $10 million
– For the Lakers to take it, OKC would have to include a young asset and pick
– Would be the most beneficial for all parties (except for Perkins)


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The Thunder’s Real Reward from the James Harden Trade

Oklahoma City Thunder logo
The Oklahoma City Thunder’s trade of James Harden just days before the season started may be the most shocking trade of the last 20 years. I’ll admit that I wasn’t as big of an NBA fan early in my life as I am now, but I can’t ever remember a title contender dumping one of its key pieces so close to the beginning of the season.

Most Thunder fans were so fixated on the idea of losing Harden – who was much beloved and one of the faces of the franchise – that they paid almost no attention to what Oklahoma City got in return. By now, it’s obvious what the Thunder have in Kevin Martin. He’s a solid outside shooter and has filled in nicely for Harden’s scoring off the bench.

Rookie Jeremy Lamb also has gotten a chance to show flashes of talent, but has spent just as much time in the D-League as on the court for the Thunder. That may actually be better for him in the long run, since he’s getting the chance to actually play and hone his skills.

But the most interesting piece the Thunder received in their trade with Houston is neither of those players. It’s not a player at all; it’s the first-round draft pick of the Toronto Raptors.

The Rockets originally acquired that pick when they dealt Kyle Lowry in July, and then they turned it around to the Thunder a few months later. The pick is double protected, and since I didn’t fully understand what that meant when the trade happened, I’m going to assume most fans don’t know what it means either.

A “double protected” pick means both the team that traded away the pick and the team that traded for the pick get some form of protection. That level of protection does not change with the Rockets forwarding it to another team; the same protection simply travels with the pick.

This particular pick gives the Thunder a lottery-protected selection. That means OKC has to get a lottery selection (which means one of the top 14 picks) out of it. Since it’s the Raptors’ former pick, it depends on how they finish the season. So if the Raptors miraculously made the playoffs and didn’t qualify for a lottery pick, the pick the Thunder received would be deferred to a later year.

That likely won’t come into play, though, because the Raptors are objectively terrible. They currently have the worst record in basketball at 4-18, have lost five games in a row, and their last three losses came by an average of 23 points.

So this is great news for the Thunder, right? Toronto is going to completely tank, give OKC the No. 1 pick in the draft and make the Thunder even better, right? Well not so fast, because that’s where the other half of the pick protection comes in.

The Raptors have the protection of never having to give away the top pick in the draft, but their protection weakens from year to year. In the 2013 Draft, they won’t have to give the pick away if they finish with one of the top three picks. It would then get deferred to 2014, when they won’t have to give it away if they have one of the top two picks. It would get deferred again, and in 2015 they won’t have to give it away if it’s the top overall pick.

So it’s quite possible the Thunder won’t receive this Toronto pick for two or three years. Here’s how the double protection criteria break down:

– For the Thunder to get the pick in 2013, it has to fall between picks 4-14.

– To get it in 2014, the pick has to fall between 3-14.

– To get it in 2015, it has to be between 2-14.

– Once the pick qualifies for one of those ranges, the Thunder are forced to take it. Meaning if the Raptors suddenly have a stronger season and finish with pick 13, Oklahoma City can’t choose to defer the pick and hope for a better one the next year. Once a pick meets both requirements of the double protection, it has to be used.

At this point in the season, it seems unlikely the Raptors will finish better than one of the five worst teams in the league. The lottery is always impossible to predict, but it’s a very strong possibility the Raptors will finish with a pick in the top three, which would be protected and would mean the Thunder get nothing this season.

Then in the offseason, who knows what could happen? The Raptors could land a big free agent, or their top-three pick could turn into a franchise savior. Then what if they improve next season and finished with a pick outside the top 10?

That would likely give the Thunder a mediocre talent that needs to be groomed or a foreign player who won’t even see an NBA court for several years. That’s not what the Thunder need; they need help right now. Their title window is firmly open, but they need people who can contribute immediately.

That’s why the Thunder need to trade the pick for a proven veteran. In the long run, whatever player this Toronto pick turns out to be may be better than anything the Thunder get in return. But there’s no way of knowing that. It’s better to get a known quantity now than wait for an unknown amount of time for an unknown pick that can become an unknown player.

The most common name linked to a possible trade with the Thunder is Cleveland big man Anderson Varejão. Varejão is currently leading the NBA in rebounding with 14.9 per game – a full two boards better than anyone else in the NBA – while also averaging a career-high 14.8 points per game.

Varejão has been the only consistent contributor on the post-LeBron Cavaliers, and his numbers may be slightly inflated because he plays on such a bad team. He’s averaging six offensive rebounds per game, and he gets more opportunities because his teammates miss so many shots.

With that in mind, it would be difficult to imagine Varejão putting up those kinds of numbers for the Thunder. But the 6-foot-11, 260-pound Varejão is a great rebounding center, which is exactly what the Thunder need.

Center is by far OKC’s worst position, with Kendrick Perkins and Hasheem Thabeet the only true centers on the roster. The Thunder are 14th in the league in rebounding as a team. Perkins is averaging just 5.2 rebounds and 4.9 points per game, and any contribution out of Thabeet should be viewed as a gift from God.

Perkins hasn’t played as many minutes this season as Varejão, but that’s partially because Perkins has trouble keeping up with the Thunder’s team speed. Varejão isn’t going to win any sprints, but he’s definitely quicker and more athletic than Perkins, and he’s known for his hustle.

Perkins is also making $7.8 million this year, while Varejão is making a very affordable $8.3 million. So the upgrade in production would not come with a huge price tag either.

Varejão is aging – he turned 30 in September – and has had some injury issues in the past. His defensive presence also isn’t quite as commanding as Perkins’, but his addition would go a long way toward solving the Thunder’s largest remaining problem.

Now, it obviously takes two to tango. The Cavs may not be willing to deal Varejão, but Oklahoma City can offer a package that no other team in the NBA can. They’re a high-quality, championship-caliber team that can offer several attractive draft picks and a few young project players.

I doubt the Thunder would be willing to part with rookies Lamb or Perry Jones, but I could see them adding Reggie Jackson or DeAndre Liggins to any potential deal. An offer of Jackson, both picks acquired from the Rockets in the Harden trade and a possible added future pick in exchange for Varejão is a solid deal for both sides.

The Thunder get the great rebounder they’ve been after, the rebuilding Cavs get some young talent and high draft picks to build around and Varejão gets to play on a true contender for the first time since LeBron left Cleveland.

This really is Oklahoma City’s best option. Waiting around for the possibility of a high draft pick doesn’t make sense for the win-now Thunder. It does for the Cavs, who aren’t going to win any time soon and can afford to take chances. They have nothing to lose.

There are several avenues for the Thunder to take with this acquired trade, which gives general manager Sam Presti some options in how to proceed. But the Thunder have a potential second date with the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals in the future, and they need to be fully equipped when they get there.

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How Cable Has Killed Network TV

Draper, WhiteThe television medium has long been denounced as brain-rotting, child-destroying junk food. While that criticism has always been harsh, it also wasn’t that far off for most of the things on the air.

Back in the day, the basic household didn’t have cable. Everybody had the four basic channels (FOX, NBC, ABC and CBS), PBS, a home shopping network, the WB/CW and maybe a TV Guide channel. That meant anybody who produced TV needed shows to be easily digestible and widely accessible.

Viewers needed to be able to jump in week to week and watch whatever was airing that week without needing to see the previous week’s episode. There were occasional story arcs of multiple episodes, but for the most part every episode was its own self-contained unit.

Thirty minutes or an hour is generally not long enough to tell a fully fleshed out story, so television got a reputation of shallow, guilty-pleasure entertainment. The Big 4 networks largely have stuck to that model, and have looked on while cable networks have turned that model into a shambling corpse waiting for an ax through the head.

Not that long ago, networks like AMC and FX were nothing special. AMC was an abbreviation that actually stood for something (American Movie Classics), and all it did was buy the rights to old movies and show them on loop.

FX (which originally had a lower-case “f”) exclusively aired repeats of FOX shows from the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, and its only originally productions were multiple live broadcasts from the same apartment that focused on broad topics ranging from pets to music.

Both networks made slight changes to their models over the years, but largely stayed the same. AMC continued showing classic movies, and FX continued showing reruns of hit shows from the main FOX network. But for both channels, things began to change in 2002.

AMC always had run old films uncut, unedited and with no commercial breaks. It was a premium channel at the time, so it made money off subscriptions. But in 2002, the network decided to insert commercials into its programming, which required editing films for length.

The network also shifted its focus from classic movies and began showing more contemporary ones. It began re-branding, eliminating the full name “American Movie Classics” and sticking with just AMC. With the ad revenue it was now receiving, it was able to remove itself from premium status and become a basic cable network.

After a few years of mostly showing documentaries and one failed reality show, the network executives tried their hand at scripted television. They took their first shot at a drama script that had been turned down by premium channels HBO and Showtime, called Mad Men.

FX was a few years ahead of that curve. At the same time AMC decided to begin editing films and adding commercials, FX first decided to try its own programming independent of its parent company. It hit critical gold with its first show, The Shield, and ratings gold with its second show, Nip/Tuck.

After the network hit with its first two dramas, it decided to give comedies a shot and launched It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia three years later. It also was wildly successful.

With both AMC and FX having a virtual 100 percent success rate on launching new shows, both shifted their primetime focus to scripted programming. Since they didn’t require the same ratings levels as the Big 4 networks, they could take chances on more controversial shows that would attract niche audiences.

What followed was an assembly line of critically-lauded dramas in the span of a few years: Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, Hell on Wheels, Sons of Anarchy, Justified and American Horror Story.

All of these shows did away with the network model of telling easily-understood stories that viewers could pop in and out of week to week and miss nothing. They instead focused on morally grey central characters and their internal struggles, often within lives of crime.

The focus on anti-hero dramas created some of the most fascinating character studies in the history of any storytelling medium. With the ability to tell more personal, intimate stories over the course of entire seasons, these shows built passionate fan bases and began piling up Emmy nominations and wins.

These kinds of shows were not necessarily brand new. HBO had made its name on that kind of programming. Hell, it even built it into its slogan – “It’s not TV, it’s HBO” – with the implication that normal TV was shallow and mindless, while HBO was deep and thought-provoking.

But people had to pay extra for HBO, and the majority of its original programming came on Sunday nights, which meant it largely was appealing to a different audience as the Big 4 networks. AMC and FX were available as part of any basic cable package, and FX ran its original programming throughout the week, which meant it was in direct competition with the Big 4.

That competition might originally have seemed like a bad idea. Why try to fight these four behemoths that have built audiences over the course of 50 years when you’re just a fledgling cable network with no name recognition?

The Big 4 likely felt the same way, and did nothing to change their programming approach. But FX slowly began to chip away at the networks’ ratings lead, gradually stealing viewers. And now, despite being available to significantly fewer viewers, FX shows are consistently competitive in ratings with their Big 4 counterparts.

The most successful cable ratings juggernaut is Sons of Anarchy, which beats its network competition virtually every week. Last night (Tuesday, Dec. 4), Sons of Anarchy had a 2.4 rating in the coveted 18-49 demographic, which is advertisers’ main focus. That tied NBC’s average for the night, and soundly beat both ABC and parent FOX. So basically, the only Big 4 network that beat Sons of Anarchy was CBS, mainly because it aired the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show.

So now cable programming is crushing networks in quality and consistently competing in ratings. This past year, not a single broadcast show was nominated for Best Drama. Looking down the Emmy nominations and winners is a Who’s Who of cable programming, with Modern Family sprinkled in as broadcast’s only real contributor.

So while network television has been chugging along, happy to change nothing about itself, cable programming has been pulling light years ahead in quality. The real shame is that it isn’t impossible for networks to air more adventurous programs.

Obviously, being able to curse and show nudity helps cable shows depict a more mature show. But most people aren’t watching cable because “Oh my God, they can show side boob and say ‘Shit.’” They’re watching because the quality of storytelling is exponentially higher than what they can find on the Big 4.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Talented writers can make almost any setting interesting as long as the show’s world is inhabited by interesting characters. The skill of the writers of shows like Breaking Bad and Sons of Anarchy is that we genuinely care about people who are awful human beings.

Lost is the last network show to successfully have that kind of focus on morally grey characters. The entire basis of that show was that most of the people on the island didn’t want to get off because they had awful lives, which was so because they were bad people. Lost was a ratings king during its heyday, but it was a monumental struggle just to get that show on the air.

Lost and all of these cable shows prove that people are drawn to complicated, interesting characters and stories. Stories like that can be written without meth cooks or serial killers, but networks seem to have no interest in trying to find them.

It’s much easier to roll out some new asinine comedy from Chuck Lorre or formulaic drama from Shonda Rhimes, so that’s all networks do. In the past, that was fine because viewers didn’t know any better. The only other choice they had was to shell out a bunch of money for HBO.

But now that viewers can watch Breaking Bad and Sons of Anarchy with a basic cable subscription, they’re starting to realize just how much their quality dwarfs the shows on network TV. People are beginning to choose thought-provoking over mindless, and it’s left network TV in major trouble.

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The Newsroom Fails to Live Up to Its Potential

There are countless TV shows that are instantly doomed to fail. They either have a terrible premise, inexperienced writers or a cast that doesn’t gel. Look through the lists of new shows on the Big Four networks and you’ll see several every year.

Then there are the more frustrating shows that seem to have every ingredient needed to be interesting and successful, but manage to screw it up. Aaron Sorkin’s HBO show The Newsroom fits into that second category.

The Newsroom marks Sorkin’s third time creating a show that analyzes how TV itself is made, following 1998’s Sports Night and 2006’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. This time around, Sorkin tackles cable news programs and their clear bias in reporting.

The concept of poking holes in the reporting of major cable news has made household names of Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert, so it isn’t completely new ground. But while The Daily Show and Colbert Report focus strictly on satirical comedy, The Newsroom aims to show how cable news can better serve the public.

That premise is rife with content, and there is an elite level of skill both in front of and behind the camera on The Newsroom. It should be a transcendent show; one that can both entertain and inform. It clearly wants to be that kind of show, but largely fails to live up to the billing.

The Newsroom has one significant flaw, and it brings down everything else around it: The insistence that its characters tackle real-world events that already have occurred.

The show jumps from one major event to the next, leaving large gaps in time between episodes. The show’s timeline has gone from April 2010 to June 2011, meaning it covered more than a year in the span of nine episodes.

Through all that time, there is almost no narrative continuity. The News Night team just wants to do the news well and tries to show up the competition. There are two inherent problems with that storytelling model.

For one, Sorkin now has the benefit of hindsight, so he can have his characters cover every story as they should and how their competitors didn’t. The result is an almost infallible leadership structure that manages to gather key information that nobody would have thought to ask about at the time.

We can now wag our fingers at CNN and MSNBC for not covering the BP oil spill in detail from Day 1, but there was no way anyone at the time could have known what a disaster that would turn out to be.

Because the show so routinely points out the way in which other networks are failing to cover events in as much depth, there is a veiled implication that the people who covered events at the time didn’t do their job well. Almost as if to say, “If you had worked hard enough, you would have discovered what our characters did.”

I’m fine with criticizing networks for being biased in their presentation of the news, but I think it’s unfair to imply that they weren’t trying hard enough to find out the information.

But The Newsroom characters manage to get every morsel of information they need from their impeccable web of well-connected sources. Every character seems to have a friend or relative somehow connected to every major government entity, making information retrieval significantly easier than it would be in real life.

Those characters in general also are The Newsroom’s second inherent problem. Their problems run from week to week as they would on any sitcom, but unlike a random sitcom, The Newsroom can have six months separating two episodes.

The show tries to have its cake and eat it too; it wants you to follow the timeline in the major events it covers, but not follow the timeline when it comes to the characters’ everyday lives.

The result is a cast of cardboard cutout characters who are very difficult to care about. They pop in and out of the main plot as needed, and spend the rest of their time getting into romantic entanglements (a well Aaron Sorkin loves to revisit ad nauseum).

We know almost nothing about what makes any of them tick or why they behave the way they do. We know that they love doing the news, and that’s it. So why should we care when three of the supporting characters become involved in a love triangle? Especially when that love triangle still exists after a year and has seen no progression.

What little character history the show does reveal almost seems exploitative. When all of the main characters are celebrating the death of Osama bin Laden, we’re suddenly told that Kaylee – a character who had been in approximately three scenes in the entire season – had a family member who died in the World Trade Center attacks.

Later in the same episode, a random unnamed character puts on an FDNY hat while the news of bin Laden’s death is read. Instead of those moments seeming deep and resonant, as they should have, they seemed more like Aaron Sorkin pointing a finger and saying, “Here are people who have been touched by tragedy. You should feel sorry for them.”

Those kinds of moments show an almost lazy approach to the nuts and bolts of the show. There is almost no depth to any of the characters, and any time something is supposed to evoke an emotional reaction from the audience, we’re basically told what we should be feeling.

Strong TV shows are supposed to depict interesting and fully-formed people who seem real, as if cameras just happen to be following this group of people around. But The Newsroom constantly feels forced and staged.

Aaron Sorkin has a message to send about the state of American news journalism, and it’s a message I agree with. News programs have become ongoing jokes that pander to one side of the political aisle, and they’re steadily growing worse.

Everything revolving around that specific message on The Newsroom is well written and usually interesting. But Sorkin doesn’t seem to have given much thought to everything else going on around the show-within-the-show.

That would be fine if Sorkin were making a documentary about news journalists, but he isn’t. Strong characters are the foundation for any great TV show, and The Newsroom has none.

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My Journey of Self-Discovery

Last year, I had a conversation with some friends that centered on one question: “How well do you/can you really know yourself?” It’s a relatively simple question with an infinitely more complicated answer, and one that is likely different for every person.

I think the answer to that question depends on how much genuine self-reflection you regularly do. In my experience, the average person doesn’t do much of that. That’s why so many people end up with lives they never planned or careers they never wanted; they just do things without really analyzing why they do them. Then they retroactively ask “How did I end up here?”

I was reminded of this debate because I started analyzing my own major life decisions lately. I moved to Los Angeles seven months ago to pursue a job in a more creative field. I made that decision because I felt unfulfilled in my previous profession. I at least knew that much; but I never really took the time to think about what exactly was leaving me unfulfilled.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be a sports writer. I had my first writing internship while I was still in high school, I wrote for the school newspaper through all four years of college, and I spent three years after college working for a television station.

But through all of that time, I never really sat down and asked myself what it was about sports writing that was so interesting to me. I knew I loved sports and I could write well, so it seemed like a natural career choice.

But then why was my last job leaving me so unfulfilled? I spent all day watching sports and writing about them. So that should have been exactly what I wanted. And once I quit, I had every intention of continuing to write in my spare time. Yet I rarely did. Why?

The answer is because writing itself isn’t truly what I was passionate about. I mistakenly thought it was because I had always been a writer and always enjoyed what I did. The two just seemed to go hand in hand.

But my true satisfaction came from all the other facets of being a sports writer. Hearing the roar of the crowd at every game, analyzing what brings success to some players and failure to others, the rush of adrenaline you get when a thrilling game ends and you realize you have 10 minutes to encapsulate it.

In short, it was as close as I could get to the experience of being a professional athlete without actually being one. It had nothing to do with the writing itself. My writing essentially was just an outlet for me to relay everything I had seen and heard. It was just a byproduct of what I actually enjoyed about the job.

So when my last job took me out of the field and plopped me behind a desk, the true soul of my writing had been ripped out. I could no longer convey the excitement or tension each game deserved because I hadn’t witnessed it. I was like everyone else watching on TV.

When I realized the job no longer suited me, I assumed that meant my love of journalism had run its course. If I could no longer get excited about writing a game recap, it must be time to move on. So I did.

I moved to Los Angeles with every intention of leaving the journalism field behind me for good. But when I got here, a funny thing happened.

People asked me what I used to do for a living, and when I told them they invariably wanted to know more. What was it like? What did I get to do? What was my favorite part?

In my answers to those questions, the word “writing” never came up. It wasn’t writing a story that was exciting or enjoyable; it was covering the story that was so much fun. Getting to interview interesting people and see things I’d never seen before made me so excited that I had to get it on the page before I burst.

But the crazy thing is that I didn’t realize any of this until it was taken away. I knew I loved being a sports writer, but I never really understood why until I wasn’t doing it anymore. And now that I think about it, I really miss being a true sports journalist. So much so that it has renewed my interest in the field and made me want to get back into it.

So what does my little career-related anecdote have to do with that original question? I think it means that when we’re young, it’s impossible to really, truly, fully know ourselves. It’s impossible to know exactly what we want, who we want to be or how we want to live.

But that’s okay, because that makes every day its own little journey of self-discovery. I know much more about myself now than I did yesterday, and hopefully I’ll know even more tomorrow. That’s exciting and makes every day worth living.

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The Downfall of Penn State

And so it comes to this. After the worst scandal in college football history, one of the most respected programs in the nation is in shambles.

Penn State’s legendary coach has been disgraced, its leadership structure gutted, its scholarship numbers essentially reduced to I-AA levels, and its monetary losses may eventually be enough to buy a small country.

The sanctions handed down by the NCAA and Big Ten Conference are unprecedented in their scope and severity, but most surprising is how quickly the usually snail-like NCAA acted.

The NCAA normally launches its own separate investigation and makes its own findings, which can take months or years. But there was nothing normal about the Penn State case.

Everything surrounding the trial of Jerry Sandusky, the extent of Penn State’s institutional corruption and the downfall of Joe Paterno’s legacy have been so public and so ugly that drawing out the process only would have made matters worse.

And so, less than two weeks since the release of the Freeh Report, the NCAA dropped the hammer. To the tune of a $60 million fine, loss of 10 scholarships per season, four-year postseason ban, five-year probation and 112 vacated wins.

Each of those punishments individually would be plenty damaging, but all of them together are crippling. The Nittany Lions may have avoided the dreaded death penalty, but just barely.

The loss of scholarships will ensure that Penn State can’t maintain a competitive level with the rest of the Big Ten for at least the next five years. Its scholarship numbers will nearly be cut in half, from 25 per season to 15. That will cause a vicious cycle.

The reduction in scholarships will naturally decrease the number of quality athletes Penn State can recruit. That unavoidable drop will cause high profile recruits to look elsewhere, causing another dip.

And once the scholarship reduction is lifted in five years, the turnaround will not be immediate. Five-star recruits will not suddenly flock to Penn State in droves.

The football program should realistically expect a period of at least 15 years of anywhere from bad to mediocre play. It also is possible the program never returns to its previous level of success.

Which leads to the next question: Is this level of punishment reasonable and fair? As with most cases involving the NCAA, that issue isn’t so black and white.

The Penn State administration engaged in the most despicable acts I can imagine. People whose jobs were to educate and protect young people willingly looked the other way while a sex offender preyed on the innocence of children. There aren’t enough words in the dictionary to describe how reprehensible that is.

The only reason this behavior continued as long as it did was because the football program at Penn State ran the administration, not the other way around. There is no greater example of a lack of institutional control; the football program became an unstoppable monster feeding on everything around it.

So from that standpoint, the NCAA’s crackdown makes sense. Penn State is not the only school whose football program has grown out of control, so the NCAA wanted to send a message that such situations are unacceptable.

But isn’t the NCAA responsible for that lack of control? It encourages the worship of college football because it generates ungodly amounts of money. So the Penn State administration enabled Jerry Sandusky, but the NCAA enabled the out-of-control culture that made Sandusky’s behavior possible.

Making matters worse, the only people truly being punished as part of these sanctions are Penn State’s current players and coaches. They had nothing to do with any of the actions that brought the sanctions in the first place. So, as is painfully common in NCAA cases, people are being punished for the sins of their predecessors.

Maybe all of this is a long way of saying there really was no right answer. Harsh punishment was called for because something had to be done about this controversy, but any punishment seems inherently unfair because the wrongdoers are no longer affiliated with the school. So maybe this entire situation is the greatest referendum on the college football system to date.

It has long been quite clear how corrupt the system is. Institutions and companies make big bucks while the young men they exploit get no financial support in return, and the NCAA stands in hypocritical judgment of the very system it created and enabled.

I have no idea how to solve any of this, or even if any of it can be solved. That is for smarter men than I to figure out. I’m still trying to wrap my head around how any of this got as out of hand as it did. This entire situation is just sad and depressing, but I’ll keep my fingers crossed that something good can come out of this.

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My First L.A. Gig

I’ve been meaning to update this blog with information after my move to Los Angeles, but there really hasn’t been a ton to write about. Until now, that is. This week I had my first real, legitimate on-set experience. It wasn’t for a TV show or film, but it was exhilarating.

I worked for two days to help produce Magic Meltdown, a new web series sponsored by Nerdist. I essentially just did any small task that needed doing, whether it was lugging around camera cases or getting on-camera volunteers to sign releases.

It wasn’t exactly glamorous, but it was exactly the kind of experience I was looking for. It allowed me to watch the creative process and soak in as much as I could without needing to worry about any personal responsibilities.

Most importantly, I was surrounded by incredibly talented people, both in front of and behind the camera. It was refreshing to be in a creative environment with passionate people around my age, as well as a reminder that I have a long way to go before I’m on their level.

This was the first time I really came to realize how different the people and environment are out here, and it’s exciting and intimidating at the same time. I went from feeling unfulfilled because of a lack of interesting experiences to being bombarded with them all at once.

I remain very impressed by how kind and helpful everyone has been since I moved out here. I worried that I would annoy or frustrate the other people on set with my lack of experience and knowledge, but everyone was patient and more than willing to answer any questions I had.

That continues a trend of helpfulness that I’ve found pleasantly surprising. People I’ve only known for a matter of hours have gone out of their way to give me advice and try to help find somewhere I can work.

I have now been in Los Angeles for a month, and I can’t say enough good things about the city so far. The people are colorful and interesting, the weather is beautiful and there is never a shortage of things to do. Traffic and parking have taken some getting used to, but just about everything else has been fantastic so far.

I feel much more excited than I have in several years, and it seems a change in environment was exactly what I needed. The journey to make a career will be a long and arduous one, but I’m very glad I took the first step by moving.

As for the Magic Meltdown project, it will be posted on YouTube starting in April. It will be available on YouTube on the Nerdist channel and is hosted by Justin Willman, the current host of Cupcake Wars on Food Network. As the name implies, it’s a magic show, and each episode will have a particular theme.

We spent our first day of shooting on the boardwalk of Venice Beach performing magic tricks for random passersby, and the second at Justin’s house recording various sketches and short tags. We spent 13 hours shooting each day, so it was exhausting and left my entire body sore by the end, but it was worth it.

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