Friday, May 29, 2009

Timely NBA Preview

Kobe/Lebron was almost a certainty at the beginning of the playoffs. The coronation of King James would be almost complete and Kobe could take his transformation to pure evil with a unanimous crowd favorite to go against. It would be like Darth Vader vs. Luke Skywalker (or Austin Powers vs. Dr. Evil for non nerds). But with Kobe leading 3-2 and Lebron down 3-2, there is an increasing possibility that it won't be LA/Cleveland, Kobe/Lebron, Good vs. Evil, Jack vs. Locke (Sorry, had to get a Lost reference in somehow.)

The question that remains is whether this would be all that bad for the NBA if the LA/Cleveland match-up doesn’t happen. While there is still the chance that the Lakers and or the Cavs still make it in, what if both don’t make it? From a basketball perspective, Orlando and Denver have the ability to be every bit as compelling as LA and Cleveland. Putting Kobe and Lebron aside, Denver and Orlando both play much more interesting styles than LA and Cleveland. As far as LA is concerned, I think we all have seen plenty of the triangle offense, and with Cleveland the same can be said for the pick and roll.

Over the playoffs, the Orlando Magic's offense has grown on me. They really spread the court out and almost always make the extra pass to the open guy. Denver is interesting in their own right with the cast of characters they have. They may be running the same high screen and roll with Chauncey Billups, or isolation play for ‘Melo, but somehow it’s more interesting when the other guys out there sport faux-halks, lipstick tattoos, and little infants during post game press conferences.

As far as star power’s concerned, this is where the NBA will take a hit short term. The ratings will most likely slide a bit without their big guns. (and Nike surely won't be happy when they can't have 10 Kobe vs. Lebron Puppet adds.) But with Orlando and Denver, the league will have the ability to promote two of it's budding stars Dwight Howard and Carmelo Anthony. Howard is ready to go to the level of Lebron, Kobe and Wade, while Carmelo is ready to be in the conversation. While the NBA won't get the same hype and mileage out of Carmelo and Dwight this year as they would out of Kobe and Lebron, having them in the finals would definitely pay dividends in the future.

Whether David Stern wants to admit it or not, the NBA has become a star’s league. Over the years, the league and networks have been more focused on promoting individuals, rather than teams. Carmelo and Dwight are on the verge of bursting the superstar bubble, and if they’re both in the finals, then they’d get that much more exposure. If the finals play out with competitive contests, future Dwight/Carmelo match-ups in the future would have more hype and exposure. Having two more stars vs. furthering the Kobe/Lebron hype might actually be a positive for the NBA. And ... Kobe and Lebron can’t face off every game (Depsite ESPN’s best wishes.)

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Guess Who Wants in the NFL?

On the heels of Michael Vick deciding he wants to come back to the NFL, another current convict has declared his intentions as well. This time it’s former Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett who wants in the league. (Considering he never played a down in the NFL, I guess we can’t call it a comeback.) Clarett expressed his thoughts recently on his blog “The Mind of Maurice.” (The fact that he has a blog is pretty intriguing in itself.) This brings up a few questions. How many people knew he had a blog? How do you blog in prison? Can this please be a reality TV show? He's shown before that all he needs is a little Goose to get loose, so why not let him get loose and blog in prison. In one of his recent entries, Clarett said:

“I can’t hold these feelings in anymore. I want to play football again. I have a deep desire to play. I love the game. I have so much penitentiary aggression pinned up inside of me. I want to hit someone. I want to run the ball. I want to tackle someone. I want to play. I am going to play somewhere. I cannot accept how things ended. I won’t accept how they ended.”

First off, if you’re trying to encourage NFL teams to take a chance on you, the phrase “penitentiary aggression” probably isn’t the buzzword prospective NFL General Managers are looking for. “Having penitentiary aggression” makes it sound more like you want to shank someone than run over a linebacker on the football field. Free advice Mo: You want people to think of you as a reformed individual, not a character from “Oz.”

But back to the issue at hand: Can Maurice Clarett play in the National Football League? (saying it like Jaws for emphasis) He’ll most likely be released in over a year, so he could be ready by the 2010 season. The question is, would anyone want him now as an ex-convict, when no one really wanted him in the first place? Right now, he’s 25 years old and hasn’t played a full season since his freshman year at Ohio State in 2002. While he was a standout player on that Buckeye Championship team, he really hasn’t done anything else to prove he should be in the NFL. Compound that with the fact you could be looking at almost a decade worth of rust. At best, Clarett would be a major project for a team. But hey, even Greg Paulus got a tryout with the Green Bay Packers, which proves NFL teams are willing to take chances to scour talent from the most unlikely places in order to gain a competitive edge.

One of the big issues with Clarett is the last impression he left on the NFL. After his freshman year at Ohio State, he had a two year layoff while trying to enter the NFL draft. Despite sitting out for two years, the Denver Broncos shocked the NFL by drafting the enigmatic star in the third round of the 2005 draft. Clarett proceeded to reward the team by showing up at training camp looking like Fat Albert at a robust 248 pounds. Needless to say, he was let go by the team after an unimpressive preseason.

Despite all of this, Clarett says he can compete in the league. In his blog, he claims to be “rock solid” at 220 pounds and wants to play because he “knows how to play really well.” I’m as skeptical as the next person, but if he honestly reformed himself, then he’s definitely worth a look in someone’s training camp. There’s no arguing he was a beast during his freshman year at Ohio State, and if he can regain the athleticism he displayed there, then who knows? However, that’s a king sized IF, and considering his history, it’s doubtful he’ll be able to put it all together. Regardless, it’ll be interesting to see how this all plays out in 2010. Will any NFL team take a shot at him or will he be headlining a resurgence of the AFL in 2010?

Monday, May 25, 2009

Cornell Falls in Title Game, Andy Bernard Weeps

After two blowouts in the Men’s Division 1 Lacrosse Semi-finals, Syracuse and Cornell put on a game for the ages today, as the Orangemen knocked off the Big Red in overtime, 10-9. For Cornell, this one definitely stings as the Big Red blew a 3 goal lead with under four minutes to play. I can’t confirm if Andy Bernard was in the audience, but I can say there won’t be a post game performance by “Here Comes Treble” for the Cornell faithful.

It must be disappointing for Cornell as they turned into Cor-NOT in the final five minutes, allowing a furious Syracuse comeback.

For non-lacrosse followers, I’ll break down the game using more mainstream analogies. In this contest, game-planning played a huge role as Cornell head coach Jeff Tambroni turned into a combination of Dave Wannstedt and John Calipari (circa the 2008 NCAA Championship) in the 4th quarter. Cornell held a 1 to 2 goal lead much of the second half, but instead of going for the jugular, The Big Red took a page out of Dave Wannstedt’s book and played not to lose. (Surprisingly, Jay Fiedler was nowhere to be seen.) Cornell had opportunities to score, but instead of trying to add to the lead; they decided to hold the ball and try to run the clock down. It’s been proven in football and basketball that when you play not to lose…well, you often put yourself in a better position to lose.

As a result, Syracuse roared back and cut the deficit to 1 goal with under a minute to play. This brings us to our second point, as Tambroni decided to take another page out of the non-award winning book, “How to Lose a Game in 10 Minutes.” In this instance, he re-enacted a not-so-great moment in John Calipari’s career by not using timeouts. In the 2008 NCAA Championship, Memphis held a 3 point lead over Kansas near the end of the game. Calipari elected not to use a timeout before the Jayhawks final possession, and Mario Chalmers hit a three to send the game into OT. This backfired, as conventional wisdom shows when up by 3 late, you should foul the opposing team so they can’t attempt a three point bucket. By not re-iterating this to his team, he hurt their chances of winning.

Today, with Cornell holding the ball in their own end with twenty seconds to go, they were in immediate danger of turning the ball over. Instead of calling a timeout and instructing his team to throw the ball as high and deep in Syracuse territory, Tambroni did nothing. As a result, Cornell lost the ball and allowed the Orangemen to score with four seconds to go.

However, despite Cornell’s mistakes in the end, you’ve got to give a ton of credit to Syracuse for valiantly fighting back in this contest. In an ending that strongly resembled the 2008 NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship, the Orangemen never gave up, and were able to capture another lacrosse title. For Cornell, this was a team that overachieved through the postseason and has nothing to hang their heads about. They played fantastic for 55 minutes, but fell apart in the final five. It’ll be tough to get the taste out of their mouths from this loss, but Cornell will still be there in the future if Tambroni decides to take a page out of Bill Belichick’s book, instead of Dave Wannstedt’s.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Memorial Day Weekend NBA Ramblings

With two games down in the Eastern and three games down in Western Conference Finals, it is definitely time for another NBA column. I can't remember a string of nights where there were so many great games back to back to back. All I can say is that I am thankful.

Speaking of things that I am thankful for from this past weekend:

Lebron James, Beer (even Keystone), Marv Albert's “YES” call, that new Dos Equis commercial, the NBA having 69 year old refs who are good at evening up series, Whiskey, Ron Jeremy (the NBA coach), NCAA Lacrosse Final Four Memorial Day Weekend (especially Quint Kessenich, with his insights and coaching corner), Cornell upsetting UVA in the semifinals (hopefully they can win one more for the Nard DAWG) and last but least Mike Brown...for being incompetent.

Thanks, Mike Brown for making games 1 and 2 so close. On this site we may already be notorious for giving certain people a continued hard time on the regular, but certain individuals give us no choice. Let me give a hypothetical situation. Say you’re a coach in the NBA with a rebound machine on your roster that has little to no offensive skill, but can be a good defensive match-up for the other team's best player.

How would you use this guy? Well, if you’re Mike Brown, you bring him in to stop the other team's power forward who plays more like a small forward. Yes, I'm talking about Rashard Lewis who spends most of his time away from the basket, effectively taking away player X's biggest strength of rebounding. In addition, now Lewis can take a breather on defense until it comes time to box out player X. So by playing player X, you are not effectively defending the Magic's small lineup, and at the same time you do nothing to punish the other team for going small against you. Rather, it is almost like you’re saying, “We know your main advantage is playing small, what other lineups can we play that take no advantage of this and encourage you to do this more.”

By the way, Player X is Ben Wallace but I could have tricked you and said player X was Anderson Varejao. At this point in his career, Ben Wallace is just a poor man's Anderson Varajao. Both Varejao and Wallace don't effectively guard Lewis, while subsequently doing nothing to challenge him on the other end either. How about going small with LBJ at power forward? This way you can rest your big guys and keep them fresh throughout the game.

The other thing I don't get is having Lebron James guard Rafer Alston the whole game. This is a clear case of Mike Brown trying to out coach himself. We know you’re a good defensive coach, but when another team has two swingmen (Lewis and Turkoglu) that can hurt you, why not put the runner-up for Defensive Player of the Year on one of them. Seriously, this is about as smart as pinch running with Harold Baines (for non Orioles fans maybe I should have gone with pinch running with Mark McGuire). Lebron is your best defender and you’re using the logic that he is also your best help defender to use such an asinine strategy.

However, this raises a more important question: WHY ARE YOU ENCOURAGING YOUR TEAM TO HELP AGAINST ORLANDO. They have a bunch of guys who just want to sit back and shoot threes. Look at Hedo Turkoglu, he relies on a stepback jumper as his only move, almost as badly as Seth Rogen relies on his dice move to knock up Katherine Heigl. Cleveland's defensive strategy should be to play up on all of Orlando's players and to help as little as possible. Don't let them play to their strengths and shoot 3's. Make them beat you off the dribble. You have 3 serviceable centers with 6 fouls to give each. So rather than help on Howard, single cover him and put him on the free throw line to earn it because he shoots terrible from the line.

I haven't talked about the LA/Denver match-up in a while and I have to admit that I was wrong. I thought that Denver was going to win because LA wasn't going to bring it. Now I think Denver is flat out better, and if they don't win, it will be either because they blow it like they did in game one or because Kobe takes it from them like he did in game three. Kobe isn't going to make me take everything I said about him back after one game, but if he continues to dominate in the crunch like he did last night, I might have to. He has a chance right now to throw himself into the stratosphere of great players and Kobe realizes how much is at stake for his career. There is no one on the court that wants it more than Kobe and you can see this during crunch time of games. It will take a superb effort to beat him, even from a better team. Compound Kobe's play with the mistakes they’re making and Denver may have an uphill climb. It’s clear that Carmelo will have no problem scoring this entire series but they need to get him the ball. The Nuggets have shown throughout this series they are the aggressors, ready to take it right at the Lakers but they need to finish games. I said two columns ago that Denver is capable of beating LA, but if the Lakers flip on the switch that Denver can’t take this series. However, I am convinced that Denver is capable of winning regardless of how LA plays; they are just more talented. But they need to play smart at the end of games and take care of Kobe.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Vick is back...Now what?

With Favre Watch ‘09 at a temporary standstill, the media has decided to focus their attention on another inactive quarterback: former Leavenworth inmate Michael Vick.

Now as a low-wage construction worker, where does he go from here? After a lengthy hiatus, teams will definitely be more hesitant to sign the former superstar turned manual laborer (if he is even reinstated to the NFL at all). A factor that will deter many teams will be the negative publicity that will ensue. Vick is without a doubt public enemy number one on PETA’s hit list, and they will definitely do what they can to go after him. This likely entails PETA going after the sponsors of Vick's potential team in order to send a message. We’ll have to see if NFL teams gives in to the eco-terrorist’s demands.

NFL teams considering Vick have to ask themselves: What does Vick have to offer at this point in his career? He’ll turn 29 in June and has been out of the league for two seasons, so he’ll clearly have a rust factor going against him. Personally, I think Vick is a situational player at best. During his career Vick has not demonstrated he can be a great pocket passer despite his great athletic abilities. During one of his “Pro Bowl” seasons, Vick threw only 14 touchdowns to 12 interceptions. In addition, he also had 16 fumbles... Are you going to pay a player 100 million dollars to fumble all over your million dollar field: I mean COME ON!

Luckily for Vick, however, Dolphins Head Coach Tony Sparano has provided him with a golden ticket in the shape of the Wildcat formation. (I don’t know if they have TV in prison, so he may need an instructional video.) Miami has shown the package can work well with a running back utilizing it, so it should work even better with an athletic player like Vick who has much better passing skills. Vick's competitive advantage his whole career as a QB was his ability to run. However, his team was always worried about risking their prized 100 million dollar asset out of the pocket. Considering he will now be anything but a prized asset, rather some second hand retread, playing in the Wildcat as a dual threat will give Mike Vick the chance to reignite his career. It's ironic that he was in jail for treating dogs poorly and his career might be ignited once he is treated like one of the pit bulls he used to fight.

So who will have the opportunity to trot out Michael Vick? Miami seemed like an ideal situation, but the Dolphins drafted Pat White, so that’s out of the question. In determining where Vick will go, there are three factors that need to be evaluated. First, the prospective team needs an owner who's willing to take a chance on a wild card like Vick. (Jerry Jones does love headcases and the Cowboys do need someone to back up Mr. Jessica Simpson...It might not make the front page of US Weekly, but it would be a big deal.) Secondly, you need a head coach who can keep troublemakers in line. (Marvin Lewis: Don't bother applying) Lastly, you need to have an innovative offensive coordinator who can best maximize Vick's abilities. (Don't bother Detroit.)

After examining these factors, one intriguing team meets all of the criteria: the New England Patriots. If anyone could reign Vick in, it would clearly be Bill Belichick. He's always looking for an advantage and he would be best suited to unleash Vick's potential. The Pats took Randy Moss when everyone was down on him, and he subsequently turned in one of the best seasons for a wide receiver ever. With Tom Brady coming off ACL injury, Vick would be a decent insurance policy who could take 5-10 snaps a game to take the heat off Brady. It's honestly doubtful the Patriots will take the chance on Vick, but it's definitely an intriguing possibility.

Regardless of where he goes, I think everyone is excited for the first time Vick gets serenaded on the road with everyone's favorite, “Who Let the Dogs Out.”

Thursday, May 21, 2009

NBA Eastern Conference Ramblings

(Editor’s Note: This column was written before Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals…Honestly.)

We got it a week ago and now we get it again. That's right, another edition of Guy #2 NBA playoff ramblings. This iteration of the ramblings column is going to focus mainly on the Eastern Conference with a little Kobe bashing thrown in for good measure (I just can't help myself).

To breakdown the match-up between Orlando and Cleveland, we first have to mention one of the most interesting subplots. On one bench is Stan Van Gundy who many thought should have won Coach of the Year and on the other end is Mike “Caretaker of the Year” Brown.

This series is all going to revolve around two main questions. First, how will Mike Brown answer to Stan Van Gundy's small front court of Hedo Turkoglu, Rashard Lewis, and Dwight Howard? Second, how much help-defense will Orlando use to stop Lebron, and how much help will Cleveland use to stop Dwight Howard? This second question could end being the difference maker but we'll start with the small ball debate. We know from playoff history, especially with the Mavericks-Golden State round one series in 2007, that if you are the favorite you really shouldn't play into your opponent’s hands. But would going small if you’re Cleveland in this scenario really be playing into your opponents hands? I think Mike Brown needs to realize a couple of things: A) I have Lebron James on my team. So rather than thinking of how I can win this series, I need to NOT be thinking of ways I can lose this series. B) I have Lebron James on my team. Who on Orlando is going to stop him...HEDO TURKOGLU...RASHARD LEWIS...JJ REDICK? Yea, I can see that happening. C) Mike Brown, you can't out coach yourself, so don't even think about it.

I know I didn't answer the question but let me elaborate.

If you’re Cleveland, go with what got you here, but at the same time don't be afraid to go small. Coach based on feel and what's working. Lebron at the four might be your best line up, so don't be afraid to go with it. There are two main examples of how not to combat sneaky lineups that go small. One would be how the Boston Celtics played Orlando last round. They didn't really adapt to the small lineup and were left with Glen “Big Baby” Davis guarding Rashard Lewis in crunch time. Anderson Varejao might be more up to the challenge, but if he isn't you need to adjust, especially if you just won coach of the year and even more so if you look like Mr. Potato Head.

Another futile attempt at combating small ball was what Avery Johnson and the Mavericks did in 2007 against the Warriors. From the start of the series, they went small instead of playing the way they had all year. By the same token, if you’re Mike Brown, you're sending the wrong message to your team if you come out with Sasha Pavlovic, Wally Szczerbiak, or Daniel Gibson in the starting lineup in place of Ilgauskus or Varejao. Your best lineup to combat them going small might end up being small, but I think you may give Orlando the mental edge by saying: We can’t stop you with our normal lineup.

Of course this all comes down to my second question: How much help will Cleveland give to stop Howard, and how much help will Orlando give to stop Lebron, as both teams have virtually no answers for each player. This will be key because although both Lebron and Howard have immense skills, their true worth will be in creating offense for their teammates. Cleveland has the advantage here because as mentioned before, Orlando has no one who can guard Lebron so Orlando will need to help. This will free up Cleveland shooters, who will need to perform for the Cavs to advance. On the other hand, Cleveland should want Dwight Howard as Orlando's main option, because their three point shooters are deadly and as good as he is, Howard's offensive skills are underdeveloped.

Another thing before these ramblings end. Orlando won the season series 2-1 and in their last game on April 3rd, Orlando won by 29. They did shoot 48% from behind the line and Cleveland only shot 37% from the field, but you have to think that Orlando is comfortable with this match-up. They can play without fear and they know if they play to their ability they are capable of winning any game.

The big question in the end is who do I pick to win this series. The more I look at it the better Orlando looks on paper. But I think therein lies the problem... PARALYSIS BY ANALYSIS. I could probably talk myself into Orlando and make an interesting article about it, but why do that when Lebron is on the other team. As much as I think this is a tough match up for the Cavs dealing with the small lineup on paper, with Lebron, the Cavs are just better than they look on paper

Also in unrelated news, Kobe is not doing work, the refs are doing work for him. That's right I said it. Way to get an undeserved documentary about you and then have the refs give the game to you.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Road Less Traveled

Going into the playoffs, everyone was more than sure that a collision course was set between LA and Cleveland, and to be honest we didn't really like the inevitability of it all. We forgot one thing however, this is the NBA. Isn't amazing supposed to happen? Isn't Houston supposed to push LA to seven games, even without their two stars? Isn't Lebron supposed to make it through the first round without even sweating out a less than double digit victory... I guess not. After two rounds, everyone, me included, is ready to coronate King James and label LA the third round underdogs to Denver... but as Lee Corso would say, “Not so fast my friend.”

If there is one thing that I learned about the NBA, it's that the playoffs are a grind and almost entirely dependent on match ups. Kobe and company had a terrible match up against a team that had a great defense to throw at them. As long as your team advances to the next round without injury, your season basically starts fresh. Yes, rest is important and getting better from nagging injuries is also. But so is being sharp and ready to play. We could argue for days the merits of not playing a couple of games the first two rounds and staying fresh and I'm sure that history would back us up. However, if you look just a year ago, Boston would give us a good argument for the contrary.

Everyone was doubting them in the earlier rounds because they were taken to seven games by the Hawks and Cavs. This may have seemed like a hindrance to Celtic title hopes but this gave the Celtic's big three much needed playoff reps together under pressure. It was almost like Doc Rivers, KG, Pierce, and company needed that shot in the arm to get them playing game seven basketball from then on.

After their series with the Rockets, now Kobe and this iteration of the Lakers know what it's like to experience a game seven and win. I know Houston was a wounded dog and I was overly critical of the Lakers for lacking the killer instinct to kick a dog when it's down. Hopefully, now they realize that they must play that way for all seven games against the Nuggets to have a chance.

More than anything this playoffs can serve as a case study to solve the argument of what is the best way to go through a playoff run? On the one hand is the Western Conference number one seeded Lakers who got almost as much as they could chew from Utah and Houston in their first two rounds. On the other hand is the heavily favored Cavs who have yet to play a close or meaningful game. It's a common theme among analyst that a team needs a loss or a bump in the road to make them ready for tough games down the stretch. The question then is do you want challenges and bumps in the road to keep you sharp and hungry like the Lakers? or do you want smooth sailing like the Cavs? This playoffs can go far to answer this question.

I have already said that I think LA loses to Denver but what if they don't. What if we do have the Kobe vs. Lebron, LA vs. Cleveland match up that everyone so desired? Then all these questions can be answered and we'll have a little bit better of an understanding of the NBA...

Or at least Vitamin Water will finally be able to answer the great debate between Kobe and Lebron.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Denver-LA Premature Breakdown

With the Dallas vs. Denver series at a premature end and not heading back to Dallas (at least Mark Cuban won't have to give up a luxury suite to K-Mart's mom) and the LA vs. Houston series almost certainly ending tonight in Houston (do I really believe this or am I trying to jinx the Lakers?) it's time to run my Denver vs. LA preview prematurely because that's what I do.

After seeing a few more games I have basically come to two conclusions. Number One, the Denver Nuggets are more than capable of beating the LA Lakers in a seven game series. Number two, if LA flips on the switch, they aren't. I know the two above statements sound contradictory, but bear with me.

Unlike Houston, Denver will have a much tougher time matching up with LA defensively. Since George Karl has been Denver's coach they have always had a tough time on the defensive end. This year really isn't any different. The Chauncey Billups trade has brought over some of the team mentality from Detroit and kept most of Denver's knuckleheads in line; however, LA is so talented offensively it will probably take an extraordinary effort from Denver to hold the Lakers in check.

Denver will not only face problems in their overall lack of defensive chemistry but also in every defensive match up. Houston had Battier and Artest to give Kobe all he could handle. Dahntay Jones is a vastly improved player but he is nowhere near the defensive level of Battier or Artest. The Rockets also didn't have the answers when LA went small because they didn't have the ability to leave anyone on the court wide open when Odom and Gasol were playing in the post. When Bynum, Gasol, and Odom were in they could make Odom beat them from the outside but once LA went small, Gasol and Odom were too talented with interior passing and scoring to be stopped by Houston. This trend should repeat itself in the Western Conference Finals as Gasol and Odom will be too quick, too athletic and too good for Nene and Kenyon Martin if they continue with their smaller lineup (which LA should). Compound this by the fact that they play far worse team defense so the help and defensive schemes won't be there and Kobe, Odom, and Gasol should all be in for big production this series. To have a chance Denver is going to have to make the other guys (Ariza, Farmar, Vujajic, Fisher, Bynum, Walton) beat them while trying their best to contain Kobe, Gasol and Odom. With the Lakers' offensive superiority they will be next to impossible to beat IF they turn on the switch defensively.

We have yet to look at how Denver's offense matches up with LA's defense but I really don't think we have to spend that much time on it. It basically comes down to this: do the Lakers turn on the switch or not. They clearly have superior talent, superior coaching but do they have superior chemistry? If Kobe is able to have his alpha dog competitive nature rub off on his team at all, that will be enough to do better than Denver. But can Kobe do this? I have written and maintained all along that he can't. He is a great scorer, talent, etc but this LA team has become too overconfident and complacent. The fact that a supposed all-time great like Kobe has let this happen to his team does not bode well for the Lakers. If Kobe rises to the occasion, elevates his team and proves me wrong, I think LA will dominate this series. The two keys for them defensively are to keep JR Smith and Carmello Anthony in check and not let the tempo of the game get out of hand. If the Lakers can do those two things, big IF, I can see them taking this series in 6 games or less.

I have mentioned multiple times in this column that the Lakers' need to turn on the switch to beat Denver. I just don't see this happening. The Lakers have all the talent in the world but they just don't have IT. By it, I mean that team chemistry that just takes great teams and makes them unbeatable. They gave Utah hope and let them hang around, then, they did the same with Houston. As good and as talented as they are, it just looks like they are working out there, not having fun.
On the other side of the ball, there is a young hungry star ready to be mentioned with his draft class (Lebron and D-Wade) and I think his performance in this series will put him on their level. Carmello will turn into the star of this series as Denver pulls off the huge upset and takes LA in six games.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Go Away Brett!

During the summer, few things in sports remain constant: Al Davis will make stupefying football decisions, there will be way too many baseball highlights on Sportscenter, and we’ll have endless Brett Favre retirement talk.

Unfortunately, this year is no different, as the annual Favre drama is back. The will he or won’t he retirement saga once again comes back into full swing. Congratulations Brett, I thought nothing could ever be as annoying as the Ross/Rachel will they/won’t they drama in the 90’s…I was wrong.

I won’t get into specifics regarding this year’s Favre drama, as it has already been told ad nauseum, and would be hypocritical, considering the whole point of this post is to criticize the non-stop Favre talk.

As story-after-story keeps turning up on the World Wide Leader, I can’t help but ask: What do you want Brett? You’re out there jumping around in your wranglers, and I’m just sitting here with my beer. TELL ME WHAT YOU WANT!

Well, I don’t know what he wants, but apparently fading into oblivion in Hattiesburg, Missisippi isn’t something that interests him. With all of the Vikings talk, Favre clearly has an axe to grind with the Packers. Did Ted Thompson and company give him a raw deal? Maybe. Did Favre, however, put them in countless awkward positions? Yes. Honestly, this all could have been avoided if he had just been up front with the Packers. Instead of mowing around every off-season debating whether he should retire, Brett should have told Green Bay from the start if he planned to come back. By not doing so, he essentially held the franchise hostage, as they didn’t know whether to plan for the future, or attempt a Super Bowl run with an aging Favre. He only has himself to blame in this saga, as he could have ended it himself.

The sad thing here is that I used to enjoy watching Favre play. With his passion and unbridled enthusiasm, he one of the best players in the league to watch. Seeing him throw a 50 yard bomb and then run downfield and throw his receiver over his shoulder was always something great. But as time went on, the media OD’d on Brett Favre. (Particularly a certain video game pushing announcer.) Everything would revolve around Favre, even as his career went downhill. Then as the annual retirement talks kicked in, fans started more and more to despise him.

It’s gotten to the point that if he’s on TV, I’m changing the channel. The only time I want to see him is if I happen to catch There’s Something About Mary on TV. That’s it. And I especially don’t want to see him during those horrible wrangler commercials. Which brings me to my final point: NO ONE PLAYS FOOTBALL IN JEANS!!!)

NBA Western Conference Ramblings

“There is absolutely nothing to say after that.” That was Mark Cuban's twitter last night referring to the no call on Carmello Anthony's three pointer.

Now that is how you effectively use twitter. You see, what he did here was display his feelings via a short little quote for everyone to see what he was thinking/doing at that point in time. Not that I have a twitter or know how to tweet but if I did, I probably would have tweeted the same thing.

I want everyone to see exactly what I wrote prior to Game 4 of the Houston vs. Los Angeles series while I was on route to watch my brother play lacrosse in New Jersey.

"With Yao Ming's broken foot and the worst last-second missed call that I can remember, round two of the Western Conference playoffs is all but over. Just pencil in LA and Denver for the Western Conference finals. It's to bad, because these two semifinals match-ups had a lot of promise. Competition in the NBA is so match up driven, and Dallas and Houston both matched up well against Denver and LA; giving these series the potential to be great. Injuries are unfortunate, but what happened in Dallas was egregious. I'm not a conspiracy theorist, but the NBA and its refs must really hate Dallas. In a game that is as subjective as basketball, it's easy to see what you want to see, and psychologically, it's hard not to have a rooting interest. So I have come to the conclusion that no one in the NBA likes Mark Cuban, especially the refs. This trend will only continue because as he moans and complains more and more, refs will continue to be biased against him. No one likes complainers. Just look at Melissa Rivers on Celebrity Apprentice. Bad example...I shouldn't even admit to watching that, but let's roll with it.

I know Dallas can be blamed partly because they had an opportunity to close out the game, but instead put it in the refs hands down the stretch. Even so, the refs blew that game plain and simple. In that situation, they should be looking for a foul knowing Dallas had a foul to give. The Tim Donaghy incident blew open the NBA's already well-known officiating problems over the years to the public, and calls like last night's make you think that the league is far from solving its officiating woes. There needs to be some level of public accountability for refs. If players are getting fined and being assessed flagrant fouls after the fact, then NBA refs should be fined and suspended publicly for missed calls. The ref that blew the call in the game last night should be suspended and fined pay for one game.

Now with Dallas in a 3-0 hole and Houston down 2-1 without Yao, we can almost start to break down the match-up between LA and Denver. Actually, this is the NBA, "where amazing happens," so I don't want to be on the record as a complete idiot and say Houston has no chance. So here is my official stance on the rest of the Houston vs. LA series: “Houston has a real outside chance but it will be really tough to win three of 4 especially with 2 games being played in LA.” The only way that Houston can come back in this series is to go small with Aaron Brooks and Kyle Lowry in the back court, and take advantage of the suspect point guards of LA. I honestly can't see this happening so I'm going to go ahead and break down the Denver/LA series... because I can."

Then I go on to prematurely break down the LA/Denver series like an idiot, which I will save for a future column. I didn't get to see all of the Houston's upset of LA, but here are the few things I took away from the game.

Games like Houston's upset of LA in game 4 are why we watch sports. It goes to show, you can never count anyone out. As a complete unbiased fan, I felt proud of how Houston took the game right to LA, despite having the deck stacked against them. In the end, heart, character and toughness can trump talent any day.

Further, this is another hit on Kobe's case as a top tier all-time NBA player. He is probably the best, if not second best, player in the world right now, but I think he is in the second tier all time. To be considered among the first tier of all time great players, you make sure your team handles a wounded team like Houston, missing their top two players, and don't give them any life. You also don't blow twenty point leads in must win games during the NBA finals like Kobe did last year. You also don't demand to be traded when your team isn't putting the players around you that you want. I'm not saying Kobe isn't a great player, because he clearly is; he scored 81 points in a game. But there is so much going against Kobe that I don't put him on the level of the Jordan, Bird, Magic and dare I say Lebron. If you're Kobe, you just can't let these things happen. That's what separates the greatest ever, from just great.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Just Manny Being Manny... Not This Time

I have always heard and always thought that Manny was too dumb to keep up with a steroid cycle. Apparently, he is also too dumb to NOT take women's fertility drugs that are on the banned substances list. The drug Manny took, human chorionic gonadotropin (HCG), is used to generate normal testosterone for steroid users once they stop. Before we label Manny a steroid user it must be noted that people can be prescribed this for medical reasons. Hitting home runs and misplaying fly balls in right field probably aren't considered medical reasons to take HCG. So taking HCG doesn't necessarily mean that Manny took steroids, even though he probably did. The hilarious thing about Manny is that he didn't get caught using steroids or actually even test positive for anything. Rather he had heightened testosterone so officials began to snoop and found that he had taken HCG.

To many, this suspension is a smoking gun to cheating and steroid use over the course of Manny's career. Everyone, myself included, has become overly skeptical and cynical about steroids, relating any minor statistical abnormality to steroid use. Any player that had a career year or a statistical anomaly had to have been on steroids if they didn't repeat the success. Now that there is a smoking gun, naturally the steroid implication and connection has to be made for Manny too. While most will argue that this cements Manny's legacy as a cheater and everything he has previously done is void, I think this only heightens the legend of Manny being Manny.* Who else in the league cuts off his center fielder... while playing right field, makes routine plays seem anything but, doesn't hustle out ground balls, and presumably takes steroids, gets away with it but later gets exposed as a cheater for taking woman's fertility pills... This is just another case of Manny being Manny.

When I woke up yesterday and saw the story, my first thought wasn't “wow, Manny is getting suspended that ruins his legacy and career,” but rather, “I wonder who gave Manny some stupid GNC pill or how did Manny screw this one up without actually taking steroids.” It's not that I believe Manny's story, it's just that he is probably too stupid to lie about it or to even care enough to lie about it. I haven't the slightest idea what motivates Manny, nobody does. This is a guy that stuffs million dollar paychecks in his locker. I don't even think I remotely understand him. But I do know that he is not motivated like other players. He is a pro hitter, he hits baseballs because that's what he was born to do. So I was shocked to see that he cheated. I just never thought he was smart enough to or cared enough to do it. But hey, maybe that was just the era or steroids and maybe we shouldn't be asking “who did it,” but rather “who didn't.”

*When athletes talk and they say someone is being themselves, for example “that is just Arod being Arod”, it means that the person is an A-hole.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Baseball Post Steroid Era

With the economy in the tank, ticket sales down, and baseball season in full swing, one story has more or less flown under the radar. Through just the month of April, Home Runs have been noticeably down... hmmm I wonder why. Could it be that players are worried about getting caught for taking steroids and other performance enhancing drugs. Maybe it's because A-Rod is out with a hip injury (secret suspension from the league if your a conspiracy theorist) and isn't hitting home runs. Maybe the steroid witch hunt did work. Whatever the case may be, my perspective on steroids in baseball is unchanged.

The honest truth (or should I say Stark Truth)is that I couldn't care less about the implications of steroids on history, records, cheating, or players health. I'm not Mike Lupica, George Mitchell or my Poppy. I'm not going to go on the sports reporters and cry about it, I'm not going to go around the country on a witch hunt for steroid users and I'm certainly not going to deduce that Barry Bonds is a worse hitter than Larry Walker or Todd Helton just because his numbers were skewed by steroids. The history of baseball just isn't that important to me. I'll concede that it will be sad when the next generation doesn't learn 61 and Roger Maris or 745 and Hank Aaron like I did growing up but rather 73 and whatever meaningless number Barry Lamar Bonds is currently at. However, what I do care about is how steroids devolved the strategy of the great game of baseball.

When the steroid era was beginning, the league needed to bring the fans back after the strike in 1994. As a result, the commissioner, the owners, the organizations, and the players all turned a blind eye to steroids. Players were hitting home runs, fans were coming back to the game and everybody was happy.

Not so fast. Because of this steroid use and home run focus the entire complexion of the game was changed and would be for years to come. Teams began to rely on the long ball instead of manufacturing runs with small ball. Need proof, look at the total home runs hit per year from 1993 to 2007. In 1999, arguably the height of the steroids era, the league total in home runs was 5,528 while a year later it rose to 5,693. Home run totals in 2000 were up 42% from 1993 when there were only 4,020 total home runs hit. Just seven years later in 2007, home runs league wide were down to 4,957. That is a decline of 13% in just seven years. It would be unfair and illogical to reason that this trend was only a result of steroid use because there were certainly other factors at play. Newer hitter-friendly ball parks were being built and the overall pitching was on a decline; however, steroid prevalence was clearly at the center of the increase in home runs, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize this.

I'm not one to cry about home run hitting; home runs are about as American as watching a game with a cold beer and a hot dog. However, I enjoy all aspects of baseball, not just home runs. It's fun to see the cat and mouse game between speedster at first, pitcher trying to hold him and catcher trying to throw him out at second. I loved watching the Florida Marlins in 2003 not only because they are my favorite team but because they we're able to achieve success with small ball. Juan Pierre and Luis Castillo wreaked havoc on the bases and along with great pitching, the Marlins were able to overcome the Yankees in the World Series. This victory was even sweeter because they took down the Bronx Bombers who had known steroid users A-Fraud and Roger Clemens on their roster. They displayed that there still can be so much subtlety and strategy to baseball besides hitting the long ball which for years it had become. I won't name names but certain players could take half swings and muscle pitches out of the park to achieve historic offensive seasons with .609 OBP, .812 SLG, 45 Hrs, 232 BBs and a .362 batting averages while they shouldn't have even be elite hitters to begin with; all the while letting their trainers rot in jail because they supposedly didn't knowingly inject themselves with anything and the cream they rubbed on their body that caused their feet to grow 3 shoe sizes and head to grow 5 hat sizes was flaxseed oil. Sorry for the rant but I mean Come On.

But that brings me to my next point. Steroids had an effect on pitching too, especially with power pitchers. Power pitchers used to have a no fear attitude when going after hitters but facing roided up power hitters changed this: effectively erasing their cocky, no fear demeanors. Nowadays, most power pitchers no longer have the confidence to blow the ball past hitters and just throw strikes. Instead they have developed a new technique in which they try to hit perfect spots around the plate like control pitchers, becoming what my friend Bill Simmons would call a power nibbler. I have no statistics to back up this trend, rather general observation and analysis these past couple of years. Some may say power nibbling is an independent event that would have come up with or without steroids but I see a causal relationship. For a number of years pitches that for the most part should have worked to get strikes and outs did not get cheaters/steroid users out. As a result, pitchers developed new mind sets to get out cheaters that carried over to now. They didn't adjust back to the present day where every batter in the lineup isn't capable of hitting a hard fastball into the gap or out of the park. Rather, they come in from the bullpen or start an inning with the mindset that they have to make perfect pitches. I'm sorry but a player like Juan Pierre couldn't even hit a home run off of Susan Boyle let alone major league pitching... so please, do not let walk him or players like him when the worst he could do is hit a double. I'm sick of pitchers who are too afraid to pitch to contact and think they have to throw the perfect pitch (I'm especially looking at you Marlins Bullpen). Pitchers have yet to readjust and realize that they're better off making hitters hit it into play then putting runners on base, especially with three run leads.

The problem with the steroid era is that there is no real way to realize the impact it had until we wipe out this generation of cheaters. Even though players don't cheat anymore (or cheat less), there are still players like A-Roid and many unnamed others who used steroids at one point or another and are stronger and still hitting beyond their natural abilities. When this generation of cheaters is phased out and a new generation of players who were thoroughly tested comes we will be able to see the true impact of steroids on the game. We are like the Israelites wondering in the dessert awaiting our trip to the promise land. When the steroid users and cheaters have all retired and left this great game we will be able to enter the promise land where baseball will be pure again. Until then, all we can do is look at history and guess the impact that steroids had and will continue to have for years to come.