Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Making a Mockery of the Draft

The NFL draft is good for very few things – multiple iterations of make believe rankings, too many Mel Kiper-esque bland, canned, and vanilla critiques of a player’s attributes, and at least one unforgettable (or maybe unforgiveable) suit. Despite all of the shenanigans, draft day epitomizes the career of a successful college football player and opens the door to the next chapter in his life.

All of the glitz and glam doesn’t come without a price. Many of these players have prepared years to bask in the spotlight of professional football only to get bumped down the draft board following sub-par pro days, slow 40-times, and a disappointing level of bench press reps.

Analysts like the aforementioned Kiper, begin analyzing and evaluating every misstep and mistake made during the “process”. Some genius even decided that a written test was needed to determine cognitive abilities only to fill the test with questions like, “Are you more like a dog or a cat?”

In short, this draft “process” has become ridiculous. Instead of measuring players by their on-field performance, NFL “experts” get hung up on the ramifications of Johnny Manziel wearing a helmet for his pro day. “Is he trying too hard?” “Is he too attention hungry?” In essence…”Can he make it in the NFL?”

The answer: Yes. In Mr. Football’s case, he has proven through his past success on the field that he has all of the skills and intangibles required to be successful at the next level. Isn’t that the only question that needs to be answered? Sure, a personal interview makes logical sense but why have networks (cough, cough…ESPN) been honing in on meaningless details such as a player’s tweeting history, who he associates with, or why his hands are too small. Just visit espn.com and things tend to read much more like a TMZ article than an insightful analysis with insights into sports.

Thankfully, one of the positive trends during the player evaluation process is the personal interview. Much like the 22-year old graduating senior is out interviewing for a spot to begin their career, players are interviewing with prospective franchises. Every interview is different and each is intended to be challenging in its own way – after all, each job is different. Rightly so, these interviews are usually held for owners and team managers to get to know the player that they are interested in drafting.

However, just when I think NFL franchises are beginning to evaluate prospects in the correct manner, they find a way to make a mockery of the whole ordeal. Aaron Donald, the stud defensive lineman from Pitt, was recently asked about his meeting with several NFL teams – he described it perfectly: “[The Dallas Cowboys] wanted to get my football knowledge, get to know about me and the way I play the game and the way I learned the game.” Ok…so far, so good. Donald then went on to explain that the Cincinnati Bengals started their interview by saying five words. At the end of the interview, they asked for those words and Donald said he remembered three out of five – baseball, yellow, and tree. Seriously, those are the type of questions you ask someone who is about to cost you several million dollars?!

They might as well be interviewing for investment banking positions at Goldman with those types of unnecessary questions. I will never understand the reason for asking these preposterous questions.

Donald summed up his thoughts on the “process” best by saying, “It is what it is. To be at the next level it’s the process you got to go through.” So that is the reason? It is what it is? Why can’t we get some real substance and stop the hypotheticals and madness?

In my opinion, the truthful reason for a majority of these odd draft process tactics is derived from ESPN’s desire to create 24/7 sports news. For ESPN to become successful and continue its monopoly over sports news the network must constantly create live “news” out of thin air – hence the breaking stories about Johnny Football’s personal life, Michael Sam’s coming out party, and Jadaveon Clowney’s lack of internal motor. Viewers want drama – that’s why we turn on the TV in the first place – and ESPN will give it to them. A happy viewer equates to higher ratings and you can’t fault ESPN for chasing the money.

In summary, we are trapped in a never-ending cycle of sports reporting and it is never more than leading up to and during the NFL draft.

A prospect’s stock should be based on two things. Foremost, on the field performance – throws to wide open receivers on pro day and other nonsense should not even play into consideration. Secondly, interviews should count for something because I do believe you are making a commitment to not only an athlete, but also a person. You must make sure your draft selection is worthy of the large contract you will negotiate.

In the end, everything and everyone surrounding the draft has a personal opinion and to exacerbate the issue, every opinion is sold to viewers as if it were gospel. It’s time we took a step back and realized how out of hand the draft process has become.

No longer is the draft symbolic of a player’s departure from one stage of life and into the next chapter. Today, we are honed in on practically stalking these players simply to find reasons why they will or will not become the next Peyton Manning. Mel Kiper may have industry connections and years of experience, but this does not mean he has any better insight into Johnny Manziel and his pro prospects than you and me.

It is time to stop making assumptions about who has “it” inside them. History has proven itself. There will always be an outlier. There are no variables to study or intangibles to critique that have proven any type of indicator towards success (other than on-field performance, of course).

I would rather sit back and watch these athletes make a name for themselves on Sunday rather than try to draw some conclusion based on shaky assumptions. We all know that method doesn’t work (as a reference, please see my March Madness bracket).

If you still don’t agree with me, I leave you with this – Russell Wilson would like a word with you.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Playoff Preview Part 2: The West

This week we’re going to try and project what will happen in the wild, wild, west conference.  Unlike the East, teams are just games away from each other and the teams sitting in the 9th and 10th spot could make a move at any time.  At this point in the season, every game counts.  San Antonio and Oklahoma City have separated themselves from the rest of the pack and sit fairly comfortably in the top two slots.  But from 3 down it’s a gauntlet.  We will be seeing some playoff caliber basketball games before the regular season ends.

I’ve decided to change things up a little for the West.  Instead of basing our playoff preview on what the standings currently are, we will take another shot in the dark and try to predict who the 1-8 seeds will be at the end of the season.  From there we will go through our fantasy playoffs just like we did with the East.  So without further ado…

Projected End of Regular Season Western Standings: 
  1. Oklahoma City Thunder 
  2. San Antonio Spurs 
  3. Los Angeles Clippers 
  4. Houston Rockets 
  5. Golden State Warriors
  6. Portland Trailblazers 
  7. Memphis Grizzlies 
  8. Dallas Mavericks
A couple things to talk about here.  I like OKC to finish first.  Popovich will need to start resting his team’s aging legs before the youthful Thunder have to do the same.  Since the two are so close, this small advantage could propel OKC into the top spot.   

Golden State jumps ahead of a Portland team with an injured Lamarcus Aldridge.  He will miss a few games and even when he gets back I doubt he will be seeing regular minutes.  Stotts will want to ease him back in to make sure he’s at 100% for the playoffs.  Finally, as much as I would love to see Phoenix sneak into the playoffs I don’t think they will be able to catch either the Mavs or the Grizzlies.  Dragic has been my favorite player to watch this year and Gerald Green is one of the league’s best heat-check guys.  In a way I hope my own projection is wrong.  If there is any team that could bring even more excitement to the Western Conference playoffs, it’s the Suns.

Let’s get started with our 1-8 matchup…

1. Thunder vs. Mavericks

Starting off strong with OKC and Dallas.  This isn’t the 2011 NBA champion Mavs team but they are still having an impressive season led by none other than Dirk himself.  At 35, it would be expected for Dirk’s game to start to decline.  In ways it has.  Although never considered an elite defender even in his prime, Dirk has lost a step or two on the defensive end.  If you have watched him for as long as I have you start to notice plays where the young Dirk might have done things differently.  But overall as a player Dirk has, and will continue to, age like a fine wine.  He can still hit a mid-range jumper over just about anyone, and his name has even been mentioned as a fourth or fifth place MVP candidate.  Speaking of players who have aged well… how about Vince Carter this year.  He was 35 when he came to the Mavs in the 2011-2012 season and I remember thinking, “They just got this guy to put butts in seats.”  He proved me wrong to say the least.  VC is now 37 and I STILL see flashes of that Toronto Raptors all-star.  Dallas has a strong core in Dirk, VC, and Monta Ellis who has come up big this year after being traded from Milwaukee.

Even with those three core guys, Dallas is going to be hard pressed against OKC.  The Thunder have one of the most talented young rosters in the NBA.  Westbrook is as good an on-ball defender as anyone in the league.  He will be sure to disrupt the pick and roll game that Monta and Dirk have been working this year, and Ibaka is one of the few forwards in the league who can contest the Dirk fade away.  The Mavs (like pretty much every other team in the league) have no answer for KD who as of March 18 has 32 consecutive games with 25 points or more according to ESPN.com.  I see KD scoring at will in this series against a slower, less athletic Dallas defense.  

I don’t expect Dallas to go down without a fight; they have plenty of playoff experience and a fanatical home crowd.  The first 3 games of the series will be the closest, but a younger and more star studded Oklahoma City roster will begin to take over around game 4. 

Prediction:  Thunder win 4-2

2. Spurs vs. 7. Grizzlies

Somebody has got to find the fountain of youth that Popovich is pumping into the team’s showers.  They’re such a staple in the playoffs that no-one really talks about them anymore.  It’s just an assumption that one of the top two teams in the west is going to be from San Antonio.  The Spurs are an example of what happens when a tactical mastermind like Popovich also happens to have an amazing eye for NBA talent.  He knows exactly what kind of players he wants, and how they will fit into his system.  Of course you have the big three of Parker, Ginobli, and Duncan, but look at how players like Danny Green and Marco Belinelli came in and played a big part in the team’s success.  You can’t tell me that Tiago Splitter would be half as useful on any other NBA team.

The Spurs will need to be at the top their game to avoid an upset at the hands of a very dangerous Memphis team.  The Grizzlies matchup well with the Spurs in that they are one of the few teams that have the defensive discipline to keep up with the Spurs dizzying ball movement.  Memphis is ranked third in overall scoring defense (Teamrankings.com), and have two lightning quick guards, Mike Conley and Courtney Lee, who can handle the antics of wily veterans like Parker and Ginobli.  Randolph and Marc Gasol will be there to plug up driving lanes, and make life hard for Duncan in the paint. 

All that said I still think the Spurs have the slight advantage thanks to home court.  Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, and Marco Belinelli will need to step up in this series, and I think they will.  Green proved what he can do in the playoffs last year.  Leonard is one of the league’s more underrated small forwards (by-product of being on the Spurs) and Belinelli has proven that he is legitimate threat from 3-land this year. 

Prediction:  Spurs win 4-2

3.  Clippers vs. 6. Trailblazers

The Clippers are playing some of the best basketball in the league since the all-star break, with a record of 11-3.  Chris Paul has found his rhythm again after being hurt and Blake has continued to play at an MVP level.  Simply put this team is built for the playoffs.  They have both a leader and floor general in Paul, an all-around offensive weapon in Griffin, a defensive specialist in Matt Barnes, and a shot blocker in Deandre Jordan.  Plus they have Jamal Crawford coming back who has been shooting lights out the second half of the season.  According to an article on ESPN.com Doc even thinks Redick will be getting back into the lineup sooner rather than later.  “I think [Crawford] and J.J. looked really good” Rivers responded when asked about the injured players.  Redick himself said, “It was a good step forward, but I still have a ways to go though. I just want to continue to get back into shape and manage the injury. At this point, there still needs to be little bit more improvement.”  

While it looks like the Clippers are on the up and up, Portland has floundered a bit.  Losing Lamarcus Aldridge with a back contusion is scary for Blazers fans as he still does not have a time table for a return.  If Aldridge isn’t at 100% I’m not sure how well this Blazer’s team stacks up against the Clip Show.  Portland isn’t known as a particularly deep team past their starting five.  They’re bench scores the least amount of points in the league with just 24.2 a game per HoopStats.com.  They’re defensive numbers aren’t exactly that great either, they are 15th in the league giving up 103.2 per game.  Not the best combo against a deeper L.A. team that is essentially tied for first in the league in scoring (.2 points behind the Blazers per teamrankings.com).  

Definitely going to be one of the more exciting series to watch but I think the Blazers eventually get overwhelmed.  Gimme L.A. in a tight one.

Prediction: Clippers win 4-3

4. Rockers vs. 5. Warriors

This series will be the definition of must watch T.V.  Believe it or not the Warriors have taken some flak this year for underachieving.  This team, led by Coach Mark Jackson, was built with the expectation of making the finals this year and they are currently sitting in the 5 spot.  An early first round exit would definitely put Jackson on the hot seat.  Luckily he has been given the tools necessary to get the job done.  Everyone knows how good of a shooter Curry is.  He changes the way a team has to cover the pick and roll which opens up a lot of opportunities for screeners like Lee and Bogut.  His one handed passes probably make every high school basketball coach in the country cringe, but more often than not they are dead on accurate.  He has learned when he needs to score, and when he needs to get his teammates involved.  

Klay Thompson has been the biggest beneficiary of Curry’s distribution.  This season is Thompson’s best shooting wise, 44% from the field and 41% from deep.  This is in large part thanks to the attention Curry attracts from the opponents defense.  

It may be a surprise to some but the Dubs are actually considered one of the most defensively efficient teams in the league.  They are ranked third in Defensive efficiency according to Hollinger stats on ESPN.com, thanks in large part to the efforts of Iggy, Bogut, and David Lee.  

The Rockets come into this matchup looking strong as well.  If they could get Dwight to mentally show up to every game they would be even better than they already are.  Howard is having one of his better seasons statistically with 18.6 points and 12.4 boards to boot.  However, you can still see those games, like the one a week and a half ago against Noah and the Bulls, where it doesn’t look like he is interested.    Hopefully the playoffs will light a fire under his ass but you never know with Dwight.  He can just be a crabby apple tree some games for no reason.  

Harden is probably the best scoring SG in the league, and when he gets going there is very little any team can do to stop him.  That said he does have a tendency to put the blinders on while driving to the basket, especially if he hasn’t scored in a while.  His defense leaves quite a bit to be desired as well…  If he plays that kind of D against the Warriors, be ready to see at least 30 points next to Klay Thompson’s name in the box score every night.  

The supporting cast is where I give the Rockets the edge.  Parsons has had a great year.  Most importantly, we guys can use him to trick wives and girlfriends into actually watching some basketball.  Sup ladies.  While Omer Asik may not attract female viewers he will shore up some of the Rockets defensive liabilities.  The great thing about Asik is that between him and Howard, the Rockets can have a top 10 center on the court at all times. That goes a long way to help stop the Dubs penetration, which in turn will limit wide open three’s from the Splash Bros.

Still I like the perimeter shooting prowess and defensive efficiency the Warriors bring to the table.

Prediction:  Warriors win 4-3

I love the West.  Have I mentioned that before?  Every single series is shaping up to be fantastic.  So now that we have talked a little bit about each team in their first round matchup let’s see how the winners stack up with each other in the second round.

1. Thunder vs. 5. Warriors

No matter what you say about how good the Warriors are, OKC fans can just reply, “Yea, but KD”.  And they will never be wrong.  In my mind Durant has proven he is the MVP.  It’s just the way he has played this year. He shoots from ANYWHERE knowing that it is going to go in.  There is no answer for him, plain and simple, he can beat you from anywhere past half court and there’s nothing you can do about it.

I think this year is finally his year and unfortunately for the Warriors they are standing in his way.  A healthy Westbrook (and it’s looking like the knee injury he sustained against the Raptors on Friday isn’t serious) is the ideal player to lock down Curry.  He isn’t a bad second option on offense either.  Between him and Durant even Golden State’s stingy defense will fold.

Prediction:  Thunder win 4-2

2. Spurs vs. 3. Clippers

Two teams with completely different playing styles.  The Spurs play with precise execution and fundamentals versus the athletic and always entertaining Clippers.  

If you just look at the two teams’ rosters you would probably pick the Clips.  L.A. has a younger roster and two of the top ten players in the league.  They are also second in the NBA in scoring overall.  Not exactly the ideal matchup for a team like San Antonio whose core three players are aging veterans.  But… If I’ve learned one thing in all my years of watching NBA basketball, it’s to never underestimate the Spurs.  

San Antonio has quietly outplayed the rest of the West just like they always do.  I’m just going to accept the fact that they are as good as their record shows.  In my mind there are only two teams in the NBA who can beat the Spurs in a best of 7 this year. And as talented as the Clippers are, they aren’t one of them.

Prediction:  Spurs win 4-3

Western Conference Final:  1. Thunder vs. 2. Spurs

The Thunder are one of the two teams that can beat the Spurs this year (other is the Heat).  It won’t be easy though, San Antonio has been in this position a million times.  When faced with a more talented, more athletic opponent they can usually find a way to win.  Here are two things the Thunder will have to do to beat San Antonio.
  1. Take Tony Parker out of the game:  Parker is the catalyst for everything the Spurs do on offense.  If Westbrook can wear down Parker, the Spurs offensive efficiency drops significantly.  Players like Belinelli and Ginobli will have to work harder to create their own shots instead of relying on Parker to break down the defense and kick the ball out for either a shot or a drive.
  2. Keep the game fast paced:  An up-tempo game favors the Thunder’s younger legs.  Remember this is the western finals; both teams have played over a dozen games in a condensed period of time.  The fatigue will likely affect the Spurs more so than the Thunder, causing injuries to linger and shots to fall short. 
Prediction: Thunder win 4-3

Well that’s the West!  So if you’ve been keeping track it’s the Thunder and the Heat in the Finals.  I thought about breaking that game down too, but I figured that it would just be me slobbering over how good Durant and Lebron are so I will spare you the details.  I like the Thunder.  I said it before, move over Lebron, this is Durant’s year.

Friday, March 21, 2014

College Football Becoming a Game of Thrones

College football, in all of its glory, can oftentimes feel like a twisting drama series full of interconnected characters, powerful figureheads, and unexpected cliff-hangers.

Imagine if college football was broadcast in weekly episodes with plotlines that make today’s top shows like True Detectives, House of Cards and Breaking Bad jealous; there would be corrupt leaders, unforeseen developments, manipulating middle-men, and everyone’s favorite hero.

Each week we would tune in to see the latest plot unfolding only to be left amazed and struggling to make it to the next episode. Between each episode we would emerge ourselves in discussion with our friends, co-workers, and families to try to obtain a better understanding of what is truly going on, only to have our understanding of the world crumble again seven days later.

What popular show today embodies these elements more than Game of Thrones and what sport mirrors these qualities more than college football? The more I begin to consider the idea and ponder, the more college football begins to take on the qualities of a drama series.

I can see it now: House Saban is conquered by House Malzahn after years of reign over the SEC kingdom. The lands of Winston lay waiting to conquer and take claim of the entire empire. Still not following me? Let’s take a look at who would fill the shoes of the Game of Thrones kingdoms and characters if college football was a drama series.

House Lannister

For those of you unfamiliar with Game of Thrones, House Lannister is one of the richest and most powerful families and oldest dynasties. Their lands sit atop the most productive gold mine in the Westerlands and as a result they are the wealthiest family in the realm. Tywin Lannister, the current head of the family, silently deals with the majority of the kingdom’s affairs. The family rules the realm from Casterly Rock and Joffrey, the abusive young king, tends to disagree with his grandfather, Tywin, when it comes to his own power.

Like the Lannisters, the SEC has ruled the college football landscape for the past several years. The SEC, having won seven consecutive national championships prior to 2013, has built a dynasty in the world of college football. True to the series, the SEC also has a head of the family, the Alabama Crimson Tide. Alabama, not necessarily hated or loved, rules the conference and thereby rules the realm. Year in and year out other SEC West programs try to knock off the Crimson Tide, usually falling just short. In 2013, the Auburn Tigers actually defeated Alabama putting a temporary end to the dynasty. Could this be a possible foreshadowing as to the fate of the Lannisters?

To further bolster the argument, Nick Saban is the perfect fit to play the role of Joffrey. Standing five foot and six inches, Saban has mastered his role as the ill-favored leader. I can just imagine a young Nick Saban, responding to the media, “You can’t talk to me like that. The king can do as he likes!” It’s not like we haven’t seen Saban reveling in seeing his own fans suffer in the past (my attempt at sarcasm).

House Targaryen

House Targaryen is one of the former Great Houses of Westeros and the previous ruling royal house of the Seven Kingdoms. When House Baratheon took the Iron Throne, the few surviving Targaryens fled into exile. This House, known for its association with dragons, is in somewhat of a rebuilding phase. The leader of the House, Daenerys Targaryen has not yet been tested but she has acquired the firm loyalty of many freed slaves to go along with her three dragons. Despite being exiled years ago, House Targaryen is trending upward using the new power of the dragons and growing support from newfound armies.

Just as House Targaryen is gaining momentum, so is the spread, hurry-up offense in college football. Teams like Oregon, Baylor, and Texas A&M have introduced new wrinkles in the sport and added a flashy style to the game that is being noticed by players and coaches alike. The popularity and success of these offenses has led to increased attention around the country. Just as the other kingdoms will soon realize the power of House Targaryen, Bret Bielema has realized that his style may no longer be able to compete with the spread, hurry-up offense. This new style of play is plug and play similar to how Daenerys didn’t miss a beat after losing Khal Drogo. Oregon has proved that even after Chip Kelly moved on to the NFL they can still put up prolific points. Baylor proved that it can remain a rising program even after the departure of Robert Griffin III. The word is still out on how Texas A&M will far after the Johnny Manziel-era but if history is any indication they should be just fine.

House Stark

House Stark is one of the great houses of Westeros and the principal house of the North. Their seat, Winterfell, is an ancient castle renowned for its strength. The noble Stark family members are often followed and guarded by their direwolf. They are one of the few houses whose family words are not a boast or a threat. Instead the House Stark motto is the ominous warning, “Winter is Coming.”

House Stark is the equivalent of the Big 10 and even more specifically Penn State. As the leader of the North, the Big 10 / Penn State seemed to be on top of the college football world. With national powers like Ohio State and Michigan, the conference always had a shot at playing for a national title. Penn State had success for decades with Joe-Pa before their leadership was “beheaded”. Winter has come in Happy Valley and now the Nittany Lions are trying their best to stabilize and rebuild the program. Once known as the good guys, Penn State is struggling to become relevant again under sanction from the NCAA but they continue to fall short of their former glory. At the moment, their future is uncertain.

House Baratheon

While House Baratheon’s name is still believed to be linked to the Iron Throne, this family no longer has any real power. King Joffrey, believed to be of House Baratheon, has zero Baratheon blood in his veins which leaves Stannis Baratheon as the only hope for House Baratheon to regain control of the kingdoms. The Baratheon family still believes that they own the throne however, their power has been overrun and the only hope lays with Melisandre, the witch-like red woman that Stannis blindly follows in hope of regaining power of the seven kingdoms.  

Much like House Baratheon is a former power clinging to the past, the Big 12 has suffered the same fate. Formerly a powerhouse competing for a national title each year, the Big 12 no longer sits atop the throne of college football but the conference insists that they are still relevant because “we have Texas.” The Longhorns are the equivalent of Stannis, the Big 12’s last hope to regain power and the Longhorn Network is sitting in for Melisandre. To make matters worse, Texas A&M (once a little boy and now a true power player) abandoned the Big 12 to join House Lannister just as King Joffrey, a product on the incestuous Lannister family, doesn’t truly bring any power to the Baratheon kingdom.

House Frey

House Frey is a noble house of the Riverlands that rules from The Twins castle which serves as a vital bridge across the river. As Lord of the Crossing, the Frey’s have become quite wealthy but seem to be passive throughout the series – only getting involved when necessary or there is a direct benefit to the Frey family. In the latest season, Walder Frey, lord of the family, partners with House Lannister to bring down House Stark by killing all of the Stark leadership during an attack disguised as the Red Wedding.

The NCAA, similar to House Frey, seems to make choices often deemed either too passive or overly excessive. The overarching body of college football tends to sit back and enjoy the life of power. The NCAA likes to have a hand in every matter but only acts when absolutely necessary. Just as House Frey murdered House Stark, the NCAA laid down the death penalty for Penn State following the scandal around Jerry Sandusky and Joe Paterno. In other instances the NCAA chooses lighter sanctions such as the cases with USC and Oregon.

Night’s Watch

The Night’s Watch is a military order dedicated to holding the North wall on the northern border of the Seven Kingdoms. The Night’s Watch is in charge of defending the realms of men for whatever lies beyond the wall. As a last defense to White Walkers, these men feel a sense of protecting the rest of the kingdoms. Often wandering the North, these men struggle to become relevant and in the end will likely be overtaken by forces from beyond the wall.

Just as the men of the Night’s Watch feel as though they are contributing to the glory of the realm, the non-powerhouse conferences have a false sense of accomplishment. Every so often one of these non-powerhouse schools makes a run at national relevancy only to be put back in place behind the super-conferences. In the end, these smaller conferences will likely become irrelevant and left behind as the major conferences continue to realign.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Playoff Preview Part 1: The East

I don’t know about you but I’m impatient when it comes to waiting for things I want.  I’m the guy who opens a present or two on Christmas Eve.  I blame the Internet for this age of instant gratification.  Curse you Al Gore!  Ahem, anyways the NBA playoffs may be just around the corner, but we want ‘em now!  So let’s take a sneak peak at our presents and walk through the NBA playoff matchups if they started today.  We’ll start with the Eastern conference since we always save the best for last. (I think I’ve successfully insulted the Eastern Conference in every column so far, I’m nothing if not consistent.)

There is still much to be decided in the East.  The end of the regular season will be full of must win games as teams like the Knicks and Cavs try to claw their way past the flailing Hawks for the last playoff spot in the East.  Here’s what we are working with as of 3/15/2014.

Standings:
  1. Pacers  48-17
  2. Heat  44-19  (3)
  3. Raptors  37-27 (10 ½)
  4. Bulls  36-29 (12)
  5. Nets 33-30  (14)
  6. Wizards  34-31 (14)
  7. Bobcats  32-34  (16 ½)
  8. Hawks  28-35  (19)
 In the mix (lol): 
  1.  Knicks 26-40  (22 ½)
  2. Cavs  26-40 (22 ½)
Right, so not exactly the prettiest playoff picture I’ve ever seen.  The Hawks are 7 games under .500 and still have a 3 ½ game lead over the next closest contenders.  If the East is like those occupy Wall Street protests a couple years ago the Pacers and Heat are definitely the 1%.  But there still are many opportunities for exciting playoff series; this is the NBA after all.  Let’s get into it, our first matchup…

1.  Indiana Pacers vs.  8. Atlanta Hawks

Losing Al Horford in late December has absolutely crushed the Hawks.  Since he went down, Atlanta’s been free falling with a 12-22 record per ESPN.com.  Part of that has to do with Millsap being injured as well.  His last 4 games back he has been picking up as much slack as he can averaging 17.5 PPG and an even 7 boards.

Teague and Korver have been relative bright spots for the Hawks.  Atlanta actually averages more assists than any team in the NBA with 25.3 per Basketball Reference.com.  The looming deep ball threat that is Kyle Korver has caused opposing defenses to key on him which opens up more driving lanes for Teague to kick out or take it all the way.  Demare Carroll has also improved this year, shooting 47% and about 39% from three, he gives Teague another option when he is looking to drive and dish.

That said I don’t see the Hawks causing too many problems for the Pacers.  West and Hibbert will most likely own the paint with no Horford.  Elton Brand’s knees look like they’re about to explode at any minute, and I can’t see him offering much more than token resistance to Hibby.  Millsap will have his hands full with West on both sides of the court.  I’m not seeing many options for Atlanta offensively either.  Teague is going to have problems trying to drive the lane against George Hill and Lance Stephenson.  When he does get past them, he is going to have to contend with Indiana’s vicious interior defense which only allows 35.4 points in the paint, that’s the fewest in the NBA according to teamrankings.com.  Finally, although Korver has been lights out this season he is still essentially a one dimensional player and can be easily neutralized if the Pacers deploy Paul George to lock him down.

Prediction: Pacers sweep 4-0.

2. Miami Heat vs. 7. Charlotte Bobcats

Man I love this Bobcats team, mostly because of BIIIIGG ALLLLL!  Along with the Phoenix Suns, they have been one of the most pleasant surprises of the year.  Big Al has reached the basketball equivalent of Super Saiyan level 3 at least.  Since not making the all-star team in February he has gone supernova, scoring 33, 29, and 33 the first three games back.  He has managed to keep up the offensive onslaught with a monster average of around 26 per game since.  With Kemba and Michael Kidd Gilchrist, this team has some really nice young pieces and could give the aging Heat a little trouble, especially Miami comes out flat, which they have been known to do from time to time.

I have no doubts that Charlotte could put up some points on the Heat but stopping Miami on the defense side of court would be a challenge for any team.  I don’t need to sit here and preach how good the Heat are.  Everybody knows what LeBron, Wade, and Bosh can do in the playoffs.  They’re at that point in their careers where they have the right mix of playoff experience and athletic ability to win another championship. Wade may have lost a step or two, but Spoelstra will make sure he’s rested up for the playoffs once he decides they can stop trying in the regular season, which should be any minute now.

Big Al will likely still drop around 20 a game with Bird Man and Bosh defending him.  Kemba will play more of the pick and roll game with McRoberts and Jefferson.  If MKG and McRoberts step up and hit some shots they should be able to take at least 1 at home. I don’t see much hope for them in Miami though.  If I was Charlotte I would be fixing the MVP voting for LeBron.  If KD takes the honors LeBron will be on an absolute rampage in the playoffs…

Prediction:  Heat win 4-1.

3. Toronto Raptors vs. 6. Washington Wizards

It’s been a while since Toronto fans have had a team that they can be excited about, but this year’s team changed that.  DeRozan has elevated his game to an all-star level and is surrounded by a pretty talented starting line-up.  Kyle Lowry has been having a nice offensive year with a sweet 17.8 PPG, 7.8 assists, and a PER of just a hair under 20 per ESPN.com.  Another interesting stat about Lowry for this matchup is that he has scored more buckets against the Wizards than any other team this year, with the exception of Brooklyn per Basketball Reference.com.

Valanciunas who has been criticized for being weak inside has started to show some thicker skin, especially in last night’s slugfest with Zach Randolph and the Grizzlies.  With Vasquez coming off the bench to provide more long-range fire power, Toronto has a nice all around offensive attack.  Their defense is not too shabby either, only allowing 96.8 per game, good enough for 4th in the league.

John Wall and Bradley Beal have been the heavy artillery for the Wizards this year.  I love the Wall matchup on Lowry.  Wall has got a 4 inch height advantage and is known as one of the better defensive guards in the league.  Beal has been scoring at much higher level his sophomore year, but is still a little too inconsistent for my liking.  I give the edge to the Raptors at the SG position with DeRozan. 

I think Marcin Gortat can be a factor in this matchup.  Gortat, who was traded from Phoenix at the beginning of the season has been quietly productive for the Wizards, averaging close to a double-double to go along with 1.5 blocks.  More importantly Gortat is one of the two starters (along with Trevor Ariza) on the Wizards with playoff experience, playing in 46 total playoff games as a member of the Magic.

Prediction:  Raptors win 4-3

4.  Chicago Bulls vs. 5. Brooklyn Nets

No one took more shit than Jason Kidd the first quarter of the season (Woodson a close second).  Kidd put himself in a situation that was way too easy for people to criticize.  Playing one year, coaching the next.  Before the halfway point people (including myself) were already writing him off as just another great player that couldn’t coach.  The Isiah Thomas Syndrome is the medical term I believe.  So before we go any further everyone needs to go find a little crow and eat it.  Done? Alright good.

That being said, I still don’t think the Nets get out of a first round matchup with Chicago.  Many, including ESPN’s Colin Cowherd, have said this team is built for the playoffs, not the regular season.  I agree, they have a treasure trove of playoff experience between KG and Pierce.  Deron Williams has been playing well coming off of injury and when Joe Johnson is on he’s one of the top 10 players in the league.  The problem I have isn’t with the team, it’s with the (hypothetical) matchup.

In case you didn’t know Chicago plays some of the best defense in the league.  The Nets are 1-2 against them this year, averaging a measly 83.3 points per meeting.  It’s tough for older rosters like the Nets’ to score on Thibodeau’s defense which will only get tighter come playoff time.  Brooklyn doesn’t have that consistent go-to scorer right now.  Joe Johnson and Deron Williams have proven themselves to be streaky at best this year, and I just don’t think Pierce and KG have enough left in the tank to slug it out with the Bulls in a 7 game series.

The Bulls however seem to have all the energy they will ever need thanks to the human super-battery that is Joakim Noah.  Maybe Noah will even sucker punch Dunleavy to get him scoring like he did against Houston after taking the most manly charge of all time.  Both Dunleavy and Augustin have stepped it up for the Bulls offense lately, and if they both get going at the same time it’s going to be a very short run for the Nets.  Mostly, I really want this matchup to happen so we can see Noah annoy the hell out of Garnett some more

Prediction:  Bulls win 4-2

Yea, yea I know I didn’t pick a single upset so far.  It’s not my fault the East is more top heavy than insert actress with big fake boobs here.  Anyways, here’s the second round matchups for the East.

1. Indiana Pacers vs. 4. Chicago Bulls

Quite possibly the closest matchup so far.  I don’t like it if I’m a Pacers fan, not because I am afraid of losing, but because of what a series with the Bulls will do to a team.  Chicago is essentially the Pacers, just a little bit worse at everything.  The Pacers’ already lackluster offense is going to have to get creative against Chicago.  Indiana is going to need George to be firing on all cylinders offensively, unless they plan on winning games with a score in the 70’s.

I still have to give my nod to the Pacers here.  Chicago is going to suffer the same scoring issues and they don’t have an elite scorer they can go to when they need a basket.  For all the energy, enthusiasm and defense Noah brings, he can’t make his teammates better at offense.  This series will be ugly, and Indiana is sure to come out of it with more than a few battle scars.

Prediction: Pacers win 4-2

2. Miami Heat vs. 3. Toronto Raptors

I really like Miami here (big shocker).  Toronto is coming off their 7 game series with Washington and Miami has had time to rest after taking care of business with Charlotte.  A rested Dwayne Wade means big trouble for DeRozan and the rest of the Raptors.  Fresh legs are a huge factor in the playoffs and it looks like Miami is going to have them all the way up to the Eastern Conference Finals.  

Toronto won’t go down without a fight, DeRozan and Lowry are both young and will come out with energy but the combination of fatigue and Miami’s home-court advantage will be too much for the Raptors to overcome.  The Heat have too many scoring options with James, Bosh, and Wade.  It’s unlikely that Toronto’s defense, which is no push-over, will be able to hold off the Heat’s offensive barrage.

Prediction:  Miami wins 4-1

So it took just over 2,000 words to tell y’all what we already know.  Indiana and Miami are going to be in the Eastern Conference Final.  But at least now we know how everything else plays out! (Kinda…maybe…)  I hope some of these matchups actually happen, or I just wasted a whole Saturday.  But we’ve gone this far, lets finish it.

1.  Indiana Pacers vs. 2. Miami Heat

The big showdown we knew was coming since the season started.  The Pacers and Heat have had a stranglehold on this conference since day 1.  According to our fantasy playoffs statistician (me), the Pacers and the Heat have each played 10 games apiece.  Indiana holds home-court advantage but the Pacers are coming off that tough series against the Bulls.  

Vogel and the Pacers’ defense have proven itself a number of times throughout the regular season, but I don’t think they can beat Miami in the conference finals, even with home court advantage.  Hibbert is looked at as the difference maker in this series based on how effective he was against the Heat in the East finals last year.  I think his potential impact is being a bit overblown but we will have to wait and see. Miami still doesn’t have a “true” center outside of the experiment they are conducting with Greg Oden.  

It’s just too hard to bet against the Heat, even in our fantasy scenario.  They’ve got three of the top 15 players in the league, including the best one on the planet.  They’re still hungry and they do owe the city of Miami not one, not two, not three, not four….

Prediction:  Miami wins 4-3

So there we have it.  Our own Eastern Conference playoff scenario over a month early!  I’ll let you know if all of this comes true.  If it doesn’t, well good luck finding this column again.  Stay tuned for part 2 where we break down the West.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Territory Battles Growing Through Social Media

In today’s age of 24/7 connectivity, we can interact with anyone across the world and share our opinions anonymously at nearly any point during our day. Leading this shift has been the development of new social media platforms as well as increased traffic on existing forums, websites, and other avenues of expression. But Twitter and Facebook have nothing to do with college sports, right?

It was only a matter of time before college sports, football in particular, became infected by this ‘trending’ development. College football fans are increasingly flocking towards social media platforms and team forums to express their opinions and discuss their favorite teams.

The biggest impact of this social revolution has likely been on the college football recruiting process. With young athletes becoming more connecting through social networks, college coaches are finding new, creative ways to get the attention of these prospects. As the technology evolves, coaches are constantly adapting to the changes and hoping to find an advantage above other programs.

While coaches are using social platforms to bring in the best talent and locate future program-changing athletes, fans like us tend to use these platforms in ways that are more negative than positive. Even when intentions are good, usually as fans become more involved in the recruiting process the outcome is more negative. There are plenty of documented examples of fans overstepping the line, some of which can be read here and here.

Most often, the worst cases of fan interaction occur when a player decommits from one school to a rival school. As a result, a high percentage of negative fan involvement comes out of recruiting hotbeds where there can sometimes be several local football programs competing for the services of the same player.

As competition to “win over” a recruit grows, so do coaches on Twitter and Facebook. Consequently, as coaches step up the use of social media, fans also become involved simply because they now have the ability to send messages to the prospective recruits and their teams’ coaching staff and also read the interactions among recruits. In summary, more competition among programs over athletes leads to more negativity around a recruits’ decision on where to get an education and play football.

This high exposure is most evident among nationally ranked programs competing for top recruits in territorial recruiting battles. ESPN recently ranked the top football recruiting hotbeds. Let’s dive into each of the big three regions and examine the competition.

Florida

The Sunshine State has long been considered one of the, if not the, best region for high school football talent. National programs such as Florida, Florida State, and Miami are consistently facing each other in battles over these top high school players. Ermon Lane was a prime example of the battle that existed between these state powerhouse programs. Ermon eventually chose to attend Florida State but the Seminole coaches had to fend off next door competition from the Gators and the Hurricanes. Furthermore, these state programs are not only competing against in-state institutions but also against programs like Georgia, Alabama, LSU, Tennessee, and Arkansas that invade the state in hopes of luring away some of the nation’s top prospects. 

Not only did recruits face pressure in Florida over which school they chose, coaches also faced quite a bit of heat. Gator fans let Will Muschamp know that they weren’t too happy about a disappointing season. To exacerbate the issue, the competition across the state was on its way to winning a national championship.

Texas

Ranking right with Florida in terms of talent level, college readiness, and sheer numbers, Texas has established itself as one of the most active states for high school talent. Pick any Friday night during the fall and stop in at a high school game and you’re almost guaranteed to see a top prospect on the field. Despite the large number of top recruits, Texas is home to one of the most competitive recruiting environments. Like Florida, there are several primary schools hoping to draw in Texas talent such as Texas A&M and Texas. In addition, some of the smaller programs like Baylor, TCU, and Texas Tech are also able to compete for these high school athletes. Furthermore, the success that teams like Oklahoma, LSU, and Alabama have had has enabled these coaches to target players in Texas. Most recently, the Aggies and Longhorns battled over linebacker, Otaro Alaka. Alaka, who was committed to Texas, chose to switch his commitment and sign with Texas A&M after the hiring of Charlie Strong at Texas.

The rivalry off the field between the Aggies and Longhorns continues to grow. Charlie Strong recently debuted his twitter phrase “Let’s Ride” to compete with Kevin Sumlin’s “YESSIR!” referencing the commitment of a recruit.

California

Third on the list is the state of California. The Golden State is equivalent to the Florida or Texas of the West Coast. In this large state, USC, UCLA, Oregon, and Stanford all compete against each other for top-tier talent. Due to the high number of prospects, many other schools try to infiltrate the state searching for talent. No recruiting process was more prominent in 2014 than the recruitment of Adoree’ Jackson who ultimately spurned UCLA to attend USC.

Many of these high school students have been vocal on social media platforms and Jackson was no exception. Earlier in his process he announcedhis final six schools via Twitter. Following his decision to attend USC, the Twittersphere was on top of the announcement immediately, as media, fans, players and coaches reacted in force.

High school kids want more exposure and national recognition and Twitter has given these athletes the platform to gain power and acknowledgement. Recruiting battles between programs in Florida, Texas, and California are gaining steam and coaches are quick to adopt new social media platforms as a way to reach out to prospective players. Fans are becoming more wrapped-up in the recruiting process because they want “in” on the action. The snowball continues to grow and at some point it could spin out of control.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Breaking Down The D

There’s no doubt about it, the NBA has changed.  The league’s biggest stars used to be it biggest players.  Russell, Chamberlain, and Kareem dominated the league from inside the paint with their backs to the basket.  Today, guards and small forwards control the tempo of the game from the perimeter.  “Stretch 4” players who can handle the ball and knock down 18 footers have begun to change the definition of the power forward position.  And the Center is now a shadow of its former glory.  Teams would rather use their draft picks on talented young athletes who can shoot 40% from 3 as opposed to slow, lumbering 7 footers with knees already looking shaky straight out of college.  But what does this devaluation of the old school big man mean for the NBA?

Defense is out, offense is in.

Big guys are normally the anchors for any defense.  It’s true that centers and power forwards aren’t the only positions that bring defensive production to the table.  Smaller guards and forwards like Gary Payton, Clyde Drexler, and even MJ (not enough people know how good Michael was on defense when he wanted to be) excelled at pestering opposing ball handlers, getting steals, and forcing turnovers.  But in the NBA protecting your basket means protecting the paint, and no one can do that like the big meanies can.  No matter how good a player is at perimeter defense, they will eventually get beat to the basket.  Top tier players are athletic enough and creative enough to penetrate the interior of a defense almost at will.  In the past, the presence of intimidating shot blockers kept these driving players in check, but now it seems like teams have a shortage of these defensive behemoths.

Why?  Because the NBA now values offense over defense.  Building hyper efficient offensive machines is the goal of almost every team in the NBA (with the notable exception of Chicago and Indiana).  One dimensional big men who can’t keep up with these new fast paced offenses are slowly seeing their minutes decrease.  Over the years offense has slowly overtaken defense in the NBA arm’s race.  Let’s take a look at three of the reasons why offense has gotten the leg up on D.

The Three Point Line

The biggest change that basketball as a sport has ever undergone is without a doubt the addition of a three point line.  When it was introduced in the 79-80 NBA season it was seen as a gimmick shot that would only be used in extreme situations.  In 2014, the 3 pointer brings home the bacon for several players who may not have even made it into the league without it.  Teams are willing to look over a multitude of shortcomings, most notably a lack of defensive ability, if you can spot up in the corner and knock down 3’s 40% of the time.  Players like Kyle Korver, Mike Miller, and J.J. Redick have made their living from behind the arc and yet all 3 of them are widely considered to be defensive liabilities.

In addition to causing an influx of specialized shooters with sniper like accuracy, the 3 point shot has also stretched out NBA defenses making it even easier to score.  Defenders have to move farther away from the basket to protect the three point line; this opens up driving lanes for slashing guards and small forwards who encounter much less resistance from help defenders who are farther away from the rim. 

Arrival of Diverse Big Men

This goes back to the “stretch 4’s” that I mentioned earlier.  These big fellas are not your ordinary inside bangers.  We are talking about Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Durant, Ryan Anderson, and other 4’s who are more comfortable playing the game from the perimeter than they are with their back to the basket.  A lot of players who fill this position develop their guard-like skills at a young age, and have been able to maximize the potential their height offers them using said skills.  In addition to hitting outside jumpers a lot of these guys are comfortable bringing the ball up the court, making the no look pass, and running the floor on a fast break.

Even players we would normally look at as “inside the paint” scorers have started to develop some of these stretch 4 characteristics.  My favorite example this year has been Blake Griffin, who has moved into the 3 spot for MVP this year.  The vast improvement of his 15 footer has made him infinitely more difficult to guard, as defenders now have to worry about contesting his outside shot in addition to his Sports Center dunks.

Stretch 4’s cause all kinds of problems for a defense, that’s what makes them so valuable.  These diverse power forwards and centers are now replacing traditional defensive minded big men in today’s league.  Scoring is king, and the best offensive players are now better than the best defensive players.

Pleasing The Crowd

When it comes down to it, the NBA is a product – a product that is sold to us basketball fans.  And just like fans of any other sport (except maybe soccer), what do we want to see more of? Scoring.  More points, goals, touchdowns, whatever it is we want more of it.  That’s why there is a 24 second shot clock, a defensive 3 seconds rule, and a foul called for hand-checking.  The NBA wants the score board to reach 3 digits for each team.  Do you want to watch an 84-80 defensive chess match between the Pacers and the Bulls, or would you rather watch Heat-OKC and see Lebron, KD, Westbrook, and Wade all go for 25+?  I know which game I’m watching when I flip on League Pass.

There will always be the old school fans who love to watch players play hard-nosed team defense.  These fans are the basketball equivalent of the 1-0 pitching duel fanatic in baseball.  Don’t get me wrong I have nothing but respect for that particular brand of basketball; nothing is harder than playing lock down defense for 42 minutes a night against the best players in the world.  That doesn’t mean I have to enjoy watching it though…  Give me 127-118 Steve Nash era Mavericks versus Steve Nash era Suns every game and I’d be happy.

In the end, defense will always be important in the NBA, but it is no longer the deciding factor in determining if a team can win a title.  Offensive firepower is what most franchises are stockpiling in 2014. It isn’t the only successful strategy; the Pacers have proved that you can still be a contender with a team built on defense. But do me a favor, go and check out the attendance and viewership ratings for the Pacers. You may be surprised how few people want to watch a team that is 1st in its conference.