NBA Season Preview Part II (Teams from 30-16)

The NBA season is upon us and with that, its time to preview the season.  You can find part one here.  For this preview I decided rather than write some long winded thing about how Kobe Bryant is ruining the Lakers franchise (more on that later), I would rather structure it in a crowd pleasing way: go reverse order in rank of all 30 NBA franchises heading into the season and list one player to watch and one subplot over the course of the season.  Hope you enjoy it and hope you learn and hope you care enough to curse me out over the internet and tell me I don’t know crap.  Here is part I:

30. Sixers logoPhiladelphia 76ers-

Player to Watch- Nerlens Noel (C)- Noel is in his second year out of the NBA training academy in Kentucky known as the Wildcat collegiate program.  He’s a long armed, afro-d rim protector sent to the Sixers to play with the emotions of players hoping to score in the paint.  Obviously this season is lost in the midst of the biggest, most open tanking party known to sports (as the NBA Twitteratzi will have you believe), so the most important story on the court will be Noel’s development along with MCW’s development playing with Noel and then maybe if we’re lucky we may even see a Joel Embiid sighting!

Major Subplot of the Season- Tankapalooza- Technically the Sixers won their first game of the season when major lottery reform was shot down by a vote of 17-13.  Zach Lowe of Grantland expertly outlined what was at stake for this vote.  The NBA and its righteous police will surely devote thousands of words and twitter memes to symbolize what a horrible thing this is, but I’m all for any careful, thought out process of becoming good again.  Fans will come back once the team starts winning.  Suffer for a few years, but beware when the tag of losers are ripped off.  That’s when the fun starts.

29. jazz symbol Utah Jazz-

Player to Watch- Dante Exum (PG?)-  I put a question mark because the Jazz and rookie coach Quinn Snyder will likely use him in a variety of roster spots.  But he’s a natural point guard.  Exum is the baby of a youtube highlight clip, reared by Twitter GIF’s and raised by the blessing of the NBA Twitterverse.  Which is to say he’s a completely digital creation.  Now comes the human element: actual games.  I like what i’ve heard, and I’m more intrigued by the few highlights I’ve seen from Jazz preseason games.  I’m not going to venture a guess on his ceiling because nobody knows, but a point guard that can fly and has court vision?  Should be fun.

Major Subplot of the Season- How Toure Murray and Steve Novak will save the Jazz!  Young and the Restless- The Utah Jazz have the youngest roster in the NBA.  Twelve of the 15 players that will suit up for the Jazz are 25 and younger.  Talent wise, they have three Top 5 Picks (Exum, Kanter, and Favors), six lottery picks (+ Hayward, Burks and Burke), and nine first rounders (+Booker, Hood, Govert), pedigree which suggests they should be good.  They are like Philly three years into their tanking program, but the feeling is that there will be more losses piling on for the Jazz.  They play in the ultra-competitive West where there are legitimately 10 teams vying for the 8 playoff spots.  So it gives Utah liberty to continue piling on assets before they have to make their first big move, which likely will mean either Kanter or Favors is on their way out.  Bet on Kanter, but definitely lay money on the fact that the Jazz will look very Spurs-ian on offense (don’t we all aspire to) while running exciting rotations which should keep hoop nerds in the East up long hours watching this young 20 something line up explore themselves like a young teenager watching porn for the first time.

28. Lakers-Logo Los Angeles Lakers-

Player to Watch- Kobe Bryant (SG)- C’mon, as if there was anyone else.  I honestly don’t know how Kobe’s season will play out but after this article by Henry Abbot (a journalist of the highest order) where he lists anonymous sources within the Lakers organization who believe that Kobe is the reason they are bad and will continue to be bad.  Not helping matters was Jeannie Buss going all Steinbrenner-ish by publicly criticizing these anonymous sources and calling any player who doesn’t want to play with Kobe a loser anyway, I can’t help but feel uneasy about predicting anything but a ton of back and forth between Kobe’s fan base (long one of the most fierce in NBA history) over Twitter that could get nasty.

Major Subplot of the Season- Byron Scott and the National Advanced Stats legion- Not only are advanced stats here to stay, but they have crept into every crevice of NBA operation and major NBA writing which will likely skew your thoughts on the matter.  Fact is, Byron Scott is wrong based on all the statistical evidence we’ve seen (see!  its happening to me!).  To be fair, Scott came to Cleveland on July 2nd, 2010.  We all know what happened on July 8th when Lebron tap danced on Cleveland fans hearts and went to Miami.  Well, he comes to Los Angeles, the place of his greatest trumps RIGHT as Kobe is entering a “prove you’re still great” season where he’ll launch a ton of shots while playing a bunch of one on two or threes and giving below average defense and demanding minutes.  Also, the best free agents the Lakers got were Jeremy Lin, who will now be pushed into more minutes with Steve Nash being done for the season, and Carlos Boozer who’s biggest contribution the last few seasons was this.  Things could get bad in Tinseltown fast.  But hey, at least they will sell out!

27. bucks logoMilwaukee Bucks-

Player to Watch- Jabari Parker (SF)- Carmelo Anthony clone.  Number two draft pick in a loaded draft.  Thought to be a franchise player.  There’s tons of things here to like, but let’s call it what it is.  Here is the season for the Bucks right here:

Major Subplot of the Season- Jason Kidd dealing with a young roster- In Brooklyn he was a rookie coach trying to get the most out of a veteran roster.  He flipped the script, jumped ship (there’s really no other way of saying it) and went to a team with a bunch of young pieces.  Kidd had plenty of lows in Brooklyn but the fact is, he did it his way which is how you can accurately describe his NBA career.  He’s a natural leader and he will be the voice the players turn to when they are down in a crunch time situation and youth and inexperience will drive them to the Fountain of Kidd.  This may not be a good team, butut expect them to be hungry and give teams a good scare down the stretch.  Expect them also to be very busy come trade deadline.  Shoutout to John Henson who I saw give everyone elbows because he still hasn’t figured out how freakishly long his limbs are.  You can’t teach that.

26. Magic logoOrlando Magic-

Player to Watch- Elfrid Payton (PG)- Many expect Payton to challenge Jabari Parker for the Rookie of the Year.  Payton is that mix of rangy athleticism with a good body that compares well to Exum, only he played in the States.  While he did play in the Sun Belt Conference, the experience of playing States-side players is very critical when seeing how he projects and he’s proven in both Vegas (7.2 APG) and in 27 MPG in the preseason (5 APG) that he’s up for the challenge.  It also helps that everyone has been glowing about how mature and wise beyond his years he is.

Major Subplot of the Season- They can play but can they shoot though?- The stats suggest not.  Jacque Vaughn is in a weird spot.  They already have lost Victor Oladipo for an extended stretch when he broke his orbital bone.  They brought in Channing Frye to help spacing but you can almost make the case that 60% of their starting lineup not only can’t shoot, but are historically bad.  Aaron Gordon doesn’t project well as a shooter, and neither does Tobias Harris who the Magic have to make a decision on whether to extend.  How can you create space for Payton to drive, or Oladipo to drive or Gordon to roll to the basket if NOBODY is afraid of them from 10 feet and beyond?  That’s the question for them to  ponder.

25. CelticsLogoBoston Celtics-

Player to Watch- Rajon Rondo (PG)- In my 10 bold predictions for the upcoming season, I wrote that Rondo would not be traded and that Jeff Green would be.  Most may think I dislike Rondo which is far from the truth.  I love Rondo.  I think having a competitor like him can only help your team and he has the playoff chops to take your team over the top.  Even if he isn’t a fit in the triangle, I would welcome him to my Knicks.  But this season the Celtics, who drafted Marcus Smart specifically to take over the mercurial yet talented point guard of the Celtics mantle that Rondo held firm for so many years,  are continuing their rebuilding and transition.  They have quality pieces to give away in trades and Rondo being the big chip.  I just don’t see it happening, unless the Celtics find a very anxious bidder who’s willing to overpay which is exactly how Danny Ainge wants to play it.  But Rondo isn’t the cookie cutter and he comes with hard edges that will make him a very tough add to any team hoping to add Rondo to their team easily.

Major Subplot of the Season- Can Danny find a home for Rondo?- I realize I’m doubling up on this but let’s face it, the Celtics will try like heck to trade him.  Getting back value will be completely up to Danny Ainge.  Will he hold on to Rondo even though he knows retaining him will take repairing their relationship?  We still have yet to see Rondo and Brad Stevens collaborate in an 82 game season which is something that could be fascinating.  But Ainge’s responsibility first and foremost will be to trade Rondo and get back draft picks, salary relief, and young players.  I don’t know that he will accomplish that goal but the season will likely be in limbo until Ainge either trades him or pays him. You know who’s the x-factor on how this plays out?  Rajon Rondo.  Who knows if he wants to stick it to Celtic management?  Who knows if there’s resentment or bitterness on how the Celtic saga ended with the smearing campaign when Ray Allen left?  Coming to NY won’t help that but you can see how a change of scenario will help.  If Ainge has Rondo after the trade deadline, all the leverage will return to Rondo and that’s the scenario that Ainge does NOT want to see played out.

24. Timberwolves logo Minnesota Timberwolves-

Player to Watch- Andrew Wiggins (SF)- He said all the right things about how he was looking forward to the challenge.  How he’s motivated.  How he wants to play for a team that wants him.  Those are all fine and well.  He and Anthony Bennett will be compared in the impossible microscope of the Kevin Love trade.  That’s tough for any rookie, no matter how heralded.  Now comes the proving ground.  There’s no question about the defensive ability already.  His offensive game still needs a lot more work and he will get plenty of minutes to develop it.  Now’s the time rook.  Now.

Major Subplot of the Season- How does Flip Saunders deal with making a good deal?- Look, when you’re losing the quality of big man in Kevin Love, the fact is, there is no such thing as equal value.  So reality has to set in and accept the best deal possible.  Saunders did as decent a job as he could given the position the team was in.  They got a guy in Wiggins who could wind up being a generational talent, another number one pick who could be who knows what, and wound up with a quality NBA big man in Thaddeus Young.  Its not perfect, but its something.  They drafted Zach Lavine.  The Love departure will open up minutes for Gorgei Dieng who in limited minutes and then in international competition opened eyes.  There’s plenty to like about what the Love trade did for the franchise, but really it opened things up for a young group.  Now, Flip has to make sure Flip can coach them up.  This is the roster Flip gave Flip.  This is the roster that Flip will die with even if Flip doesn’t like it.

23. Kings logoSacramento Kings-

Player to Watch- Boogie Cousins (PF/C)- Count me in on the Boogie bandwagon.  The question becomes: is he a franchise player?   The Kings extended him, but that’s a referendum on a small market team desperately holding on to its best talent by offering him the most any team can offer, rather than the seal of approval by a brand new ownership/front office.  Talent has never been the question.  Its his inability to keep his emotions in check or be a leader that folks can draw from.  Well, I’m all in on the Boogie breakout season, which is saying something because he’s one of 5 players to average 20 and 10.  I’m all in on the goal of ONLY drawing 5 technicals.  Let’s go Boogie.

Major Subplot of the Season- Does Mike Malone have the pieces and/or time to make this work? Malone was a highly regarded assistant and son of Brendan Malone who served as a Knicks assistant in the Warriors when Vivek Ranadive, majority owner of the Kings, was a minority owner in Golden State.  So, it seems curious when the Kings head honcho came out and said now its about wins and losses. Regardless, the Kings will struggle by sheer virtue of geography (maybe they should’ve moved huh?).  They won 28 games and while improvement would be winning 30, that’s not the kind of improvement this Kings team wants.  Their cap is pretty clean and they have all their draft picks which is the good news.  The bad news is again, they play in the Western conference.  Dave D’Alessandro, the Kings GM, has turned this roster over aside from two players, and sees the turnover as a way to get better.  Losing Isaiah Washington was tough but I understand them not wanting to devote too much cap room for too many years to him.  Rudy Gay posted some of his best numbers playing alongside Boogie and they didn’t want to kill each other which is a major plus.  The Kings are a match for the Celtics if they are looking for draft picks and salaries to throw in a trade without too much of a long term commitment.  Add in the fact that Rudy Gay and Rondo are buddies, there’s definitely smoke there to start a full on fire.  But adding Rondo without the assurance of a contract being signed would be silly.  But with an edict like the one given to the Kings from ownership- do they have a choice if Ainge comes calling?

22. Hawks logo Atlanta Hawks 

Player to Watch- Al Horford (PF/C)- He’s quietly been one of the best PF/C’s.  People forget that he came from back to back national titles in Florida playing alongside Corey Brewer and Joakim Noah on those great Gator teams.  But he’s playing on a team that has been playing for the 6th-8th spot in the league since the days of Iso Joe offense.  Horford is due $12M this year and the next.  It will be interesting to see how both the Hawks and Horford play contract negotiations after a terrible winter.

Major Subplot of the Season- Change is coming- The Hawks under Danny Ferry have done a good job in retaining flexibility while signing solid veterans to decent deals.  How Danny Ferry’s racist rants and owner Bruce Levenson’s racist email plays into the Hawks future is clear: change is coming and its going to come quick.  Once Levenson’s email was leaked, and audio of Ferry making racist remarks were made, the clock officially began on their collective tenure expiring in Atlanta.  But this is a particularly interesting case.  Atlanta is a semi-big market that players love coming to because of its, umm, night life, and when the salary cap explodes in two years, this will be a team with almost 3 max salary slots available- one of them that will likely be filled by Horford unless something funky happens during negotiations.  There will be plenty of offers from more rich white guys (including a group headlined by Chris Webber) and a presence by Dominique, the former Hawk great, which is all but a certainty given how much positive press that would generate for any incoming group.  Until there is a new owner, plenty is up in the air about this franchise.

21.Pistons logoDetroit Pistons-

Player to Watch- Josh Smith (PF)- With Stan Van Gundy as the head coach and GM, its likely that Josh Smith will really have to mind his P’s and Q’s.  But here’s where Stan Van has the edge.  He’s already dealt with Josh Smith’s old pal Dwight Howard and knows how to get the most out of a talented big man who may just need direction.  Smith signed a 4 year contract worth $54 million last year when Detroit threw money around like a 24 year old with daddy’s new Black card.  Smith will be asked to play closer to the basket which goes against Josh Smith’s version of events that sees him as a stretch 4.  Of course real world statistics don’t bare that out, and that’s Stan Van’s mission: to convince Smith of who he is. There are talks about putting Smith as a sixth man In the end, this is more about developing Smith so that Stan Van can develop Andre Drummond into Dwight 2.0, only one that’s nicer to Nickelodeon stars they have relations with.

Major Subplot of the Season- Can Stan Van the exec agree with Stan Van the coach? SVG has long been regarded as one of the brightest minds in coaching.  His looks and personal style have left much to be desired but we haven’t minded.  He singlehandedly outed Dwight Howard as the biggest D-bag on the planet after we were duped with all the stories of farting and those big smiles that made us all think he was a swell guy.  So he has a history in player management.  But a coach can convince himself that he can right a player.  This is Stan’s first go-round as the top of the food chain.  No longer will he be told from execs within the organization about a player’s dislike of him, the information will have to be funneled through him.  Don’t think that teams won’t reach out to pull a fast one on him either.  Greg Monroe signed a qualifying offer but only because nobody else came calling with a max offer which shouldn’t shock him.  Nothing about Monroe’s game screams max-contract guy.  His skill set takes a backseat to the stylings of Andre Drummond and Monroe may seek greener pastures elsewhere where teams don’t have an Andre Drummond to shine light on his physical failings.  Bringing him in as a sixth man to help spacing, which was discussed as well with Josh Smith, could be the final nail unscrewed to make Monroe walk through the door, but there’s reason to believe he was headed out anyway.  Plenty of decisions for Stan Van the coach and Stan Van the GM, but can they both agree to help the team?

20. Pacers logoIndian Pacers-

Player to Watch- Paul George (SF) Roy Hibbert (C)- Last season’s fun ride and good times stopped because Roy Hibbert forgot how to be Roy Hibbert from the Knicks series.  The Great Wall of Roy who swatted everything with ferocity the likes of which had not been seen since Patrick Ewing roamed the center position for the Georgetown Hoyas.  So it goes without saying that this season will be extremely important to his development.  This season will likely feature Hibbert a whole lot (possibly in hopes that they can deal Hibbert for some financial freedom).  Frank Vogel may even run the offense through him.  If he wants to procure a big contract during the suddenly scorching Summer of 2016- he had better develop this year into the guy he showed in the Knicks series in 2012.

Major Subplot of the Season- Will the band be broken up?  My guess is that they will trade pieces, go for the lottery and then try their luck with a young piece next to a recovering Paul George.  George is their everything.  So if they go this route, it will allow Indiana to bring George back slowly rather than rushing him back.   They have seen in their division how a roster full of complementary pieces without a bona fide superstar and a very good coach can only achieve so much in the Chicago Bulls. It remains to be seen what it would do to a fan base that was only beginning to fill up the stands again, but its understandable and in my opinion the right move.  My guess is that David West gets moved and they shop Hibbert  as well, dangling George Hill with both players to net the best possible return.

19. Knicks logoNew York Knicks-

Player to Watch- Iman Shumpert (SF)- Phil likes him.  We know this because he told Charley Rosen as much.  Shumpert’s athleticism helps him play on both ends.  His defense is at times overrated and his offense is nowhere near where it is.  Last season his minutes began to get slashed because of some reported rift between he and Coach Woodson so its important that he get off on the right foot with rookie head coach Derek Fisher.  Entering Restricted Free Agency, Iman could play himself into bigger bucks, a trade that could bring back a huge package or an enigma that has the tools to be great but none of the actual stats to back that up.

Major Subplot of the Season- Will the Triangle be a success in NY?- There are enough questions about Derek Fisher being able to handle the media spotlight of New York, and handle a star laden lineup that features several players that think they should have the ball a lot, but implementing a system that has been a failure everywhere else but when the current GM was the coach?  I worry for Fisher.  He played in Los Angeles which is a different type of pressure than the one that New York presents.  But if Fisher is going to be successful, and believes 100% in the triangle, and I believe he does, he will have to be patient.  Yes, players are who they are and many won’t change, some like JR Smith may even find the transition a lot more difficult than they ever thought,  and there are others in the basketball community who believe that it isn’t about system that its about the players at the end of the day.  All are true and a reality of the Knick season.  How quickly they adapt to the system will be the true test.

18. nuggets logo Denver Nuggets-

Player to Watch- Jusuf Nurcic (C)- He’s 20 years old, from Boznia and he’s got the Nuggets fan base buzzing along with several personnel folk.  Zack Lowe gave a shoutout during the Grantland NBA hour.  He’s intriguing enough but this speaks more to the rest of the roster more than Nurcic’s potential.  There’s so many B+ guy with one A- in Ty Lawson that its tough to pinpoint one player, so we go with the unknown here in the spot.  At some point these Eastern European giants will put together a season right?

Major Subplot of the Season- Is now the time to break up the roster or do we keep playing this game that the Nuggets can be a contender in the West?- Judging by the level of snark in that sentence you get the sense of where I’m going with this.  I don’t think so.  As a matter of fact, I think that the Nuggets with all of their traceable pieces could go so many different directions.  They could make a trade, and still be a mid-tier contender status.  They could trade a Gallinari and Foye for a pick that could eventually be a lottery pick if things end up right.  There’s so many different ways this could play out for the Nuggets a.k.a. the Knicks of the West, but the truth here is that in a stacked Western Conference, it will be very difficult for THIS version of the Nuggets to make noise.  Just so its clear, I tried really hard NOT to put Wilson Chandler and Danilo Galinari in the players to watch section.

17. Brooklyn-Nets-logo Brooklyn Nets-

Player to Watch- Brook Lopez (C)- No team’s destiny is tied to one player’s health like Nets to Lopez.  If he’s healthy, and the rest of the roster, this is a playoff team that can give a top 4 seed a scare in the East.  They have a solid front line in Garnett, Lopez and Plumlee that can cause problems.  But if Lopez doesn’t play, this is a lottery team.  Again, the Eastern Conference is chock full of mediocre to below average teams that could eventually make this a moot conversation.  But Lopez’s health will ultimately decide the fate of the Brooklyn Nets.

Major Subplot of the Season- Are there bigger shakeups in store?-  They don’t have the assets to get a big superstar so they may have to stand pat.  But there are enough signs that point to a major shake up of the entire organization including rumors popping up that Mikhail Prokhorov has begun gauging interest in selling the team in the wake of Steve Ballmer paying $2 Billion for the Clippers. I don’t blame him.  He has political aspirations for 2016 and sees the NBA’s latest TV deal as a sign that he could fetch a very healthy sum for his team.  Add that to reports that the Nets lost $144 million due to operating costs and there’s motive.  Prokho has been silent for some time which leads people to believe that he’s already planning his exit.  If so, it could potentially lead to large scale changes.  Billy King might be asked to sell off assets to make the books look a lot cleaner than it is and who knows what could be had and for what.  King has never struck me as an awesome deal maker, save for the Deron Williams trade which was an all time hammer move.  Either way, Brooklyn’s activity come deadline time could be a sign of potential ownership changes to come.

16. Suns logoPhoenix Suns-

Player to Watch- Eric Bledsoe (PG)-  All that needs to be said.  And to think, they were playing a staring contest over a contract extension:

Major Subplot of the Season- Can a two point guard system work full-time?  The Suns are betting on it.  Big time.  They re-signed Eric Bledsoe.  They signed Isaiah Washington, and drafted Tyler Ennis.  Initially you could’ve said that the last two moves were in case Bledsoe left, but when the restricted market was a dry patch of pavement, Bledsoe came back to the Suns at a reasonable price for both sides.  Looking at that contract from the perch of a huge TV deal that could make the salary cap explode to close to $100M that means the Suns could be major players for free agents with all the assets they have and the cap space.  Consider they still have Minnesota’s 1st rounder protected 1-12 in 2015 or 2016 and the Lakers 1st round pick protected 1-5 in 2015 and 1-3 in 2016.  Add to that the miracle workers that is their training staff, and a young smart head coach its easy to see why this can be a destination for would be free agents or a good trade partner for teams trying to get young guys and unload veterans. The Suns who streaked their way 48 wins running a fast paced offense surrounded by shooting might want to look at the advanced stats that show that when Bledsoe or Dragic played with Miles Plumlee, Channing Frye, PJ Tucker, and Gerald Green, their offense flew.  Maybe they see another market inefficiency that they can exploit and try and go two point guards and pick up the pace.  Either way, Hornacek’s rotations, coaching and outright defiance against tanking have led me to lay upon them the unenviable title of my favorite Western Conference team.  Let’s see how this plays out!

Part II coming soon.

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Big Blue Thoughts Week 7

Ten thoughts following the Giants 31-21 defeat at the hands of the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T stadium in Dallas, Texas.

1. The Cowboys are good….- Naturally I reserve the right to change my mind but the eye test proves it.  The Cowboys are playing sound, power football and have the playmakers on the outside to make you pay if you overcompensate in the box (nice sexual reference I know).  The offensive line is basically the best unit going in all of football- better than the Legion of Boom Seattle secondary.  They are winning individual battles at the point of attack and helping to win games for the Cowboys.  The defense, as a result, doesn’t need to play as much and allows them to be fresh.  Remember, this is a unit that lost its two best players and still sits as the 22nd best team defense based on total yards surrendered, giving up the 15th most yards per game, 18th most pass yards, 21st most rush yards, and tied with Green Bay for 16th most points given up.  So how does a team that has a +1 turnover differential get such acclaim?  Because Rod Marinelli has tied scheme with the pieces given and formed a unit that likely will have to continue playing great football for not so long stretches of the game.  This is a team that had the ball for more than 31 minutes in the game they lost in San Francisco, then had it for more than 41 minutes in Tennessee, almost 35 minutes against the Saints, 36 minutes in OT against Houston, nearly 38 minutes in Seattle, and 33 minutes against the Giants.  The only time they LOST the time of possession game was against the Rams, where they had to pass their way to victory after going down 21-0 midway through the second quarter.  This is a team that makes no bones about its offensive identity: they will run the football with a physically imposing running back who has finally managed to stay healthy and the minute they think you’re cheating at the line of scrimmage they will throw the football to a physically imposing wide receiver who’s on the short list for dominant wide receivers in the sport.

Do I trust the defense in the second half of the season when the weather turns cold?  Just looking at their next month, they go against Washington on Monday night, Arizona at home, and then travel to Jacksonville before they hit their bye.  They could enter their bye 8-2 if we are to assume that they lose to Arizona and even then you can’t assume anything.  Then the schedule gets a bit more daunting.  Sunday night against the Giants, then a quick turnaround against the Eagles on Thanksgiving day, followed a week later by a game at the who knows where mentally they will be Chicago Bears, ten days later at the Eagles for what could be pole position in the division, home for the Colts and then close out the season against the Washington Redskins. who may have Robert Griffin back healthy with what looks like a slate of solid weapons.  If one were an optimist, and say the Cowboys run the table till the bye, let’s say they split the Eagles games, sweep the other two divisional opponents, and lose to the Bears and Colts, we’re still talking a 12-4 regular season.  Here’s where the Tony Romo, Jason Garrett era has always hit a hard thud, there will be one or two losses that could slip into that dreamy scenario that could ultimately undo them, but this iteration of the Cowboys seems markedly different than the play for the division on the final day of the season Cowboys teams that always stopped short.

Based on the records as it stands, the Eagles face a tougher stretch.  The Eagles have Dallas twice, but also have yet to play Seattle and they draw Green Bay by virtue of winning the division last year.  Let’s assume they beat Arizona at home which is no easy feat, and then beat Houston and Carolina.  Let’s say they split one of the two against the Cowboys and split one of two against the Green Bay and Seattle teams and then win out.  That’s a 13-3 record for the Eagles.  I trust the Eagles defense more than I do trust the Cowboys defense and those two divisional games between the two will be huge especially the December 14th showdown at Philadelphia.  Should be an interesting 2 months to see this drama play out in Big D and Broad Street.

2. …this loss means the end for the Giants? Technically no one is officially knocked out but look at the two schedules and the if everything plays out as it should scenarios for the two teams- Dallas, would wind up 12-4 or 13-3 and Philly would go 13-3.  The best record the Giants could get now is 12-4 and thats by running the table Jim Fassel style.  That means beating Indy and San Fran at home and then beating Seattle AT Seattle and then also beating Dallas and Philly once which would make things interesting again.  They end the regular season in Philly.  But to get there, they would have to get through that tough stretch completely unscathed and there’s no evidence that the Giants even make it out of that stretch 1-2.  Remember, these two games were as must-win as must-win can be this early in the season and they failed both times.  If you think the wild card will be there for the taking consider that one of the two spots will be taken by the Dallas/Philly group and the other spot will likely come from the NFC West who have the defending champions, the Niners, the Cardinals and a suddenly dangerous Rams team.  Good luck trying to slip in through the wild card.  Crazier things have happened and Giants fans can attest to that.  It will be difficult to envision the Giants going any better than 10-6 and barely missing the playoffs.  Of course, as the season goes on, you have the out of nowhere injuries to significant players.  The Cowboys don’t have the kind of depth on defense that can afford any type of major injury.  The Eagles are a sound team but if LeSean McCoy doesn’t start performing better and the offensive line continues to have the kind of injuries they already have had (they are playing without Evan Mathis and Jason Kelce), the season could turn and the Eagles could start to suffer.  But I still like the Eagles and Cowboys thanks to their schedules to make it out with double digit wins more so than the Giants.

3. Is it time to put an end to the fairy tale that was Larry Donnell? No.  Physically he’s still a match up nightmare.  Mentally one has to wonder if the young kid can put the two costly turnovers late in the fourth that ultimately cost the Giants Sunday’s game.  We won’t have the answer to that for a few weeks, but the Giants have capable players up and down the roster offensively to start making a difference and the “next man up” philosophy will be put to the test if he doesn’t take care of the football better.  One thing we’ve learned about Coach Coughlin is that he HATES players with fumbling issues and isn’t a coach that takes kindly to mental mistakes.  It bears watching how Coughlin handles this in terms of the depth chart.  Daniel Fells continues to be steady and reach the end zone, but I know coming into the season  The Giants are heading into the bye and perhaps time off will heal the wound of Donnell’s fumble but Coughlin will remind the young TE that a 3 TD performance in Washington does NOT a career make.  The play in question wound up being a 14 point swing when Donnell fumbled at the New York 27.  The Cowboys scored 4 plays later with a 1 yard TD run by DeMarco Murray.

4. Eli Manning continues to be mistake free….- But the Giants keep losing.  Eli’s career record when throwing for at least 2 TD’s and zero interceptions is 21-6 (.777 win pct).  Coincidentally three of the six losses were to the Cowboys.    When the Giants handed the offense to Ben McAdoo one of his chief responsibilities was to reduce the amount of interceptions thrown by Eli.  He’s already done a fantastic job.  Eli has thrown 5 interceptions in 7 games.  Compare that to 2013 when he had thrown his 5th interception by the fourth quarter of game number two.  The biggest question surrounding Eli has always been about his erratic play but there’s no doubt that the early returns on this new offense have been good.  Eli has limited his mistakes and some of that is due to the fact that he is no longer forcing the issue when being under pressure.  He’s making sure to throw those god-awful short throws at the knees of his running back rather than throw it and hope for the best.  Think about the effect that has on an offensive line that everyone agrees has not improved as much as the Giants brass would have liked.  The offensive line is projected to give up 10 fewer sacks this year than last and that’s with an eight sack performance at the hands of the Philadelphia Eagles on their register.  While the benefits may not be seen now, mistake free football is what helped win two Super Bowls.  This can only lead to better things.

5. Andre Williams isn’t there yet.- And that’s ok.  The rookie was thrust into a role after a few highlights of him lowering the boom on some unsuspecting cornerback.  But you’re now seeing why he wasn’t projected as high on team’s draft boards.  He’s not as quick or shifty as the superstar running backs in the league.  He’s a pound it out in between the tackles 4 yards at a time the hard way kind of guy.  Those guys age quick.  Its the guys that can avoid the hits that last in the league and Williams hasn’t learned that trick yet.  Jennings, another big back, did a great job when he was healthy of showing burst once he hit the hole.  Williams runs into the hole and finds very little room to operate because he didn’t read the hole correctly.  That will come with time and repetition.  The Giants brought in former Jet Alex Green and former Cowboy Felix Jones for workouts but that’s more as a contingency.  They believe Jennings will be healthy enough to play after the bye.  But it does bear watching how reverting back to a part time role could make Williams more productive or if it has a negative impact on his development.  If he is in fact the future feature back, these few games may be the best thing for his development.

6. The defensive line is going back into its shell- The Giants went up against two above average (Philly) to really good (Cowboys) offensive lines and failed both times to generate any consistent rush.  Yes, their performance in Dallas was significantly better than it was in Philadelphia where it seemed like the Giants weren’t in the same league as the Eagles, but again a breakdown in fundamentals led to critical scores for the Cowboys.  Terrance Williams’ touchdown catch saw Tony Romo break to his left once he realized that JPP had taken an inside route to get the sack and he had acreage to run or stop, set himself and throw a touchdown strike to Terrance Williams.  It was similar to watching the Giants break contain against Shady McCoy.  The way to stop shifty players is to force them to try and go straight when they really want to run left or right.  Shady and Tony Romo are adept enough to wait for you as the defender to make the first move and give away where you’re going to try and get them so that they can instinctively make a counter-move.  The importance of being patient and allowing the player to fall into the hands of the defense are vital and the Giants failed both times.  During 2011, JPP had a knack for making the sure tackle and being excellent in run support because he was able to hold the point of attack on running plays and force the runner to either go way outside or shift back inside which led to short or no gain.  That’s the kind of performance we need.  Coach Nunn has promised to unleash DaMontre Moore and shift Kiawunuka to the inside on certain passing downs to generate  a pass rush but he said it with the nugget that he doesn’t think DaMontre Moore is necessarily ready to make that leap.  The Giants, more so than others, can be hamstrung by what they see in practice.  They recognize talent but if the talent doesn’t perform from Monday-Saturday they won’t trust it Sunday.  I’m not going to second guess them because their method has worked.  But sometimes you have to take chances that don’t have anything to do with your hand being forced due to injury.

7. Who deserves more credit? Tony Romo or Demarco Murray- Its a popular question but I offer this response: the offensive line.  That offensive line has changed everything for the Cowboys and I beg someone to say that the offensive line’s performance hasn’t been what has spurred the Cowboys resurgence this year.  As I wrote earlier, their affect on how long the defense has to stay out there, or their ability to wear opposing defenses out can’t be felt until the third and fourth quarter.  It reminds me of the offensive line the Giants had in late 2007  and throughout most of 2008.  The rushing stats for the Giants were unbelievable because the offensive line dominated the point of attack and forced the issue and moved buildings out of the way for the runners to run through.  Giving Tony Romo, an already talented quarterback, a running game and an offensive line that can pass protect well is creating the illusion that the Cowboys have an extra receiver on passing situations and a big TE blocking on running situations: it looks unfair.

8.  Why didn’t the Giants just keep passing it last Sunday?-  That’s a very good question and one that I think has more to do with how the game was being played and how close the game was until five minutes left.  Yes, the Giants were having success passing the football.  Eli played another fantastic, mistake free game.  But the fact is Tom Coughlin has always preached balance and he won’t change the identity of his team to suit the narrative of ONE game.  Remember, the Giants were trailing the Cowboys by 7 with 5:28 left in the game so there was no reason to panic and deviate from the game plan.  There is some merit to the thinking that perhaps the Giants should’ve gone pass heavy to set up the run and flip the script.  In the fourth quarter the Giants went pass heavy calling 12 pass plays to 4 run plays.  Technically the Giants did go pass heavy but two fumbles by Larry Donnell extinguished any chance of the Giants being able to score.  It will be interesting how the play calling changes if Rashard Jennings does not return after the bye.  Will the Giants rely heavily on the pass game?

9. Hey Rook, you’re a veteran now- That’s the headline that screamed this week as Victor Cruz’s injury now forces Odell Beckham to come into his own as a veteran.  I’m one of those guys who views injuries like this as opportunities for players who have the skill to put their talent on full display and I believe that Beckham will do just that.  I’m a fan of his route running, and his ability to get down the field and create mismatches.  Judging by “Drafting Giants” the NFL Films production that aired as a miniseries on the NFL Network, the Giants thought the world of him and love his pedigree; both his parents were professional athletes.  I did find it surprising that the Giants would be vocal about expanding his role in the offense.  There’s a difference in the tone that the Giants speak about him than say a Damontre Moore, a second year defensive end that the Giants feel similarly enthused about.  While Moore physically is able to dominate at the line of scrimmage, there are concepts he still is having problems with.  Beckham, who’s early injury put doubt into people’s heads about his toughness, sprung from his first game and immediately made an impact.  Whether its his budding connection with Eli which seems to be almost instinctive, or its his other skills that were on display from the day the Giants and other teams scouted him, it just looks like the added responsibility won’t be too much for the rookie receiver to handle.  An Adrien Robinson who has been the tight end of the future while the Giants keep inviting one year tryouts for tight ends has found it difficult to make it on the field on Sundays, and almost found himself completely out after Larry Donnell’s breakout performance the first few weeks.  The Giants aren’t sending mixed signals.  Some players progress a lot quicker than others.  Its just a nature of the game and the point of the game is to win.  The best players make the plays on Sundays and the best players play on Sundays.  For rookies, that means growing up quicker than maybe the  traditional process says.  But I don’t think Beckham minds.

10. Looking ahead- Well a bye couldn’t have come at a better time.  It feels like a coming to God moment for the Giants.  I thought they had to, at the very least, split the series against the Eagles and Cowboys.  Now, the focus comes to Indianapolis who has been playing excellently recently and that offense led by Andrew Luck and old friend Ahmad Bradshaw.  The Giants last played the Colts when they had a young buck called Peyton Manning as their quarterback.  This version of the Colt QB is just as dangerous if not more thanks to his physique.  If you thought Tony Romo was tough to bring down, I promise you Luck will be tougher.  Sacking Luck will require multiple Giants converging at the QB and even then, he has the arm and upper body strength to get the football out.  If the Giants don’t get pressure on Luck it will be a long day.  One player to keep an eye on: Dwayne Allen.  He missed virtually all of last season following a hip injury that put him on the IR.  His ability to block and be an able member of the passing game was a huge loss for the Colts but the Colts are a resilient bunch.  It forced certain players to play a more pronounced role.  With Allen back, a lot of players can now take their rightful place in the offense.  The Colts won’t expect Colby Fleener to block.  He can play the Dallas Clark role by lining up outside of the down linemen.  Allen’s presence is huge in this offense and the reason they have rolled off the kind of numbers they have.  Interestingly enough, the Colts last year played the kind of murderer’s row of schedules the Giants will.  Starting in week 3 the Colts played the 49ers in San Fran, the Seahawks at home, the Chargers in San Diego and the Broncos in Indy in five weeks and went 3-1 in those games.  So the lesson here is that it can be done.  The mistake free Eli needs to play those games.  If not, the Giants may not stand a chance and a bad 0-2 stretch can stretch into a nightmarish midseason which will give way to a pointless end of season string of games.  The Giants are now forced to win nearly all of the next few games against the Colts (at home), Seahawks (in Seattle), Niners (at home) and Cowboys (at home) to even survive and keep up with the Cowboys and Eagles.  Let’s remember, they have to win all of their division games thanks to losing to the Eagles and Cowboys in consecutive weeks.  This will be an interesting after the bye stretch.

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Week 7 picks

(Home team in CAPS)

COLTS (-3.5) over Bengals-  Its not that I don’t believe in the Bengals, its just that I don’t believe in the Bengals as much as I would if they had AJ Green in their line up and Green isn’t expected to play.  There’s still much left to be written about the Colts.  The number one offense in the league Colts.  They average 24 points a game against the Broncos, Eagles and Ravens, three quality opponents and have gone 1-2 against the three.  Those three teams combined have a 13-4 record.  In games where they play not so quality opponents, they average 39 ppg.  I’m not saying that the Colts aren’t a great team but it seems that when the competition ratchets up, they still are a long way from being among the top tier of teams.  Keeping them in the conversation is QB Andrew Luck who’s having the type of season that’s going to get Kurt Warner giddy to talk about on Sunday mornings.  If he keeps going at his current pace, his numbers projected over the course of a 16 game season  would look like this: 459/693 (66.2%) for 5,299 yards, 45 TD’s and 19 INT’s.  Those are outrageous numbers to have and we don’t expect his pace to continue but let’s look forward, he’s still got another game with the Jags and Titans who he lit up for 44 and 41 points respectively and some games with the Redskins, Giants, Patriots and Steelers which should help pad his stats.  That’s six more gimme games to keep piling on the statistics.  Lucky for him this week he faces off against another team that wilts under the pressure of playing a good team in the Bengals.  Primetime keeps giving the Bengals a shot and they keep wetting the bed every single time.  So at 1pm where they can hide behind all the other games on the slate, I STILL give them no chance to stop the Colts.  Expect a blowout people.

Titans (+6) over REDSKINS- For the love of humanity please make this stop.  The Redskins are horrible and this is the game that can help people get so disgusted with the Redskins that Jay Gruden gets fired.  They are horrible.

BEARS (-3.5) over Dolphins- All the Dolphins had to do was keep the dude in bounds and it was over.  I ran that play back a bunch of times and came to the conclusion that its not the defenders fault (I refuse to even look up homeboy’s name) for letting Aaron Rodgers punk the Dolphins by using the same trick their all-time QB did to the Jets, its karma coming back to haunt the Dolphins.  If you’re wondering what Aaron Rodger’s karma is, please see the still born status of his State farm commercials.  Bears in an easy romp over the Dolphins.  Let’s start talking up how much of an offensive genius Marc Trestman is again.

Browns (-4.5) over the JAGS-  Its not fair.  I think Gus Bradley is a good coach, just not a head coach.  When teams interview defensive or offensive coordinators, they need to look at how he physically looks calling the plays of his team and his body language.  Teams like the Jags got all juiced up by that one time Gus Bradley pulled his Seattle defense around him and did the “bring it in” speech that got so much play and gets football heads believing in a coach.  The way that defense plays, I would hire him in a minute to run my defense.  His defense comes to play.  I think they have a star in Blake Bortles but before they permanently shatter his confidence, Bradley needs to be let go so he can join a defensive staff somewhere his true genius can be shown.  On a side note, I LOVED Brian Hoyer’s “show me some respect” move by leaking it to reporters that he would NOT entertain a contract extension as long as Johnny Manziel is on the roster.  Seriously, what has Johnny Football done but 70% earn him the next DirecTV “take me back to college” commercial?  I know its his rookie year and its wayyyyyy to early to count him out but I’m really looking for any way that we can get Manziel in a Cowboy uniform so we can give the universe the internet exploding moment its been waiting for when Manziel scores a TD and then does his little show me the money dance at Jerry Jones box and seeing the alien life being that keeps Jones’s skin from not having melted off removing itself from its body and then swallowing Johnny Football whole as Cris Collinsworth constantly tells us that he can’t believe that just happened.

Seahawks (-7) over RAMS- I love Austin Davis.  I’ve bought into Austin Davis.  I was ready to commit to a Rams upset win over the Seahawks.  THEN Friday’s news of the Percy Harvin hit….and i doubled down on my Rams bet.  Then stories started to come out about Harvin and people who conveniently left out his past as a very difficult player to get along with when he was traded to Seattle started to point the finger at Harvin.  I love how the Seahawks didn’t waste time.  After taking himself out of the game due to lack of touches in Sunday’s loss to Dallas, the Seahawks knew that they had to get the locker room back by ridding itself of a possible cancer.  Like Chip Kelly said “culture beats scheme all the time”.  This is the kind of move that galvanizes a team and I expect the Seahawks to send a message to a divisional opponent this week.

Panthers (+6.5) over PACKERS-  With how the Packers escaped the Dolphins after Aaron Rodgers kept getting beaten down by the ferocious Dolphin pass rush, in comes a Panthers defense that will be all too ready to swallow him alive.  This will be closer than people think.

RAVENS (-6.5) over Falcons-  You want me picking the Falcons outside of Atlanta?  Ok.

BILLS (-6.5) over Vikings-  This will be the welcome home/thanks for buying the Bills and keeping them in Buffalo game for the Pegula family.  I expect a lot of rushing the football today.

LIONS (-1) over Saints-  Remember when the Saints were a definite contender?  The Lions have a defense.  Those are two definitive statements that may not mean anything but I think you know where I’m going with this.  Any conjecture needed?

Chiefs  (+3) over CHARGERS- The Chargers are for real.  That’s what we’ve been hearing nationally and what we’ve been seeing when we watch them.  The Chiefs however are a frisky team and I”m banking on the juju juice that Andy Reid has after a bye.  Plus, the Chargers may be guilty of looking ahead to the big Thursday night showdown against the Broncos.

Cards (-3) over RAIDERS- I’m happy for Derek Carr and the success he’s been having as a QB, if for nothing else that the Carr family deserves some good karma after putting David on a horrible Houston team and putting him through such a terrible offensive line and taking a beating.  Carr’s numbers are better than all the young QB’s that everyone fawns over today and he does so without the already there infrastructure that came with those other teams.  But I have been extolling the virtues of the Cardinals who have been a good team now for the last three years.  They went 10-6 and didn’t make the playoffs last year and started this year without John Abraham, and losing Darnell Dockett to injury.  But the Cardinals have the defense and the horses on offense, as long as Carson Palmer stays upright, to make noise in the suddenly open NFC West.

Niners (+6.5) over BRONCOS-  Look, I know this is set up to be Peyton Manning’s night.  But the Niners are a good, good game team.  I know, what kind of innovative stat name is that?  Its not.  That’s a made up stat that the NFL Network “analysts” like to say.  But if you have seen the Niners play on primetime, they play very well and I’m just not a believer in the Denver defense and even more, I think Peyton will try to force the football to get the record and will get them into trouble.  I like the Niners in this game.

Texans (+3) over STEELERS- Here lies the Steel Curtain.  Just kidding.  The Texans and Steelers are in the “We don’t know whether to bloat his thing up” bowl.  The Steelers have the elements of getting back there, with an offensive line that just needs some seasoning.

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NBA Season Preview Part I (10 bold predictions for the 2014-2015 NBA season)

With the NBA season on the horizon I figured I would take a stab at the foolish exercise of making 10 bold predictions rooted in reality as I could.  This is part I of the NBA season preview.  These are ten reasonably based yet bold predictions I’m guessing will come to pass after staring at that crystal ball I have:

1. The Celtics won’t trade Rondo, but will trade Jeff Green- I’m working without any knowledge of how the television deal will affect the salary cap moving forward but I expect an announcement will come midseason.  The trade deadline will either be super busy with teams absorbing big salaries from teams trying to add cap space for the future, or teams hoping to gather assets to make a bigger trade down the line.  In theory, most teams could use a Rondo.  When healthy and motivated, he can hold his own with the best the league has to offer and is NOT afraid of the spotlight.  You can thank Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen for ultimately helping him flourish.  However its clear that his time in Boston is about to come to an end.  He may go to New York or go to Sacramento, or even Houston who would love to add Rondo as their third star, but the question remains who will bite the bullet to trade for such a mercurial spirit Rondo?  Boston’s asking price for the point guard is pretty high and teams have shied from giving up future number ones without any assurances Rondo would re-sign with them.

Green on the other hand, is owed $9.2M this season and next.  His salary would definitely make a team bite on an expensive asking price and I think the Celtics could get back more.  When Green is on, he’s a force that can play big and constantly attacks the rim.  The Cavs are all in for the next few seasons so trading away future first round picks will be nothing for them.  I think the team that makes the most sense for Green in the East would be Atlanta as Al Horford insurance and another quality big to help space out for Budenholzer’s scheme to have every person on the court be a threat from deep.  Atlanta perpetually maintains flexibility and they have picks to throw at Boston too.

2. Dwight Howard will re-emerge as an MVP candidate- Howard has gone from superstar center, perennial defensive player of the year candidate, and Top 3 player to, not even mentioned at all in these kind of discussions.  The popular name to throw into MVP discussions is Anthony Davis, the soon to be best player in the league in 3-4 seasons.  But I think Dwight is poised to have a breakout season in his second year in Houston.  For the first time in three seasons, he’s not exploring ways to skip town or avoid Kobe’s death stare or playing on a bad back.  Howard’s entering age 29 where he should be at the peak of his powers and playing on a team that will likely boast at least two to three players at a time that shoot 35% or better from beyond the arc.  That was the kind of roster he played with in Orlando.  When Dwight is playing regular minutes without any distractions, he’s a Defensive Player of the Year candidate.  I’m betting on Dwight to have a big year.

3. The Indiana Pacers will NOT make the playoffs and subsequently will trade David West- Technically this is TWO bold predictions for the price of one.  Consider yourselves lucky.  The Pacers lost their best offensive threat when Paul George went down in a scrimmage for Team USA and Lance Stephenson took his services to Charlotte to play for Michael Jordan.  My guess is that when Paul George starts practicing with the team, he won’t recognize 40% of the roster.  The fact is, the Pacers are still a very solid defensive unit but I think Larry Bird, Kevin Pritchard and co know that the best way to make this right is to start over.  HIbbert will be off the books after 2016 and chances of him signing a long term deal for big money are slim; the Pacers just aren’t built that way.  They have enough smart people to know that they don’t stand a chance this year with the roster as constructed.  Wanna know how I know?  They basically gave the keys to the offense to Rodney Stuckey.  West is their best trade asset and every playoff team will be angling to get him.  The Pacers will likely take a bad contract back if they can recoup a decent draft pick.  A team like the Suns, with extra first rounders may make a play here if they are in contention.  When he initially signed with Indiana, he was coming off a torn ACL- and he’s mostly answered his injury concerns with solid play over the last few seasons as the heart, soul and muscle of an Indiana team that for most parts of last season looked like the best team in the East and a top 4 squad.  But if Indiana is willing to take a lesser deal, he could shift the balance in either division.

4. The Top 4 in the East will be Cleveland, Chicago, Washington and Toronto- in that order.  I had a hard time picking between Washington and Charlotte.  Bradley Beal is set to miss the first month of the season at the least after breaking his wrist, and I’m STILL picking the Bullets to win the division.  I don’t trust Toronto’s young guns to take a step forward and I don’t expect them to make a crazy trade, even with Masai at the helm.  Cleveland, and Chicago will be the toast of the Eastern Conference and my hunch here is that Chicago will limit Derrick Rose’s minutes.  Knowing Thibs that means someone else will feel the whip and I”m guessing its Jimmy Butler.  Lance Stephenson vaults Charlotte into serious consideration for one of the top 4 spots in the East but that transition will take some time and losing Josh McRoberts will hurt.  I think Miami is a lock to make the playoffs as well.  That’s six spots with the remaining two to be fought between Brooklyn, the Knicks, Atlanta, and the Pistons.  If I had to pick two today, I think the two New York teams round out the eight but don’t sleep on Stan Van Gundy and the Pistons, and I could be totally wrong on the Pacers.

5. Kobe will be top 10 in scoring this season- Have you seen the Laker roster?  Have you heard that ESPN ranked him as the 40th best player in the NBA?  Shockingly Kobe took neither thing very well and there’s little doubt that Kobe will shoot himself into some conversation.  Whether its the analytics folks talking down to Kobe as a black hole of efficiency or the Kobe fanatics flooding ESPN’s comments sections with not so polite things to say about ESPN’s columnists and their lack of basketball wisdom, trust and believe that Kobe will shoot through the season with no remorse.  I want to see Byron Scott try and make a power move on Kobe and try to bench him for not making the extra pass to Jeremy Lin in the corner.  I want to see it.  Even if it happens, I won’t believe it.

6. The Knicks will trade Iman Shumpert- I don’t think this is a crazy bold prediction but one that will surely make Knicks fans upset.  Look, I like Shump.  I think with his physical gifts, he can grow into a very good sixth man and defensive stopper but he is also an asset.  He and Hardaway are the two guys that everyone asks for with the Knicks but I believe the Knicks love Hardaway’s offense more than they love Shump’s defense.  In the end, he will be the one traded and it may be to a Western conference team looking for a guy to guard the wings in the West and who knows what Uncle Phil will look for when it comes to trade time.  I do know that if the Knicks trade anyone Shump is going in the deal and that includes an Amar’e or Bargnani trade that would rid the team of an expiring contract which recently hadn’t been something teams were willing to do but now would be the quickest way to free up the most amount of money in anticipation of the Summer of 2016.

7. The top four in the West will be the Spurs, Clippers, the Warriors, and the Thunder- in that order.  I like the rivalry brewing between the Clippers and the Warriors and I think that battle will come down to the final three weeks.  Losing Kevin Durant for at least a month and a half will slow the Thunder down in that race and the Spurs know how to get to 55 wins in their sleep.  Its the Warriors I’m extremely high on who I think will make a play to be one of the best teams in the entire league.  I think Steve Kerr is a bright coach and he comes into a great situation with a loaded team.  The one thing that worries me about them is when they go through an extended slump or an injury and then the Kevin Love what-if scenarios start playing out in post game questions.  This is a team full of young guys with a rookie head coach.  Expectations will be high for a young head coach and as easy as it is to talk about doing the right thing, its another thing to coach it.  Let’s see what happens.

8. Four head coaches will be fired this season; and one of them in season- My guess on the coach who will see the ax midseason?  Mike Malone.  Which is fascinating because Vivek Ranadive the majority owner of the Kings knows him from his time as a part owner of the Golden State Warriors and took him to Sacramento.  But Ranadive hired him before hiring a GM which can make for an uneasy co-existence.  Add to that the quote recently by the owner that the “team will be judged by wins and losses,” and you can already see that the stage is being set.  One can only wonder how much time will be given to coaches to make their mark here but it won’t be long.  The other three?  I think Jacques Vaughn in Orlando will get the heave ho.  I also see  Brian Shaw getting the early ax as he has two more guaranteed years remaining and in a tricky ownership situation Mike Budenholzer getting the pink slip once new ownership group gets settled but that likely won’t happen until after the season.  Budenholzer will naturally go back to San Antonio to make a great coaching team even stronger.  Awesome!

9. The Nets will be sold- Based on everything I”ve read, and the fact that Mr. Prokhorov has already tested the waters, and the promise of a huge payday given how much the Clippers were sold for (THE CLIPPERS!), Prokho may already have five people blowing up his assistant’s phone chomping at the bit.  The fact is, the new television deal makes owning an NBA team even greater than it already was and with a market like Brooklyn behind it, its easy to see why the possibility of an insane bidding war would make Prokho look at this as the best possible time to sell everything and move!  Once he realized he wasn’t winning a title anytime soon, you have to figure that the White Russian basically lost all interest and had his sights set on selling it.  This would be the best time to sell.

10. The Minnesota Timberwolves will be the 2014-2015 version of the Phoenix Suns-  The Suns were the biggest winners of last year when given the amount of draft picks they had, rookie head coach Jeff Hornacek installed an ultra aggressive two point guard system that scored at a crazy pace.  This year, Minnesota has the young guns to run up and down the court for days.  While Flip Saunders isn’t my idea of a great head coach, his handling of the Kevin Love situation was something I agreed with.  He got Andrew Wiggins and drafted Zach Lavine who’s more than just a dunk show freak.  Look for them to make noise for the 8th seed, but fall short.

I should get extra points for not writing the names of Lebron James or Kevin Love at all in this article about the upcoming NBA season.  OH wait…

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2014-2015 Knicks Preview

Madison Square Garden is nicknamed the Mecca of basketball, but if you went to the Mecca over the last 4 decades, you often found yourself screaming for God to intervene on the basketball going on.  That opening lede could have applied to almost every season and its a shame.  New York has lived off a reputation now bordering on myth, that it creates the best basketball players on earth.  Sonny Vaccaro and the shoe industry did away with that a long time ago.  Now, superstars are found in different countries and in different area codes from the 718 and 212.

What should have been a haven for great basketball players to come and play, has now turned into a barren wasteland.  Great players love coming to New York, but on short trips hoping to flex for the star studded front row and create their own Reggie Miller moment for themselves.  Amongst players, the Garden still means something- but purely for selfish reasons.  Its where you can create a legend on the same court that past greats played on.

The inhabitants of the Garden have been far less victorious on their hallowed court.  The Knicks have three preseason games before the season begins, and yet it feels newer than seasons past.  Phil Jackson is now the man in charge.  He the great link to a past that the locals still hold fast to.  Those Knicks believed in moving the ball around and getting the best shot available.  Those Knicks teams also were unified in their pursuit of the team victory.  Those teams also had prima donnas (google Clyde’s style back then-hell google his wardrobe now) and former first options who didn’t take kindly to subjugating their greatness no matter the prize.  Eventually they all succumbed to the great Red Holzman- or as everyone outside of New York calls him “that other Red”.

Yet, there was no banjo beating, blues traveler owner who compromised most transactions before they happened sabotaging the team.  There wasn’t a Great Wall put up between the team and the local media (in the media capital of the world no less) that created a bitterness by the local beat writers eventually leading to sarcastic potshots taken at the team’s leadership.

But that’s where Phil Jackson comes in.  He is being paid a kingly sum ($15M per year) to act as the visible conscious of a man who desperately wants to get the credit when the Knicks get good.  That future where the Knicks get good exists in James Dolan’s mind and is the only rational explanation as to why a man with limited understanding of constructing a championship team would meddle so much in his team’s affairs.  The general ownership pledge is to provide the financial resources for a GM to do his job, ensure that said job is being done, and to be seen or heard from as little as possible.  Jim Dolan has yet to follow the script, but that’s just what bad boys bluesmen do.

Phil Jackson was inserted to have the clout to put baby in the corner, even if no one puts baby in the corner.  His recent New Yorker article also served the purpose of creating a few holes for outsiders to examine the inside parts of the Socialist regime that Dolan has put in place.  Telling Spike Lee that he doesn’t know the game of basketball was ballsy.  Admitting to a frothing public waiting for a Knick pun that he’s putting them through “mindfulness classes” was like throwing the steak to a Michael Vick pit bull circa 2005.

In order to build a new culture, these are the kind of wholistic changes that need to be affected upon the team.  The question then turns to the moves the relatively green Jackson made in the offseason to shake up the roster, a promise he made, and to a large extent kept, when he got here.  He hired a head coach, even if it wasn’t the head coach he wanted.  Referring the Steve Kerr situation the Steve Kerr event was important two fold- he legitimized a failure rather than acting brashly like he got what he wanted all along, a more realists point of view on that situation. He also gave the media the first sense that this regime was his and his alone considering that he recognized ownership’s involvement in the Kerr negotiations without specifically mentioning it and not caring that the ownership implication was implicated.  Get it?  Got it?  Good.  He traded Raymond Felton and threw in Tyson Chandler to sweeten the pot, get a 2nd round pick in a loaded 2014 draft and even got an upgrade at PG in Jose Calderon.  No more poundcake Felton.  The only regret from that trade was the premise that somehow Tyson Chandler was a bad egg- this coming from a team that had Ray Felton, and JR Smith.  Even if he wasn’t a pleasure to be around the last few months, the combined damage of empowering Raymond Felton’s out of shape ass to control your teams offense and empowering JR Smith by resigning him to a 3 year deal was like telling the guy who tried blow once that he was more guilty than the drug dealer and supplier.

Then there was the extension of Carmelo Anthony.  Phil Jackson’s presence alone made this possible.  New York was going to lose the one player they had a relationship with albeit based on a faulty premise (New York’s own?  please!).  When a team gets bad, they have to overpay good players to convince them to come.  New York brings with it, plenty of great things but also a ton of bad.  Melo has seen it all.  In Denver he was the most devastating scorer playing in a conference that was too tough for him.  Once he got to New York he was the most overrated superstar and in fact, last year when Paul George started to emerge, Melo was no longer a superstar.  He was a star, having done nothing to warrant a status that had blown right by him.  Staring down the barrel of playing his peak years on Knicks teams that likely would not contend, he had to make a sensible decision regarding his future: he could believe in the plan that Phil Jackson had for the organization, OR he could take his talents elsewhere much like his 2004 classmates had done to be a cog in a machine.  I thought he would go to Chicago because that’s where he fit and being a Jordan brand member, it seemed logical.  When decision time came, he signed for slightly less than the max and doubled down on the Zenmaster’s long term plan for the organization.  With Bargnani’s and Amar’es contracts expiring after this season and the spike in the salary cap set to take effect in two years, the Knicks will be heavy players for a ton of superstars set to cash in and willing to pay them to play with Carmelo and bring back a title to the Mecca.

The season can be looked at as two halves.  The first half of the season will likely include two common story lines: Derek Fisher doesn’t know what he’s doing and the Knicks do not know what they are doing.  Both will be caused by the Triangle Offense.  Those who trash the system point to the all time greats that Phil Jackson had when he used the system to win 11 championships.  The story goes that “you can win with any offense” when you roll out a hall of fame cast of players.  Yes, the league’s best teams are full of great players, but those all time greats won a combined one championship without the Triangle and that’s when Shaq was the second banana to a young D-Wade; third banana if you count the refs who ultimately shifted the balance of that series.  But Fisher’s job will be uncertain until he wins consistently.  First he has to have the buy-in.  Not just from Carmelo, but from Amar’e and Bargnani.  Both of whom will ask for larger roles as their payday approaches.  He will need buy-in from their young guys who will be under constant trade speculation till the day they get traded (and yes I think one of Tim Hardaway Jr and Iman Shumpert, and even both) will be traded for a larger contract.  That likely won’t happen until the effects of the new TV deal on the salary cap become public, but both will also need to buy in to a share it system.  Most point to Anthony as the biggest hard head to soften.  Melo’s legacy is on the line.  He has to create a winner.  Whoever joins the Knicks will be joining Melo’s team and he recognizes that.  Failing in the Triangle will permanently stamp him as a selfish, me-first player who will be in the really good but not great players, lost in history and dueling Bob McAdoo in basketball purgatory.

The Triangle offense, when not taught by Phil Jackson, is this paradox of offensive voodoo that can’t be explained to the rational mind.  Yet when mixed with Phil’s Zen beliefs, creates a higher level of basketball wisdom that makes you better than everybody else.  Its so puzzling that Spike Lee, he of the “he doesn’t know shit about basketball” commentary by Uncle Phil (he’s Uncle Phil in my book- a reference to James Avery’s character in the Fresh Prince of Bel Air- the wise old man trying to get this young basketball head (thats Carmelo for those not following along) dropped into the big rich city to learn the ins and outs of life and he’s also family by extension because basketball is life), had to make a documentary airing before the season begins.  I can’t wait to see Phil’s look of disdain as he’s asked questions by a supposed super fan.  To Phil, the Triangle is simple and the natural way of things on a basketball court.  Yet, the combined records of all his former assistants who tried to install it, read as a who’s who of disastrous regimes in NBA history.  We’re talking historically bad.  So is running a system that apparently ONLY one man can teach good for a team that won’t have that one man teaching them?  I suppose it depends on whats in it for Phil.  If its about the paycheck, Dolan should cut the remaining $60 million now because when Phil loses interest, results suffer dramatically and quickly.  When Phil is wholly invested greatness happens.  By everything we’ve seen, Phil seems interested to make Derek Fisher work because Fisher will be the first coach not afraid of the shadow that Uncle Phil casts over everything he oversees.

Derek Fisher also wants to be successful in his first professional gig since his playing days were over.  He’s no dummy.  He wears the suits like Riley once did and speaks of defense as a higher calling that we must all strive to achieve to.  That’s like Whitney singing the national anthem to a bunch of WWII veterans.  Beautiful music to a New Yorker’s ears.  As good as the offense can be, nothing will happen if the Knicks are giving up a 100 points per game.  Even in a weak Eastern Conference consider that Cleveland will be a playoff team and a high seed.  The Nets will hand the reins over to Lionel Hollins who has the pieces of a stingy defense in place to create another one in Brooklyn.  The Bucks may surprise people.  The Hawks got into the playoffs without Al Horford, and barring injury will have him for a full season and they have the assets to swing a major deal if need be.  The Bulls get back Derrick Rose and they added Pau Gasol who will have to prove that his decline was from D’Antoni-ness and not a decline due to age.  The Pacers seem like the logical choice to fall off the face of the Eastern conference picture but that still leaves no place for the Knicks to occupy.  The Wizards look like they got stronger.  Charlotte got better.  If the Knicks want to be taken seriously the buy-in had better be quick on the Triangle.

Fisher wasn’t willing to commit to a rotation which apart from Carmelo Anthony tells every other player on the roster, that their spots are based on performance which is good if you have complete buy in from Carmelo.  If you have Melo buying in for the first month of the season, and the Knicks aren’t that good, what happens next?  They are liable to take a huge step backward which would be a major disappointment for Phil, Derek and for the big itch that Jim Dolan has been told not to scratch by the Zen Master.  The Knicks have a healthy amount of talent to do damage but for me, it has to be under terms dictated by a strong voice.  Does Fisher have the voice to get everyone’s attention?  Will he be able to convince Hardaway Jr that every shot he takes isn’t good?  To put it lightly, he’s trigger happy, but within context of maximizing possessions he’s going to have to make a good basketball decision which is what the Triangle is ultimately about.  Ball movement, creating constant motion and having great interior depth.  The Knicks seem willing to give up chunks of breakaway points, but will be more invested in offensive rebounding and defensive rebounding- creating extra possessions and limiting possessions on defense.  The trend has been to go with smaller line ups that can cause match up nightmares, but that can only be done by a handful of teams.  Durant gives the Thunder the ability to do so.  So do the Cavs with Kevin Love and Lebron James.  The Blazers can do so and so can the Hawks with LaMarcus Aldridge and Al Horford.  This is due to the lack of quality big men in the league.  The Knicks just signed every available tall body in the world to their team and hope that they can use them to run the triangle.  Having a smart big man to control the offense will be key.

My bet is that Jason Smith will be the Knicks biggest from who to youuuuuu guy.  He can knock down open 15-18 foot jump shots and in preseason games has shown the ability to pass as a big man.  Dalembert may get the starter’s nod but he won’t be playing when the going gets tough.  JR Smith will be integral as well.  He and Hardaway Jr will be asked to be the gunners when Carmelo isn’t in the ball game.  The offense will run through both of these guys and time can only tell if either of them will pick up on the offense.  There were moments last season when the Knicks understood how to work without the basketball, but they were far and few between.  Between injuries and too much player shuffling the season got lost and no one lineup ever got to play too many meaningful moments.

Iman Shumpert’s season will be interesting from the standpoint that he is the guy I can see the knicks trading for an extra draft pick or player with a contract the Knicks are willing to absorb.  This will all depend on how the league decides to use its new found bump in TV allowance money into its salary cap.  Obviously the cap will be raised but without firm numbers to go by, teams won’t be willing to swallow contracts and estimates are that we likely won’t know till around the early January which would give teams just a few weeks to put plans in motion with the trading deadline in mid February.  Don’t expect big draft picks to get traded unless its from playoff teams who are looking to add a piece but then, is it worth it?  Shumpert looks like he has a bit of his old self back and that will be important.  Physically he has the wingspan and the athletic gifts to be a talented defender and he’s showing the offensive skill set that he may be a two way player.  He’s going to have to earn it before the Knicks decide to trade him which I think is a plan that Phil has set in motion.  Phil Jackson knows that to recoup good players you have to get rid of good players and one can make the argument that with an eye towards the future, having the two young studs like Hardaway and Shump won’t hamstring your long term flexibility when time comes to pay them.  If 2010 taught us anything, its that the best laid plans can still result in nothing but a beat up former star.  The Knicks have to know that even if they go after Marc Gasol, and Rajon Rondo this upcoming summer and then Kevin Durant in 2016 they will likely ONLY get one of the three and can still end up with 0 for 3.  Keeping assets like Shump and Hardaway in tow to trade away for a contingency plan is likely your best avenue to proceed and if you keep them?  You may have a core that will learn basketball under Phil Jackson the greatest winner in basketball history- this may not be Mecca to all, but it can become Mecca for the hopeful few in New York who still believe!

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Big Blue Thoughts Week 6

Here are a few thoughts and observations after the Sunday night debacle at Lincoln Financial Stadium in Philadelphia.  The Eagles destroyed (and that’s putting it lightly) the Giants 27-0 in a game that Eagles fans will be reminding Giants fans for a long time.

1. Quick paced attack- Reliving last night’s game wasn’t fun or easy as a Giants fan but for the sake of delivering more of an in depth analysis of the game I had to.  First, a few quick thoughts about the overall play of the game.  The Eagles were better than the Giants because they played faster than the Giants.  From the jumps the defensive line got, to the way Shady McCoy got to the second level to how ferocious the offensive line was in neutralizing the pass rush, it was simple that the Eagles were just a flat out better team last night than the Giants.  Take for instance the first half possessions for the Giants and Eagles.  The Giants had 6 possessions averaging 4 plays, 7 yards and 2 minutes and 35 seconds of possession.  The Eagles had 7 possessions averaging nearly 6 plays, 40 yards and 2 minutes 15 seconds of possession.  IF I would’ve given you those two numbers and asked you who you thought would be leading at halftime, you would’ve guessed the Eagles, but you would’ve thought they had kicked a bunch of field goals.  But that’s how quickly the Eagles strike.  The Eagles averaged 26 seconds between the end of the play and the time they snapped the ball.  That’s how they attack, and that’s how they were able to wear down the Giants interior from making any noticeable impact.

2. Line of scrimmage victories- I wrote about this last week and the biggest key to the last few weeks of fantastic play were the individual one on one match ups that the Giants were winning.  Jason Pierre Paul was dominating his counterpart.  DaMontre Moore was dominating his counterpart.  They were winning individual battles allowing the secondary to be aggressive and force turnovers.  Last night, that script got flipped and the Eagles won every significant individual battle.  And there were key match ups the Eagles were winning which we will get into later, but this is the defensive scheme.  The Giants stocked up the secondary to allow the front four more time to win their battles and to upgrade the personnel recognizing not only the Giants weakness in that area, but also the fact that the league was changing.  Despite what Seattle and the start that Dallas has taught us- a stout defense and a strong ground game can STILL win- the league now is pass happy.  Having defenses that can defend the pass is important, especially given that the speed at which the passes are coming out of the quarterback’s hands have dramatically increased (except for Eli last night).  So its important to have defenders to win their battles on defense.  Doing so against a line that was missing Jason Kelce and Evan Mathis (two of their three best players) was imperative for the Giants to win and it was almost set up for them to do so.  On the other side, The Eagles have two known sack artists- Trent Cole (he of the 9 career sacks in 17 games against the Giants and 1 last night) and Connor Barwin (3 sacks last night), but you wouldn’t know it.  It seemed that every time the Eagles lined two men over the center, they got off at the snap and were giving Eli no time to read his progressions.

3. Justin Pugh was terrible.  So was JD Walton- Three weeks in a row, the Giants offensive line seemed to have come together at the right time and playing well.  Then the Eagles struck with multiple stunts and blitzes over the center, creating concern that there is a definite weak spot in the offensive line that other teams, namely the Cowboys this upcoming week will try to copy cat.  If they don’t take care of that, it doesn’t matter how much quicker the routes get, Eli will be sitting on his ass.  Pugh had a brace over his right arm which the Eagles realized and went to work on.  Hey, any weakness the opposing team shows, you have to attack it and credit the Eagles with finding two very weak links and attacking it constantly.  Will Beatty was ok, and Weston Richburg, even with his horrible penalty- which I kind of understood in the context of a game that the Eagles were just brutally beating the Giants down and him feeling the need to send a message- he played reasonably well.  If you looked at the other side, there was a particular graphic that showed how much better the Eagles offensive line was playing and you almost got the sense that they were playing so many extra guys.  The Giants fixed that by leaving an extra TE and FB to help in blocking assignments, but that leaves fewer weapons for the offense and Eli to go to.

4. On the bright side, Eli didn’t play terribly- Now this is all in context of his stat line.  And by stat line i mean one important stat- he didn’t throw an interception.  Again, he didn’t throw for a touchdown.  He was sacked 6 times and only completed 57% of his passes.  But he wasn’t forcing it to receivers who were double and triple covered.  The consequence of not throwing an interception is the indecisiveness you saw.  He seemingly took forever sometimes to make his reads and add to the pressure that he was surrounded with, Eli never had a shot.  The positive I take from that is, he’s breaking from some old habits.  He’s not shifty in the pocket like Aaron Rodgers but he’s not complete unaware either.  Some of those hits couldn’t be avoided unless he had ESP.  Eli is more athletic than people give him credit for but he wasn’t escaping out of the pocket that many times.  He wasn’t trying to do too much.  This is still a new offense that he’s operating in and this mentality of not forcing it will be beneficial later on when his offensive line hopefully improves and the receivers have a better feel to break out of some of the routes.  Now that Victor Cruz is gone, Eli will be breaking in a bunch of new receivers who may not be as familiar with Eli’s mannerisms and on the same wavelength as him so it will take some extra time get on the same page.  Patience Giants fans.  Patience.

5. The play that cost Victor Cruz the season was the right decision- Hindsight being 50/50 (right Cam?), its easy for people to say that going for it on fourth down was a bad decision given that it cost Victor Cruz the season.  I think its bad given the result of the play but the decision was the right one.  The Giants were down 20-0, just forced a turnover and were finally deep in Eagles territory.  At the 3 yard line, you have to go for it.  These are the critical plays that can turn the momentum.  It was still the third quarter and the Giants with a  TD would’ve cut the deficit by two scores and who knows how the rest of the game goes?  Had Cruz not injured his patella, its a fair bet to assume that he would’ve caught that pass.  Instead, the shock of seeing Cruz go down, seeped into the defense and the Giants let up a TD drive to make the game out of reach at 27-0.  It was a 14 point swing, but in many ways was more.  This game will ultimately define the season as the beginning of the end, or the beginning of something special- no middle ground for anything else.

6. Secondary play still strong- The secondary for the most part was strong and forced two more turnovers leading to chances.  The Seahawks and Niners have shown that with strong secondaries, you can force sacks by making the QB start dancing and scanning the whole field.  The Quarterback is most comfortable when he drops back, sees his first option is open and he steps into the throw.  Anything short of that, the quarterback has to be careful.  Some quarterbacks even go from first, then second option straight to the dump off option (running back or fullback in the flat) or throwing it away.  That’s because their internal clock has been compromised by the rush that’s coming.  The Giants were not getting pressure consistently enough to stop Nick Foles from making those kind of inconsistent throws, but when they did you saw the interception that Zack Bowman made- it was an aggressive move because he left his receiver to make the grab.  Antrel Rolle’s interception saved another 3 points at the least, from being scored.  The Giants rushed four, Foles looked for his first option and then went to his outlet which was Darren Sproles, who pre-snap lined up wide, motioned across the line and then went right next to Foles who was in shotgun, barely stopped (he has to be in a full stop before they snap it), and then went to the flat.  Foles threw to a spot, Rolle had already planted himself in that spot and just leapt and caught the ball.  With Trumane McBride now out on the IR, the Giants have lost their two slot covering cornerbacks.  The Giants will be tested these next few weeks now that they will be using their reserves for the remainder of the season.

7.  Foles is regressing and McCoy was impressing- I’m not insinuating that he’s a bad quarterback, but just pointing out that the new car smell is off and there’s enough footage there for teams to rely on and gather tendencies.  Foles however didn’t have a running game the first five weeks, and thanks to the Giants less than stellar run support, Foles got that back.  He was running more plays off the read option as the game wore on.  The Giants could not stop the runs that bounced to the outside because there was no gap discipline.  The Giants became reactive and with a shifty back like McCoy you can’t do that.  The Giants never learn their lesson- never did with Brian Westbrook and now with McCoy.  As for Foles, his throws seem to sail from time to time, but there’s an athleticism there that can excite you if you’re a Philly fan.  He’s big, and he moves very well within the pocket.  Guys like that can’t be brought down with one hand or go down easy.  He moves laterally very well, as evidenced by escaping a would be sack by Cullen Jenkins who went free over the middle.  Foles just moved laterally with easy and shed the would be sack and threw a dart for a completion.  HIs toughness especially can’t be questioned after the blatant, but legal, blindside shot by Redskins NT Chris Baker that started a fracas between both clubs.  Of course Eli is no slouch either at 6’5 himself, but having big sturdy QB’s with a hint of athleticism is important for a team that runs so many plays so quickly.

8. Are the Giants out of it? The answer technically is no.  But Sunday’s game is suddenly a must win.  The Cowboys are off a huge win over the Seahawks where they dominated the defending Super Bowl champs in their building which never happens.  Could the Giants be catching the Cowboys at the right time?  A let down game?  Let’s hope so.  If THAT Cowboys team shows up Sunday the Giants have zero chance.  They controlled the clock and that offensive line destroyed the Seahawks up front.  Its not like you can overload the box either against the Cowboys.  With Dez Bryant and Terrance Williams, Romo has two great options and then there’s Jason Witten, Romo’s BFF.  If the Giants want to entertain ANY kind of meaningful football in December, they will have to win Sunday.  SUNDAY IS A MUST WIN.

9. What else needs improving? I think the offensive and defensive play calling was very poor.  Special teams, which I said was going to be huge, was another area that the Eagles once again dominated.  They forced 10 punts and had great starting field position.  The little battles like that are what ultimately help you win a game.  Starting in Giants territory on most of the opening half’s drives gave an offense that likes to move fast, a shorter route to the end zone than they are used to.  The Giants went to their fourth punt returner with Michael Cox fielding two.  There are still areas for improvement there.  The Giants never consistently ran the ball outside because Andre Williams isn’t a quick back.  They should’ve used Michael Cox or lined Beckham in at RB much like Seattle does with Percy Harvin.  Utilize his speed on end arounds.  I would’ve liked to see them get their playmakers the ball quicker and give them a chance to make plays.  If you know that the rush is coming, quick ins or outs should’ve been the audible.  I never got the sense that they were making an attempt.  The defense got into Eli’s face and definitely affected his timing.  Before anyone starts getting any thoughts- NO, Ryan Nassib should NOT get consideration to start.

10. Random NFL thoughts- The Cowboys had the biggest statement victory of the year.  Yes, the Eagles made a statement by dominating the Giants, but the Seahawks were considered the class of the NFL and winning in Seattle was considered almost miraculous for the team victorious at Century Link.  But the Cowboys not only won but dominated the defending Super Bowl champs.  The Cowboys have finally found the formula.  A dominant running game, ball control offense and their receivers making big plays here and there, help you win games.  An interesting stat that was brought up on Mike and Mike yesterday was that the Cowboys are still letting up the same amount of yards per play as they were last year when their defense was one of the worst in the league.  What’s the difference?  Opposing offenses are running nearly 12 less plays per game.  That’s almost 100 yards of offense that’s lost.  They are middle of the pack when it comes to opponents converting on third downs.  They have limited the opportunities.  Their defense is still susceptible and credit Rod Marinelli for crafting game plans that have allowed this MASH unit to be successful with all the changes they have had to go through.  The Cowboys have an opportunity to really prove they are for real by beating the Giants this Sunday.  How serious they are to be taken will be if they dominate the Giants on Sunday which I’m sure people will expect.  Poor Geno.  Can’t make anyone happy.  No one bought any of the crappy reasons for him missing a team meeting despite the fact that he wasn’t the only Jet to make the same mistake.  Then, he cost people who bet on the Jets a ton of money when he threw a late pick six which allowed the Broncos to cover.  I think they have a good opportunity on Thursday night against a Patriots team who will be coming in short handed.  The NFL’s brain trust really needs to explain how fining Colin Kaepernick $10K is reasonable after fining Julius Thomas $8,500 for a bad hit to Calais Campbell who will miss three weeks.  The No Facts League is at it again.  Also, declining the Players Association to have Goodell testify at the Ray Rice hearing will only lead to further speculation about Goodell’s handling of the whole situation.  Sometimes being so tone deaf and hoping time will heal everything isn’t the right answer.  I hope the Senate gets involved and forces Goodell to talk because I think its ridiculous he doesn’t.  There are answers that I don’t think we will get from this NFL sponsored investigation that may have come on a witness stand.  I have to give a ton of credit to Aaron Rodgers.  He’s clearly a student of history.  Knowing he was in the building that Dan Marino built, he took one out of the Hall of Famer’s playbook with the fake spike.  He took a huge chance by throwing it in bounds and risking his guy getting tackled in bounds.  The Packers were out of timeouts.  But for guys like Rodgers, those plays just somehow have a way of working itself out.  He also threw it to a rookie which is also ballsy considering he took a chance that the rookie had the wherewithal to know the situation.  Finally, Vontaze Burfict needs to be suspended.  He went with full intent to twist Cam Newton and Greg Olsen’s ankles.  This is another opportunity for the NFL to put their foot down and use common sense.  Here’s hoping they choose wisely this time.

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Big Blue Thoughts Week 5

With all this free time thanks to my recent ACL surgery (that’s right, I don’t just write about sports) I had a chance to look at the Giants game and had some thoughts on their 30-20 victory over the Atlanta Falcons at Metlife stadium.

1. Tale of Two Halves-  One of the defining characteristics of that 2011 season in which they won the Super Bowl were the adjustments at the half.  Its simple, rather than let Julio Jones run wild across the middle on slants and crosses, the Giants did a better job of keeping more than one eye on him.  He just wasn’t the same beast he was in the second half.  These are the games and the players that sent the Giants out on the free agent market picking up every available defensive back.  Too often last season, they couldn’t get off the field on third down because they didn’t have the personnel.  Its apparent that now that the defensive personnel have been upgraded, it trickles down to support the defensive line that has done a great job in run support but has failed to get the kind of pressure they used to get during their super bowl years….

…until the second half on Sunday.  On Robert Ayers’ sack, Jonathan Hankins huge 4th and 1, and JPP’s constant pressures, the linemen won individual battles, something we didn’t see last year.  The Giants used to be built from the inside out, helping average corners by applying pressure from their defensive line.  It seems the Giants are building the other way this time.  Who could blame them?  These days, teams emphasize to their quarterbacks to get the ball out of their hands quicker.  Bubble screens, quick outs, thin crosses neutralize the blitz and force defenses to play more coverage.  This of course also helps the running game so you see why teams do this.  So its more important for defensive lines to win one on one battles.  That’s what made the Giants in 07 with Osi, Tuck, and Strahan so lethal, and what made the Osi, Tuck and JPP line in 2011 so good.

2. Resurgence of Jason Pierre Paul- Remember him?  Since that breakout 2011 season, his play was sporadic at best and his ability was hampered by constant injuries, coming into camp overweight and teams game planning to neutralize him by setting chips and double teams on him.  During the first half we saw the kind of aloof play that makes Jerry Reese’s life so difficult- When it comes time for extension talks (after this season) do we pay that guy?  How much do we pay him?  But the second half is what makes teams drool.  You can’t teach what JPP has- physical tools that he was born with that make him such a difficult match up even for a young promising LT like Jake Mathews.  JPP’s long arms and natural power give him the kind of ability that almost makes one unfairly think- how come he can’t play that way all the time?  Its difficult to suggest that JPP isn’t giving it his all on every play- we are allowed to have an opinion.  But i lean more toward the second half as the real JPP.  When he’s on, without injury, he’s one of the top 5 most dangerous defensive lineman in all of football.  You can line him up anywhere and he will have a mismatch.  THAT’s the JPP the Giants need if they are going to be successful this year.  That’s the JPP who showed up in the second half.  It didn’t matter who was lined up across from him, or how many RB’s they sent to chip him, he got to Matt Ryan and disrupted his timing.  With the emphasis on short passes meant to neurtalize the rush you need guys to win one on one match ups when teams aren’t blitzing and that’s what JPP did.

3. Rookies looked strong pt 1: Odell Beckham- Giants fans were elated to see Odell Beckham finally see some action in the regular season.  Coach Coughlin is a tough coach to play for.  If you’re looking for sympathy for hamstring injuries, you probably shouldn’t look for it from Coach Coughlin.  He appreciates guys who play through injury and will baby the guys that need babying- all at the expense of their playing time of course.  So yes, Beckham likely could’ve played a week earlier, but the Giants wanted to get it right because of the skill you saw this past Sunday.  He’s a burner and has huge hands that make him a target Eli Manning will go to, time and again- think Hakeem Nicks, just faster.  So when he got his first catch, and you saw the space that the Atlanta corners were giving him, respecting his speed, you knew Eli would take advantage.  Beckham’s skill set was on full display when he caught his first touchdown of the season- on a play that he was held as he was trying to create separation- the speed, and the leaping ability to catch the ball at its highest point is the kind of athleticism the Giants scouts saw when they made him a first round pick.  There are two areas of concern, one of which will take time- Eli admitted post game that he hasn’t worked with Odell as much as he would have liked and the touchdown route wasn’t even a play they practiced together which tells me that Beckham and Manning may have a natural connection.  This can only lead to better things down the road as Eli gets used to his speed and Beckham can know and anticipate when to break off certain routes and go where Eli wants him to go.  That takes times.  The second area of concern are injuries.  When a rookie misses the first four games due to hamstring injuries, the concern is that it becomes a regular occurrence.  Let’s hope not.  Speed guys are prone to these kind of injuries so it bears watching how the Giants use him.  We only saw Odell Beckham cover three punts by my count, so the Giants may not want to use him that often.  They may be limiting his snap counts as well, gradually building him up which is probably the wise thing to do.  If i were Odell, I would be begging Coughlin to get him out there- don’t want to create the wrong rep as a rookie.

4. Rookies looked strong pt 2: Andre Williams-  The first few times I saw Andre Williams run, I had the same Deion Sanders like reaction: that boy runs like a man.  And boy he hasn’t stopped.  Williams is a truck.  He lowers that shoulder and punishes defenders and he’s smart- he lowers the boom on defensive backs.  Some will point to his 2000 yard campaign at Boston College or the fact that Coughlin and the Giants have always preferred Boston College guys, as the reason that Williams was picked in the fourth round (the new sexy round to get running backs) it seems like they have picked wisely.  Barring injuries, he should be a work horse back.  The kind you can rely on to be a three down back.  Rashard Jennings was signed on a short term basis, perhaps based on the fact that the Giants didn’t want to wear the youngster out.  But injury invites opportunity and the young man showed why Giants folks love him.  He runs angry, much like the former wearer of the #44 jersey.  I bring up Ahmad Bradshaw because he was one of my all-time favorite Giants.  I remember during that 2007 season when he would get up from a four or five yard carry and just push a guy from the other team after getting up because he was mad that someone tackled him.   He always got me just that extra-amount of juiced and every fan has that player on your team that gets you pumped.  He may be a vital cog or a guy who gets in for two or three plays.  For Packer fans its John Kuhn.  For me, it was Bradshaw in 2007.  He really played a bigger role as the season wore on but every time he got out there he was a man possessed.  Playing like a guy who was angry that he was picked in the late rounds.  Angry that somebody dared to tackle him.   My favorite memory of Bradshaw was during the Super Bowl against the Patriots when he carried a Patriot defender an extra four yards, got up and pushed the first guy he saw (happened to be a Giants player) and took two pronounced steps as if to say that he was here!   Williams runs that way but with controlled aggression.  He’s not picking fights with linemen but he won’t go down easily.  Teams will now need to bring two or three guys bring him down.  Just knowing that the Giants may have a work horse back on the roster, is something worth noting considering he was drafted late and won’t count for much on the salary cap for a few years.  That’s huge.

5. The Falcons biggest weakness is their coaching- I watched Hard Knocks.  I also have seen some Falcon games over the past few years that Mike Smith has been their head coach and I know this is a backhanded compliment but: Mike Smith is this generation’s Marty Schottenheimer.  Marty always wanted to be the tougher and more physical team and had grand visions of playing deep into January and early February but never could get the job done.  Because when the going got tough, Marty always overthought everything.  Mike Smith is the same way.  I reference the two fourth downs that ultimately cost his team a playoff game in 2011 against the Giants at Metlife.  Both were run plays, one by Matt Ryan and one by Michael Turner, each turned back for a loss and each its own soul crushing defeat for a team trying to make a statement.  Now fast forward to this past Sunday and again, a big fourth and one, and Mike Smith probably thinking back to 2011, decided he wasn’t going to test the run defense of the Giants despite the moderate success he had earlier in the game.  Ryan went back to pass and he got sacked by Jonathan Hankins.  These are the kind of decisions, with Steven Jackson on the roster mind you, that make you scratch your head and make you wonder WHY you have to overthink it.  In the first half, there wasn’t a part of the field that Julio Jones couldn’t get to, or a spot that Matt Ryan couldn’t throw to that Julio Jones couldn’t get to, and yet in anticipation of an adjustment about to be made, the Falcons decided to turn him back into a sideline WR that basically limited his effectiveness the rest of the game.  Smith has been a successful regular season coach and he has the personnel on offense to do video game numbers (they are a top 5 offense) but its clear that Smith’s coaching is getting in the way of this team ever reaching its potential- which by the way is difficult to tell what their ceiling is because their defense is so awful (hey Osi!).  I think the Mike Smith era needs to come to an end in Atlanta.  You need your top guy to be decisive and for me, he’s just not that type with a roster full of good players to help push them forward.

6. Rashard Jennings injury- Potentially this is huge.  Rashard Jennings has the third heaviest workload of any running back in football and the fourth most yards.  Depending on a rookie to automatically pick up that workload is dangerous.  For a first year running back, Jennings has done the one thing Coughlin cares about when he considers who gets more playing time: he picks up the blitz well and protects the quarterback.  He’s also a physical, in between the tackles type runner that Coughlin loves.  He pushes the pile and you get the sense that the entire look of the Giants running game has changed with the backs they kept coming out of camp.  Jennings, Williams, Hillis- all punishing, inside the numbers type runners.  Meant to wear down defensive lines and thus the emphasis on running the ball has been there.  Its important especially for an offensive line that may not be the most talented to have a guy that can create extra yards by just being physical.

7. What happened to Victor Cruz and Larry Donnell? I’m not concerned with the limited production from these two.  Donnell’s threat is really in the end zone where his size and general athleticism causes mismatches.  Victor Cruz, being the premier receiver, draws attention from the defense’s best cover guy and safety help over the top.  Its rare that Cruz gets open looks but Eli normally does a good job reading single coverage on Cruz and gets him the ball.  Other than the case of the dropsies in Week 2, Cruz has always been reliable and I credit Eli who’s even keel attitude doesn’t have him abandoning Cruz, but rather continuing to throw to Cruz.  New Yorkers have a tendency to be, how shall we say, a tad impatient.  But credit Eli who understands better than anyone that it takes time to build an offense and rhythm even while establishing a bunch of new faces into the offense.  Donnell is a wild card.  Each Super Bowl winning team had a tight end emerge out of nowhere.  In 2007, Jeremy Shockey went down and the Giants depended on Kevin Boss, a fifth round draft pick, to come out of nowhere.  In 2011, the Giants went to Jake Ballard.  It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure where I’m going with this.  The Giants basically have never tried to spend too much money on tight ends apart from signing Martellus Bennet.  The Giants have this philosophy with the linebacking corp as well.  They believe their tight ends coaches can create stars from nothing.  Yes, the Giants let go of  legendary coach Mike Pope, but they believe in the guys they had.  Going into training camp, they publicly said that it would be a competition but everyone knew that the team wanted Adrien Robinson, once dubbed the JPP of tight ends by GM Jerry Reese, to win it.  Of course, man’s plans are God’s long comedy script and a 3rd year TE that was a former QB with a basketball background won out the job and shocked everyone on Washington’s sideline with his Thursday night 3-TD performance.  Donnell is clearly a target in the end zone but more importantly emerging as an option as a possession receiver.  That’s something Eli’s tight ends have always been.  If Donnell wants to have staying power, he has to make those important third down conversions.

8. The offense is starting to get going- The Giants  have scored the sixth most points, ran the fourth most plays, and average the 8th most points in the league.  While that may not sound all that impressive, please check the preseason tapes and you tell me how a team that looked so lost running a new system for the first time in over ten years, has looked this good the last few weeks.  You can link the improvement to the competition.  The Giants faced the Texans, Redskins, and Falcons- teams all with flaws and circumstances that were favorable for the Giants.  The Texans were without Arian Foster, and have Ryan Fitzpatrick as quarterback.  The Giants caught the Redskins on a Thursday night after a hard fought loss.  Finally, the Falcons are awful away from home.  All that being said, having had those games to tighten everything are advantageous to a team trying to forge a new identity on offense.  Eli seems to have a good understanding of the offense with the quick precision passing.  Remember the 70% completion goal?  While Eli isn’t lighting it up with his 66% completion percentage, its still 4 percentage points higher than his previous high which counts as progress.  The bigger part of Eli’s progress is that he’s not forcing the ball and trying to make things happen which he did far too often last year.  It also helps that every week he seemingly gets a new weapon.  One week its Larry Donnell, the next its Odell Beckham.  The Giants have had the most set of weapons since the days of Tiki, Toomer, Plax and Shockey.  They have an emerging offensive line that plays better by the day.  I’d say there’s plenty to be optimistic over.  But now Eli has to put it together.  The mistakes that haunted this team the first two weeks are things that the team looked at and realized could be corrected.  The Giants could very well be sitting today at 4-1 or even 5-0 considering that a few mistakes turned the momentum of both games- mistakes they themselves created.  Let’s also remember that Corey Washington sits on the bench waiting to get into a game and make an impact.  Its very likely the Giants could be on the cusp of having a Green Bay like attack, but it begins with Eli.  Its his ship to steer.  The Giants won’t go anywhere if he doesn’t play the mistake free football he’s been playing these last few weeks.  Here are some of his best stretches of quarterbacking in his career:

Season Comp. Att % Yards TD INT W-L (Team PPG)
2009 (week 2-5) 67 106 63% 956 9 1 4-0 (32 ppg)
2009 (week 12-14) 57 89 64% 900 8 1 2-1 (38 ppg)
2011 (weeks 2-4) 62 93 67% 798 8 1 3-0 (29 ppg)
2014 (weeks 3-5) 68 97 70% 734 8 1 3-0 (35 ppg)

Eli had been in Kevin Gilbride’s offense five years before he ever began going into a stretch of football like he has been on these last three weeks.  Of course its not fair to say that Eli has somehow took to Ben McAdoo’s system quicker than Kevin Gilbride.  Eli’s progression as a quarterback took time, as every Giant fan knows.  As any Jet fan will tell you, it takes time to create weapons out of what you have on the roster and even if you think you have those weapons, sometimes they aren’t.  The fact is, Eli in year 11 is a different quarterback than in year 6 and his understanding of concepts and general quarterbacking is just that much more advanced.  Let’s see if Eli can keep playing at this level.

9. Look Ahead- The interesting portion of the schedule begins for the Giants beginning Sunday night against the Eagles.  I try not to qualify a Week 6 matchup as a must win but if you had to bet, one of the two wild cards will likely come from the East, a division that looked like the worst in the NFC.  Now with the Cowboys, and Eagles sitting at 4-1, and the Giants nipping at their heels, the next two weeks will either push the Giants forcefully into the race or push the Giants way outside looking in.   Looking immediately to next week the Giants face an Eagles team not totally hitting on all cylinders.  Its also an Eagles team who hasn’t played its best game yet.  One area where the Eagles are strong are special teams, an area that the Giants have struggled with.  Nick Foles has predictably regressed to the norm and isn’t continuing his ridiculous 27:2 TD:INT ratio.  Its not to say that he’s not a good quarterback.  He was making better decisions last year when there was such a limited scouting report on him. But now that there are actual expectations, teams are figuring out ways to get him into making mistakes.  The Giants will have the guys to cover, now its about winning those one on one match ups on the line.  Speaking of people who aren’t playing up to their potential, LeSean McCoy hasn’t had a 100 yard game rushing yet.  To put that in perspective, McCoy didn’t go three games last year without recording a 100 yard rushing day.  His offensive line is still really good, but McCoy’s effectiveness has been limited by injury and especially the concussion he suffered two weeks ago.  He’s expected to play, but expect the Giants, with the 11th best rush defense in the league to be ready for the challenge.  If McCoy isn’t up to go, the threat of the run may not be as effective, and in Chip Kelly’s system its very important to have that threat in order to suck the defense in to open up routes for his speedy receivers.  Look for Chip to try and get LeSean going early.  I’m expecting a high scoring game with the team that has the ball last winning.  How’s that prediction for you?

10. Other stories around the league-  Do I care that Geno Smith went to the movies and missed a meeting?  Even if the movie was, “San Diego Chargers playbook for Sunday” he wouldn’t have been able to do anything on Sunday.  Movie or not, the fact is, Idzik and the front office have NOT surrounded Geno with the kind of weapons he needs to be successful.  Also, it doesn’t help that he overthrows everything like America invading a third world country.  And I hope Jets fans got to see Michael Vick in action.  His performance had to basically suck the life out of any future “We want Vick chants”.  The only Vick the Jets need are to help soothe the aches and pains of another less than stellar campaign.  How did no one see that Tom Brady performance coming?  It was the Bengals after all.  He was up against Andy Dalton.  Come on!  Biggest surprise has to be the way the Saints have absolutely under performed.  Maybe someday, teams will stop giving Rob Ryan the kind of control he wants.  Its not the players Rob, its you.  As much as we love seeing an overweight hippie get all worked up, actually we don’t.  Please censor that next time national broadcasting network, or at least give us a warning.  Peyton Manning had four touchdowns while throwing two interceptions and ho-humed his way to 41 points, while Tom Brady chills in the poor house of open receivers with Danny Amendola.  One day the story will be told of the wealthy, gets everything he wants country boy that competed against the pretty boy woe-begotten employee of a ruthless hooded monster of a man-  oh who to root for?  Tony Romo’s spin out of a JJ Watt sack is the exact kind of play that sucks in Cowboys fans every year.  I can’t wait!

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Lessons learned: MLB Trade Deadline 2014

Yesterday, baseball went on the kind of run that everyone in Las Vegas hopes to go on.  When the morning began those of us unfortunate enough to be tied to our Twitter accounts were awakened by Alex Speier’s report that Jon Lester had been traded to the Oakland A’s.  A moment passed before I read the next tweet which read “…for Yoenis Cespedes”.  It was the kind of swift kick in the butt that the trade deadline needed.

What followed over the next 7 hours were teams responding, teams waving the white flag, teams staying pat and teams deciding that they weren’t going to dip their toe in these crazy waters.

We will get to the New York teams in a minute.  But there’s much to learn about the changing landscape these days when Detroit and Oakland are the two teams waging war and raising armies in the North and the South, shooting out warning shots undoubtedly in preparation for their matchup in the ALCS.  After the Lester trade was finalized, I imagine Detroit CEO, GM and overlord of the car making province Dave Dombrowski reading the report on one of his sports apps and looking up at his team and muttering some phrase equivalent to “let’s get busy boys.”

The Tigers then made a huge trade in a three team swap to pick up the ace that had a reported 8.9% chance of being traded.  The Tigers picked up their Scherzer insurance.  The Mariners got an everyday center fielder.  The Rays got their bundle of team controlled prospects that will undoubtedly lead them on their second run.  Much of the surprise is somehow on the Rays side.  Most thinkers of baseball believe they could’ve received an equivalent trade in the offseason.  Why settle now in the midst of a race the Rays are quickly getting themselves back into?

One can never seem to doubt Andrew Friedman, but looking at the landscape this move can only lead one to believe that he saw his team incapable of sustaining such a run over the month of August and September and decided to cash out now.  But did they cash out with the biggest hand they could’ve had?  Who knows?  Drew Smyly has produced the best numbers of his career.  Nick Franklin has been shuttled between Triple A and the major leagues but has potential.  A most dangerous adjective that can lure GM’s into a trap.  Then there’s Willy Adames, the SS who is 18 years old and has shown an advanced bat for his age.  Those three shouldn’t net a David Price but this is the reality in which the Tampa front office operates in.  They must always keep an eye to four years from now while maintaining what they have today.  In a market that is not advantageous and doesn’t offer the revenue stream to change their thinking, they must always look ahead rather than gaze at the now.

But not Billy Beane.  Ol Billy decided when he traded away his best prospect to land two starters from the Cubs that this would NOT be the year that he stands pat and looks ahead.  This year he was putting his chips to the middle of the table.  Ultimately these moves will be judged by the end result in October but one can only applaud Billy as he makes his run at that championship he has so cleverly tried to get by selling his home made lemonade in his stand while he competes with the big boys in all things beverage.  By trading Addison Russell his star SS, he made an announcement to the world that he was going for it.  When he traded Jon Lester for home run darling Yoenis Cespedes he made sure to remind us that he was dead serious about his aspirations.  Lester represents about as sure a thing in the playoffs as you can get.  A hired gun bought for a single reason: to pitch those games that the Oakland A’s have never been able to win.  The Game 5’s and Game 7’s that Oakland has had to rely upon lesser talented players.  Now they have a bona fide tried and true ace that has been there and done that.  Again, his trades will ultimately be looked at through the prism of October results, but we should all applaud Billy the kid for deciding to take out the twin guns and fire away.

Of course if you’re Dave Dombrowski and you have a pitcher who decided to reject a 6 year $144 million deal the writing is in the stars.  When Max Scherzer decided to say no to an extension offer, the wheels had to start turning for GM Dave Dombrowski.  He has an aging owner who wants to win now and is willing to spend money but doesn’t have the endless pockets the Yankees do and at some point you get the sense that with each start, Scherzer is pricing himself into a different stratosphere.  Don’t take for granted Mike Illitch’s will to spend to keep a championship capable roster.  But with David Price in tow, they can weather Scherzer’s departure.  But this is also about  Rick Porcello’s advancement as a pitcher.  The Tigers bet on Porcello getting better when they dealt Doug Fister to the Nationals.  Now that his stats have all shown a major jump, one has to wonder if Detroit looks at those stats as an unsustainable leap from a pitcher who doesn’t project as a front line starter.  For me, this is also a Rick Porcello insurance move.  In case these stats are unsustainable, they have enough frontline starting pitching to help Porcello toil away and figure things out.  The Tigers have been stubborn about his development and it seems as though they will see this to the absolute end before they give up on him.

The Red Sox are an interesting case.  They sent away Jon Lester and John Lackey in separate deals that netted them serviceable major league players.  So it wasn’t a total destroy and rebuild like in 2012, but it bears a striking resemblance.  When the Red Sox traded away all their horrible contracts to the Dodgers they took advantage of a team with new ownership desperate to make a splash.  Now, there are no bad contracts, but a ton of young players the Sox brass are hoping will develop enough to become a core that can be competitive at a decent price while having the financial flexibility to add star players to support them.  I can’t be totally sure that the two moves were with an eye toward the future or making sure to have pieces in 2015.  The A’s were smart to trade Cespedes, a star borne out of the Cuban craze that has produced two legit superstars in Yasiel Puig and Jose Abreu.  Cespedes, if you will remember had the amazing scouting tape that made him a cross between Babe Ruth, Joe Dimaggio and Ken Griffey Jr.  But he hasn’t had the kind of career that Puig and Abreu have.  Aside from the two home run derby titles and the occasional amazing display of the gun from the outfield, Cespedes has been a clean up hitter in name only.  Yes, he has a year left on his contract, but if the Sox catch lightning in a  bottle, they have inserted themselves into the Cuban pipeline of talent by bringing in one of their better prospects.  We won’t get a good idea of where the Sox’s thinking is until the offseason.  If they make a run at Lester, who can be a free agent and is well liked by both Boston’s fan base and by the ownership group, this will be a huge win for the Sox.  But based on earlier negotiations, the Sox have a price in mind for their staff ace and won’t go beyond that number.

The NL East all made incremental moves with one team making the most interesting one.  I’ve always been jealous of how ruthlessly efficient the Miami front office is.  Historically, they haven’t mastered sustained success, rather banking on their scouting and farm development to give them a good nucleus and then building through some major splashes, much the way they attempted to do so in 2012.  Then as soon as they win, they get out blaming a public that doesn’t support the team to give them revenue streams to spend.  But when Miami sent a few well thought of prospects for Jared Cosart, it was the kind of low level go for it move with a look towards the future for both teams operating with a time frame in mind.  Cosart is a former number one pick and no matter what the circumstances are that led to his trade from the Astros, its always a good bet to trade for talent.  Changing his surroundings may allow Cosart to start over and reach his potential.  If they manage to tap into Cosart’s potential, they could have added another frontline starter to a rotation that includes Jose Fernandez.  In a vacuum let’s presume that when Fernandez comes back next year, he will need a majority of the season to get back into the form we saw from him last year.  Cosart will enter a rotation with Henderson Alvarez and Nathan Eovaldi, gives them enough young talent to slowly build the same way they built their championship teams.  This is the kind of move that won’t immediately pay dividends but ultimately is the kind of forward thinking move that sets the table for a major run in a year or two.  Smart.

So what if anything can the local teams learn from all of these moves?  The Mets and the Yankees operate in two different tax brackets.  The Yankees, did the smart thing at the trade deadline.  Rather than sacrifice their top prospects, they dealt from their endless welt of cash.  Nowadays, prospects are the currency of choice for GM’s, but that’s a matter of circumstance.  It just so happens that the Yankees can and can’t be begrudged for operating from that advantage.  So rather than make earth shattering moves which GM Brian Cashman is expected to always do, they made incremental moves to add depth.  If the A’s taught us anything its that having depth at IF and OF can always be a plus.  Having multiple options for a roster that is riddled with older players who are getting injured way too often, how is adding Martin Prado, Chase Headley, Chris Capuano, Jeff Francis,  Stephen Drew, David Huff, and Brandon McCarthy for cash, Vidal Nuno, C Peter O’Brien, Yangervis Solarte, Rafael DePaula, Kelly Johnson and a player to be named later.  To recap, they got a guy who was asking for $15M a year this offseason, a former Gold Glover, a player who was the centerpiece of the Justin Upton trade, for a guy they were going to option, a guy who’s hot start they parlayed into someone useful and a bunch of other pieces that were ultimately expendable.   That’s called making the most of what you have and more importantly recognizing what you don’t have.  They have enough talent, that once healthy, they know they can piece together a run.

But the Yankees also operate in a changing landscape.  There aren’t enough legit superstars in mid prime entering the free agent market that the Yankees can devour like they used to.  Teams are starting to be smarter about the Super-2 status and convincing prospects with potential to give up one or two years of their free agency in exchange for financial security.  Thus, free agents are entering free agency on the opposite side of 30.  Not only that, the Yankees aren’t the automatic suitors for the in their prime stars, anymore like they used to be.  The Dodgers with their new ownership group, the Tigers with an owner who’s advanced in both age and desperation to win a title, the Angels with a threatened Artie Moreno, and of course the Boston Red Sox.

Playing in New York comes with its advantages and disadvantages.  Cashman operates from the must do something mandate where its not just about the number of moves but the number of moves that make a splash.  So every offseason the Yankees will be linked with the biggest free agents and during the trade deadline the best trade chips are also somehow linked despite the Yankees not having the treasure trove of prospects with which to deal from.  The Yankees will never be in rebuilding mode.  Not with a new stadium that needs to be paid for.  Not when the team seems to be entering a deep decline with the final member of the Core Four retiring.  If anything this calls for an even more aggressive show of force by the Yankee front office.  A moment to puff out the chest and remind everybody who the Yankees are.  So naturally for those fans who looked at the Yankees tenuous position and thought they would just pack their bags and call it a season, just don’t know how the machine works.  It never stops. Or rests.  It continues manufacturing a relentless mentality to chase what may be out of their grasp.

The Mets however, have had to operate from a different point of view.  Though they call New York home as well.  Though they have a brand new ball park as well.  They compete with the monolith Yankees and against a reality they would rather not admit to the public because of what the feared reaction from the public is.  However, the Mets have always made the mistake that the public won’t understand: they’ve been with you this long stupid, they will continue to ride with you through this crap too.  With their finances a big question mark to everyone but the Wilpons’ accountants, the Mets have cut costs, and payroll since 2006, their last playoff run, to sit comfortably in the middle of the pack; a weird place for any team from NY to be in.  The Mets do however have something the Yankees don’t: young, high end, cost controlled pitching.  The Mets could have made a move to send a signal to the landscape that they were ready to overtake the Yankees but one thing is clear: they aren’t ready.  Not that they couldn’t make a run to the postseason or the 90 win goal GM Sandy Alderson set.  But the Mets also didn’t make a panic trade to make a run that nobody thinks is a guarantee.  What the Mets can take away from this deadline from the other teams is this: that they aren’t ready to trade for a David Price or Jon Lester.  But they are also close enough to be realistic.  This may not be the year, but they are close to making the kind of moves that send shockwaves throughout baseball and announce themselves as legit contenders.

 

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Pay day is here.

The New York Mets are 2-4 on the young season and already several early trends are forming that are cause for concern for any die hard Met fan.

There’s this middle infield that continue to play hot-potato with the baseball anytime a double play is in order.  There’s the young stud catcher who’s right now hitting a number lower than one but hey let’s keep being ok with it because he’s got a track record in the minor leagues.  We’ve got a pitching staff that has quality starts, which means atleast 6 innings pitched and 3 or fewer runs, but two wins as a team to show for it.  We’ve got a bullpen that was an unmitigated disaster during the Opening series and seems like they have about 90-100 more of those kind of performances in store for the fans.  We have a 1b platoon that sounds like it will either motivate all three cadets OR irrevocably damage their intestinal fortitude altogether. Finally we have a team consistently beating the crap out of the air and giving cold Met fans a stiffer breeze everytime they flail at a live baseball.

And yet, the Mets are 2-4 and struggling to stay relevant in a season that is six games old while having 156 more to play.  That’s the kind of pessimism that sticks to you like gum to a shoe.  Why?  Because the Mets, the NEW YORK Mets as you will remember, operate their payroll like a kid operates a lemonade stand.  Nickel and dimes will get your thirst quenched for meaningful baseball but just know its going to cost you five bucks for a glass.

The prevailing wisdom around these parts are that the season is young and there are reinforcements on their way.  What they won’t tell you is that those reinforcements are scheduled to come around May when they will have earned enough time OUT of the actual games that count to be playing for pennies for a longer period of time.  What’s amazing about the Mets this year though is that they are operating under the guise of this “90-win” edict that their GM may have mistakenly put them under.

I’ve been thinking about what Sandy Alderson was actually thinking when he had to answer for the 90-win goal?  How tough was it for him to know that a snitch in his operation had leaked it to reporters who love poking the Mets with every snarky headline and column they can write?  How many times did he want to finesse the story so that it wasn’t so much a demand as it was a fantasy of his?

Right now, the starting pitching is doing a decent enough job.  Six games have gone by and there hasn’t been one pitcher who completely bombed.  The Mets starting five is averaging a 3.82 ERA good for 17th in baseball while their SP have gone a respectable 37.2 innings thus far in the season.  That averages out to 6.2 innings a game which is decent, except when you hand it off to the 28th best ERA crew of a bullpen.  The Mets aren’t just a badly constructed group of relievers its almost  become a thing with Sandy Alderson and once stuff become “a thing” for a GM its very hard to deconstruct that narrative until you destroy it.  And while the Mets have 156 games to destroy that, its funny how the guy who is demanding a 90 win season out of a team no one expects to is content on letting the losses pile up while waiting for his team to bring up the young studs everyone swears the Mets have.

That is the line that Sandy Alderson walks everyday.  We’re supposed to believe that he is the GM of a baseball team in NY while operating the budget of a team outside of Tulsa.  No disrespect.  He’s got to be small market minded while handling big city politics.  What Sandy says and does this year will be weighed against the 90-win expectation he set on himself.  And while I am NOT opposed to any GM throwing his team a spark to get fire going, let’s help it along by throwing in some huge logs to help the flame build.

This will be the year that Sandy Alderson will be judged on his work fairly.  This is after all his team.  This is the year he predicted the Mets would be on their way or showing signs of becoming relevant.  But as Sandy is finding out, not all plans work out the way we want.  A simple life lesson for a man who seems to operate under the premise that every angle must be investigated or its not worth proceeding with the plan.  The plan was to be competitive by this year.  That the Mets would start showing signs that the years of losing were worth it.  But there is no set expiration date for youthfulness.  One day young guys who need to learn are forced to step out from the shadow of “oh he doesn’t know any better” to “what the hell have you been doing this whole time?”  That is where Sandy and plenty of Met players find themselves.

Travis d’Arnaud is no spring chicken.  He’s 25.  Still young enough to believe that there is a spike in production coming and old enough where if he doesn’t do anythign this year legitimate worry and doubt will creep in to all the heads that have been assuring us that he is a stud. Matt Harvey went from potential stud, to superstar ace, to partying rockstar that has a digital mind all its own.  Noah Syndergaard, Rafael Montero, Jake deGrom and even Zack Wheeler are just question marks.  We don’t know what Brandon Nimmo is capable of but we know what the guy picked after him is doing.  Shit like this.

For Sandy the allure of the prospect is over.  Now is the coming of age.  Either they are or they aren’t.  Either the Mets ARE a team with no payroll restrictions OR they aren’t.  While its smart to milk as much arbitration clock as you possibly can from what could be frontline starters, at what cost?  Sandy is likely going to lose his job if they send a xerox copy of 2012 and 2013 this year and have 74 wins.  In that respect Sandy will find, and i’m sure is reminded everyday, it is New York.  There is no time for lollygagging.  Met fans have been patient enough.  Its not time to hide the gifts under the Christmas tree.  Its time to open it up.  That fine bottle of wine you’ve been saving for that special occasion?  Its tonight.  Because this is the night you’ve been waiting for and yet you’re still keeping that bottle of wine locked in the cabinet for some mythical day that doesn’t exist.

Its time to stop hiding behind the premise of Super-Two statuses that fans don’t care about.  Its time to own up and pay up to the fans who have stood by and waited.  Its time to demand out of your pitchers and hitters the support you are asking from the fans.  You want the fans to come out?  Bring the players we want to see and then perhaps we will shell out the 40 bucks.  Until then you can have all the pet days you want.  You can give out as many David Wright posters as  you would like.  Nobody will care until the fans get what they want: a winner.

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Talking up Phil and seeing if he’s down

So it has come to this.  In an attempt to bring some relevance to this team and legitimize its operation the Knicks have attached its most famous wandering son to a front office position.  Not that any deal is finalized, but something is in the works according to a Daily News report.  If Phil Jackson were to accept the offer made by the Knicks to come back to the team that introduced him to winning NBA championships, it would send several ripples throughout an organization that has been mismanaged from top to bottom for far too long.

To be clear, I don’t know if Phil Jackson would make a great executive.  We know he can coach.  We know he enjoys being in the spotlight.  We also know that he loves LA.  But my personal hunch is, from my detached far away from success standpoint, that people like Phil don’t just suddenly give up the opportunity to win.  Its why management often throws piles of money at guys who have seemingly past their prime as if there is a cut off age for everyone to stop what they are doing.  They know that while money is motivation, its the love of winning and perhaps just as important, the stench of losing that drives these men.

Larry Brown, Knick fans remember him, is 73 and he’s currently leading the SMU Mustangs to its first NCAA tournament appearance in more than 20 years.  Guys like Brown don’t just love the fame and the money, they love basketball for reasons that go beyond the superficiPhil_Jackson_3_croppedal.  I’m not waxing poetic on a guy like Larry Brown who’s been known to leave one place for greener pastures elsewhere, but one thing can’t be understated: don’t think its all about the money.

I sat thinking about three things in regards to this Phil Jackson rumor:

1. What would it take for Phil Jackson to come to the Knicks?

2. What would be the reason Phil Jackson took this position?

3. Why are the Knicks constantly coming to the well of the old master Phil everytime there’s uncertainty going on about the organization?

Let me preface this by saying I have no insider information and this is just one man’s humble opinion but Phil would need to be given certain guarantees in his contract to consider working for the Knicks.  Let’s first start with control.  If Phil were to come, it would be under the condition that he would have complete unilateral control of the Knicks which would be a huge give by James Dolan, the owner of the Knicks.  Its also a well known fact that CAA, the agency who has almost every big superstar in basketball signed to their company, has the ear of the owner of the Knicks as well.  More on them later.

No one knows who else has Dolan’s ear but its clear to almost every Knick fan that whoever does has zero interest in building a solid product here in the “basketball mecca”.  I always joke around that if the Knicks had an iota of intelligence in that front office, superstars would be lining up to play at the Garden.  Say what you will about how overblown the concept is to today’s NBA player, but the Garden is a recognized commodity within the basketball intelligentsia who saw more than its fair share of great high school and college games played here.  It was also the home to many sporting events outside of basketball that are forever a part of America’s storied sports past.  Basically the name rings out in the streets.  It is however, painfully clear that there are far too many voices in James Dolan’s head talking at once and he has to cede his control to someone he absolutely trusts.  Phil Jackson, for all we know, may be friends with Dolan and there may be a level of understanding between the two that go beyond just basketball.  But if there isn’t, Phil would need assurances that he would not be effed with when making a basketball decision.  And why shouldn’t Dolan cede control?  Its clear that even in the last decade of futility the Garden was making money hand over fist so there shouldn’t be a fear of losing money even if, at first, the Knicks may have to reset.

Phil’s health is also a major concern.  We don’t know how many surgeries Phil has had and whether he would consider relocating from Los Angeles where he lives with Jeannie Buss.  Would Phil give up 70 degrees year round for a foot of snow every so often in the Northeast?  More on that later.

The idea of Phil taking the position makes a ton of sense.  Like I stated earlier, guys like Phil Jackson don’t take jobs like this at this stage of their lives for the money.  Jackson’s legacy is set.  He’s won 11 championships as a head coach and won two as a player in New York.  If anything he could say that he achieved the task of winning in New York.  But for guys like Phil maybe the idea that his legacy isn’t complete eats up at him.  Maybe going back to New York would energize him and give him purpose.  I mean how long can you fly fish in Montana or ride your Harley in LA in perfect weather for?  Even if that sounds like a slice of heaven?  Ok, I’m not helping I know.

Finally, we all know why the Knicks are approaching Phil.  There’s plenty of reasons.  Look at the current Knick three game winning streak?  Maybe the players are under the illusion that Phil is coming and are viewing this time as an audition?  The Knicks aren’t a good team and yet are showing glimpses of the 54 win team they were last year.  There’s that Carmelo Anthony guy we’ve been hearing attached to Miami and Chicago recently.  His decision this summer will ultimately guide what the Knicks do next year.  If he leaves, they will definitely trade Tyson Chandler to a contender and try to carve out more cap space for 2015 even though merely letting Amar’e walk and not having a $23M cap hit on Carmelo would probably do the trick.  But if Phil comes Carmelo will feel like the Knicks are moving in the right direction because that’s what Phil represents.  He represents championships and winning and Carmelo can get down with that.  And you know who else can get down with that?  Other superstars who still view Phil in high regard.

While there are a ton of reasons why this would be good for the Knicks one thing is clear, the Knicks are star gazers.  Wishing on any shooting star that passes, hoping that their wish will come true.  This shooting star has a ton of questions surrounding his health and ultimately the power he will be given to make decisions.  Maybe he won’t be good at being a GM.  Look at Michael Jordan?  The power with being that good at one thing is that you start believing you’re good at everything and Mike fell into that trap.  He’s the guy who drafted Kwame Brown number one ahead of guys like Tyson Chandler, Pau Gasol, Tony Parker, Joe Johnson etc.  He’s the guy who has never produced a .500 or better team in his tenure as GM or owner.  Nothing is promised to guys who go on to try things other than what they are known for.  I truly believe God put us all on this earth for one thing, and one thing only.  Some, like Mike and Phil found their niche.  They worked hard and achieved the impossible.

In the end, I don’t think God put Phil on this earth to run the Knicks.  The devil put James Dolan here to mock all of us Knick fans for believing the rumors.

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