Mets, 2015: A Year to Remember

It hasn’t been 72 hours and I’m still thinking about the Mets season that ended too soon.  I haven’t had a chance to write that paragraph since 2008 which in baseball years is equivalent to forever.  So forgive me if I write this from the perspective of a 16 year old girl that just broke up with her boyfriend all too publicly and thinks her life is over.

Yes, life moves on.  Yes its only sports.  I get all that but at the same time, I don’t.  When a baseball season ends, you’re almost glad, right?  From February through September, its nearly 8 months of ups and downs that you can’t possibly predict or pretend to not agonize over.  There will be stretches of absolute brutal play that will make you turn the game off in the 4th inning and want to sit outside and watch your wife garden without a cold one in your hand because you drank enough for two frat guys at a kegger in that four inning stretch that you’re embarrassed to be this drunk at 3pm.

But here we are writing the epitaph of the 2015 Mets season and feeling strange.  The Mets opened up as 10/1 favorites to win the world series, tied with the Washington Nationals, the presumptive favorites heading into this past season.  That sentence alone is unbelievable to write because the Nationals spent $210 million to bolster a pitching staff already thought to be the best in the major leagues.  Yet, somehow the Mets not only beat them, they destroyed them from within.

One of many criticisms that I have as a Mets fan is that the ownership group, I lovingly call the Coupon family (real name Wilpons but ya know), is too cheap to keep a contender around for the long haul.  Somewhere along the line they will try to nickel and dime their way to a championship because they didn’t want to pay the $7 fee to invest through Scottrade and instead decided to trust a guy named Bernie Madoff with their money and well, the rest is Ponzi history.  But now the stakes are different and we all know it.  Over the coming weeks, we will get into who the Mets should keep, should let walk, and who they should start the car, drive to the airport and make sure the plane took off before fist pumping.  Whether the Coupon family will bow to public sentiment is anyone’s guess, but like any parental unit on a budget they will have to do some spending to keep the house in order.

However, today is the time to look over the season and digest it all because Lord knows Mets fans deserved a season like this.  Did the Mets deserve to win?  Sure says any Mets fan.  But in reality, they faced a better version of what everyone was convinced the Cubs were.  They faced a team with the heart of a champion and a team with some serious playoff chops.  They got beat by a better team.  Those are the facts no matter what any Mets fan wants to convince you of.

Sure you can talk yourself into the fact that the Mets had a lead in three of the four games they lost to the Royals but that would only be fooling yourself into a false narrative that the Mets were close to the Royals in the intangible department.  Wanna know how I know this as fact?  Think back to every single sick feeling you got when the Royals got to our bullpen, save game 1.  When was the first time you realized that Daniel Murphy stopped snorting the good stuff he was on during the first two rounds when he was a mix of 2002 Barry Bonds and 1926 Babe Ruth? The only surprise was game one.  Had the Mets won that first game and they had every chance to do so, this series may have swung in the Mets favor, but once Alex Gordon launched Familia’s pitch into the center field stands and Familia had blown his first save of the playoffs, you knew as a Mets fan that this was a different beast the Mets were playing.

So let’s forget that every Terry Collins move that worked in the first two series didn’t seem to play to the same tune in the World Series because he wasn’t facing a team with serious flaws that could be exposed.  Playoffs are oftentimes about match ups.  Once you beat a team at its own game, you can see the wall of confidence crumbling around them.  The Dodgers had the decided pitching advantage in the Division series because they could pitch Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke four times in five games.  But when the Mets beat Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke in two* out of the five games the math said that the Mets would win.

*= and it should’ve been over in 3 had it not been for that coward Chase Utley but let’s not open that wound. That’s a HBP for another day.

Jon Lester was a postseason veteran with experience and one could argue that Jake Arrieta was the best pitcher in all of baseball and the Cubs had the best under 25 positional talent in all of baseball and yet the Mets outhomered them and beat their two best pitchers en route to a sweep that even the most optimistic of Mets fans NEVER saw coming.  Surely we would, at best, beat the Cubs in 5 games.  But Daniel effing Murphy happened.

With 8 days to revel in their dominance, the Mets ran out of steam and gas that launched them into the playoffs.  From July 25th on, when they acquired Kelly Johnson and Juan Uribe, finally after fans and columnists had wasted countless calls to sports talk radio shows and typed thousands of words imploring the front office to get some help, the Mets seemed to take off.  From the moment Justin Upton launched a cruel 3 run home run to help the Padres beat the Mets in a new twisted way things changed.  Or maybe, and this is everyone’s favorite version, from the time Wilmer Flores came out to play the field minutes after finding out what everyone else in the stadium seemed to know, that he had been tentatively traded along with Zack Wheeler to the Brewers for Carlos Gomez, wiping tears from his eyes because he was hurt being traded FROM the Mets.

Aside from Bret Saberhagen and Bobby Bonilla both of whom will be paid more than some of the Mets current crop of pitching beasts, nobody had ever been that open about loving the Mets.  Nobody.  And then Sandy Alderson for his next trick pulled a Yoenis Cespedes out of his hat and off they went.  From a team that could barely muster two runs to a juggernaut that couldn’t be stopped the Mets blasted their way through August.  As luck would have it the first opponents for the Mets were the Nationals.  The Nationals had underachieved all season yet were trying to convince everyone that everything would be ok with the old “wait till Denard Span comes back- then watch out world.”  Of course we had heard that line before.  The Nationals have had an excuse for every disappointment.  Who can forget sticking to their guns on Stephen Strassburg’s innings limit and ruining their best chance at a deep run?  Who can forget lifting Jordan Zimmerman after 8 and 2/3 innings because well Matt Williams knows how baseball is played and we don’t know shit.  

The Nationals always talked before the season about what they were going to do because they had the talent and deserved to be everyone’s lead dog heading in, but there was always that championship DNA that was missing.  When the Mets had acquired the pieces to legitimately threaten the Nationals, you saw how far from the title the Nationals were.  Not only did the Mets sweep that first series in late July, they then went Labor Day weekend to Washington and soul punched the Nationals in three straight games, coming back each time in stunning fashion.

To be honest, when you look back at the Wilmer Flores game, that was so typical of the Mets.  They left Flores in the game clueless to the fact that we live in an age where information gets shared so quickly that of course the fans would find out before the player does that they were traded.  That’s what the Mets do.  They fuck these things up.  Yet, it worked because of Flores’ outward show of loyalty.  That was the first sign that this team was going to do amazing things.  When the Nationals took a 4-3 lead during the Labor day weekend series opener, with Max Scherzer on the mound, and the Mets mounted a stunning comeback, you kinda sorta knew but you didn’t want to believe it.  When the Mets came back down 7-1 the following night you were almost there.  When they beat Strassburg to complete the sweep of the three game series, you knew this season was going to be special.

But that’s how fandom is when you root for a baseball team.  The fear of failure and another lost season can flip on the dime.  We as fans are allowed to change our minds when it comes to our baseball team because the baseball season is so freaking long that its like watching the Christmas story marathon on TBS every Christmas.  You fall asleep to the movie and wake up and find yourself amazed that you are in the exact spot you left it and its still going.

The season had plenty of questionable decisions that we can point to in detail.  None more so than the he said, agent said, they said, controversy over Matt Harvey’s innings limits.  Somehow the Mets again appeared to have public sentiment on their side after Harvey did damage to his tough guy, Dark Knight rep when he agreed with Scott Boras’ poorly timed and executed public demand of cutting short Matt Harvey’s workload a year removed from Tommy John.  In a case of curious Karma, it was Harvey’s tough guy rep that again did him damage when he demanded the ball in the ninth inning and began the set of events that ultimately cost the Mets the game and the World Series.

This is all to say that while the season ended badly and from late April to late July was depressing as all hell (remember the days when John Mayberry Jr was our clean up hitter?), the Mets ultimately did enough in early April and from July 31’st on to make this season memorable.  In a slog of a 162 game season, the downs usually outnumber the ups when it comes to the Mets given their recent history.  But not this season.  For Mets fans it was the culmination of all the talk of promise they had heard.  We had heard about how the pitching staff would vault the Mets into contention.  They did.  The front office promised that once they were ready to contend they would make moves and increase payroll and they did.  Despite all the criticism we were told that once Terry Collins had a major league team to manage, he would manage it well and he did.

Everything we had heard or thought about, happened.  But then the Royals came and took it all away and left us Mets fans in a sea of disappointment.  When I stepped off a flight on Monday night, I got an alert from the Mets to relive the 2015 season and they were already talking us into the old “hey atleast we got there” talk.

But that’s not what I wanted to hear.  This is what I wanted to hear:

This is what I wanted to see:

thank you

There’s work to be done this offseason and like I said its still early.  But here’s to the 2015 Mets.  They gave us moments of tension, of dominance, of history, of awesome comebacks and deflating failures.  Ultimately they went to the World Series and got beat by a better team that had an enormous chip on their shoulder after losing in Game 7 of last year’s World Series.  But take hope Mets fans.  The pitching staff will come back no matter what Scott Boras threatens.  Michael Conforto will see actual at bats against lefties next year when he transitions to everyday player.  Jeurys Familia will be the closer and from the looks of it a damn good one.  We will be adding a fifth ace in Zack Wheeler in July.

So let’s remember fondly Bartolo being Bartolo:

this tweet:

or this tweet:

Or that time the Mets made fans of even their biggest rivals.

Or that time the Captain made his return to the Mets in style.

Or the time that Cespedes just flexed on the Pirates Sean Rodriguez, 

Or that time Terry Collins hugged the fans after a huge Game 5 win against the Dodgers. 

Or the time Reuben Tejada caned in like Willis Reed into Citi Field 

Or that time that Flores became the most popular Met like in ever. 

Or that time the Mets soul punched their biggest rivals. 

Or the time Will from Queens called Mike Francesa and well, yeah.  

Or that time Daniel Murphy went insane in the playoffs.  

Or that time Jacob deGrom convinced Mets fans and baseball that he was the ace on the team during the All Star game.  

Or the time Steven Matz’s grandfather lost his collective shit at just how good his grandson was.  

Or the time Noah Syndergaard took to his superhero nickname in an awesome way.  

Or everytime you stared into the outfield and you saw just a sea of orange clapping plastic thundersticks and cheering like crazy people.  

Or the time you had to follow a Met game on Twitter, refreshed your feed and saw this at the very top and the fear/disappointment that would ultimately follow:

Or the time that somebody else stood looking at strike three while we got to go to the World Series.  Carlos Beltran, you’re finally off the hook (though its bullshit you ever were considering the..ok I’m over it)

Or the time you go back to back in a clinching game to completely take the home team out of it in the first inning:

But most importantly, here’s to the future:

See you in Spring Training!


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Melo’s Consent and the Fans Dissent: recapping the Knicks recent failures and the fan’s panic

Its Day three of Free Agency and the annual cry of disappointment is already being heard from the mouths and fingers of Knicks fans.  I am one of those hopeless dopes who look at every move from the perspective of “this will be great for us.”  I realize there are far more cynics in the bandwagon but the wagon is still full.

That’s the thing about Knicks fans, they haven’t abandoned ship. We’re like the band on the Titanic: doing what we do best while all hell breaks loose around us.  But a possible rescue mission is on its way and Knicks fans may be missing it.

Zach Harper of CBS Sports wrote brilliantly about it in ways I can’t possibly hope to duplicate, but it got me to thinking about the fan base and our star player.  Knicks fans are hopeful, and hopeless.  We are patient and desperate.  We are loyal and yet take to every possible forum to bash our star player.  We are a prideful bunch, always quick to remind those that this is the mecca of basketball even if other cities probably took that title a long time ago.  We are everything and nothing all rolled into one.

But in our conflicting identity there is a fierce passion that never fades.  In that fire lies our biggest problem: We collectively don’t want what we say we want.  If you asked 100 Knick fans about what they want from their team, long term success or short term success: 98 out of 100 fans will take long term and two will go the other way because there’s always two dopes in a crowd. But if you asked those same 98 fans about how to get to long term success, you may get 98 different answers.

There’s a quick fix here and a free agent there that ultimately can fix what’s ailing the Knicks.  While free agency has served some teams well, its a dicey proposition to put all your chips into one basket and hope for the best.  We saw how well laid plans can be ruined in 2010 when Lebron went to Miami.  Two years of organizational dumping of bloated contracts eventually landed the Knicks Amare Stoudemire on a max, uninsured deal.

Its safe to say that Carmelo Anthony is at the center of alot of the organization’s failings.  Melo openly pined to “come home” to play for the Knicks and ignoring the better judgement of a proven General Manager in Donnie Walsh (brought in at the insistence, read: stop f’n embarrassing yourselves and get a guy who knows what the hell he’s doing, of David Stern, then the Commissioner of the NBA) Knicks brass (read: owner James Dolan) gave away assets that could’ve grown around Anthony to bring the star in five months before he could’ve came for free in free agency.   If you will remember, that summer the owners opted out of the collective bargaining agreement and there was a work stoppage which may have endangered Melo signing on for the huge contract he eventually inked prior to last season.

That move to trade assets like Wilson Chandler, Danilo Galinari and Timofey Mozgov (remember him?) and dont forget those draft picks left the Knicks with very little wiggle room to work with.  To date, the Knicks don’t have a single draft pick in next year’s (2016) draft and traded away our second round picks from 2016-2021.  To be fair, we have a second round pick in 2017 from Houston and two second rounders,  one from Cleveland, and another from Houston, which will I’m sure be traded by the time I post this article.  That’s not cynicism pouring out on the page, second rounders are treated like step children and are often used as assets that teams throw in to make the salaries work in the larger construct of trades.  You can buy into the late first round into the second round with ease because most teams don’t have the cap space to afford a 14th or 15th guy on the bench.

Melo inked a near max deal, which given the state of the NBA’s rising salary cap will be a drop in the bucket and then spoke about maximizing his brand which drew the ire of the fanbase and the rolling eye verbal emoji of the NBA Twitter heads who love beating the Knicks pinata whenever possible.

Twitter has been a haven for Knick fans to voice their frustration over the franchise’s lack of forward thinking and a place for Knick haters to dwell and throw salt on the wound.  Twitter, and by virtue the internet is a wonderful place because its like that sex party scene in Eyes Wide Shut: everyone wears a mask and does whatever the hell they want.  While that’s great and all, the ugly truth of failed leadership is there for all to see.  Its not that the analytics crowd is against the Knicks, its just that all their projections have been saying the same thing: this team as presently constructed is NOT worth keeping together.  Trade everything of worth and sell off assets like Michael Jackson and recoup whatever value in future draft picks and gain back some credibility.

That’s all great but the old credo remains: you can’t rebuild in New York.  I’ve seen it in the fan base.  Fast forward to the first two days of free agency and this year’s draft.  After spending the entire season sucking and landing the second worst record in the NBA, the Knicks somehow saw two teams leap frog them landing them the fourth pick in a draft that had three potential saviors.

The outrage from the fan base and the point and laugh of the Twitterati anti-Knick brigade made the internet an almost insufferable refuge.  It was like coming home with a bad report card, you knew you had to check in but you knew you were going to get skewered.  Knicks fans take things personally.  I know because everytime I read a tweet from Frank Isola of the Daily News it irritates the shit out of me.  Its a natural reaction.  While I know his criticism of the Knicks comes from a general hatred of James Dolan (which I share, and I don’t use the word hate lightly and have fully understood the meaning of what I say when I say I hate someone) who has built a virtual Wall of Jericho from the press legion ready to pounce and ask him difficult questions for him to avoid, my anger is misplaced and goes to him because I feel its a personal attack on me.

Its like the old saying- you pinch yourself to see if you’re awake or dreaming.  You read an Isola sarcastic remark, get angry and remind yourself you’re a Knicks fan.

Some Knicks fans have all but given hope that this franchise while under the stewardship of James Dolan will ever get its act together and its not completely unfounded.  Everything that Dolan has done has been shortsighted.  Whether its bringing in Hall of Fame coaches Larry Brown and Lenny Wilkens (two guys from Brooklyn to make it simpler) and then eating their contracts, it screams New York City excess: “Let’s just light this pile of money on fire because I can”.  While it shows a willingness to spend above and beyond, its also a glaring example of how frivolously that money is spent.  No rhyme or reason.

When the Knicks drafted Kristaps Porzingis (note, I did not need to check the spelling on his last name, just goes to show you how much time I’ve spent reading up about this kid) the outrage was palpable.  It may have had something to do with the five minutes (in real time but what felt like hours of sweating it out in Knicks fan time) between the Lakers picking DeAngelo Russell at 2 and the Sixers pick.  The Sixers, also in the business of sucking, had spent the last two drafts drafting two big men.  There was enough reason to think the Sixers would balk on Jahlil Okafor and go for someone else.  But that flew in the face of everything Sam Hinkie, the GM responsible for the Sixers current strategy, has built.  He is an asset hoarder like his former boss, Darryl Morey.  He understands that in order to build something that lasts, you have to build through the draft, keep flexibility in the contracts you hand out to free agents and trade excess fat and see if teams will bite with first round picks.  You use movable contracts and first round picks to pluck that superstar and build around your own core of maturing elite talent.

So it only made sense to draft Jahlil Okafor despite the uncertainty of how he will develop around two other bigs who will require the proper time on the court to develop as well.  That’s the Sixers problem.  The Knicks and its fanbase, already visualizing Okafor in a Knicks jersey immediately vented their frustration on to the internet.  Which, while its made to do, almost turns the functionality of it into a virtual toilet to dump their shit into.  Phil Jackson,  brought in as the latest former New York hoops legend (he of the 1969 and 1973 World Championship teams), bore the brunt of the jokes, anger and all other emotional debris.

He is now the face on the dart board that is the New York Knicks franchise.  Every tweet dissected and used as a running joke.  The idea, from this Knicks fans perspective, was that Phil would serve as a real life buffer between Dolan’s crazy ideas of how to turn the Knicks around (by the way while I hate how he runs the franchise I will never say he doesn’t go for it and is unwilling to spend on a plan and at least from that perspective I have to respect him), and how a franchise SHOULD build itself.  Giving a guy that had no previous experience building a team this job was the kind of shortsighted move that Dolan had been wont to make.  But viewing each of Phil’s moves there are some good takeaways if you are a Knicks fan about the general direction this team is going.

Whether Melo likes it or not, and this is just one fan’s guess: he is now told rather than asked for his opinion on moves the Knicks plan on making, his career goal of winning a title while in his prime may not necessarily be high on Phil’s list of things to consider when he’s making some of the moves he’s making.  Which, again its only my opinion, is a very wise and prudent plan.  The Knicks only owe Melo the remaining $124M left on his contract.  What they owe the fan base is a consistent winner.

Porzingis may be the biggest unknown in this draft but its a shot in the dark that was necessary.  The Knicks have not drafted a player with this much upside since Mark Jackson.  While the Knicks were busy “striking out” on the likes of LaMarcus Aldridge and Greg Monroe, they signed Aaron Afflalo to a reasonable two year deal and are closing in on a one year deal for Robin Lopez.  Both defensive minded players (Afflalo’s advanced stats show a decline in his production however) that should help out Carmelo Anthony when he makes his return from knee surgery.  They also flipped Tim Hardaway Jr, a shoot first ask questions last sequel to the horror of JR Smith, for a first round talent in Jerian Grant who as a 6’5 PG who can drive to the hoop, an essential quality of the triangle offense.

Which brings us to the topic that drives today’s analytics driven NBA  insider insane.  The Triangle is attached to Phil Jackson’s hip because its a system he deeply believes in.  And why not?  He won 11 championships employing the system in both Chicago with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen in the 90’s and the early 2000’s and again in the late 2000’s in Los Angeles with Shaq, Kobe and Pau Gasol.  While many laugh about how archaic the triangle is, its been less than 10 years since a team ran it and won a title.

In a recent interview with Howard Beck of the Bleacher Report, he spoke about the triangle, more as an ideology of how the game should be played moreso than a system.  The tenets of the triangle are important to adhere to but don’t fit in today’s pick and roll league.  But Phil Jackson repeatedly has said that everyone harps on the Triangle system too much when describing the Knicks failure last season.  The Knicks didn’t fail because of the triangle, they failed because they didn’t have the talent to compete.  Plain and simple.  That’s not a system thing, that’s a fit thing.

Phil’s moves as a GM have been mostly to remove the bad seeds.  In the interview he described building something similar to what San Antonio has.  An atmosphere clear of dysfunction and unified in a common goal.  When Knick fans cry about why free agents don’t want to come to NY its clear that much of it has to do with the anarchy going on behind the scenes.  The word among fellow players I’m sure is poisonous.  The only way to get around that is to remove the dead weight and that’s what Phil did when he shipped JR Smith and Iman Shumpert.  Shumpert was a player that had regressed in his development and the front office fairly didn’t view him as a part of their future.  The organization knew that they wanted to be rid of JR Smith and felt the only way to do so was include Shumpert, at the very least an intriguing piece, to a contending team like Cleveland.  We can fairly wonder whether Jackson got proper value having sent them at their lowest possible value but the reasoning behind the trade was solid: he was building a team.

Knicks fans watched JR and Shump help Lebron and the Cavs reach the Finals and suddenly acted like the Knicks shipped off amazing assets to the Cavs for nothing.  It was the same faulty logic that caused sportswriters to drool over Delladova when he held Steph Curry, the reigning MVP, and wonder how much he would get paid in free agency.  Game three of the Finals seems like a distant memory.  In the end, Shump and JR played like replacement level talent and the Cavs lost.

The worst move Phil made was to ship off Tyson Chandler to Dallas.  Whether you believe any animosity existed between he and Melo is up to you (if you held a gun to my head I would venture to guess that there was because you can’t spin this move in any way) but the Knicks shipped him for a bag of doritos, Shane Larkin’s over dribbling and Jose Calderon’s sweaty pits.  They managed to get Raymond Felton, a serial abuser of the pregame spread, off the team as well.  Again, attaching an asset to a cancer.  It was barely addition by subtraction.  But leaving a hole in the middle of the defense confirmed our worst fears.  The paint area became a runway bigger than Madison Ave for opposing offenses.  Nobody was afraid of Jason Smith’s Brandon Malone hairdo from 90210.  And there’s only so much Quincy Acy can do to intimidate before he does this.

Notice three things from this video: there’s franchise player Carmelo Anthony slowly walking up, hands on hips, to fake care about Acy going bat shit crazy.  Cole Aldrich immediately grabbed the basketball because that’s the only time during a game the team trusted him with the basketball.  Finally there are more Washington players holding Acy back than his own teammates.  Everything about this Knicks franchise encompassed in one fight.

The Knicks were ill equipped to handle a college team never mind a playoff team even in the East.  We can’t even call certain players on the Knicks sub-replacement level.  They were sub-Hades level talent on the Knicks last year without Carmelo Anthony.  So much of the whining about helping Melo with free agency would’ve been like touching the stove after having done it a number of times.  Why?  The roster needs a U-Haul more than one max contract level talent.  Every realistic option (that removes Jimmy Butler, Marc Gasol, and Kawhi Leonard off the board because their respective teams made it clear they would match any deal any team threw at them) had flaws.  I also wouldn’t count LaMarcus Aldridge.  In the end, even a pity date was cancelled with a lame excuse attached.  I’m sure the Knicks being absolutely against Aldridge playing power forward was the reason he crossed the Knicks off the list.  Sure.

Want Greg Monroe?  He would’ve been a good asset, but his value is greatly diminished if he doesn’t have a defensive minded player around to hide behind.  Want Wes Mathews?  His emergence last year cut short by an Achilles this year, was given a four year deal by the Mavs.  Were the Knicks in a position to take a gamble on Wes and tie up cap space?  The Knicks were linked to David West.  He’s 34 and wants to play for a contender, how in the world does that qualify the Knicks? DeMarre Carroll is the type of guy who showed up last year on a very good Atlanta Hawks team but is that worth tying up a $15M of cap space on a player without a track record? Even in the new economy of the NBA, that’s a dangerous proposition.

Danny Green flirted with the idea of coming home to play for the Knicks, but wisely chose to stay with a team and organization that has built up his value and allows him to compete long term and would’ve had him in a role that allows him to keep his value.

In the end, the Knicks signed Afllalo to a two year deal with an option after the first year and Lopez to a four year deal.  Both are assets they can flip midseason to a team desperate for help for first round picks if need be. They maintained max flexibility heading into the 2016-2017 season when the cap jumps from $69M (projected cap this year) to $90M and the year after when it jumps to $108M.  Teams are eyeing that number and spending knowing that long term contracts signed today will wind up being bargains.  Steph Curry is locked up for $12M a year until after the 2016-2017 season.

Again, spending this year wouldn’t have been the worst thing, but actually being mindful on what the Knicks were spending on has been this team’s biggest problem and a renewed focus on managing the cap and maintaining flexibility shows the Knicks are serious about turning this thing around.  The fanbase meanwhile cries out for a savior to come.  Perhaps Phil Jackson IS the savior but maybe the Knicks fans should weigh moves in one way: did this move make us better?  Most of Phil’s moves have.  While that sentence may wind up biting me in the future, needless to say this franchise is moving ahead without Melo’s consent.

What that means for Carmelo is something else altogether.  The Knicks still have that hand to play this year.  What this salary cap does to Melo’s contract is the real bonus if Knicks fans really want to crow.  Melo’s $22M salary moving forward doesn’t look so bad and he is still worth it.  Despite every attempt to prove otherwise, if the Knicks put him on the trading block you can bet there would be 29 franchises making Phil trade pitches.  There in is where Phil will make his money.  Will Phil even broach that subject with Dolan and Melo?  If he does so then this is a true rebuild.

Of course there are a ton of hoops to get through before we even get to the Melo-Drama Part II.  Melo has to consent.  It was reported back in December, that Melo was open to waiving his no-trade clause to facilitate a move to a team of his choosing.  Again, Melo controls his destiny and that of the Knicks.  What if James Dolan opts to fight Phil on his insistence of trading the superstar?  We all know that Dolan won’t mind paying Phil to go away if he does something contrary to what the owner wants.  He’s done it before.  The danger and uncertainty of this rebuilding truly lies there.

As the organization hopes to rebuild, how will the fans react to Melo if reports come out that he nixed an enticing trade proposal?  This team is not built to make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference.  That’s saying alot.  The Knicks need a lot of help and that help was gained in the draft and free agency.  Making wise short term investments like Afllalo, who’s contract at age 29 and in today’s NBA economy, is a bargain and will be valuable come the trade deadline, is the right way to turn silver into gold and gold into platinum.

How will the fans turn if something right happens to the Knicks?  There hasn’t been much movement away from the Knicks.  There’s still a healthy contingent selling out Madison Square Garden year after horrible year.  What if the fans have reached a point that they are incapable of seeing a wise move for what it is?  Hopefully they will be wide awake to see a new day for this franchise.

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SportsmAgeddon 2015

After sitting on my ass for 12 hours straight all in the name of sports, I thought why not just write about it in an excessively long post that you’ll get tired of half way through since I don’t have an editor.

1. Rangers 3- Capitals 2  The Rangers played the way you HAVE to after losing the way they did in Game 1- Nobody knew how the Rangers would respond after losing in the most insanely horrible gut punch way possible.  But if there was any sign that this team has a strong chance of winning the Stanley Cup its how they responded in Game 2.  They came out strong, and played physically after the tone was set by the Capitals in Game 1.  To be clear the Rangers are the better team but its easy to see how the Capitals could have taken charge of this series.  These two teams have faced each other in four of the last five years so there’s an added layer of intrigue to this series that makes these two teams a bit more even than their records may suggest.  But the Rangers attacked the net and were the more physical team and played with the kind of intense desperation you have to play in order to reassert themselves in this series.  The Capitals played the aggressor in Game 1 and stole a game with some luck which is maybe not how they drew it up exactly but the result was.  The Rangers responded in kind; the way they had to.  On to game 3 where the Rangers almost HAVE to win.

2. Ovechkin is the best player in the series and the only hope the Caps have- Familiarity was also what would’ve potentially made a series with the Islanders entertaining but the Islanders had nobody on the same level of Alex Ovechkin, the superstar forward of the Capitals.  Since 2006, only three players have won the Maurice “Rocket” Richard trophy for lead goal scorer and only one (Steven Stamkos) has won it more than once.  Ovechkin has won it five times and three years in a row and counting.  Given his prowess for scoring yesterday’s goal shouldn’t have come as no surprise but it showed Ovechkin’s killer drive to score.  That kind of goal, incredibly athletic, showed a skill set that few in the world have and that has to scare the bejeezus out of the Rangers.  But the best team wins these playoff series.  Beware the star- they can always steal a game for their team and if this is the kind of effort the Caps will consistently get, the Caps can steal more than just a game.

3. Yankees 4- Red Sox 3  The Yankees keep winning- Prior to the season I said the Yankees would win more games than the Mets.  Why?  That bullpen is looking mighty similar to the one that took the Royals all the way to the World Series last year.  The bullpen has been flat out unhittable.  Many wondered about the year after affect of Dellin Betances’ workload after jumping from 5 innings to 90 in 2014 and his workload stands to jump even more this year if the Yankees plan on being competitive throughout the year.  Betances was thought to be the natural heir apparent to Mariano Rivera.  His stats last season bearing eerie similarity to Rivera’s eye opening 96 season which established his place in history.  Then they paid big bucks for Andrew Miller as a lefty specialist or so we thought but Brian Cashman being the smart GM he is and Joe Girardi being the smart manager he is, knew that on a team with so many questions there was no need to lock people into roles and thus Andrew Miller started the year as the Yankee closer.  This was the same team that earlier had moved Phil Hughes from starter to reliever to starter again doing the same to Joba Chamberlain famously ruining the two players development though one can make the case that Hughes has found his way as a starter last year and this year for the Twins and Chamberlain didn’t really have success except as a reliever and well there’s gnat much left to to say about him as a reliever. But the Yankees wisely defined a role for Betances and realized early on that he could be the dominant relief guy that Rivera was and even if they didn’t have a dominant pitching staff, they could effectively shorten games much the way those 96 teams made every contest virtually a 6 inning game.

But they’re a team winning close games and while a 5-4 record in one run games doesn’t necessarily speak to that, all those losses are more a reality shaped by their lack of offense.  In games decided by 3 runs or fewer? They are 11-6 which means when the Yankees get a lead?  They keep it.  Consider that taking out the 13 inning game against the Rays, the bullpen has blown one game.  Obviously over a 162 game season they will blow a game or two more but nothing indicates that this is a team with a bullpen that will ultimately get worse.  Miller and Betances have the collective chops to be dominant forces out of the bullpen its the rest of the cast that will ultimately decide how much rest Girardi and co will have.  Out of their 24 games, 17 have been 3 runs or fewer which means that a team with a collective BA of .242 (18th in MLB) will need to rely on excellent pitching to win games.  Their starters have been pitching a lot better than most thought.  Of course, like the Mets, we can’t react to one month of baseball played.  Brian Cashman isn’t afraid of pulling the trigger on any deal he has to make to correct any errors but he seems to have a long term vision for the Yankees.  He refuses to include Luis Severino in any deal and has maintained a pretty healthy set of positional prospects and has even resisted the urge to check in on Cole Hamels.  While the Yankees will ride this wave of good starting pitching and excellent relief, they have wisely chosen not to write off their future to upkeep what they admit is a flawed roster.  A responsible Yankee organization isn’t something to be surprised about, its something to fear.

4. A-Rod’s return to…- Jon Heyman wrote in fantastic detail about all the different angles in this A-Rod/Yankees contractual dispute which is turning personal.  The Yankees don’t like A-Rod.  The Players Union is in a terrible position here having been sued by A-Rod’s representation.  A-Rod’s list of friends in baseball has dwindled to a select few that may or may not be in his own locker room and that’s all A-Rod’s fault.  But the emotion he showed after hitting home run number 660 which tied Willie Mays was likely the result of a number of things.  His own guilt.  His actions that resulted in a number of fractured relationships.  His selfish decisions to destroy what would have likely been a first ballot Hall of Fame career.  Not saying that MLB isn’t guilty of their role.  They let performance enhancing drugs become an epidemic and then allowed the same players they lifted be vilified.  But A-Rod’s season, beginning with the surprising standing ovation by a Yankee fan base unsure about how to feel regarding A-Rod, has been the story of this season more so than their surprising start.  A-Rod looks healthy and the Yankees are wisely using him and not overextending him given his age and the health of his hips.  Whether he continues is the question but only time can tell that but I’m happy for A-Rod.  Those tears were probably the most genuine moment we’ve seen from him in a long time.

5. American Pharaoh wins the Kentucky Derby-  Sure.  Whatever.  I know nothing about horse racing and won’t pretend to analyze it, but I have to admit they aren’t kidding- it is a fantastic 2 minutes.  Plus, it gave us this photo.

6. Clippers 111- Spurs 109- I know a team HAD to win.  But why?  Seriously why?  There will be plenty of fallout from this series including what happens to the Spurs now?  Everybody will have an opinion and everybody has been writing them off for four off seasons and counting because well, it has to end at some point.  But the thing about the Spurs have always been their ability to adapt, and move on.  That’s because their infrastructure is so good.  Bill Simmons loves to talk the infrastructure but he’s right- Peter Holt the owner, R.C. Buford the VP, and Greg Popovich the head coach are always in lockstep over how to run the franchise and keep it moving forward.  There’s rumblings that they could make a run at LaMarcus Aldridge if he chose to look outside of Portland and there’s enough smoke for it to be burning on the minds of Blazer fans.  But that would effectively mean the roster from Danny Green to Manu Ginobli could look different given the price tag of locking up Kawhi Leonard to an offer sheet and then freeing up enough money to make a legitimate run at LaMarcus who i don’t think will come cheap.  The Spurs offseason will likely be the most watched.  Of course the last time the Spurs lost a heart wrenching elimination game on a last second shot and kept the team together they…well yeah.

7. Clutch Paul and what’s next? Before the game, Twitter exploded into a conversation about Chris Paul’s legacy if he were to lose this game.  How much blame did he deserve for his playoff resume?  How much was the team’s?  Well lucky for him, he won the game and can table the conversation for a later time because those conversations don’t die out until you win a title.  But I think the Clippers figured something out this series that the best teams do: trust the team for quarters 1-3 and then trust the talent to lead you to the win.  There was a recurring theme in games 6 and 7 that should frighten the Clips opponents moving forward.  The Clippers will rely on their two stars to take them home as they should.  There are few stars left in the playoffs as athletic as Blake Griffin (I count Lebron right now), and few as hyper competitive and driven to be great as CP3.  Many have pointed at roster construction as the reason why Paul’s teams have never achieved anything of note.  But the great ones, if they are truly great, can will their team further and that’s exactly what Paul has done.  Paul has a stellar reputation in the league (except with the refs) and I was happy to see him come through in a game that you just almost expected the Clippers to wilt given the Spurs chops in those minutes.  Paul moves on and who knows how deep this team can go?

Another thing to consider is where this series ranks in the annals of playoff history.  As it stands, this is the best first round series in the last 20 years.  Three games decided by four points or less and an epic game 7 that will rank up there after the experts have a chance to catch their breath, do their research and weigh in.  All I know is neither team deserved to lose and if anything this strengthens the growing outcry for reformatting the playoff structure.  You can listen to Greg Popovich or NBA smartypants Zack Lowe of Grantland or Tom Ziller of SBNation.  Just know that this topic is heavy on Commissioner Silver’s mind.  Change may not have come soon enough for NBA fans to have endured the Nets and Celtics in the playoffs while the Thunder sat home, but just know that change is coming.

8. Tim Duncan the great hero we didn’t deserve-  Just a reminder that he’s 39 years old.  Hearing General Popovich sorry, coach Popovich speak , it was as a man who has no idea how long Duncan’s health will allow him to continue his amazing career.  Five titles in, and unequivocally the greatest power forward.  EVER. How then can I wager on what happens next for this great player?  We can debate his place on all time lists, but he is singularly the greatest reason why this team has won as many titles as they have and removing him from the Spurs every day line up would create a void as large as any in a line up since Jordan left the Bulls.  Duncan’s selfless play both on the court and in salary negotiations allows the Spurs the freedom to do the things they do.  They can keep a better core together when their superstar forward who can command twice what he makes takes less than market value.  When you see a star take a pay cut to allow role players to get a bigger paycheck, it sends a message to prospective players that this guy cares about winning.  He doesn’t just talk about winning, he backs it up financially. Those guys are becoming more and more rare.  If last night was indeed the last time we saw Tim Duncan play a game, much like every other game he ever played, he left it all out on the court.

8. Nationals 1 Mets 0- As I’m writing this, the Mets have just wrapped up another 1-0 loss but what I have to say can be encapsulated pretty easily: do not panic.  What I saw from the Mets during their 11 game winning streak and what they have showed with their pitching thus far gives me hope moving forward as they get healthier.  The Mets have now lost 7 of their last 10 with this loss and at 16-10 have a 3 game lead over the Braves and Marlins.  The Nationals are seemingly getting their act together and the Marlins pitching is suddenly rounding into form and that’s before their two best pitchers have even thrown a single pitch this year.  The Braves are doing what they are doing through smoke and mirrors and I expect them to fall into the middle of the pack.  What the Mets don’t have is two of their best positional players in David Wright and Travis D’Arnaud.  Lucas Duda is beginning to cool down after his strong start but I think he’s going to be good enough moving forward that a .280 and 30-35 HR’s and near 100 RBI’s are a legit asks from the hulking 1b.  His defense has also been plus having lost a few pounds which is noticeable on how quickly he’s getting to some balls.  Plus all the coaches say that Duda is a tireless worker and does not take a play off.

Then there’s Juan Lagares who’s hitting above .300 and delivering highlight reel catch after highlight reel catch.  The Mets believe he can make leaps and bounds in his offensive game and he seems to be making the kind of adjustments good hitters make.  Since April 25th, Lagares has  14 hits in 33 plate appearances (.424).  Many wonder why he wasn’t the Opening day lead off man and all you need to see is the bases in balls part of the stat sheet.  He has three so far and teams know that guys who don’t know how to draw walks will cool down and keep chasing bad pitches which is why you’re not seeing teams give him an intentional pass.  Once Juan becomes more selective with his pitch and turns on baseballs, he has gap to gap power that will only improve.  He’s got the power to hit 20 HR’s but his approach right now just needs to be ironed out before the team asks him to tap into that power.  His development, which the Mets believe will continue, is huge once you add a David Wright and a Travis D’Arnaud into that line up.  Suddenly there are two less holes in that line up to pitch around.  The Mets know that which is why Sandy Alderson hasn’t rushed to judgement and knows he just has to weather this current storm.

Terry Collins and his curious decisions (leaves Harvey in 100 pitches plus against Yankees with a 6 run lead while removing him in a 1-0 game after 80+ pitches) are what make you nervous as a fan but the players clearly love playing for him and that’s all I care for.  Once players tune you out, you can’t come back from that.  To my fellow Met fans I would say: be patient.  Ride the waves.  This season will be fun and the Mets will be in it in September.  Just a hunch from a faithful.

9. Pretty boy Floyd def Manny Pac-Man Pacquiao via decision.- The fight of the century didn’t quite live up to the hype but my gripe was with the people who had hoped this fight would be anything but what wound up happening.  Fact is, this fight should’ve happened 6-7 years ago.  At the end of the day, Floyd is a businessman and played the market just right and squeezed every possible dollar he could from this fight because as he already admitted he has one fight left.  Fact is, this fight may have been more of a contest a few years ago but not now.  Floyd is a grand master of boxing and he fought his game plan to perfection.  His quickness and ability to defend has been his calling card.  He’s not going to knock too many people out but he’s going to be able to jab, overhand right and then bob and weave all the way to a decision in his favor.  He knows the sport and how its scored.  He is content, even if a majority of the public voiced their disgust over how bad the sport has become because they saw a “boring” match, because he knows what boxing is.

Much of the build up of this fight was interesting in that they played up aspects of both fighters that they generally don’t want publicized.  Pac-Man’s religion and faith was played up and Floyd’s history of domestic violence was a hot topic which was in an effort to build up this good vs evil storyline.  And make no mistake: Floyd’s team was more than happy to reap the benefits.  It likely built up more furor for the fight.  Fans of PacMan said if you’re a Floyd fan you’re a fan of domestic violence and condoning his actions against women while Floyd’s fans claimed that PacMan’s unwillingness to agree to drug testing all these years was what held up the fight and PacMan had cheated his way to prominence.  Either way, it was the kind of storyline build up that would’ve made Vince McMahon blush.

Say what you will, but last night’s boxing match may not have been the most enjoyable to watch but both men were tense, neither wanting to walk into a knockout punch by the other.  Both self aware of what was at stake.  Floyd was risking his undefeated record and status as the best fighter of his generation during this fight and PacMan was viewed as the only worthy competitor.  While Floyd hasn’t finalized plans, he has said that he has one last fight in September and after that he will retire leaving the sport with a huge void.  No matter what you say, Floyd was the main attraction.  He was the star.  PacMan can’t exist in a vacuum without Floyd.  Is Aamir Khan the next opponent?  Khan certainly seems to think so and whether that is the final fight remains to be seen, but you almost get the sense that even in victory, Floyd didn’t accomplish what he wanted.  Had Floyd knocked out Pacquiao there would be no doubt who was the very best.  But another decision leaves the fans wondering what if this fight had happened sooner?  There’s a sense that this fight left many wanting more and that feeling won’t shake easy.  No one will be interested in going down the Pacquiao/Floyd rematch road considering the underwhelming reaction from the nation.  For one night boxing returned to its perch as the biggest draw and failed to deliver as it has since the heyday of Mike Tyson pre-rape conviction.

Now with Floyd retiring, who can boxing turn to? MMA (UFC etc.) is really taking a hold on the nation’s collective thoughts and has enough compelling characters and idiotic champions to make sports fans entertained.  Fact is, the sport needs someone else.  Until they find him, all they will remember from boxing is this last match that was an event and I fear that boxing may have died a death via Mayweather decision.

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Game 1 of 162- Mets vs. Nationals (3-1 Mets win)

Here are 10 observations from the Mets Opening day 3-1 win over the Washington Nationals.  This win ran their Opening Day record to 35-19 which gives them the best winning percentage on Opening Day in the history of the majors.

1. No win early in the season is small or big….but you have to think for the Mets, winning this game was huge.  First there was the uproar over Bartolo Colon starting.  Then there’s the fact that the Nationals are missing their leadoff hitter (Denard Span), possibly their best hitter (Anthony Rendon) and their highest salaried position player (Jayson Werth).  So take this win with a grain of salt.  But beating a team that absolutely owned you last season in a tight contest is huge.  Consider that last year in games that were decided by 3 runs or less in which the Mets and Nationals played the Mets were 2-10 and overall were 4-15.  Don’t discount how big of a win yesterday was considering your two best pitchers haven’t even pitched yet.  A series win over the Nationals will help open the season the kind of way that can legitimize all the talk of playoffs and taking the town that the Mets have been doing.

2. The Bartolo effect- When Terry Collins named Bartolo Colon the Opening Day starter the fans reacted as if the Mets had given the fan base a big middle finger.  But the more I watched Bartolo yesterday afternoon, I began to understand the reasoning behind the decision.  Harvey would’ve been way too pumped up and his aggressiveness may have backfired big time.  The only other candidate that could have pitched was Jacob DeGrom the 2014 Rookie of the Year and he is the right guy to start the CitiField home opener.  He deserved it.

Colon faced jams in the first and sixth inning and like a true pro never wavered.  Using his ability to paint the corners and pitch inside and mix in his slider to keep hitters off balance, Colon was able to limit damage despite the error by Murphy in the first. He went on to strike out Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman and I don’t know that Harvey who would’ve been pitching with so much juice could’ve navigated that first inning or DeGrom not experienced enough to handle the jitters that come with Opening Day.  I will keep trumpeting Colon’s presence in that clubhouse.  You saw his value when he worked his way around jams.  Don’t think that the other pitchers weren’t watching and studying and trying to soak in as much knowledge from this almost-42 year old pitcher who has seen it all.  He’s also seen another Opening Day win for the Mets- his first since 2006 when he went against, wait for it, 42 year old Jamie Moyer.

3. Lucas “The Duda”- Its one game so let’s not overthink this.  But the Mets were talking long term contract with Lucas Duda  which means his 30HR season last year is considered by Mets officials to be legitimate.  The one thing about the analytics folk, they give up their hand when they voluntarily try to lock up a player before they have to.  Yesterday Duda broke up the no-hitter in a way that shows that he may be able to improve upon last year’s season by becoming a better hitter.  Against a pitcher that was serving him fastballs, daring him to muscle one out Duda put a level headed swing on a pitch belt high in the sixth with two in scoring position after Ian Desmond’s error.  He may hit only 29 HR’s but his batting average and on-base percentage will most likely go up if he continues to embrace the approach of situational hitting.  His season is probably one of the most important and critical to the Mets success.

4. Curious lineup for the Mets- Where to begin?  How about David Wright hitting 2nd.  Or Juan Lagares, having spent the entire Spring Training, being told he was going to hit leadoff and getting valuable reps there batting sixth.  Or the talk of hitting the pitcher 8th yet putting Colon 9th.  The Mets made some very curious decisions that ultimately worked but messing with a player’s head like Lagares who you’re hoping will elevate his game is a dangerous game to play.

5. Jenry Mejia’s elbow tenderness- 

Speaking of which, one of the reasons cited for bringing up 8 relievers was perhaps the Mets, having been warned of Mejia’s tenderness by Mejia on Saturday, made the decision that in the event Mejia’s condition worsened they would be prepared.  But this is another short sighted decision by Mets brass, almost putting their chips in the middle of the table for the first series of the season- tipping their hand on how important this series was for them internally.  Why not put Mejia on the 15 day DL to start the season?  Why insist on having Mejia there if there’s even a hint that he’s not 100%.  There’s a reason why Rendon and Werth and Span, who were seen prior to the game hitting line drives, weren’t in yesterday’s game.  Just goes to show how organizations who truly are in it to contend operate as opposed to the wannabe’s.  Mejia flying up to get an MRI is just a procedural thing but having seen four pitchers go under the knife and get Tommy John- there’s a general sense of trepidation that for the second year in a row- the Mets will lose their Opening Day closer for the year ON Opening Day.

6. Bullpen solid-  Colon left after six great innings almost-matching $210M import Max Scherzer striking out 8 in 1.2 innings less of work.  Colon probably would’ve came out for the seventh had the Mets not been threatening in the top of the 7th when Travis D’Arnaud tripled to score Juan Lagares and the pitcher’s spot came up.  The Mets then turned to their bullpen who after years of putting scares and mixing general discomfort into the fan base and the team, turned into a legitimate strength.  Before we even knew about Mejia’s injury (it was only reported in the bottom of the 9th when Jerry Blevins came in to match up against Bryce Harper) the Mets were likely going to go Carlos Torres for the 7th, Jeurys Familia in the 8th and Mejia in the 9th.  During Spring Training while Harvey and DeGrom were dominating, and the offense was producing, the bullpen was anything but ready.  But again, let’s not read too much into one game. While we won’t know much about Mejia today, expect the Mets to use their bullpen extensively especially when you consider they want to limit Matt Harvey’s innings and know that Bartolo Colon is 41 years old and if they bring up one or two of Steven Matz or Noah Syndergaard- they will need a bullpen to perhaps come in on the 5th or 6th inning.  A nice touch for the Mets to get Buddy Carlisle his first save after pitching so well for them last year.

7. Travis D’Arnaud’s effect-  You will only appreciate D’Arnaud’s effect on the pitching staff if you are a big fan of pitch framing and the general analytics that go into it.  But that’s where D’Arnaud shines.  He is one of the best at locating pitches that are borderline strikes and moving them ever so slightly to occupy an umpire’s strike zone.  Especially yesterday when he works with Colon its a thing of beauty.  Colon knows where to throw it and D’Arnaud knows where to keep it for both the hitter to think twice and for the umpire to call a strike.

But when his offense wasn’t justifying his framing talent, and he was demoted to Triple A something else happened.  D’Arnaud became less the patient hitter and more the opportunist.  So many folks mistake the Mets approach as simply to get on base.  The Mets primary objective on offense is to attack pitches in the zone and wait those pitches out.  D’Arnaud did a great job yesterday in locating the belt high slider that when he got it, he made the Nationals pay and scored their third run, the very necessary insurance run to give the Mets a lead they never relinquished.  D’Arnaud’s projections all point to him contributing close to 20 HR’s which if that is the case, will allow the Mets to have lineup protection everywhere.

8. MLB’s rule changes taking effect.  By my count, only four players didn’t take at least one opportunity to step out of the batter’s box.  The Mets played a 2 hr 35min game which is pretty good if you’re hoping to keep the games shorter than 3 hours.  I’m all in favor of keeping 9 inning games shorter by forcing the player to stay in the batter’s box.  Some hitters like to wander the earth before settling in for each pitch which unnecessarily drags out at-bats.  No need.  Smart move Rob Manfred.

9. Future Met shortstop Ian Desmond and the disastrous sixth inning-   I often wonder how the Mets would be perceived heading into the season if they had pulled off the rumored trade for Ian Desmond involving the Tampa Bay Rays that they were going to pull the trigger on.  Consider yesterday as a reminder why you hesitate.  The contract year Ian Desmond’s error in the 7th (a bounced throw to first time 1b Ryan Zimmerman which he couldn’t scoop up) was not like the boneheaded mistake he made in the 6th which ultimately lost the game for the Nats.  Desmond raced over to shallow right field and called off Dan Uggla who would’ve presumably made the play had he not been called off in the last second by Desmond who gave up on it in the last second.  Before that Scherzer was cruising and throwing a no-hitter and was about to get out of the inning had they made that routine play.  After that Duda hit a game deciding single driving in two giving the Mets the lead.  That play was the turning point of the game.  It kept Scherzer in one batter too long in the sixth and Lucas “The Duda” made them pay with a bases clearing single and the Mets went on to win.  This is not the first time Desmond has lost concentration or made a boneheaded mistake.  But you will take all of that when you consider that he’s one of the few shortstops that can both hit and hit for power if need be as evidenced by his three consecutive years of hitting 20+ HR’s.  He has the highest home run total of shortstops in the last three years, a position where if you have a guy with power you are ahead of the curve.  In fact, he has the three best home run totals since 2012 which is ultimately why he figures he can fetch  more than the reported $107M the Nationals offered over 7 years.  The fact is, the Nations have some tough decisions to make and with the Mets uncertain over Flores’ future at short, they may be in the market for a shortstop and may spend money on Desmond IF they contend this year and the dollars make sense.  Remember, while the Mets may have a New York zip code, they are still making decisions like a ball club mindful of limited resources with which to work with.  I wonder if some of the mistakes Desmond had weren’t of his own doing- trying too hard to make a positive impression on future employers.

10. Look ahead- Tomorrow’s game features an excellent pitching matchup as the defending NL Rookie of the Year Jacob DeGrom faces up against the contract year Jordan Zimmerman.  DeGrom has looked excellent all spring and has again been relegated to second status in a city caught up in Harvey-mania.  I admit that I haven’t given DeGrom his just due, but many within the Mets organization and in the press that cover him feel DeGrom is on the path to greatness as well having been a converted shortstop only five years ago and now the reigning NL Rookie of the Year.  None of this is lost on DeGrom, as he displays a maturity that tells you that he isn’t caught up or content on just the rookie of the year nod.  He went from unknown to mainstay in this vaunted rotation- another arm that is making the Mets stable of young pitching that much greater.  The contract year Jordan Zimmerman is another underrated pitcher overshadowed by a flame throwing teammate of his own.  He is of course entering the final year of his contract and many wonder about what Max Scherzer’s commitment means to Zimmerman’s future and how that decision will relate to Stephen Strassburg’s future in a Nationals uniform.  Keeping all three may be too difficult but they have an old owner desperate for a world series and he may be willing to spend, but keeping those two and contract year Ian Desmond may prove difficult.  Zimmerman’s first start of the season will be one of hopefully for their sake a 30 part tryout for a big contract.  Don’t think homegrown players didn’t sit up and take notice of Scherzer’s contract.  They will want similar deals.  Its interesting given the expectations surrounding this team whether it won’t prove to be a distraction all summer long.

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Amare- NY’s Savior 2010-2015

Immediately following the All Star Game, Frank Isola of the Daily News reported that the Knicks and Amare Stoudemire reached an agreement to buyout the remaining portion of the former All Star forward’s contract making him a free agent.

His stay in New York wasn’t a pleasant one. It never is when a player is given that kind of money and only brings one playoff series win. You don’t have statues built in your honor in New York with that kind of resume. But you’d be a fool to look back on Stoudemire’s time and think it was all on him.

The problem with Amare’s time in NY is the problem with every big name athlete that comes to NY: they are viewed as saviors. Brought to the big city to save us from the shackles of irrelevance. It was supposed to be Lebron in 2010. That’s back when we all were under the ruse that it was actually a fair game- nobody saw the hand Pat Riley was holding. When the smoke cleared, it was Amare Stoudemire standing in front of MSG screaming the Knicks were back while running to NY so he could sign his 5 year $100M un-insured contract.

amare-300x204The Knicks blew up everything for 2010 in hopes of getting Lebron in a room and convincing him to come to NY. They thought the big city angle would play. They thought they could get him to come and be the leader the city needed for its big basketball revival. Of course Lebron had just finished a 6 year tour around that debacle and knew the weight of carrying it along without talent around him would be like groundhog’s day elsewhere. He wisely chose Miami and now we know him as a champion.

Saviors don’t come cheap, and sometimes when you impulse shop you buy something for far more than you should’ve paid for it and add on guilt to the price tag. Knicks fans looked at Amare with the same look any kid would give you if you got them a Nintendo 64 when they asked for a PS4. Not only isn’t it the same thing but its also an insult to the intelligence of the kid to insinuate it’s the same thing.

Everything since that day has been one basketball disaster after another. Trading all the depth we had for Carmelo when it was a well known fact that he would’ve came to NY anyway. Using the Amnesty clause on Chauncey Billups rather than addressing Amare’s contract then. Even the 2012 season, one in which the Knicks won the division, 54 games and coined a phrase #Knickstape (no seriously that’s been the best thing to come out of the last 5 years) ended with the Knicks beaten by the Pacers and back to square peg in the round hole.

Knick fans reeling since that day look at his uninsured contract and the subsequent decision to team him with Carmelo Anthony and permanently clog the toilet with two untradeable contracts which effectively destroyed any cap space to supplement the talent around them, look at Amare and blame him. Somehow Amare’s at fault for all of this.

The Knicks were done in by decisions they made. Don’t blame Amare for taking a contract nobody else was offering him. Don’t blame Amare for the Knicks foolhardy decision to trade for Carmelo when it was all but assured that he was coming during free agency. Don’t blame Amare for being injury prone and don’t blame anyone but the Knicks for not knowing what they were getting when they got it. He came with a huge buyer beware sticker on him and the Knicks went forward with the purchase anyway.

Fact is, the Knicks, the media, and the fan base did everything they could to alienate him and he took it all without ever blaming anyone outside of his own person. He didn’t bring a championship to NY. He wasn’t even a major player when the Knicks had their most success and won 54 games. He was a $20M bit player and yet, when he yelled that the Knicks were back, you believed it for a moment.

The organization has been selling us this savior business for a while and the stale smell of irrelevance has been the cue that it hasn’t worked. Next season we’re going right back into the superstars want to come to NY business. We read a few clips of how everyone loves coming to NY. I’m sure they do love coming to NY. They bring their family, catch a show, walk into MSG and then lay an ass kicking on the Knicks and laugh their way out. Stars don’t want to come to NY. They don’t want the burden or the bother of a fan base with unrealistic expectations and a front office peddling used goods as brand new hardware in hopes of procuring another dollar. It’s a two way stream of crap and Amare like stars before him are caught in the middle.

I don’t feel bad for the Knick fan. I bought into Phil Jackson just like the rest of you. Too foolish to see the truth: what the hell did he know about putting a team together? His recent mea culpa about his experiment gone wrong read like a familiar script. Another big name brought in to run the same old game. The sad part is we keep buying it as fans. Then our anger gets directed at the players. Amare is exactly who we thought he was. We were just too stupid to buy into it. Phil Jackson is a great coach, but a GM he is not. Not until he proves it. Yes, he still has time to prove it and while its all good and well to admit your shortcomings, its not an easy truth to face.

The Knicks have been selling us a fantasy for a while now. Phil Jackson being the latest in a series of saviors, brought to Gotham to save us from bad basketball. But with Amare, we knew what we were getting. He was an injury risk. He was a one-dimensional player. He wasn’t a build everything around him type of athlete. In fact, the athleticism that once was his calling card, was all but a distant memory. What remains is the fantasy. The tall tales of a man brought to NY to save basketball at the mecca. But who’s gonna save New York from itself?

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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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