Wednesday, April 30, 2008

With L.B., Bobcats will make 2009 playoffs


Not even M.J. will be able to screw this up.

At least not for a season.

The former No. 23 has been a "bad" general manager, at best, but he made what will turn out to be the smartest move of the NBA offseason when he fired Sam Vincent after just a season and hired Larry Brown.

The key to determining whether to fire a coach is who's available to replace him. Vincent wasn't a terrible leader of the Bobcats, but with Brown chomping at the bit to get back into coaching -- and the whole North Carolina connection -- Jordan actually used some business acumen to let Vincent go and get his man.

And transform the Bobcats into a playoff team. That's right. There's no joking around here.

I'm 100 percent sure Charlotte will make the postseason next season. It might not finish .500, but in the lowly Eastern Conference, Brown will get his players to play enough defense to extend the season beyond 82 games. And then anything can happen.

Don't necessarily believe this relationship will last long. After all, there are too many factors going against an everybody-gets-along situation.

For one, this is Brown's record ninth NBA head coaching job. Don't believe that just because he's 67, he's ready to settle down somewhere. As he mentioned after getting the job, he still feels young. The chances of him staying more than two or three years are itty bitty.

Secondly, we all know how stubborn both men are. If Jordan decides he wants to out a certain player or retain a nut-case player, that's what will happen. Brown might not be very happy about losing his defensive stopper or keeping his ball-hogging point guard. He might know personnel -- and his team -- better than Jordan, but the all-time great will have his say.

So I'd bet on this marriage lasting three seasons.

But even if it's only for two years -- or, heck, just one -- it's a good idea. It's a good idea because it breathes life into this moribund franchise.

I attended two Bobcats games this season, and the arena was a morgue each time. One reason for this is that owner Bob Johnson sets ridiculous prices for tickets. Just to get into the lower level, you have to pay $55. For a crappy NBA team, that's ludicrous.

The product on the floor didn't help attract fans, either.

But one thing that can't be denied about the Bobcats is this -- they have a ton of talent.

Jason Richardson. Gerald Wallace. Raymond Felton. Emeka Okafor.

This is not a team devoid of play-makers, a team lacking guys who can create pyrotechnics both below and above the rim. It's a group of players, rather, that needs a coach to bring everyone together and create a unity, a chemistry that each and every player buys into.

L.B. is the man for the job. Just look at his track record. With nearly every NBA team he's coached, he has improved their win total right away. New Jersey (+20), Indian (+6), Philadelphia (+9) and Detroit (+4) -- Brown has gotten it done everywhere he's gone, except, of course, for the cemetery called Madison Square Garden.

And he'll make a huge difference with the Bobcats because the team's biggest problems are on the defensive end. Charlotte gave up 101.4 points per game this season, 11th worst in the league. Only two of the 16 playoff teams -- Phoenix and Denver -- gave up more, and look where they are now.

Brown will make his players buy into trying just as hard on the defensive end as they currently do on offense. He'll make sure that Richardson and Wallace -- with their leaping ability -- don't go a game without contesting and blocking shots. He'll whip Okafor and Nazr Mohammed into shape and turn them into rebounding machines.

Just look at what Brown did for the '04 Pistons. Detroit wasn't a bad defensive team in 2003 under Rick Carlisle, but in Brown's first season, the Pistons gave up 281 less points during the regular season. That translated to the playoffs, where they shut down scorers such as Reggie Miller and Kobe Bryant en route to the championship.

All M.J. has to do is stay out of the way. No major roster changes are needed, though re-signing Okafor before he becomes an unrestricted free agent after next season will be important. (Also, the bench and team depth could be improved.)

But seriously, Brown is inheriting what should be a playoff team in the East. (It'd be a different story out West.) With a little dedication to defense, no season-ending injuries such as the ones suffered by Adam Morrison and Sean May this year, and a team concept, the 2008-09 Bobcats could make some noise beginning in November and lasting well into April.

For that, you can give M.J. credit.

For once, he made the right moves from whatever golf course he's playing.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Nash no longer an elite point guard


As I watched the San Antonio Spurs slip past the Phoenix Suns in a mere five games, I couldn't take my eyes off the teams' starting point guards.

On one end, San Antonio's Tony Parker caused endless headaches for the Suns with his interminable dribbling and drives to the basket. As a TNT announcer stated correctly, with Parker and sixth man Manu Ginobili, it was as if the Spurs had two additional post-up players to Tim Duncan.

On the other end, there was Steve Nash. Just the name can be enough to scare opponents, but the player didn't live up to his reputation as one of the NBA's best point guards during the series.

On defense, Nash was a liability, continuously letting the slippery Parker penetrate the lane. Granted, Parker can do that against most opposing players, but Nash hardly made him work. And offensively, Nash was a shell of his former self, especially in the Spurs' clinching Game 5 win.

In the final minutes, he committed three costly turnovers -- getting stripped by old man Robert Horry, throwing a pass at Amare Stoudemire's feet, and allowing Bruce Bowen to deflect an inbounds pass off his hands. Nash made just four of 16 shots and had more turnovers (5) than assists (3).

Now that's a shocking statistic.

Rewind a year ago. Several media members were clamoring for Nash to become just the fourth NBA player -- ever -- to win three consecutive MVP awards. Even with up-and-coming studs such as Deron Williams and Chris Paul filling the highlight reels, Nash was easily considered the league's top point guard.

Since then, nothing has been easy for the 2005 and '06 MVP. Now, a case could be built that he's not even a top five P.G. Think about it. Paul has clearly taken the No. 1 spot with his MVP-caliber season. Williams is up there along with Parker. Chauncey Billups remains an elite player for the Pistons, and a case can be made that Golden State's Baron Davis is better than Nash.

It's been a quick fall from grace. Of course, ask the worldly Nash about his spot on the list, and he'd deflect the question. All he cares about is his team getting the huge "never been to an NBA Finals" monkey of its back. And Phoenix was extremely competitive against the defending league champions.

But two of the four San Antonio wins -- Games 1 and 5 -- were decided by a few plays, and as Nash admitted late Tuesday night, his team didn't make the big plays. That responsibility has to fall on the point guard, the pronounced leader of the team, the guy who has the ball in his hands at crunch time.

Nash can't be blamed for all of his team's miseries. Consider the transformation the Suns have gone through since they dealt wingman Shawn Marion and Marcus Banks to Miami for Shaquille O'Neal. They used to be a run-n'-gun team. Heck, a book was written about them trying to shoot on each possession as quickly as possible.

During the series, however, the announcers actually said -- and were right -- that the Spurs were the team that wanted to push the ball. The Suns wanted to play a half-court game?

As much as Nash welcomed O'Neal to Phoenix, he had to know that it's much easier to score in transition than in a set offense against a ready defense. The trade was more about defense, and believe it or not, the Suns gradually become a more effective half-court defensive team -- though O'Neal still can't guard a pick-and-roll.

The trade hurt Nash's offensive production. He still put up decent numbers, but his assists and points dipped a little bit. It's much easier finding an open man who's streaking down the right side on the fast break than trying to zip a bounce pass through a defender's legs.

And it was clear Tuesday that the Suns aren't completely comfortable in their offensive system. As Nash said afterward, the Spurs knew exactly what they wanted to do on every trip down the floor. The Suns didn't, and players often were not in the proper positions to give Phoenix the best chance to score. This was evident in the final minute, when a posting-up Boris Diaw threw the ball away when he was double-teamed.

Diaw will be blamed for the terrible pass, but the fact that both Stoudemire and O'Neal were in the paint, clogging up any chance of a pass for an easy score, didn't help Diaw. He didn't have a good play to make. All he could have done was throw the ball back out to the perimeter to reset the offense.

Now comes another long summer for the Suns, this one even more protracted than those of the past three years when they at least advanced to the second round. If everyone, including O'Neal, returns, it will be a positive chunk of time off. The players can really work on their chemistry and learning each others' games.

But it shouldn't be glossed over that with each missed opportunity, the 34-year-old Nash becomes a year older.

As this early exit demonstrated, Nash might still be a very good point guard, but he's no longer Mr. Automatic every night.

And his major off night Tuesday was a major reason why Phoenix -- just like that -- is no longer playing in these NBA playoffs.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Warriors, Hawks set precedent for future No. 8s


I didn't play much ball back in the day. Heck, my hooping career peaked in eighth grade when I didn't even know who Red Auerbach was.

But I'll never forget a message my coach -- and now good friend -- Cosey always sent to my teammates and me:

"You can respect your opponent after the game," Cosey said, "but when you're on the court, don't respect them."

Cosey couldn't have been more right. And his words apply to the ongoing NBA playoffs.

In the first two games of No. 8 seed Atlanta's series with the mighty Boston Celtics, the Hawks played the role of the below-.500 regular-season team that couldn't even lace up sneakers on the same court as the 66-16 Celtics. Despite being the more athletic squad, they let the big boys bully them around and basically embarrass them on national T.V.

Of course, no one was surprised by the two lopsided Boston wins. The better team wins most games, right?

Well, yes, but a funny thing happened when the teams flew south to Atlanta for Games 3 and 4. The Hawks stopped being the team that didn't belong and instead stood up to their school's bullies.

Using the energy provided by a boisterous home crowd, Atlanta dominated Game 3 to get back into the series. And they stopped planning the locker-room cleanup scheduled for early this week.

Late in Game 3, rookie Al Horford starting trash-talking at Boston veteran Paul Pierce. Many criticized the move by the unproven player as an episode of a youngster letting the emotion of the moment get to his head.

And that's probably true. But Horford's jawing was actually a good thing for the Hawks. As was the near-head butt by little-known center Zaza Pachulia on Kevin "The Big Ticket" Garnett in Game 4. Pachulia had no business getting in the face of an MVP candidate, right?

Wrong. When a game is being played, all 10 players are equals. A basket by K.G. is worth the same as a jumper by Atlanta's Joe Johnson (and Johnson had several fourth-quarter scores Monday night).

The homecourt atmosphere obviously boosted the young Hawks in knotting up the series at two, but confidence was the biggest reason they're not staring at a 3-1 deficit as the teams prepare to fly north for Game 5.

How else can one explain the Hawks coming back not once, but twice from double-digit leads against the team with the NBA's best regular-season record? Atlanta trailed 16-3 in the first quarter before going on a huge run to lead after the period. But Boston responded in the third quarter to take a 75-65 advantage.

At that point, I figured the Hawks were done. They'd given the Celtics their best punch, but it hadn't been enough. It was time to play their part.

But instead of backing down to Garnett's fierce stares and Ray Allen's pure 3-point stroke, Atlanta -- specifically Johnson -- came out in the fourth quarter as if it was the No. 1 seed, as if its season, and all it had accomplished, was on the line. Johnson attacked Boston's man-to-man defense all quarter, making difficult shot after, well, difficult shot.

Johnson's heroics -- and the little plays by his teammates, such as a tough offensive rebound by Josh Childress -- looked like plays made by a winning team, not a squad that finished eight games below .500. It was a star -- say, Kobe Bryant -- taking over down the stretch and a role player -- say, Derek Fisher -- helping out when the star slipped up for a second or received too much attention.

Is Atlanta going to win this series? No, that is very unlikely. But I'm not ruling it out. We've been here before.

Just last season, Golden State showed how to knock off a No. 1 seed, how to beat the so-called best team in the association. Attack, attack, attack -- and never back down. By the final game of the Warriors' upset of the Mavericks, Dallas was flustered. The Mavs were the ones who were bullied on the playground.

I don't expect the mentally tough Garnett to become the despondent Dirk Nowitzki of a year ago. And I don't think the Hawks match up as well with Boston as Golden State did with Dallas.

But by talking a little smack and getting in the faces of Boston's "Big Three," the Hawks sent a message during the course of three days: We'll respect you after you beat us four times.

Forget Boston's 66 wins compared to Atlanta's 37. Forget Boston's 16 championships to Atlanta's 0. Forget Boston's three past or present All-Stars compared to Atlanta's one.

Right now, all that matters is Boston 2, Atlanta 2.

And if the Hawks play with this mindset, the biggest upset in NBA playoffs history can't be ruled out as the series shifts to Boston.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Pistons' problems are all mental


There are so many things to love about the Detroit Pistons.

Since there's no superstar, they play great team basketball. The ball movement is usually crisp, the shot distribution even.

They usually play tough, energetic defense. After watching a Denver Nuggets game, that's a breath of fresh air.

And they don't make a basketball game more than it is — just a game. Even after losses, their voices are even-keel, angry outbursts are rare (except, occasionally, from the mercurial Rasheed Wallace). They never talk about losing "the war" or "the battle."

But as enjoyable as the Pistons are, they're just as frustrating.

They don't always play their hardest. Their focus isn't always there. They take opponents lightly.

That's the only way to explain just one NBA championship and two finals appearances with the league's best starting lineup intact the past four seasons. And they've played in the anemic Eastern Conference.

And that's the only way to explain Detroit's 90-86 loss to Philadelphia Sunday night.

Trailing by two points with 11.3 seconds remaining, Wallace broke the Pistons' huddle and proceeded to peak his head in Philly's on-court, players-only embrace, arms wrapped around the shoulders of a pair of 76ers.

Wallace gets an unfair bad rap around the league for being a bad nugget when he's far from it. Off the court, he's great — there are no arrests, no problems. Rather, he does a ton of charity work that goes unnoticed by the majority of the national media.

If Wallace has a problem, it's that he can be too goofy on the court. The final seconds of Sunday's game exemplified this. As Magic Johnson, Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith all echoed after the game, Wallace's actions were unprofessional.

Especially since the designed play was going to him. Wallace did a good job of establishing post position and received the inbounds pass, but when he turned for an easy 6-footer, he threw it off the wrong part of the backboard. Game over.

Sure, Wallace might have missed the shot if he had exited Detroit's huddle with a steely demeanor instead of his laid-back approach, but he definitely wasn't thinking about the upcoming play when he crashed Philly's huddle.

That's the issue.

But Wallace was wrong for accepting the blame for the loss. In fact, he was the best Piston in Game 1. Fault Detroit's entire starting lineup for letting a 15-point third-quarter lead dissipate. The bench struggled early in the fourth quarter, but it wasn't for lack of effort.

As the TNT crew suggested, the Pistons too often become bored on the court. They think they can simply flip a switch and win a game. And the fact that they've done this on numerous occasions doesn't help.

When the Pistons play an inferior opponent, they take them lightly. There's no other way to say it. I'm sure they'd deny this. Coach Flip Saunders definitely would. But it's the cold truth. They disrespect opponents by doing things such as chatting with former players in the stands — on Sunday it was Flip Murray — and coasting through games.

This often leads to the inferior opponent gaining confidence and, thus, becoming a much more scary team. The 76ers who couldn't purchase a field goal in the second quarter Sunday weren't close to the same team that saw scrappy big manReggie Evans swish a fadeaway 15-footer in the closing minutes.

And when a team like Philly is brimming with confidence in a close game, nothing is certain. Even Chauncey Billups, Detroit's Mr. Automatic from the free-throw line, missed three of four in the fourth quarter. And that's not all. He also botched a wide-open layup during crunch time.

Those things don't happen when Billups is at his best, when his focus is impenetrable. That, apparently, wasn't the case Sunday evening.

The biggest reason why Detroit has been dogged by complacency since the 2004 championship — especially last season against Cleveland and now, again, this year — is that it lacks an inspiring emotional leader.

Yes, with the clock winding down, the ball will be in Billups' trustworthy hands. But the Pistons are devoid of a Kevin Garnett-type player, a Tim Duncan, a Kobe Bryant. There is no one to tell 'Sheed, "Hey, let's save the goofing around for later tonight." There is no one to get in his teammates' faces in a mid-fourth quarter huddle and yell, "We're not going to let them make this a one-possession game at the end."

Saunders' relaxed approach is part of the problem. Larry Brown wouldn't have let Sunday's meltdown occur. But the players should shoulder most of the blame. They are, after all, veteran professional basketball players. There's only so much Saunders and his staff can say.

Perhaps what hurts the most when watching the Pistons is that they don't appear honored to wear their uniforms. There they are, playing for one of the greatest basketball teams in the world — a team with three championship banners — and they're not leaving blood on the court.

You can tell by their body language. There's nothing wrong with being a calm, composed team — yelling and chest-bumping isn't everyone's style. But from watching the Pistons casually walk on and off the court and chat with people not involved in the game, it is clear that playing for the Pistons is not their life when it should be — for those 48 minutes of every game, especially in the playoffs.

Now, all Pistons fans can hope for is that Detroit plays hard and focused enough, long enough to make it to a potential Eastern Conference finals showdown with Boston. You can bet there would be no slacking in that matchup.

Because Detroit would finally be an underdog. Because it would finally have something to prove. There would be that proverbial chip on players' shoulders.

That, however, remains seven wins away. And don't expect the 76ers — or anyone else — to lie down and simply let the Pistons plod about doing their job.

All of the NBA's players are talented enough that anything can happen on any night. Philadelphia proved that on Sunday night.

And, right on cue, the Pistons didn't appear all that concerned about the loss afterward.

Friday, April 18, 2008

NBA playoffs preview: more disrespecting the Spurs


There are a few things you can count on come mid-April:

Some April Showers.

Warmer weather and longer nights.

The smell of ballpark hot dogs...

And disrespecting of the San Antonio Spurs.

Yup, as the NBA playoffs get set to tip Saturday afternoon, the third-seeded Spurs in the mighty Western Conference are — again — getting no love from the media or fans.

Consider this: SportsNation believes sixth-seeded Phoenix will beat the Spurs in the first round by a 56.3-43.7 percent margin. And more people (16 percent versus 13.1 percent) believe the Suns will represent the West in the NBA Finals.

Wait a minute. When was the last time the Suns made the finals? (I'll have to look it up.) The Spurs, meanwhile, have everyone back from a year ago plus the fifth-best player in the league this season in Manu Ginobili. But let's write them off.

I, for one, am sticking by my preseason prediction. Sure, the Lakers are much better with Pao Gasol dropping mini hooks in the lane. And, yeah, at times the Suns look capable of playing defense with Shaquille O'Neal clogging the middle.

But no team plays better defense this time of year than the Spurs, and San Antonio has clutch players at every position. That's why the Spurs remain my pick to win their fifth title in 10 seasons.

My quick predictions:


Western Conference
No. 1 Los Angeles Lakers def. No. 8 Denver (5 games): The Nuggets are scary because of their offensive firepower, but they won't be able to stop L.A. in a high-scoring series.

No. 7 Dallas def. No. 2 New Orleans (6 games): The Mavs are too talented to be eliminated in the first round for a second consecutive year. They finally seem to be coming together with Jason Kidd at the point, and that will continue in this series.

No. 3 San Antonio def. No. 6 Phoenix (6 games): In the best series of the round, Ginobili shows why in any other year he'd be a legitimate MVP candidate — as a sixth man. He penetrates the lane constantly and helps gets O'Neal and Amare Stoudemire in foul trouble.

No. 4 Utah def. No. 5 Houston (6 games): If Houston had Yao Ming, it would win with homecourt advantage. It doesn't, which means another first-round exit for Tracy McGrady.

Eastern Conference
No. 1 Boston def. No. 8 Atlanta (4 games): Don't expect the Kevin Garnett-led Celtics to take anyone, even the Hawks, lightly. That's the only thing that would slow them down in this mismatch.

No. 2 Detroit def. No. 7 Philadelphia (6 games): Two things will contribute to this being closer than expected. One, the Pistons are bad at closing out opponents even when they win a series' first two games. Two, the 76ers are better than people give them credit for. Their defense will keep them in games.

No. 3 Orlando def. No. 6 Toronto (7 games): Two young, inexperienced teams means a long, back-and-forth series that is ultimately decided by who has the homecourt edge.

No. 4 Cleveland def. No. 5 Washington (7 games): This will be a great series, but in the end it comes down to this: Cleveland has a fully healthy LeBron James. Washington's still-getting-back-into-form Gilbert Arenas won't have enough to offset LeBron — even with help from Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison.


Western Conference
No. 1 Los Angeles def. No. 5 Utah (5 games): The Lakers have way too much depth and muscle down low for the Jazz, and that's even if Andrew Bynum isn't close to 100 percent. Carlos Boozer will get worn down and Deron Williams won't be able to carry the Jazz by himself.

No. 3 San Antonio def. No. 7 Dallas (6 games): Another tough series for the Spurs, but this will be Tony Parker's series. Do you honestly think Kidd or Jason Terry will be able to stay in front of the super-quick point guard?

Eastern Conference
No. 1 Boston def. No. 4 Cleveland (5 games): LeBron will get the Cavs a game, but the Celtics have way too much talent and depth to let this series become dramatic. Expect a big series from Paul Pierce against Cleveland's smaller, weaker guards and small forwards.

No. 2 Detroit def. No. 3 Orlando (6 games): Again, I refuse to concede a short series to the Pistons. But this will be Chauncey Billups' series, as he abuses Orlando's smaller point guards in the clinching game in Orlando.


Western Conference
No. 3 San Antonio def. No. 1 Los Angeles (7 games): Oh, what a series this will be. The T.V. ratings will be great. And the teams are so even. But in the end, the experience of San Antonio's key players will be the difference. While guys like Jordan Farmar and Ronny Turiaf have been pleasant surprises for the Lakers, they'll be outplayed by Spurs veterans such as Kurt Thomas and Bruce Bowen. That, ultimately, will be the difference in Game 7.

No. 1 Boston def. No. 2 Detroit (7 games): I went back and fourth on this a couple times, but ultimately it comes down to this: The Boston Celtics are more mentally stable than the Pistons. I know that sounds psychiatric, but it's true. The Pistons are more likely to lose their cool over a pair of bad calls. Rasheed Wallace is great when his head is on right, but there's no guarantee that he won't lose it at a crucial moment (just reference last season's conference finals). The Celtics, meanwhile, have been focused all season on one thing — winning — and K.G. is the best emotional leader on any playoff team.

No. 3 San Antonio def. No. 1 Boston (7 games): Did I mention that this is going to be a great playoffs? The finals will be the best since, well, the 1980s. While ABC executives are praying for Celtics-Lakers, this series won't lack in drama. Both teams will want the title badly — with K.G. and crew seeking their first title, and Tim Duncan and his boys looking to finally prove that they can win back-to-back titles.

It will be a defensive series played in the 80s and 90s, but in the end I can only point to one reason why I like the Spurs: the point guard position. As good as Rajon Rondo's been this season, his lack of big-game experience will hurt him in this series. Parker will outplay him in the key minutes. And if Boston brings in veteran Sam Cassell, he'll have problems slowing down Parker.

It will be a great playoffs, a much better postseason than the 2007 version (minus Golden State's upset of Dallas). But in the end the result will be the same:

The Spurs will bring the NBA championship back to the Alamo.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Chad Johnson might regret trade


It wouldn't be an NFL offseason without a prominent wide receiver complaining, so I'd like to thank Chad Johnson for filling that role.

Ever since he danced, skipped and preened onto the NFL's big screen, the Cincinnati wideout has gotten a free pass from the media and fans. Unlike Terrell Owens, Johnson has not been ripped for his excessive post-touchdown celebrations -- even if they cost his team 15 yards.

The reason? He's still been a team player, not doing anything to damage the Bengals' chemistry. He hasn't bashed his quarterback -- like T.O. did in Philly -- or performed situps in his driveway in front of multiple T.V. cameras (another T.O. favorite).

Until now. With his actions this offseason, Johnson has followed T.O.'s lead. Or maybe he's picking up where the Cowboys receiver left off, since Owens has been on his best behavior lately -- even crying while defending his quarterback in January.

The past couple months, Johnson has hinted that he wants out of Cincinnati, but he never came out and made himself clear until Wednesday. He said all the cliches about wanting to be on a winning team, and on and on. He made a humorous appearance on "SportsCenter," during which the ESPN anchor asked him what he wanted to talk about.

Now, however, Johnson has made himself lucid -- life with the Bengals just isn't going to cut it for him anymore. Cincinnati, of course, has no plans to trade its No. 1 receiver -- a smart move -- which should make things interesting in the months leading up to the season. That's because Johnson said Wednesday he won't "report to anything."

I don't think Johnson realizes how good he has it in Cincinnati. Sure, the Bengals are coming off a poor season and haven't made the playoffs in two years. But look around the league, Chad. Only 12 teams make the postseason every year. Would you rather be on the Lions or Cardinals?

If Johnson is trying to pull a Randy Moss and get dealt to New England, he's out of his mind. It's not happening.

Johnson said Carson Palmer was wrong for saying Johnson had told him he'd attend June's minicamp. Palmer is the last guy Johnson wants to start a beef with. More than likely, he'll be throwing passes to Johnson in 2008. And most of the time, those passes will be right on the money.

Answer me this, Chad: How many NFL quarterbacks are as good as yours, are as adroit at hitting receivers in stride as yours? To further the question, how many of those quarterbacks would you have an outside chance of playing with?

Let's see. ... Tom Brady is out. Peyton Manning has plenty of receivers in Indy. That basically takes care of the AFC. In the NFC, Brett Favre is retired (at least for now). With T.O. in Dallas, you're not joining Tony Romo there. Maybe you could play with Drew Brees in New Orleans, but the Saints are no playoff lock. Ditto for Donovan McNabb and the Eagles and even Super Bowl champ Eli Manning and the Giants.

Johnson could hook up with Marc Bulger in St. Louis, but -- wait -- what was the Rams' record last season?

Johnson isn't helping himself, or his team, with this bonanza. If he would focus on simply playing football and helping his team win, the Bengals could be a playoff team in '08.


They won seven games a year ago. Add three wins, and they're playing in January. And we all know what can transpire in the postseason.

Maybe there's more to the situation. I'm no insider. Maybe Johnson doesn't get along with coach Marvin Lewis or can't stand Palmer, which is hard to understand. From all indications, Palmer is the ultimate team player who is dedicated to getting things turned around in Cincy.

This situation is completely different from Moss' stay in Oakland. That marriage was broken from the beginning, and Moss needed a new home.

Johnson doesn't. What he needs is to get his head screwed back on and focus on playing the upcoming season -- and getting in the end zone so he can celebrate -- for the Bengals.

He still has a chance to save his reputation, to not be labeled another T.O. But that will go down the shoot if he keeps down the same road he's traveling on.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Tiger's one little flaw


I had this back-and-forth with the voice inside my head the other day:

Me: So, does Tiger Woods have any weaknesses?

Voice: How about his driving? Isn't it too inaccurate?

Me: Um, no. It's actually pretty good.

Voice: Oh, his putting. He doesn't have the touch of guys like "Lefty."

Me: Are you kidding me? Did you not see the 25-footer he dropped the other week to win that tournament?

Voice: Right, my bad (thinking) ... Well, Tiger sometimes swears on national TV?

Me: OK, enough. Argument's over. Tiger is perfect.

Actually, he isn't. You see, when he has to come from behind to win a major on the tournament's final day, Tiger Woods isn't very good.

I know, I know. I'm being picky. But it's true — Woods has never won one of the four majors when trailing entering Sunday. And it's not like he hasn't had plenty of opportunities. It seems like every year he's in one or two majors where he's just a few strokes back heading into Sunday.

Of course, many other players have never won a major despite being behind by just a few strokes heading into several Sundays. But Tiger Woods isn't just another guy; he needs to be held to a different standard.

It's not that Woods bombs on Sundays, either. He simply doesn't do enough to make up whatever gap exists between him and the leader(s). Take Sunday's round at the Masters:

Woods didn't play a terrible 18. For the most part, he hit the ball well, finding most fairways and reaching most greens in regulation. He didn't make any gigantic blunders, and after his birdie putt dropped on No. 18, he walked away with an even-par 72.

It really wasn't a bad round, but it seemed that way. That's because Woods began the day six strokes back of leader Trevor Immelman. The South African didn't play amazingly well Sunday and committed a normally unacceptable error when he plopped his tee shot on the par-3 16th into the water.

Immelman finished with a mediocre 3-over-par 75, but it was more than enough to defeat second-place Woods by three strokes.

Now, put Woods in Immelman's shoes. If the world's No. 1 player had began the day at 11 under par and shot his 72, he would have won by six strokes. People right now would be talking about his chances of winning all four majors. It would have been a typically steely final-round performance by the world's best athlete.

Nobody is better than Woods at holding onto a final-day lead. He is far too consistent and far too confident to let an advantage slip away. When he sees the finish line, he doesn't look in his rear-view mirror.

But when Woods begins the final 18 holes of a major behind, consistency isn't enough. Pars usually will not get him a Green Jacket. And the putts that usually fall for him suddenly fall short, suddenly rim out.

Such was the case Sunday, when Woods had tons of opportunities to put some serious pressure on Immelman. I'll skip the front nine and go right to the back. After a Tiger-esque birdie from around 493 feet on No. 11 moved him to 5 under, Woods started walking with a swagger. You could see that he believed he would win.

And sure enough, Woods made two superb shots on the par-5 13th to give himself a short putt for birdie. At the time, Immelman faced a long par putt on the 11th. At that moment, I was thinking what every other CBS viewer must have thought: "A two-shot swing for Tiger. Watch out, Trevor!"

However, the improbable happened. I can't remember which putt was shown first, but Tiger missed his 6- or 7-footer and Immelman knocked in what had to have been at least a 15-footer. Just like that, the lead stayed at five strokes.

The tournament was far from over, however. But Woods missed another short put on 14, this time giving him a bogey, and missed yet another short birdie putt on 16. At the time, the roll-by on the par 3 didn't seem to matter, but when Immelman made his only huge error on the same hole, I realized just how much Woods had blown the tournament.

Which isn't to take anything away from Immelman. He did what he had to do. Playing in gusty conditions, he made huge putt after huge putt and didn't give the competition a reason to believe he was slipping. He never let a bogey turn into two bogeys.

But Woods could have won Sunday — just like there are numerous other majors he could have come back to steal. Heck, he could have eclipsed Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 by now. But for some reason, Tiger is simply normal — just good, not great — when he isn't at the top of the leader board.

You could see the frustration on his face Sunday. With each missed putt, Woods' jaw muscles tightened. There was no swearing on camera or club-banging, but Woods was clearly upset with himself. He was obviously pressing, and when Woods does that, he loses the touch with his putter.

That's the game of golf for you. If you want to overcome a six-stroke deficit — or even a three-stroke deficit — you better make putts. You can hit the ball extremely well. You can reach all the greens in regulation. But if you don't roll in at least some of your putts, you're nothing special.

On Sunday at Augusta, Tiger Woods was normal. A good golfer who contended for a major championship but didn't stand out from his competitors. He hit some long drives. He made a long putt. He went home with a nice, fat paycheck.

Woods' round again proved just how difficult the game of golf is and how tough it is to win consistently against dozens of fellow competitors. It made Woods' streak of wins earlier this year look even more impressive, but it also made all the prognosticators who predicted Woods would win the Grand Slam look, well, silly.

Even Woods said a week ago that he didn't think winning all four majors in the same calendar year would be that difficult. He was wrong. As good as Woods is — yes, it's safe to call him the greatest of all time — he's never going to take the four big ones in the same year.

That would likely require Woods leading after three rounds in each of the tournaments, and I'm not going to attempt to figure out those odds.

One of these days, Woods will do it. He'll make enough putts to come back to win a major on a Sunday. It will happen. It's not like his confidence is lacking.

But for now, if you're searching for a FOTW (Flaw of Tiger Woods), look no further than what transpired Sunday at Augusta.

The world's greatest player had all the opportunities to make the rest of the golf world bow at his feet, but he didn't convert.

There's a tiny, little flaw for ya.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

My belated National League preveiw


I've already seen two National League teams play in person, and neither of them is a contender.

Wednesday night, I checked out Washington's new ballpark. It was a beautiful night -- although a little chilly -- but because Washington's basketball and soccer teams also were playing at home, a sparse crowd turned out for just the second game at Nationals Park.

My $10 ticket was for the upper, upper deck, but I settled for a 10th row seat down the third-base line.

Unfortunately for me and the Nationals fans who turned out, the home team laid an egg. Jason Bergmann had his pitches rocketed all over the ballpark by a bunch of no-name Marlins. Errors were committed by both teams. In short, the baseball played during Florida's 10-4 victory wasn't very impressive.

Such might be the case in several National League stadiums this season. The N.L. is clearly inferior to the mighty American League, and it's hard to pin down who the big winners will be.

But I'll try. Here are the picks:


1. New York Mets 88-74: Don't think anything will come easy for the '08 Mets, especially with Pedro Martinez already down with a hamstring injury. But the addition of Johan Santana will be enough for them to avoid another September collapse. Here's a bold prediction: He won't lose consecutive starts all season.

2. Philadelphia Phillies 86-76: The Phils will be exciting to watch once again thanks to the trio of Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard, but their pitching remains their weakness and don't think that the acquisition of closer Brad Lidge will help.

3. Atlanta Braves 83-79: The Braves will battle for the division well into September thanks to a solid starting rotation and middle lineup. Getting Mark Teixeira last season was a big-time move. Atlanta will win the division if its pitchers remain healthy the entire season, but I'm banking against that. John Smoltz, Tom Glavine and Mike Hampton will each miss several starts.

4. Washington National 70-92: The new ballpark won't bring about wins for the Nats, who will fight every night under Manny Acta but simply lack the players to contend for anything more than staying out of the division's cellar. No name in the starting rotation jumps out as even a 10-game winner, and potential big-time hitters such as Lastings Milledge still have developing to do.

5. Florida Marlins 65-97: The new-look Marlins -- as usual -- will avoid losing 100 games ... barely. There will be bright spots, such as the play of shortstop Hanley Ramirez, but there will be many more empty seats in Pro Player Stadium than there will be highlights. The funny thing about this group of no-name youngsters is that they will probably win a World Series in 2009, following the pattern of winning in '97 and '03.


1. Chicago Cubs 87-75: Oh, the Cubs. It's hard predicting them to win their division because they're, well, the Cubs. However, by process of elimination, they're the last team standing. They'll do just enough and rely on enough losses by the division's other five teams. Their lineup is solid, bolstered by the addition of Kosuke Fukudome. So is their rotation, although we'll have to see how Ryan Dempster does in his transition from the bullpen. And a huge key will be how Kerry Wood fares in his closer well. I'm thinking he'll do just enough.

2. Milwaukee Brewers 85-77: Here's the team no one is talking about that could make some noise. Let us not forget that the Brewers had a hold on the division until a terrible August in '07. With Ryan Braun moving to left field and Bill Hall taking his place at third base, and with the addition of Mike Cameron in center field, the defense will be much improved. That will help. The rotation is solid, but not impressive. So what will kill the Brewers? Having over-the-hill Eric Gagne as their closer.

3. Cincinnati Reds 80-82: This is a squad with a lot of potential thanks to young pitchers such as Johnny Cuto, who impressed with his first start. However, there will be enough downs to offset the positives and keep this club out of the playoffs. Corey Patterson is far from an ideal leadoff hitter, and everyone in the lineup has am obvious flaw, such as Adam Dunn's high strikeout rate. There will be exciting times across the river from Kentucky, but no October baseball.

4. Houston Astros 77-85: The acquisitions of Kazuo Matsui and Miguel Tejada to bolster the middle of the infield will benefit the Astros, who need a reason to be optimistic. Both players, however, have flaws. Tejada is past his prime and doesn't have the defensive range he used to. Matsui benefited from playing at Coors Field last season, but his speed will still be an asset if he can get on base. If both players have good seasons, the lineup could be dangerous with Hunter Pence, Lance Berkman and Carlos Lee in its middle, but the pitching is suspect.

5. St. Louis Cardinals 74-88: The Cardinals are far-removed from their World Series championship two seasons ago. The big question is whether Albert Pujols will even play the whole season before getting his elbow fixed up. In this division, he probably will, because the Cards will never think they're out of the race. The lineup around Pujols is beyond mediocre and an average pitching staff won't throw well enough to give fans hope of another special season.

6. Pittsburgh Pirates 69-93:
There's no reason to expect the Pirates to climb out of last place. They didn't make any moves during the offseason, instead choosing to let their young talent continue to develop. Most of that talent can be found among Pittsburgh's pitchers. Tom Gorzellany is a promising 25-year-old lefty and closer Matt Capps does a good job finishing games. But the lineup won't scare any opposing pitcher, with only Freddy Sanchez hitting better than .300 last year.


1. Colorado Rockies 87-75: This might be the most competitive division in baseball, and the Rockies will do just enough to return to the postseason. There are no key additions, and they lost their second baseman Matsui, but don't downplay the effect last season's magic will have on this group. Everyone is confident and won't get flustered during sure-to-come nebulous parts of the season. It will be interesting to see how rookie Jayson Nix fares at second base alongside the sure glove of shortstop Troy Tulowitzki.

2. Arizona Diamondbacks 86-76: Last season, the D-backs relied on their ability to win close ballgames. Then, during the offseason, they let closer Jose Valverde go. That could come back to bite them. Obviously, the acquisition of Danny Haren will bolster an already-strong starting rotation. The 'pen, however, will miss Valverde. The lineup is basically the same, which will mean another season of getting outscored by opponents. A precocious season by Justin Upton would be a huge lift.

3. Los Angeles Dodgers 84-78: Rule No. 184 when making baseball predictions: Never count out a Joe Torre-managed team. So I won't. Rather, I'll say Torre's new bunch falls just short at the end. Nothing about the lineup scares me, especially if new-guy-on-the-block Andrew Jones can't shake off his worst season as a pro. Leadoff hitter Juan Pierre has been a disappointment since helping the Marlins win the '03 Series. Hiroki Kuroda will help a starting rotation already led by the stalwart Brad Penny, and the bullpen is solid. But like the D-backs, a lack of run production will ultimately doom L.A.

4. San Diego Padres 79-83: If you sense a theme here, you are correct. Another team with solid pitching. Another team with no hitting. But the Padres are even worse at the plate than the aforementioned D-backs and Dodgers. No hitter in their lineup batted better than .285. They've got some power with Adrian Gonzalez (30 HRs) and Khalil Greene (27 HRs), but who are they going to drive in? It should be a frustrating year for starters Jake Peavy, Chris Young and company.

5. San Francisco Giants 63-99: The good news? Barry Bonds is gone. The bad news? Barry Bonds is gone. As nice as it will be to have the huge distraction out of the way, the Giants will miss Bonds' ability to get on base -- not to mention his power. Acquiring center field Aaron Rowand will help the lineup, but old guys Dave Roberts, Randy Winn and Ray Durham are not the "rebuilding" answer. Expect a lot of lineups during the season, decent pitching and plenty of losses.


Divisional round
-- No. 1 New York def. No. 3 Colorado (5 games): The Rockies' postseason magic will run out against a man named Santana, who wins two games for the surviving Mets.

-- No. 2 Chicago def. No. 4 Philadelphia (5 games): The Phillies weasel their way into the playoffs thanks to a one-game playoff win over Arizona. But again, they can't score enough runs to advance. The Cubs make the NLCS for the first time since 2003.

National league championship series
-- No. 2 Chicago def. No. 1 New York (6 games): Oh, what the heck. Let's go with the Cubs, for fun's sake. Expect their big right-handed hitters Derrek Lee, Alfonso Soriano and Aramis Ramirez to bother Santana, and Wood closes out Game 6 in front of a very nervous Wrigley Field crowd.

-- Boston def. Chicago (5 games): C'mon, you didn't expect me to actually pick the Cubs? No, the American League is much stronger than the N.L., and that will show during a World Series that isn't all that competitive. The Red Sox' rotation will shut down the Cubs' bats, with Beckett winning yet another MVP, and Jacoby Ellsbury will be a thorn in the side of the Cubs all series.

Boston's third championship in five seasons will only make Cubs fans more depressed.

Monday, April 7, 2008

The one that got away


The funny thing about sports is that when reflecting, people don't care — or remember anything — about the first 38 minutes.

The final 2 minutes is all that's debated about, or in the case of Monday's national title game, the last 7 minutes, which included overtime.

In 10 years, no one will care that Memphis played a great second half of the national title game, stifling the Jayhawks' offensive attack and chasing down every loose ball. No one will remember Derrick Rose's amazing, twisting layup that helped build a commanding nine-point advantage.

No, it'll be all about those final 2 minutes. Unfortunately for the Tigers, that's how sports are viewed.

And now two hours removed from the drama, I can't say I'm that surprised about what transpired.

Here's why. Memphis dominated the competition all season and during the NCAA Tournament. In other words, it won games by a lot of points. The Tigers won just three of their 38 games by five points or less. Their lone regular-season loss was a nail-biter against Tennessee.

They simply were not groomed for the kind of scenarios that played out once Kansas began its hurried comeback. You can practice game situations all you want, but the bottom line is that you can't prepare 19-year-olds for end-game, pressure-packed scenarios unless they experience them.

You also can't shoot free throws for them. Four missed FTs at the end and a costly turnover allowed for this to happen — a contested Mario Chalmers 3-pointer that tied the game and sent it to overtime.

What happened before Chalmers flicked his wrist is something Calipari will undoubtedly think about for the days to come. He said he had told his freshman point guard Rose to foul Kansas' Sherron Collins once he crossed midcourt with less than 10 seconds remaining. Rose, however, fell behind the speedy Collins and didn't get more than a forearm on him — it never appeared that he was blatantly trying to foul.

After Collins stumbled and nearly lost the ball, it ended up in Chalmer's hands, and at that point, all Rose could do was get a hand in his face. Sure enough, he did, but once the shot went in, Kansas had new life.

There was much debate afterward about Memphis coach John Calipari not using a timeout before Collins could bring the ball upcourt. The hard truth is that he should have. The moment was too big not to. There was no reason to leave a timeout in his pocket. There was every reason to make sure everyone knew exactly what they had to do — specifically, the freshman point guard. He might be a top five pick in the NBA draft this summer, but he's still a young kid.

Of course, it's ludicrous for a single play — a mere 8 seconds — to change the outcome of a game, but if you give a talented bunch of Jayhawks a brand-new ballgame, they're going to pounce on it. Memphis, minus its energizer Joey Dorsey who fouled out, was hopeless for most of the overtime.

The Tigers didn't fold, however. Instead, they let more poor decisions prevent them from coming back. Trailing by three with just less than a minute remaining, their junior leader Chris Douglas-Roberts committed an unnecessary foul on Chalmers, who hadn't so much as nicked the rim on a free throw all night.

A good defensive possession could have resulted in a chance to tie the game with plenty of time still left on the clock. Instead, Chalmers' pair of swishes pushed Kansas' lead to five. And on Memphis' next possession, Shawn Taggert attempted to make a pass from his back into traffic instead of calling for time.

Kansas forced a jump ball, had the possession arrow, and the game was sealed.

Give the Jayhawks credit. As much as Memphis lost the game, the Jayhawks won it. Chalmers knocked down one of the most clutch championship-game big shots in the history of the NCAA Tournament. Kansas didn't let down its guard in overtime, quickly snaring the lead and then making free throws at the end.

In a game as tight as Monday's, every possession was crucial, every decision magnified. In the grand scheme of things, some of Kansas' hustle rebounds in the first half that helped the Jayhawks build a 33-28 intermission advantage could be credited for earning K.U. its third national title.

But what will be remembered are Memphis' missed free throws, the foul that didn't happen and Chalmers' shot.

Afterward, Douglas-Roberts had no explanation for his three FTs that clanged off the front rim. It was the right response. Sometimes the ball simply comes off the fingertips differently. He nor Rose — who missed one of two before Chalmers' 3 — should blame themselves for the loss.

Those things happen — just ask Derrick Coleman.

Both players will have successful NBA careers, possibly as soon as next season.

Calipari, rather, will feel the sting from this one for a little longer. He had the opportunity to make sure his players knew exactly what to do and were in position to execute the plan.

But he decided to pass, and Kansas made the big shot.

And until he wins his first national championship, he'll have to go over and over those 10 seconds again, thinking about what could have changed the result.

Memphis or Kansas? Don't bet your house on either


Saturday is why — to borrow a commonly used TV phrase — "March is so great."

OK, so it actually was the 5th of April, but if it's "March Madness," then we'll make the April Showers hold off until we hear "One Shining Moment" tonight.

But with sincerity, what happened Saturday is a reason why non-basketball fans tune into the NCAA Tournament (besides, of course, to fill out a bracket or six).

The unexpected happened. Heck, the very, very, very unexpected happen. First, Memphis made Kevin Love look like a 10th grader, dominating UCLA's big man with Chris Douglas-Roberts throwing down the exclamation-mark slam over the Bruins freshman. In the nightcap, all hell broke loose as Kansas jumped to a 40-12 lead over North Carolina, the favorite to cut down the nets tonight.

A 28-point lead in the first half? After watching the Jayhawks look anemic in their 59-57 squeaker over Davidson in the Elite Eight, I didn't give them a great chance of beating Carolina — and I definitely didn't expect them to blow the Tar Heels out, which they didn't.

The Heels' comeback to within four points was nearly as impressive as Kansas' introductory cause-turnover-pass-layup session, but the Jayhawks recovered their mojo in time to finish Carolina with a pair of alley-oops.

Now, we anticipate a great championship showdown between the Tigers and Jayhawks. Memphis is looking for its first national title. Kansas is trying to win for the first time since 1988 and get Bill Self his first title to convince him to stay in Lawrence as the boosters at Oklahoma State try to lure him away with big bucks.

Your guess is as good as mine. Here's my take:

The reason I love the Tigers is because they have too big-game players who can be counted on to show up and play well. Roberts, the 6-foot-7 junior, and freshman leader Derrick Rose run the show for the Tigers, which has to make John Calipari very comfortable.

Before the tournament, there was debate in terms of who the country's best point guard was. Um, that's been resolved — it's Rose in a landslide (and I'm not just picking him because my sister's named Rose). Not only is he a strong 6-3 with an NBA body — despite eating too many gummy bears and sugar straws, according to CDR — he plays with a poise that belies his age. He's also a very strong defender, and rarely does he not convert a transition opportunity.

Douglas-Roberts scores his points so quietly, you look up at the scoreboard and he's got 17. His in-between game will be a huge asset against Kansas, because he'll pick up his dribble and loft a Detroit-playground floater before the Jayhawks' quick defenders can get a hand on the ball. Additionally, Kansas' top scorer Brandon Rush will likely guard CDR and have to expend a lot of energy on the defensive end.

Do Kansas' guards remind you of a team's guards that defeated Memphis? Yep, that's right: Tennessee's backcourtmen. And the Volunteers are the only team that took down the 38-1 Tigers. Kansas' guards are so quick, it won't be easy for the Tigers to get the usual penetration that makes their dribble-drive offense thrive. Sherron Collins, Mario Chalmers and Russell Robinson are all good at staying between their defender and the basket. A big key will be how the refs call the game. The more they let touch fouls go, the better chance Kansas has to win.

On the other end, it's pretty amazing how people have kept overlooking Memphis' defense. The Tigers play extremely hard on the defensive end and do a good job, especially against post-up players (see Love, Kevin). That could be a problem for Darrell Arthur and Co., however, if they can get Joey Dorsey in foul trouble — which isn't that difficult to do — one inside player might be able to have the kind of game Sasha Kaun had against Davidson.

The real key player for Kansas, though, is Rush. When he plays well, his team follows suit. When he struggles, like he did for much of the Davidson game, the Jayhawks have a hard time scoring.

If you want a statistic to keep a close eye on, watch the fast-break points. There will be plenty of running up and down the court, but how many easy layups will each teams get? Whoever can do a better job of getting back on defense and fouling hard to prevent layups and three-point plays will have an advantage. I give a slight edge here to Memphis because it's stronger and more athletic than the smaller Jayhawks.

Ultimately, as unpredictable as this tournament's been, one constant has been the play of Memphis. With the exception of small portions of their second-round game against Mississippi State, the Tigers have been stellar, playing strong defense and attacking any opposing defense that is thrown at them. Whether a team has played man-to-man or zone, Memphis has been able to exploit it. Calipari deserves some credit for this.

Self could come off as a genius if he takes a risk, however. If you look all the way back to mid-December, Tim Floyd of USC employed a triangle-and-two scheme against Memphis that had the Tigers throwing up difficult shots — ultimately bad misses — from all over the court. Granted, Rose is a much more mature point guard now, but still it would be worth a look by the Jayhawks. Put Rush on CDR, put the 6-1 Robinson on Rose, and see what happens.

One thing I can promise, though — neither team will run out to a 40-12 lead. This game will be much closer, much more competitive... I think.

And when CBS puts the finishing touches on "One Shining Moment," it will be the Memphis Tigers parading around the Alamo Dome telling everyone who cares to listen, "Do you believe in us now?"

Prediction: Memphis 76, Kansas 72

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Quick American League preview


For those of you deep thinkers, "No, I didn't wait five days so I could be sure the Red Sox weren't gonna stink." These picks are the result of countless hours (oh, about four) of researching the 14 American League teams (aka, reading SI's preview) and formulating thoughts about how they'll fare ("The Rangers can't pitch!%#!).

Continue reading at your own peril...


1. Boston Red Sox 95-67: They have the league's best pitcher (Josh Beckett), one of its best rotations, and it's a contract year for Manny Ramirez. Plus, the Yankees aren't as powerful as usual. That's enough for the division title.

2. Toronto Blue Jays 90-72: I know this ain't right — and probably just flat-out dumb — but don't sleep on the Jays, who are always good but completely overshadowed by those pair of teams from the States. They've got a solid lineup and an even better rotation, led by the under-the-radar-brilliant Roy Halladay.

3. New York Yankees 89-73: There are simply too many question marks with that starting rotation. The young guys — specifically Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy — will be shutdown pitchers at times, but they'll be inconsistent. Sure, the lineup is scary, but everyone's getting older, including overpaid leadoff hitter Johnny Damon.

4. Tampa Bay Devil Rays 80-82: Look out! The D-Rays almost put together their first .500 season before losing five of their last six. The main reason for this is much improved starting pitching — their top three led by Scott Kazmir will be tough — and a man named Even Longoria. Nuff said.

5. Baltimore Orioles 69-93: What a shame that another season will go by with one of the league's great stadiums, Camden Yards, showing off lots of empty, green seats. Sure, Baltimore's future got brighter thanks to trading Erik Bedard to the Mariners for a bunch of prospects, but this season in this division? Ouch.


1. Cleveland Indians 92-70:
It won't be easy, but expect the Tribe to win its second consecutive division crown. While the Tigers boast the majors' scariest lineup — at least on paper — we all know that pitching trumps hitting, and that's what the Indians have: two 19-game winners in C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona and a bullpen that is good from the setup men to closer Joe Borowski. A very similar lineup to the '07 version will score enough runs for Cleveland's pitchers.

2. Detroit Tigers 90-72: OK, I'm cheating here. I'll be honest — Detroit's 0-4 start against mediocre teams in Kansas City and Chicago could come back to haunt it. In a division this good — and a league this good — four-game slides are unacceptable. The offense will get going for the Tigers, especially once leadoff man Curtis Granderson returns. But the pitching staff simply doesn't have the magic that made it special in '06, and the bullpen is a mess.

3. Minnesota Twins 79-83: The idea of picking the Twins to finish any worse than third just doesn't appeal to me — they always prove the doubters wrong. Forget that they dealt their ace Johan Santana to the Mets and let Torii Hunter bolt for Los Angeles. They still have solid starting pitching, great relief pitching, a killer closer in Joe Nathan and an underrated middle of the lineup. Unless they deal some of their hot commodities before the trade deadline, they'll hang around .500 all season.

4. Chicago White Sox 77-85:
I actually like this team better than a year ago. Of course, that's not hard to do. The White Sox were terrible in '07. I like the acquisitions of Nick Swisher and Orlando Cabrera. With all of their purportedly strong middle of the lineup back, they have no excuses not to score runs. Their starting pitchers and relievers — outside of closer Bobby Jenks — are young and not exactly lights-out.

5. Kansas City Royals 75-87: I sincerely hate to do this, because I think the Royals have better than a last-place squad, but this will be a competitive division, and they'll draw the short stick like usual. Sorry, Royals fans. K.C. has a stud in Alex Gordon, a power-hitting free agent pickup in Jose Guillen, and another young stud in Billy Butler. The Royals even have three no-name starting pitchers who had sub-4.00 ERA's last season. Sadly, they're still a cellar dweller.


1. Los Angeles Angels 90-72: It won't be an easy ride to the division title with the early injuries to Nos. 1 and 2 starters John Lackey and Kelvim Escobar, but the Angels have good pitching depth and the middle of their lineup is downright scary. The idea of facing Gary Matthews Jr., Vladimir Guerrero, Garret Anderson and Hunter in a row is daunting. Add shutdown closer Francisco Rodriguez to the mix, and the Angels are back in the playoffs.

2. Seattle Mariners 86-76: Expectations are high in the Emerald City, where nothing short of a playoff bid will be considered acceptable. Unfortunately for the M's, that's exactly what will happen — a repeat of last season. Starters such as young Felix Hernandez and the newly acquired Carlos Silva are good, but they're too inconsistent. That will be the theme for a team that doesn't exactly boast a powerful lineup — sixth hitter Adrian Beltre had the most home runs of any Mariner last season with 26. Good at times, bad at others. Come October, not enough.

3. Oakland Athletics 74-88: The A's are like the Twins — they never look very impressive on paper, yet they always find a way to contend for the division or at least record a solid record. This season, they'll be a little down, but not enough to finish last in the West. Yes, minus Swisher their lineup is anemic. Yes, minus stud pitcher Danny Haren (gone to Arizona) their rotation is inexperienced. But, no, that's not enough for them to fall behind the pitchers-less Rangers.

4. Texas Rangers 69-93:
How 'bout them Rangers? I'll say this — if I lived near Arlington, I'd gobble up some cheap season tickets, because there are going to be some serious runs scored. Thanks to the additions of feel-good-story Josh Hamilton, explosive Milton Bradley and solid No. 8 hitter Ben Brouassard, the Rangers boast a scary lineup 1-9. (OK, 1-8, since catcher Garald Laird isn't exactly intimidating). Put that lineup with the Twins pitching, and you have yourself a playoff team. Problem is, Texas' pitchers are either bad (for lack of a better word) or inexperienced. Yeah, plenty of runs will be scored in the Lone Star State.


Divisional round:

— No. 1 Boston def. No. 4 Detroit (4 games): The Tigers have to beat the Blue Jays in a playoff just to make the postseason, and Beckett greets them with his nasty October stuff.
— No. 2 Cleveland def. No. 3 Los Angeles (5 games): Indians pitchers shut down Angels sluggers, and Travis Hafner, aka "Pronk," makes up for his no-show in last year's postseason with a pair of doubles and a pivotal home run.

American League championship series
— No. 1 Boston def. No. 2 Cleveland (6 games): A rematch of last season's ALCS gains the same result, as Beckett wins two more games to add to his legacy and the rest of the Red Sox do just enough. Ramirez continues to make his bid for another huge contract with a big-time series.

World Series
You'll have to wait until my National League preview. Stay tuned...

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

2008 Detroit Tigers preview — every game counts


For any die-hard Tigers fan, Monday afternoon had to feel like a painful repeat of the entire 2007 season.

An early lead.

A blown lead.

Missed opportunities. Runners left on base.

And, finally, an "L" in a game that should have been a "W" against an inferior team.

Yes, yes, it was only one game. There remain 161 left to play, including the one that just began inside the confines of Comerica Park. And, yes, the Tigers have arguably the scariest lineup in all of the majors.

But as silly as this sounds, there isn't much room for error for these Tigers. If they were in the American League West, I'd feel differently, but Detroit is in the A.L. Central and will have to battle those pesky Indians the entire season to win the division.

As for claiming the wild card bid to the playoffs, let's just say the Tigers shouldn't bet on it. Any time you have to outperform the Yankees or Red Sox to get into October, you're battling the odds.

So the point of the past eight paragraphs is this — don't start ordering your playoff tickets just yet.

However, it's sunny here in Durham, so let's talk about all the positive these Tigers have going for them.

— Anytime All-Star Miguel Cabrera bats fifth in your lineup, you know you're stocked with hitters.

— Cabrera looks to be in tip-top shape and already has a home run in a Tigers uniform.

— Don't expect Magglio Ordonez to slack off after his stellar '07 season, especially being sandwiched between Gary Sheffield and Cabrera in the lineup.

— Did I mention that once Curtis Granderson returns from injury, he and Placido Polanco will anchor Detroit's lineup.

— And the starting rotation is strong from top to bottom, barring injures/Kenny Rogers realizing he's too old to be good/Dontrelle Willis having another poor season.

Look, there's a reason that tickets sold so quickly this past winter. Tigers fans have a lot to look forward to. Their team is like the Phillies with good pitching, and the Phillies made the postseason a year ago (albeit with a lot of help from the choking Mets).

But the difference between this team winning the Central and storming into October and falling just short of the postseason for a season consecutive year will be the close games.

I remember sitting in the rain last September at the Tigers' final home game, wondering, "What if?"

"What if Todd Jones hadn't blown a five-run lead against the Indians in May?"

That was only one of the instances that I thought of. Unlike the magical 2006 Tigers, the '07 Tigers blew many leads, didn't win enough of the close games. Usually, when a team loses a game in May, you think, "Who cares! It's May. I don't even start paying attention to baseball until July!"

The truth, however, is that every game matters. In fact, if Detroit ends up a game back of the Indians, I might think all the way back to March 31 and the season-opener, when a 3-0 lead became a deficit in the late innings and lead-off doubles didn't translate into runs.

We all know the Tigers have great power throughout their lineup, but can they get the runner from second to third with less than two out? Can they score the runner from third with a sacrifice fly or even groundball to the middle infielders? Those will be big indicators of success this season — not how many long bombs Detroit hits.

Another huge key will be the bullpen. Last season was a nightmare, and it wasn't Jones' fault. As much as Jones scares fans with his knack for making things interesting in the ninth inning, he was Detroit's most reliable reliever a year ago.

"Reliable" does not describe the work of his 'pen mates. That can't be the case this season, but things will be difficult with Joel Zumaya again sidelined for a good chunk of time due to a fluke injury. Fernando Rodney, Detroit's other setup man, began the season on the disabled list. That puts a lot of pressure on the likes of Jason Grilli and Bobby Seay to perform well early in the season.

It also places a burden on Detroit's starters to work later into games and on the lineup to score a lot of runs so that one- and two-run leads become larger advantages late in games.

But it's the nature of baseball that regardless of who Detroit plays, it will face its share of tight games. Seay, Grilli and the rest of the 'pen will be trusted to protect one-run margins in the seventh and eighth innings.

And Tigers fans will hold their breath.

Hey, that's what comes with a winning culture. Prior to the '06 season, all Detroit followers wanted was a .500 season. Now, following a World Series berth and the acquisition of several big-name players, expectations are very heavy in the "D."

The economy — as far as I know from hearing folks back in Michigan — is atrocious. The snow won't stop falling. As usual, there's constant cloud cover. And, no, the Lions will miss the playoffs again.

Which means that once the Pistons and Red Wings complete their annual playoff visits, the sole focus of Michigan sports fans will be on the Tigers. There will be no shortage of pressure on Jim Leyland and his boys.

And games like the one on Opening Day will be unacceptable in what figures to be a heated division race.