Tuesday, October 27, 2009

2009-10 (last-second) NBA preview


Listen, I love the NBA as much as the next basketball-starved fan. But I'm in an honest mood this evening, as I anticipate the start of another -- loooooong -- season:

The 2009-10 regular season isn't going to provide much excitement. The first couple rounds of the playoffs won't be much better.

Then, finally, the action will heat up, along with the weather, in mid-May. Yep, it will take that long.

All of this is because the league, more than ever, is extremely front-loaded. Barring serious injuries or out-of-the-blue stars, there will be a handful of contributors ... and the rest of the teams.

With that said, read my ensuing, entertaining (at least I think) preview of all 30 teams. Playoff teams are marked by an asterisk.


Central Division
*1. Cleveland Cavaliers (60-22, 1st in East): LeBron and Shaq will coexist just fine, and don't forget about the overlooked key acquisition Anthony Parker. He'll hit the big shots if Delonte West continues wielding guns in guitar cases.

*2. Chicago Bulls (48-34, 5th in East): Derrick Rose will only get better, but they'll miss the big-shot ability of Ben Gordon. They still lack an inside scorer. How far they go in the playoffs will depend largely on whether Luol Deng wakes up from his year-long hibernation.

*3. Detroit Pistons (43-39, 8th in East): The Pistons will be able to score, there's no doubting that. But what about defending teams? Gordon and Charlie Villanueva ain't exactly known for playing "D." And new coach John Kuester was an offensive mastermind. He's saying the right things, but...

4. Indiana Pacers (39-43, 11th in East): This team won't be out of the playoff race until late because they've got maybe the most unknown star in the league. Danny Granger can do it all and will continue to do so, taking a leadership role on a team full of chemistry-builders.

5. Milwaukee Bucks (25-57, 15th in East): Yes, this will be another ugly season for the Bucks, who are without Richard Jefferson. One plus -- Hakim Warrick, that guy who blocked the shot at the end of the 2003 national title game, will at least give them some defense. But he's one dude.

Atlantic Division
*1. Boston Celtics (58-24, 2nd in East): Only one thing can derail this team from being outstanding -- injuries. And that, obviously, is a big concern for this bunch of old dudes. Don't worry, however, about Rasheed Wallace. When he knows he's around competent, championship-caliber players, he doesn't fool around -- except for the normal technicals.

*2. Toronto Raptors (44-38, 7th in East): This squad made a significant upgrade by stealing Hedo Turkoglu from the Magic. He will form a, pardon the cliche, "dynamic duo" with Chris Bosh. Of course, you need a lot more than that to do anything special in the postseason.

3. Philadelphia 76ers (39-43, 11th in East): The 76ers will be competitive until mid-April, led by an ever-improving stud in Andre Iguodala (can he shoot better from outside?). But they'll miss the on-court leadership of Andre Miller regardless of how well Elton Brand bounces back from a horrid season.

4. New York Knicks (35-47, 13th in East): Take a look at the Knicks roster and tell me who scares you. Seriously. David Lee? Yes, this team will score a lot of points and create some exciting nights at MSG. And, yes, they'll get better throughout the season because Mike D'Antoni's a good coach. And, yes again, they can't wait for the Summer of 2010.

5. New Jersey Nets (27-55, 14th in East): The good news first: Devin Harris and Brook Lopez might just be forming a strong little guard-big guy combo (although Lopez especially still has a lot of developing to do). The bad news: There are no other proven parts.

Southeast Division
*1. Orlando Magic (57-25, 3rd in East): Vince Carter will do his best to fit in and try to win a championship, but he won't be as effective as Turkoglu was in that role. That's not a knock on him -- Turk just fit it perfectly. Other than that, they'll be just as good -- but not improved like Cleveland and Boston.

*2. Atlanta Hawks (49-33, 4th in East): This squad will present scary matchups every night ... and Jamal Crawford will finally make the playoffs. The Michigan man (for one season) is 0-for-9 in that department, but now he'll come off the bench for a stacked team and provide instant offense.

*3. Washington Wizards (45-37, 6th in East): The Wiz are everybody's comeback team in the East, coming off that dismal 19-63 season. Still, will they be able to stay healthy? Antawn Jamison's already out for 10-15 games to begin the year. If their Big Three are on the court, they'll roll into the playoffs. If not, it could be another disappointing season.

4. Miami Heat (41-41, 9th in East): Just the presence of Dwyane Wade gives Miami a shot at the playoffs. But D-Wade can't be happy that management didn't do a thing to upgrade the roster. Michael Beasley and Mario Chalmers might be improved, but that won't be enough to return to the postseason.

5. Charlotte Bobcats (40-42, 10th in East): It will be a case of deja vu for the Bobcats, who will hang tough under L.B. only to fall just short of their first postseason. They've got a tougher lineup with Tyson Chandler, Boris Diaw and Raja Bell, but defense will still be an issue. They're definitely on the up-and-up, however.


Southwest Division
*1. San Antonio Spurs (56-26, 2nd in West): Just when I think the Spurs might be over the hill and out of title contention, they go out and get two rock-solid veterans to bolster a rock-solid roster. Richard Jefferson will score a lot and provide toughness. Antonio McDyess will score, rebound and provide toughness. And if Manu Ginobili stays healthy, watch out Lakers...

*2. New Orleans Hornets (50-32, 5th in West): Just about everyone has forgotten about the Hornets, who still have the best point guard in the Association. Depth is still a huge issue (thanks, injury-prone Peja), but Emeka Okafor will provide down-low scoring and did I mention Chris Paul?

*3. Dallas Mavericks (49-33, 6th in West): This is a big year for the Mavs, who are starting to get old and need to take a step toward contention. Shawn Marion certainly helps that cause, and Jason Terry will continue to be one of the game's most underrated players. Drew Gooden will provide solid defense, too, but how far can this team go with the Spurs and Lakers lurking?

4. Houston Rockets (37-45, 9th in West): This team should really suck, dude -- like really, really bad. There will be no Yao sightings (except on the bench), not many T-Mac sightings (except on the bench) and tough guy Ron Artest is replaced by talented but young Trevor Ariza. Shane Battier will help lead this group to about as good of a season as it could expect.

5. Memphis Grizzlies (29-53, 14th in West): Well, more tickets were sold. Yay! That's what Allen Iverson provides for a team. Scoring. Cool moves. Amazing shots. And more sold tickets. What he doesn't provide are more victories. The only way this team makes significant strides is if Mike Conley has a breakout year at point guard.

Northwest Division
*1. Denver Nuggets (54-28, 3rd in West): The Nuggets didn't do much, or get any attention, during the summer, but is that a bad thing? There's something to be said for standing pat when you're coming off a damn-good year. Carmelo Anthony finally is a leader. Chauncey Billups manages the game as well as anyone. Everyone else fills a role. Don't count 'em out.

*2. Portland Trail Blazers (50-32, 4th in West): There's no doubt this team is loaded with talent. The question is how everyone will fill roles like the Nuggets do so beautifully. The jury's still out on Greg Oden. Who will run the most at point guard (Andre Miller meet Steve Blake)? Those are just two of the questions surrounding the excitement in Portland.

*3. Utah Jazz (46-36, 7th in West): I don't think the contract-talk discussions will be as bad as they were a year ago. However, this team doesn't give off the best vibe right now. What, exactly, is Carlos Boozer playing for? The good news is that Paul Millsap will be super motivated after getting a huge contract. He's just not as offensive as Boozer.

4. Oklahoma City Thunder (35-47, 11th in West): Give it a year or two, fellas. With the young nucleus of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Jeff Green, this squad is primed for future success. That's especially the case with Durant now vowing to take a leadership role. It'll just take a little time.

5. Minnesota Timberwolves (30-52, 13th in West): I love Jonny Flynn. He's in such good shape, he could play 40 minutes one night and still be ready to run up and down the next night. I also love a healthy Al Jefferson. But where's the leadership on this team? This will be the West's version of the Knicks (very fast-paced, of course) -- just more exciting to watch even when losing.

Pacific Division
*1. Los Angeles Lakers (62-20, 1st in West): We all know the positives, so I'll focus on a (possible) negative. I think Ariza was a better fit here than Artest. Don't misinterpret -- Artest will get along fine with his teammates. But he often holds onto the ball and takes ill-advised shots, whereas Ariza kept the offense flowing.

*2. Phoenix Suns (44-38, 8th in West): The Suns aren't close to what they were five years ago, but give Steve Nash big ups for coming back to a non-contending team instead of selling himself to a top dog. He might not be able to play D, but he's a great team guy. If Amare Stoudemire plays a full season, they might be able to play themselves up a spot or two, but not further.

3. Los Angeles Clippers (36-46, 10th in West): Poor Clippers. On the day the season begins, it's learned that No. 1 draft pick Blake Griffin is out for roughly six weeks. That's brutal. Griffin will make an impact when he returns, but it will take time to get used to the NBA game. And by then, the Clippers will be well below .500, knowing another season will end sans the playoffs.

4. Golden State Warriors (32-50, 12th in West): What a mess. Stephen Jackson wants out, but isn't going anywhere (for now). Meanwhile, Monta Ellis doesn't think he can play with Stephen Curry. Obviously, he hasn't watched the rookie, because Curry is much less selfish than he is. On the plus side, big men Anthony Randolph and Andris Biedrins are becoming solid players.

5. Sacramento Kings (23-59, 15th in West): Congrats, Kings, on getting the best shot at the lottery in May. See? We're staying positive. Rookie Tyreke Evans could be a stud down the road, and look for Jason Thompson and Spencer Hawes to continue to get better down low. But winning? Hah, that's for the future.


Eastern Conference
First Round
1 Cleveland def. 8 Detroit (4 games)
2 Boston def. 7 Toronto (4 games)
3 Orlando def. 6 Washington (6 games)
4 Atlanta def. 5 Chicago (7 games)

Conference Semifinals
1 Cleveland def. 4 Atlanta (5 games)
2 Boston def. 3 Orlando (7 games)

Conference Finals
2 Boston def. 1 Cleveland (7 games): Hey, I love both teams, baby!!!! But if Boston's healthy, I can't go against the Celtics here. Not only did they add Wallace, but also Marquis Daniels, who will help to spark a bench that outplays Cleveland's.

Western Conference
First Round
1 Los Angeles def. 8 Phoenix (5 games)
2 San Antonio def. 7 Utah (5 games)
3 Denver def. 6 Dallas (7 games)
4 Portland def. 5 New Orleans (6 games)

Conference Semifinals
1 Los Angeles def. 4 Portland (5 games)
2 San Antonio def. 3 Denver (7 games)

Conference Finals
1 Los Angeles def. 2 San Antonio (6 games): I love the Spurs, and they'll be playing with a sense of urgency, knowing their window to win with Tim Duncan is closing. Still, they'll be fatigued from a hard-fought series with the Nuggets, and the Lakers simply have no weaknesses.

NBA Finals
Los Angeles Lakers def. Boston Celtics (7 games): Yes, we've been waiting for an epic NBA Finals. And here it is. The Lakers, however, will be just a little fresher and, of course, will have at their service one of the NBA's top three players. Paul Pierce will be good, but he won't outplay Bryant like he did in '08.

Yeah, the ending will easily be the most dramatic part of this long haul we call the NBA season.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Instant replay must be expanded for MLB playoffs


Major League Baseball can't deny it — the game needs to expand its instant-replay system.

This postseason, by itself, has proven that.

During the past two weeks, there has been a plethora of badly missed calls. If you've watched the games with one eye, you know what I'm referring to.

All the umpires have been able to do is apologize. They can't dispute the calls, because, um, their mistakes have been obvious. For instance, the Twins' Joe Mauer hit a blooper down the left-field line in Game 2 of Minnesota's series against New York. The ball landed a good half foot inside the line, but, somehow, the foul-line umpire called it foul.

The call might have cost the Twins the game and a chance to make that series interesting.

That was the biggest goof, but there have been many others.

And they only illustrate the need for the expansion of instant replay.

At least in the postseason.

I'm not opposed to keeping the regular season as it stands. There are so many games, no team can legitimately take a blown call from one game, or even two, and say that it cost them a playoff spot (yes, I'm talking about this season's Tigers).

So keep the regular-season system as is. Review close home runs. Play the games.

But when it comes to the postseason, the system needs to be altered ASAP. There's no opposing argument.

The fix is simple. As many of the baseball sages have suggested, put an umpire in the press box with a TV. When he sees a call such as the Mauer one that's transparently wrong, he'll signal down to the field umpires in some fashion (um, this is the 21st century; I'm sure they can come up with something).

The call is reversed. Everyone is happy. (Well, maybe not the team that was the beneficiary of the bad call. But they won't feel so guilty about getting a break. ... Scratch that — they probably wouldn't feel guilty in the first place, but you get my drift.)

The point is, this is a simply fix. This isn't football, when some fumble-or-no-fumble reviews are so close, they take 5 minutes, 43 seconds (and seven beer commercials) to review.

No, baseball doesn't need to allow managers the ability to call for reviews, even though the comedy of Lou Piniella furiously throwing a red flag from the dugout would be hard to match.

For all the baseball purists out there, MLB shouldn't let managers be involved in the reviewing process. Rather, the ump in the box should have all the authority to overturn, not "review," any call that appears clearly incorrect. In other words, if they see a replay and know right away that the call on the field wasn't right, then overturn it.

If two replays don't show conclusive evidence, play on. And no, balls and strikes should never be reviewed regardless of how many pitches are called wrong — that's part of the game and always should be.

But there's no excuse to miss calls like the one in Game 4 of the Yankees-Angels ALCS series, when Mike Napoli clearly tagged out two Yankees by third base who weren't touching the bag. Innocently but very incorrectly, respected umpire Tim McClelland ruled that Robinson Cano had his foot on third base.

The first replay showed what I had thought when I saw the play live — Cano's foot was a good 6 inches from touching the rubber.

That could have been changed in a matter of a minute.

Nice and quick.

Postseason baseball games are long to begin with. What's the big difference between 3 hours, 35 minutes and 3 hours, 47 minutes? Twelve minutes, I believe, if my math is correct.

This is the 21st century, sports fans, and baseball hasn't been "pure" for a long time.

It's about time the league take the necessary measures to make sure all its postseason games are fairly decided.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Gilbert Arenas' silence indicates lack of self control


When I moved to the Washington D.C. area, I expected a few things:

An overdose of daily politics.

More than 100 losses by the Nationals each season.

And, of course, plenty of banter -- some ridiculous, some comical -- from the always-loquacious Gilbert Arenas.

While the first two expectations have come through, the third, startlingly, hasn't. Gilbert Arenas, or "Hibachi," the trash-talking, loose-lipped, oft-injured point guard of the Washington Wizards, suddenly can't talk.

Arenas is finally healthy after two seasons, basically, spent on the bench (he played in 15 of a possible 170 games), including almost all of last year when the Wizards were a dismal 19-63.

So he's back, he's feeling good, he's getting drafted high in fantasy leagues once again, he's making people around here feel optimistic about a possible huge turnaround for this team, which still has the steady Antawn Jamison and the All Star Caron Butler...

And he's refusing to talk.


Arenas spoke to reporters at media day. And since then, he hasn't uttered a peep to them.

Actually, that's not entirely true. The other day he decided to go all Rasheed Wallace, telling the press after a win, "Both teams played hard."

Thanks, Gilbert.

The only reason Arenas stated for talking at media day? To avoid being fined by the league. Well, the league has since fined him $25,000, rightly so, for refusing to talk to the media during the preseason (the team also incurred the same fine).

Look, I understand, kind of, what Arenas is trying to do. During the past few years, he became known more for his voice than for his play. His NBA.com blog became hugely popular and writers could always wander over to his locker for a good sound bite.

The last two seasons, he's simply been known as an injury-plagued player.

So in the course of a few seasons, he's gone from one of the most highly regarded players in the Association to nobody special. And now, he wants to play his way back into the top echelon of players -- letting his play, entirely, do the talking.

But that doesn't mean Arenas can't talk.

As he could learn from hundreds of other pros -- ask your boy Jamison, ask Butler -- you can talk to the press without being self-aggrandizing or saying something controversial. Just talk about the game, about how you feel, about this play, about that play.

I've never been an NBA player, but is that really difficult?

Arenas, after all, isn't some 19-year-old rookie. He's 27 and is entering his ninth NBA season. He should be used to the grind, to the flocking of the press to a team's best players, to the hard questions after difficult losses.

What his silence speaks to is a lack of self control. Does he think that if he started talking, something unsavory would come out of his mouth? I have no idea what his real reasoning is, but the silence, regardless, demonstrates an immaturity that indicates Arenas simply isn't well-rounded enough to be one of the league's stars.

Maybe he'll go out and have an outstanding season. Maybe he'll get the Wizards back into the playoffs. But during that time, especially, a team needs its leader to step up and speak for it, to say the right things to relax the players in a tense situation.

Who knows whether Arenas will be talking come April (and I don't mean more "Both teams played hard" quotes)? Maybe a wealth of fines will have gotten to him, not that his wallet is feeling light -- in the summer of 2008, he inked a six-year, $111 million deal.

We'll have to watch and see.

But for now, Hibachi -- not that he goes by the nickname anymore -- is showing an immaturity and lack of self control that might just be a preview of his ability (or lack thereof) to lead this team to great things down the road.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

MLB playoffs preview


If you've already penciled in the Yankees for their first World Series championship in 10 seasons, you might want to backtrack a bit.

And read this analysis in today's Washington Post.

As I've been pretty sure of the past few years, considering some of the teams that have won the World Series this decade (the nondescript 2006 Cardinals stand out), nothing that happened in the regular season means a thing.

Not a team's amount of wins, not on-base percentage, not the number of leaked-out steroids users.

It's a new season featuring eight teams, and anything -- Any. Possible. Thing. -- can happen.

Which is a nice segue to my picks:

Division Round

New York def. Minnesota (4 games): I really, really, really want to pick the Twins. But the Yankees will find a way not to choke this series away and cause rioting in Manhattan.

Boston def. L.A. Angels (4 games): Boston owns the Angels in the playoffs. That's all you need to know about this series. It has to be in the Angels' heads, and once again their bats will go cold. Count on it.

Philadelphia def. Colorado (5 games): Everyone is jumping on the Rockies' bandwagon, so, naturally, I'm taking the other side. The Rockies' pitching is shaky, and the Phils bats are not. Expect an exhilarating, high-scoring series.

L.A. Dodgers def. St. Louis (5 games): The best way to pick this series is to flip a coin (or a credit card; seriously, I tried this a couple weeks ago, and it evens out). I love both teams.

Championship Series

Red Sox def. New York (6 games): Hey, Yankees fans, just face it: This is the Red Sox' decade. Maybe you'll get back to winning championships in the next one, but not this season. Expect the usual domination from Beckett and some big hits from Big Papi.

Dodgers def. Phillies (6 games): Phils got 'em last year, Dodgers get revenge this time around. Why? Well, for one, there won't be any Matt Stairs heroics for the Phils. Oh, and I heard that Brad Lidge wasn't the closer any more. Sorry about all the analysis. Bottom line: I flipped a credit card, and it read "Dodgers."

World Series
Dodgers def. Red Sox (7 games): I smell an epic World Series. Well, not literally, but it's the first phrase that hopped into my head. There will be abusive coverage of Manny playing his old team. So much so, the winner of Game 1 will almost be forgotten. But then the intensity will increase, there will be some late-inning magic and, finally, Sox fans will have something to be miserable about when Manny laces two doubles in a 4-2 Game 7 victory at Fenway.

Enjoy the unpredictability, sports fans.

That's October baseball for ya.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

How the Tigers somehow lost the Central


Randy Marsh, to rhyme, was harsh. To the Tigers, that is.

As the home plate umpire made poor calls Tuesday evening, it was almost as if he was saying, "Hey, you guys had your chances. Why are you even here tonight?"

And that's a good question.

The tendency at this moment so closely removed from the end of the Tigers' 6-5, season-ending loss to the Twins is to pick apart how Detroit lost the 12-inning game.

Hey, I spent a one-hour train ride dissecting the causes:

— Marsh's horrible calls (a called third strike on Placido "I never strike out" Polanco in the top of the ninth with no outs and runners on the corners; not giving Brandon Inge a base for getting brushed by a pitch with the bases loaded in the 12th. The Tigers failed to score in both innings).

— Two defensive miscues in the bottom of the 10th that allowed the Twins to tie the game. First, Ryan Raburn badly misplayed a fly ball to left, turning a single at the worst into a leadoff triple. Two batters later, Polanco somehow missed a groundball up the middle that could have been a game-ending double play.

— Twelve runners left on base and several innings in which they couldn't get a run home from second or third with less than two outs.

But to understand why the Tigers aren't preparing to hop a plane to New York to take on the Yankees, you can't just look at Tuesday's result. Rather, this was a three-week collapse.

They were up seven games just a few weeks back, with a favorable schedule down the stretch that featured a plethora of home games.

They struggled during that stretch, losing several games to inferior opponents, but rebounded last week to take two out of three games from the Twins. That left them up three games with four to play.

Only three times since 1901 had a team blown that kind of lead.

And the Tigers had their final series at home, where they had been strong all season.

But after losing to a desperate Minnesota team last Thursday, the Tigers looked lifeless in an 8-0 loss to the White Sox Friday. Then Saturday they continued their scoreless streak, not putting a run on the board until the eighth inning of a 5-1 loss.

In the bottom of the eight inning of that defeat, Detroit was within 4-1 and had two runners on with no outs. After Magglio Ordonez sharply lined out, Miguel Cabrera took a lazy swing at the first pitch of his at-bat and grounded into an easy 6-4-3 double play.

Why do I mention this? Because it was later reported that Cabrera had been heavily drinking Friday night and fighting with his wife, which explained the scratches on his face noticed by those close to the first baseman.

Nice timing, huh?

I doubt it's a coincidence that the Tigers' best hitter finished the series 0-for-11.

Chalk that up as another possible reason the Tigers couldn't wrap up the Central Division during 162 regular-season games.

Listless play. Disappearing bats. And possibly the pressure of holding off a charging, hyped-up team with nothing to lose.

But I saw none of that from the Tigers Tuesday. They came out swinging, taking a 3-0 lead. And when the Twins clawed back to snatch a 4-3 advantage in the seventh inning, Ordonez stepped up to the plate and calmly launched a home run — a rare thing for him this season — to lead off the eight inning and tie it.

Brandon Inge had a terrible game at the plate for most of the evening, but he stepped up with two outs in the 10th and delivered an RBI double to give the Tigers the 5-4 advantage.

And after Raburn's gaffe helped cost the team the lead in the bottom half of the inning, he made a hell of a catch and throw on a line drive to nail Alexi Casilla at the plate and extend the game.

I haven't even mentioned Fernando Rodney, who pitched almost three full innings and was very solid. He kept his cool and didn't allow free baserunners — which, usually, is his downfall.

So in the aftermath of Tuesday's heartbreaker, the Tigers have nothing to be ashamed of. They played one hell of a game and simply didn't come away with the win.

That happens sometimes.

But when they return to Detroit to clear out their lockers, I'm sure they'll all relive in their minds the letdown that precipitated Tuesday's trip to the Metrodome.

And they'll know this lost season never should have needed one right call from Randy Marsh or, for that matter, a win in a win-or-go-home game.