Thursday, December 30, 2010

In brutal Big Ten, defense will make or break Wolverines


Despite most people saying that Purdue dominated the entire second half of its 80-57 thrashing-that-wasn't-a-thrashing-until-the-other-team-quit over Michigan Tuesday in the teams' Big Ten opener, the truth is that the Wolverines played the Boilers fairly even for the first 12 minutes of the half.

Then coach John Beilein made his biggest blunder, calling timeout with the Wolverines trailing just 57-49 — four points worse than their 30-26 halftime deficit — and putting his team in its shaky 1-3-1 zone.

Seconds later, Ryne Smith found himself wide, wide open on the right wing and proceeded, quite casually, to knock down his fifth 3-pointer in six tries.

Purdue led by 11. Michigan's effort slacked off. And the game, just like that, was over.

Afterward, Beilein wasn't asked about his decision to go to the zone. After a 23-point defeat, that might have seemed like too pointed a question. After all, it was one lousy possession of many on which the Boilers got what they wanted offensively.

Rather, the best question asked was about how to get a  young team like the Wolverines to remain focused on both ends of the floor.

"It’s pretty difficult to go from one end of the floor to the other," Beilein said. And then he repeated himself: "It’s hard to do that. It’s hard to focus both ways for our team."

Of course, he's right.

If the Wolverines (10-3) are going to put together a respectable Big Ten record, they're going to need to meet that challenge and compete for 40 minutes on both ends. On Tuesday, they put together about 15-16 good 94-feet minutes.

But doing that starts on one end for this group — the defensive end.

Why? Because when the Wolverines play good defense, it will usually translate — against tough, defensive-minded foes like Purdue — into easier offense.

Against the Boilers, Michigan looked lost and scared in its halfcourt offense against Purdue's set D. Even with Darius Morris running the show, the Wolverines often found themselves out near midcourt with the shot clock nearing expiration, forced to make a last-ditch effort at a decent shot.

And each time Purdue scored on the other end, it meant another halfcourt possession for the Wolverines — not to mention a larger deficit to think about (Michigan led just once, for 10 seconds, 26-25).

On the other hand, the Wolverines were most effective on the offensive end after a missed shot or turnover by the Boilers. While they didn't get many fast-break opportunities, they scored the majority of their buckets during a 19-4 first-half run on the secondary break, as Morris created open looks for teammates before Purdue's defenders got set.

During Michigan's best stretch, Stu Douglass and Evan Smotrycz each drilled a pair of open, in-rhythm 3s, Douglas made a layup against an unsettled Purdue defense and Jon Horford got a transition dunk to give the Wolverines that short-lived lead.

It all started with stops and forced turnovers on the other end.

Beilein saw things the other way around, saying, "We had some really bad lulls offensively, which really led to some bad defense."

Which, of course, is true. But getting stops on the defensive end, especially during a second half in which Purdue shot 63.3 percent, might have, in turn, created better offensive opportunities for the Wolverines.

Michigan managed to almost keep pace for those first 12 minutes, and during that timeout I thought the game was far from over. But after that horrible defensive possession — Beilein was desperate for a stop so he tried to switch things up; the players weren't ready for it — the Wolverines didn't have enough gas and resolve left to continue trading barbs with one of the Big Ten's best.

They'll get a short reprieve, if you can call it that, with another home game against Penn State Saturday. It's a must-win on a daunting schedule that is followed by a game at Wisconsin — I can't remember the last time they won there — and a nice non-conference break contest at Crisler against, oh, No. 3 Kansas.

To survive such a haunting schedule, the Wolverines need to be much better on defense. Do that, and those offensive lulls might just take care of themselves.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Led by Morris, young Wolverines a pleasant suprise


You know what's amazing? Let me explain...

It's amazing, to me, that in today's sports world, a player can go from being relatively obscure and uninvolved one year to being an absolutely stud the next. And surprise everyone in doing it.

Coming into this college hoops season, any fan knew that a Harrison Barnes, that a Kyrie Irving, that a Josh Selby would be impact players as freshmen for their respective teams. Everyone knew that a player like Tyler Zeller would be much improved  as long as he stayed out of the training room.

But what did anyone know about Michigan guard Darius Morris?

Last season, I watched the majority of Michigan games, and Morris was never really a factor despite the fact that the Wolverines had a major need at point guard — Morris' natural position. Morris started 19 games, but averaged just 4.4 points and 2.6 assists per outing.

He most often played off Michigan's go-to guys, Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims, taking spot-up jumpers that looked like misses — and were — the second they left his fingertips.

He looked lost. Disengaged. Unassertive.

In other words, the exact opposite of how he looks now. Because of an aggressive, confidant, creating Morris, the Wolverines (9-2) are easily exceeding the canyon-low expectations that were fairly set for them before the seasons.

On Saturday, they cruised by an Oakland team, 6-6, that is playing a murderer's row non-conference schedule and was coming off its biggest win in school history at No. 7 Tennessee.

Morris has breathed new life into these Wolverines, even if the half-full library crowds at Crisler Arena haven't indicated such a positive upswing. Maybe the fans still don't believe. Heck, I didn't believe my eyes the first three times I watched Morris effortlessly lead the Wolverines fastbreak and create something out of nothing with the shot clock winding down.

But I'm a believer now. Darius Morris, averaging 14.9 points, 7.1 assists and 3.5 rebounds per game, is one of the best point guards in an absolutely stacked Big Ten. And these young, overachieving Wolverines will go as far as he takes them.

Morris worked out with John Wall over the summer, and when watching him, you can see similarities to the No. 1 draft pick. No, Morris isn't as explosive, or quick, or (fill in an exceptional skill of Wall's) — but the guard from California now plays with a great amount of confidence, loves to have the ball in his hands, and never shies away from a big shot.

Michigan needed a leader to step up with Harris and Sims gone. Morris hasn't wasted a second in accepting that role.

He's also been the leader of the Wolverines' biggest strength — their defense. He's put ball pressure on each opponent's PG, making it difficult to set up their offense. He's been the catalyst for Michigan's surprisingly good man-to-man D, which has been so effective, John Beilein hasn't even spent much time working on his patented 1-3-1 zone.

These Wolverines have been far from aesthetic. They've gone through some ugly scoring droughts and built mansions out of 3-point bricks. But their defense has kept them in games, and their point guard has ended those droughts.

Is Michigan an NCAA Tournament team? I would be shocked if that happened. But this extremely young outfit is achieving much more than anyone anticipated, and that's all that one can ask for.

They've been led by their biggest surprise of all.

If you haven't learned the name, you will soon.

Darius Morris, the super sophomore.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

2010-11 belated college basketball preview: predicting the 68

Yes, I'm a cheater. I already know that Minnesota and Vanderbilt have quality wins over North Carolina. I've already seen Duke crush three opponents by about 1,437 — and look damn impressive doing it. I've already watched Pitt tough out two games and Ohio State win in the Swamp.

But, still, the college hoops season is extremely young. Which is why I feel it's fair to make my belated predictions for the new Field of 68. Without further ado — and without viewing the scores from tonight's games — my picks:

THE CHAMPIONS (31 teams)
Big East
Pitt: Maybe no team in the country is better and more comfortable at grinding out close wins, and with the ball in Ashton Gibbs' hands, why not? This team is experienced and hungry for a title.

Metro Atlantic
Fairfield: The Stags have improved their win total four years running, and now return four starters. That might just be enough to unseat those Siena Saints.

America East
Vermont: The Catamounts aren't loaded, but often in these smaller conference tournaments, the teams — and coaches — that have been there before prevail.

Atlantic 10
Temple: It's hard to pick against the Owls and their back-to-back conference crowns. Point guard Juan Fernandez returns to lead the way.

Ivy League
Princeton: People are pretty high on Tommy Amaker's crew at Harvard, but the Crimson will really miss Jeremy Lin. That's why I'm taking a flier on the up-and-coming Tigers.

Patriot League
American: Living in DC, I attend every Eagles home game. And this team is stacked. A team returning all of its top players from a year ago adds transfers Troy Brewer (Georgia) and Charles Hinkle (Vandy).
Quinnipiac: There are four new coaches implementing new systems in the league, but one player who knows how to win is the conference's POY Justin Rutty.

Duke: Only injuries could derail this from happening. These Devils are that good; the Tar Heels are still rebuilding; and the Hokies are still learning how to tough-out games they should win.

Morgan State: Here's a small conference that could be devoid of drama — again. The Bears have claimed three consecutive titles and return enough talent and experience to make it four.

Big South
Coastal Carolina: They had a phenomenal regular season only to watch — guess who? — Winthrop steal the tournament bid. Not this time. A pair of South Carolina transfers won't let it happen.

Old Dominion: The Monarchs return all but one key player from the squad that took down Notre Dame in the Big Dance. Yeah, they'll be back.

Wofford: After coming within a few hairs of taking down Wisconsin in the tournament, Wofford returns four starters and five seniors.

Florida: The Gators return a starting lineup that features three seniors hungry for some success considering their unmet expectations the past three years. Talented freshmen also are on the scene.

Ohio Valley
Murray State: Easy choice. The Racers return eight contributors from the fun-to-watch outfit that took down Vandy in the Dance and almost snuck by St. Mary's.

Atlantic Sun
Lipscomb: Betcha can't guess who the nation's leading returning scorer is? Heard of Adrian Hodzic? Nope, me neither. But the dude dropped in 22.7 ppg a year ago.

Sun Belt
North Texas: The Mean Green — best name ever, by the way — will make it to the Dance for the third time in five years thanks to double-double machine George Odufuwa (pronounce that!).

Oakland: Now that the talented Grizzlies finally got a brief taste of NCAA Tournament fever, they really want to return. NBA prospect Keith Benson (17.3 ppg, 10.5 rpg) will make sure of that.

Big Ten
Michigan State: Ohio State's going to present quite the challenge, and Illinois, Purdue and Minnesota will also be tough (and Northwestern!). But the Spartans will emerge from a loaded conference.

Ohio: One of the most entertaining games to watch on the first night of the crazy tournament was Ohio's thrashing of Georgetown. The Bobcats couldn't be stopped. With most of the catalysts back, expect similar results.

Conference USA
Memphis: The young Josh Pastner is quietly assembling a, um, young, loaded squad at Calipari's old stomping grounds. Expect a return to normalcy in the conference.

Butler: They'll miss Gordon Hayward, no doubt, but don't think for a second that these Bulldogs will lapse during conference play. Under Brad Stevens, they'll continue to dominate the conference.

Big 12
Kansas State: Sorry, Kansas, but your rivals will be the ones to steal your grasp of the league. I love Jacob Pullen — fear the beard! — and his late-game heroics, and the frontcourt is loaded.

Missouri Valley
Wichita State: The Shockers return all but one key player from a team that came a win away from taking the place of Cinderella Northern Iowa in the Dance.

Texas State: Anytime you add a Kentucky transfer — A.J. Stewart — to a Southland team, things are usually looking up. Such is the case for Texas State.

Jackson State: Despite an injury to preseason player of the year Grant Maxey, the Tigers won the regular-season crown by three games. Now Maxey, plus four other starters, returns. Watch out.

Utah State: The Aggies are one of the most consistent, and overlooked, programs in the country. Of course, that does happen when you don't play anybody. But within the league, they dominate.

Big Sky
Weber State: The Wildcats, I'm sure, have used the entire offseason to work as hard as possible to forget the sting of blowing a 20-point lead against Montana in the conference title game. No repeat.

Mountain West
San Diego State: I love Steve Fisher's squad, which returns five starters, including double-double guy Kawhi Leonard. The Aztecs could do some damage in the Dance.

Washington: Arizona and Freshman of the Year Derrick Williams are up-and-coming and will be back in the Dance, but the Huskies are clearly the class of the league led by G's Isaiah Thomas and Abdul Gaddy.

Big West
UCSB: The Gauchos have the returning POY (Orlando Johnson) and a dude who had nine 20-point games (James Nunnally). Enough said.

West Coast
Gonzaga: Speaking of enough said, guess who dominates their conference every year? The 'Zags might need to win the conference tournament considering their nonconference war zone: SDSU, Kansas State, Duke/Marquette, Illinois, at Notre Dame, Baylor, Xavier and Oklahoma State. Brutal!

THE AT-LARGE BIDS (37 teams)
*In order of higher-seeded teams

Virginia Tech
North Carolina
N.C. State
Virginia Tech

Atlantic 10

Big East
West Virginia

Big Ten
Ohio State

Big 12
Texas A&M

Missouri Valley

Mountain West

Arizona State

Mississippi State

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

NBA Playoffs preview


We're just minutes away from one of the most anticipated games that will, ultimately, mean close to nothing come mid-April. Miami-Boston has been dominating the airwaves all day -- I can say that with confidence, even though my ears haven't been tuned to the airwaves.

Whatever happens, however, between the new and old Big Three won't matter until they meet, I believe, again in May.

With that hint, my playoff predictions. Check back in, oh, eight months to see how I did:

First round
(1) L.A. Lakers def. (8) Denver Nuggets: 4 games
(5) San Antonio Spurs def. (4) Utah Jazz: 6 games
(3) Dallas Mavericks def. (6) Phoenix Suns: 7 games
(2) Oklahoma City Thunder def. (7) Portland Trail Blazers: 5 games

Second round
(1) L.A. Lakers def. (5) San Antonio Spurs: 5 games
(2) Oklahoma City Thunder def. (3) Dallas Mavericks: 7 games

Conference finals
(1) L.A. Lakers def. (2) Oklahoma City Thunder: 7 games -- Remember last year? The Thunder dominated Games 3 and 4 to even the series, fell flat like most inexperienced teams would on the road in Game 5, then came a missed box-out away from taking Game 6. With that experience under their belt, they'll be much more scary on the road and better all around. New acquisition Matt Barnes, however, will do a good job of making Kevin Durant work for all his points, and L.A. will escape.

First round
(1) Miami Heat def. (8) Detroit Pistons: 4 games
(4) Milwaukee Bucks def. (5) Chicago Bulls: 7 games
(3) Boston Celtics def. (6) Atlanta Hawks: 7 games
(2) Orlando Magic def. (7) Philadelphia 76ers: 4 games

Second round
(1) Miami Heat def. (4) Milwaukee Bucks: 5 games
(3) Boston Celtics def. (2) Orlando Magic: 6 games

Conference finals
 (1) Miami Heat def. (3) Boston Celtics: 6 games -- It's tempting to pick against the team with the win-it-all-or-else expectations, but, c'mon. In the NBA, the best teams, the teams with the best players, usually win. And you can't make an argument that these Celtics are more talented than the Heat. Plus, there's the huge factor that LeBron will be playing with a chip on his shoulder and will be much, much better than he was in last season's six-game loss to the Celtics when his lone sidekick was Mo Williams. Enough said.

L.A. Lakers def. Miami Heat: 6 games -- Something tells me Kobe won't let his chance to be like M.J. and finish a second repeat slip through the cracks. He knows, we all know, this is probably the final year when his Lakers will be the favorites to take home the hardware, and he won't let the new guys on the block steal that opportunity. If everyone is healthy, the Lakers' size will give the Heat fits; Gasol will be his usual dominant self; and if Barnes plays smart defense -- read: no stupid fouls -- he should bother James and/or Wade just enough to help the Lakers send Phil Jackson in a pure state of Zen.

Monday, October 25, 2010

NBA Western Conference preview


Even a year ago, the argument would have seemed ridiculous, preposterous, insane. Someone in the Western Conference better than Kobe Bryant?

C'mon, man. Get a reality check.

Not anymore, not after Kevin Durant's summer. The kid -- yes, he's still that -- was absolutely phenomenal, clutch and big-time in leading a U.S. team of B-listers to the World Championship. He was, in a word, unstoppable.

And this was after a quite impressive third year in the Association.

So, yes, Bryant has the five NBA title rings and all the experience in the world. But, no, he's not the best player in the Western Conference.

Of course, he doesn't need to be this season. The Lakers return everybody from their back-to-back title teams and are the overwhelming favorite, at least in the majority's eyes, to represent the West in the Finals.

But let's not forget that Durant's Thunder were a missed box-out away from taking L.A. to a Game 7 in round one last April. And the Thunder, undoubtedly, will only be better considering their youth.

The West, quite simply, might be a little more interesting than people are forecasting. In other words, it shouldn't be completely ignored while 123 percent of league pundits are watching the Heat.

(Finishing place in the conference is in parentheses.)

(3) Dallas Mavericks, 55-27: Yes, they're ancient. And, yes, some injuries could make this season catastrophic and convince Mark Cuban it's time to blow up the core. But as they stand now, the Mavericks will be damn good. Caron Butler and Braendan Haywood will be more comfortable within the system after a summer, and Jason Terry remains one of the league's most underrated players.

(5) San Antonio Spurs, 52-30: Speaking of old, how 'bout them Spurs? Again, the question is health. Can Tim Duncan stay fresh? Can Manu Ginobili avoid the injury bug? If they stay injury-free, then the fortunes of this team -- as in, can they make a final push for a title? -- will ride on whether Richard Jefferson really is in shape and how well DeJuan Blair and Tiago Splitter help out the Big Fundamental down low.

(9) Houston Rockets, 46-36: So Yao is back. But for how long? That's the issue surrounding this team and the difference between a borderline playoff team and a squad that could win a couple playoff series. The health of Yao's foot. I'm banking on him playing enough games to get them into the playoffs, but he won't be completely healthy. It should be noted that there is a lot of Yao-less talent here, such as Aaron Brooks.

(10) New Orleans Hornets, 42-40: If Chris Paul is healthy, it's hard to pick this team to do that poorly. So, yes, they'll be thinking playoffs for most of the season. The addition of Trevor Ariza will help, as he's a solid buddy in transition for CP3 and is a decent defender. But Emeka Okafor and David West aren't exactly dominant or scary big men, and the defense will struggle.

(11) Memphis Grizzlies, 40-42: Can they stop anybody? That's the question the Grizzlies will need to affirmatively answer if they're going to take that next step to the playoffs. For now, I'd say, 'Nope!' When Your main cogs are O.J. Mayo, Rudy Gay and Zach Randolph, defense isn't the biggest priority. Scoring a lot of points and earning big contracts -- now, that's a goal to have!

(2) Oklahoma City Thunder, 56-26: It's impossible, really, to overrate Kevin Durant right now. He's the consummate teammate. He's shown that he can take over games when needed. He has a diversified game. He plays solid defense. What else is there? Well, of course a division title ... and then conference title, etc., with an MVP thrown in. This team will only get better. As always, the potential downfall could be injuries.

(4) Utah Jazz, 54-28: So nobody's talking about Utah. What's new? Jerry Sloan somehow, someway, still hasn't won a COY. Don't we say that every year? Bottom line -- with Sloan and Deron Williams running the show, the Jazz will be good. Just how good will depend on how well Al Jefferson replaces Carlos Boozer. I love the move because as solid as Boozer was, Jefferson has more upside. That'll be needed come playoff time.

(T-6) Portland Trail Blazers, 50-32: I'm sorry, but it's hard to get excited about a team that's always hurt. I would never buy tickets before the season for a Blazers game because I could end up watching Jerryd Bayless, Nicholas Batum and Dante Cunningham (no offense). Even if this team is healthy, I don't sense a good enough chemistry to contend for the division or go far in the postseason. Not this year, anyway.

(8) Denver Nuggets, 49-33: This team is almost identical to last year's first-place squad, adds 17.7-ppg Al Harrington and returns head coach George Karl from cancer. But they'll lose more games, mostly because of the distractions surround Carmelo Anthony (and possibly a mid-season trade). And Harrington will be a horrible fit on a team with plenty of guys who love to shoot.

(15) Minnesota Timberwolves, 16-66: There's no reason to think the T-Wolves can't be as bad as they were a year ago (15-67). Their roster remains a discombobulated mess that poor Kurt Rambis has to try to figure out. There are at least three mediocre point guards, malcontent Michael Beasley, and hugely overpaid scrub Darko Milicic. The only decent team guy is Kevin Love until Jonny Flynn learns how to run an offense better.

(1) Los Angeles Lakers, 58-24: They're going to take a page out of the Celtics' playbook, go figure, and decrease Kobe's minutes. Smart move. Of course, they'll try to mostly do this in lopsided games. You won't see him sitting in close games. He'd choke Phil Jackson before letting that happen. Even with a resting Bryant -- and maybe others -- this team remains loaded and will reclaim the top seed come April.

(T-6) Phoenix Suns, 50-32: They're small and they're thin, but no team will be as fun to watch as these Suns. I'm anticipating a bounce-back season from Hedo Turkoglu who, like many before him, will be re-energized by the amazing Steve Nash. I also expect Robin Lopez to help Phoenix fans forget about Amar'e Stoudemire and increase his rebounding numbers twofold. Oh, and Josh Childress is back from Greece.

(12) Los Angeles Clippers, 39-43: Can we please stop the playoff rumblings? Yes, Blake Griffin is going to be good once he takes the court and, presumably, stays healthy. He and Chris Kaman will form a pretty dominant frontcourt. But Baron Davis hasn't been inspired for a couple seasons now, and not even Griffin will get him back to his '07 Warriors form. Eric Gordon could blossom at the 2 spot.

(13) Sacramento Kings, 30-52: It will be interesting to see if this team can develop a cohesiveness that breeds winning, because the talent is there. The frontcourt is loaded with DeMarcus Cousins, Jason Thompson, Samuel Dalembert, etc., but roles need to be established. Who will play what minutes. In the backcourt, there's the question of whether Tyreke Evans should run the point or play off the ball. Answers?

(14) Golden State Warriors, 28-54: I'll say this for the Warriors -- I've never enjoyed watching such a bad team more. I remember catching the fourth quarter of a game last season that I got hooked on instead of the U.S. men's hockey team's Olympic game. That's how fun Stephen Curry, Monta Ellis and company can be. With Don Nelson gone, things might be toned down a notch under Keith Smart, meaning defense will be played. That's a good thing for the team, if not for TV viewers like myself.

Playoff predictions still to come...

Sunday, October 24, 2010

NBA Eastern Conference preview


As we head into this most intriguing of NBA seasons, let's get one thing clear: The regular season really doesn't matter. At least in terms of crowning an NBA champion, it doesn't.

The really good teams will make the playoffs. Whether they're a No. 1, 2, 3 or 4 seed won't affect how they perform in the postseason (just ask last season's Celtics). Sure, the middle-of-the-pack teams will duke it out for playoff spots/saving coaches jobs. But, ultimately, the NBA is a very predictable league. The teams you expect to be playing in June usually are.

Just consider the recent past champions:

2010 — Lakers, No. 1 seed
2009 — Lakers, No. 1 seed
2008 — Celtics, No. 1 seed
2007 — Spurs, No. 1 seed
2006 — Heat, No. 1 seed
2005 — Spurs, No. 1 seed

You get the point.

So with that in mind, here is my short list of teams I actually think could win the 2010-11 NBA title:

Orlando (very iffy)
L.A. Lakers
Oklahoma City (yes, Kevin Durant is that good)

With all this being said ... the regular season is going to be very watchable. To start with, every Heat game will grab high ratings simply because of LeBron, D-Wade and crew. It'll be very interesting to see how the team comes together. And it'll be fun to monitor the receptions the team, especially a certain Cleveland outcast, receives in opposing arenas.

So how will things shake out come early April? Let's start with the Eastern Conference.

(Finishing place in the conference is in parentheses.)

(3) Boston Celtics, 52-30: The Celtics found a winning formula last season: Stink it up during the regular season, fooling everyone into thinking you're finished. Then start playing hard in the playoffs with a healthy, fresh squad and come within a horrid second half of winning it all. I expect a similar formula this time around with more depth in the frontcourt.

(7) Philadelphia 76ers, 39-43: Hopefully Doug Collins paces himself with this team, because it's young and will wear on him constantly. The biggest question mark remains, What the heck has happened to Elton Brand? It's like he's still playing on West Coast time. The backcourt should be pretty strong if Evan Turner lives up to his hype; if not, it will be a long season and more gray hairs for Collins.

(T-11) New York Knicks, 34-48: So the Knicks cleared out their payroll and ended up with Amar'e Stoudemire and ... Carmelo Anthony? Reportedly, 'Melo has been chatting it up with Spike Lee, which is the only reason Knicks fans can be hopeful that a decade of drudgery might end anytime soon. Because the current outfit won't play defense or rebound very well. Not a winning formula.

(13) New Jersey Nets, 32-50: There is hope for the Nets. Devin Harris and Brook Lopez form a nice outside-inside combo, and Derrick Favors has as much upside — yeah, that confounding word — as anyone from the '10 draft. Oh, and they'll improve by almost 20 wins. Baby steps, baby steps. Carmelo would help, but it's not looking likely.

(15) Toronto Raptors, 23-59: Quick — name me two players on the Raptors (and spell their names correctly). Yes, it's officially rebuilding time, since Chris Bosh decided to take his talents to South Beach. Let's not forget that this team features a fairly recent No. 1 pick, Andrea Bargnani, who should now be the focal point of the offense. His progression will be about the most fun thing to watch.

(4) Milwaukee Bucks, 51-31: Nobody talked about this team during the offseason, big surprise. But it made some moves that have it on a path toward a division crown. For one, Andrew Bogut is almost fully recovered from the gruesome elbow/wrist/hand, broken-bone catastrophe. Also, John Salmons is back and Corey Maggette/Drew Gooden are in town. Good moves; improving and dangerous team.

(5) Chicago Bulls, 50-32: Speaking of moves, the Bulls made some very solid ones, too. No, they didn't get the grand prize. But, hey, there's only one South Beach. Carlos Boozer fits perfectly into their lineup alongside defensive-rebounding behemoth Joakim Noah; Ronnie Brewer is a serviceable, team-guy shooting guard; and I have a feeling Kyle Korver will be in at the end of games making outside shots.

(8) Detroit Pistons, 38-44: They won't be as bad as last year, namely because no one wants to repeat that last-place disaster. This roster is better than that. Still, speculation will encircle the futures of Detroit fixtures Richard Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince. And Joe Dumars will, and should, continue to receive a lot of heat for completely ruining an annual championship contender.

(T-11) Indiana Pacers, 34-48: This would be a pretty damn good college team, featuring Darren Collison, Mike Dunleavy, Roy Hibbert, Brandon Rush and, oh, Tyler Hansbrough — with Dahntay Jones and Josh McRoberts coming off the bench. On second thought, the Pacers are one Dukie/Tar Heel short of being able to put an all-Tobacco Road lineup on the floor. Not a good NBA team, though, even led by the stellar Danny Granger.

(14) Cleveland Cavaliers, 30-52: Starting at small forward ... Jamario Moon!! Oh, Cleveland. Yes, this team has the potential (rather, lack thereof) to go from the best team in the East to the worst. It'll be up to Mo Williams, who (jokingly?) considered retirement in the offseason, and Antawn Jamison to carry the offensive load. The only player with "upside" is J.J. Hickson.


(1) Miami Heat, 63-19: No, they won't break the Bulls' 72-10 record for regular-season dominance. Injuries are already a problem before the season, as Mike Miller will be out for a few months. That will hurt the team's outside shooting, and, no, Jerry Stackhouse isn't an adequate replacement. I have a feeling the Big Three (do they have a nickname, yet?) also won't be together every night. But, ultimately, this team will be made or broken in the playoffs. Obviously.

(2) Orlando Magic, 55-27: There's no team entering this season — at least teams with potential — with more of a chip on its shoulder. Dwight Howard is mad, and, like James, perhaps will drop a bit of his humorous side in favor of a more serious demeanor. The Magic have been fuming about all the attention their neighbors to the south have received. Howard has worked on a mid-range game. Their fate might depend on how furnished it is.

(6) Atlanta Hawks, 49-33: Guess who received the largest contract during the offseason? Not LeBron, not Chris Bosh. Yep, Joe Johnson. The Hawks didn't really have a choice, either. Actually, the choice was: Stay relevant with Johnson or become irrelevant sans him. Unfortunately, they won't get much better than the team that's looked listless in the second round of the playoffs each of the last two seasons.

(9) Washington Wizards, 36-46: The Positive: John Wall; he's been as advertised during the preseason and is a captain as a rookie. This is his franchise, and, thus, it's headed in the right direction. The Negative: Gilbert Arenas; what a horrible distraction. He's already talked about heading in another direction and parting ways with the Wizards. Well, that isn't happening. And, for now, neither is a playoff season.

(10) Charlotte Bobcats, 35-47:  So Charlotte let Raymond Felton go to New York this offseason and then tried to make a move for a starting point guard — and ultimately failed. And now, Larry Brown is stuck with D.J. Augustin, who spent much of last season in his doghouse. Not good. Brown's best teams have featured a point guard that understood what LB. wanted. Not happening here.

Stay tuned for my Western Conference preview and, finally, playoff predictions.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Could Durant/Oden be the next Jordan/Bowie?

Who imagined this in June of 2007?

When 7-footer Greg Oden was drafted by the Portland Trail Blazers with the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft, there were few harsh critics. Sure, there were many basketball minds who thought Portland might have been smarter taking the skinny, bench-presses-like-a-ninth-grader Kevin Durant out of Texas. But there were no, "OH MY GOD. What are you thinking???" responses.

After all, Oden was destined to become a great player at a position where they just don't produce 'em like they used to. A great center. While Durant was super talented, on the other hand, 6-9 wings were about as abundant in '07 as Facebook users.

So the Blazers took Oden, the Supersonics-soon-to-be-Thunder took Durant, and both parties were pleased. In a perfect, happy world or 2004-draft-world-minus-Darko-Milicic that might be the case.

Sadly for the city of Portland, however, we're instead looking at, gasp, a Jordan-Bowie repeat.

Am I portending things to come? Absolutely. Could I be wrong? In some ways, possibly. But the facts and a set of basketball-watching eyes tell the story.

Let's start with the MJ in this equation...

Anyone who watched Durant dominate the World Championships this summer, leading a team of the NBA's B-listers to a convincing title, can't deny that he's en route to becoming the best player in the Association. Heck, he might even already be there. Better than LeBron. Better than D-Wade. And honestly, barring injury he's almost a shoe-in for MVP in 2010-11 now that the Miami Trio is official.

Durant is two days shy of his 22nd birthday. (Yes, that's not a typo.) When I was 22, I was learning the fine art of staying up all night writing history papers. He'll only get better, and better.

Jordan entered the league more mature and seasoned. After an injury-plagued second season, he put up 37.1 points, 5.2 rebounds and 4.6 assists in his third campaign with the Bulls. In Durant's third season with burgeoning Oklahoma City, he averaged 30.1/7.6/2.8. So, no, not quite Jordan-esque numbers, but good enough to compare to the 10-time scoring champion.

As far as scoring, Durant is still learning the fine art of shot selection and isn't as selfish as M.J. -- especially young M.J. -- so he may never average as much as the five-time MVP, especially with explosive Russell Westbrook by his side. But I'm guessing he'll accumulate as many MVPs and we'll see about the titles.

Now to the Bowie part of the equation. Oden, undoubtedly, has plenty of talent and has shown glimpses of it during his first two seasons. But even when he's at his best, he doesn't have close to the impact on a game that Durant has. This is a guard/ballhandler's league, and Oden isn't doing any of that.

Mostly, sadly, he's been on the bench -- often in street cloths.

During Bowie's first two seasons, the 7-foot-1 center played 114 games (missing 48) and averaged around 11 points and 8.5 rebounds. After missing his entire rookie season, Oden has played 82 games (missing a full season's worth of action) over the past two years and averaged about 10 points and eight boards.

So Oden hasn't even been as good as Bowie. Can he be better, can he be consistently good? Yes, of course. But at this point, it's almost inevitable that Oden will not live up to his status as a No. 1 draft pick -- and this task is made all the more daunting by the production Durant is amassing.

Many basketball experts say there will never be another Michael Jordan. And there's a good chance they're right. So perhaps the Oden-Durant draft will never quite get the same attention as Jordan-Bowie did (and continues to receive through books). But to be able to write pretty definitively after three seasons about the opposite fortunes of the two speaks to just how disparate their NBA careers have been.

Of course, Portland never would have received so much backlash over the Bowie selection if Jordan hadn't gone on to win six titles for the Bulls while the Blazers haven't won a trophy since pre-ESPN. If Durant fails to lead the Thunder to championships in a stocked NBA and Portland does all right -- it's still a playoff team minus a healthy/great Oden -- this won't be a big deal.

I'm not predicting that, though. Durant has 10 great years left in the league, and the Thunder are assembling a behemoth. I foresee multiple titles for KD & Co.

Which will leave the entire Northwest -- don't forget about Seattle! -- feeling about as bitter as Cleveland.

Friday, September 10, 2010

For Wolverines, season's fortunes will depend on defense


Believe it or not, the shoelaces of Denard Robinson won't be the main determining factor when it comes to Michigan's wins and losses columns this season. Yeah, I know -- it's a tough sell. I don't think shoelaces have ever gotten as much attention during a week. In fact, write it in ink — no untied shoelaces have ever gotten more pub. Period.

And Robinson, and his shoelaces, looked pretty phenomenal last Saturday, as he pressed the turbo button and sped past hordes of helpless Connecticut defenders. But why did the Wolverines defeat the Huskies so handily, 30-10? Because of 11-plus young men in winged helmets who tied their shoelaces and pretty much shut down Connecticut.

Yes, the defense.

Last season, remember, the Wolverines were far from bad on offense. They were near the top of the Big Ten in all offensive categories, scored a ton of points and were fun to watch. But a combination of terrible defense and a horrible turnover ratio led to the collapse from a 4-0 start into a 5-7 season, officially making Rich Rodriguez's seat red hot.

Then the team's top two defenders, Brandon Graham and Donovan Warren, bolted for the NFL, starting cornerback Troy Woolfork busted his leg before the season, and things were looking extremely grim for an inexperienced, no-reason-to-be-confident, undersized defense learning a new 3-3-5 scheme from career unsuccessful coordinator Greg Robinson. Not good at all.

But in the new Big House Saturday, the defense looked OK, which could be enough to win seven or eight games — yes, Wolverines fans, an eight-victory campaign would be very good for this group.

Before you go serenading Michigan a Top 25 team, however (and that talk, really, is ridiculous after just a game), let's see how it handles Notre Dame's offense tomorrow and then, down the road, the Big Ten's top dogs. Let's not go anointing this team special as the national media did last year after a measly two wins, with a Sports Illustrated article and everything.

Lost in all the excitement of the season-opening blowout was the fact that Connecticut played really poorly. The Huskies dropped several balls, fumbled away the pigskin inside the Michigan 10-yard line and generally were out of sorts. The offense was far from sharp. So it's difficult to get a gauge of just how good, or bad, the Wolverines' D is.

The best word to characterize the performance — encouraging. If nothing else, the unit definitely has more confidence going into this weekend, which it will need against the Fighting Irish on the road.

There's no doubt Michigan has talent on the defensive side of the ball. Rodriguez's zealous recruiting hasn't suffered despite his 3- and 5-win seasons to begin his (maybe very short) career in Ann Arbor. There are several players who could quickly make names for themselves this season.

But at this point, be hesitant in giving these Wolverines too much credit. We all know Robinson is a mega talent, not to mention personality, who will probably do more of what he did Saturday the rest of the season (although things will get much more difficult as opposing coaches view film of him and come up with game plans hellbent on confusing him). The offense will be good, possibly very good.

It won't matter, however, unless the D is, well, fine, OK — just not bad.

Its first big test will come at South Bend. Shoelaces tied or not.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Not done yet: Federer will win more majors


Roger Federer is old. Old for the highest level of tennis, at least, at 29. He's small and anemic compared to the young, tall and muscular behemoths blasting 140-mph serves left and right.

He's over the hill. Past his prime.

But done? Not a chance.

Anyone who watched Federer battle Mardy Fish last weekend in Cincinnati, coming back from a set down to win consecutive hard-fought sets over a guy who hadn't lost to a top-10 player all year, knows the Greatest of All Time is far from finished. In fact, as the U.S. Open begins tomorrow, I'd pick only one guy over Federer -- his rival Rafael Nadal, who happens to have won the last two major championships.

And that's, really, a coin-flip pick for me.

Is Federer the same player he was two, three, five years ago? No, of course not. He is a bit slower than his competition and not as strong. But he has a HUGE mental edge, having navigated his way to a record 16 majors. He, more than any player in history, knows how to win a grueling match, a match in which he might not be hitting the ball as hard as his opponent or moving as nimbly.

Many experts are picking Andy Murray to finally break through and win his first major in New York. He's a solid pick. After all, just a couple weeks ago he took care of Federer -- 7-5, 7-5 -- on hard courts in Toronto. But that was Toronto. Federer has owned Murray under the microscope of the year's final grand slam, and I wouldn't bet against him in a rematch.

Even taking Nadal over Federer is a bit of a shaky pick considering Nadal's record on hard courts. He's still chasing that elusive U.S. Open title, which I think he'll finally get in two weeks. Nadal is the only player on tour who can match Federer in the mental category. So it's only appropriate that he's seeded No. 1 and Federer No. 2 entering the tournament.

What makes Federer a scary player to face in New York is that by his standards, he's having a down year. He won the Australian Open, but was ousted in the quarterfinals at the French Open and Wimbledon -- early exits ... by his standards. Not only that, but he's had to hear all this talk about him being over the hill, about the window closing. Even with two more career majors than anyone else, he's as motivated as ever. He's adjusting his game to best fit his athletic abilities. He's only playing in the tournaments -- 16 to 20 a year -- that he  cares about.

Ultimately, he really only cares about winning more majors, and he recently told the BBC that he believes he can add four more to his resume -- reaching a sterling 20 for his career. That quest begins now. The young guns will be spraying serves all over the place and ripping winners.

But let's not forget who the No. 2 seed, deservedly, is. I won't be betting against him anytime soon.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Vikings' trio did the right thing -- after all, it's about winning, right?

In our Ford-tough, I'd rather get lost in a cornfield than ask for directions, hard-hitting society for men in America, asking for a favor -- or, gasp, pleading with someone -- is not very cool. After all, we don't need anyone, right? We're strong and independent.

So, naturally, the Vikings trio of Jared Allen, Ryan Longwell and Steve Hutchinson received some grief for their trip to Mississippi Monday night with the purported goal of getting an answer out of that Brett Favre guy -- ever heard of him? -- about his football-playing answer. They were hoping, of course, that the 39-year-old Hall-of-Fame gunslinger would agree to play one more year, but really, they just wanted a "yes" or "no."

(It's nice to know whom you'll be sacking other quarterbacks for so they can return to the field; whom you'll be protecting; and whom you'll be kicking for, respectively -- at least a couple weeks before the season.)

Former Patriots linebacker and ESPN analyst Teddi Bruschi, among others, was highly critical of the mini summer vacation, saying he lost respect for the Vikings and that the mighty Pats would never do such a thing. Yeah, and if Tom Brady wasn't so loyal and willing to play hard, at least for now, for much less money than he deserves, he'd be gone and New England would be a very subpar team.

The three Vikings, bottom line, did the right thing. They wanted to know, now, who's going to be behind center this fall, so they forced an answer out of Favre. And now that No. 4 is back in the saddle, anyone who's ever watched him on the field knows that he'll give his all to the organization and his teammates, risking his aging body on every offensive snap.

This is Brett Favre, people, not some clown who might quit after four games, take snaps off, or disrupt the team's chemistry. While he might not be as incredible as his 33-touchdown, seven-interception gem of a season in '09 -- the best of his career -- he'll give the Vikings a much better chance to get to the Super Bowl than Tarvaris Jackson or Sage Rosenfels would.

Minnesota has never won a Super Bowl. Neither have Allen, Longwell and Hutchinson. The city wants one badly. So do the three of them -- all veterans without too many years left, by the way (except for Longwell, who, as a kicker, should play until he's 51).

So why not give yourself the best chance to win now?

This isn't a baseball team shipping away its prospects for one chance at the World Series. This is a good team becoming, possibly, great. The only sacrifice it's making is a year of "development" for Jackson and/or Rosenfels and, possibly, the realization that neither is the answer to the team's future at quarterback.

Could this thing backfire? Could Favre get knocked down in Week 1 and finally "retire?" Absolutely. Obviously. He might have a poor season.

But the odds are that he'll definitely take the Vikings back to the playoffs, and in January whom would you rather have...

Yeah, rhetorical question

Kudos to Allen, Lonngwell and Hutchinson for putting their "pride" aside and making that trip Monday night. They got a lot more out of the trip than some southern home cookin'.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Wait ... Chris Bosh quit on the Raptors?


Forgive me for writing about this, but I wanted to say something before it's completely forgotten. After all, it happened in Toronto -- the one NBA city which is basically ignored because, well, it's in Canada (anyone remember the Vancouver Grizzlies?).

However, before we completely move on to covering Miami's "Big Three" or "Terrific Trio" or "D-Wade and Co.," it should be noted that LeBron James isn't the only member of the "insert name" that has been ripped since his departure from his previous team. Since Wade didn't leave the Heat, that leaves, yes, Chris Bosh, the seemingly inoccouous All-Star -- but, no, not superstar -- who somehow, it appeared, held the most power during the free-agent negotiations in bringing all three to South Beach.

Raptors GM Bryan Colangelo said recently that Bosh, basically, quit on the Raptors as the team battled for the eighth playoff spot in the Eastern Conference this past season, not coming back as quickly as he could from an injury.

The Raptors missed the playoffs by a game. One game.

(Side note: Of course, all a playoff spot would have meant was a bludgeoning at the hands of James' Cavs. But still, there's a big difference in fans' eyes -- and others' -- between being the eighth or ninth best team in a conference and making or missing the playoffs.)

Colangelo said that Bosh was cleared to play "subject to tolerance on his part," but instead chose to sit out an additional six games. Upon further examination, Bosh missed seven games in late February and early March -- a period during which Toronto went 3-4 -- nursing a sprained left ankle. He also missed the season's final five games, and most of a sixth, after fracturing two bones in his face. I'm assuming Colangelo isn't referring to that injury.

So Bosh sat out when he could have played on his ankle with the team still having more than 20 games to lock up a playoff spot. Then when he returned, he wasn't quite the same player the rest of the season -- with his point and rebound numbers both dipping -- which, I'm sure, is part of what Colangelo was referring to when he said:

"Whether he was mentally checked out or just wasn't quite into it down the stretch, he wasn't the same guy,"

I wouldn't call it a reason to bash Bosh too badly. It wasn't the end of the season. Maybe he wasn't quite in that panicked playoff mode yet. That's somewhat understandable. Still, this kind of action has to be wondered about, especially when a respected GM like Colangelo speaks out and we're talking about a place in Toronto where Vince Carter admitted to slacking during games and Tracy McGrady gotouttatownquick.

I'd like to hope Bosh becomes a better team player, winner and hard worker than those cousins. And I'm pretty sure we won't hear about him taking it easy when injured in Miami now that he'll play alongside James and Wade.

Still, this really leaves a sour taste in the mouth. As Colangelo mentioned, here was an organization that had worked really hard to surround Bosh with complementary players, mixing and matching and putting forth a lot of effort to try to build a winner. This is a team that lured a very good player (although he just had a down year), Hedo Turkoglu, from Orlando to Toronto. What?

Bosh has never had a reputation for taking it easy or sitting out when he can play. Although during four of his seven seasons abroad, he played 70 or fewer games (not by much, however: 67, 69, 70, 70). He only played more than 77 games once. He never played in all 82 games.

Perhaps that's just who he is -- a 75-regular-season-games-a-year player. And for the Heat, that should be just fine. Any lock-for-the-playoffs team knows that it's not what you do during the regular season; saving a little energy for the playoffs isn't a bad strategy. Just ask this past season's Celtics.

So Bosh will have that option now. Miami, with a healthy trio of stars, will never be in danger of coming close to missing the playoffs. That must be nice.

But for Bosh to sit out a half-dozen games for a team battling to stay in the playoff picture -- a team that ultimately missed them by a single game -- doesn't leave a good impression. So, yes, Toronto fans, boos are acceptable when he makes his return next season. Just no jersey burnings.

That's my analysis, thanks. Now let's get on with the good stuff. I heard there's going to be this pretty good team down in South Beach...

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Major League Baseball leading the battle against performance-enhancing drugs


There are a lot of former baseball fans out there. People who used to love America's (past) pastime when it was "clean," when players looked like normal people and played because of a love for the game, and when no one even considered the thought of 70 home runs in a season.

Of course, the sports lost thousands of fans after the brutal 1994 strike. And just when its popularity was soaring again around the turn of the millennium, the steroids scandal rocked the game. And rocked it. And rocked it some more.

Many fans who turned their focus to other sports and endeavors may never come back to the game. However, everyone must admit this regardless of their disgust for the sport — it's done a very good, thorough job of cleaning up the game the last few years.

The latest news? Last week, MLB implemented random drug testing in the minor leagues for Human Growth Hormone, or HGH as it's commonly referred to. HGH has been a go-to drug for cheaters of recent years because it can't be detected by a urine sample. Now, that elusive blood test will be arbitrarily administered to minor leaguers.

It will be a little more difficult to get the testing implemented at the highest level because of collective bargaining, but most experts believe that it's not far away — that it's going to happen. Of course, there are always new, undetectable drugs out there. So it'd be naive to say that an HGH test would mean a completely clean sport. That's never going to happen.

But watch an MLB game today, and you'll notice how different it is from a decade ago. Players are noticeably smaller. And the biggest storyline of this season has been the dominance of pitchers, who have posted better numbers across the board than they have since 1992 — when steroid use was minimal (check out a Barry Bonds picture from that season and compare it to the '01 Bonds portrait).

Criticize Bud Selig all you want, but he's done more as a sport's commissioner than anyone else to clean up a game that was dirtier than a kid after a mud football game. MLB has in place penalties for steroid use that include a 50-game suspension for a first offense, a 100-game suspension for a second offense and a lifetime ban from the game for a third. Other disciplinary actions are in place for lesser crimes against the game.

The list of steroids, abusive drugs and stimulants that result in a penalty is long — very long. It reads more than 60-deep, and it's never a surprise to me when a player is suspended for taking something he had no idea was banned. Of course, it's the player's fault for not doing his research. But it also speaks to the thoroughness of MLB's movement against PED use.

Maybe some fans were lost for life during the ugly Steroid Era and its aftermath. Well, too bad for them. Because baseball today is as clean as it's been in quite some time.

Just watch the product on the field and you'll know right away.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Re-evaluating LeBron James' possible legacy


Hypothetical: LeBron James plays the next 11 years for the Miami Heat alongside Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, winning four championships. Each team features a balanced scoring attack, and the big shots are split pretty evenly between James and Wade, with Bosh throwing in a few and even Mike Miller draining some huge Derek Fisher-esque 3-pointers.

James retires with the four rings, four MVP trophies and hundreds of millions in cash.

How does his legacy stack up?

Since James' ridiculous one-hour TV special a week ago, which, by the way, got spectacular ratings -- yeah, ESPN did all right -- there has been a huge backlash against James. Some of it, criticizing him for the way he made his decision, he deserved. And a lot of it, bashing him for his free-agency choice, was, of course, just silly. It's his choice; he has no obligation to stay in Cleveland.

What's also been said, however, and deserves more thinking about is this -- that James severely tarnished his potential legacy by signing with the Miami Heat and Wade, arguably the third best player in the Association, and 20-10 guy Bosh. In essence, that he called for "HELP!!" instead of digging down to try to lead his own team to a championship.

Some say that any title James wins in Miami won't mean as much, won't garner him as much respect in the history books as if he had carried the Cavaliers to a championship. Others say that's garbage, pointing to Magic Johnson winning four rings playing with Kareem and Bird gaining three with a loaded Celtics team.

Here's where I stand: James set expectations so high, anything he does in Miami likely won't exceed them. Sure, if the above hypothetical works out, he'll likely be mentioned in the same breath as Bird and Magic. But it was just this past season that everyone was comparing James -- not his style of play, mind you -- and his potential to carry a franchise to Michael Jordan.

In joining up with Wade, a player who will likely possess the ball just as much as The King and take as many last-minute shots, James distanced himself from a chance at ever reaching M.J. status. When asked this week who the best player in the league is, Jordan's response was quick and short: "Kobe." James is not his type of dude -- that's clear.

And not the similar player, either.

One argument that I just had to laugh at involved comparing James' and Jordan's teammates. It was mentioned, in contrasting Jordan's Bulls to Wade and company, that Scottie Pippen was a top-five player in the league when playing with Jordan. Arguable, but maybe true. Still, how often did Pippen have the ball in his hands in the final seconds of a close game?

Very rarely. It was almost always Jordan's rock. Pippen was a great player, but he was no Wade when it comes to being clutch and making big plays. That might have had as much to do with playing alongside Jordan as anything else, but it's the truth.

Bryant, of course, relied heavily on Shaquille O'Neal for his first three titles. But now he's furnishing his legacy by leading the Lakers, and taking almost all the big shots, to back-to-back titles -- and, I think, a third next season.

James, if he wins three or more titles, will go down as a great champion. There's no doubt about that. And who knows, really, how things will work with the Heat? Maybe Wade will play off the ball most of the time. Maybe he'll defer to James and be a Pippen-like spot-up shooter.

But until the Heat become "LeBron's team," it will be difficult for him to crack the pantheon of the top five players of all time. Every headline that reads "Wade and James lead Heat to NBA title" hurts, just a tad, James' legacy. Just a tad.

I love the fact that this trio made selfless moves to gang up and give themselves the best chance to win championships. It's rare that you see something like this, especially in the NBA. And I believe their heads are all in the right place and they all have the same priorities -- winning, winning, winning.

So who really cares if James doesn't go down as The Greatest of All Time or The Best Since Michael? It should be a joy to watch how this duo of superstars -- plus an All-Star -- works together, and we'll see how many titles they can ring up.

And about that legacy? Well, we've always said there will never be another Jordan.

More and more, that's looking like the truth. In fact, Bryant might be as close to the next M.J. as we'll ever see.

Friday, July 9, 2010

How a non-superstar dictated the NBA free agency drama


I don't condone it, but it certainly can be understood why some angry, bitter Cleveland basketball fans were burning LeBron James jerseys in the streets of his former city Thursday night. After all, he had just announced, on national TV, his decision to leave the Cavaliers for South Beach -- in essence, leaving an economically depressed city with nothing to be excited about sports-wise.


But perhaps the inflammatory rioters should have been lighting flames to another jersey as well -- that of Chris Bosh, one of two high-profile players whom James will join in Miami. The other, of course, is Dwyane Wade, who, along with James, is one of the game's top three players.

Over the past week, one of the 1,073,294 storylines surrounding the free agency bonanza was that James was interested in having Bosh join the Cavs via a sign-and-trade from the Raptors that would have given him a maximum contract to play alongside the King on a team that led the league in wins last season. Bosh would be just the low-post player Cleveland needed to perhaps push it over the top and get James that championship -- a solid 24-point, 10-rebound guy who is only getting better.

Bosh, however, was having none of it. He didn't want to play in Cleveland, was not attracted to the city. He had done his time in Toronto, played his butt off for the fans there, made it his home. Now, he was ready for a big city with big lights, an attractive city.

Cleveland? Hell no!

(Tangent: This goes back to something that must be noted about free agency, especially in the NBA: Warm-weather cities have a huge advantage. How many big names leave the south to go north, especially to cities outside of the Big Three of New York, Chicago and Boston? Detroit, Cleveland, Minnesota, New Jersey -- they're all at a huge disadvantage. What are they going to say -- there's great skiing? Not to be stereotypical, but when was the last time you heard of NBA players going on ski trips together? OK, that's enough.)

So Bosh dismissed that possibility. He had zero interest in joining James in Cleveland. Instead, he would gladly move down to the beaches, warm weather, and trendy clubs of South Beach to join his other boy, Wade.

Now consider this -- it's not a definite, but if Bosh had joined James in Cleveland, leaving the Cavs with no cap room after the trade, Wade would have been left with nobody in Miami. And he has gone on record since Bosh agreed to play for the Heat Wednesday as saying that he wouldn't re-sign until he had a guarantee from management that a big-name player would be joining him.

Wade might have gone to Chicago, might have returned home to play on a very talented, very complete Bulls team. Seriously -- a squad with Wade, Derrick Rose, Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah would have been the favorite in the East (as would have been the case had James chosen the Bulls Thursday; and it would have made the most basketball sense, as all the experts said).

So we would be looking at quite a different landscape in the Eastern Conference -- and there would be no jersey-burning in Cleveland; just jersey buying.

None of the players can be blamed for their decisions. In fact, all of them are taking pay cuts to make things work in Miami (although the cuts might not be as big as talked about due to the state's lack of an income tax; I'll let the math whizzes crunch the numbers).

Everyone knows that this conversation started when the trio signed identical three-year deals to allow themselves to enter the Summer of 2010 in the same boat. And the bond probably got stronger in 2008 at the Beijing Olympics, where they were all key cogs in the U.S.'s run to the Gold Medal. Apparently, Chris Paul was a a part of the mix as well. And don't look now, but he's a free agent in 2012 -- yes, New Orleans, I'd be sweating at this very moment.

The only mistake made during this process was James' horrific decision to hold a one-hour TV special, "The Decision," to announce where he'd play. Cleveland fans may never forgive him for his overly public, unemotional, ugly divorce from the team. Owner Dan Gilbert definitely doesn't, considering the absolutely scathing letter he wrote to his fan base Thursday night.

But historians shouldn't forget that this all came to fruition because of the decision of a guy, in Bosh, who has never been first-team all-NBA and has played in all of 11 playoff games, failing to win a series.

He should win a few starting next season, and he deserves a lot of credit for helping to form this terrific trio that should wow NBA audiences, win a few titles -- and keep Cleveland fans, sadly, in a state of dismay and bitterness for many years to come.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

LeBron's legendary status could depend on this decision


The options must be enticing, like walking a buffet lined with Filet Mignon, the best ribeye and the freshest seafood.

Play in Chicago alongside one of the best young point guards for the next 10, 15 years.

Head to South Beach to run cats up and down the floor with D-Wade, one of the top five players in the game.

Compared to whom he's played with in Cleveland, LeBron James' options come the opening of free agency at midnight tonight are ridiculous. Put James next to Wade, or receiving alley-oops from Derrick Rose, or in a frontcourt with Chris Bosh, and he's undoubtedly on the favorite to win the next 13 NBA championships (give or take).

But aren't we forgetting about one less glamorous option? Yet an option that James still has the most to gain from in terms of his place in NBA history.

Yes, Cleveland.

Over the last couple months, I've been reading Bill Simmon's gigantic "Book of Basketball," an epic, thoroughly thorough history of the NBA. In it, Simmons ranks his different pyramids of the league's top players from 1-100. I believe James was somewhere in the 20s.

With the talent James possesses, there's no way he shouldn't end up in the top 5 with Jordan, Russell, Kareem and Magic/Bird (although Kobe's making a bid for a top spot, now, as well). The only way James could sabotage his legacy, to an extent, would be to play his best years alongside another top-five current player in his prime, such as Wade.

Think about it -- nobody was talking about Bryant as one of the best Lakers when he won three consecutive championships beside Shaquille O'Neal. Only when he ditched Shaq -- or had management do it, to be politically correct -- and finally won a couple as the team's unquestioned leader did this conversation of Bryant as the Greatest Laker begin.

If James plays alongside Wade, he'll have to share the praise after each championship. Wade is that good. This wouldn't be a Scottie Pippen-M.J. situation in which Pippen was a great player, but no one ever questioned who the leader was or whose hands the ball belonged in at the end. This would be completely different if James played with Wade or even the younger Rose, who will only get better and always want the ball in his hands.

To a lesser extent, the same would be true if James were to pair up with Bosh, as many experts have speculated. While Bosh wouldn't be handling the ball at the end of games, I'm sure the ball would go through him on plenty of possessions.

I have no idea what's going to make this decision for James. If I had to guess, I'd think he will pair up with another star. He hasn't shown the Jordan or Bryant singular thirst for championships, and at times during crucial games has seemed content to let the Mo Williams of the world run the offense. Maybe he doesn't care so much about always being the alpha dog, about everything being about him.

But if James truly wants to be remembered in the same breath as Jordan and Bryant -- and, no, he won't reach Russell status even if he plays with a Wade, Rose or Bosh, because no one in this era is coming close to the legend's 11 titles -- he needs to stay in Cleveland, be the man all the time, put up ridiculous numbers and start winning championships.

It's the most difficult route he could take, but it would also certainly be the most fulfilling road to legend status.

Oh, and Cleveland might just name itself after him.

So what's it going to be, LeBron?

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Big 12 basketball only gets better with less teams


One minute, it looked like the Big 12 might be no longer. Not even a conference. Now, it will become the most dominant basketball league in the nation. Thank you, Longhorns.

When Texas decided to stay in the league, it meant the Big 12 will have 10 teams once Nebraska and Colorado depart -- sidebar: how awkward is it going to be for those two schools this upcoming season? Hey, we're playing in the league, but, um, we already ditched you -- in the summers of 2011 and '12, respectively, reports indicate.

In other words, the perfect number of teams for a college hoops league. With 10 teams, everyone can play everyone twice. No exclusions. No weak schedules. No brutal slates. Just a completely even playing surface. Could you ask for anything more?

Add to that the fact that arguably the two weakest hoops schools are the ones departing, and you're talking about an infinitely better league. Seriously -- Kansas, Kansas State, Baylor, Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri. That's one helluva top six. Then add in Texas A&M, Oklahoma State (both NCAA Tournament teams in recent years), and finally Texas Tech -- regarded as on the up-and-up -- and pesky Iowa State, which is tough to beat at home.

Wow, I don't see any easy games. That's gonna make for ridiculously exciting and chaotic regular seasons. Count on it. The league's coaches have to be licking their chops. There will be no weak RPIs, no anemic schedules. Just throw in a couple tough non-conference games, and teams will be in prime position to make the Big Dance with 18, 19 wins. Perhaps seven routinely will -- which, of course, would be a mind-boggling 70 percent of the league.

From purely an on-field perspective, this doesn't hurt the football side of things, either. Sure, Nebraska was improving under Bo Pelini, and Colorado used to be formidable (but I'm talking about the Kordell Stewart-beats-Michigan-with-a-Hail-Mary days ... uhg, don't remind me).

Anyone who's followed the league recently knows that the South has been much, much better than the North. It was a joke, really, that a team from the North got to play in the conference championship game. Now, there will be no such thing. The conference schedule can go to nine games, allowing every team to play each other -- again, the best-possible scenario -- and the champion won't be determined by a made-for-TV, Dr. Pepper-sponsored game.

Yes, dollars will be lost. But damn it -- can't we forget the business side for just 2 minutes these days?

The Big 12 will be the most fun league to follow in the entire country. Yes, even better than the ACC in hoops, the SEC in football. It still has all the incredible offenses in Texas, albeit minus Mike Leach, and all its rivalries. Nebraska and Colorado was a rivalry, so that worked out well.

There really should be nothing to complain about if you're a Big 12 fan. The stage is set for great drama -- both on the basketball hardwood and between the hashes.

Now for getting rid of those defectors ASAP...

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Upsets in tennis just don't create that excitement they do in other sports


I've often been asked, Why do you spend thousands of hours each year watching sporting events that have absolutely no impact on your life? Why watch a Texas-Texas Tech game in October or an Illinois-Ohio State game in February?

Well, there are a few reasons, but a big one I'd immediately throw out there is the possibility of an upset, of something shocking happening. College football is great because of the thrill from one week to the next of a No. 1 or No. 2 team maybe being thwarted and sending the world -- and the BCS -- spinning on its axis. College basketball is the same way, especially during March Madness. And one NBA series I'll never forget was little Golden State's surprising dismantling of No. 1 seed Dallas in the '07 playoffs.

But there is one sport that I follow very closely in which I don't root for upsets -- tennis. So when Roger Federer and Serena Williams, the world's top players, went down on back to back days in the French Open quarterfinals, I wasn't exactly overjoyed.


Because in tennis, players like Federer and Williams don't grow on trees. They are once-in-a-generation players who bring such a consistent brilliance to the game that I want to soak up their play as much as possible. In Federer's case, I want to see more championship matches against Rafael Nadal. And any tennis fan without allegiance to a particular player who argues otherwise, is downright lying.

The Federer-Nadal match at Wimbledon two years ago was the best men's tennis spectacle -- ever. The world's best players create the greatest drama. No offense to Robin Soderling, who was absolutely outstanding in his four-set victory over Federer, but I don't care to watch him as he pursues a title. I'll watch it, rather, for Nadal -- a player who has done enough, winning six majors, to become a household name and a player who you always know, pending his health, will show up to battle it out on clay, grass or hardcourts.

On the women's side, it's impressive what Australian Samantha Stosur has done on clay, posting a 19-2 record and beating Williams 6-2, 6-7(2), 8-6 Wednesday. But she, like the other three remaining women in the bracket, hasn't won a grand slam. And will she be able to repeat the impressive performance she put together against Williams, including two gutsy cross-court shots to claim the essential break?

No one really knows, because she's lacking in experience.

Of course, this isn't to say that it wouldn't be nice for a new star to emerge. But becoming an instant hit on tour and sustaining excellence over the years are two completely difference achievements. Just ask Ana Ivanovic that. Where's she at these days other than in SI's Swimsuit Issue?

Tennis, bottom line, is more exciting and captivating when legends such as Federer and Williams are playing on the final weekend at majors. It's similar to golf and Tiger Woods, although I don't mind seeing Woods stink it up these days. The TV ratings for a tournament in which Woods is competing are astronomically higher than for one in which he's, gasp, missing the cut.

As far as TV ratings, this is also true with the Yankees and Lakers. And, yes, it doesn't get any better than a Lakers-Celtics final. But would I tune out if it were Suns-Magic? Absolutely not -- they're still two great teams with interesting storylines and players worth watching. Only in an individual sport do the names matter so much.

Yes, I'll be watching both French Open title matches this weekend. But just not with the excitement created by a Federer-Nadal matchup or a Williams' sisters battle.

Because tennis is at its best when the best, most tremendously established stars take the biggest stage -- ready to put on another match, another incredible display of tennis, for the ages.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Rafael Nadal primed to take back the French Open title


Rafael Nadal is back to his old self. He whips his top-spin heavy forehands all over the court, then flattens them out for winners down the line. He moves his feet quicker than lightning to get in position for laser winners. And he chases down every ball imaginable to keep points alive and frustrate his opponents to no end.

This is a good thing.

Tennis, and especially clay tennis, needs Nadal, needs his big-name attraction. As Nadal proved for four consecutive years, no one is close to him when it comes to dominating on clay. Nobody — not even Roger Federer .

Sure, the World's Greatest Of All Time won his first French Open a year ago to cement his legacy, but it needs to always be mentioned that he didn't have to face a certain Spaniard to claim the his most elusive grand slam. That victory almost needs an asterisk.

A year ago, when Nadal fall to Robin Soderling in the French, all was clearly not right with him. This was confirmed just weeks later when he had to, begrudgingly, withdraw from defending his Wimbledon title because of tendinitis in both knees. Knowing the competitor Nadal is, he must have been in a great deal of pain.

Nadal returned a couple weeks later and played the rest of the year, but he was almost an afterthought at the big tournaments. For a while, he fell out of the No. 2 slot in the world — he had been No. 1 early in the year, following his Australian Open victory over Federer — behind Andy Murray . And he got doused in three sets by eventual surprise U.S. Open champion Juan Martin del Potro .

Then at the Aussi Open in January, Nadal had to retire during a match against Murray. Yes, he withdrew from a second straight major where he was the defending champion. Obviously, all was not right with the six-time grand slam champion. Doctors told him to take two weeks off.

The 23-year-old heeded their advice, and since then he's felt great. Today in Paris, he dispatched of a desperate, I-don't-have-many-more-majors-to-play Lleyton Hewitt in three sets. Nadal was all over the court, chasing down every ground stroke Hewitt hit that looked like a winner. By the end of the match, Hewitt had the look of a man who knew he had simply been destroyed by a superior player.

There is no doubt, as Nadal moves on to the Round of 16, that when healthy he is one of the best two players in the world. The question remains, of course, whether he can keep playing at a high level without wearing down his knees. His tennis schedule has traditionally been super busy the entire calendar year with few breaks for rest. Perhaps a slight lightening of the schedule is needed for Nadal to remain healthy and playing his best tennis for several years (remember, Federer is 28 and still the world's No. 1).

Whatever the case, Nadal remains an absolute joy to watch, especially on the clay of Roland Garros. And no one is better than him on the surface. It seems a long time ago, but in the 2009 final Nadal obliterated Federer in three quick sets then beat him in the epic Greatest Match of All Time in London a month later.

Tennis fans have been fortunate enough to see Federer and Nadal share a court several times over the last few years, something I, at least, missed greatly during Nadal's difficult last 12 months. Now, thankfully, the quick, powerful Spaniard appears to be back at the top of his game.

Which, of course, means trouble for the rest of the men's professional tour.