Friday, February 26, 2010

Syracuse. Villanova. Who wins?

I initially planned this preview in conjuction with my attendance at the Carrier Dome. Sadly, I will no longer be part of the largest on-campus crowd in history, but I will still throw in my two cents on how this game might turn out.

Although I believe Syracuse is the better team (and the second-best team in the country), Villanova presents one of the Orange's most difficult matchups. The reason is simple: Awesome guard play.

Scottie Reynolds is one of the top contenders for Big East Player of the Year and, while he likely won't win the award, he will receive heavy consideration. A scoring average of 19 PPG on 49% shooting for a 6'2'' guard will do that.

Along with Reynolds, fellow guard Corey Fisher is probably the Wildcats' second-best player, averaging 13.8 points per game. The duo of Reynolds and Fisher gives Villanova one of the best if not the best backcourt combination in the country.

Everybody raves about Syracuse's 2-3 zone, but the way to beat that zone is with dead-eye outside shooting (just look at the first half against Providence earlier this week) and dribble penetration. Both Reynolds and Fisher are capable of killing the Orange in both areas, and Villanova has plenty of backcourt depth off the bench as well, despite Corey Stokes' recent citing for public urination which has made his status for Saturday's game unclear.

While Villanova has the backcourt edge despite excellent play this season from Andy Rautins, Brandon Triche and Scoop Jardine, Syracuse's real advantage comes on the low block. Arinze Onuaku, Rick Jackson and Kris Joseph all average at least 10 points and 4.9 rebounds per game, while star swingman Wesley Johnson adds 8.7 boards himself to go along with a team-leading 15.8 points per game.

Despite those numbers, Villanova is actually the better rebounding team, ranking 17th in the nation. Another weakness of a zone defense is an inability to keep opposing teams off the offensive glass, and Syracuse's big men will have to make sure they keep the scrappy Wildcats from getting second-chance opportunities.

Syracuse has the nation's top field-goal percentage and the 27th-best three-point percentage. But in their two losses this season, they shot below 43 percent and were just 6-for-32 from beyond the arc. A strong shooting performance will be necessary for the Orange to outpace the nation's second-leading scoring team.

On the other hand, Villanova has had their own defensive issues. They struggle to keep opponents in front of them and resort to fouling, as seen in their three Big East losses where they allowed their opponents to take 128 free throws, making 100. Luckily for the Wildcats, Syracuse is one of the country's worst foul-shooting teams at just 67 percent, despite their uncanny efficiency from the field.

So what gives? These two teams seem poised to give this record crowd one of the better Big East games of the season, and that's saying something. Villanova's offensive strengths seem to mirror Syracuse's few defensive weaknesses, while the Orange should have no trouble against a Wildcat defense that struggles at times.

In my eyes, that leads to a high-scoring basketball game, I think a deeper Syracuse team will shoot close to 50 percent (52.2% on the season), take a near double-digit lead into the final few minutes and barely hold on (the typical Syracuse blueprint), missing foul shots and allowing the Wildcats to get back into the game with some timely three-point shooting from Reynolds and Fisher. Final score: 78-76, Orange.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Ultimate 1-on-1 Basketball Tournament

Have you ever thought to yourself, who would win one-on-one between this guy and that guy? Well if so, you've come to the right place! Through my blog, I will be holding a 16-player one-on-one tournament between the NBA's finest to decide, once and for all, who is the most dominant individual force in the league. Now, for the seedings...

#1 - Kobe Bryant - The league's best player has to get the top seed, right? He may not be the favorite in most people's one-on-one tournament (check my #2 seed for the popular choice), but based on his body of NBA work I think he has to get the top seed. The league's best late-game closer will get a chance to prove that he doesn't need his All-Star teammates to be the greatest.

#2 - LeBron James - The biggest, strongest and possibly the fastest player in the league, or at least the most impressive combination of those three traits. James is probably (actually, definitely) the most freakish athlete to ever grace an NBA court. He will get the opportunity to show off that athleticism against the best the NBA has to offer.

#3 - Dwayne Wade - Everybody saw what D-Wade could do in the All-Star Game, when he wasn't facing constant double and triple-teams because of Miami's lack of talent around him. Now he doesn't have to worry about a supporting cast in taking on the league's best.

#4 - Kevin Durant - Everybody's new favorite MVP candidate has the Thunder storming up the Western Conference standings, as they've won 20 of their last 28 games and Durant has scored at least 25 points in all of them. Some would argue he could be higher than #4 on this list, but for now this is where he sits.

#5 - Carmelo Anthony - Anthony has finally taken the next step many expected a few years ago this season and is averaging a career-high 29.2 points per game. His inside-outside game is a nightmare for any fellow NBA player to defend.

#6 - Chris Paul - It's difficult to predict performances from point guards and big men in a one-on-one tournament, but Paul has the skills to compete with the league's best swingmen. His quickness will get him to the basket against almost anybody, but his lack of a dead-eye jump shot keeps him out of my top five.

#7 - Dirk Nowitzki - Nowitzki is the only player in this tournament over 6'10 who also has an outside game. He could sit back and shoot three-pointers over anybody and win, but once he misses and his opponent gets the ball, I'm not sure he could stop them on defense.

#8 - Chris Bosh - Bosh has a plethora of post moves and a deadly mid-range game, not to mention the length and athleticism to keep players in front of him and contest every shot. Definitely a sleeper as the #8 seed.

#9 - Dwight Howard - Bosh gets the advantage over Howard due to a better developed offensive repertoire, but Howard is by far the most intimidating defensive presence in this field. The first-round battle between him and Bosh will prove once and for all which is more important in one-on-one: Offense or defense.

#10 - Danny Granger - A lot of casual NBA fans don't know about Granger's talents since he's stuck in Indiana, but he has an all-around offensive game to die for. He's dead-eye shooter with the height and ability to post up and quick enough hands and feet to play solid defense against the league's best.

#11 - Brandon Roy - If Roy had a better body he would skyrocket into the top five here, but his slight frame will limit his ability to play great defense and get to the basket against stronger opponents. But he finishes well, can create his own shot with the best and will be a tough out for any opponent.

#12 - Amar'e Stoudemire - Stoudemire's improve mid-range game will help him compete, but he may find the going difficult without the league's best pick-and-roll point guard passing him the ball for easy dunks.

#13 - Steve Nash - Speaking of the league's best pick-and-roll point guard, how can you not include Nash in this field? Possibly the quickest player of the 16, he can create his own shot and doesn't need to be balanced when he shoots. That helps make up for his lack of height and his ability to finish on scoop shots with the ball far from his body will as well.

#14 - Deron Williams - One of the league's best scoring and passing point guards will get a chance to take his game to the one-on-one stage. Williams can take it to the hoop or pull up for a jumper, but his limited defensive ability could lead to a quick first-round exit against Dwayne Wade.

#15 - Paul Pierce - The Truth will try to prove that he's just that against LeBron. He'll need one of his better performances to even sniff the second round.

#16 - Joe Johnson - Mr. Irrelevant is far from it, as Johnson is one of the league's most complete swingmen. He does everything well but isn't spectacular in any one facet of the game. He will need to do something spectacular to take out Kobe in round one.

Key Rules:
Lowest seeded player gets ball first
Winners' ball
24-second shot clock

First round coming soon to a blog post near you...

Monday, February 22, 2010

U.S. beats Canada in Olympic play for the first time in 50 years

People who know me know I'm not the biggest hockey fan in the world. But if every NHL game was as scintillating as last night's USA-Canada matchup, maybe I would start watching a little bit more.

Like most who tuned in last night, I expected a Canadian victory. Of course I was pulling for the Americans out of nationalistic pride but even I could see, as a casual hockey observer, that Canada was stacked. With premier NHL players like Sidney Crosby, Jarome Iginla, Rick Nash, Martin Brodeur, Joe Thornton, Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger among others, the Canadians entered the tournament as heavy favorites, particularly playing at home in Vancouver.

But the most important name in last night's game was an American: goaltender Ryan Miller. The Americans were outshot 45-22, but Miller turned in an awesome performance with 42 saves, while counterpart Brodeur stopped just 18 of the 23 shots he faced and seemed uncomfortable in net at times as the Americans won 5-3.

Many people have been comparing this victory to the 1980 Miracle on Ice, when the Americans beat the heavily favored Soviets. But that was a medal-round victory that propelled the U.S. to the gold-medal game, while this matchup was just a qualifier. Regardless, it was an awesome and gutsy effort by a scrappy American team, and one that had myself and thousands if not millions of other Americans going crazy in their living rooms.

The U.S. is now the top-ranked team in the tournament, a huge advantage that most thought would be afforded to the Canadians. The most important position on an NHL team come playoff time is the goalie, and that position is only magnified in the one-and-done setup of Olympic play.

That is one position where the Americans have no issues. Miller is one of the better goalies in the NHL and if he can maintain the level of play he showed against Canada, this American team has an outside shot at a gold medal. Then, and only then, can we start talking about miracles.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Tiger Woods' business: None of ours

I don't care if Tiger Woods is (was) one of the more revered athletes in sports today. Today's public apology, which ESPN went out of their way to bring in an "apology expert" to dissect, was unnecessary in my eyes. What is an apology expert anyway; someone who can tell if someone is legitimately contrite or not? If that's the case, I'd like to hire one for personal reasons. ESPN, I'll be in touch.

But I digress. Why does Woods have to come out and apologize to the media and the public? He is a professional athlete, and he isn't the first to cheat on his wife. I understand the wholesome, family image that he has portrayed in recent years and that he is trying to reconcile that. But he has no responsibility to apologize to the people who brought his "transgressions" into the public eye.

I had to turn off ESPN today (shocking, I know) because it was all Woods, all the time. This bears repeating: TIGER WOODS HAS NO RESPONSIBILITY TO THE MEDIA OR THE PUBLIC TO APOLOGIZE. His only responsibility is to his wife and his family, and that's it. I understand that he gets paid a lot of money to swing a long club at a tiny ball and endorse multiple products and services, but that doesn't mean he loses every right to privacy that the average American is allowed.

Woods was absolutely right when he said, "Personal sins should not require press releases and problems within a family shouldn't have to mean public confessions." Yet if he truly believed in his own words, why did he issue his statement this morning?

He felt the pressure coming in on him from all angles and he caved under that pressure. Instead of sticking to his guns and keeping his issues private, he came out and made a public statement. Sadly, it was a necessary step in the situation to pave the road for an eventual return to professional golf. But it shouldn't have to be this way.

Woods took time off from the game to attempt to fix his marriage (and spend time in sex rehab, the stupidest kind of rehab there is). He shouldn't have to answer to anybody if and when he wants to make a return. If Woods was a mortgage broker, would he have to hold a press conference within his company to apologize for his personal transgressions to get back to work? The answer is no, and the fact that his status as a highly-regarded professional athlete forces Woods' hands is just stupid.

Woods is not an elected official, as one of my friends so obviously pointed out to me. Nobody voted for him to be the top golfer in the world, so he owes nothing to nobody. If this was Barack Obama cheating on Michelle then yes, a public apology would be in order. But it's not.

I really hope that this is the last we have to hear of Tiger Woods' personal life, because it's personally none of my business. He's not the first person to cheat on his wife and he's not going to be the last. I don't care how popular he is, the man deserves to be left alone. Not only for his sake, but for his families' sake.

It seems like this has become more of a public issue than a private, family issue and that's just wrong. If the Woods family cannot recover from Tiger's disgressions, I believe the media and the public will be partially to blame. It has to be hard enough for Woods to fix the situation without having to fix his public image as well.

So I will say it again: leave the man alone and let him and his family work out their issues IN PRIVATE. Otherwise, this public scrutiny and media attention is going to lead to the downfall of a family, something we see too much of in today's society as it is. It's hard enough to fix a situation like this without public interference. And if the media really wants everything to work out for Woods, they will leave him alone from this point on. It's a true shame that won't happen.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Duke lax accuser charged with attempted murder

Karma's a bitch. And apparently so is Crystal Mangum.

Yes, the same Crystal Mangum who was at the center of Duke lacrosse rape scandal four years ago. The irony in this situation is almost too much for me.

Mangum is reported to have been involved in a domestic dispute with her boyfriend Milton Walker, punching him and throwing objects at him before attempting to burn all of his clothes in a bathtub, starting a fire that led to the evacuation of the house including three children 10 years old or younger. There are few other details at this point, but if you listen to the 911 call from a 9-year-old at the house you can hear loud female screams in the background.

Mangum was charged with first-degree attempted murder after shouting that she was going to stab Walker in front of police officers, as well as five counts of arson, simple assault, identity theft, damage to property and resist, delay and obstruction of justice.

This much is obvious: Mangum is a PSYCHO. If anything, this proves how much of a scumbag prosecutor Mike Nifong was when he tried to railroad Reade Seligmann, Collin Finnerty and David Evans four years ago on Mangum's word that they raped her at a party and later tried to charge them with a hate crime (Mangum is black).

I'm not sure how many people know how I feel about hate crimes, but I believe punishment should fit the crime, not the motive. Unless a criminal admits to a particular motive or there is past evidence of racism/anti-semetism (which there wasn't in the Duke case), you can't prove motive. There's a reason Nifong stepped down after the players were cleared.

But back to Mangum. I hope this bitch (excuse my language) rots in jail for a long time. To falsely accuse three college athletes of rape is deplorable, particularly when you are a criminal and attempted murderer in your own right.

Mangum did her best to ruin the lives of three young men, and the only justice in this case would be if her life is ruined as a result of her recent crimes. Call me insensitive or politically incorrect (or both, because you're probably right), but I really do hope she ends up with a long prison sentence. Then maybe she'll know what it really feels like to get raped.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Potential McGrady deal: More upside or downside?

When the Knicks were involved in three-way trade talks with the Rockets and Wizards to acquire Tracy McGrady, all they would've had to give up would be Al Harrington and a contract, likely Jared Jeffries and his $6.9M cap number (more proof that the mid-level exception is essentially useless).

With Washington dealing Caron Butler to the Mavericks, that trade fell through. But the Knicks are still going after McGrady, this time in a deal that could move Harrington or Larry Hughes along with Jeffries and 2009 first-round pick Jordan Hill to the Rockets for McGrady, Brian Cook and Joey Dorsey. The teams would also swap 2011 first-round picks and the Knicks would give the Rockets their first-rounder in 2012.

The real question is, why? I understand that unloading Jeffries' contract would be beneficial and McGrady's expiring deal would allow the Knicks to offer two max contracts, something they've been trying to make happen since they knew about the 2010 free agent class. But outside of that, the Knicks are getting next to nothing for the future in this trade.

McGrady will be gone, Cook is bench fodder and Dorsey's potential is nowhere near that of Hill's. The Knicks will essentially be trading three first-round picks (Hill and their 2011 and 2012 picks) for one (Houston's 2011 first-rounder) and cap relief. Do the risks outweigh the benefits?

I think they do. I was a fan of the three-way trade that would've netted the Knicks McGrady, because we wouldn't have had to give up any important pieces to our future. I know Hill looks out of place in the NBA right now, but players are allowed to develop on the job, right? I'm not the biggest Jordan Hill fan you're going to find, but to give up on the kid after 50 games (most of which he hasn't even seen court time in) seems ludicrous.

Everyone can see now that once Golden State took Stephen Curry with the seventh pick, the Knicks should have taken Brandon Jennings over Hill. But does making the wrong pick warrant giving up on the player you thought highly enough of to pass on Jennings for? It would be one thing if the Knicks got a pick back in return, but instead they are giving up their 2012 first-rounder as well, and for what? A little bit of cap relief?

I'm all for opening up cap room to sign two high-level free agents, but not at the price this deal would cost. The Knicks would have just four players left on their roster for next season: Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Toney Douglas and Eddy Curry. And with the Cavs pursuing Amar'e Stoudemire (and in the process, convicing LeBron James to stick around), the free agent pool could be missing two of its biggest fish.

No free agent wants to go to a team who has mortgaged their future, and that is essentially what the Knicks are doing in this trade. Even if it goes down, you can't judge the deal until after the summer ends and we see who ends up wearing blue and orange. The only reason this deal isn't already done is because Donnie Walsh is reluctant to give up on Hill so soon, as he should be.

The Rockets say they have better offers, and I find that difficult to believe. They lose nothing from their current core, add a future draft pick and get a recent top-10 selection in Hill. I'm all about trying to go after two big names, but at this price the Knicks better get two of the big boys (James, Dwayne Wade, Chris Bosh, Stoudemire and Joe Johnson). If they don't, they're going to be looking like fools with their pants on the ground.

Monday, February 15, 2010

All-Star Weekend Highlights (and Lowlights)

The NBA's All-Star Weekend had its share of exciting moments...and it's share of things that need to be changed.

-The game itself. Complain all you want about the lack of defense, because any game that ends 141-139 either involves Eastern and Western All-Stars or the Golden State Warriors. But the last I checked, the All-Star Game was a showcase of the best players in the world; who wants to see great defense?

Even as a basketball purist who likes to see unselfish offense and hard-nosed defense (there's a reason I watch more college basketball than NBA), the All-Star game is a different story. If I paid for a seat at Cowboy Stadium last night, I would've been more than satisfied with the high-flying dunks, behind-the-back passes and supposed "lack of defense." Honestly, who can defend when you have LeBron James and Dwayne Wade on the same court (take note, Knicks fans).

Talking to Craig Sager (or David Aldridge, who really cares), Kobe Bryant described the All-Star Game as "the best pick-up game in the world." And that's exactly what it is. So stop complaining about what the game isn't (a defensive showdown) and appreciate what it's there for; for the league's best players to show off their skills, have a good time and put on a show for the fans. And for anybody who was watching the final few minutes when the game was close, you might have noticed some defense. It's all about that competitive fire.

-Three-point shootout. Do you ever hear anybody complaining about the three-point contest? Unlike the dunk contest, it is the same exact thing every year with different participants. And despite the fact that my boy Danilo Gallinari couldn't hit a first-round shot that wasn't from a corner (9 points in the first and last racks, 6 at the other three), watching the league's best shooters hoist long-distance shots is always enough to entertain me, especially when they shoot well. It took 17 points to make it out of round one, and Stephen Curry missed his last two shots in the final round which would've tied winner Paul Pierce's 20.

-Rookie-sophomore game. I love rooting for the underdog, and the rookies are All-Star Weekend's perennial underdog. In seven previous instances of the game, they had never won. Until Friday night. Tyreke Evans was the best player on the court and virtually willed his team to victory, and I enjoy watching the stars of 2012 play against each other in 2010. This game is always talent-laden, with players like Evans, Brandon Jennings, Russell Westbrook and Brook Lopez showing that the NBA still has a bright future when its current stars fade away.

-Celebrity game. Outside of Terrell Owens, who Shaq thinks could play in the NBA if he worked at it, this game involves celebrities and musicians with little to no talent (really, Michael Rapaport and Pitbull?) and over-the-hill athletes like Rick Fox, Chris Mullin and a bunch of Harlem Globetrotters who do one thing well. There's a reason I left it on mute while I played online poker.

-Dunk contest. Who didn't see this coming? This was by far the worst dunk contest in years, and it's not like the last few have been particularly awesome. There was ONE good dunk, and it may have been more thanks to Sonny Weems' pass off the backboard than DeMar Derozan's windmill finish once he caught it. Nate Robinson won again because his dunks look 10 times better than taller players doing the same thing, and his Dallas cheerleaders stunt wasn't quite the Superman-KryptoNate showmanship of last year's contest.

Something needs to change about the dunk contest, and I really don't know what. There is little to no incentive for the stars like LeBron to participate and the dunks in the All-Star Game elicited a lot more reaction out of me than the ones from the dunk contest. If you can't find a way to include the league's best dunkers or at least players who are going to try (sorry Shannon Brown, switching hands in the air doesn't make your dunk cool), then it's just pointless. I can go in my driveway and emulate these dunks on an 8-foot basket, and that's just sad.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

UConn, UNC could play for a title this the NIT

What a difference a year makes.

Two of last season's Final Four participants, perennial powers Connecticut and North Carolina, are well below .500 in their respective conferences and seem like longshots to make the NCAA tournament. Combined, the Huskies and Tar Heels are 6-14 in conference play.

How can two teams who were so good last season fall so hard this season? The reason is pretty obvious: They lost more talent than they retained.

Connecticut lost the second overall pick in the 2009 NBA Draft, 7'3'' center Hasheem Thabeet. The Huskies also lost second-round pick A.J. Price as well as Jeff Adrien, one of two Huskies to record 1,600 career points and 1,100 career rebounds. Thabeet, Price and Adrien accounted for over 50 percent of Connecticut's scoring and rebounding last season.

North Carolina lost three first-round players in Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington. They also lost Danny Green, who was taken in the second round. Those four players accounted for 66.2 points per game last season, almost 75 percent of the Tar Heels' offensive output.

What makes this season even more disparaging for fans of both teams is the fact that even making the NIT could be a difficult task. Connecticut is just 4-7 in the Big East, while North Carolina is even worse at 2-7 in the ACC. Both of these teams are still talented, but they are too inexperienced to make a serious splash down the stretch this season.

UConn kept it close with #2 (or #3, I hate the variance in the polls) Syracuse until the end, while #7 Duke needed a late run to pull away from the Heels. In the end, both Syracuse and Duke showed why they are top-10 teams and UConn and UNC aren't. They know how to finish games.

The irony is that Syracuse was not picked to be one of the nation's top teams early in the season after losing their top three scorers, Jonny Flynn, Eric Devendorf and Paul Harris. But unlike Connecticut and North Carolina, the Orange had reserves.

Leading scorer Wesley Johnson and sophomore Scoop Jardine both sat out last season, Johnson due to transfer rules and Jardine due to a medical redshirt. Freshman Brandon Triche has also made a huge impact.

On the other hand, neither Connecticut nor North Carolina has a newcomer averaging more than 6 points per game. Both teams were essentially eliminated from a potential NCAA berth with their losses last night in games they needed to win to show the committee they belonged.

It may not be March Madness, but there's no shame in young teams building experience in the NIT. Now it's just up to these two teams to get there.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Knicks limp into All-Star Break, hurt playoff chances with bad losses

Sad. Awful. Pathetic. I could go on with words describing the Knicks' play over the past three games, but I'll refrain. Losing to Cleveland on the road was not only expected, it was basically a given. But Milwaukee and Sacramento at the Garden?

Both of those losses proved something about the Knicks. First, they should have drafted Brandon Jennings instead of Jordan Hill, as Jennings is just so much better than the Knicks' only true point guard, Chris Duhon. Seeing how badly Duhon has played at times this season, passing over Jennings for a player who has been virtually useless so far this season was a terrible mistake.

Second, this team needs a late-game closer. Everybody already knew this, but blowing a 15-point fourth-quarter lead to one of the NBA's worst teams in the Kings confirmed it. The closest thing the Knicks have to a closer is Danilo Gallinari, who has the potential to develop into a late-game killer but is essentially a rookie this season. He left in the third quarter with an injury and without him, the Knicks didn't have enough shooters or any other answers to the zone defense the Kings played in the fourth.

Wilson Chandler had a career game with 35 points, but was unable to get to the basket against the zone in crunch time. The Knicks were also unable to get the balls in his hands when it mattered most. Al Harrington is way too hit or miss to be relied on, and David Lee doesn't have the post ability just yet to combat a well-run zone. In short, the Knicks had no continuity on offense (to steal a phrase from Walt "Clyde" Frazier) and nobody that could successfully stretch the zone and keep it from sagging into the paint.

That is why the summer of 2010 is so important for the Knicks. LeBron James would be the ultimate prize, with Dwayne Wade a close second and both a pipe dream, but one New York fans are desperately clinging to. With Amar'e Stoudemire leaning towards returning to Phoenix and Chris Bosh having already eschewed becoming a Knick (especially with an up-and-coming Raptors team), the Knicks are left with few options beyond James and Wade.

I have talked a lot about Joe Johnson, who is not on James' or Wade's level but is still somebody that can take the ball in his hands late in the game and make big shots. The question really becomes what the Knicks will do with David Lee. Nate Robinson is pretty much gone, especially after the two-game experiment with him in the starting lineup proved to give the Knicks absolutely no spark.

Duhon and Harrington are also on their way out, as is Larry Hughes. But Lee has improved every season he has been in the NBA, upping his scoring average from 10.8 in 2007-08 to 16.0 last season and 20.0 this year. Imagine Jennings and Lee working the pick-and-roll in New York for years to come, with a star swingman like Johnson on the roster as well? But I digress.

Depending who decides to re-sign with their teams and who decides to test the market, it may be in the Knicks' best interest to keep Lee. He has played his way into a max deal if not one very close to the max, but re-signing him would limit the kind of free agent they could pursue since they can only offer one max contract. Would Lee take less (maybe $13M) to stay in New York and allow the Knicks to attract a big-name player for the max?

These questions are yet to be answered, but one question still remains in my mind, or at least it did until recently. Will the Knicks make the playoffs? I was optimistic for a while, but when push comes to shove this team is a year away. They don't have a reliable night-in, night-out scorer, struggle defensively and are very inconsistent overall, veterans and young players alike. There's a reason a guy like Harrington has played for four teams in his career.

I will continue to watch them as the season goes on, but as they fall further out of the playoff hunt I would hope to see players like Hill and Toney Douglas see more court time. Maybe they will impress and convince somebody to come here in 2010. Right now, it looks like it's going to be a tough sell.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Brees reaches "next level" with Super Bowl victory

After what Peyton Manning did to the Jets top-ranked defense in the AFC Championship game, I stated that he was the best quarterback in the game, if not ever, and that no other active quarterback was close to being on his level. Two weeks later, I must revise my statement thanks to Drew Brees.

I billed this matchup as the league's two best quarterbacks facing off, with Manning obviously ahead of Brees for a multitude of reasons (previous Super Bowl title, ability to make uncanny throws into tight windows, etc.). But with his MVP performance last night, Brees entered that upper echelon of quarterbacks that previously had belonged solely to Manning by outplaying his counterpart.

You can say all you want about Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger deserving to enter that level thanks to a combined 5 Super Bowl rings between the two. But neither of those quarterbacks is as deathly accurate as Manning or Brees and honestly, I don't think even Brady and his 3 rings are on the same level as either Manning or Brees as a quarterback. I would take both of this year's Super Bowl quarterbacks over Mr. Giselle any day of the week, and that's not me hating on the Patriots.

Before the game, I said if the Saints won and Brees was a major reason, that I would have to place him on the same level as Manning. Both of those happened and I'm sticking by my word. Brees tied Brady's record for Super Bowl completions with 32 on 39 attempts, throwing for 288 yards, 2 touchdowns and perhaps most importantly, no interceptions. He looked cool, calm and composed at all times and never got impatient facing an early 10-point deficit.

His yardage numbers aren't gaudy, but Brees was able to dink-and-dunk the Saints down the field while Indianapolis focused on taking away the big play downfield. Even without the explosive aerial attack that was a New Orleans staple all season, Brees was still able to lead his team to victory with great decision-making and pinpoint throws in the short and mid-range passing game. After completing just 3 of his first 7 passes, Brees finished 29 for his last 32 including just one second-half incompletion.

And he did it without much of a running game, something I said the Saints would need to win. The Saints ran for just 51 yards on 18 carries and the game was placed squarely on Brees' shoulders, but he showed no signs of collapsing under that immense weight. In fact, he seemed to thrive on the knowledge that the outcome of this game was in his hands and he responded like true superstars do.

Manning may have won the regular season MVP and there is no doubt in anybody's mind that he deserved it. But he would surely trade that hardware for Brees', which includes a Super Bowl ring and a Super Bowl MVP trophy. The Saints as a whole deserve a lot of credit, including Sean Payton for his gutsy coaching decisions and the defense for containing the Colts' offense and forcing that one turnover I said could make the difference.

The Saints were the better team on this day and honestly, there were the better team all season. Solid overall teams like the Ravens and the Jets who lacked superstar quarterbacks were unable to match Manning's magic, but when he ran into a quarterback on the same level as him with a stronger supporting cast, Manning was unable to leave Miami with his second championship. The real question now becomes who will win another title first, Manning or Brees?

With the young team the Saints have in place, I think I have my answer. Who dat you say? Drew Breeeeeeeeees!

Payton outshines Peyton, sets precedent for future coaches?

(Submitted by Josh Carey)

With any luck, Sean Payton has just ushered in a new era of pro football coaching.

Payton made two crucial decisions in Super Bowl XLIV to overcome an Indianapolis Colts team that opened the week as 4.5-point favorites and expanded that to a 6-point spread before kickoff as the money moved to the midwest.

The first was the (incredibly correct) decision with 1:49 left in the first half, trailing 10-3, to go for the touchdown from the one-and-a-half yard line. One of two things will likely result from this: 1) You tie the game, 2) The Colts are pinned in the shadow of their end zone with less than two minutes in the half. Keep in mind the Colts are poised to get the ball to start the second half. Taking a field goal and making it 10-6 gives the Colts two chances to extend the lead before you get the ball back. And Peyton Manning is so dangerous with two minutes to go, Bill Belichick made the same call in his own territory earlier in the season.

The fact Pierre Thomas couldn't get over the right side is inconsequential. However, given those circumstances, Payton managed the situation perfectly. A lesser coach would have used his remaining timeouts in rapid succession, giving the Colts a third-and-one with around 1:30 left. If the Colts convert, they're still in prime position for a drive late in the half.

By running the clock down to 51 seconds before calling a timeout, Payton balanced his ability to still net three points with his desire to keep the other Peyton from blowing the game open. In the end, he got the same three points as he would have by kicking right away and kept the Colts from scoring. Now just to handle the issue of kicking away to Indianapolis...

By now you're aware of the onside kick that took an eternity to sort out. There's a fine line between genius and insanity. That call took chutzpah, regardless of the outcome. It's the same concept as the fourth-and-goal decision. With the call, Payton essentially admits he doesn't believe he can beat the Colts down by four while kicking the ball away. Allow the Colts to get up two scores, and now you have to make up a possession somewhere, while playing perfectly yourself, to make it back.

Viewed in that light – where there had been no first-half turnovers from either side – Payton's decision might have even been, amazingly, correct. If the Colts recover, you could hold out hope for holding them to a field goal and keeping it a one-possession game. Considering the Saints' propensity to give up yards but tighten up in the red zone, this isn't an unreasonable line of thought.

The rest is well-covered elsewhere. Manning throws a pick that essentially seals the game, Garrett Hartley makes a Super Bowl-record three field goals beyond 40 yards, despite concerns about his ability to hit from long distances during the season. And the Saints receive a victory that seems like destiny.

Gregg Easterbrook, in his Tuesday Morning Quarterback column, often refers to the concept of “Football Gods” as a comedic device that rewards teams that play the game correctly. Regardless of your thoughts on divine intervention in football games, it's easy to wonder if Payton and his Saints were being rewarded while Jim Caldwell and his Colts were suffering.

Payton took the bull by the horns and made risky calls to try and seal the game. Caldwell laid down in his pursuit of perfection in games against the Jets and Bills late in the season. Yet as snow coated Ralph Wilson Stadium in January, Peyton Manning, Reggie Wayne, and Dallas Clark went out and ensured that each receiver reached 100 catches for the season. This pursuit of individual accomplishments in lieu of a chance at perfection goes against every tenant of teamwork involved in the game.

Caldwell avoids the stigma of the 18-1 season, but this is a perfect example of coaching not to lose, instead of coaching to win as Payton did this evening. Indeed, Caldwell deserved to lose, if one has any respect for the integrity of the game. If the Rams announced they were attempting to lose to gain a better draft slot, everyone, including Caldwell and team president Bill Polian, I'm sure, would be up in arms about tarnishing the integrity of the game. And yet, that is no different from the Colts' actions at the end of the regular season.

So maybe Payton has changed things for the better. Belichick's fourth-and-two call combined with Payton's moves might finally end the habit of incorrect calls that will play well in the media after the game.

There are two areas where coaching could easily be improved. The first, and easiest to understand, is the point after touchdown. For decades, NFL teams were forced to kick for a single point after a touchdown. The addition of the two-point conversion offers teams an underutilized means to gain an advantage. It should not go unnoticed that with a five-point lead, the Saints went for two in this game.

The first coach with an average offense that completely eschews the point after touchdown in favor of the two point conversion – after every score, of every game – will reap the benefits. Consider that you merely have to make more than 50 percent of your two-point conversion attempts for this strategy to gain a net benefit of points in the long run. If you can do that, you're giving yourself a leg up on the competition.

So why hasn't somebody done this? Because the first time a coach loses a game by one point while employing this strategy, the media (and maybe even his boss) will be all over him. Clearly the coach that opens the floodgates must be secure in his job and his team. But once a team does, it could change the game forever.

The second area is fourth downs, which we again saw from Payton. But beyond that, a team that rarely punts on anything less than fourth-and-five, even deep in their own territory, will likely see a benefit. Especially if it's a team with a weaker defense. How many times has a team punted for around 25 net yards and given that back in the next two or three plays? If that team attempted to extend its drive instead, they could see positive gains in the offense.

Certainly that's a more controversial position, so feel free to debate it in the comments (I'm already running long), but the coach that implements such an aggressive mentality could see his team make huge strides against teams coached more conservatively.

Just like Sean Payton, whose "controversial" calls got him and his football team a Super Bowl ring.

Friday, February 5, 2010

The Fall (and Rise) of Nate Robinson

After playing just 11 minutes in the month of December, Nate Robinson has found his way back into the Knicks' rotation and now, the starting lineup. Robinson started the second half Wednesday against the Wizards over Chris Duhon with the team down 45-41 and played all 24 minutes in the third and fourth quarters, leading the Knicks to a 66-point half and a 107-85 victory.

I love this change for the Knicks for many reasons. Robinson brings energy and playmaking ability to a position that had neither with Duhon running the point. Often times, the Knicks offense gets stagnant and revolves around Al Harrington or Danilo Gallinari launching three-pointers for lack of a better shot.

Duhon is not half the creator that Robinson is and, while he is a good passer, is not enough of an offensive threat himself (8 PPG this season) to attract the attention of opposing defenses. Not to mention his reluctance to call his own number over the last few weeks.

Another reason I like this change is what it does to the Knicks rotation as a whole. The team can still bring scoring off the bench with Al Harrington and Duhon may go from a starting role to seeing DNP-CD next to his name on the box score. This opens up minutes for rookie guard Toney Douglas who, much like Robinson, is a combo guard that can play off the ball as well as at the point. With both players on the floor at the same time, the Knicks won't be so reliant on one player to run the offense.

Anybody who watched the second half of the Washington game saw what the Knicks offense was able to do under Robinson. His ability to create his own shot brings a different dynamic to the Knicks offense while his quickness allows him to get by defenders and create mismatches and open passing lanes when the defense helps. Robinson is not a true pass-first point guard, but he's a playmaker and a willing passer who can find teammates in open spots on the floor.

The Knicks are four games behind Miami for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with 34 games left to play. They still have a shot to make the postseason if they go on a run soon, and this switch may just be the spark they've needed. The emergence of Gallinari has given fans more reason to watch the Knicks this season and this move should do the same. I'm excited to see what the Knicks can do with Nate running the show.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Super Bowl XLIV Prediction

Now that I've gone over what the Colts ( and Saints ( need to do to win the Super Bowl, I will give my game prediction.

It wouldn't surprise me to see the Saints jump out to an early one or two-possession lead, like the Jets were able to do last week. New York used the run early to set up a play-action touchdown to Braylon Edwards and had Brad Smith throw a pass out of the Wildcat. New Orleans likely won't need to use that kind of trickery to score on the Colts defense, but they will need to run the football.

The Colts have held both the Ravens and Jets under 100 rushing yards, but neither of those teams has enough of a passing game to deter Indianapolis from focusing on the run. And while the Saints march downfield against a beat-up Colts defense (along with Dwight Freeney, starting corner Jerraud Powers is now questionable as well), Peyton Manning will be dissecting the Saints' blitz for the first quarter or two.

Reggie Bush's impact will be key to a Saints victory. If he can make a big play or two out of the backfield or in the return game, it could make the difference in the Saints winning or losing this game. After exploding against Arizona he was held in check by the Vikings, a game the Saints deserved to lose if it weren't for 5 Minnesota turnovers. If Bush is bottled up again, New Orleans may have trouble keeping up with the Colts offense once Manning gets dialed in.

Even if the Saints grab an early lead, the Colts won't go away. Their offense is built for coming back and scoring quickly, while their defense is built to play with a lead. They drop back into coverage, keep the play in front of them and let Freeney and Robert Mathis play downhill off the ends. But with the health of Freeney in question, the Colts' defensive gameplan changes drastically, even with a lead.

The Colts are favored in this game, and rightfully so; they've done the job in the two playoff games so far and have been convincing in victory. I was taking the Colts to win before the news broke on Freeney, on the basis that the Saints would be unable to keep up with Manning and the Colts offense. Now, I'm not so sure. Even if the Saints fall behind, Brees should have ample time in the pocket to look downfield and make good decisions.

In the end, it comes down to the Saints. We pretty much know what we're going to get out of the Colts, which is 25-30 points and a defense that allows yards and not touchdowns. Stopping the Saints will definitely be more difficult without Freeney, even though Raheem Brock is an excellent backup.

Like I said in their keys to victory, if the Saints can run the football and pressure Manning into a mistake to flip field position and take possessions away from the Colts, they will win this game. It's hard for me to envision Manning making a mistake, but the Saints have 9 forced fumbles in the playoffs and recovered four of them. Even if Manning stays perfect, I think the Saints can force a turnover or two and win this game.

The Pick: Saints 30, Colts 27

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

For the Saints to win the Super Bowl...

I went over the Colts keys yesterday, now it's time for the Saints.

-Establish the running game.
We all know that Drew Brees and the New Orleans passing game is dangerous. Part of the reason it's so dangerous is the balance the Saints possess on offense with the league's sixth-best rushing attack. Whether it's Pierre Thomas or Reggie Bush (or even Mike Bell), the Saints are a successful running football team, and they should be able to assert their will on the Colts defense in that department.

The Colts shut down the Jets' top-ranked rushing game, but Thomas Jones was hobbled in the playoffs and New York's offense doesn't have the balance of New Orleans'. The Colts won't be able to stack the box without opening up deep throws for Drew Brees, meaning the Saints should have success on the ground all day against one of the league's poorer run defenses.

Once the Saints get the ground game going, they will likely look to exploit the Indianapolis defense with the play-action pass to create big plays. Brees will look to freeze the linebackers and safeties and let speedsters like Devery Henderson and Robert Meachem get past the defense, a task that will become even easier if they can establish a threat on the ground.

-Hit Peyton Manning and force turnovers
Notice i use the word "hit" rather than "sack." What use would my keys to victory be if they were virtually impossible to perform? The Saints could bring seven blitzers in the A gap and Manning would find a way to get rid of the football to the open man; he's just that good. Gregg Williams stole a line from Rex Ryan saying, "When you hit the quarterback, the whole team feels it." I wonder what his plan is for this week...

In all seriousness, everybody knows the Saints will come with pressure against Manning. And everybody knows that the chances New Orleans gets to Manning more than once or twice are remote. The only goal in pressuring a quarterback like Manning is disrupting his rhythm and timing. Once you let Manning get into a groove, it's nearly impossible to get him out of it.

The Colts will score their share of points, as will the Saints. But if New Orleans creates enough pressure to disrupt Manning, and they can do that with defensive end Will Smith (13 sacks) even without blitzing, they could force a turnover or two that will turn the game in their favor. The winner of this game will be the team whose defense can take away the most possessions from the opposing offense. The Saints' pressure-heavy, ball-hawking defense may have the best shot of any team to do that to Manning.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

For the Colts to win the Super Bowl...

Over the next few days, I will be putting together a preview of this Sunday's Super Bowl between the Colts and Saints. I will start with the keys to victory for the Colts.

-Protect Peyton Manning
The Saints, much like the Jets, like to bring the heat on opposing quarterbacks. Gregg Williams is one of the league's most aggressive defensive coordinators and it's unlikely he'll get conservative in the biggest game of the season. New Orleans has forced a postseason-high 7 turnovers in their two playoff games after finishing the regular season third in interceptions and leading the league with 8 defensive touchdowns.

Peyton Manning is not one to make those big mistakes. The Jets held Manning down for 28 minutes, but he took over in the final 32. That could happen again this week as Manning works early to figure out how to counter the Saints' blitzes. He tends to get the ball out quickly and has been sacked only 14 times all season; twice against the Jets' blitzing scheme last week.

The real question is whether the Saints will be able to force Manning into any mistakes at all, something the Jets were unable to do. One or two turnovers could create points for the Saints offense, get Manning off the field and make the difference in a Saints victory. Anytime you can take the ball out of Peyton Manning's hand you need to take advantage.

-The health of Dwight Freeney
This one is pretty obvious; the presence of Freeney and Robert Mathis at defensive end allows the Colts to pressure opposing quarterbacks with just a four-man rush. They sit back in coverage, keep the play in front of them, make the tackle and most importantly, they prevent big plays: the specialty of the Saints offense.

Raheem Brock is no slouch off the bench, but he's also no Freeney. The Colts would likely have to blitz more to create pressure on Drew Brees, potentially exposing their secondary to the deep ball with Devery Henderson and Robert Meachem.

A torn ankle ligament is a serious injury, and one that would sideline Freeney is any game besides the Super Bowl. If he plays, he will surely be limited and might be more effective playing only on passing downs, as the Saints would likely test that ankle by running at him on early downs. If he manages to play and can still get pressure on Brees, it will be a huge boost to the Colts' defense.