Tuesday, March 29, 2011

'Melo, Knicks back up "must-win" claim on both ends

(photo courtesy of SI.com)

Carmelo Anthony has been as advertised since the trade to New York, at least based on my expectations. He's provided high-volume scoring (25.7 PPG), selfish offensive play (389 shots compared to 61 assists) and lazy defense.

But last night against Orlando, Anthony provided just one of those three things. The one good one: High-volume scoring.

Just two nights after scoring 36 points in a loss to the Bobcats, his highest total as a Knick, Anthony bested that mark by scoring 39 points on 12-for-26 shooting. While the scoring is nice, that was to be expected.

What wasn't expected was defensive intensity. It's rare to see anybody in the NBA play tight defense 30 feet from the hoop, let alone Anthony. But there he was, in Hedo Turkoglu's jock ten feet beyond the three-point line in the fourth quarter, pressuring the ball and making Turkoglu work to get to his spots.

I'm not advocating playing defense on guys when they're 30 feet from the hoop; it's never a good idea. But I'm sure all Knicks fan would rather see that Anthony and the one who locked down LeBron James last month than the lazy Anthony who sometimes seems like he just doesn't care about defense.

To top it all off, the ball was in Anthony's hands while the Knicks nursed a one-point lead with 15 seconds to play. Everyone in the building expected him to shoot including the Magic, who double-teamed. In a shocking development Anthony passed to an open Toney Douglas, whose floater was on its way in the hoop before Dwight Howard swatted it on the way down for a goaltend. Don't believe me? Here's proof (thanks to ESPN box scores):

0:32Gilbert Arenas makes 23-foot three point jumper (Hedo Turkoglu assists)97-98
97-100Toney Douglas makes 6-foot jumper (Carmelo Anthony assists)

Yes, Jared Jeffries refused to put a hand up or even get in the way of Jason Richardson's game-tying three-pointer on the next possession. That's pathetic, especially for someone who's only use as a human being is defense. And yes, Anthony shot through a double-team on the final possession and missed the follow to force overtime. But I'm accentuating the positives here for once, so stick with me.

After Orlando took a 104-103 lead with 3:29 left, the Knicks clamped down again defensively and finished the game on a 10-2 run. It was nice to see a team that has seriously struggled closing out games finally finish one off, especially after blowing a two-possession lead in the final minute of regulation.

Anthony had just six points at halftime, but went off for 30 in the second half and three in overtime. The Knicks were obviously motivated by Anthony's must-win proclamation and came to play on both ends. If that continues, this team has a legitimate chance to be very good and nobody (including me) will complain about the trade any more.

Of course, this is just one game. I need to see this kind of effort from Anthony, Amar'e Stoudemire and the rest of the Knicks on a consistent basis. Speaking of Stoudemire, he scored 20 points on just 10 shots, compared to Anthony's 26 shots and Toney Douglas' 17.

I'm sure Stoudemire was glad to take a back seat while Anthony dominated the second half, but I doubt he'll be happy with 10 shots every night. And neither should the Knicks, who need Stoudemire's offense if they hope to go anywhere this season (or in the next 10 years).

Yes, the Knicks won and yes, they played defense. But this is still far from a well-oiled machine on either end of the court and until this type of performance becomes the norm, I will continue to expect inconsistency and frustration from this team.

Monday, March 28, 2011

VCU and Other Final Four Fun

(photo courtesy of mensbasketballhoopscoop.com)

The 2011 Final Four will have its place in history for many reasons:

-It will be the first Final Four without a #1 or #2 seed and just the third without a #1 seed.

-VCU is just the third #11 seed to make the Final Four and the first to win five games on their way there (okay, so that one is cheating). The problem for the Rams? Both LSU (1986) and George Mason (2006) lost by double digits.

-#11 VCU and #8 Butler combine for the highest seed total to play in a Final Four game and this will be just the second Final Four with two teams seeded #8 or lower (and the first with one of those seeds being in the double-digits).

-The combined seeds of the four teams remaining is 26. The previous high was 21 in 2000, the only other time two #8 seeds or lower made it this far.

For those who think those stats are crazy, anybody who's watched most of these games understands how competitive and wild they have been. And each team has gotten here in their own special way.

#11 VCU has been torrid from beyond the arc, hitting 12 or more three-pointers in three of their five tournament games. They shot 12-for-25 against #1 Kansas yesterday, the team with the nation's best three-point field goal defense. Those were also the first three times all season the Rams hit more than 11 threes in a game.

The main hero from this tournament for VCU isn't a player, but coach Shaka Smart. He's pressed every right button and must be an expert motivator to get these kids believing they can beat anybody on any given night. If he isn't receiving offers from power-conference schools in the next year or two, something is wrong. Smart can coach.

#8 Butler is in their second straight Final Four for the same reason as the last one: Defense. Butler didn't allow a team to score 60 on them in last year's tournament until Duke scored 61 in the title game. While they have already allowed 60 twice in this year's tourney, one was an overtime game against Florida (that was tied at 60) and the other was against #1 seed Pittsburgh. I never saw this coming without lottery pick Gordon Hayward, but Brad Stevens is another great young coach.

#4 Kentucky came in hot on a six-game win streak, including three wins over ranked teams (two over Florida). Brandon Knight has struggled in two of the four games, but he also hit the game-winning shot against both Princeton and Ohio State in games where he combined for just 11 points.

Freshmen Knight and Terrence Jones are meshing nicely with veterans DeAndre Liggins, Darius Miller and Josh Harrellson, who has more than doubled his season scoring average in four tournament games. As a team, the Wildcats have the deepest talent base of the four remaining teams.

#3 Connecticut has followed up a great run in the Big East tournament with a similar run in the NCAA tournament. Behind the conference's best player in Kemba Walker (sorry, Ben Hansbrough), the Huskies head into the Final Four as the favorite to win it all. I said before the tournament that Walker is the type of player that can carry a team to a title and outside of Knight, Walker has probably been the tournament's best clutch player. And he hasn't had any off nights.

Jeremy Lamb is also enjoying a breakout since the Big East tournament began, scoring in double figures in all nine postseason games. He's averaging 16 points per game during that span compared to just over 11 on the season. When Walker leaves for the NBA next year, expect Lamb to take a big leap forward like Walker did this season.

If the top bracket on ESPN is to be believed, VCU will beat Kentucky in the championship game. The guy got the whole Final Four right, six of the Elite Eight and 28 out of 32 right in the first round. That's astonishing, but I don't think VCU will beat Kentucky. If they do, someone needs to hire this guy. Or get him to buy them lottery tickets.

I'm predicting Connecticut to beat Kentucky. The Wildcats are deeper (which shows how shallow the Huskies rotation is) but there's something about this Connecticut team this season. They started the season unranked and disrespected, won the Maui Invitational (over Kentucky) and have been ranked ever since. Walker reminds me of another undersized Big East guard who could fill it up on any night and in the NBA, I think he'll be a poor man's Allen Iverson.

All the signs point to Butler locking down defensively to limit VCU's effectiveness from long range, but the same signs were there against Kansas and the Rams led by double digits in the first half. I'm taking VCU to go to the title game, previous history of #11's be damned. If the five-day layoff hurts any team the most though, it's the Rams.

Now on to the title game. As one of the Morris brothers said to VCU point guard Joey Rodriguez before yesterday's game, "The run ends here." Whichever brother said it was wrong about that game, but Walker, Lamb and the Huskies will cut down the nets in Houston to cap an unbelievable postseason run.

It's funny to think some people thought UConn could lose as early as the first round because they were "tired" from winning five games in five days in the Big East tournament. With six days off between games, I don't think that's an issue anymore. It never really was in the first place.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Yankees trade Mitre, clear up potential rotation

(photo courtesy of nydailynews.com)

I haven't been writing much about baseball during Spring Training but with Opening Day less than a week away, I think it's about time. It also helps that the Yankees traded Sergio Mitre, who was in the mix to be their fifth starter, to Milwaukee for outfielder Chris Dickerson.

Ivan Nova seems on track to be the Yankees fourth starter, having allowed just two runs in 14 innings and boasting a solid 7:2 K:BB ratio. You would like to see more than a strikeout every other inning, but if he can continue to show the kind of control he has in his small Spring sample you won't find me complaining.

The battle for the fifth starter's role is a little more interesting, with Freddy Garcia supposedly still the frontrunner despite a rough spring. Bartolo Colon has pitched well but hasn't thrown a major-league inning in two seasons, leading Joe Girardi to believe he's better suited taking Mitre's 2010 role in long relief.

Even if the Yankees do go with Garcia over Colon, New York may only need to use their fifth starter two or three times in April. If Garcia's struggles continue while Colon does good work out the bullpen, I wouldn't be surprised to see the Yankees change their minds. Spring performance is one thing but once the real games hit, you need to go with the pitcher who's performing better, which very well could be Colon.

It's no fun as a Yankees fan debating between Garcia and Colon, two washed-up has-beens who are shells of their former selves. It sure would have been nice to see Andy Pettitte in pinstripes in 2011, but he seems perfectly content to watch this baseball season from his couch.

The other major question facing the Yankees heading into the season is: Who will bat leadoff? I think Brett Gardner is the most logical option with Derek Jeter sliding down to the two hole, where he's spent most of his career. Girardi has talked about leading off Gardner against right-handers and Jeter against left-handers, but I think it should be Gardner every day.

Jeter hit 69 points higher against lefties last season than Gardner (.321 to .252) but Gardner's OBP was still .373 compared to Jeter's .391. The OBP numbers aren't even close against right-handers and while Jeter has hit .338 against lefties over the past three seasons, I see no reason to shuffle the leadoff spot when Gardner gets on base almost as often and possesses far superior speed.

Either way, the Yankees lineup will be their strength this season. Their bullpen looks good at the back end with Mariano Rivera and Rafael Soriano anchoring the eighth and ninth innings but I still have issues trusting David Robertson and Joba Chamberlain, who somehow got fatter, in the sixth and seventh innings.

With A.J. Burnett's potential inconsistencies and Nova and Garcia/Colon likely being unable to last deep into games, Yankees fans will see a lot more of Chamberlain and Robertson than they may like. New York may recognize the need to shore up their middle relief at the trade deadline if their starters struggle like many expect.

The Yankees should be okay when C.C. Sabathia and Phil Hughes start, but the other three spots leave a lot to be desired unless Burnett can bounce back and Nova can outperform expectations. This has the potential to be a long season at Yankee Stadium and by long, I mean as few as 85 wins and difficulty making the playoffs.

That's okay for a lot of teams, but not the Yankees. Missing out on Cliff Lee and Zach Greinke may prove more costly than whatever money they would have wanted if we got them.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Knicks continued struggles shouldn't surprise

(photo courtesy of msg.com)

When the Knicks traded for Carmelo Anthony, many thought their chances of making noise in the playoffs this season were improved. A month later, I'm not sure many still feel that way. I hate to say I told you so, so I'll just stop this sentence right here.

Ray Allen said it best after the Celtics outscored the Knicks 59-35 in the second half in a comeback win last night. Allen was quoted after the game as saying the Knicks have very good one-on-one players. It was a definite slight on Allen's part that the Knicks are a far cry from the TEAM the Celtics are, but he's also right on the money.

The Knicks were 28-26 before the trade with Denver and what they lacked in superstar talent beyond Amar'e Stoudemire, they made up for with solid role players who fit coach Mike D'Antoni's system. Most importantly, Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler and Raymond Felton were devoid of one thing: Ego.

That team wasn't a championship contender but they had chemistry. They enjoyed playing with each other and sharing the basketball and none of them cared how many shots they got on offense. They weren't defensive stalwarts but they competed, especially Gallinari who improved every time he stepped on the court (and still is in Denver where he will be an All-Star someday, mark my words).

Yes, I'm implying exactly what you think I am (and what I said in the weeks leading up to the trade): Carmelo Anthony is a selfish player with a big ego who feels he is entitled to take as many shots as he wants, whether they fit in the flow of the offense or not. And he is killing this team's offensive chemistry, the one thing that was keeping them competitive all season.

After Friday's late-game collapse against the Pistons where Anthony scored just six points, Stoudemire said that some players still needed to buy into D'Antoni's system. While he didn't mention anybody by name, the whole world could tell he was referring to Anthony. And he was right.

Before the trade, this team was all about run, gun and fun. That's not championship basketball, but neither is what they're playing right now. If fans thought this team was bad defensively before the trade, try trading three starters and a seven-footer for two players known as defensive liabilities. See what happens.

Stoudemire is a star, but his offensive possessions don't slow down the offense quite like Anthony's eight-second isolations. Stoudemire fits in the offense because he shoots quickly or drives to the basket. Anthony holds the ball way too long while the rest of the team stands and watches. The other Knicks love playing with Stoudemire; I'm not so sure they love playing with Anthony.

This was Stoudemire's team before the trade and still is, but Anthony seems to want it to be his rather than working to co-exist with Stoudemire. As long as that discord lasts, so will the Knicks struggles.

Anybody who reads my work knows how I felt about this trade, so I don't need to repeat myself here. It's become obvious to those who didn't already know that the Knicks are still not making it out of the first round this season, and probably not next season either.

This trade was made with eyes towards the 2012-13 season and we won't be able to fully evaluate its success until we see what kind of team the Knicks build around Stoudemire and Anthony. With only those two players, Toney Douglas and Renaldo Balkman on payroll for 2012-13, this team will likely look much different in two years. But will it be better?

If Anthony doesn't learn to co-exist with Stoudemire on the court and play within the offense it won't be, D'Antoni or no D'Antoni. Anthony claims he wants to win, but it's hard to believe that when his play on the court says "I want to shoot too much to get my 25 points per game and not play defense." Sorry Carmelo, but I'll believe it when I see it. And I haven't seen a thing yet.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Syracuse loss leaves Jardine's future role in doubt

(photo courtesy of annarbor.com)

I'm not going to throw all the blame for Syracuse's loss to Marquette yesterday on point guard Scoop Jardine. It was a very ugly game all around, starting with the Orange's 18 turnovers that allowed Marquette to get easy baskets in transition.

It's hard for me to say anything bad about Rick Jackson after the season he had but for a player who played every minute of the game, it's almost embarrassing to have just four rebounds. Baye Moussa Keita and Fab Melo didn't give him much for help in the post, combining for nine minutes and more fouls (three) than points, rebounds and blocks combined (two).

The fact that James Southerland played 21 minutes off the bench says a lot about Syracuse's depth issues. Brandon Triche's injury early in the second half didn't help matters, as he was unable to return and left the backcourt in the non-trustworthy hands of Jardine and Dion Waiters.

Waiters played well with 18 points on 8-of-10 shooting but didn't record an assist. And his errant pass on a late inbounds play that forced Jardine into a backcourt violation led to Darius Johnson-Odom's go-ahead three-pointer.

The Orange missed Triche's leadership at the end of that game and they missed it badly. Especially when Jardine launched an ill-advised three-pointer with 20 seconds left when Syracuse had time to attack the basket and didn't need to force a three.

The real question now becomes: What happens next year? With McDonald's All-Americans Michael Carter-Williams and Rakeem Christmas entering the fold, Jardine's place on this team next season may be on the bench.

Triche will start and if Williams can avoid a Fab Melo-like freshman season, he has a chance to crack the starting five as well. Waiters is likely even a better choice than Jardine, whose mental lapses, poor shot selection and inability to take care of the basketball at important times far outweigh the occasional highlight he provides.

Christmas may be the replacement for Jackson at center unless Melo or Keita develop rapidly in the offseason and if Kris Joseph leaves for the NBA (which he shouldn't), C.J. Fair might work his way into the starting lineup. Either way, I think most Syracuse fans would agree that Jardine should not start next season unless he changes the way he plays, which is unlikely at this stage of his career.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

NCAA Tournament: Southeast/Southwest Preview

(photo courtesy of rivals.yahoo.com)

Southeast Region:

Favorite: #1 Pitt

If the #2 and #3 seeds in this region were stronger, I would have no issue listing one of them as the favorite. But with Florida being the most overrated #2 in the tournament and BYU missing one of its best players because he had a sex drive, Pitt has by far the easiest road to the Final Four. They have good balance on offense and a solid defensive team, but I just don't see them as a contender for the national title. In this bracket though, they're the best there is.

Main contender: #5 Kansas State

This may look like a stretch to some, but let's not forget the Wildcats were a top-five team at the start of the year. Butler was ranked highly at the beginning of last season and was a #5 in the tournament, does anybody remember how far they went? And this Kansas State team is arguably more talented than last year's Bulldogs, Gordon Hayward aside. The problem is, this team can easily lose to grossly-underseeded Utah State tomorrow. This region is a potential mess.

Sweet 16 sleeper: #12 Utah State

I mentioned the Aggies already, but it bears repeating that this is a top-25 caliber team that was highly disrespected by the committee. I hate their matchup against Kansas State, but I think whoever wins can make serious noise. I like Wisconsin but they struggle away from home and I wouldn't be surprised to see them ousted by Belmont in the first (I mean, second) round either. Utah State's ceiling might be as high as the Elite 8. Honorable mention here goes to #10 Michigan State, who could upend Florida to make the Sweet 16.

Southwest Region:

Favorite: #1 Kansas

The Jayhawks are one of the deepest teams in the country and probably have the second easiest path to the Final Four after Pittsburgh. Second-seeded Notre Dame lacks the defensive chops to make a deep run and the first time their shots don't fall will be their last game. The Jayhawks are talented and likely motivated after losing before the Sweet 16 last season, so Bill Self's crew should be able to make a Final Four run.

Main contender: #4 Louisville

Like Tom Izzo, Rick Pitino usually coaches his teams further than their seed would suggest. A potential Sweet 16 matchup with Kansas might decide who comes out of this region, as I think these are the two best teams in the bracket. With all due respect to Purdue, no Robbie Hummel likely means no Final Four for the Boilermakers. It's too bad because with Hummel, they're a title contender.

Sweet 16 sleeper: #12 Richmond

Like Utah State, the Spiders are underseeded and dangerous. I think their game with Vanderbilt will be closely contested all the way through and whenever you let the lower seed hang around, it can spell trouble. This region, along with the East, is least likely to have a double-digit seed representative in the Sweet 16 because of the relative strength in the top four seeds. But if anybody here can do it, it's Richmond. They will need to play the game of their lives against Louisville to get there though.

Monday, March 14, 2011

NCAA Tournament: East/West Preview

(photo courtesy of rockmnation.com)

East Region:

Favorite: #1 Ohio State

The Buckeyes are the top-seeded team in the tournament and rightfully so. They can do everything on the offensive end with Jared Sullinger dominating on the low block and Jon Diebler and David Lighty firing threes. Ohio St. is also in the top 10 in defensive efficiency, making them one of the country's most complete teams.

Main challenger: #3 Syracuse

Syracuse, North Carolina and Kentucky are all in the same boat. They aren't elite like the Buckeyes, but they all have one thing they can ride deep in the tournament. The 2-3 zone will always be an advantage for Syracuse in March, as most teams just don't face many zones during the season. Kentucky has NBA-level talent at the top but lacks depth, as does UNC. The Tar Heels also have a true freshman at point guard.

I think the Orange have the best chance to face Ohio State in the Elite 8 and also to beat them. North Carolina struggles to shoot the three-pointer at times and that will hurt them in their likely Sweet 16 matchup with Syracuse's 2-3 zone, which is susceptible mainly to teams with strong outside shooters. But I still think Ohio State is the pick to come out of this region.

Sweet 16 sleeper: #7 Washington

Isiah Thomas (the godson of former Pistons great and Knicks bust Isiah Thomas) led this team to a Pac-10 Tournament title with a late buzzer-beater and the perenially underrated Huskies have a chance to make some noise. North Carolina feel behind big early against both Miami and Clemson in the ACC Tournament and if they do so against the Huskies, they may find it difficult to crawl back into the game.

Also, don't be surprised if #11 Marquette gets by Xavier and even Syracuse as well. Don't forget the Golden Eagles did win their only regular-season matchup against the Orange.

West Region:

Favorite: #1 Duke

Rumors of a Kyrie Irving return leave the true potential of the Blue Devils in doubt: With Irving, they are the nation's best team; without him, they may not even advance past the Sweet 16. I think the West is the most difficult region in this tournament, as the top four seeds were all ranked in the top 10 at one point this season.

Main challenger: #4 Texas

I think San Diego State is a very good basketball team and many people are likely to disrespect them because they play in the Mountain West. The fact remains that their only two losses this season were to a full-strength BYU team who was consistently ranked in the top 10. With the right draw, I would consider them a Final Four possibility. This is not the right draw.

Despite their recent struggles, the Longhorns are probably the best bet of any team ranked fourth or lower to reach the Final Four. They are one of the best defensive teams in the country and the only real question is whether their youth will hurt them. Then again, what great college team isn't young these days? People forget that they ended Kansas' home winning streak earlier this season and were in contention to be #1 in the country before a few shaky conference losses.

Sweet 16 sleeper: #11 Missouri

When the Tigers are only the 11th-best team in your region, you know you have your work cut out for you. Cincinnati and Connecticut aren't ideal matchups for Mike Anderson's team, as their main weakness lies in the post where the Bearcats and Huskies have big bodies residing. But if they can get past Cincinnati and Connecticut has to work to beat Bucknell, the potential fatigue of Kemba Walker and the Huskies could help Missouri surprise and reach the Sweet 16. It's a longshot, but stranger things have happened.

Southwest/Southeast bracketology coming soon...

Friday, March 11, 2011

Big East Tourney: Official Issues and More

(photo courtesy of nydailynews.com)

After three days of watching the Big East tournament, I have a few observations. I'll start with the attention-grabbing incident involving the referees from the St. John's-Rutgers game.

-How do you not blow the whistle? Even if you're not staring at the clock as an official, it was pretty obvious from Tim Higgins' point of view that Justin Brownlee stepped out of bounds before the horn went off. This wasn't a toe on the line either, he was way out of bounds. Even if Higgins somehow didn't see that, how do you not call a travel?

Brownlee picked up his dribble with three seconds left and continued to move before launching the ball into the stands. I've also heard cries for a technical foul to be called once the ball was thrown into the crowd. I'm glad nobody called a technical foul, because that's a terrible way to hand a team a game, but someone should have blown a whistle for any of these three violations.

If a whistle was blown, the play could have been reviewed and Rutgers would've been given the ball with 1.7 seconds left and a chance to win the game. After the way they played the Johnnies in what was essentially a road game, they deserved that opportunity. And the officiating crew that "resigned" also deserved some punishment.

The other issue here is the referee rotation. Why should officials have to work consecutive games? Unlike the players on the court, refs aren't well-conditioned athletes. They don't get to sit on the bench for minutes at a time to rest either. The Big East should have a different officiating crew for every game in future years to prevent things like this from happening.

-Connecticut's win over Pittsburgh surprised many, but not me. That pick alone may win me my Big East Tournament bracket, but it's surprising to see how a number placed next to a team can influence people's opinion of that team so greatly. Connecticut finishing ninth in the Big East regular-season standings made people think there was a vast difference between them and top-seeded Pittsburgh. There isn't.

Any college team with a lottery-type talent like Kemba Walker for the Huskies will always have a chance to pull an upset. And how much of an upset was it really? Connecticut is a top-20 team and even found their way into the top-10 at one point after starting the season unranked.

They're a better team than Georgetown and Cincinnati, who finished ahead of them in conference, and you can argue they are on a similar level if not better than West Virginia and St. John's. I wouldn't even be surprised if they beat Syracuse tonight and went on to win the tournament, although that would be mighty impressive to win five games in five days.

This is a good young basketball team peaking at the right time, and with a player like Walker on the floor you always have a chance late in games. People slept on UConn and will likely do the same come time for the NCAA Tournament, which is a huge mistake. This team has Elite 8 potential if they get the right matchups; Walker is that Carmelo Anthony/Stephen Curry-type of college player who can carry a team deep into March.

-No other real surprises or storylines have come out of the first three days, but I will say that it's now obvious to me that the top six teams in the Big East (Pitt, Notre Dame, Louisville, Syracuse, St. John's and Connecticut) are better than the other five who will likely make the tournament (Marquette, West Virginia, Georgetown, Cincinnati and Villanova).

If Chris Wright makes it back for the Hoyas, they have an outside shot at the Sweet 16. But without Wright in the lineup, they are a prime candidate for a first-round upset if they get a top-eight seed. Austin Freeman is great, but without Wright that offense doesn't really go.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Do the Knicks need a third star?

(photo courtesy of thehoopdoctors.com)

The New York Knicks' success since trading for Carmelo Anthony and the recent struggles of the Miami Heat beg the question: Is it smart for an NBA team to build around three stars?

Under the current collective bargaining agreement, filling a roster around three All-Star-caliber players is a legitimate strategy. Even still, it's not surprising that Miami is struggling against teams over .500, as these teams tend to be deeper than the Heat and have a surefire go-to guy to take the final shot late in games.

Give the Heat a few seasons and they will be able to build around LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh with mid-level exceptions and draft picks. The Heat team you see this season is not as good as the Heat team you will see next season or the year after that.

But with a new collective bargaining agreement on the horizon and the Knicks paying both Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire more than any of Miami's Big Three, the possibility remains that New York will not be able to afford a third star like Chris Paul, Deron Williams or Dwight Howard. And if they can, their supporting cast might be weaker than that of Miami's.

Right now, the Knicks are beating good teams away from home with just two stars and without an injured Chauncey Billups. Would it really be smarter for the Knicks to try and acquire a third star at the price of talented secondary players like Landry Fields, Toney Douglas and future draft picks, which the team is already lacking?

At first glance, you may think I'm overreacting to the Knicks recent winning ways and the Heat's issues of late. But in order to acquire a third star, the Knicks would have to move players like Fields and Douglas and without draft picks to fill out the roster, they would be stuck with middling players filling 5-6 spots in the rotation, much like Miami this season.

For the price of one extra star, the Knicks could fill the final three spots in their starting lineup with players worthy of starting in the NBA. My sincerest apologies go out to Carlos Arroyo, Mario Chalmers and Joel Anthony in Miami; they simply aren't starting-caliber. And Mike Bibby is at the age where he isn't either. This is a major reason for the Heat's struggles closing out games.

As the season reaches its conclusion and becomes the playoffs, we should find out more about both the Knicks and the Heat and maybe we'll be able to come up with an answer to the question: Would the Knicks be wise to acquire a third star?

Monday, March 7, 2011

There's no crying in basketball! Or is there?

(photo courtesy of hoopstopia.com)

After their fourth straight loss Sunday against the Bulls at home, Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra admitted in a post-game interview that some players were crying in the locker room. Since those words were uttered, there has been speculation abound about what Spoelstra said.

Some people don't believe the Heat players were crying; they seem to think Spoelstra went into that interview with a gameplan to deceive the media and say his players were crying as some sort of posturing technique.

Today, Spoelstra said nobody was "whimpering" and there were no "guys with heads down." He blamed the media for taking his statement out of proportion. This doesn't seem like posturing to me and if you're going to say your million-dollar professional athletes were crying in the locker room, you have to expect some backlash.

I understand the Heat is unhappy. LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh are not players that want to be hated. They may respond well to boos and the mockery of opponents like Dwight Howard but deep down, these guys want to be embraced for doing one thing: Winning.

That's something they haven't done lately and something they haven't done consistently all season against good teams. In four games at home against winning teams since the new year, Miami is 0-4. They led in all four games and lost each by five or less points.

This team still has some chemistry issues and they struggle in last-shot situations, as seen by the fact they have missed 13 straight shots in the final 10 seconds that could have tied the game or given their team the lead. But the bigger issue to me is: Were these guys really crying?!?

The last time I remember a player crying after a loss was Adam Morrison when Gonzaga was knocked out of the NCAA Tournament in 2006. While I hated on Morrison's emotional outburst at the time and still do, at least he was reacting to his team's season ending. Regardless, this was just one more reason why his talents never translated to the NBA; you can't be soft.

Whoever was crying in the Heat locker room should be ashamed. You play 82 regular-season games in the NBA; no individual game means more than any other, regardless of streaks or quality of opponent.

While that is a blanket statement that some people would disagree with, it's hard to disagree with the statement that you should never be crying after a regular-season loss. These guys have played hundreds of essentially meaningless basketball games in their lives and this one loss drives them to tears? What a joke.

I understand the Heat is frustrated with their inability to close games against contending teams, both at home and on the road. But crying your eyes out in the locker room isn't going to solve anything; if anything, it tells me that you're soft.

Teams with soft players don't win championships, especially if James, Wade or Bosh, their "leaders," were the ones perpetuating the waterworks. If Miami doesn't grab a box of Kleenex soon, they could be in trouble: Their next seven games are against playoff-caliber basketball teams.

Maybe this incident will be a turning point for this team. Maybe they will use this negative attention to come out and start closing games in the fourth quarter. Maybe we will look back at this in May and laugh while the Heat take the NBA title.

But it's more likely that we will witness Miami players crying after they lose in the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs. I already had my doubts about this team, how they compare to other contenders and their ability to handle adversity. After "Crygate," those doubts have been magnified tenfold.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

'Melo to the Knicks: Early returns are mixed

(photo courtesy of phoenixnewtimes.com)

The Knicks are 2-2 since trading for Carmelo Anthony and, as you can expect with an even record through four games, there have been ups and downs with this team.

-Anthony scores 29, comes up big in fourth quarter to lead Knicks to comeback win in Miami
-Chauncey Billups is averaging over 23 points, six assists and almost two steals per game and lived up to his Mr. Big Shot nickname against Miami
-The Knicks turned up the defensive intensity in the final three quarters against the Heat, showing that this team can play defense when it wants to.

-Up 84-73 with 1:24 left in the third quarter, the Knicks allow 37 fourth-quarter points and lose by six in Orlando. Billups is apparently no answer for Jameer Nelson.
-Carmelo Anthony has scored 108 points on 93 shots, making only 37 for a field-goal percentage of just under 40 percent. For comparison's sake, Billups has 93 points on just 49 shots.

You can excuse Anthony's poor shooting thus far as nerves or getting used to the system, but let's face reality. Anthony's career shooting percentage is 45.8%, which is solid but doesn't leave that much room for improvement from his current clip (at that rate he would have made 42 shots so far, slightly over one more per game).

Anthony is a high-volume shooter, but he's far from efficient. He bogs down the offense with his need to isolate and post-up on the low block and takes bad shots from outside his comfort zone. Yes, he can hit the occasional three-pointer but Anthony is a below-average perimeter shooter for a small forward. I'd rather see Amar'e Stoudemire shooting 18-footers than Anthony.

One thing I'm sure of through four games of watching the new-look Knicks is that while they are a better basketball team right now with Anthony and Billups on board, Anthony does not fit Mike D'Antoni's system. The link below agrees:


This bad fit leaves one solution, since it's obvious Anthony is here to stay: D'Antoni has to go. Many people would say "Good riddance." D'Antoni's up-tempo, shoot-quick style has led many to question whether his teams could ever win an NBA title.

I think it's more about the players you try to fit into the system. His Suns teams that made deep playoff runs a few years back were good, but it's hard for me to say they were the most talented team in the league (or even the West) and fell short. No system would've taken that team any farther than they went.

While I do like a lot of what I've seen from the Knicks since the trade, it's obvious that placing Anthony in D'Antoni's system is akin to trying to fit a square block in a round hole; you may solve parts of the puzzle, but you will never complete it.

With Stoudemire and Anthony in tow, the Knicks are more attractive to future free agents even if they won't have the money for an All-Star caliber point guard like Chris Paul or Deron Williams once Billups moves on. But the first title they win (if they win one) will not be with D'Antoni at the helm.

The Knicks are just 32-for-104 (30.4 percent) from beyond the arc since the trade. Before the trade, the Knicks shot over 36 percent from downtown. The only Knick that can be relied on now for consistent outside shooting is Billups, unless you trust Shawne Williams or Bill Walker to hit a big three-pointer down the stretch.

The Knicks will remain an inconsistent enigma as long as the mismatch between Anthony's game and D'Antoni's style exists. They will beat good teams on the road (like Miami) and struggle to close against others (like Orlando). Unfortunately for Knicks fans, the solution isn't coming this season.