Thursday, December 29, 2011

Knicks Look Bad in Loss to Warriors

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It's tough to expect NBA teams to come out firing on all cylinders this season after the lockout severely shortened training camps. The Knicks signed Tyson Chandler in the offseason and, two weeks later, they were playing the Celtics on Christmas Day.

It takes weeks, even months for a basketball team to gel on the court. The Knicks had the same issues last season after trading most of their roster for Carmelo Anthony and chemistry was still a work in progress two months later in the playoffs.

The need to preach patience with this team is evident. Last night's road loss to the Stephen Curry-less Warriors, however, was a poor performance all around. The Knicks held an eight-point lead with eight minutes to play in the third quarter but were outscored 52-30 over the final 20 minutes.

Brandon Rush scored 11 points in a nine-minute span and his 19 points in the game matched the output Golden State could have expected from Curry. Ishmael Smith, who started in place of Curry, outplayed Toney Douglas and exposed the Knicks' biggest weakness right now: The lack of a true point guard.

Upon signing Chandler, the Knicks had no choice but to amnesty Chauncey Billups and his $14 million salary. In losing Billups, the Knicks lost the only true point guard they had on their roster and, while Douglas had some good moments in the opening-round playoff loss to Boston, he's struggled to prove he's the answer in the season's first two games.

There's no real reason to rush to judgment as I alluded to earlier; the season is still young and even championship-caliber teams are going to have their inconsistent games in the first two or three months this season. But watching the Knicks struggle last night was extremely painful, especially against a team as defensively inept as the Warriors.

Chandler couldn't stay on the court with foul trouble, logging just 22 minutes, three rebounds and no blocked shots after swatting six against the Celtics in the opener. Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire shot 8-for-27 from the field and had just 29 points combined while Bill Walker had 14 points and made six of his eight shots off the bench.

When Bill Walker is your best offensive option, you're in trouble as a basketball team. The Knicks shot just 40 percent as a team and made only four of their 21 three-point attempts, allowing Golden State to generate easy baskets and build momentum at home late in the game.

A better performance should be expected from the Knicks against Kobe Bryant and the Andrew Bynum-less Lakers tonight. We saw last night though that it's not about who their opponent is missing, but whether the Knicks can keep their stars in rhythm.

This is not a deep basketball team, especially without Iman Shumpert for up to a month. Chandler needs to stay out of foul trouble because without him, the team's interior defense is even worse than it was last season. The Knicks also won't win many games when both Anthony and Stoudemire have bad shooting nights.

Last night was the worst-case scenario for the Knicks this season and boy, did they look pathetic. I don't expect games that bad very often this season but if they start to become the norm, New York basketball fans will be screaming Baron Davis' name before we know it.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Fab Melo Hosts Block Party in Syracuse Rout of Seton Hall

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After losing Rick Jackson to graduation, many thought Syracuse would struggle to replace his 10.3 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game. While the Orange have missed Jackson on the boards, sophomore Fab Melo has been a more imposing presence than his predecessor on the defensive end.

After blocking a Syracuse-record 10 shots in a 75-49 victory over Seton Hall where the Pirates managed just 15 first-half points, Melo is now averaging almost three blocks per game. That average puts Syracuse's most improved player this season just outside the national top 10, no small feat considering most of the players above him play at a much lower competition level.

Much has been made of Melo's transformation from last season, when he weighed about 275 pounds and averaged fewer than ten minutes per game. Much like highly-touted recruits Michael Carter-Williams and Rakeem Christmas this season, Melo was a significant disappointment as a freshman.

The seven-foot center came back ready in 2011, shedding over 30 pounds to drop a more desirable playing weight of 244 pounds. While Jackson was a solid interior defender, Melo's presence alone changes far more shots than the 6-9 Jackson could have dreamed of.

As much as I liked Jackson, Syracuse is better off with Melo at center this season than they were with Jackson and the same lineup last year. It helps that Melo has averaged over 20 minutes per game and shown the ability to run the court effectively, picking up cheap buckets as a trailer.

Melo isn't the only sophomore to come back and play a bigger role for the Orange this season, as guard Dion Waiters has almost doubled his scoring average, assists and steals while shooting over 50 percent from the field and provided a spark off the bench. Waiters was great once again against the Pirates, scoring 15 points on 7-for-10 shooting with three assists and three steals.

His improvement has led to an increase in playing time, which has helped Jim Boeheim limit the minutes of turnover-prone senior Scoop Jardine this season. Jardine is much more effective playing around 20 minutes per game than he was playing 30.

Seton Hall's Herb Pope came into the game with Syracuse averaging over 20 points per game and more than 11 rebounds. He left after a four-point night where he made just two of his nine shots. As a result, his team scored just 49 points. Other teams with big-time scorers who rely on getting points in the paint may face similar fates against the Orange.

Syracuse has always been a great defensive team in their 2-3 zone, but Melo's presence in the paint just may propel this team to their first Final Four since 2003, when they won the national title behind another Melo, Carmelo Anthony. It's not unfathomable to think that the nation's current top team could finish the season right where they are now: On top of the college basketball world.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Mark Sanchez: Should His Days in New York Be Numbered?

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It took almost three seasons of inconsistent play, but the media is finally starting to question whether the Jets should give up on Mark Sanchez. This is why they shouldn't.

Learning Curve

The quarterback position is the most difficult transition from college to the pros. I've always been an advocate that a quarterback should not start right away and, depending on the player, should sit on the bench for anywhere from half a season to two years.

Thanks to a lack of in-house options, Sanchez was thrown to the wolves right away with the Jets after just one season as a starter at USC. All he did was lead the team to two AFC Championship Games in his first two seasons and while that team was focused on defense and the running game, Sanchez made the plays he needed to make to move the offense and win football games. He saved his best football for the playoffs, when it mattered most.

Most people would agree that the top five quarterbacks in the NFL this season (excluding Peyton Manning, who didn't play) are Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning. The career progressions of these five quarterbacks shows how steep the learning curve truly is.

Case Study

Rodgers famously sat behind Brett Favre for three seasons until his breakout fourth season when he threw 28 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. We all know what he's done this season, his fourth as a starter.

Brady sat for one season, but didn't reach the 30-touchdown plateau until his eighth season as a starter. In the three years since, taking away the season he was injured, he has done it twice.

Brees sat for one season but didn't even crack 20 touchdowns until his fourth year in the league. Up until that point, many people were saying he couldn't cut it as an NFL starter.

Roethlisberger is the exception here, posting quarterback ratings over 98 in his first two career seasons as starter. Even he didn't crack 20 touchdowns until his fourth season, however, when he threw 32. His third season was actually the worst of his career with a 75.4 rating, 18 touchdowns and 23 interceptions.

Manning sat for half a season and, after year three, the New York media was questioning him as well. His third season looks eerily similar to Sanchez's with 24 touchdowns, 17 interceptions and nine fumbles compared to 30 touchdowns (six rushing), 15 interceptions and 10 fumbles for Sanchez. Actually, Manning's was worse.

My point here is clear: Every one of the quarterbacks on this list got better after their third season in the league and with the exception of Brees, whose numbers jumped in his third year as a starter, none took a quantum leap until their fourth season starting in the NFL.

Aaron Rodgers never threw more than 30 touchdowns until this year, his fourth as a starter, and he has a shot at 50. Brady threw 50 in his seventh season; his previous high was 28 and he never totaled 30 touchdowns in a season before that like Sanchez has this season.

It took Manning until year five as a starter to post a quarterback rating over 80. If the Giants gave up on him after year three, they don't win the Super Bowl in year four. If the Chargers gave up on Drew Brees after year three, he may have become a career backup and the Saints wouldn't have a Super Bowl trophy from the 2009 season.

Quarterback is unlike any other position in the NFL where early failures are generally a sign of a busted pick. Some quarterbacks don't hit their full potential until they're close to 30. Sanchez's quarterback rating has risen every year as has his ability to make plays, not to mention he's just 25 years old.

In his first season, he totaled 15 touchdowns. He had 20 in year two and 30 so far this season. Yes, his turnovers are costly at times but he's dropping back almost 35 times per game and the Jets called 64 pass plays against the Giants last week! There are only a handful of NFL quarterbacks who can succeed when put in that situation.

Flawed Coaching Philosophy

One of the keys for the Jets on Saturday was to keep Sanchez effective by establishing the run and working off of play action, where he's one of the league's best. Instead, offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer called almost 40 more pass plays than run plays against a team full of backup linebackers. What a genius.

Giving up on Sanchez isn't the answer for the Jets. The Peyton Manning trade talk will continue but New York has too many other holes to give up multiple draft picks to get him; they still won't win the Super Bowl (think about Manning's supporting casts in Indianapolis) and when Manning retires and they have no ring, they'll look really bad.

The answer here is firing Schottenheimer, which has been the answer for at least two years. If the Jets keep their embattled offensive coordinator on board, Sanchez will not be an NFL starter when his rookie contract expires in two seasons.

If the team starts fresh and brings somebody in that can play to Sanchez's strengths while developing other parts of his game, he has a chance to be a top 10-12 NFL quarterback considering the dearth of quality quarterbacks in the league today.

Let's take a quick look at the previous two quarterbacks Schottenheimer coached with the Jets. In his final two seasons with New York, Chad Pennington started 24 games and threw 27 touchdowns and 25 interceptions with an 83.8 quarterback rating. The year after when he went to Miami, he threw 19 touchdowns and seven interceptions with a 97.1 quarterback rating and won Comeback Player of the Year.

Brett Favre came to New York with high expectations but he struggled, throwing 22 touchdowns and 22 interceptions with an 81.0 rating in his one season as a Jet. What did Favre do the following year with Minnesota? He only threw 33 touchdowns compared to just seven interceptions and compiled a career-high 107.2 passer rating, the only time in his career he topped 100.

Struggles As a Team

People who say that Sanchez has regressed this season are missing the big picture. The Jets' entire team has regressed while Sanchez has improved, but the team's reliance on him to do more has exposed his flaws that were disguised when the team had a strong running game and an elite defense.

If New York can fill some of their other needs in the offseason, this team can definitely return to the playoffs with Sanchez at quarterback assuming he continues to improve like the majority of quarterbacks do from season three to season four.

I said before the season that 2012, not 2011, would be the year that decides Sanchez's NFL future and I stand by that assessment. If we're having this same discussion at the end of next season, it's probably time for the Jets to move on.

The Jets entire team was built to win over the past three seasons but rather than acquire a veteran quarterback to hold down the ship in 2009, they traded up to draft a rookie. Those are severely conflicting ideals and if the Jets are willing to give up on Sanchez after just three seasons, you have to start questioning their personnel decisions over the past three years more than their choice of quarterback.

Monday, December 19, 2011

New York Jets: Where do they go from here?

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Yesterday's game in Philadelphia can be described in a few ways. Pathetic. Disgusting. Embarrassing. There's more, but there's no reason to harp too much on what happened.

The Jets' 45-19 defeat is just one loss as Rex Ryan said, but it's also the fifth time in their six losses this season that the Jets have lost by more than a touchdown. This team cannot play from behind and considering they have scored first in just three of their 13 games this season, that's a bad thing.

This New York team obviously has a lot to improve on, but thanks to Detroit's comeback against Oakland they still hold the final Wild Card spot in the AFC and control their own destiny. Before the playoffs can come to fruition, the Jets have some work to do.

-Keep Mark Sanchez effective

At this point in Sanchez's season, we know what he is and what he isn't. He is a quarterback who can succeed as a game manager with an effective rushing attack in a close football game. He is not a stud that can have success throwing the football on every down to bring a team back.

That's not to say that Sanchez can't play with the game on the line. In his three-year Jets career, Sanchez has shown a propensity for fourth-quarter comebacks. This year, he's done it against Dallas, San Diego, Buffalo and Washington, accounting for half of the Jets wins.

It seems that Sanchez is the antithesis of Tim Tebow, however. When the Broncos have won this season, Tebow gets a ton of credit he doesn't deserve when his team gave him a lot of help throughout the game. When the Jets win the credit is generally thrown at the defense or the running game, while Sanchez serves merely as a scapegoat in Jets losses.

This includes yesterday, which just wasn't his fault. Santonio Holmes' fumble that was returned for a touchdown put the Jets in an early hole and his drop deep in Eagles territory a few minutes later landed right in the hands of Asante Samuel. The Eagles turned it into a touchdown and a 14-0 lead.

On the Jets next drive, Wayne Hunter's inability to contain NFL sack leader Jason Babin led to a third-down sack on the drive's only pass play. Philadelphia scored again to make it 21-0, then forced a Sanchez fumble that allowed them to go up 28-0 with a short field.

Up until that fumble, none of the Jets' deficit can be put on Sanchez. Does he overthrow receivers at times? Yes. Will he make some poor decisions with the football? Yes. But he doesn't deserve the vilification he gets most of the time and when the Jets win, he usually deserves more credit.

Being Mark Sanchez in New York is a tough gig. The Jets need to help him out by not giving up the ball on offense; if you recall, Dustin Keller got the ball ripped away from him after a catch earlier this season that turned into a Chargers touchdown and put the Jets in a hole to start the game. Sanchez makes enough mistakes on his own, but he'll also make plays when you need him to; just not when he's facing a multiple-score deficit.

-Stop putting the defense on the field first

This seems like a blasphemous statement, considering the Jets are obviously a better team on defense than on offense. Many times this season, however, that defense has allowed an opening-drive touchdown to put the offense in an early hole. From there, one three-and-out and another opposing score creates a double-digit deficit, and we know how well the Jets react to those.

It would be a novel idea to put the offense on the field first and let the Jets control the pace of the game from the start. This team has proven multiple times this season that they can only win a certain type of football game, so why not give the offense a chance to create that atmosphere?

When the Jets defense was suffocating over the past two seasons, deferring was the way to go to give them the ball in the second half. While the defense is still good, it's not the same unit we've gotten used to seeing. Rex Ryan may still have the utmost confidence in them, but maybe it's time to switch it up and show some confidence in the offense.

The Giants' defense is bad enough that the Jets can control the game on the ground in the early minutes and work off play-action, which plays right into their strengths. If the Jets win the coin toss again this week, I would love to see Ryan put Sanchez and the offense on the field first.

-Fix the run defense

This one is listed last because it's the most difficult of these three keys for the Jets to accomplish. Losing Jim Leonhard was a definite blow to this team from a leadership perspective but also against the run, something they have struggled with all season even with Leonhard in the lineup.

Bart Scott is a step slower and the Jets obviously miss veterans Shaun Ellis and Trevor Pryce along the defensive line, not to mention the season-ending injury to Bryan Thomas. Frankly, I'm out of ideas on how the team can fix these problems this season.

For this week, however, the Jets should be able to get away with bringing Eric Smith into the box and playing an eight-man front. Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz are explosive on the outside, but Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie are probably the best cornerback tandem they have faced all season.

Unlike Brent Celek, Fred Davis and the other tight ends that have killed the Jets all season, Jake Ballard isn't a top-10 consideration at the position. He's had a solid season up to this point, but he's not the kind of tight end that will hurt the Jets down the field if they bring a safety up to help stop the run. If anything, slot receiver Mario Manningham is more of a threat running down the seam.

Even still, the Jets should be focused more on stopping Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs. Both are effective runners on the edge, the part of the field the Jets struggle most to defend in the running game. If they can stop the run early with an eight-man front, open up a lead and make the Giants throw the football, they can drop Smith back into coverage and play the pass.

It may seem like a lot to ask, but Ryan and Mike Pettine have no choice but to use smoke and mirrors to cover up their defense's biggest weakness. The Jets' season and playoff hopes depend on it.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Early Observations From the Knicks-Nets Pre-Season Game

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The Knicks opened up their pre-season schedule today against the Nets with a 92-83 victory at Prudential Center. New York forced 25 New Jersey turnovers as new addition Tyson Chandler had both of the team's blocked shots and added three steals.

Other than a solid performance on the defensive end, there are a few other things that stood out about the Knicks' performance today.

-Iman Shumpert is a better shooter than we thought

We all knew Shumpert could play defense and the rookie from Georgia Tech showed that ability in the first half, using his long arms to slap the ball away from Deron Williams and take it coast to coast for an easy layup. The 17th overall pick also looked good shooting the basketball, touching nothing but the net on a few long jump shots early in the game.

The Knicks will need Shumpert to play 20-25 minutes per game this season behind Toney Douglas and Landry Fields, as he is already the team's best perimeter defender. Shumpert plays with confidence on both ends of the court and was aggressive with the ball in his hands, while Fields looked passive at times last season, especially after Carmelo Anthony arrived.

Nobody wants to overreact to one impressive pre-season performance but if Shumpert can find consistency with his jump shot, the rookie is more physically gifted than Fields and could find himself joining Douglas in the backcourt more often than not. Both are combo guards who can take on the ball-handling responsibilities, although Anthony will likely bring the ball down on occasion as well.

-Carmelo Anthony might be developing into a willing passer

For all of his offensive talents, Anthony is much maligned for being a black hole on offense. Generally when he touches the ball, he doesn't like to give it up. This left the Knicks offense stagnant at times last season and didn't allow his teammates to get into an offensive rhythm.

In today's game, Anthony showed that not only does he have the ability to be an effective passer but he might be willing to do more when it comes to orchestrating the offense. He showed off his passing ability on two nice second-quarter feeds to Renaldo Balkman for easy baskets at the hoop and set up a Tyson Chandler dunk in the third quarter with a beautiful bounce pass off of a pick-and-roll.

With the Knicks cutting Chauncey Billups thanks to the new amnesty clause, the team lacks a true point guard. The ball will be in Anthony's hands a lot on the offensive end and if he's willing to take on more of a point forward role in the offense to complement his scoring ability, this Knicks team could be even more difficult to defend.

-New York's bench has a nice mix of shooters and defenders

Everybody knows Mike Bibby can shoot; it's about the only above-average ability he has left at this stage of his career. Second-round rookie center Josh Harrellson out of Kentucky showed some long-distance ability as well and could help the Knicks stretch the court when he plays.

Harrellson was one of the most improved players in college basketball last season, which led to him being drafted in the second round after being well off the NBA radar before the season. He's deceptively athletic on the court and could give the Knicks some decent minutes behind Tyson Chandler.

Bibby and Harrellson should mesh well with the second unit, which looks like it will include Shumpert along with Renaldo Balkman and Jared Jeffries, three players who are known more for their defensive abilities. It will be interesting to see how Bill Walker may fit into Mike D'Antoni's rotation once his groin gets healthy, as he's another player who isn't afraid to toss up three-pointers off the bench.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Tyson Chandler: Did the Knicks Overpay?

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Tyson Chandler brought a defensive presence to the Mavericks last season that helped them win a championship. Now, he will try to bring the same presence to a Knicks team that sorely needs it.

Chandler signed a four-year, $58 million contract with the Knicks today, meaning the Knicks will have to use the one-time amnesty clause created by the new collective bargaining agreement to release point guard Chauncey Billups. This leaves the Knicks extremely thin in the backcourt, but gives them the interior defensive presence they have been lacking for years.

I've heard a lot of people say they think the Knicks overpaid for Chandler, but I disagree. It certainly seems to take them out of the running for an elite point guard like Chris Paul or Deron Williams, but the Knicks already play great offense. They struggle protecting the basket and outside of trading for Dwight Howard, another unlikely scenario, Chandler was the best option for the Knicks to fix their biggest problem.

This leaves the Knicks with Toney Douglas, Landry Fields and rookie Iman Shumpert to man the backcourt. Douglas will likely be the team's starting point guard and he's a player who benefited from Billups' veteran presence last season. Douglas learned things about the position he never knew from Billups and hopefully he can succeed in the role.

If Shumpert develops an offensive game, particular a better jump shot, he may be the Knicks' point guard of the future. For now, he will be a role player coming off the bench and his ability to defend three positions should mesh well on the court with Chandler's post defense and the Knicks two big scorers, Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire.

In the end, this is a big win for the Knicks. They may be out of the running for Paul or Williams now barring a trade including Anthony or Stoudemire, but they shored up their biggest weakness on the inside of their defense. Besides, waiting for something to happen with Paul or Williams could have left the Knicks with nothing, so why not get a player who can fill a need now?

Chandler should help the Knicks drastically improve their porous defense from the last few seasons, which may also attract even more players to play in the Big Apple. That's what Stoudemire did by signing last season and if the Knicks continue to add talented pieces that fill their needs, they could be legitimate championship contenders for years to come.

At the least, I bet the Heat are unhappy that the road to an NBA title (or in this case, an Eastern Conference title) may once again go through Tyson Chandler.