Tuesday, October 27, 2015

21 Questions for the 2015-16 NBA Season

Tonight is my favorite Tuesday of the year, each and every year.

Why is that, might you ask?

Because the last Tuesday of October is always the opening night of the NBA season, and frankly, I love this league more than Lamar Odom loves cocaine and hookers (speaking of Lamar, how in the world did this guy manage to turn doing drugs and passing out at a brothel into a way to save his marriage? That’s so ridiculous that’s it’s almost…. genius?).

I just couldn’t remain silent on the opening night of my favorite league, and plus, I’ve got so many thoughts and opinions on this upcoming season that I just have to share, because normally people look at me sideways and very calmly say, “You’re bothering me. I need to get away from you” when I start splurging out NBA talk. I don’t know. Maybe it’s that crazy look in my eyes. Or that I foam at the mouth. Who knows?

How to convey them in a different and interesting way was becoming a problem for me though. Last year, I just ranked the teams 30-1, grouped them together with the teams around them, and gave the groups names that captured the feel for each team for the upcoming season. Not a terrible idea, right?

But then, inspiration struck from a place I never expected. I was driving around a couple days ago, bobbing my head and pretending to be cool, listening to 50 Cent’s most commercially successful album, Get Rich or Die Tryin’, when the song “21 Questions” soothed its way through the speakers. For those of you that aren’t familiar with what I’m talking about, punch yourself in the face, because it’s my favorite 50 song and you’re really missing out. More than anything, I appreciate it because it’s definitely his most unique tune, as it’s unlike everything he’s ever released. Instead of being a party or “I’ll shoot you in the face” song, it’s the closest thing to a “love ballad” that he’s ever recorded. Plus (fun fact!), there are actually 21 unique questions asked in the song.

So what does that have to do with my NBA preview? Well, rather than ranking teams, I thought I’d try to answer/discuss the 21 biggest questions heading into the upcoming season. I thought about literally ripping the questions out of the song, typing them out, and trying to find a way to give them applicability to the NBA, before giving up when I realized that was impossible. I mean, I just couldn’t find a way to make, “In the bed, if I used my tongue, would you like that?” apply to any professional basketball situation. I really couldn’t. So, suffice to say, I created my own questions.

By the way, here’s “21 Questions” for those of you who haven’t heard it, you uncultured savages.

1. What’s the deal with all the Spurs’ love?

San Antonio finished last season sixth in the West, looked extremely old at times throughout the season, and lost to the Clippers in a hard fought seven game series in the first round. This off-season, in very un-Spurs-like fashion, they threw 4 years and $80 million at Lamarcus Aldridge in free agency, and in very Spurs-like fashion, signed past his prime David West to the bargain of all bargains, a 1 year, $1.4 million deal.

So sure, they “won” the off-season, but what does that even mean? They got much bigger and better inside, but let’s not act like adding Aldridge is the same as adding Hakeem Olajuwon or Karl Malone. I like watching him play, but isn’t it alarming that in 9 years, he’s only won one playoff series? Or that his career high in points per game is 23.4, which happened last season? Or that his offensive game has increasingly taken him further and further away from the basket as he’s gotten older, leading him to launch more and more 15-18 foot fallaways? I think he helps, but is he really going to drag this old, over-the-hill bunch to a title? The former Big Three is a shell of itself; Ginobili looks washed up half the time, and Parker has fallen off dramatically the last two seasons (20.3 points and 7.4 assists on 52.2% shooting in 2013, as compared to 14.4 points and 4.9 assists 48.6% shooting in 2015). Only Duncan really looks at least somewhat like his old self, though his numbers from last season (13.9 points and 9.1 rebounds on 51.2% shooting) look like a peak year out of Tyson Chandler. I think they were hoping Kawhi Leonard would step up, demand the ball more, and take on more of the offensive burden, but at this point, four years in, I think he basically is who he is: a terrific, game-changing defensive player whose going to consistently give you between 15-18 points per game. He’s just not selfish enough, and because of that, he doesn’t have the personality of someone who averages over 20 points a game in this league. Sometimes you just have to call your own number, put your head down, and get to the basket or get up the best look possible, but Leonard looks much more comfortable just existing on the offensive end, not breaking from the set, and then getting back on the defensive end and murdering everyone.

Honestly, I like Golden State, Oklahoma City, the Clippers, and Houston more in the West than I do the Spurs. I’d pick all four of those teams over them in a playoff series actually. It’s been a great run in San Antonio, spanning a decade and a half, but I think it’s over for them, at least as title contenders.

2. Are the Sixers even close?


Seriously, they aren’t.

Explain more? Fine… What else is there to say about this bunch though? They’ve drafted centers three years in a row, two of which missed their entire rookie seasons with injuries (and reportedly, Joel Embiid won’t play at all this season either due to alarming complications from his broken foot). They traded Michael Carter-Williams, only their best guard and 2014 Rookie of the Year, at the trade deadline last season, and their other guards and forwards (Kendall Marshall, Tony Wroten, Robert Covington just to name a few) leave a lot to be desired. The verdict is still out on second year guard Nik Stauskas (who they acquired in the off-season), but he didn’t exactly light it up in Sacramento last season (4.4 points per game on 36.5% shooting). They’ve hellaciously tanked away the last three seasons since the disastrous Andrew Bynum trade, and all they have to show for it is a Greg Oden-esque center (Embiid), a super-athletic defender who is an absolute zero on the offensive end (Nerlens Noel), a “I’m not sure he can or will guard anyone on this level” (Jahlil Okafor), and no proven or promising guards or forwards. The rebuild, at least up to this point, has been an utter and absolute failure and disaster.  

3. Should any contender or pseudo-contender trade for Carmelo?

I don’t know, I mean it’s a really tough call… if you just had a head injury.

I have no use for Carmelo Anthony’s game. He continues to be the most overrated player in the NBA, despite the fact that he’s a career 45.5% shooter who has won one scoring title. People talk about this guy like he’s George Gervin, Bernard King, or even Michael Jordan as a scorer, but he falls far short of the level of consistency or “holy mother of God” seasons that the best scorers of all time put up.

My theory on the Carmelo love: he has one of the most aesthetically pleasing playing styles in the league. He just looks cool when he competes in the game of basketball. His game is full of a million jab steps and contested fade away jumpers that look great on highlight films (when they go in, which is rare, but still), and he’s crafted enough offensive moves to fool people into thinking that he’s somehow an elite scorer from everywhere on the floor, despite the fact that the percentages would show otherwise. He’s that dude that shows up to a pick up game and looks so much like a basketball player that you assume he’s going to be a monster and there’s no way his team is going to lose. Then the game starts; he’s standing around the 3 point line, making huge, pronounced dribbles that don’t go anywhere or lead to anything, followed by one hundred different jab steps and up fakes that don’t create any space or fool the defender, which leads to him inevitably taking a ridiculously tough shot that never had a chance even before it left his hand. He’ll then follow that up by playing as little defense as possible, which will allow his man to score like 15 straight points. 

The “he’s great because I like his playing style” is a dangerous and mind-numbing way to look at basketball, and it’s also the same reason there’s a zillion Kobe defenders. I’d argue Bryant’s game is even more aesthetically pleasing (the man is a walking highlight film), but the difference between Kobe and ‘Melo is that Bryant actually, at one point, gave a crap defensively, cared at least a little bit about making his teammates better, and was the most hypercompetitive basketball player since Jordan. Anthony has never been a good defender, is a blackhole on offense, and I don’t get the sense that he’s destroyed, or even all that bothered by losing. He knows how to get his and that’s about it.

4. What number will be higher, Kobe’s points per game, or his shot attempts per game?

Last season, in 35 games, Bryant made a strong push for the Inefficiency Championship Belt, as he averaged 22.3 points per game on 20.4 shot attempts (all while shooting 37.3% from the field). Does he have it in him to accomplish this “feat”? Yeah, of course he does, but as selfish and inefficient and team-destructive as he was last season, even he couldn’t pull it off. I literally can’t fathom a basketball player who gets as much usage as Bryant having a worse, more selfish, less accurate season than he did last year. I mean, he missed 47 games last season and still finished third on the Lakers in shot attempts. THIRD!!! Honestly, I see this season playing out a lot like last season for L.A.: Kobe breaking the offense whenever he wants, gunning for his own points at every turn, and shooting a low percentage, before an inevitable injury in mid-to-late January that sidelines him for the rest of the season. He’ll probably shoot 21 times a game and average around 22 points per game, and he’ll lay enough bricks to build a four bedroom apartment in the Los Angeles metro area.

5. How dumb does Garnett-Pierce trade to Brooklyn look now?

Really, really dumb, as the Nets appear to be diving into a deep, dark valley thanks to that trade, a transaction that we’ll probably remember as the second worst NBA trade of this decade (behind the Bynum deal, of course, because I’d argue that all four teams involved in the trade got worse) because it absolutely destroyed Brooklyn’s franchise for at least the next 7-8 years. For three future first round picks, all they got was one playoff series win, the biggest luxury tax bill in league history, and rumors all off-season about their crazy Russian billionaire owner trying to sell the team. But you really feel the destructive nature of losing three first round picks when you look at that roster... Brook Lopez’s feet are in terrible condition, they still owe Joe Johnson’s corpse $24.8 million, and rest of the team is full of average-to-middling journeymen (Wayne Ellington, Jarrett Jack), lottery pick busts (Thomas Robinson), guys who couldn’t guard a chair (Andrea Bargnani), and dudes with names I can’t pronounce (Bojan Bogdanovic). There’s no young up and comers, no future building blocks, and I feel like Lopez is a trade deadline deal waiting to happen.

And when you juxtapose that with the situation in Boston, which sports a young, energetic squad that plays a fun, up and down style of basketball, with one of the best young coaches in the league, and who might just be a superstar player away from really contending, it makes it even worse. The Celtics fleeced them, and they won that trade by a margin wider than the Pacific Ocean.

6. What was the worst free agent signing of the off-season?

That title belongs to Detroit, who stupidly threw 5 years and $80 million at Reggie Jackson, a guy with career averages of 9.8 points and 3.2 assists. I get that the salary cap will boom by the start of the 2016-17 season because of the new television deal, so that contract might not look like an albatross in three years, but I’m not sure I could find any way to justify $16 million a year for someone who isn’t even one of the best 15 point guards in the league, unless it was like 3 in the morning and I was 17 drinks deep. And then there’s this; I know this sounds crazy, but Brandon Jennings actually seemed to sort of figure out how to run an NBA offense last season, as he put together the finest stretch of his career in the month of January; 20.9 points and 7.2 assists on 43.5% shooting, including a ridiculous 24 point, 21 assist game against Orlando, before he ruptured his Achilles on January 24th. He won’t be back for the start of the season, and might not ever get back to 100% (just ask Kobe how hard it is to recover from that injury), but if he did manage to regain his footing, there’s no question that I like his game better than Jackson’s. And the Jackson signing gets even more ridiculous when you remember that Jennings is scheduled to earn around 8.3 million dollars this year, meaning Detroit will pay just north of $22.2 million (Jackson’s deal is slanted towards the back end; he earns about $13.9 million this year) for two guys that play the exact same position and do the exact same things well. Nice roster moves, Stan Van Gundy! That’s the worst front office point guard decision making since the immortal David Kahn selected Ricky Rubio and Jonny Flynn back-to-back in the 2009 draft.

Is this the year Boogie Cousins gets over the hump and leads Sacramento to the playoffs? Maybe. The Western Conference got stronger at the top, but weaker in the middle, meaning the Kings have a chance to slip into the playoffs for the first time since the 2005-06 season. Cousins (24.1 points and 12.7 rebounds) was an absolute beast last season, and Sacramento’s decent start (they were 9-8 through the first month of the season) was spoiled by a mysterious illness that sidelined Boogie for a large part of December, a month that saw the Kings go 4-11 and get their head coach Mike Malone fired.

So what’s not to like? Well, for starters, they signed Rajon Rondo to a 1 year, $9.5 million deal in July. Why is that a bad thing? It’s Rondo! He was one of the best point guards in the league… like three years ago. Oh…. We’ll remember 2015 Rondo as the winner of the 2015 Eff You Award, given annually to the NBA player that’s play on the court, attitude in the locker room, or just overall existence gave everyone else the finger. He absolutely destroyed the chemistry and title chances for a likable and competitive Dallas team that didn’t meet expectations and flamed out with surprising meekness in the playoffs last year, solely by being on the roster. He was so cancerous that the Mavericks actually chose head coach Rick Carlisle, a frequent sparring partner, over Rondo, one of the few times that’s happened in NBA history. Normally, teams fire head coaches whenever they clash with stars, but doesn’t it tell you something that they axed Rondo as quickly as possible?

And don’t forget the inevitable explosion between Boogie and George Karl that’s ultimately going to cost Karl his job. Apparently Karl wanted/still wants Cousins gone, because Boogie has been a head case at times who has never demonstrated the ability (at least to this point) to be a leader or the face of the franchise. And, understandably, it’s made things… difficult between them. Their handshake before a summer league game back in July was the most awkward player-head coach interaction since Dwight Howard and Stan Van Gundy.

I don’t like anything coming out of this franchise, and I think they’ll miss the playoffs for the tenth straight year.

8. Is anybody going to challenge Cleveland in the East?

Here’s the short answer: No.

But let’s run through the other “contenders”….

9. Is Atlanta a contender?

Last year’s Eastern Conference number 1 seed, the Hawks played a Warriors-esque brand of basketball, as they spread the floor, shot a ton of threes, and got out in transition for easy baskets. They also got swept by Cleveland in the Conference Finals, got nothing from Kyle Korver for much of the playoffs, probably should’ve lost the Washington series, and lost Demarre Carroll to Toronto in the off-season. They had the best year possible for the amount of talent they had on the roster, and they still couldn’t win one game against Cleveland. The Carroll loss hurts more than you’d think (he did all the dirty work for them), and I’ll believe Al Horford will be healthy for back-to-back seasons when I see it. Here’s his games played since 2011:

2011: 77 games
2012: 11 games
2013: 74 games
2014: 29 games
2015: 76 games

Based on his track record, doesn’t this feel like a 25-35 game season for him? It’s not unreasonable to expect that. His shoulders are wrecked, and it’s evident when he pulls up for a jump shot. One bad bump or hard fall on them and we could be talking about another shoulder surgery, and possibly, the end of his season. And where’s the perennial, A+ NBA superstar on this roster? Where’s the guy that’s one of the five best at his position? They don’t have one, and that’s why they aren’t serious contenders.

10. Is Miami a contender?

Here’s their starting five:

PG: Goran Dragic
SG: Dwyane Wade
SF: Luol Deng
PF: Chris Bosh
C: Hassan Whiteside

Based on reputation, that’s one of the best first units in the league, and you could be fooled into thinking they’ve got a legitimate chance to challenge Cleveland, until you remember a few things:

  • Wade hasn’t looked anything like his old self since probably 2013 (21.2 points on 52.1% shooting). He’s a step and a half slower than his prime, and is a sure bet to miss at least 20 games a year.
  • They’re depending a ton on Bosh, another guy in the twilight of his career who is much better as the clear third option on a championship contender, something he won’t be able to be on this Miami team.
  • Who knows what to expect from Whiteside? He came out of nowhere last season, threw up some crazy numbers (10.0 rebounds and 2.6 blocks in just 23.8 minutes per game). Where did this dude even come from? He didn’t even register a single second on an NBA court the two seasons prior. Doesn’t he kind of feel like Jeremy Lin, without the media circus? He might just be a dude with a few elite NBA skills (rebounding, shot blocking) that got hot for a stretch of games when nobody knew how to deal with him. Who knows? I certainly don’t. He only played 48 games last year. We need a bigger sample size.
  • How are Dragic and Wade going to share the ball and play together? They both need it in their hands to be successful.

There’s just too many questions in South Beach for me to sign off on the Heat, at least right now.

11. Is Washington a contender?

I went to Game 5 of the Hawks-Wizards series last year, and believe me, if John Wall hadn’t fractured his hand and wrist earlier in the playoffs, Washington wins Game 5 and then goes home and closes out Atlanta in Game 6. Wall, during that fateful Game 5, playing at 75%, got every shot he wanted and created a zillion open looks for his teammates. The Hawks were legitimately bad for 85% of that game, and a healthy Wall puts his foot on the gas and closes them out. But he wasn’t, Atlanta made almost all the big plays down the stretch, and came back to steal a 82-81 victory.

So what would’ve happened next? Washington heads to Cleveland and probably gets swept or loses in five games. And that was last year’s team, the one with Paul Pierce and his veteran leadership and crunch time chops. This year, his minutes are going to Otto Porter. Uh oh. Washington should be competitive again, but they aren’t beating Cleveland.

12. Is Chicago a contender?

To me, this is the only Eastern Conference team with a realistic shot of challenging the Cavs, IF everything breaks right for them. Here’s the list of what they need to happen:

  • Derrick Rose is at least 90% of 2011 MVP D-Rose and doesn’t suffer a major injury again. That’s probably not very likely, considering he’s played in just 100 of their last 312 regular season games, or the fact that he averaged 17.7 points and 4.9 assists on 40.5% shooting last season, compared to 25.0 points and 7.7 assists on 44.5% shooting during his MVP season.
  • Jimmy Butler makes another leap and becomes one of the 12 best players in the league. Probably the most achievable item on this checklist.
  • D-Rose and Butler figure out a way to set aside all their issues, and figure out a way to share the ball effectively and efficiently. Probably not happening, particularly when you consider Rose’s comments at media day. I just don’t think he has any self awareness, or even has a clue. I feel bad for him because his body betrayed him, but still. You can’t talk about getting paid big time on your next contract when you’ve basically been paid millions and millions of dollars the last three seasons to do nothing.
  • 35 year old Pau Gasol has another season like he did last year (18.5 points and 11.8 rebounds). He’s a seven-footer in his mid 30s…. there’s bound to be a drop off at some point right? You know, that awkward season most every center has where running up and down the court starts looking painful? It looks like there shoes are full of thumb tacks, and they’re terrified of each step because it just hurts. I’m not saying we’re there with Gasol yet, and there haven’t been any signs of that, but I’m just saying that it could happen.
  • Joakim Noah takes well to coming off the bench, gives Chicago every ounce of energy he has for 20-25 minutes a game, and has a resurgent season in a contract year. Last year was the worst Noah looked in a long time. His switches on pick and rolls were slow, he was consistently beat and bullied down low, and his already limited offensive contribution virtually vanished. He might just be done physically from the sheer volume wear and tear on he put on his body gritting and grinding out multiple regular seasons with Tom Thibodeau.
  • Speaking of Thibodeau, the Bulls hired a new coach in the off-season, Fred Hoiberg from Iowa State. I have no idea if he’ll be a good NBA coach or not.

There’s just too many “yeah buts” and “Ifs” in Chicago. They’ve got more upside than everyone besides Cleveland, but there’s too many obstacles in their way to get there.

So, back to number 8…..

8. Is anybody going to challenge Cleveland in the East?

No, they won’t. The Cavs certainly have their own issues (when will Kyrie fully recover from his devastating knee injury, how will they better incorporate Kevin Love into the offense, should they really have given Tristan Thompson 5 years and $82 million), but they also have something nobody else has, which is the best player in the world, LeBron James. He hasn’t been defeated by an Eastern Conference team in the playoffs in five straight years, and it’s not going to happen this season either. LeBron and more LeBron is the answer to all Cleveland’s questions. That wouldn’t be good enough in the West, but it’s more than enough in the East.

13. Is Kevin Durant going to be able to stay healthy all season?

This is the burning, nobody-wants-to-talk-about-it question of OKC’s season. I think everybody’s just penciled Durant into the starting lineup for the whole season, trying to forget about the fact that he’s had multiple foot surgeries over the last year. Remember Bill Walton? Foot injuries basically cost him his entire career. How about Kevin McHale? He still walks funny due to a foot injury he suffered and played on during the 1987 playoffs. Now, if I had to bet my life on it, I’d bet that Durant comes back as strong as ever, but I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t be sweating it out for a while.

Here’s the funny thing: With a healthy Durant, this Thunder team has a chance to be their best one since the 2012 squad that made it all the way to the Finals. Russell Westbrook is fresh off his best season as a pro (28.1 points, 8.6 assists, 7.3 rebounds), KD is still on the front end of his prime, as is Serge Ibaka, and the trade for Enes Kanter at the trade deadline last season gives them a fourth player that’s at least a B-. Throw in a new coach, Billy Donovan, who will definitely run the exact opposite of the clogged toilet offense that Scott Brooks loved to employ, and there’s no reason Oklahoma City shouldn’t be on their way to 60+ wins, all while challenging Golden State for Western Conference supremacy.

14. Are the Clippers going to shoot themselves in the foot…. again?

Here’s a list of the Clippers playoff exits the last three seasons:

  • 2013: After taking a 2-0 lead over the Grizzlies in the first round, the Clips proceed to lose the next four games, ending their season.
  • 2014: L.A. blows a huge lead late against Oklahoma City on the Thunder’s home floor in Game 5 with a chance to take a 3-2 lead. It’s probably the worst NBA loss this decade outside of Ray Allen's three that sank the Spurs.
  • 2015: After taking a commanding three games to one lead over Houston (The Clippers won Game 1 by 16, Game 3 by 25, and Game 4 by 33), they blow a huge second half lead in Game 5 and lose by a startling 21, don’t show up for Game 6 at home, and then travel back to Houston for Game 7, a game they didn’t have a shot in hell of winning.

Three years, and three humiliating/inexcusable/head-scratching playoff demises. They’ve got more than enough talent in L.A. to win the title, but I hate the whiny, petulant, complain-about-every-call culture they’ve created there. They’re the most mentally weak title contender I can ever remember in any sport, and I think the reason they’ve choked their way out of the playoffs the last three seasons is because of that. I love CP3, but at this point, he pretty much is who he is: a terrifically talented guard who sets up his teammates better than anyone, who also happens to be the biggest ref baiter and whiner in the league besides James Harden. Can you win a title when that’s your best guy? I don’t think so.

15. Has there ever been a more disrespected defending champion than the Warriors?

I don’t understand the Warrior hate. Did they catch a ton of breaks last season? Sure, of course they did. But so does every champion in every sport. Did Durant breaking his foot and missing the season help them? Yep. Did the Clips Barney Fifeing their way out of the playoffs make their path easier? Of course. Was it beneficial for them that Houston had a million injuries entering the Conference Finals? No question. Didn’t their series against Memphis completely flip when Mike Conley broke his face? No doubt. And didn’t they benefit from Cleveland virtually playing the entire Finals without Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving? Yeah, they definitely did.

Funny thing is though, didn’t they win that historically challenging Western Conference by 11 games? Didn’t they finish first in team points per game, team field goal percentage, and field goal percentage defense? Didn’t they have the league’s MVP, Stephen Curry? And didn’t they finish the year an astounding 83-20?

So sure, they had plenty of breaks. But if you played the season 100 times, I think they probably win the title at least 90 of those times. They were the best team in basketball last season, even without everyone else’s injuries and bad luck.

16. Who is going to win the scoring title?

The usual suspects are obvious. Durant, Harden, maybe Anthony Davis, and ‘Melo (I guess) are all good choices, but like last year, when Westbrook won it, I think our scoring champion is going to come from somewhere else, someone we don’t necessarily associate with putting the ball in the hoop at a high rate.

How about Damian Lillard? Doesn’t he have the potential to do a Westbrook impression this season? He’s not the athlete or quite the hyper competitive monster that Russell is, but why not? His team is going to be terrible (they’ll have four new starters around him), meaning he’ll be handling the ball a ton, and there will definitely be an exorbitant amount of possessions that end with the ball in his hand as the shot clock winds down. He’ll probably end up shooting around 25-28 times a game this year, and there’s no question that he’s got the talent to average close to 30 a game he’s when placed in the right situation to do so (like this one).

17. Who is going to be the rookie of the year?

There’s no doubt in my mind that this draft class is going to produce a lot of really good NBA players, but I’d be really surprised if Jahlil Okafor wasn’t the most impressive first year player this season. Offensively, his game is already NBA-ready, and we know award voters couldn’t care less about defense, meaning he won’t be penalized for his porous, idling defense. He’s going to get fed more than a medieval royal family, and even if he shoots a low percentage, he’ll find a way to average at least 20 points and 10 rebounds. They don’t have anything else in Philly!

(Also, two mentions of the Sixers in this? How did that happen?)

18. Who is going to win the MVP Award?

LeBron is the best player, and could probably win by default every year, but I don’t think Cleveland is going to have enough of a murderous regular season for The King to get much of a push. They’re going to rest LeBron and other guys too many times to win 60 games, and I feel like LBJ is probably going to play around 66 games this year. Can you really be MVP if you missed 20% of the season? I don’t think so. Anthony Davis could get some buzz if the Pelicans exceed everyone’s expectations and end up getting a top four seed in the West, but I don’t see that happening. That’s still a pretty mediocre roster around him in New Orleans. If G-State goes on a tear like they did last season, Curry will definitely get a lot of consideration, as will James Harden if Houston finishes in the top 2 in the West like they did last season.

My choice? How about 2014’s MVP Kevin Durant? I know, I know, I’m concerned about his foot too, but assuming he’s healthy, why not the Durantula? OKC figures to be much improved, and if he wins the scoring title (a possibility) and the Thunder win more than 60 games, I think he’s got to be the favorite. They missed the playoffs without him last year. If his presence alone makes them a top 2 team in the West, I don’t think there’s an argument.

19. More importantly, who wins the NBA’s “Reggie Miller Award”, given annually to the flopping pansy of the year?

Please. Why is this even a question? Wait, I created these? Oh, that’s right… Well, I just wanted to make sure I took some space to share my disdain for James Harden’s game. We’ll just go ahead and grandfather you in for this award for the next decade. Heck, we might even rename it after you.

20. Who wins the Western Conference?

I’m tempted to pick Oklahoma City. I really am. But then there’s Durant’s foot…. I just can’t pull the trigger. Golden State returns every player from last year that mattered, and they’ve got a proven style that works perfectly for the NBA in 2015. I think they’ll defeat OKC 4-3 in the conference finals.

21. Who wins the 2015-16 NBA Title?

Same teams, same result. I’ve got G-State in six. LeBron’s triumphant return to Cleveland ends in disappointment once again.


Enjoy basketball this season. You deserve it.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

The "Curse" Of Fulmer?

I’m not a big believer in conspiracy theories or curses. I don’t think alien encounters are real (and neither is Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster), I laugh at people who say 9/11 was an inside job, and I don’t think the Red Sox went eighty-six years between World Series wins because their cheap owner sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees, causing them to be "cursed". I think these things develop from not-easily-explainable circumstances, or a desire within people to make the world around them more interesting or mysterious than it actually is.

Let’s take the Red Sox for example. Sure, you can turn you brain off and shout “Curse of the Bambino!” until your lungs bleed, but the bottom line is that for most of the 1900s, the Sox were a poorly run franchise whose glaring flaws showed up at the worst possible moment. Take Game 6 of the ’86 World Series for example. Everybody remembers Bill Buckner letting the ball roll through his legs, but they seem to forget that Boston was one strike away from vanquishing all their demons and finally bringing the title back to Beantown, before things went sour because the bullpen, which had been terrible and had tortured the fan base all year (the team blew 14 saves during the regular season, and no pitcher with more than 25 relief appearances had an ERA lower than 3.92) imploded at the worst possible time. So was it totally shocking that the relievers cost the Sox the title? It was absolutely devastating, but if any group was going to lose it for them, it would’ve had to be their back end.

Now just because I think curses are absolute crap doesn’t mean I think they don’t carry any weight in the minds of the fans, the media, and worst of all, the players. The Cubs, another “cursed” franchise, blew a 9 ½ game lead to the Mets in the month of September during the 1969 season. And not only did they lose the division, they choked away the year so badly that they ended up losing the division to New York by 8 games, meaning there was a 17 ½ game swing in one month. ONE MONTH! Supposedly, things starting turning south after a black cat (an omen of bad luck) walked behind team captain Ron Santo while he was in the on-deck circle in Shea Stadium. Yeah, because that’s completely reasonable…. Here’s what actually happened: the Cubs had a tough stretch early in the month, the Mets started surging, and the fan base started flipping out because of the “curse”, causing unnecessary stress and angst in the clubhouse, which led to poor play day after day after day. The Mets caught on fire and played their best baseball of the season. Chicago got tight and choked. They bought into the whole “curse” narrative, and they let it distract them, consume them, and eventually, destroy them. They let the “here we go again” and “Lovable Losers” mindset take hold of them and creep into the clubhouse, snowballing until it broke them.

I think the same thing has happened at Tennessee. Granted, it hasn’t been more than a generation since they won a big game, claimed the conference title, or been crowned national champions, but the way they’ve lost these games is unfathomable. I can’t remember another college football blowing this many winnable games in such a short amount of time. A lot of people have talked about the program being "cursed" since they fired Fulmer back in '08 because they got rid of the guy that brought a national title to Vol Country, but that's literally insane, particularly if you just speak those words out loud to yourself. Plus, it's not like Fulmer never lost any tough, gut wrenching games (Jabar Gaffney anyone?). However, it's pretty difficult to ignore that the losses since he was relieved of his duties have been much more consistent and soul crushing. Here’s a list (if you have a particularly weak stomach, don't watch these videos. Or just stop reading in general. Because vomiting was the only thing on my mind when I went back and rehashed this):

  • 2009: Alabama 12, Tennessee 10 - Terrence Cody blocks Daniel Lincoln’s field goal attempt on the last play of the game. 
  • 2010: LSU 16, Tennessee 14 - 13 men on the field gives LSU another chance to punch in the game-winnnig touchdown, which they did.
  • 2010: North Carolina 30, Tennessee 27 (OT) - Spike?
  • 2011: Georgia 20, Tennessee 12 - Caused me to mutter about a million times afterwards “Man, we suck….”
  • 2011: Kentucky 10, Tennessee 7 - The ‘Cats end Tennessee’s 26 game winning streak starting a wide receiver at quarterback who completed 4 of 6 passes. FOUR PASS COMPLETIONS??!! FOUR!!! AND A WIDE RECEIVER??? AWESOME!! CLASSIC DOOLEY!!!
  •  2012: Florida 37, Tennessee 20 - Vols get outscored 23-0 in the final 20 minutes, turning a six point advantage into a 17 point beatdown.
  • 2012: Georgia 51, Tennessee 44 - After scoring at will all day, Tyler Bray ends back-to-back potential game-tying drives with turnovers.
  • 2012: South Carolina 38, Tennessee 35 - After holding Jadeveon Clowney in check all day, he bursts through the line on the Vols’ final drive, stripping Bray of the football to secure the Gamecocks’ 3 point lead.
  • 2012: Vanderbilt 41, Tennessee 18 - This one wasn’t close. And that’s a huge problem when you’re playing Vandy.
  • 2013: Florida 31, Tennessee 17 - The Nathan Peterman game. I really don’t need to say anything else.
  • 2013: Georgia 34, Tennessee 31 (OT) - Pig Howard fumbles through the side of the end zone as he attempts to dive for the go ahead touchdown.
  • 2014: Georgia 35, Tennessee 32 - Vols upset bid spoiled by Justin Worley’s elbow injury which caused him to miss three crucial possessions in the second half. His replacement on those drives? Nathan Peterman…. Need I say more? Also, how the hell is Peterman (now the starter at Pittsburgh) quarterbacking a 6-1 football team right now? Where was this bizarro Peterman when he was in Knoxville? And why is Tennessee so unlucky? AAAAARRRGGGHHHH!!!!!!
  • 2014: Florida 10, Tennessee 9 - The worst football game I’ve ever watched. I’m not even sure I feel comfortable calling it football honestly because it was that ugly. In typical Tennessee fashion, the Vols blew/didn’t convert/screwed up multiple offensive opportunities, settled for three field goals, gave up two late scores to backup quarterback Treon Harris, and lost.
  • 2015: Oklahoma 31, Tennessee 24 - Still unbelievable. Tennessee dominated for 45 minutes, led by 14 entering the 4th quarter, got tight down the stretch (a common theme), and lost. You haven’t forgot this one yet, and you never will.
  • 2015: Florida 28, Tennessee 27 - So many mind-numbing and incomprehensible screw ups. Not going for two when they were up 26-14 with ten minutes to go, their inability to get off the field on fourth down, the 4th and 14 sixty-three yard touchdown, and the field goal that missed by a foot and a half. I literally think I lost five years off my life from this one.
  • 2015: Arkansas 24, Tennessee 20 - Vols jump out to early 14-0 lead, before the offense went into a shell, causing them to blow an SEC game to Bret Bielema, a guy who loves winning conference games about as much as Alabama fans love marrying outside their families.
  • 2015: Alabama 19, Tennessee 14 - The Tide dropped three potential interceptions, had more than a few drive-killing penalties, forced only one turnover, and still found a way to win. Of course, it’s not all that shocking when you remember that Vol kicker Aaron Medley missed all three of his field goal attempts, or the fact that the ‘Bama receivers won every jump ball and converted on almost every big play.

That’s seventeen losses in less than six seasons, measuring anywhere from “haunting” to “I don’t think I ever want to watch sports again”. How has this happened? Is Tennessee just the most unlucky team in the history of sports?

I don’t have all the answers. I really don’t. I have a few theories, but nothing provable beyond a reasonable doubt. A lot of it has to do with a lack of talent, lack of experience, and the ineptitude and poor late game decision making by both Derek Dooley and Butch Jones. I also think the whole Chicago Cubs, “Oh god, we’re going to screw this up…. Again” mindset has taken hold more than a few times on the Tennessee sideline, and I think you can feel it in the stadium during Vol home games. There’s a nervous energy, an expectation of mediocrity and disappointment, and despite the occasional win, like the one over Georgia two weeks ago, the program hasn’t quite been able to shake it. And I don’t know if they’ll be able to do it for a long time. Once that stigma becomes engrained in a program or organization, it’s really difficult to eradicate it. Just ask the Red Sox, who needed a miracle, down 3-0 to the Yankees comeback in the 2004 ALCS to break the “curse”. Or ask the Cubs, who are embedded in over 100 years of this stink.

How do you avoid the snowball effect? I have no idea. And I don’t think Tennessee does either. At least not yet. 

Friday, September 18, 2015

The End of Peyton Manning? Plus, Week 2 NFL Picks

The most cringe-worthy image so far of the 2015 NFL season wasn’t JPP's hand, Rashad Jennings throwing Eli Manning under the bus or Johnny Manziel struggling through Week 1 like a terrified high school freshman bombing it hardcore on the varsity. No, it was the continued erosion of Peyton Manning’s arm strength.

I literally have no idea how the Broncos are 2-0. Manning looks terrible at times. When Knile Davis galloped in from eight yards out to give the Chiefs a seven point lead with 2:27 remaining, I thought it was over. I’d watch Peyton sail, short arm, and just miss throws all night, and I had no faith that he’d be able to march Denver down the 80 yards they needed to tie the game.

It was a weird feeling for me, because Peyton used to always be money in the regular season. Throughout his entire regular season career, I always felt like he’d be able to answer and deliver on the biggest, must-have drive of the game. I’d seen him do it too many times. But that was when he could consistently drive the ball down the field. Now? His throws come out wobbly, he has no power behind them, and oftentimes he’s just incapable of making those 15-18 yard throws into tight windows that you have to make to be an elite quarterback.

So you can imagine my shock when Peyton came out on the field, found Demaryius Thomas for three long receptions, and hit Emmanuel Sanders for the game-tying 19 yard touchdown with 36 seconds left. He executed the drive with the precision of a much younger Manning, the guy I’d watched murder the entire NFL for a decade and a half.

Now, I wasn’t as shocked about Manning’s game tying drive as I was about Jamaal Charles’ inexplicable fumble that Denver returned for the winning touchdown only 9 seconds later, or how dumb and mind-numbing Reid’s play call was, or how it literally didn’t make any sense to run a draw play deep in your own territory if you were trying to go for the win. Or, if you were playing for overtime, why not just take a knee? Why risk a fumble? Seriously, does Andy Reid understand clock management and late game play calling and strategy? I’m glad I’m not a Kansas City fan, because they pull crap that would give me a heart attack all the time (remember them blowing a twenty-eight point lead to Indianapolis in the 2013 playoffs?). In fact, the things that they do are so devastating that if I was a fan of theirs, I would have probably punched a hole through my TV and stopped watching sports permanently.

So as I thought about Manning this morning, I came away feeling weird and uncomfortable that I was surprised that he was capable of leading a game winning drive. I mean, this is Peyton Manning we’re talking about, one of the five greatest quarterbacks of all time. He should be doing this with no problem, right, particularly in this “offense is king” era? Had he really fallen off that badly, or was I just imagining it? Here are his game-by-game stats since Week 13 of last year:

Week 13 vs. Kansas City: 17-34, 50% completions, 179 passing yards, 2 TD passes, 0 interceptions, 52.4 QBR
Week 14 vs. Buffalo: 14-20, 70% completions, 173 passing yards, 0 TD passes, 2 interceptions, 34.0 QBR
Week 15 vs. San Diego: 14-20, 70% completions, 233 passing yards, 1 TD pass, 0 interceptions, 92.1 QBR
Week 16 vs. Cincinnati: 28-44, 63.6% completions, 311 passing yards, 2 TD passes, 4 interceptions, 29.9 QBR
Week 17 vs. Oakland: 21-37, 56.8% completions, 273 passing yards, 0 TD passes, 0 interceptions, 50.7 QBR
Divisional Playoffs vs. Indianapolis: 26-46, 56.5% completions, 211 passing yards, 1 TD pass, 0 interceptions, 27.9 QBR
Week 1 vs. Baltimore: 24-40, 60% completions, 175 passing yards, 0 TD passes, 1 interception, 26.4 QBR
Week 2 vs. Kansas City: 26-45, 57.8% completions, 256 passing yards, 3 TD passes, 1 interception, 59.4 QBR
Per game averages: 59.4% completions, 226.38 passing yards, 1.125 TD passes, 1 interception, 46.6 QBR

Rather…. pedestrian don’t you think? Particularly for a Hall of Famer and all time great like Manning. And when you consider this:

Alex Smith per game averages since Week 13 last season:
64.1% completions, 246 passing yards, 1.43 TD passes, .57 interceptions, 34.4 QBR

I mean…. that’s kind of damning right? Neither of them have been great, but couldn’t I argue Smith has been the superior quarterback over that stretch while having vastly inferior weapons? Plus, Smith isn’t struggling with noodle arm, hasn’t had three neck surgeries, and moves better in and out of the pocket.

And when you throw in C.J. Anderson’s middle finger to everyone that selected him in the first round of their fantasy draft (so far, he’s scored 5 points combined in two weeks, and yes, I have him), and I have no idea how Denver is 2-0. Their defense was really good at points last night, forcing five turnovers, and with Demarcus Ware and Von Miller, they’ll always be able to create pressure on the quarterback, but I have my doubts they’ll actually be able to keep this up. Peyton, despite that incredible drive, looks done, and the schedule will only get tougher (they host Green Bay, New England, San Diego, Kansas City, and Cincinnati, and they’ll travel to Indy, San Diego, and Pittsburgh. That’s eight losable games right there), and they probably don’t win that game last night if they force just four turnovers instead of five. 8-8, 9-7, or 10-6 (or, the Alex Smith zone) seems reasonable to me. I just don’t trust Peyton’s arm. He’s throwing wounded ducks and the weather hasn’t even turned sour yet. How is he going to look when he’s trying to power the ball through the biting wind in Denver during November and December?

And here’s an even more interesting question: how are Bronco fans ultimately going to view the Manning era? Exciting? Disappointing? Maybe a little of both? He did make them contenders in a way they hadn’t been since John Elway retired, but they also had two early home playoff exits to inferior teams, and got absolutely man-handled and embarrassed in the Super Bowl 48 by Seattle. They scored a ton of points, lit the league on fire, and became one of the most popular franchises in the league, but fell far short of their ultimate goal all three years. They’ll do the same thing again this season. In a way, the Manning-era is an interesting juxtaposition to the Garnett-Pierce-Allen era in Boston. The Celtics took a chance by bringing together three stars on the back end of their primes, spent a ton of money bringing in surrounding talent, rolled the dice, and prayed everything came together. And the first year, in 2008, it worked, as they brought the first NBA title back to Boston since 1986. However, the next four years didn’t quite work out that way. Garnett missed the entire ’09 playoffs with an injury, and the 2010 team lost a physical, hard fought, ugly seven-game NBA Finals’ series to the Lakers. The 2011 team bowed out to the new Big Three in Miami, and the 2012 team had a 3 games to 2 lead heading back to Boston against the Heat in the Conference Finals, before LeBron went absolutely bonkers, pouring in 45 points and grabbing 15 rebounds, absolutely assassinating the Celts MJ-style on their home floor. They competed in Game 7 back in Miami, but they were toast. Allen left before the ’13 season, and the Big Three era in Boston was over, but not before 1 championship, 2 NBA Finals’ appearances, and 11 playoff series wins. So while there was four years of heartbreak and disappointment, the one title season made it all worth it. Ask any Celtic fan about the Garnett-Pierce-Allen era, and nobody would chalk it up as a disappointment. They climbed the mountain and gave their fans the ultimate prize. But ask any Denver fan about the Manning era three years from now, and you’re going to get a lot of “yeah, it was fun, but…”. Joy, but disappointment. Excitement, but frustration. Ultimately, unsatisfactory.

Now, onto my NFL picks (home team in CAPS)….

Texans over PANTHERS

I think this might be the first NFL game since the football was literally made out of pigskin that could end 2-0. We’ve got the immortal Ryan Mallet vs. Cam Newton who is surrounded with a bunch of high school level skill position players. JJ Watt will sack Newton in the end zone late in the fourth quarter after both teams combined for 74 yards of offense and 15 turnovers.

STEELERS over 49ers

I had a 16 point lead in my fantasy game going into the final Monday Night game last week. All I needed was Anquan Boldin to not get outscored by Carlos Hyde by 16 points. Not unreasonable or too much to ask for right? WRONG!!!! Hyde was the top rusher in the NFL last week and scored two touchdowns. Boldin? He was nowhere to be found (36 receiving yards, no TDs). Thanks for playing SO STRONG! Anywhere, I’m not buying the Niners. Sure, they looked great in Week 1, but I’m waiting for Colin Kaepernick to revert back to unbearable, horrendous mechanics Colin, and for Jim Tomsula’s offense to remind everyone of a clogged toilet. Pittsburgh should bounce back this week.

SAINTS over Buccaneers

Remember earlier when I said Johnny Manziel looked like a terrified high school freshman bombing hardcore on the varsity? Yeah, I probably should’ve saved that for Jameis Winston after his performance last weekend against the Titans. Whoops. Nothing wrong with some self plagiarizing right? Expect bad Winston again this week.

VIKINGS over Lions

I don’t care how bad Minnesota (and Adrian Peterson) looked in Week 1 in San Fran, I’m done with the Matt Stafford-led Lions for life. They blew a 21-3 lead to San Diego last week and lost by giving up THIRTY unanswered points at one point. THIRTY.

Cardinals over BEARS

This feels like a five interception game for Jay Cutler. Arizona forces a ton of turnovers, and turnovers is what Cutler does best. By the way, how is it possible that he had the best career of all the 2006 quarterback draftees, Matt Leinart and Vince Young? Leinart hasn’t had a relevant NFL moment since before the Obama administration, and Young hasn’t since his second term began. Then again, neither has Cutler. Unless you want to count his incomprehensible poor play against the Packers every single game.

BILLS over Patriots


BENGALS over Chargers

I feel like I don’t know all that much about either of these teams. Cincy literally slammed down the head of an overmatched Raider team, and San Diego had their aforementioned comeback against the ever-frustrating Lions. I’ll stick with the Bengals and “Big Game” Andy because they’re at home, and it’s a 1 pm kickoff east coast time, meaning it’s going to feel like 10 am when the game starts for the west coast Chargers. I think they’ll start sluggish, and won’t be able to recover.

Titans over BROWNS

Are the woeful Titans really going to start out 2-0? I’m not completely on the Marcus Mariota bandwagon yet (he’s had one great game against one of the worst teams in the league), but I know I was never on the Johnny Manziel bandwagon, so much so that I set it on fire and pushed it off the end of a cliff, kind of like one where Wiley E. Coyote would have a tragic accident.

Falcons over GIANTS

Where are you Odell? Another disappointment for my fantasy team was Beckham’s un-Odell like play. At one point late in the first half he had 0 catches and 0 yards. 0 AND 0. Thank you ODB. Really appreciate it. He should bounce back at least a little this week, but honestly, I think Atlanta is just better. I mean, the Falcons defense isn’t even good, but the Giants are embarrassingly bad. Geez.

Rams over REDSKINS

The only thing I like about the ‘Skins this week is that Kirk Cousins drives his grandmother's old van to work. And I don’t even like it that much. Get it together Kirk.

Dolphins over JAGUARS

When is Jacksonville moving to Los Angeles? Will there even be 30,000 people at this game? Does anybody care?

Ravens over RAIDERS

When is Oakland moving to Los Angeles? And why does the Raiders’ stadium look like a crappy college stadium? It literally doesn’t look like the NFL in there. Every other stadium has bright lights and pristine grass. Oakland looks like a nasty, dirty dark alley with rats, trash, and terrible football for the last decade.

Cowboys over EAGLES

I’m a seller on Chip Kelly. No playoff wins, and they faded down the stretch late in both of his years. And I haven’t liked a single one of his roster moves. I’m not going to call him a racist like so many others, because the team is loaded with black players. I just think he’s a control freak who doesn’t click well with the big egos of professional athletes. Being a control freak works in college or if you’re Bill Belichick, and Belichick’s had Brady taking care of him for a decade and a half. I’m not sure it works great in any other circumstance.

Seahawks over PACKERS

I’m taking the ‘Hawks for two reasons….

  1. I just can’t see them starting out 0-2
  2. They own the Packers (3-0 since Russell Wilson came to Seattle, including last year’s meltdown by the Pack in the NFC Championship Game)

COLTS over Jets

Again, I just can’t see the Colts starting out 0-2, or losing the Ryan Fitzpatrick-quarterbacked Jets. Then again, New York has similar personnel to the Bills. Why couldn’t they do the same thing to Indy that Buffalo did? I’m wary of this one.

And finally, I’m so disappointed in Tennessee after last weeks’….. letdown that I don’t even feel like thinking about college football ever again. Unbelievable loss. Incomprehensible. I’m withholding judgment on Butch right now. I want to see what happens at Florida next Saturday, because if they lose that game, then I’m selling all my Jones’ stock at the best price I can get. Get it together Vols. Stop with the platitudes, the “Brick by Brick” and Team 119 crap, and just win. Just win. 

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Return of the Matt

College football is back in our lives again tonight, and I literally couldn’t be happier.

But first, where the heck have I been since this?

Last year I spent entirely too much time breaking this stuff down, arguing with myself about predictions, racking my brain for the perfect cross-cultural comparisons, and scouring the interwebs (mostly Youtube) searching for the correct humorous links that would hammer my point across. And, though it was sometimes challenging work, I loved every aspect of it. There was nothing quite like gathering my thoughts, sorting them together in some order, and pushing them out for whoever cared to see it.

But, at some point, I fell off. I don’t know exactly why that was. It’s not like I didn’t enjoy the process of writing what I wanted. I’m basically just constructing a zillion arguments, adding jokes, looking up stats, arguing with myself, and tying it all into a nice, neat bow. Maybe the entire process of getting where I want to go with writing overwhelmed me. Maybe I made the decision that it was easier to just not do anything than to actually try and pursue what I wanted. Maybe I felt like no one cared because I wasn’t getting the number of views I wanted. Maybe I went back, read some of my older stuff, and thought to myself, “Dang, this looks like it was written by an 11 year old”. I have no idea. All those thoughts probably played a part in my disappearance.

So for those of you that read my stuff every week, or even occasionally, I’m sorry I wasn’t here to supply you with humor, insight, or thoughts that made you feel better about yourself, like, “Man, I thought I was dumb, but this guy is actually stupid”. I want to be here for you guys like that again, and will be, for all football season, and even beyond, until I keel over and die, get arrested for blasting fireworks at 4 in the morning, or find myself banned from the internet for bad opinions, mind-numbing picks, and jokes so unfunny that they seemed like they were ripped straight off Carrot Top’s last comedy album.


So before we get into my opening weekend college football picks, why don’t I share with you one of my five favorite Youtube videos of all time, Shia Labeouf's motivational masterpiece.


Oh, I will Shia. I will.


Week 1 Predictions (Home Team in CAPS)

SOUTH CAROLINA over North Carolina

I’m picking the Gamecocks because they’re an SEC team at home with superior athletes at the majority of positions on the field. Then again, remember their opening game last year? You know, the first game ever on the SEC Network, when Texas A&M absolutely Seagal'd them for four quarters and won 52-28? We got a way too early nickname for a one hit wonder quarterback (Kenny Trill anyone? Whoops….) absolutely lost our minds over Kevin Sumlin’s offense, and declared that A&M had surpassed Texas as THE program in that state, and that they were the next dynasty, along the lines of USC in the early 2000’s, Florida in the mid 2000’s, and ‘Bama’s since then. So what happened? Hill’s gem against SC turned out to be much like the Baha Men’s Who Let The Dogs Out?, a one hit wonder that wasn’t indicative of any future success. Plus, their defense did their best impression of a revolving door, and their head coach, the “immortal” Sumlin, was completely incapable of doing anything about it. Their 59-0 beat down at the hands of Alabama later in the season was the Molotov cocktail of all their problems meshing together into one.

So what did we learn? Well, for starters, this game turned out to be one of the least consequential contests of the year. Both schools, ranked in the Top 25, finished 3-5 in conference play and far from both the national and conference championship discussion. The Gamecocks turned out to be exactly what they proved in Week 1; a semi-talented team with a lackluster defense that got torched on a weekly basis. The Aggies? Not so much. We never saw anything close to that level of dominance from them again. 

So what can we draw from any of these early season matchups? Not much, really. Remember Ohio State’s first two games last year? They lost star quarterback Braxton Miller in the preseason, which forced them to throw unproven redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett to the wolves. And it wasn’t pretty… at first. The Buckeyes struggled mightily to put away Navy, and then lost by fourteen points at home to what would end up being a mediocre 7-6 Virginia Tech squad. The country collectively washed their hands of the Buckeyes, and we forgot about them for the next six weeks. However, quietly, during that time period, Barrett got more comfortable and started showing flashes, they committed to a running game that started pounding the rock down everyone’s throats, and the team came together so strongly throughout the season that they ran the table in the Big 10 and kicked both Alabama’s and Oregon’s butt (my two best teams all year) so alarmingly that I remember being completely shocked at how badly they outclassed them.

So Week 1, while being incredibly exciting, isn’t really all that important in determining the overall level of play for each team during the season. There are so many changes during the year, whether it being injuries, growth and development, or something as simple as confidence. It’s all about getting better every week and coming together as a team by the end of the season. Ohio State wasn’t close to being the best team in September. But January? There was no doubt. And you would’ve never thought that after they got throttled by the Hokies.

 UTAH over Michigan

The Harbaugh era will start off with a loss. I don’t think Utah is significantly better that the Wolverines, but any time one team has to fly at least two time zones to play an equally matched team; I’m always going to pick the home team. I think Harbaugh will absolutely be a slam dunk at Michigan (he has been everywhere else), but this feels like a 7-6 or 6-7 team to me. New coach, new system, new everything, and awkward interviews aside, I just don’t think there’s all that much talent on this Michigan roster.

#2 Tcu over MINNESOTA

I think the Horned Frogs are going undefeated in the regular season. They were one 10 minute brain fart against Baylor from doing it last year, and they return 10 starters from last year’s frightening effective offense. Trevone Boykin is the best quarterback in the Big 12, and he’ll put up monster numbers all year in a conference that has the Rhett Butler attitude towards defense. 

#23 BOISE STATE over Washington

#21 Stanford over NORTHWESTERN

I think I’m going to be really high on the Cardinal every year, even if they’ve been incapable of consistently driving the ball down the field with the passing game since Andrew Luck left. I just like how consistently they are committed to physically pounding the rock and punching you in the mouth on the defensive end. I think they’re going to win the Pac 12 North. And with that level of praise, I might have just tanked their entire season. Whoops.

#6 AUBURN over Louisville

I couldn’t mention this game without bringing up the Bobby Petrino-Auburn connection. You know, like that time when Petrino accepted the Louisville head coach job for the first time all the way back in 2003, and then followed up that exciting development in his life by immediately interviewing with Auburn boosters for their own head coaching job in his backyard, only behind the backs of his boss, Cardinals AD Tom Jurich, as well as the then Tigers’ coach Tommy Tuberville, who was still in charge of the program. Is their any individual in the history of sports with a more disastrous triumvirate of deception than Petrino? Don’t forget about him walking out on the Falcons in the middle of the night, escaping to Fayetteville to coach the Razorbacks, or his eventual firing from that school, after his motorcycle accident revealed that he had his significantly younger mistress on the payroll. I don’t have anything personally against Petrino… oh wait, never mind, I actually do. He a used car salesman, the type of guy that would steal like $60,000 from a church or children’s hospital. What a shady dude.

Auburn can win this game on talent alone, but here’s the real question; are they going to be able to stop anyone this year? Heck, is anyone going to be able to consistently play defense this year? I swear, last year it seemed like every offensive player in the country was allowed to dip themselves in arsenic before every game, and the defenders realized it just as they were going in for the tackle. They then thought, “Yeah, I mean I know it’s my job to being putting these guys on the ground, but I’m not trying to get arsenic on me. That’s scary. I’ll just let you go on by now”. And that’s everything you need to know about tackling and defense in 2014. Will new defensive coordinator Will Muschamp help the Tigers? Who knows? And honestly, does defense even matter anymore? Sometimes I feel like it really doesn’t.

#25 TENNESSEE over Bowling Green

Excuse me while I jump into full-on homer mode for a second….

Why not though?

#3 Alabama over #20 Wisconsin

Everybody’s really down on the Tide after they got manhandled by the Buckeyes in the playoffs last year, but why shouldn’t they be the prohibitive favorites in the SEC West again? Look at the other “contenders”…..

  1. Auburn doesn’t play any defense, and I have no idea if they’ll figure out how to do it this season.
  2. Ditto for Texas A&M. We’ll see if John Chavis makes a difference for them on that side of the ball this season.
  3. Here are the LSU’s relevant starting quarterbacks since 2007: Jarrett Lee, Jordan Jefferson, Zach Mettenberger, Anthony Jennings, Brandon Harris. Here are Tennessee’s (pre Josh Dobbs): Jonathan Crompton, Nick Stephens, Tyler Bray, Matt Simms, Justin Worley, Nathan Peterman. Lots and lots of mediocre quarterback play. Just abysmal in some places. And don’t give me Mettenberger, who was more of a game manager who just happened to have a strong arm. If you both programs switched quarterback situations over the last seven seasons, how would that affect the records of both teams? Don’t you feel like they’d be virtually the same? Both schools have trotted out a lot of crap at that position in that stretch. LSU’s advantage over the Vols has been their superior talent at virtually every other position, as well as the zany genius of the Mad Hatter, Les Miles. It also helps that the Bayou Bengals have had one coach during this stretch, compared to Tennessee, who is currently on their fourth different coach. LSU still has unsolved QB questions, and I don’t see them figuring it out this season either.
  4. Everyone loves Arkansas as a sleeper, but didn’t they go 2-6 in conference play last season? Oh…. Calm the Hog love down. Win five conference games in the same season first. Then we’ll talk.

So yeah, ‘Bama got decimated last year. It happens. Sometimes you just get beat. But they’ve still got the best coach in the conference, and just as much talent as everyone else in the division. It might not be pretty (and it rarely is with them), but I think picking anyone is ludicrous.

#25 TENNESSEE over Bowling Green

Excuse me while I jump into full-on homer mode for a second….


Why not though? The East is wide open, and in a lot of places, a wasteland. South Carolina tackles about as well as a team full of lepers, Kentucky has no shot, Vanderbilt should disband its football program, and Florida has a new coach, Jim McElwain, who is about a 7.5 on the “I’m Derek Dooley And Am In Completely Over My Head” scale. Georgia will find a way to screw it up, probably by blowing a winnable game in November. And then there’s Missouri…. I mean, I respect what the Tigers have done in the SEC thus far, but are they really going to win the East three years in a row? Really? There’s more optimism around the Vol program than I can ever remember, and it’s not like the fans are completely unjustified in feeling that way. They found their star quarterback in Dobbs, the recruiting is excellent, the schedule breaks their way a little bit this year, half the teams in the East are wandering around blindly in the dark, and Butch just seems like the right guy to guide the program back to its former glory. It’s almost too perfect, which is why I’m more nervous and anxious for this football season than any I can ever remember. There are so many unanswered questions with this team, one that is still extremely young and inexperienced. And what if they get blasted by Oklahoma next weekend? How will they respond? And what if Dobbs gets hurt? That offensive line is still somewhere between passable and putrid, and we saw how poorly it blocked for most of last season. I’m crossing my fingers, rolling the dice, and praying to Thor himself that this season turns out the way I want it to.

#1 Ohio State over VIRGINIA TECH

The Buckeyes will take care of business on Monday night, avenging last year’s embarrassing defeat against the Hokies, but hear this: they will not go undefeated this year. I know, I know, the schedule is laughably easy (their toughest game is when they host Michigan State on November 21), but somewhere along the way, they’ll slip up. Everybody is gunning for them now. I’m looking at that Penn State game on October 17th as the early favorite for a Buckeye defeat. Sure, it’s a night game in Columbus, but James Franklin is a really smart coach of a program that seems ready to really bust out at any point. Plus, the Nittany Lions’ game the week before is against the biggest cupcake program in the conference, Indiana. Keep an eye on that one.

Other game picks

#23 BOISE STATE over Washington
#15 Arizona State over Texas A&M
#11 NOTRE DAME over Texas

So enjoy college football this weekend. You deserve it.

I’ll leave you with here with my preseason predictions (and yes, I love USC, not just because of their talent, but also because Steve Sarkisian just stole the head coach/manager that would definitely be the most fun at a party championship belt from Kliff Kingsbury and Ron Washington.

Ohio State
Ohio State

Georgia Tech
Georgia Tech





(4) Alabama over (1) TCU
(3) USC over (2) Ohio State


USC 31 Alabama 27

Friday, February 27, 2015

The Tragic End Of Derrick Rose

I hate to say this, but it’s over for Derrick Rose. When the news broke on Tuesday night that he had a torn meniscus in his right knee again for the second straight season, my heart sank. I couldn’t help but feel like this was the nail in the coffin on the career of an athlete with limitless potential.


My first memory of Rose was when he was this uber-athletic, at times out-of-control, ball dominant guard who always played with a full head of steam, starring for that snake John Calipari at Memphis. I specifically remember being terrified of him before my Vols played them that season, because I didn’t think there was any way they'd be able to keep him away from the basket, or from totally disrupting everything they wanted to do defensively. I thought he was going to torch them. And at times, he did, but Tennessee was fortunate enough to escape victorious in one of the great sport’s wins of my life (Tennessee, with the win, achieved their first ever number one ranking). The Tigers did bounce back though, as they got a number 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and rolled through everyone on their way to the championship game. As they were ripping through everyone, Rose built a ton of momentum, and put together a fantastic tournament resume, including an absolute demolition in the national semifinal of a UCLA team that included future NBA players Russell Westbrook, Kevin Love, Darren Collison, and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute (he finished with 25 points and 7 rebounds). In that aforementioned championship game against Kansas, Memphis pulled ahead with 8:11 remaining, and built what seemed to be an insurmountable 9 point lead with 2:12 left, before a combination of the Jayhawk blistering shooting (they made 100% of their shots in the rest of regulation) and Tiger misses at the foul line, including an enormous brick by Rose, led to a Mario Chalmers' miracle three that sent the game into overtime, where Kansas ultimately won, 75-68.

Despite their failure in the championship game, Rose made himself eligible for the NBA, and quickly shot up the draft boards, where he was selected first overall by the Chicago Bulls. His first two seasons as a professional were chalked full of explosive drives to the basket, enormous throw downs, and at least 2-3 “oh my gosh, did you see that” displays of athleticism per game, though they ultimately led to nothing more than an extremely exciting seven game first round playoff series with the Celtics in 2009, and a few Sportscenter Top 10 plays.

The potential for some much more was evident, though it just hadn’t been realized quite yet. I remember watching him during that time period, and feeling like he was going to always miss every jump shot that he attempted. He also really had no idea how to run a team, get everyone involved, or keep his teammates consistently happy throughout the game. He was basically just out there being the best athlete on the court every night and hoping that was enough.

Then 2011 happened. Chicago hired Tom Thibodeau, an extremely intelligent basketball mind, off Doc Rivers’ staff in Boston, and signed Carlos Boozer to a max contract (that didn’t work out all that great, but at the time? Brilliant!). Expectations were high, and the Bulls and Rose didn’t disappoint, as Derrick put together an incredible season, and maybe the best ever in the history of the league for a 22 year old guard, as he averaged 25 points and 7.7 assists per game while leading Chicago to a 62-20 record, the best in the Eastern Conference. He was in constant attack mode all season, as he got to the rim at will, found open teammates, and even started to hit a few jumpers here and there. Chicago became one of the best defensive teams in the league, and basically depended on Rose to create everything for them on the offensive end, a task he met time and time again.  For his efforts that season, he was voted MVP of the entire Association, becoming the youngest such recipient of that award in league history.

The Bulls blew through the first two rounds of the playoffs with ease, before encountering the big bad Miami Heat and LeBron James in the conference finals. Rose had a mediocre series (he shot just 35% in the five games), and the Heat easily dispatched the Bulls 4 games to 1.

Obviously, it was a disappointing defeat, but Rose was still a young, ever-improving player, and his team had only just come together. Plus, plenty of great players had hit road blocks early in their careers, before ultimately breaking through and winning titles, so the loss to Miami wasn’t  completely out of the ordinary. Everybody thought this team would be around for years to come, and that the championship window would be open for a long time. If they only knew the tragedy that would be taking place less than a year later.


The lockout-shortened, 66 game 2012 season was a frustrating one for Rose, who battled through various ailments all year which kept him from appearing in 27 games. Despite those injuries, Chicago still finished with the best record in the East again, this time at 50-16. They entered the playoffs confidently against a young and inexperienced Philadelphia 76ers team. (I know, the Sixers in the playoffs? What? How did this happen?). Rose was finally healthy (or so we thought), and the Bulls had their sights set squarely on avenging that painful loss to the Heat from the year before.

But they never made it that far. In Game 1 of the Philly series, with Bulls leading by 12 with 1:22 remaining, Rose drove towards the basket, leapt in the air, and landed awkwardly, forcing him to crumple to the ground holding his left knee, writhing in pain. I remember watching the game, hoping that it was nothing more than a hyperextension, but fearing the worst, because his knee buckled. Selfishly, just as a basketball fan, I hated it, because really enjoyed watching Rose play, and I knew that if it was something serious, it was going to be so much worse for him, because he was a guy that depended on his athleticism so much to be successful. I wanted to watch Rose on the court as many times as possible, and a serious injury would’ve put this season, and the next, in jeopardy.

The news broke sometime after the game that it was indeed a torn ACL, and I remember getting a “Stick a fork in the Bulls” text from my Angry Old Man. The reason those words resonated so much with me was because I was shocked my Pops even knew how to send a text message. Normally he’d just call me and yell into the phone about how we’d lost the country before abruptly hanging up.

But he was right, as the Bulls lost four of the next five games and were sent home from the playoffs earlier than anyone expected.


It would be a long time before anyone saw Rose play another NBA minute. Nobody knew when he’d return during the 2013 season, but most people thought they’d at least see him at some point during the year. But as the season began, and games and months began to pass, it became more and more apparent that there would be no D-Rose in 2013.

The Chicago fans, and most of the media, did not handle that reality well at all. It didn’t help that Derrick hardly ever spoke to the press during that season (something that wouldn’t be allowed now), or that Iman Shumpert, who tore his ACL on the exact same day as Rose, returned to the Knicks’ lineup on January 17th. Throw in the fact that almost all of his Bulls’ teammates gutted out multiple playoff games with serious injuries while Rose continued to sit on the bench, and that he signed a massive, 5 year, $93 million dollar extension in December 2011, and it wasn’t shocking that D-Rose wasn’t exactly the most popular athlete in the city during and after the season. He was getting paid millions of dollars, and the fans wanted to see him suit up and do Derrick Rose things again. They wanted to see him battle with his injured teammates against the hated Heat in the playoffs. They wanted to see their star shine.

But he wouldn’t shimmer during that season. Chicago lost in five games to Miami in the conference semifinals, and Rose did nothing but sit on the bench wearing a suit and tie.


Maybe Rose was destined to break down. Watch his legs during this highlight film. Look at the unbelievable amount of torque he put on his knees, ankles, and hips almost every time he attacked the basket. He’d land with his body going one way and his legs awkwardly pointing in another, followed by him somehow inexplicably exploding towards the rim. If I had to describe his playing style in one word, I’d call it ‘violent’; he changes directions so sharply and quickly, and there’s no way that didn't put an enormous amount of stress on his joints and ligaments. If there was anybody who was going to have multiple knee injuries, wouldn’t it be him? Should anyone really have been shocked by that? Probably not. Ironically enough, the very thing that made him so effective may have cost him everything.


Everybody was anxiously awaiting the return of Rose during the 2013-14 season. We hadn’t seen him play in 18 months, besides in a few meaningless preseason games. We also had no idea what to expect. Would Derrick be able to recapture his athleticism? Would he still be explosive? Did his jumper improve at all? And could he reestablish himself as the best player on a championship contending team?

We never really got an answer to those questions. Rose struggled mightily (for him), averaging just 15.9 points and 4.3 assists per game on 35.4% shooting, before he suffered another gigantic, career-altering setback in Portland in his tenth game of the season, as he limped off the court with an apparent knee injury in the third quarter. Our worst fears would be realized soon after; Rose had a torn meniscus in his right knee, and he would need season-ending surgery to repair it. Once again, Derrick’s year was over.


I spent a lot of time over the last few days (probably too much time, because my brain started to hurt after a while) trying to figure out the right cross-generational NBA comparison for Rose, before realizing that there really wasn’t one. The best I could come up with was Bernard King, though it’s not a perfect fit. ‘Nard, a small forward, never won an MVP like D-Rose did (he finished 2nd in 1984, and 7th in ’85), but was also so much more of an unstoppable scorer than Rose ever dreamed of being.

For those of you unfamiliar with Bernard’s career, here’s a basic layout; after struggling for a few years with drug problems, King came into his own as the best scorer in the NBA on lackluster Knicks’ teams in the mid 80’s. He was the most difficult guy to guard in the league from November of ’83 to March of ’85, before he also tore his ACL in a game against the Kansas City Kings. He was the player we all hoped Carmelo Anthony would become, only we all now know that ‘Melo was never up for it. He scored a ton (26.3 points per game in ’84, 32.9 points per game in ’85), and was extremely efficient (57.2% shooting in ’84, 53% shooting in ’85), and also elevated his teams, as he dragged a mediocre ‘84 New York team through seven extremely competitive games with the future World Champion Celtics in the conference semifinals. But that torn ACL was a career killer 30 years ago, and it sapped Bernard of almost all of his explosiveness, which made him so much less effective. What a tragedy. It makes you want to curse the basketball gods.

Injuries kept ‘Nard, who was on his way to being one of the 40 greatest players ever, from reaching his potential. The same can be said for Rose. In June of 2011, I would have believed almost any positive outcome for his career. He, at just 22, was one of the two best point guards in the league (along with Chris Paul), the most explosive athlete in the NBA outside of Russell Westbrook and Blake Griffin, and was only getting rapidly better every season. But then he smashed into the injury wall repeatedly, more times than any crash test dummy ever would.

Plenty of players have had their careers decimated by injuries. But how many times has it happened to a guy with top 40 all time potential? Not very often. And when it does, it’s heartbreaking.

King eventually found his redemption (sort of) when, at 34 years old, he averaged 28.4 points per game on 47.2% shooting and made the All Star team playing for the ’91 Bullets. And despite those extremely impressive numbers, he was still far from the ‘Nard that terrorized everyone for two straight years. Will Rose every have a bounce back season like that? Considering how much more technically sound King was (he actually had a reliable jump shot), and how many different ways he had to score, compared to how Rose basically started everything in his basketball life with his athleticism (which is fledgling as we speak from his repeated knee injuries), I think it might be, as unfortunate as this sounds, highly unlikely that he ever recaptures that magic again.


I was cautious when I heard that Rose was going to be playing for USA Basketball this past summer. I didn’t know what to expect from him, as I hadn’t seen him play competitive basketball since November 2013, or compete at a high level since April 2012. There were a few video clips from practices that summer that looked like the old D-Rose, but I wanted to see him on the court playing real basketball against teams that were trying their hardest to win. Again, there were flashes of brilliance, and the old Rose, but there were never any stretches of sustained excellence. He never put together one complete, classic, throwback D-Rose game in any of their tournament games, and he never came close to consistently looking like Derrick again.

I guess this didn’t surprise me, and I didn’t expect all that much from him. The team was loaded, he hadn’t played basketball in basically 26 months, and he’d just gone through two major knee surgeries. More than anything, I was just happy to see him out there, getting knocked around and taking some bumps, because he hadn’t done that in so long.

The 2014-15 season arrived, and Rose was, for lack of a better term, sluggish. The numbers (18.4 points, 5 assists per game on 40.7% shooting) and the tape weren’t close to what we were used to seeing from him, and it was becoming more and more apparent that we might not ever see prime, 2011 Derrick ever again.

But I didn’t give up hope. Every once in a while, he would play a game, like against Cleveland the day before the All Star break, where he ran around, drove to the basket, knocked down some tough jumpers, and got his teammates involved, as the Bulls absolutely demolished the Cavs. Games like that one kept my hopes up. If he could ever get healthy and shake off all the rust, why couldn’t we see that guy again, consistently, every night?


Derrick’s biggest problem, to me, more than anything, was that he was never able to overcome his mental demons. Sure, his knees were ravaged over the last three years, but when he was on the court, he just looked so timid and terrified, like he was worried about planting awkwardly and ruining everything again. His drives were way less frequent, and he stopped landing and exploding towards the rim from every conceivable angle like he used to. That’s why I didn’t kill him for his “I don’t want to be in pain at my kid’s graduation” comments that he made back in November like so many other people did, because I understood it. He just wasn’t right mentally. The only person who might’ve been more scared watching Rose night to night this season than me was, in fact, Rose himself.


I got the same, “stick a fork in the Bulls” text from my Angry Old Man on Tuesday night, when the tragic news broke that Rose had, once again, torn his meniscus in his right knee. The outpouring of support and prayers from the NBA community and fans was unbelievable. Not again. Not to this guy. He’s already been through so much.

Rose had successful surgery today, and the Bulls expect him to be back in 4-6 weeks, which means he could be back for the playoffs. Even still, isn’t it fair to ask if Chicago done this year, even with Rose? I don’t have a real solid answer to that question, but it’s leaning that way.

But I can more solidly answer this one: Will we ever see apex, 2011 Rose again? No, we won’t. I don’t think his knees will ever be right again, and I doubt we’ll ever see him put together a full, 82 games, plus playoffs, season again. And I don’t think he’ll ever be able to fully defeat his internal demons. Another knee injury means more doubt, more fear, and less court time.

This is the biggest NBA tragedy since the Malice at the Palace, not only because we’ve lost such a great talent, but also because it seems like everybody has basically forgotten just how awesome Rose was. There’s this revisionist history creeping around on Derrick’s career now, that he was basically nothing more than Allen Iverson, Stephon Marbury, or Steve Francis (What a farce. Rose was never that selfish, and he competed way more on the defensive end), and that he wasn’t a “winning” basketball player, nothing more than a fireworks show, according to Colin Cowherd. I remember having a Steph Curry-Rose conversation with my Angry Old Man during the 2013 playoffs, and thinking to myself, “Yeah, I mean Curry is a great player, but has everyone forgotten that D-Rose was the NBA MVP JUST TWO YEARS AGO??!! DOES THAT NOT MATTER TO ANYONE??!!” He stole the MVP from LeBron during the King’s prime, and every media member was all for it. I don’t remember hearing any “Rose is Iverson” criticism back then. But now that he hasn’t played at a high level in such a long time, the in-the-moment observations are forgotten, and the narrative around his career has completely changed. What a shame.


I hate this so much, and I’d love nothing more than to give the basketball gods a collective roundhouse drop kick right to the throat. Get well, Derrick Rose.