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.