The Warriors Are Back

In the first three games of this year’s NBA Finals, the Warriors looked like they didn’t have the mettle and toughness to win a title and dethrone the king.  They were getting beat by the Cavaliers’ tenacious LeBron James is quite possibly out of gas.defense and being clowned defensively by LeBron James, who was averaging 41 points per game in the series.  Matthew Dellavedova was causing fits on defense, particularly to MVP Stephen Curry, who shot just 32% (11-34) in those three games; however, with the exception of the fourth quarter of Game 3, he was just 23% (6-26).  Klay Thompson was also shooting 32% (9-28).  However, this all changed in last night’s Game 4.  James scored just 20 points on 7-22 shooting, and while the combination of Curry and Thompson combined for only 31, it was a lineup change by coach Steve Kerr that made the difference.  He took the floundering Andrew Bogut out of the starting lineup and inserted Andre Iguodala, who had started every game of his career until this year, which saw him come off the bench every night.  He scored 22 points, grabbed 8 rebounds, and was very possibly the best player on the floor, outplaying King James.

The change in the Warriors play was not only due to the change in the lineup, however.  According to Draymond Green, the team was not worried about the 2-1 deficit:

The team did come out pissed, winning loose balls that they had previously lost and wearing down Cleveland in the process. Another factor in Golden State’s success was their depth.  They had regularly played nine players in their rotation regularly; the Cavaliers only played seven.  Their depth became a plus, which is a positive for them going into the series’ last three games:

The combination of their depth along with their effort and hustle allowed them to pull away in Game 4 and tie the series.

The scariest part of playing the Warriors for the Cavaliers right now is that Curry and Thompson have not gotten going yet.  Last night, however, even though they did not have great games, players like Lee, Iguodala, and Shaun Livingston (who was an otherworldly +25 in 25 minutes coming off the bench last night) picked them up.  Thompson and Curry were +15 and +18, respectively.  When they came out, however, the team was +3 in 7 minutes without Curry and +6 in 9 minutes without Thompson. Again, the team’s depth is a huge plus for them and a bigger negative for the Cavaliers. Also, of the seven players the Cavs are playing, one of them has been a glaring negative: J.R. Smith. He, in 28 minutes in Game 4, was -27, and he shot just 2-12 from the field.  However, if he doesn’t have his shot, he can always have his PhunkeeDuck:

However, it’s obvious: if the Cavaliers continue to play 7 players, then those seven players are going to have to play really, really well.  While the rest of the Cavs have actually played pretty well in this series, especially Dellavedova, only two of their players played very well last night: their two big men, Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov.  And part of their success was the game plan of the Warriors that allowed them to get their points against a smaller, quicker lineup that could make plays at the other end.  The Dubs’ defense double-teamed James, especially in the post, and this, combined with the smaller lineup, created mismatches with Cleveland’s bigs.

Another issue the Cavaliers had in last night’s game was their energy, or lack thereof.  They looked to have tired legs and wore out as the game went on. Dellavedova and LeBron cramped up as the game went on, as well; both needed post game treatment for cramping after game 3 (Dellavedova wound up in the hospital).  James also lacerated his head on a camera lens in the second quarter:

The bottom line is that everyone on the Cavaliers was tired last night.  The extra day off before Game 5 on Sunday is absolutely a must, and they have to get their legs back between now and then.  If they don’t, they won’t be able to pull out the miracle and beat the Warriors.  However, one thing is clear after last night.

The Warriors are back.

MLB All-Star Game Ballot, Part 2

About a month ago, I published what my MLB All-Star Game ballot would look like; you can read about it here.  Well, here is part 2:

AL

1B: Prince Fielder, Rangers

2B: Jose Altuve, Astros

SS: Jose Iglesias, Tigers

3B: Josh Donaldson, Blue Jays

C: Stephen Vogt, A’s

DH: Nelson Cruz, Mariners

Outfielders: Mike Trout, Angels; Adam Jones, Orioles; Hanley Ramirez, Red Sox

NL

1B: Paul Goldschmidt, Diamondbacks

2B: Dee Gordon, Marlins

SS: Jhonny Peralta, Cardinals

3B: Matt Carpenter, Cardinals

C: Buster Posey, Giants

Outfielders: Bryce Harper, Nationals; Giancarlo Stanton, Marlins; Justin Upton, Padres

As you can see, not a whole lot has changed here.  I still have not voted for any Royals in either ballot, even though it looks like they will be sending quite a few players to the game:

Let me know what you think!

After Game 1 of the NBA Finals, Are the Cavaliers Done Already?

Last night in Oakland, the Warriors played the Cavaliers in Game 1 of the NBA Finals.  Cleveland jumped out to a 14-point lead late in the first quarter, which evaporated by late in the second.  The game was extremely tight in the second half, however, and it was tied with 32 seconds to go.  With the ball and a potential two-for-one situation, the Warriors moved quickly.  They set up a fantastic play which saw Steph Curry get the ball in one-on-one action against the ailing Kyrie Irving.  Curry got around Irving, looked like he had a layup secured, and…

On the next possession, LeBron James, while being defended by Andre Iguodala, stepped back for three, missed, and then the ball popped off the rim to Iman Shumpert.

This was the closest the Cavaliers came to scoring until the very end of the overtime session.  Neither team scored for the first 1:48 of OT, and the only points scored in the first 2:30 of overtime were Curry free throws.  Then this happened, which could be calamity for the Cavs:

The Cavaliers would not score in the overtime until a LeBron layup with nine seconds left, which the Warriors defense willingly yielded.

Irving is scheduled for an MRI this afternoon, and he is having that MRI performed as this article is being written.  If there is an official update on his injury and/or status for the rest of the series, this will be updated.  However, his Game 2 status looks grim, per USA Today’s Jeff Zillgitt:

If Irving cannot play in Game 2 or beyond, the Cavaliers are most likely done. This is why.

Without Irving, the Cavs would most likely turn to Matthew Dellavedova to start at the point.  In Game 1 against Golden State, Irving had the best +/- number on the Cavs, at +5.  Dellavedova had the worst at -13.  Worst of all, he did that in nine minutes.  If he would have played Irving’s 44 minutes at this rate, his +/- would have been -64.  Of course, that wouldn’t happen, because the game would have evened out after a certain amount of time, before those 44 minutes were up.  But Dellavedova’s complete lack of impact in those minutes is utterly concerning.  He had three assists and one rebound in those nine minutes, and that’s basically it. He did nothing to distinguish himself, and was also on the floor during the Warriors’ bench-fueled comeback in the second quarter.

Another issue for the Cavaliers is the question of who will help LeBron in the scoring department.  As Bill Russell once said in a Pepsi Uncle Drew commercial, “This game has always been, and will always be, about buckets.”  Sure, he scored 44 points last night, as well as 8 rebounds and 6 assists.   However, the Warriors are obviously not terribly worried about James’ scoring; they are more worried about that of his supporting cast.  LeBron also made some very tough shots, especially jumpers, against very good defense from Andre Iguodala, Harrison Barnes, and others.  He will not make those shots forever, and without Irving, he may be the Cavaliers only productive offensive player.  Sure, Tristan Thompson had 15 rebounds and played an awesome game last night, but he can’t do too much on offense.  J.R. Smith played well in the first half, but went cold in the second.  Can he get his own shot without the passing and floor spacing that Kyrie provides?  Can Timofey Mozgov get the same pick and roll dunks he did last night, like this one?

And can the Cavaliers’ bench out-perform that of the Warriors if Uncle Drew is unavailable?  It would have been tough for all of these things to happen with Irving, but without him, they become nearly impossible.

In conclusion, the Warriors should get plenty of credit here.  They found a LeBron defender in Iguodala, who defended him extremely well the entire night, as well as on the last play of regulation.  In my Finals preview last week, I only mentioned Iguodala once, and that was a mistake; I forgot about ‘Dre.  However, we cannot forget about how this series is basically over if the Cavs don’t have Irving for the rest of the series.

Without him, the Cavaliers are done, already.

UPDATE: As I wrote this article, I said I would update it with potential Kyrie news.  Well, here it is.  Back to Zillgitt:

My guess now is that the series ends in a sweep.  The Cavs just don’t have enough to beat these Warriors.

Don’t Get Too Excited About the Minnesota Twins’ Hot Start

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The Minnesota Twins were baseball’s hottest team in May, going 20-7 on their way to the top of the AL Central and to the best record in the American League. They hold a 1/2 game lead over their division rival Kansas City Royals for first and are 3.5 games up on the Tigers.  The question that many baseball writers and fans have had throughout the team’s recent run has been simple:  Can it last? This is a very legitimate question.  It is one that we can not answer for sure, but my best guess is that the success will not last.  Here’s why:

First, there was a rather interesting piece in the Washington Post this weekend about baseball’s biggest surprises.  You can read the whole article here, but if you don’t, this is the excerpt that deals with the Twins:

Winners of five straight to pull into a tie with the Royals atop the AL Central, Minnesota entered the weekend with no regular hitting above .280 or with an on-base percentage above .348. Their supposed ace, Phil Hughes, has a 4.57 ERA. Their major free-agent acquisition, Erwin Santana, was suspended for 80 games because of a drug violation. Their $49-million bust from a year ago, Ricky Nolasco, has a 5.12 ERA and is allowing 1.611 walks and hits per inning pitched — yet is somehow 5-1. Since being outscored 22-1 in a season-opening sweep at the hands of the Tigers, they have scored 211 runs and allowed 169 runs — and gone 28-15. Plus, their bevy of prime prospects — outfielder Byron Buxton, third baseman Miguel Sano and right-hander Alex Meyer — remains in the minors. No, nothing makes sense about these Twins.

That describes the Twins season to date quite well.  Additionally, pitching staff as a whole has put up a 3.92 ERA to date, 9th in the American League.  The pitching staff’s big bright spot has been closer Glen Perkins, who has allowed just five earned runs in 25 appearances this year.  He has also racked up 19 saves in the season’s first two months.  Another positive has been Blaine Boyer, who has accrued ten holds which have led to Perkins’ saves, leading the bullpen.  Other than that, the pitching staff has been kind of rough, including bullpen pitchers Tim Stauffer (8.03 ERA) and Brian Duensing (7.59 ERA).  The starting rotation has scuffled without Santana and with Hughes, Nolasco, and Santana fill-in Trevor May struggling.

However, the line-up has been better.  The team scores 4.6 runs per game and has hit .257 this season, the latter good for a tie for fourth in the American League.  While there are no horrendously struggling hitters on the team, no everyday player has cleared a .515 slugging percentage or an .850 OPS. Additionally, this team just does not steal bases.  They are 13th in the American League in both stolen bases (19) and stolen base percentage (55.88%).  Add this to the fact that they are 11th in the AL in on-base percentage (.309) and slugging percentage (.391), and they should be struggling to manufacture runs.  The only explanation for their winning is that their pitching staff, maligned as it is, hasn’t allowed very many home runs.  It also has allowed the 2nd least walks (117) in the game, trailing only the Mets’ pitching staff’s 103.

Consider this as well:  The Twins’ May schedule was, shall we say, easy.  Of the nine teams Minnesota played last month, five were under .500 (White Sox (six games), Athletics (four games), Indians (three games), Red Sox (three games), and Blue Jays (three games)). 19 of the team’s 27 games last month were against teams with below .500 records; to their credit, the Twins were 15-4 in these games.  Another three games were against the Rays, who are now sitting right at .500 with a 26-26 record; Minnesota took two out of those three.  The other five games were against the Tigers and Pirates, and the team was 3-2 against them. So once the schedule gets harder this month when the Twins have dates with the Cardinals, Rangers, Royals, and Cubs, they may very well struggle.

For all these reasons, the Twins are not for real.  While it has been enjoyable to see their run to the top of the standings so far this year, it is unlikely to last. However, it was fun while it lasted.  Give an immense amount of credit to first-year manager and team legend Paul Molitor, who has done an amazing job with this team. He should be up for Manager of the Year consideration this year.  Can they be like the Astros, Braves, Mets, Rangers and others and sustain a sudden run of success?  Who knows, but it will be very difficult.

It was fun while it lasted.

Hockey Narrowly Averts Total Disaster with Blackhawks-Lightning Stanley Cup Final

In this year’s NHL Conference Finals, both the East Series (Rangers vs. Lightning) and the West Series (Ducks vs. Blackhawks) went to seven games.  On Friday night, the Eastern Conference Finals were settled: the Lightning won the game 2-0 and the series 4-3.  They won decisively in the Rangers’ home, Madison Square Garden and handed the Rangers their first game 7 loss in their last seven outings. Last night, the Blackhawks and the Ducks played their game 7 in Anaheim. The Blackhawks took a commanding 5-3 win to secure a date with Tampa Bay in the Cup Final.  And NHL commissioner Gary Bettman better be glad that they did.

First of all, the absolute best match-up for the Final would have easily been Rangers-Blackhawks.  This would attract the attention of two of the three largest media markets in the United States (New York and Chicago) and make for a generally very compelling and competitive series.  This series would have also had stars abound; Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews for the Blackhawks and Henrik Lundqvist for the Rangers.  This series also would have featured two teams from hockey’s “Original Six”: along with the Rangers and Blackhawks, these were the Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs, Boston Bruins, and Detroit Red Wings.  Not included with the “Original Six” were the Tampa Bay Lightning or the Anaheim Ducks.

I’m sorry, but when I think of hockey, I just don’t think of Anaheim, California and Tampa, Florida.  Point being, there is not nearly as much hockey tradition and, much more importantly, market support in these two regions.  For example, take the Lightning’s only Stanley Cup in their history.  They played the Calgary Flames in one of the best Cup Finals in recent memory.  The series went seven games, and the last four games were all decided by one goal.  Take a guess how that series rated, but first, watch this video to get a sense of how intense and exciting game 7 really was.

So how were the ratings for that series?  The series averaged a 2.6 rating for ABC and ESPN.  Game 7 drew a 4.2 rating, but ratings always increase as the series gets further along.  For context, last year’s Rangers-Kings match-up averaged a 2.8 rating, and that series only went five games.  If it went to six or seven, the ratings would have assuredly been higher.  In 2007, hockey was dealing with a nightmare match-up too: Ottawa vs. Anaheim.  With games 1 and 2 of that series on Versus (which is now NBCSN), the rest of the series would be shown on NBC. However, game 3 of that series, on NBC, drew a 0.4 rating.  0.4.  For reference, the lowest rated TV program for 2014 was the CW’s Masters of Illusion, and that elicited a 0.3 rating. That’s right, a show broadcasting magic tricks nearly matched one year’s game 3 of the Stanley Cup Finals in viewership.

Lastly, there is an argument here of tradition.  The Rangers and Blackhawks have tradition, as well as a history of winning and excellence.  Oh, and the Blackhawks have what is easily the league’s coolest goal song:

The Rangers also have a really cool, originally composed goal song and another originally composed “Victory Song”, which was written in 1940 and is played every time the Blueshirts win.  Here is the instrumental:

The bottom line here is that both teams are synonymous with the game of hockey.  The Ducks and the Lightning cannot say this about themselves.  Also, I know this will makes me a culprit of “palm tree profiling”, but I’ll do it anyway.  The fact that both the Ducks and Lightning play in warm-weather climates hurts them in terms of marketability.  People do the same thing I do: they think of hockey and they think of a handful of teams (Red Wings, Blackhawks, Bruins, Rangers, etc.), and rarely are they located in warm-weather cities.  An example of this is the Los Angeles Kings: while they have won Stanley Cups two out of the last three years, they fall victim to potentially being under-marketed because they play in Los Angeles.  However, a team that has not had as much success in the past five or so years, such as the Detroit Red Wings, are consistently marketed by the NHL; they are an “Original Six” team, and Detroit, in reference to the Red Wings, is often marketed as “Hockeytown”.  So while it didn’t happen, a Ducks-Lightning final could have been disastrous for hockey.

But we better be glad it didn’t.

Handicapping the 2015 NBA Finals

As you probably already know, the matchup for the 2015 NBA Finals is set.  The Warriors and Cavaliers will be squaring off for the Larry O’Brien trophy, but first, they’ll be healing key injuries, as there is an eight day layoff between the end of the Conference Finals and the NBA Finals; that is a new NBA record. There are two key injuries for the Cavaliers in this series.  One is star point guard Kyrie Irving, who has been dealing with knee tendinitis since midway through the Cavaliers’ conference final series against the Bulls.  The other is to power forward Kevin Love, who separated his shoulder in the team’s first round series; he won’t be back.  The key injury for the Warriors is to Steph Curry’s running mate, Klay Thompson.  He suffered an ear laceration after being accidentally kneed in the face in Game 5 of the West Finals by the Rockets’ Trevor Ariza: (Warning: some may find video graphic and/or disturbing.)

That unsurprisingly manifested itself into concussion-like symptoms which was changed today to, *stunner*, a concussion. (This is pathetic, especially in these times of medical research and caution with regards to head injuries, but that’s another article for another time.)  Warriors’ back-up power forward Marreese Speights has been out with a right calf injury, but he could be available to play after the long layoff.

As for the two teams’ seasons?  Let’s start with the Cavaliers.  They played hot and cold at the beginning of the season, and were staring straight down the barrel at a 19-20 record and a low playoff seed on January 13th.  During their struggles, LeBron James was never really healthy, and as a result, took time off to heal from various injuries. After that, however, they ripped off a twelve-game winning streak, and catapulted up the Eastern Conference standings in the process; LeBron was back to his healthy and MVP-candidate self.  Most importantly, however, the team escaped the season largely healthy and unscathed, save for Anderson Varejao, who tore his Achilles on December 23; news has recently surfaced that Varejao could be activated for the Finals. However, disaster struck on April 26th, when in game 4 of the Cavs-Celtics series, Love separated his shoulder fighting for a rebound with the Celtics’ Kelly Olynyk. The team has pressed on, however, without Love, and newly-pressed starter Tristan Thompson has given the team another dimension of toughness and grit, especially with his rebounding.  They defeated the Bulls in the Conference Semis in six games and then swept the 60-win Hawks in the Conference Finals.  They were expected to be here.  as for the other team…

The Warriors, with a rookie head coach (Steve Kerr) and a team that returned most of the same players off of last year’s team that lost to the Clippers in the 2014 Playoffs’ first round, were simply not expected to win or compete for a title this year, especially in the stacked Western Conference.  This year, however, they made their grand entrance into the league’s title discussion, in more ways than one:

Most surprising about the Warriors emergence, however, has been the utter dominance with which they have defeated their opponents. They outscored opposing teams by an average of 10.1 (10.1!) points per game this year, and their true dominance came at home. They were 39-2 in the regular season, and their only two regular season losses came at the hands of the Spurs and Bulls.  They’ve only lost once at home in these playoffs, and that was to the Grizzlies in the second round.  Point being, this team is nearly impossible to beat at the place they call “Roar-acle”, and in the one game the Cavaliers played there this season on January 9th, the Warriors came out with a 112-94 victory.  Simply put, the Cavs need to win at least one road game, but more likely two, to win a championship, and I just don’t know if they can.

As for the two teams now, the Warriors are still remarkably healthy. Other than the Thompson and Speights injuries, they basically have none.  They survived a scare when Steph Curry suffered a vicious fall in game 4 of the team’s Western Conference Finals series against the Rockets.  However, Curry was largely unhurt, and came back to the game.  Video of the fall can be found right here: (Warning: video may be disturbing for some.)

The difficulty for the Cavaliers in this series is, assuming they are both able to play, stopping Golden State’s splash brothers: Thompson and Curry.  They should be guarded in this series by Irving and J.R. Smith respectively, and that could cause Cleveland big problems. Look for the Cavaliers to play Matthew Dellavedova more in this series, as he is a defensive nuisance who will look to instigate trouble with the Warriors players.  Another matchup problem for the Cavaliers is Draymond Green, whose shooting, defensive, and play-making ability will keep the Cavs on their toes at both ends of the floor.  On defense, he will assuredly have the assignment of guarding LeBron, and LeBron may guard him for the Cavs defense as well. Andrew Bogut has also played well for the Warriors these playoffs, averaging nearly nine rebounds per game, serving as a catalyst for the Dubs’ wide open offense, and protecting the rim on defense.  The same can be said for back up center Festus Ezeli, who has spelled Bogut when he has had to go to the bench for foul trouble or rest.

The Cavaliers can counter Golden State with jump shooting of their own.  Smith and Irving are excellent jump shooters in their own right, and, if given to him, LeBron can spray the defense with his as well.  If bench players James Jones, Dellavedova, and Iman Shumpert get open looks, they are all quite dangerous as well.  However, the Cavaliers will have to win this series with their defense. They allowed 98.7 points per game in the regular season, good for 13th in the NBA. However, in the Playoffs, that number has sunk to 92.6 points per game. Also, they have allowed 91.7 points per contest without Love around, a harbinger of the Tristan Thompson effect (Hint, hint: Thompson is a better defender than Love).  Their defense was much maligned in the regular season, but it has really tightened up in these Playoffs.  With much concern for the Cavs in Cleveland and beyond from writers and those who follow the sport (including myself), their defense has helped ensure their playoff longevity.  Thompson and Timofey Mozgov, the team’s big men, need to help the team win the rebounding battle, which they should be able to do, considering that they are first in these Playoffs with a rebound differential of +6.5. (The Warriors are third in that category in the playoffs at +4.0.)  This is how they secure the upset and bring a title, something, anything back to Cleveland for the first time since 1964.

My feeling about this series is that the Warriors are an absolute juggernaut. They are difficult to stop, and even though some analysts think that a jump shooting team cannot win an NBA title, I disagree. Here’s why: they’re not just a jump shooting team offensively.  They penetrate, pass for open shots, and the jump shots they take are usually good ones.  The jump shots that Curry and Thompson take may not always look like good shots, but with them, any shot they take can go in, so is there such a thing as a bad one?

Most of all, the Warriors can win in many different ways, and I don’t think the Cavs’ defense can slow them down for a full game.  Take their last game against the Rockets, for example.  Curry was not having his best game and Thompson missed virtually the entire second half with foul trouble and his concussion (*-like symptoms*). The Warriors still won by 14 because a new player emerged in the fourth quarter: Harrison Barnes.  He kept the team afloat offensively, and their defense was the catalyst for their offense, causing MVP runner-up James Harden to turn the ball over 13 times, a new NBA record.  They consistently find new ways to win, and who knows, maybe another player emerges at a critical juncture for Golden State. Maybe it’s Leandro Barbosa, Shaun Livingston or Andre Iguodala off the bench that helps them win an all-important game down the stretch.  Or maybe it’s Curry and Thompson, like we all expect.

Like I expect.

While the Cavaliers have a fighting chance because of James, Irving, and their defense, I don’t see many (if any) ways that they can win this series.  It will be competitive, and maybe more competitive than it should be, because I think the Cavaliers are over-matched here.

The Warriors will win this series in six games. How do you feel about that, Riley Curry?

All statistics courtesy of espn.com and Basketball-Reference

Early Heisman Trophy Predictions for the 2015 College Football Season

We are closing in on 100 days left until the beginning of the college football season on September 5.  If you don’t believe me on that, you can simply find out how far we are away from week one here:

Until then, here is a (somewhat) early breakdown of the top candidates for the sport’s highest honor, the Heisman Trophy:

5. Deshaun Watson (QB, Clemson)

Watson returns for his sophomore season after impressing with his running and throwing in somewhat limited action last season.  He missed three games in October last year with a broken bone in his hand, but he came back and played the last eight games of the season.  Also, he led the Tigers to a 35-17 defeat of in-state foe South Carolina, all the while playing with a torn ACL (!).  With returning talent at most of Clemson’s offensive skill positions, Watson has the potential to light up Death Valley in 2015.

4. Ezekiel Elliott (RB, Ohio State)

The hard-running power back for the Buckeyes comes back off of last year’s campaign in which he produced over 2,000 yards from scrimmage.  Four out of the five projected starters on the Buckeyes’ offensive line are upperclassmen, and all five linemen started on last year’s championship squad.  Also, the Bucks lost the best wide receiver off of last year’s team, Devin Smith. Crop top or not, look for Elliott to be in New York this December.

3. Dak Prescott (QB, Mississippi State)

With the returns of top wide receiver De’Runnya Wilson and star running back Josh Robinson, look for Prescott to expand on last year’s breakout season in which he threw for nearly 3,500 yards and ran for almost another thousand. Whether the defenses in the SEC West stand up to him or not remains to be seen, but I anticipate that Prescott will do even better than last year in unleashing a full Dak Attack on the college football world.

2. Trevone Boykin (QB, TCU)

Okay, so you probably know what is coming by this point, but let’s talk about Boykin first.  He threw for 3,901 yards and ran for another 700 in last year’s Playoff-worthy campaign that ended in a 42-3 drubbing of Ole Miss in the Peach Bowl.  With the return of top wide receivers Josh Doctson, Kolby Listenbee, and Deante’ Gray, as well as all (all!) of TCU’s line returning together, Boykin will rip it up in 2015.  Just not as much as the #1 player on the list, however…

1. Leonard Fournette (RB, LSU)

Fournette comes back to Baton Rouge after rushing for 1,000 yards last year and averaging 5.5 yards per carry in doing so.  The question mark here is that LSU has five all-new starters at offensive line and while they have looked solid in spring practice, it remains to be seen whether they can perform in the SEC. However, with the Baton Rouge Bears’ quarterback disaster situation being what it is, Fournette will get a lot of carries this year.  And I think he’ll win the Heisman Trophy.

D’Angelo Russell is the Best Player in This Year’s NBA Draft

The NBA Draft is just about exactly a month away and mock drafts and big boards are abound.  Many mock drafts have either Duke center Jahlil Okafor or Kentucky power forward Karl-Anthony Towns going #1 overall. Many big boards say the exact same thing: Either Towns or Okafor is the best player in the draft.  Personally, I would take Towns over Okafor for various reasons, but I really don’t think that’s the conversation we should be having here.  I think that the best player in the draft is neither Towns or Okafor: It’s Ohio State point guard D’Angelo Russell.

First, let’s look at Russell physically.  Russell is tall for a point guard, at 6-foot-5.  While his frame is only at 180 pounds right now, that should fill out over time.  While these are positives, there is one large, glaring negative with Russell: athleticism.  He does not get high off the ground, and some see this as the one trait or quality that will serve to doom his career.  However, he realizes this, and he plays as a low to the ground player, with a solid mid-range jumper and floater game.  Also, his basketball IQ is through the roof, routinely seeing plays before they develop and making the simple play.

Second of all, Russell is easily the most offensively polished player in the draft.  He is a pretty good post player, occasionally using his size to post up smaller guards.  Also, he has the potential to be a very good shooter in the NBA. While his shot is streaky, he can develop it; what also helps is that he’s just 19 years old.  He’s a versatile scorer, too, using all aspects of his offensive game to score.  He is also an incredibly unselfish player who passes to open teammates.  Along these lines, he is a very good rebounder, and after getting a rebound, he uses his IQ and unselfishness to push the ball ahead in transition, which creates a chance for open teammates at the other end.

What will hold him back, as I mentioned earlier, is his lack of explosiveness and athleticism.  Because of this, he consistently avoids contact at the rim and relies far too heavily on his floater.  He will most likely also struggle against size and shot blocking defenders at the NBA level, which will force him to take too many jump shots.  Taking too many jump shots, however, will force him to work hard on that shot, which has the potential to get much better. Also, he has lapses on defense.  He is too often caught watching the ball on defense and sometimes lacks the effort necessary on an every-night basis in the NBA.  However, this should improve with time and repetition, and Russell has the upside and potential to be a good defender at the next level.

Finally, the biggest positive that goes along with Russell is his swagger and confidence.  When he was asked at the NBA Draft Combine why teams should be interested and/or draft him, he said succinctly:

He’s right.  On an Ohio St. team that struggled at points last season, he was willing to shoulder the load on offense to try to get his team back into the game.  While his game isn’t all the way there yet, that’s okay, because no player in the draft’s game is.  Some may say that Towns is the best player in the draft, but he is really inconsistent in all areas of his game, and while not an unproven player, is a bigger risk who will take much more time to develop.  Some may have Okafor at #1 on their boards, he is not a great defender and is in-explosive, just like Russell.  Those people can think what they want, but Russell will be the best player to come out of this class.  In most mock drafts, Russell is going to Philadelphia at #3.  This is the perfect situation for him, and he has the potential to blossom there.  Actually, he has the potential to blossom anywhere he goes.  I think of him as a less explosive version of Damian Lillard; can score in bunches while setting up teammates all the while.  People who favor Okafor or Towns can think what they want, but Russell will be the best player to come out of this class.

And here’s why: he’s the best player in the draft.

On Bryce Harper Getting Ejected the Other Night

Bryce Harper and his streaking Nationals were at home on Wednesday night playing the Yankees.  The Nats have won five games in a row and surged to the top of the NL East over that stretch.  However, Wednesday night’s win would be overshadowed by an incident between Harper and home plate umpire Marvin Hudson.  Basically, the first pitch of the at bat was a strike that looked to be down in the zone or out of it altogether.  Supposedly, Harper then “refused” to get in the box, and Hudson ejected him.  Manager Matt Williams then cane out to argue on his behalf, for which he was ejected.  The ejection, in my eyes, was completely wrong.

First of all, players argue balls and strikes all the time.  If I had a dollar for every time a player was discontented with a ball-strike call, I could be really, really rich.  Harper was very unhappy however, and something that is important to note when considering the other side of the argument is that the pitch was only strike one.  Also, the at bat took place in the third inning, and there is still most of the game left at that point.  Think what you want about Bryce Harper, but he is an extreme competitor.  He wants everything to go his way, and sometimes if they go the other way, he becomes unhappy.  However, be clear of his intent; he just wants to win.

Second of all, if I pay the money to go to a Washington Nationals game, I would much rather watch Bryce Harper do what he does than watch Marvin Hudson do his job.  I have never heard of anyone that has gone to a baseball game and paid a real significant amount of attention to the umpires; they want to watch the players.  And without the best Nationals position player on the field, the game is simply not as exciting.  On a Wednesday night when people are most likely coming straight from work to see the game, depriving them of one of the most exciting players in baseball is simply not right.

Finally, along these lines, I am sick and tired of watching exhibitions that are not-so-affectionately known on social media as “#umpshows.”  Like I said in the first paragraph, I don’t watch baseball for the umpires.  It’s a great game, but the umpires are a blight upon it, no doubt about it.  Hudson did not exactly shy away from the arguments with Harper and Williams, either.  In the video above (which was shared by MLB’s YouTube account), not-so-nice words are blurred.  When Williams goes out to confront Hudson, he launches a bunch of these (examples of them rhyme with duck and spit).  However, Hudson did the exact same thing.  Don’t think of umpires as higher authority of better than the players, because they clearly don’t act it.

Finally, one of the reasons why Hudson wanted Harper to get back in the box (other than to create an #umpshow) is that he wanted to speed up the game.  This side of the anti-Harper argument is understandable.  However, the attempt backfired in Hudson’s face.  Not only was he embarrassed by Williams, Harper, and his own actions, the arguments took roughly two minutes, which doesn’t exactly speed up the game.  While this year’s pace-of-play rules have clearly worked, this was a miss.  An attempt to speed up the game by five or ten seconds wound up setting it back for two minutes, which does not look good for the game of baseball.

Any way you slice it, I think Harper should not have been ejected.

But, hey, let’s all get together to watch another great #umpshow sometime soon.

Analyzing What the NBA Draft Lottery Results Mean for the Draft

Last night, the NBA held its annual ping pong tournament Draft Lottery in New York.  While the 76ers had the possibility of acquiring three lottery picks, they will only be held to one because the Lakers held their top-five protected pick (moving up to #2) and the Heat held their top-10 protected pick (staying at #10).  The Sixers acquired the third pick, however, while the Knicks fell to #4 after having the second best chance at the first overall slot. Orlando rounds out the top five, which was expected because they had the fifth best chance for #1 to start off with. So what does this all mean?  Well…

The Timberwolves, sitting at the top of the draft, are in an unenviable position.  While they have a great problem in choosing between Kentucky’s Karl-Anthony Towns and Duke’s Jahlil Okafor, they have an interesting and difficult decision to make.  Do they draft the Power forward in Towns and leave the oft-injured and somewhat under-performing Nikola Pekovic in an center?  Or, do they draft the center in Okafor and potentially leave the aging and regressing Kevin Garnett to haul a heavy load playing in what will likely be his last season in the NBA?  Also, does the Big Ticket decide to come back?  If he doesn’t, and Okafor is the choice, who plays the four?  Again, it’s a good problem to have if you’re Minnesota, but it’s  problem nonetheless.

The Lakers are sitting at two, and while their choice seems like a no-brainer, it is actually more of a trick question than you think.  While it seems as if they would take whoever the T-Wolves don’t in front of them between Towns and Okafor, I think they could make it a surprise with this pick.  With no point guards on the roster headed into next season (no, I’m serious) except for Jordan Clarkson, they could, and I emphasize could, take either Emmanuel Mudiay, who originally would have played at SMU this season and turned them into a championship contender, or Ohio State’s D’Angelo Russell here.  It’s a stretch, but not a huge one.  A much bigger stretch would be fast-rising Latvian big man Kristaps Porzingis, who has made waves for his shot creating and three point shooting.  The Lakers need almost everything here, however, and Byron Scott has his own personal vendetta against 3-point shooting, so no Porzingis here.  After all, I don’t really think he fits the Lakers anyway, but on a team with Nick Young and Kobe Bryant taking all the shots, who does?

At three, look for the 76ers to go point guard.  The expected choice here and what seems to be the common sense one is Russell.  He is one of if not the most polished offensive player in this year’s draft, and could have a season like that of Michael Carter-Williams two years ago.  This works out perfectly for Philly, if Russell or Mudiay are available, and there’s no reason to think why at least one of them wouldn’t be there.  However, if Towns of Okafor are avaiable, they most likely would not be taken here, as the last thing the Sixers need is big men.  Again, this is a great position for Philly to be in here; with potentially no Towns or Okafor available here, they can still get their point guard of the future, whoever that may be.

This is just the first three picks.  The rest of the night is a litany of fun, trades, and booing that gives us plenty to salivate over until October.  Until then, we wait for the draft.  I hope to do a mock draft at some point, but the Playoffs will have to hold us over until then.