Revenge in Super Bowl XLVI

Narratives drive me insane. Justin Verlander, in my opinion, won the 2011 AL MVP simply because of a narrative that was a creation of the mass media.* Narratives are created by those who need something to write, either to kill space or to gain viewership. They are ususally false, overhyped, and predictable.

*Seriously, the dude had a great season, but it was by no means legendary. If any pitcher should have won the MVP, it was late ’90’s-early ’00’s Pedro. Since he didn’t, Verlander – by NO means – should have.

The Super Bowl features the “best” two teams from the National Football League, America’s most popular sports league. There are two weeks in between Championship Sunday and Super Sunday. This creates a huge magnification of the event and the need for major news outlets to fill serious space. This year’s fillers are typically uncreative and very annoying, including, but not limited to:

1. Where does Tom Brady rank among all-time QB’s with a win?

2. Is Bill Belichick the greatest coach in NFL history with a win?

3. Is Eli Manning elite?

4. What can we force Antrel Rolle to say today?*

*A midget? Seriously?

These are few among many, many more. By now, we are all tired of these arguments and debates. We’ve all heard this debate, and we all know on which side certain writers/analysts stand.  Thus, the MSM – mainstream media – has come up with a narrative that  is fresh just as boring;

5. That revenge will play a huge role in determining the outcome of Super Bowl XLVI.

Of course, the Giants ended the Patriots perfect season four years ago. We know that it was a David and Goliath story and that the Giants pulled off perhaps the greatest upset in the history of the NFL. Because of this, the Patriots are angry and will beat the team that spoiled the dream.

This has already gotten on my nerves. Don’t believe how overhyped this is? Look at this Google search of “Revenge in Super Bowl.” However, it was this article in the Boston Herald that really struck the wrong chord for me this morning. In it, Karen Guregian quotes several players that remain on the current Pats team that were there for the loss in 2007-2008. The article implies that the Patriots will be more motivated to beat the Giants than they would have been the 49ers.

This is not only a ludicrous notion, but a misguided one. There are only seven players- and only six of them are active- left from the 18-1 team. The list includes Tom Brady, Matt Light, Wes Welker, and Vince Wilfork, who are all major players on this edition of the Patriots. They are not, however, used in the same light. Wes Welker is no longer the focal point of the Patriots offense, Rob Gronkowski is. Tom Brady is no longer as dominant as he was in 2007.  Wilfork is now the most consistent part of the defense.

The team is much different and is based around players who were not even in the NFL in 2007. Belichick will not attempt to stir up anger in his players over Super Bowl XLII because, for 47 members of the New England Patriots, it will not resonate. They weren’t there. They can never understand what the Patriots felt on the night of February 3, 2008 and they will never feel the bitterness that those Patriots still feel.

Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have gained a reputation for being more prepared than any coach/quarterback tandem in the league. They’re supposedly tireless in their effort to win, and that effort seems to translate onto the field- they win, and they win a lot. To my eyes, they seem to pride themselves on that reputation. Does it really make sense to assume that they would prepare less for the Super Bowl if they had a perfect season four years ago?

I’ve never bought the fact that players need more motivation to prepare for the Super Bowl. This is the Super Bowl. The eyes of America and the world abroad will be upon these two teams. If you’re an athlete, what more motivation could you possibly need than to be playing on the greatest stage in American sports?

Do the Patriots who remain want revenge? I can only imagine so. Will that desire factor into the game? I don’t believe that it will. There aren’t enough players left on either side for that game to really matter to the players. To many fans, it will matter and will always matter. Many fans err when they believe that players are concerned with the same things that they, as a fan, are.

If the Patriots win the Super Bowl, it will be because they outplayed the New York Football Giants, not because of some misguided theory of revenge. If they lose the Super Bowl, it will be because they got outplayed.

It’s the Super Bowl. If players need to look for more motivation to win, then may God help them deal with the agony of the defeat that will surely follow.

The Knicks’ Biggest Problem – The Melo Trade

by Kevin Daly:

It made sense for the Knicks to make the move for Carmelo Anthony.  At least I thought so.  The Knicks were over .500 at the time of the trade and had a well-balanced attack of Raymond Felton, rookie Landry Fields, Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, and Amar’e Stoudemire.  Additionally, the team was poised to make the playoffs for the first time in 7 years, yet trading for Carmelo was the “right” thing to do for a few reasons.

The first was that Stoudemire needed some help.  The guy had been playing out of his mind for much of the season, but at the cost of being near the top of the league in minutes played and receiving extra defensive attention regularly.  Knowing Stoudemire’s past misfortunes with injuries, the Knicks were concerned with the toll being taken on his body.  He needed someone else to shoulder the load, especially at the end of games, on a consistent, dependable basis.  The Knicks were never going to be a dangerous playoff team when opponents only had to pay extra attention to Stoudemire.

Enter Carmelo.  The eighth-year All-Star was set to enter free agency at the end of the 2010-2011 season and seemed set to take the LBJ route and move on to greener pastures.  He was rumored to have his sights set on the Big Apple, especially due to his own – and his wife’s – New York roots.  The guy even married in New York.  In the minds of Knicks fans, that spelled destiny, and it was only a matter of time before the Brooklyn (and Baltimore) native donned the blue and orange.

Anthony repeatedly butted heads with coach George Karl and often displayed a questionable amount of effort on the defensive end of the court.  Despite those red flags, his scoring ability was unquestionable.  With him and Stoudemire, the Knicks would have a genuine two-pronged attack AND the potential makings of a superteam in New York.  Thanks to the Miami Heat, the “superteam” idea became one of unprecedented possibility.  If the cooler talk was not about the Miami Heat, it was about who could step up and stop Mike Miller, Mario Chalmers, and the South Beach gang.

Getting Carmelo did not make the Knicks automatic contenders, but it made stopping the Heat, a.k.a. contending, possible.  The team – pre-Carmelo – was never going to go further than the Eastern Conference Semifinals.  Adding a second star gave the Knicks a legitimate response to the James-Wade duo.

Despite Carmelo’s pending free agency (if he signed elsewhere in the summer, Denver would have been left empty-handed), the Nuggets demanded a king’s ransom for their star.  The Knicks – knowing they potentially had a very good thing going with their wealth of young players – were hesitant to give away half their roster; however, James Dolan and the MSG corporate Deathstar’s desire for star power eventually held precedence over such worries.  Trading for a great player such as Anthony always requires a big sacrifice/risk by the other team: dealing talent was a given, but the amount that the Knicks ultimately surrendered was terrifying.  In return, the Knicks got Carmelo and Cool Hand Chauncey Billups.  Billups, Anthony, and Stoudemire were instantly hailed as the new Big Three, albeit one equivalent to that in Miami only if Bosh, James, and Wade each recently consumed a Four Loko.

The trade stripped New York of the depth that it had enjoyed for a full half of a season, and forced the team to rely heavily on the irrepressible Jared Jeffries and Bill Walker.  The play of Fields and Amar’e regressed following the trade and the team was eventually swept in the first round of the playoffs by the Boston Celtics, but the team had the “needs time to adjust” excuse.  The team’s lack of playoff success was predominantly charged to the team’s poor health – Stoudemire was sidelined for a significant part of the series, Billups the series’ entirety.

It was the Nuggets’ post-Carmelo success that carried more intrigue.  Denver went 18-7, led the league in points per game, and gave up roughly 10 less points a game.  The new-look Nuggets played an exciting, up-tempo style of team basketball that energized the city and caused many to declare the Nuggets as the “winner” of the blockbuster trade.  Like the Knicks, the Nuggets eventually lost in the first round of the playoffs – to the Oklahoma City Thunder in 5 games.  The Nuggets’ newfound, successfully D’Antonian style suggests that the Nuggets’ slower, half court style had as much to do with Carmelo as anything else.

As I said in my previous post, this is the season, with the offseason additions of rookie Iman Shumpert, Baron Davis, and NBA champion Tyson Chandler, that the Knicks were supposed to assume the role as big boys in the Eastern Conference playground.  On paper, the team’s frontcourt was the best in the league, and Anthony’s readiness to take on a point-forward role in the offense would cover for the team’s iffy guard situation.

"If only he was just another one of Jersey's problems" -Landry Fields (B-Flo 360)

While it was unfair to blame Carmelo for the team’s stagnation last season, this season has proven that he has been a cancer to the play of Amar’e Stoudemire and Landry Fields.  Neither player has much confidence in his game right now.  Before the trade last season, both players, especially Fields, excelled in the team’s free-flowing offense.  The Raymond Felton-Amar’e Stoudemire pick-n-roll combo was a huge part of the team’s attack. Felton’s passes led to easy baskets for Stoudemire and for open teammates on the perimeter when defenses collapsed on Amar’e.  Fields was a steady recipient of these passes and shot 3’s at a very respectable 40% mark.  The team’s utter lack of a middle-of-the-road/decent passer has taken away a huge part of Stoudemire’s, Landry’s, and other teammates’ ability to score easy baskets.

With that said, the idea that D’Antoni’s system completely hinges on a good point guard is complete bull.  Chris Duhon was the point guard for 2 full seasons.  Chris Duhon.  The problem with this Knicks team is not so much the team’s lack of a serviceable point guard as it is Carmelo’s unequaled ability to stop ball movement.  He is one of the top scorers on the team, but he refuses to defer.  When Melo gets the ball, he needs to size up his defender before even considering the preposterousness of making the extra pass to an open teammate.  By the time he passes the ball, his teammates are often in an unfavorable position to receive it.  They then have to try to create offense by their own devices – which gets ugly quickly when Jared Jeffries and Iman Shumpert are on the court.  Easy baskets have been tough to come by for the Melo-era Knicks.  The team – 27th in the league in assists per game – is averaging more than 3 fewer assists per game than the last 3 D’Antoni-led Knicks teams.

This is widely regarded to be the most talented Knicks team in years, yet scoring has been so much harder to come by.  Many people have been pointing to the team’s abysmal .304% 3-point shooting percentage this season, but the problem is not the shooters as much as it is the shots.  Obviously, the loss of players like Gallinari, Billups, and Shawne Williams – guys D’Antoni loved for their shooting prowess – has not helped the team’s shooting, but without the success of the pick’n’roll drive and kick from seasons past, perimeter shots that would be open in the past are now often contested.

Put everything together, and you get the team’s current position of 17th in points per game this season.  If Spike Lee was told that this would be the Knicks’ scoring rank before the season started, his reaction, along with that of many other Knicks fans, would most likely be, “You’ve got to be kidding.”  In D’Antoni’s first 2 seasons with the Knicks, the team’s PPG ranked 4th and 10th, respectively.  Remember, Chris Duhon was the point guard.  Last year, the first in D’Antoni’s tenure where the team actually had talent, the team ranked 2nd.

Regardless of where the Knicks go from here in the season, I believe that the Carmelo Anthony trade was one of the worst in recent league history.  The Decision changed the name of the free agency game.  The Carmelo trade was the first example of superstar compensation – Nuggets GM Masai Ujiri and the Denver front office made sure of that.  It was the first time where a team traded its “franchise” player – and got BETTER.  The Knicks, on the other hand, got worse.  The Carmelo trade put the team in win now mode – yet they are further from contention than they were a season ago.

Would he make the trade if he could go back a year? My guess is "No f'ing way" Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

It’s also clear that the team needs a leader.  Tyson Chandler brings leadership on the defensive end, but there is not That Guy on offense.  Carmelo calling (and taking) all the shots for the game’s last 2-3 minutes does not come close to cutting it.  Amar’e was The Guy before the trade, but is completely lost without a competent playmaker and has no set role in the offense – especially when Carmelo goes into his twisted version of hero mode.

Is it any way that Amar’e has not thought about this?  For a few months, he was King of MSG, the guy who was responsible for FINALLY bringing relevance back to New York basketball.  He had been in MVP discussions, and the Carmelo trade was supposed to be help, a step forward – not a step back.

The problem is that Carmelo hasn’t changed his game like he was supposed to.  The Knicks failed in the LeBron James sweepstakes, but Carmelo was supposed to be one hell of a consolation.  He hasn’t been the creator that Knicks fans dreamed him of becoming, only the scorer that everyone already knew he was.  And while I obviously don’t know the guy and won’t pretend to, it still always seems to be about numero uno.  I understand that his expected role is completely different than it was in Denver, but the adjustment period was supposed to be last season, not now.

When the Knicks lost to the Bucks last week, Amar’e Stoudemire was shown alone sitting on the bench, with a towel draped over his head and a mixed expression of disbelief and weariness.  While the losses and ensuing scrutiny have been clearly affecting Stoudemire, Carmelo has not been sitting beside him on that bench.  Instead, Anthony has preferred to spend his time continuing to fire up contested shots, complaining to referees with every other missed shot and mouthing off to opponents, as he did with the Bucks’ Brandon Jennings once the game was all but out of reach.  Carmelo has to put the team first – and that can only happen if he stops being what he wants and starts at least trying to be what the team needs.

...And no, Baron Davis is not the answer

Will it happen?  Probably not.  Eight-and-a-half year veterans typically don’t change their spots.  He’ll continue to ponder what he can do differently, but odds are that it won’t translate into rebirth as a facilitator/catch-and-shooter.  For now, the team hopes that Baron Davis will be the answer to the team’s passing problems once he’s healthy.  He’ll help, but once the ball hits Carmelo’s hands, the offense will revert to its stagnant ways.  In order for the team to realize what it can be, Carmelo has to be more than 26 points a game, 7 rebounds, and a mountain of misses.

The SSB 1st NBA Power Rankings

by Kevin Daly:

The NBA season is less than a month old and, already, every team has played between 10 and 15 games.  For sports fans, the packed schedule has been weekday salvation.  For players, it’s been a roller coaster ride with a malfunctioning seatbelt.  Staying healthy has been a real challenge for every team.  The teams that are best equipped for this injuries, a.k.a. deep, will be the teams to prevail in this “long short season,” as Reggie Miller eloquently explained.

It’s still early in the season, but this is the time when the standings begin to take shape, players fall into their roles after hot or cold starts to the season, and the dreaded wall appears in the distant horizon for rookies.  Trade talks are also soon to heat up, particularly conversations to deport a certain someone from Orlando (no, Hedo Turkoglu, we’re not talking about you).  So, in my best Tracy McGrady impersonation, with one eye looking toward the past and one eye toward the rest of the season, here are my humble NBA power rankings – biased and most likely inadequate.  Enjoy.

1. Chicago Bulls: In my opinion, this is the best team in the NBA.  They have shooters, the severely underrated Luol Deng, an upgrade at shooting guard in Richard Hamilton, the reigning MVP – Derrick “the Timberwolf Assassin” Rose, and – what I LOVE on an NBA team – a wealth of big men who can control the paint.  What I don’t like is Carlos Boozer come playoff time (he fades too often in big games, he is inconsistent, and he can’t really challenge shots), lack of another guy who can create his own shot besides Rose, and the fact that they still probably won’t beat the Heat in a playoff series.  They should have done whatever they could to get Jason Richardson.  Trading for a Stephen Jackson type won’t happen.  I like their chances against any other team on any night, but if they reconvene with the Heat come playoff time, expect having to watch Ronnie Brewer try to create offense again. Ouch.

2. Oklahoma City Thunder: This team – the new model of how to essentially build an NBA franchise from the ground up – is the team to beat in the West.  They have punishers in the post, incredible athleticism, scoring, and depth in the guard positions, and Kevin Wayne Durant.  The Thunder have the best winning percentage in the league and depth at every position except small forward.  They are playoff-tested, young, and defensively tough.  They seem to be destined for the Finals, except for the fact that Russell Westbrook still takes on a Russell vs. the world mentality at the end of close games and hardly defers to Durant in crunch time.  His me-centric mentality does not seem likely to change and time that Durant does not have the ball in big moments will continue to be time wasted.  The team’s lack of a post scorer is also a legitimate concern.  These are obstacles that can be overcome, but are also potentially damning.

3. Miami Heat: I can’t figure the Heat out.  They’re obviously good – how good, is the big question.  They obliterated an unfocused and rebooted Mavericks team, the Boston Depreceltics, and a good Indiana team.  They almost lost to the Bobcats and Timberwolves on the road and lost to the Golden State Warriors on the road.  They lost to the Hawks at home with a full squad, then beat the Hawks in Atlanta without LeBron and Wade.  Clearly a better team at home, they are not a whole lot deeper than last year.  Haslem’s health is a big boost for a team lacking size and Shane Battier has been important as a defensive pest/glue guy.  They will be relying on Mario Chalmers, Norris Cole, and Eddy Cur-…Joel Anthony to provide relief for the Big 3 on offense and defense.  Despite an 8-4 start that many would consider mediocre, their eyes are on the big prize.  Lack of a legitimate center will hurt the Heat along the way, but they are, along with Chicago, one of 2 legitimate Eastern Conference contenders.

4. Portland Trail Blazers: one of the best things about the Portland Trail Blazers is that they have 2 go-to guys in LaMarcus Aldridge and the underrated Gerald Wallace.  They have the shot-blocking presence in Marcus Camby.  Guards Raymond Felton and Wesley Matthews are tough defenders and efficient on offense.  Jamal Crawford and Nicolas Batum are great options off the bench.  An injury to Camby or his back up, Kurt “I was born looking 40” Thomas, could be devastating, but this is a team that plays cohesively on both ends of the court – every rotation player consistently plays sound defense, there is no black hole on offense – and could make a run come playoff time, especially if they have home court advantage.

5/6. Los Angeles Clakers (Clippers, Lakers…get it?): Crappy jokes and thoughts of me trying to move more quickly in this column aside, the two Staples Center tenants are similar in their lack of big man depth and severe reliance on a guard to pioneer the offense night in and night out.  Lob City has been like a car’s glove compartment: a disappointingly misleading moniker.  Nevertheless, Chris Paul has been the savvy floor general that Blake Griffin’s alley-oop grabbing hands have demanded. He has a near unmatched ability to control the game’s tempo and plays with a smoothness that can only be matched by the moonshine that flows from the waterfall in Mel Gibson’s Man Cave.  DeAndre Jordan has been a shot-blocking machine and Caron Butler and Chauncey Billups have done a nice job fitting into the offense.  Guarding bigger guards will be a challenge for the team, as will having confidence in Brian Cook and the Hard Foul Machine, Reggie Evans, to hold down the fort down low when the Griffin-Jordan combo are taking a breather.

The Lakers new offense under Mike Brown – aptly called the “GIVE KOBE THE F#@*$&! BALL! YES, YOU LUKE WALTON! WHY ARE YOU NOT ON THE BENCH?” offense, the Kobe System, and a questionable/miraculous German surgical procedure have all worked wonders for Bryant and, by extension, the Lakers.  Despite his unmatched ability to adjust his game to declining athleticism and aging, he is 33 and scoring 40 points a game for the Lakers to win is unsustainable.  Speaking of unsustainable, Andrew Bynum is healthy.  He and Gasol have been the Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams to Kobe’s Beyonce.  Metta World Peace is a backup dancer.  All 3 in the group need to stay healthy.  Otherwise, Jack Nicholson and David Beckham, along with the rest of the Lakers faithful, will be subjected to the Josh McRoberts/Devin Ebanks Show.  If that doesn’t scream one and done, I don’t know what does.

7. San Antonio Spurs: the Western Conference’s No. 1 seed in last year’s playoffs. Not many people outside of western Texas are fans of Gregg Popovich’s motley crew, yet they have been the league model of consistency for the past 10 years.  Though the ultimate WNBA player in a 7-foot man’s body, Tim Duncan, has lost some of his blinding speed over the years, he is still the heart of the Spurs team.  Tony Parker has had to bear even more of the offensive load with Manu Ginobili’s hand injury sidelining him for the next 6 weeks or so.  Yet the team has survived and will continue to do so in its distinctly Spursian way.  The team’s young players – James Anderson, Thiago Splitter, Kawhi Leonard, and DeJuan Blair – are playing a significant role in the team’s success.  While it’s an undoubtedly encouraging sign for the front office, management understands that they are currently a team in transition and these players are still developing.  Winning in the playoffs during a transitional period is possible, but not likely – even when Ginobili returns – for Tim Duncan and the Alamo gang.

8. Philadelphia 76ers: Fellow SSB writer and loyal Philadelphian Joe told me to put the 76ers in the pole position of my power rankings.  To this moment, I am still unsure whether he was serious in this request, but with his threat to claim my entire rankings system as a houx (how he plans to do this, I don’t want to know) in mind, I will apologetically put the 76ers 8th – 3rd in the Eastern Conference.  With that said, they deserve to be 8th – Doug Collins has done a hell of a job in helping his young players develop and pushing the team to performing at a high level both offensively – 3rd in points scored per game – and defensively – 2nd in points allowed.  Lou Williams, Jrue Holiday, and the homeless man’s LeBron James, Andre Iguodala, have spearheaded the Sixers’ attack.  Evan Turner has developed into a solid rotation player in his second season.  The biggest key to the Sixers’ hot start has been the play of Elton Brand and Spencer Hawes.  Neither have been statistical phenomenons, but they – Spencer Hawes in particular – have done a great job grabbing rebounds and blocking shots, you know, things that big men are supposed to do.  The Sixers have not had reliable center play for the past few seasons, so they’ll be hoping that Hawes’s high level of play doesn’t fade like Joaquin Phoenix’s career.

9. Denver Nuggets: One of my favorite teams to watch.  They play fast on both ends of the court and, once again, George Karl has been able to put together a winning rotation despite having two of his starters from last year bail for China before the end of the lockout.  They don’t have a true No.1 option, but Ty Lawson and Danilo Gallinari have established themselves as the team’s offensive leaders. Andre Miller, Al Harrington, and Nene Hilario have also provided offensive punch, along with veteran leadership for the team.  What hurts the versatile Nuggets is the lack of a defensive anchor, despite the team’s wealth of big men.  Luckily, they make up for that through their international appeal, with players from Italy, Russia, Brazil, Spain, and wherever the hell Kosta Koufos is from.  Desire for Chinese citizenship is rumored to be the real reason why Wilson Chandler and Kenyon Martin went to China.  Anyway, Denver can outshoot, outpass, and outscore opponents on any given night.  If George Karl can get his team to limit turnovers, the team will be even more dangerous.

10. Indiana Pacers: Another team that is the product of solid drafting, smart free agent acquisitions, and shrewd trades.  The team’s success this season can be attributed to the coaching of Frank Vogel, the further maturation and development of Paul George, Roy Hibbert, and Tyler Hansbrough, and the additions of George Hill and David West to the rotation.  Once Danny Granger regains his shooting touch, the offense will only improve.  The Pacers can make some noise with Granger as their No.1 option in the playoffs, but they will need Hibbert to become a consistent force as center, David West to continue recovering from his torn ACL at the end of last season, and the continued development of Paul George at the shooting guard position.  Their dismantling at the merciless claws of LBJ and the Sunshine Band showed that Indiana does not have a title contender yet.  But as long as the young guys keep improving and the team continues to beat the teams they should, Indiana will contend in the near future.

11. Atlanta Hawks: Just remembered that I do know what screams one and done: Tracy McGrady’s career.  It’s fitting that he’s joined a team which has made the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals in the past 3 seasons.  What does that spell for the Hawks?  In all likelihood, crippling regression.  But then again, that was what the Hawks signed up for when they agreed to pay Joe Johnson almost $25 million when he is 34.  Even with Tracy McGrady struggling to stay healthy from day-to-day and center Al Horford’s torn pectoral muscle keeping him out indefinitely, the Hawks will win 35-40 games this season.  Jeff Teague has proved to be a capable NBA starting point guard – leading the team in assists and steals, Josh Smith has been a terrific defensive presence – stepping up his game in Horford’s absence, and Vladimir Radmanovic and Zaza Pachulia – the Eastern European Sylvester Stallone – have been their lovably serviceable selves.  The team will miss Horford’s steady inside presence and post scoring ability and Marvin Williams might need to step up for once in his purgatory of an NBA career.  Journeyman Ivan Johnson has been a godsend and has really helped to carry the burden of Horford’s absence.

12.Orlando Magic: Not sure if there’s ever been an elephant quite like the pending Dwight Flight in an NBA team’s room.  The team is 8-3, but they have only beaten one potential playoff team in the Clippers, and Dwight’s surrounding cast are strictly .500 worthy.  Ryan Anderson has been enjoying a career year, largely due to his increase in playing time and great shooting percentage.  The team’s starting guards, Jameer Nelson and Jason Richardson, have been playing below par.  Hedo Turkoglu has been great in his role as a renowned defensive liability and hunchbacked point forward.  The main problem with this team, however, is lack of depth.  When J.J. Redick and Glen “Big Baby” Davis are the first guys off your bench, your team is NEVER going to challenge for a championship, no matter how hard the guys in the front office try to convince themselves otherwise.  If the Magic receives a suitable offer for Howard in the next 2 months, they need to accept it, attach Turkoglu as a financial deadweight disguised as a bonus player and begin with the rebuilding process ASAP.  Trading Howard, obviously, will be like taking the one talented Pussycat Dolls member out of the group halfway through a video.  The rest of the Magic’s season, post Dwight Howard, will like the remainder of the video: little substance, the music/play goes from average to awful, and the audience quickly realizes that there is nothing worth seeing.

13. Dallas Mavericks: The Dallas Mavericks didn’t realize it, but they replaced Tyson Chandler in the offseason with his bizarro form: Vince Carter.  While Tyson Chandler inspired communication, energy, and effort on defense, Vinsanity’s defensive indifference is contagious.  The Mavericks lost more than many people realized when the team traded Tyson Chandler, and Brendan Haywood does not provide the athleticism, rebounding, or leadership that Chandler delivered on a nightly basis.  While the team is 8-6 and 4th in points allowed, all but one win has been against competition with losing records.  Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry have their lowest scoring averages in years, Ian “The French Space Eater” Mahinmi is the team’s 5th leading scorer, and Lamar Odom’s marriage to Khloe “The Fat One” Kardashian is causing him to lose his soul and basketball playing ability.  Hey, had to happen at some point.  The team is already looking forward to the summer, where they will have a lot of cap space to work with.  Repeat? Not happening.

14. Utah Jazz: I never expected for the Utah Jazz to have a winning record this far into the season.  I did not like the team’s mix of a few veterans with mostly young players.  I thought that Al Jefferson should be traded to open up minutes for Enes Kanter and Derrick Favors.  I was also unsold on coach Tyler Corbin, mainly because of the team’s very poor play under him after Jerry Sloan’s resignation last season.  Like past Jazz teams, Utah’s record this season has been great at home.  Unlike past Jazz teams, however, this team does not have Stockton, Malone, Deron Williams, or even Carlos Boozer.  Al Jefferson has really stepped up as a defensive presence and as a leader for the team.  Paul Millsap and Derrick Favors have respectively provided rebounding and athleticism down low.  While Devin Harris has been a shell of his former self at the point, another former Maverick, Josh Howard, has been one of the best free agent acquisitions of the early season (which says a lot about last year’s free agent talent).  Gordon Hayward needs to play with more aggression and the team probably hopes to see more out of rookies Alec Burks and Enes Kanter as the season progresses.  If the team continues to dominate at home, they will make the playoffs.

15. Memphis Grizzlies: The Grizzlies surprised most of the NBA world when they upset the No.1 seed Spurs in last season’s playoffs.  Power forward Zach Randolph and center Marc Gasol controlled the paint and their dominance down low played an enormous part in the Grizzlies’ series win.  Randolph is sidelined for up to 8 weeks with a slight MCL tear, and the team has struggled to get on track as a result.  The acquisition of power forward/center Marresse Speights for the cost of Xavier Henry and a second round pick was vital.  He provides much needed depth and has the potential to be a very good scorer.  Rudy Gay, the No. 1 option on the team, is still trying to get back in the groove of things following a lengthy shoulder injury that sidelined him for much of last season.  O.J. Mayo has, once again, been a fabulous underachiever for the team, which needs scoring more than ever.  Mayo has the ability to be a starting shooting guard in the NBA, he just needs to put in the effort on a regular basis.  Tony Allen and Mike Conley are both great on-the-ball defenders, the latter has been a good, if not great, facilitator at the point.  In my opinion, this team needs to make a splash in order to be serious about repeating and even exceeding last season’s success.  The key?  Trade for Steve Nash.  Memphis need to make an offer that the Suns will outright accept, and I believe that could be Mike Conley, O.J. Mayo, and a 2012 1st round pick.  I’ll talk more about this later, but it would provide Nash with an opportunity to make a run with a good team and give the Grizzlies a great floor general.  It’s a risk, but a necessary one if the Grizzlies want to legitimately challenge in the West.

16. New York Knicks: What depresses me about this Knicks team, more than Knicks teams in the past, is 2 things.  The first is that this was the year that the Knicks had BIG expectations.  No more waiting, the Knicks were back.  Needless to say, play has fallen way short of people’s expectations.  The second is that this is a D’Antoni team that sucks on offense.  This team was more exciting with Nate Robinson and David Lee as the offensive leaders than with Carmelo “Black Hole” Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire – obviously not better, but more entertaining.  D’Antoni’s offense is predicated on quick ball movement and taking open shots.  Black Hole Melo stagnates the offense.  Amar’e, more often than not, looks lost without pick’n’rolls executed by an above average passer.  The Knicks don’t have one.  I believe that Carmelo Anthony was created to f*&$ up D’Antoni’s offense.  I always thought that a top 10 offensive player would make an offense better, but I also believed that a top 10 offensive player makes scoring easier for his teammates.  The neophytes have not performed at a high level.  Landry Fields has regressed since Anthony’s arrival in the Big Apple, rookie Iman Shumpert can’t shoot at a high level, and Toney Douglas is a poor man’s Ben Gordon.  Tyson Chandler and Shumpert have done a lot to improve the team’s defense.  The team will get better, but they aren’t very deep, their best point guard has to be Baron Davis – there is no way he’s worse than what they currently have, and Bill “Sky” Walker and Josh “Jorts” Harrellson are in their rotation.  If a team is that reliant on a good point guard, there are some severe issues with the team and/or the system.

17. Boston Celtics: the problem with the team is more an issue of depth than of age.  Decline occurs when your old players get older, but it is also a consequence of trading Kendrick Perkins for a guy with the heart health of Bill Clinton and Nenad Krystic – currently playing for a Russian team famous for its affiliation with the Soviet army.  Lovely.  Newcomer Brandon Bass has been an upgrade from Big Baby Davis, but he is still a very solid back up at best.  Rather than becoming immersed in a winning environment, not-so-lovable losers Chris Wilcox and Keyon Dooling have brought their techniques of defeat to the TD Garden.  This season has been a result of poor draft choices, poor luck – Jeff Green’s heart operation has thrown more minutes in the way of Marquis Daniels and Sasha Pavlolic, and lack of offensive punch.  At this point, Greg Stiemsma, while marginally functional on the offense end, protects the paint better than Jermaine O’Neal.  O’Neal has lost much of his athleticism and offensive ability.  I don’t believe the original Big 3 will be traded, despite past disregard for “Ubuntu.” With that said, a championship cannot be won in Boston unless young players like Avery Bradley, E’Twaun Moore, and JaJuan Johnson can start pulling their weight (not likely), Mickael Pietrus and Marquis Daniels can offer more scoring off the bench (also not likely), and Chris Wilcox gets out of the rut which has been his entire NBA career (less likely than the chance of Starburys becoming popular outside of China).  The team MUST use its two first-round picks wisely in this year’s deep draft.  For this year, unless the team’s play radically improves, Boston is likely going to be a 7th or 8th seed in the playoffs and unlikely to advance to the second round.  This very disappointing result probably will, for better or worse, result in a roster shakeup.

18. Cleveland Cavaliers: Possibly a team that will be fighting the Celtics for the 8th and final playoff spot in the East this season.  Of all the teams that the Timberwolves played in their tough early-season schedule, only the Cavaliers have been the only team to clearly outplay them.  While they have also lost twice to the lowly Raptors, the Cavaliers have beaten other teams near the bottom of the league’s pecking order and have come to play just about every night.  First overall pick, Kyrie Irving, has been very good, if not great, at the point while Anderson Varejao, the Sideshow Bobian pest in the middle that most people know and hate, has been a leader on the boards and on defense for the young team.  Another leader has been Antawn Jamison, who has been one of the team’s best players on the offensive end and is still scoring at a very respectable rate.  Rookie Tristan Thompson is still feeling his way into the league, but he has the athleticism and shot-blocking ability to be a Derrick Favors type.

19. Houston Rockets: A team that, to use a Walt Frazierism, never ceases to astound and confound on a given night.  On some nights, they can play lights out. On other nights, they get blown out.  Either way, this team features 2 of the most underrated players in the league, Luis Scola and Kyle Lowry – 2 guys that lead by example in the way that they bring their full effort to every single game.  The talent level on the team is average at best, but a wealth of high-energy, fundamentally sound players like Chase Budinger, Jordan Hill, and Chandler Parsons personify the team’s physical, hard-working style of play (5th in rebounds per game).  It shouldn’t be a surprise given that Kevin McHale – a low-post bruiser in his day – is the coach.  Playoffs probably won’t be a reality this season for the .500 caliber club, but an upgrade at center from Samuel Dalembert and stability to the platoon of small forwards would change that.

20. Minnesota Timberwolves: A team that is right around the corner from .500 ball and possibly playoff contention – thanks in a HUGE part to Rick Adelman, who should be a candidate for Coach of the Year if the team reaches .500.  The big issue for the Minneapolis Wolverines this season has been their inability to finish games, and a lot of that is attributed to their inexperience and the injury to Michael “Lefty Melo” Beasley.  While Beasley has many oh-God-no moments, he is the probably the best option to take the final shot of the game – for now.  Ricky Rubio has been better than advertised, an absolute stud on both offense and, surprisingly, defense.  He and Kevin Love have provided for a bulk of the offense while the team deals with the inconsistency of Anthony Randolph and rookie Derrick Williams.  The team needs stability at the shooting guard position – Wes Johnson’s confidence level is in the negatives – and in the center position – Darko Milicic misses shots 2 feet from the basket.  J.J. Barea has been a great signing, providing instant offense and veteran stability, but neither he nor Luke Ridnour should be defending shooting guards for most of the game.  When Beasley returns with his form from last season, Williams develops rhythm from game to game, and Anthony Randolph plays over Darko Milicic (PLEASE RICK, END THE SUFFERING), the team will be very exciting to watch – and even more so next season.

21. Golden State Warriors: It’s been a rough go for the Oracle Arena faithful, who have seen their team reach for Tyson Chandler and DeAndre Jordan, yet end up with Kwayme “HOLY SHIT HE GOT AN OFFENSIVE REBOUND” Brown, former No.1 overall pick and the only NBA player to be accused of assault via the throwing of cake.  I wish I were joking.  The team has also dealt with Stephen Curry’s numerous ankle injuries.  This has placed more pressure than usual on Monta Ellis to shoot the ball – he has gladly obliged.  Without Curry, he, David Lee, and Nate Robinson are the only producers of offense on the team – as seen in the team’s semi-recent loss to the Spurs.  Rookie Klay Thompson has looked awful so far and Dorell Wright seems to have taken a step back after last year’s breakout campaign.  While Ekpe Udoh has had his moments and the overpaid Andris Biedrins is always lurking, the team needs a high quality center to help mask David Lee’s defensive deficiencies and protect the rim.  I believe that Mark Jackson will be a very good head coach, but he needs more than what he’s currently got on the roster.

22. Milwaukee Bucks: Carlos Delfino should not be an NBA starter.  I know, I know, I’m risking whatever remaining credibility I have with this brash statement, but I’m going to go all out with my claim and say that the Bucks need an upgrade for the Argentine.  Brandon Jennings has done his share scoring the ball, but he needs to do more in setting up his teammates for easy scores, even though some of that has to be attributed to Stephen Jackson’s and Andrew Bogut’s poor shooting thus far in the season.  Surprisingly, even with Drew Gooden and rookie Jon Leuer, the Bucks are a very poor rebounding team.  Even with the offseason acquisition of Jackson, the team needs another scorer – possibly Chase Budinger or Michael Beasley in the offseason if they amnesty Beno Udrih.  The team has been great at home, and they will need to maintain their solid play at the Bradley Center if they have any shot at making the playoffs.

23. Sacramento Kings: It has been another rather unhappy season in Sacramento despite an impressive season-opening win over the Lakers.  Every loss intensifies discussions of the King’s home being transferred into the back of a moving van.  For me, Jimmer Fredette has been the biggest disappointment of the young season.  He has had trouble finding his shot and has done very little in terms of running the offense.  He and John Salmons have been models of inefficiency in the faulty jalopy that is the Kings team.  DeMarcus Cousins, a leading candidate to be the Vince Young headcase of basketball, has surprisingly been one of the few sources of on-court stability for the Kings.  Tyreke Evans has seemingly plateaued and Marcus Thornton is a scorer, not much else.  Chuck Hayes was a good signing, bringing in a veteran who provides the team with needed defense and toughness.  More than anything, the team needs a floor general, a guy who can create offense for others and has a basketball IQ that surpasses that of a sock puppet.  With this draft being touted as the Draft of the Big Man, the team may have to address their point guard problem through free agency, with Raymond Felton being a possible target, or trade.  The Kings hope that their point guard of the future is already on the roster.

24. Toronto Raptors: Despite being known in the NBA lunchroom as “That team that lost to the Washington Wizards,” there have been signs of hope for the Raptors and new coach Dwane Casey.  The first is that the team is actually ranked 7th in points allowed per game.  The second is that they have some young players – DeMar Derozan, Ed Davis, James Johnson – who are playing pretty well.  The third is Jose Calderon, who has had an excellent assist to turnover ratio.  The fourth is that Andrea Bargnani has become a good rebounder.  Ok, the last one wasn’t true.  Bargnani has been great scoring this year, but has not made any real strides in defense or rebounding.  In other words, he still only tries on one end of the floor.  Whoa, never saw that one coming.  For all his faults, the team will need his scoring going forward, seeing as they have been near the bottom of the league in that department.  To make the grand emergence from bottom dweller to middle of the pack, the team will need to keep giving their young guys minutes and hope that they keep improving.  What really hurts the team is the lack of a good wing scorer – expect that to be the number one priority come draft time.  Nothing would please the Raptors more than Harrison Barnes falling into the team’s lap on draft day.

25. Phoenix Suns: You have to wonder if the Suns’ front office has heard Richard Bach’s famous words: If you truly love something, set it free.  Steve Nash is beloved in Phoenix, but, for many Phoenicians, the desire for Steve Nash to wind up on a winning team trumps having him on the Suns.  The front office either secretly hates Nash or is deluded to the extent that they feel like this team can still make the playoffs.  They need to trade Steve Nash while they still can.  He becomes a free agent in the summer and he undoubtedly has value, especially for teams fancying their chances at making a playoff run – you know, besides the Suns.  Nash is still playing at a very high level, and will probably play for another year or 2.  I believe that the Grizzlies are the team to make a move for the finest Canadian athlete outside of hockey and moose riding.  Trading for Mike Conley and O.J. Mayo would give the Suns their starting guards for the next few years.  Mayo is a free agent at the end of the year and would much prefer going to a team where he starts, so odds are that he doesn’t return to Memphis anyway.  Oh yeah, and about the Suns?  Markieff Morris has been a pleasant surprise for the team and Marcin Gortat is a quality center.  Robin “Bizarro Brook” Lopez is not.  The team needs upgrades at the shooting guard and power forward positions.

26. New Orleans Hornets: All David Stern had to do to get an array of interesting young players and hope for the future of his franchise was piss off just about every basketball lover in the nation and cause milions of people to question the league’s integrity.  Gripes about the commissioner aside, the Hornets have some nice picks/young players in this post Chris Paul era.  Once Eric Gordon and Xavier Henry return from injury, the team will have a couple of very talented shooting guards.  Jarrett Jack has played well at the point and Chris Kaman, Carl Landry, and Emeka Okafor have played a big role in the team’s current position as 3rd in the league in rebounds per game.  Monty Williams is a very good coach, but his team is clearly in rebuilding mode and probably will be next season too.

27. New Jersey Nets: With or without Brook Lopez, this is probably one of the least talented teams in the league.  New Jersey gutted its roster to acquire Deron Williams last season, and it doesn’t have the assets to acquire Dwight Howard without a third party becoming heavily involved.  Shooting guards Anthony Morrow and rookie MarShon Brooks have been necessary scoring contributions while Kris Humphries grabs the basketball real good when he sees the ball in the air (I don’t have a deep appreciation for Humphries basketball IQ, or lack of).  It’s probably for the best that Humphries and Kardashian weren’t together for long.  They would have had some really stupid offspring.  Damion James is a poor excuse for a small forward.  They desperately need an upgrade for him.  They need…they need…Hedo Turkoglu!  Of course!  Imagine Magic’s GM Otis Smith’s surprise if Mikhail Prokhorov called him and demanded a trade for Hedo Turkoglu.  The conversation would probably go like this, Otis: “You’re sure?  You don’t want Dwight anymore?  Prokhorov: No…just…the Turkish man…no more Damion James.  I give you 4 first round picks.  I think that the Nets will find a way to land Dwight – before the deadline or in the offseason.  Until then, the team will continue to suffer from lack of Hedo.

28. Detroit Pistons: Who would have thought that it would be the 2009 signings of young players and former Huskies Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva that would set the franchise back?  Clearly not Pistons GM Joe Dumars, who gleefully handed the duo a grand total of $90 million over 5 years.  Little did he know that neither player likes to do much besides shoot 3’s.  “Anything else is for the weak,” says Villanueva, from his current position at the end of the bench.  I think the team can move forward with Jonas Jerebko and Greg Monroe, a future star, as their big men.  The problem with the team is Dumars, who should have let Tayshaun Prince go.  Instead he signed the past-his-prime Lank Master of Inefficiency to 4 more years and $27 million.  Brandon Knight was a good draft pick, he’s played decently thus far and is a truer point guard than Rodney Stuckey, but Austin Daye hasn’t exactly panned out, and did I mention that Tayshaun Prince was resigned for 4 years and $27 million?  The team needs Doron Lamb in this year’s draft if he declares.  They need big upgrades at the shooting guard and small forward positions and a GM who is not an agoraphobe. For those that don’t know, agoraphobia is fear of open spaces.  In Dumars’s case, he is afraid of open cap space and does all he can to destroy it.  The Pistons need a new guy controlling the books in Motown.

29. Charlotte Bobcats: The least talented team in the NBA.  An NBA team should never have Hoosier legend D.J. White or Cory Higgins in its rotation.  Matt Carroll?  Are you kidding me?  The Bobcats need a new slogan: If you don’t think you can play in the NBA, think Bobcats.  The Smush Parker countdown has started.  Credit must be given to the Bobcats for seeing potential in B.J. Mullens, who was buried in the depths of the Thunder roster.  He has been one of the team’s best players and, while that’s not saying much, his shooting touch has surprised a lot of people.  Boris Diaw gained weight and tried to do his best impersonation as a center.  While giving a valiant effort, he lacks the size to battle with 7 footers in the post.  Gerald Henderson has played well in his first year as a full-time starter.  The team’s point guard situation is one to keep a check on: many people would like to see Kemba Walker start, but D.J. Augustin is currently the established starter in Charlotte.  Augustin is the better playmaker, while Walker is more electrifying.  The team is going nowhere this season, and should hope for Kentucky’s Terrence Jones or Michael Kidd-Gilchrist to be there for them on draft day.

30. Washington Wizards: A team with a wealth of young talent that is going absolutely nowhere without the development of John Wall and a head coaching change.  Signs of divisions have appeared following their loss to the Rockets and the team needs a fresh philosophical start.  Wall had a 38-point explosion after spending the beginning of the season in a lackadaisical malaise.  He needs to keep his foot on the gas, make smart decisions with the ball, and take smarter shots.  If McGee stays focused, he has the athleticism and defensive prowess to become one of the top centers in the game.  I liked the team’s draft selections: Jan Vesely and Chris Singleton.  The former, an athletic standout, needs more time to adjust to the NBA game and Singleton is a solid player who can develop into a more athletic Shane Battier type.  They have a number of guys who can score – Jordan Crawford, Nick Young, Andray Blatche – without contributing much else to the team’s potential of success.  Keyword is potential, definitely not success.  The team doesn’t have serious needs to address through the draft.  More than anything, they need to move in a different direction, and time.

Kevin’s Last-Minute Divisional Playoff Picks

by Kevin Daly:

I woke up this morning intending to make an early morning playoff selection.  Angry Birds, English soccer matches, and an inadequate breakfast of stale Triscuits and chocolate milk have sidetracked me up to this point.  I had an epiphany, when I was about to get ice cream and travel further down the road to dietary hell.  I realized that there were only 5 hours til the first game of the Divisional round of the playoffs.  So I put down the scoop, shaved my homeless guy beard, and sat down feeling what is either a newfound sense of purpose, or over-exhaustion.  Without further venturing into my inefficient lifestyle, here we go: my picks for the 2012 NFL Divisional Playoffs.

NFC: No. 3 seed New Orleans Saints at No. 2 San Francisco 49ers

There is a lot to like about San Francisco, starting with coach Jim Harbaugh, renowned for his intensity and unsportsmanlike handshakes.  His confident, aggressive personality resonated with the players and transformed the culture of the under-achieving franchise.  He strengthened his already impressive reputation as a quarterback’s coach by extensively working with the 2005 first overall pick, Alex Smith.  The result was Smith’s best season: 17 TDs, 5 Ints, 90.7 passer rating, and a 61.3 completion percentage.  As in years past, the 49ers had a solid running game – 8th best in the league – and it was once again carried by Frank Gore’s strong thighs.  Most impressively, the team molded a strong and physical defensive identity.  The team’s defense was best against the run, 4th in yards allowed, and 2nd in points allowed.

The Saints have struggled mightily outside of the Superdome this season.  While their 5-3 away record probably does not suggest severe ineptitude, the team’s significantly weaker play on the road suggests that if the Saints – a team who has actually NEVER won a playoff game in outdoor conditions – are to lose, it would be against a stifling defense far, far away from the Bayou.

I believe that the Saints will prevail for a few reasons.  First off, I believe that if anyone can buck that losing trend on the road, it’s Drew Brees and his high-octane offense.  His play does particularly not suffer outside the Superdome, even if the team’s does.  I also don’t know if San Francisco will be able to score enough, even if the 49ers’ defense quells the Saints’s offensive maelstrom.  This could be New Orleans’ defensive coordinator, Gregg Williams’, last game with the Saints – he may join Jeff Fisher in St. Louis after his contract terminates at the end of the season.  Expect Gregg Williams to hold nothing back in his blitz packages and for him to force Alex Smith into channeling his inner Rex Grossman (Smith has been great at home this season, but his Rexness is in there somewhere).  If San Francisco wins, expect kick return guru Ted Ginn to play a significant role.

Kevin’s pick: New Orleans

AFC: No. 4 seed Denver Broncos at No. 1 New England Patriots

Presenting Lord Sidi...Bill Belichick Jason Bridge/US Presswire

Despite temporarily shutting up critics in a memorable, 3:16-filled Sunday night victory over the heavily favored Pittsburgh Steelers and its No.1 defense, most people are understandably siding with the New England Patriots this week.  The Sith Lord, Bill Belichick, who substitutes a black hooded robe with a hoodie, and his apprentice/quarterback Tom Brady are on a mission.  They are well-aware of their 0-3 record in their last 3 playoff games and they want to exact vengeance on their opponents.  Once again, the Pats boasted one of the best offenses in the league – 2nd in passing, 3rd in scoring.  They have 2 tight ends that, apparently, no one can shut down and they have Mr. Reliable, Wes Welker, at wide receiver.  One more thing that goes the Patriots’ way: there are only 6 teams that have ever made the playoffs after surrendering 50 more points than they have scored in the regular season.  The 2011-2012 Broncos are one of those teams.  While all 6 of those teams won their first playoff game, the first 5 teams all lost their second game.  This is a stat that the Patriots hope to continue today.

Enter the Broncos.  The team that no one expected to be here at the beginning of the season, last month, or, for the most part, even last week.  Before the playoffs started, I predicted that the winner of the Steelers-Broncos game would represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.  Last week, I predicted a Broncos-Giants Super Bowl.  My prediction may very well crash and burn in a horrific manner in the next 36 hours, but I’m sticking with my pick.  I think that the Pats defense is too weak to go far, and that Tim Tebow will, once again, find a way to win in Foxboro.  If John Fox can find a way to consistently harass Brady with pressure, the Broncos have a shot.

Kevin’s pick: Denver

AFC: No. 5 seed Houston Texans at No. 2 Baltimore Ravens

In my opinion, the Houston Texans are the team that no one is respecting.  In many ways, they are like the 2009 Jets: Stifling defense, excellent running game, unproven guy at quarterback (They are also a more talented, 3-4 49ers team).  If T.J. Yates can play with composure, avoid costly mistakes, and make a few first-down throws (the Ravens will be stuffing the box with 8 or 9 guys all game), the Texans will have to like their chances.

The angry ghost of Derek Anderson will linger over Baltimore's M&T Bank Stadium

The Ravens also have a great defense and a great running game.  The quarterback position will also be the most important key to the Ravens game.  A different question will be asked of Flacco: can he be The Guy in the offense, not Ray Rice?  In years past, despite Flacco winning playoff games, the wins were largely a product of Ray Rice and Willis McGahee picking up chunks of yardage on the ground and the Ravens defense controlling the game.  While Flacco has had great games this year, he has also had his Hyde moments, like against lowly Seattle and Jacksonville.  This is a statement game for Flacco.  He is coming off a season that, by many accounts, was a small step back.  He has to outplay T.J. Yates in this game.  It sounds like a guarantee, but Flacco has had prolonged Derek Anderson moments throughout the season.  An Andersonesque moment could be fatal for Baltimore’s Super hopes, and could be all it takes for the city to turn on the pride of U. Delaware.

Kevin’s pick: Houston

NFC: No. 4 seed New York Giants at No. 1 Green Bay Packers

Aaron Rodgers had one of the best seasons ever for an NFL quarterback.  Despite a defense that fell off the statistical cliff this season and a running game that climbs to the highest mountains just to scream “MEDIOCRITY,” Rodgers has been a machine in the pocket and, incidentally is someone I can’t hate.  I usually lose my liking for teams after they win a Super Bowl and look like repeating, but between his Jake Gyllenhaalian features (don’t ask), good sense of humor (State Farm ads that are actually pretty clever), and general disposition (going back to the Favre saga), I can’t hate him. Trust me, I’ve tried.  Anyway, the Packers have been the pick for many to go back to the Super Bowl, and rightfully so.  They’ve already beaten the Giants this year and, with the tragic passing of Packer’s offensive coordinator, Joe Philbin’s, son during the week, Green Bay is probably going to play with an even greater sense of purpose.

Despite all this (and thoughts of Aaron Rodgers’s 30 or so touchdown targets dancing unmarked in the Giants’s porous secondary), I’m picking the Giants (and sticking with my prediction).  When teams that met up in the regular season meet again in the playoffs, I always love the team that lost in the first meeting.  To me, they are always the team that learned more from the previous encounter and, more importantly, wants it more.  The Packers won’t be rusty from their week off – they’ll be more than ready in front of the Lambeau faithful.  But I think that if pass rush can unsettle Rodgers even slightly, if his scrambling ability is contained, and if his receivers drop a pass or two, Eli and the two-headed Jadshaw running game will be able to do enough on offense.  If the Giants can keep up with the Packers early, they will find a way to win it at the end.

Kevin’s pick: New York

Joe’s Sister’s Extraordinary Picks of the Week! (Playoff Round 2)

By: Joe Gallagher

Does T.J. Yates become a poor man's Tom Brady?

My sister went 3-1 last week. That’s 75 percent. If someone said that 75 percent would be the over/under for readers taking any of my picks seriously, I would say the under. The wayyyyy under.

That said, last week I managed a perfect 4-0. No fear though, that usually means that I’m due for an 0-fer.

I don’t have a lot of time today considering I went to the Sixers’ game last night, yelled at the officials, saw Jodie Meeks rain threes, and enjoyed a free Big Mac courtesy of the 100 points the team scored. Understandably, I’m pooped. I’ll cut right to the chase.

New Orleans at San Francisco

Sis’s pick: 49ers

Okay, I love Drew Brees. You love Drew Brees.

His birthmark looks like a sweet scar. That definitely helps him jump a rung on the awesomeness scale.

He is nothing short of a remarkable quarterback.

That said, is there any coach other than John Harbaugh that you’d pick to motivate a team that hasn’t been getting its due respect all year?

The 49ers lead the league in turnover differential, they run the ball, they control the clock, and they have a top of the line defense.

Harbaugh believes that they were every bit as good as any team in the league and that no one takes them seriously.

I’m willing to bet the 9ers believe it too.

And hell, I did pick T.J. Yates to win a playoff game last week and he came through. Alex Smith? Snake eyes.

Joe’s pick: 49ers

Denver at New England

Sis’s pick: Broncos

Yeah, yeah I know: everything that worked in Denver’s advantage last week has now shifted to benefit New England. Now, New England is the healthier team. Now, New England is home. Yadda, yadda, yadda.

Whatever. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again, and I don’t care if they lose by 30 and I lose what little credibility I have: Tim Tebow defies the predictable.

And even if you want to go by the fact that New England beat Denver 41-23 in their previous meeting, recognize this: Denver was beating them 16-7. The Broncos fumbled three, that’s right, three times in the second half. Those costly turnovers allowed New England to pull away.

Look, New England’s pass defense can’t stop anybody. It makes sense to me that you’d have an awful difficult time winning playoff games in a pass oriented league with a bottom of the league pass defense.

Oh but their playing Tebow you say. The Broncos coordinator has no problem ramming Willis McGahee and Tebow into the Pats 11 man box!

To that I say: touché.

I’m basing this pick entirely on that my sister’s boyfriend said he saw Tebow’s face in his pancakes this morning.

Joe’s pick: Broncos

Houston at Baltimore

Sis’s pick: Texans

I’ve wanted to take Houston to be this year’s Super Bowl team all year. I really have. Not even T.J. Yates becoming the starting quarterback could discourage my infatuation with their top flight defense and top ranked rushing attack!

But I also really like the Ravens. They matchup with Houston’s top flight defense and top ranked rushing attack. Baltimore’s Ray Rice is a swiss army knife running back. Then again so is Houston’s Arian Foster.

The difference here: Joe Flacco.

SSB writer Kevin is not a big Flacco guy.

I am.

I like his moxie, his arm, and his quiet leadership.

I think he wins this game.

And if he doesn’t T.J. Yates goes on a run, wins the Super Bowl, begins dating Lisa Kudrow, knocks her up, and moves on to marrying Olivia Wilde.

You heard it here first. Poor man’s Brady? (Not that anything about Olivia Wilde is poor…)

Yeah, right.

Joe’s pick: Ravens

NYG at Green Bay

Sis’s pick: Packers

I really, really want to pick the Giants. They lost by 3 to the Packers the first time they met and their defense has dramatically improved since.

Even as a die-hard Eagles fan, I have to admit Eli Manning is a stud. He’s an elite quarterback. Forget the statistics; living in New York has made me watch him more. He makes all the throws.

Eli’s skills coupled with Green Bay’s historically bad pass defense in a historically good passing league makes the Packers look like a solid pick to be upset.

The problem is Green Bay had an emotional week. Their offensive coordinator tragically lost his 21-year old son. The Pack with be playing for him.

Sometimes something like that distracts a team.

Other times it motivates them.

I think it motivates them this week.

Joe’s pick: Packers

The Yankees Trade Montero: Analysis

*I have sat by my computer, mostly on twitter, for most of the past month. I’ve been waiting for something like this to happen. Then, I work one night for a friend of mine and this happens!? I swear, I will never work again. I have had a whirlwind of thoughts about this trade, as you can see if you follow me on twitter. This is my attempt at organizing them all.*

Woah. That’s my first reaction. My second reaction? What a cool trade.* As a baseball fan, how can you not be excited by this? A young slugger that has often been compared to Edgar Martinez and was routinely one of Baseball America’s Top 5 prospects in all of baseball for the International League was traded for Michael Pineda, who was the Mariners’ second best prospect after the 2010 season, also according to Baseball America. The winner of this trade won’t be decided for perhaps another decade, and I won’t attempt to declare a winner.

*Also, does anyone else find Brian Cashman’s ninja-like qualities astounding? The dude is the GM of the most popular franchise in America’s Pastime in the country’s biggest city, and he still can shock the world. The Yankees are a tight organization, for better or worse.

Yankees Get:

Michael Pineda, P, 23 years old next week

Pineda is a young, big right-handed pitcher. At 6-7, 260, Pineda is the classic power pitcher mold, and that is exactly what he is: a power pitcher. Per Fangraphs Pitch f/x, Pineda’s fastball clocked in on average at 94.2 mph last season, which is damn fast. In 173 innings, he struck out 9.1/9 and walked only 2.9 per 9. A strikeout ratio for a pitcher that young is very promising, as control is usually the biggest problem for a young fireballer. The big righty has 5 years of team control left, which is extremely valuable.

Pineda is not perfect, by any means. He has shown a slight propesity to give up home runs (0.9/9) and is a flyball pitcher (only 36.3% of his outs were groundballs), so the home run figure can be expected to rise in Yankee Stadium. He struggled down the stretch, and has a slight platoon split, and is a primarily two-pitch pitcher, throwing his fastball and slider 90.2% of the time, per FanGraphs. This is not to say that he cannot develop his changeup, but as of right now, Pineda is a two pitch pitcher.

Watching Pineda develop, or not develop, perhaps, will be an interesting storyline for the next few years.

Jose Campos, P, 19

Campos is much more of an x-factor if you’re into “winning” trades. Per Kevin Goldstein, he was the 5th best prospect in the Mariners’ stystem and has enormous upside with an elite fastball and not much else as of yet. However, young pitchers with big arms are not sure things by any means. And by any means, I mean almost never succeed. Seriously, young pitchers that throw hard come and go, oftentimes getting hurt. Campos is someone to watch, but he’s likely only somebody a prospect nerd cares about for the next three-four (maybe more) years.

Mariners Get:

Jesus Montero, C, 22 years old

Montero is unanimously considered to be one of the best hitting prospects in all of baseball. His bat won him the hearts of Yankee fans and of scouts alike. He is noted for opposite-field power, a skill that he briefly exhibited in his MLB stint in 2011. Very few people doubt that the kid can hit and hit at an elite level. In 69 PA last season, Jesus had a .328/.406/.590 line and hit 4 home runs and had 12 RBIs. This is an extraordinarily small sample size, but it has to count for something: the kid has shown that he can hit big league hitting. Check out here for MiLB stats. Jesus has 6 years of team control left, which is even better than Pineda.

Montero is also not perfect. He is a man without a position, as virtually nobody outside of the Yankee organization believed that he could be a catcher. He failed to make defensive strides over the past few years and could be destined to a career as a DH, which lowers his value at least a little bit. He also struggled a little bit at the AAA level, but I don’t read too much into that. His second half last year was much better.

Hector Noesi, P, 24 years old

Noesi was uninspiring in 56.1 IP for the Yankees last year, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t promise here. Noesi was scouted with great control and that is considered one of his greatest strengths as a pitcher. He pitched to a 4.47 ERA in the bigs last season, with 7.2 K/9 and 3.5 BB/9. His ceiling is most likely a mid-rotation starter, a role in which he never really got a chance to perform for the Yankees. It will be interesting to see how the Mariners value him and how they handle his role.

What It Means:

Look, both teams filled perhaps their biggest need with this trade. The Yankees needed pitching badly if they wanted to repeat a 97 win campaign from the year before, and Pineda obviously fills that void. If he pitches exactly as he did last year, the Yankees are a much improved team and look much more formidable, though there is reasonable concern for a regression and reasonable excitement for improvement. The Mariners couldn’t hit to save their lives last season, and Montero gives them a core of Dustin Ackley, Justin Smoak, and himself. The potential 3/4/5 combo would have made Baseball America salivate a mere two winters ago and could make the AL tremble in two years time.

If the Yankees are serious about getting underneath the 189 million payroll threshold for 2014 and still competing, this was a great step in that direction, as they can still peg one of their Killer B’s in a future rotation for almost no money as well. However, the Yankees bats are aging and they have no impact bats in their MiLB system save Gary Sanchez, who is years away.

The Mariners have a talented core and a supposed pitching-heavy system, so they have potential here. Oh yeah, and they have Felix Hernandez. It might not be until 2014, but the Mariners have potential to be a very formidable opponent in a few short years.

Ultimately, nobody knows who won this trade. We will have to watch a lot of baseball to find out, and I can’t think of a better way to spend my next few summers.


The New York Knickerbockers: Stay Patient Edition

Knicks fans often get made fun of. Perhaps this is because most Knicks fans also root for the Yankees: most people hate the Yankees, as the Yankees win. The Knicks, as you know, do not. Thus, people that hate the Yankees because of their superiority to the rest of, well, sports, lash out at those who root for the Knicks. However, even the most passionate Knicks hater out there must admit one thing: the Knicks have a passionate fanbase, among the most passionate in all of sports. Being passionate often leads to a ridiculous statement in the heat of an intense sports moment, or seriously overvaluing a team’s signings.* Moreoften, though, this passion results in impatience and in the need for a “figurehead” for failure. For fans of the Knicks, that figurehead seems to be, unanimously, Mike D’Antoni.

*Jeremy Lin trended in NYC on Twitter after the Knicks signed him. Jeremy Lin.*

Before I continue, a disclaimer:

*I do not believe that the season is “lost” or that the Knicks are a bad basketball team. I really do not believe that Tyson Chandler is merely a role player. I passionately do not believe that the Carmelo/Amar’e “experiment” in NYC has failed. I do believe that 7 games, in any sport, is a ridiculously small sample size to emphatically judge anything. With this said, there are some people that do. It is to them that I address the following:

The Knicks were down 16 points to the then 0-6 Washington Wizards last night in the nation’s capital. It was the first half, so there was a lot of basketball to be played, but that is nevertheless alarming. However, off of consecutive losses to the Charlotte Bobcats and the Toronto Raptors in New York, it is terrifying, at least to an impatient fan. Many, both in my house and on the internet, wanted someone to blame. As I previously mentioned, the favorite to blame among Knicks fans is none other than D’Antoni.

Before we continue, let’s rewind:

D’Antoni is excoriated for his lack of emphasis on defense and for being a completely one-dimensional basketball mind. Having watched his Phoenix Suns and Knicks, it is hard to dismiss such criticism, as much of it is valid and worthy of concern. Everytime a Knick fails to help on defense or grab a defensive rebound, my twitter timeline explodes with a ruthless condemnation of Mike D’Antoni. As I said, some of this is relevant and astute criticism. The rest is irrational. I do think that Knicks games are watched more critically than others, and D’Antoni is the reason. People seem to want him to fail. Thus, they overvalue every minute play of every Knicks game.

I don’t believe that Mike D’Antoni is perfectly suited for this roster: he has no point guard, which is essential in his pick-n-roll based offense. His main two scorers are primarily isolation based players.  A great coach, I am consistently reminded, adjusts to such a problem. Pat Riley certainly changed his coaching mantra in the 90’s when he donned the Orange and Blue. I am aware of this, and I am unsure of how Mike D’Antoni plans to adjust to the roster that has been given to him by Donnie Walsh and Glen Grunwald. I am not sure if he will adjust.

That is not the point. The point is to give him time. Mike D’Antoni has been coaching the Knicks since the 2008-2009 season, which sounds like a lot of time. In this case, though, it is not. One player remains from that roster on the current Knicks roster, and that player is Jared Jeffries. There are three holdovers from the 2009-2010 season: Jeffries, Bill Walker, and Toney Douglas. General Manager Donnie Walsh basically told D’Antoni that those two seasons didn’t matter when he gutted the roster for cap space to make a run at LeBron James and another superstar. Is it really fair to judge D’Antoni’s performance in these two years? What was he given, exactly, aside from a promise from Stephen A. Smith and Donnie Walsh that James wanted to own the world’s best city?

When James proved that the best laid plans of men oft go awry, the Knicks turned to Plan B, and again gutted a roster- this time mid-season- in order to acquire superstar Carmelo Anthony to accompany savior Amar’e Stoudemire. The Knicks, finally, were relevant.

However, they were still not stable. The team acquired Tyson Chandler, who was supposed to save the defense, and parted ways with Chauncey Billups. Passionate Knicks fans nearly cried with joy at the thought that they had someone to guard the rim for the first time in a decade and forgot the fact that Baron Davis- the team’s starting point guard- was hurt and that the Toney Douglas experiment was forced to begin.

D’Antoni had to deal with coaching to superstars to coexist offensively; teach them a new system; adjust to having no real point guard ready for opening day; get to know Mike Woodson, defender extraordinare; adapt to a new starting center; and expectations. Oh yeah, and he had to do it with two preseason games- TWO- and no training camp due to a lockout. What coach could be expected to lead a basically brand new team to the promised land, change a defensive culture, satisfy the insatiable New York Media, and contend in a place that hasn’t seen a contender since Patrick Ewing and his kneepads departed a mere TEN YEARS prior in TWO WEEKS?*

*Tyson Chandler agreed to terms with the Knicks on the 10th of December. This being the last of the major Knicks moves, I consider this to be the solidification of the Knicks roster, save B-Diddy. The Knicks opened their season on December 25th.*

Six and a half games into the season, we return to Washington. The Knicks would win the game, eventually, although they did not look convincing for one minute. But the point remains the same: they won. Still, even after the game, I saw Knicks fans clamoring for the head of the coach. The Knicks are 3-4. This is not storming out of the gate, but it is not exactly stumbling either. There are 59 games left in this season. Nevertheless, fans and critics of the team point to every failure as definitive and every success as temporary. To them, the season, and Mike D’Antoni’s tenure with the Knicks, is over, despite the fact that there are 59 games left in the season.

All I ask for is a little time for Mike D’Antoni, just for him to coach one season for the New York Knicks when he has a stable roster. If, at the end of this season, there was been an obvious lack of defensive intensity and improvement, I will be among those calling for his job. However, it is not fair to see struggles this early in a season and call for the head of a coach who has never had a semblance of a stable roster or had any time to prove himself when he does have one.* Give Mike D’Antoni one season – just one – to prove himself as a head coach in the NBA, to answer to his biggest test. Perhaps we will all be surprised to see what we find. Perhaps we won’t. Nonetheless, it’s better off to find out than to be left speculating after a premature firing.

*Even at this point, the Knicks do not have Baron Davis, who is assumed to take over the starting point guard role when he returns from injury. They also do not have Jared Jeffries, for what that’s worth. Despite having a stable roster, that stable roster is not at 100% ,to say the least.

Do the Knicks really need to find a new head coach right now, in the early stages of a season that was designed for success? Would this not suggest panic by the Knicks organization at the time when panic is least needed? The roster is stable but still incomplete. Give this season time.

Will Mike Woodson even do a better job than D’Antoni? He is the only real viable replacement for the man at this point. Will another season of speculation really aid a team that needs a voice and a direction? My answer is, definitively, no. Leave D’Antoni at the helm. After all, after this decade, what the Knicks really need is some stability.