Articles By Athlon Sports
It’s not a good day for Washington Wizards fans. After All-Star point guard John Wall led them to a sweep of the Toronto Raptors in the first round, and a judicious 1-0 lead over the Atlanta Hawks in the second, he’s been all but called for the season.
Thursday, the team announced the severity of Wall’s wrist injury, sustained in Game 1 against the Hawks. Wall has five non-displaced fractures in his left wrist and hand. The Wizards have made no official ruling on their star, but it’s becoming easy to see a grim version of events in the short-term future: Without Wall for the next week or so, they’ll be too overwhelmed by Atlanta to win another game, and their season will end swiftly.
Wall’s team reports that his wrist swelled up substantially after he fell on his hand, and that the swelling has yet to even go down enough for them to make a proper evaluation. It would seem that the only reason Washington is not saying Wall’s out for the season is because of how hard of a pill that news would be to swallow. After looking like dark-horse title contenders for weeks, the Wiz are now facing the prospect of having their hopes dashed by a prickly twist of fate.
In Wall’s place, Ramon Sessions started Game 2, and will presumably maintain the role of his replacement going forward. Sessions performed admirably, scoring 21 points, but he cannot be expected to terrorize defenses and offenses alike the way one of the very best players in the game was doing. Atlanta tied the series in convincing fashion Tuesday night, 106-90.
So while it may be too early to say that Wall and his team’s season are over definitively, such a conclusion does seem like the most likely course over the next week or two. Nobody, not even the Hawks, likes to see a promising playoff run end this way.
— John Wilmes
6. Anthony Davis, Game 4 against the Golden State Warriors
Anthony Davis’ playoff debut was not a disappointment. He might not have won a game against the talent-wealthy Warriors, but he did everything within his vast powers to stop them. Any of his four performances could be sincerely chosen in this slot, but his 36-point, 11-rebound effort in his final fight against an inevitable fate was an especially alluring bit of action from the 21-year-old. It shouldn’t be long before he swivels around to the other end of the table, and is playing the role of fearsome overdog.
5. John Wall, Game 2 against the Toronto Raptors
26 points, 17 assists. Wall erased any doubts about who the superior team was in this contest, which was the spark that led his Wizards to a clean sweep of the Raptors. Perhaps the game’s most underrated point guard, Wall stepped into an NBA defense with an ease to suggest it was his kitchen, and made judicious decisions about who in his lineup to feed as he distributed to men left open by the swarms of bodies his elite speed demands when he takes it to the hole. If you want to learn how to play the position perfectly, watch film from this outing.
4. Blake Griffin, Game 1 against the Houston Rockets
With Chris Paul sitting out and taking care of a hamstring he pushed to the limit against the San Antonio Spurs, the Clippers were left for dead by many against Houston. But Blake Griffin went as hard as one can go against an unsuspecting Rockets squad, and put together a triple-double for the ages as he point-forwarded his team to a shocking upset. His 26 points, 14 rebounds and 13 assists were the numbers of a man with a skill set that goes way beyond the supreme dunking that he’s known for. Griffin reminded the league that he’s an all-around wunderkind in this game.
3. Steph Curry, Game 3 against the New Orleans Pelicans
The lengthy, explosive Pelicans were a bad matchup for the indomitable Warriors, and many expected them to steal a game or two against the odds-on favorites to win the title. That prediction seemed to be coming true in Game 3 of the first-round joust between the two teams, as New Orleans put their foot down and carried a 20-point lead into the fourth quarter. Then, the MVP became the MVP all over again. Curry scored 17 points in the closing quarter and overtime to lead the Warriors to a commanding 3-0 lead in the series, capping a colossal comeback with a double-take three-pointer through a crowd in the corner, which sent the game to an extra period the Warriors had full control of. You’re never too far behind when you’ve got Steph.
2. Mike Conley, Game 2 against the Golden State Warriors
Twitter was calling it “The Broken Face Game” before it was even close to over. Conley stormed into the roaring Oracle Arena with no loss of confidence, despite playing for the first time in nearly two weeks and nursing a bludgeoned mug behind a plastic mask. He scored nine quick points for the Grizzlies and set the tone after Steph Curry’s MVP ceremony, putting the bay area on alert. He gave Steph trouble all night defensively, and hit an emphatic three-pointer late in the game, himself, that all but put the game out of reach. This showing could be a turning point in the championship equation.
1. Chris Paul, Game 7 against the San Antonio Spurs
One leg, no problem. Paul tweaked his hamstring amidst the most memorable game of the season, but it didn’t stop him from leading the Clippers to a victory over the defending champion Spurs that felt like a title-winner. His game-sealing floater with just a second left will populate highlight reels for the next decade, and instantly goes down as the most iconic image in the career of the NBA’s most underappreciated floor genius. Paul’s always had the hearts of those who understand the intricacies of the game — now, he’s got an emotionally charged moment to corral fans beyond the sport.
— John Wilmes
It’s not the first time it’s happened: On the heels of Steph Curry’s emotionally exhausting MVP reception, the Golden State Warriors laid an egg. Dropping Game 2 of their second-round series with the Memphis Grizzlies, 97-90, they looked flummoxed. It was Golden State’s first home loss since the Chicago Bulls beat them there in January.
A lot of their being off had less to do with too many feelings, though, and more to do with how the Grizzlies took to the battle straight to the Warriors’ face.
Speaking of faces, Memphis starting point guard Mike Conley, Jr. returned to the lineup for the first time since suffering a facial fracture after a brutal collision against the Portland Trail Blazers, and put in an inspiring performance. With a plastic mask over his blood-red eye and plate-infused tissue, he led his team with 22 points, and his defense on Curry helped hold the MVP to just 19 points on 7-for-19 shooting.
Tony Allen, the Grizzlies’ ceaseless Grindfather, did his part by injecting swagger into the visiting team’s efforts. The day before the contest, he said Curry’s offensive mastery was “nothing I ain’t never seen before,” and he was quick to remind the world of his own accolades after several important plays last night. “First-team, All-Defense,” he said repeatedly:
Now tied 1-1, this series is a sudden hotbed of intrigue. With personalities this big, stories aren’t lacking — but the one you can expect to hear time and time over is about the state of NBA basketball. The Warriors represent the zenith of its pace-and-space evolution, begat more than a decade ago by Steve Nash and the seven-seconds-or-less Phoenix Suns. And Memphis, of course, opposes that with a steely, hard, half-court style that favors post-ups and methodical clock-winding. It’ll be thrilling to see which iteration wins out.
— John Wilmes
The defending champion San Antonio Spurs are gone from the playoffs. After a cruel twist of fate that saw them face the Los Angeles Clippers in a first-round series that felt like a title bout, they’ve experienced their earliest exit in years.
Coach Gregg Popovich knows that the premature end to their season isn’t necessarily a referendum on the state of his team, but he also knows that change is an inevitable phenomenon. With Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green all facing free agency — and with Tim, Tony Parker and Manu all still getting closer to retirement — a shakeup in the Spurs’ nucleus seems like a real possibility.
Monday, Popovich said the team ''will probably look considerably different.” San Antonio is rumored to covet Texas native and Portland Trail Blazers superstar LaMarcus Aldridge, who has shown something less than exuberance toward the prospect of staying in Oregon lately. The Spurs could also make a run at Memphis Grizzlies big man Marc Gasol, though he appears less likely to leave his team.
The franchise’s No. 1 priority, in any event, would appear to be transition. Retaining Leonard seems like their top job this summer, but how they supplement the 2015 Defensive Player of the Year as they head into a new era is a question of grand proportions. Aldridge or another big-name recruit could pair with him for the new iteration of Spurs supremacy, but Popovich and his staff could of course also find their next killer where no one else is looking, as they’re wont to do.
Duncan was a clear top overall pick in the 1997 draft, but Ginobili and Parker were plucked from international obscurity as the 57th and 28th picks, respectively. The last time the Spurs made a particularly splashy move on the free agent market was… never. Don’t be surprised if their makeover comes not from contract fireworks in July, but from more unseen places.
— John Wilmes
In unsurprising news, the NBA has honored Golden State Warriors point guard Steph Curry with the 2015 MVP trophy. The announcement was made, officially, on Monday, which is also when his team formally held a press conference for Curry.
And although Steph’s reception didn’t make the same cultural waves as Kevin Durant’s “you’re the real MVP” address to his teammates and mother last season, it was certainly an emotional occasion. “Pop,” Curry said through tears, to his father Dell Curry, a former 16-year pro himself. “You were the example of what a true professional is on and off the court. I remember a lot of your career, and to be able to follow in your footsteps… it means a lot to me, and this is special.”
Steph also received some playful joshing from teammate and consummate Warriors mouthpiece Draymond Green, who asked when the new MVP would be supplying his roster with presents. Green referenced a story about about Kobe Bryant giving his teammates nice watches after winning the award, told to him by Warriors assistant and former Bryant teammate Luke Walton.
“I don’t know what kind of watches they were, but, I’ll beat that gift,” Curry said, and the undertone was obvious: I’m going to get you guys the present of rings, he all but said.
And so while Curry’s press conference was certainly touching, it also held more than a touch of the clinical air that has pervaded Golden State’s season. Under the leadership of Steph and head coach Steve Kerr, they’ve been a team on a ruthless mission, and their best player winning the league’s top individual honors seemed more like part of their procedure toward a championship than a culmination or a final step.
The Warriors continue their warpath tonight as they try to take a 2-0 series lead against the Memphis Grizzlies. We’ll see if the new MVP and Golden State can keep their undefeated 2015 playoff streak alive.
— John Wilmes
After three knee surgeries and almost 200 missed games, Derrick Rose has been forgotten by many as the one-time top threat to LeBron James’ throne over the Eastern Conference — which he and his team have represented in the NBA Finals for four straight seasons.
LeBron last squashed a Rose-led Bulls team with the Miami Heat in 2011, after Derrick became the youngest MVP in league history and led his team to 62 victories in Tom Thibodeau’s first year on the job as head coach.
A lot’s changed since then. James has won the MVP twice more, and Rose has been supplanted as the game’s brightest young point guard by Steph Curry, the winner of 2015’s award. But Chicago still stands as the biggest in-conference threat to LeBron, and the semi-finals matchup between the Bulls and his Cleveland Cavaliers is the most intriguing showdown of the Eastern season.
Much remains to be seen after a spate of regular season games between the two sides that didn’t reveal much — various injuries, and midseason trades, meant neither team had their ideal lineup or momentum at the same time. The most mysterious factor of the series, though, is how Cleveland will fare and adjust without starting forward Kevin Love, who’s out for the year after separating his shoulder.
Young Tristan Thompson has been a nightmare for the Bulls on the glass and will be asked to keep that up as he fills in for many of Love’s minutes. But Cleveland’s offensive versatility will suffer without the hyper-skilled big man, and Chicago should be able to take advantage.
Jimmy Butler can’t stop LeBron (no one can), but he can give the game’s best player enough trouble to limit his overall impact. A lot will fall on the plate of Kyrie Irving, and on Rose’s with the task to stop him. This will be a trying challenge, to be sure, but in the end Chicago will simply have more.
Prediction: Bulls in 6.
— John Wilmes
Chris Paul has long been one of the NBA’s best players. But Saturday night, he ascended into the echelon of timeless legends. His inspired, hobbled performance in the Los Angeles Clippers’ Game 7 victory over the San Antonio Spurs, 111-109, goes straight into a pantheon including iconic showings from Isiah Thomas and Michael Jordan. If you didn’t see his game-winner, you missed one of the sport’s finest moments:
Taking down the defending champions may feel like an accomplishment grand enough to end a successful season, but there’s still a long road ahead of the Clippers. Now Paul has to lead L.A. against James Harden and the Houston Rockets. Paul has a compromised hamstring, and his partner in crime Blake Griffin spent many of his resting minutes against San Antonio with copious amounts of ice strapped around his knees.
The Clippers’ shallow bench nearly undid them against the Spurs, but the elite talent of their front six was ultimately enough. Houston’s goal, after a swift five-game dismissal of the Dallas Mavericks, will be to continue wearing down the Clippers. Without the hounding Patrick Beverley (out for the season with a torn wrist ligament) to make Lob City truly pay for their injured leader, the Rockets will have to get creative.
Expect Houston’s bevy of terrific wing defenders to take turns exhausting Paul in the series, who may miss Game 1 tonight — he’s listed as day-to-day. Trevor Ariza, Josh Smith and Corey Brewer should be able to challenge CP3 in a way that the veteran Jason Terry, Beverley’s primary replacement, cannot.
Houston’s best weapon in their quest to take the Clippers’ worn-down bodies to the end of their year, though, may be Dwight Howard. While he’ll often have his hands full with the indefatigable DeAndre Jordan, he’ll also be expected to make life difficult for Griffin at the rim, and open up the court for James Harden as a pick-and-roll partner.
If the Clippers had a week to get right before this series started, they’d be the overwhelming favorites — that’s the status you earn for knocking off the champs. But they’ll have to beat their health issues, in addition to the formidable Rockets. This one’s all but a toss-up.
Prediction: Clippers in 7.
— John Wilmes
54 points. That was the historically large deficit that sent the Milwaukee Bucks out of the NBA Playoffs, courtesy of the advancing Chicago Bulls.
120-66 is not a pretty figure, but the Bucks still have a lot to look forward to. Multiple young players broke out for them in a surprisingly competitive first-round bout with the Bulls. A series that once looked like a sweep became a six-game affair that had the Windy City sweating as head coach Jason Kidd’s defensive schemes flummoxed the Bulls in Games 4 and 5. The lengthy, energetic poise they bring to every position makes for a forest of limbs that will challenge NBA offenses for years.
John Henson was surprisingly effective stepping up to Pau Gasol in the post, as was Giannis Antetokounmpo. Sophomore point guard Michael Carter-Williams played an inspired Game 5, racking up 22 points, nine rebounds, eight assists and three blocks as he led his team to a stunning 94-88 victory in Chicago. Shooting guard Khris Middleton continued to prove himself as one of the best in the game at his position, making life difficult for Bulls shooters and draining clutch three-pointers with the calm of an assassin.
And Milwaukee did all of this without the man who could very well be the centerpiece of their future: Jabari Parker. 2014’s No. 2 overall pick tore his ACL midseason, and has been on the mend since. Once he returns to the roster with his singular scoring knack, it will open up the floor for the Bucks’ offense in untold ways.
With Kidd and a promising roster in tow — and new uniforms and insignia on the way this fall — Milwaukee’s looking like the scene of an NBA renaissance. Chicago might have a big-brother hold on them for now, but soon the Bucks could be their bitter rivals.
— John Wilmes
The 49-year-old has about as impressive of a resume as any college coach, and it makes sense for him to jump the professional level in 2015. Donovan and his program had become less effective at recruiting in recent days, fielding a roster this past season that didn’t even crack the NCAA tournament.
Talent won’t be a problem for Donovan in OKC, though. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka will all be his for at least one season. Durant, of course, can test free agency in the summer of 2016, so Donovan’s first year on the job comes with the pressure of winning over the 2014 MVP’s affections enough to help him make a decision to stay with the Thunder.
Donovan is no stranger to NBA talent. At Florida he developed Joakim Noah, Al Horford, Corey Brewer, David Lee, Chandler Parsons and Bradley Beal. With Noah, Horford and Brewer, his Gators were a rockstar squad that won consecutive national championships in 2006 and 2007.
The Thunder were known to be fond of Donovan for some time — probably well before they pulled the plug on Brooks. Donovan and OKC general manager Sam Presti are friendly, and it appears today that the Thunder were never really embarking on a search for a Brooks replacement, but instead banking on Donovan being up for the job.
Part of the thinking surrounding his hire is that the team needs to have a smart, successful program in place with or without their mega-talented superstars sticking around. Donovan’s vision is in line with the front office’s, and Presti decided it was time to make a shift into a more cohesive future, rather than hanging onto a coach who took the team out of the basement, for sentimental reasons.
— John Wilmes
The Jameis Winston crab leg thing just won’t go away.
After being selected No. 1 overall by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Thursday night's NFL Draft, the former Florida State quarterback apparently celebrated his selection with crab legs. He posted the following image to Instagram and Twitter on draft night but later deleted the Instagram post.
Earlier in the draft process, Winston was counseled by Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch on how to handle the crab leg-theft incident in NFL Draft interviews.
Given Winston’s proximity to Publix headquarters in Lakeland, Fla., and oceanic dining, the crab leg meme might not fade away for a while.
UPDATE: Former Tampa Bay quarterback Shaun King defending Winston for the image, saying the image wasn't intended as a jab at all.
If people only knew how STUPID they sound killing this kid over that picture smdh— shaun king (@realshaunking) May 1, 2015
I was seated at the table right next to jameis at the mike alstott charity auction, when captain keith asked jameis to help him auction off— shaun king (@realshaunking) May 1, 2015
This huge king crab he had flown in for the event. Captain keith is from the deadliest catch show. I wasnt sure how jameis was gonna— shaun king (@realshaunking) May 1, 2015
Handle the request, but it didnt faze the young man at all he simply said ok sure, we r here to help the alstott foundation right.— shaun king (@realshaunking) May 1, 2015
That same captain keith in a gesture of thanks sent jameis and his family 25lbs of king crabs legs for his draft event last night.— shaun king (@realshaunking) May 1, 2015
Thats the backstory behind last nights picture for those of you who need to seriously have some self evaluation done— shaun king (@realshaunking) May 1, 2015
The NBA playoffs are a time of rising prospects and glory, for many teams and players. For others, they’re a painful review of where a franchise stands on the fence between competition and rebuilding.
The Portland Trail Blazers don’t quite know where they are on that dividing line, after being ousted from their first-round series, 4-1, by the Memphis Grizzlies. They were a long shot to put up much of a fight against mighty Memphis with their backcourt depth shot, after injuries to Wesley Matthews and Arron Afflalo.
Matthews and roster centerpiece LaMarcus Aldridge are free agents this summer. So is starting center Robin Lopez, who didn’t look so great against the Grizzlies.
The torn Achilles that ended Matthews’ season inspires serious questions about how much of an investment Portland, or any team, should make in him going forward. It’s a sad-but-telling instance of how bad luck and timing with injuries can change somebody’s bank account in this league.
Matthews was leading the league in three-pointers made at the time of his injury, and was the Blazers’ best defender — by many accounts, he was headed for a maximum contract. Now, who knows? What if Matthews had suffered his hurt right after signing a new deal, instead of before? These are the rabbit holes he and his agent are likely looking down.
For its part, Portland may have found a bright future without Wes in the person of C.J. McCollum, the second-year guard who had a breakout performance in the Blazers’ final fight last night. He scored a career-high 33 points on scorching shooting in the 99-93 loss.
Aldridge, meanwhile, is strapped with the dilemma of deciding whether to stick it out as a beloved hero in Oregon, or try the challenge of upstarting a transitioning franchise elsewhere. There will be no shortage of suitors for the big man: The New York Knicks, Dallas Mavericks and San Antonio Spurs are all known to covet his skills. But is it worth it for him to leave what he’s worked so hard to help build, for dubious prospects elsewhere? Aldridge will have to answer that question, this July.
— John Wilmes
After getting bounced from the first round of the NBA Playoffs by the in-state rival Houston Rockets, four games to one, the Dallas Mavericks face very uncertain territory.
Franchise cornerstone piece Dirk Nowitzki showed against Houston that he’s no longer quite great enough to build around. While his shot is still a beautiful sight, his aging legs mean he’s no longer able to create the needed air space to score with great volume and efficiency. More importantly, he’s become a sieve on defense — Rockets super-sub Josh Smith moved around him like he was nothing more than a glorified pylon, through much of the series.
Rajon Rondo’s stay in Texas was an utter disaster, and there’s virtually no chance he’ll return to Dallas as a free agent this summer. Starting shooting guard Monta Ellis has a player option for next season, and can become a free agent himself if he chooses. With the expected jump in salary caps league-wide, it would seem he’s likely to test the market at the very least, and would come at a greater cost to Dallas even if he stays.
Starting center Tyson Chandler? Also headed for free agency. As is the lone bright spot from the Mavericks’ short-lived postseason run, forward Al-Farouq Aminu, who made himself a lot of extra money with his performance against Houston.
Assembling a team around the declining Nowitzki and Chandler Parsons — who missed all of the series with a knee injury, and may be having surgery that could affect his play going forward — makes for some dubious prospects, at best. Especially in the ever-loaded Western Conference.
All these question marks amount to some pretty slim chances at elevated competition in Mavericksland, and some serious decisions for owner Mark Cuban about whether he should begin to rebuild, instead of hunting down marginally better returns in the short term, by spending more money this summer.
— John Wilmes
6. Patty Mills, San Antonio Spurs
Mills already made his name in last year’s Spurs’ title run, but his legend is growing anew this spring. After having a so-so regular season, in which he missed 31 games due to injury, Mills is absolutely scorching against the Los Angeles Clippers. San Antonio’s best lineups feature him, not Tony Parker, at the point guard spot. His ridiculous 53 percent mark from beyond the arc is a big part of that. And at 26.37, he has the sixth-highest player efficiency rating among all playoff ballers. Mills is well on his way to proving himself as a starter-quality player this postseason — he could even be the Spurs’ point guard of the future.
5. John Henson, Milwaukee Bucks
The Bucks are giving the Chicago Bulls all they can handle, and Henson’s been a big part of their surprising mettle. A tenacious defender and rebounder down low, the third-year big man has upped his game considerably in the postseason. His minutes have gone up as he’s proved himself guarding Pau Gasol, and his rebounding totals have nearly doubled. Perhaps most importantly, though, is that Henson hasn’t looked shaken in the face of pressure. The Bulls may have expected to stomp over the inexperienced Milwaukee, but they’ve risen to the occasion with the calmness of a veteran squad.
4. Al-Farouq Aminu, Dallas Mavericks
For at least one man, Chandler Parsons’ season-ending injury had a silver lining. In extended minutes on the wing, in lieu of Parsons’ availability, Aminu has done a lot to improve his value as a free agent this summer. Shooting 55 percent from the field, and a startling 64 percent from three-point land over 30 minutes per contest, he was one of the Mavericks’ best players in their short-lived playoff battle with the Houston Rockets. Based on the way he’s played, Dallas almost certainly won’t be able to pay both him and Parsons going forward.
3. Otto Porter Jr., Washington Wizards
This sophomore forward was considered left for dead by many, not too long ago — a bust, a wasted draft pick, a forgotten man. But coach Randy Wittman suddenly injected Porter into his team’s most effective lineup against the Toronto Raptors in the first round, and Otto thrived next to stretch power forward Paul Pierce. Shooting 50 percent from beyond the arc, he’s combined with The Truth and Bradley Beal for an ensemble of Wizards’ floor-spacing shooters that finally maximize John Wall’s defense-penetrating game to an MVP-like level. Porter has earned himself considerably more rotation minutes next season with his performance in these playoffs.
2. Khris Middleton, Milwaukee Bucks
Middleton, as he was in the regular season, has been a head-turning player in the playoffs. Like Henson and the rest of the Bucks, he is a long and well-disciplined defender who is giving Chicagoans nightmares these days. Middleton’s shooting marks have been down against a prickly Bulls defense, but he’s made them when they count. He dropped in a bevy of assassin-like three-pointers at the conclusion of Game 3 that brought Milwaukee back from down double digits, to help force two overtimes. Middleton heads into restricted free agency this July, and you better believe the Bucks will have to match some hefty offers from other teams if they want to retain his services.
1. Deron Williams 2.0, Brooklyn Nets
Back from the dead is a man who used to be a primary character in barbershop arguments involving the likes of Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook and Co. Deron Williams hasn’t looked like one of the NBA’s elite point guards for years, but against the Atlanta Hawks you wouldn’t know that. He’s led his Nets to a shocking 2-2 score in their first-round battle with the East’s leading team. Monday night, he turned back the clock and brought back the bulky-but-quick crossover that used to spend the whole league into spin cycles, collecting 35 points as Brooklyn tied up the series with a 120-115 victory. Now, let’s see if he can do it again.
— John Wilmes
Every year delivers events that change our lives, alter our thinking and inspire us beyond measure. And every year, people pass away, leaving us sad, sometimes shaken and almost always introspective. This past year was certainly no different.
Finally, there is a book that encapsulates the past year and offers relevant perspective to the events and people who changed the world in 2014. The American Annual: 2014 in Perspective was published by AMG/Parade in February.
Derek Jeter bid farewell. The Winter Olympics introduced us to fresh faces like Mikaela Shiffrin. Tim Howard became a national hero at the World Cup. Americans were introduced to 13-year-old Mo’ne Davis, a role model in many ways during the Little League World Series. The San Francisco Giants, led by an incredible pitching performance by Madison Bumgarner, won their third World Series in five years. San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich continued to prove—in his own way—that he was a mastermind among NBA coaches. Clayton Kershaw of the Los Angeles Dodgers posted a record-breaking season, comparable to the great Sandy Koufax. And we finally had a Final Four in College Football, although a catchy name has yet to emerge.
These are just a few of the sports subjects that The American Annual tackles. In addition, an entertainment section explores how Jimmy Fallon hit the REFRESH button on late night TV. The stylish, 160-page coffee table book also offers perspective on ISIS, the threat of Ebola in the U.S. and why Sony cancelled a $75 million movie.
As we do every year, we said final good-byes to many American icons in 2014. For some, we celebrated long, full lives. For others, the loss feels too soon and too sudden. In The American Annual, we celebrate cherished memories and contributions that made us think, smile, cheer and learn. Here’s to Tony Gwynn and Chuck Noll, who made us cheer; Don Meyer and Frank Jobe, who—each in their own way—had such profound impacts on others’ lives; Robin Williams and Joan Rivers, who made us laugh; Eileen Ford, who made us rethink women’s roles in business; and Shirley Temple, Mickey Rooney and James Garner, who always made us smile.
Readers will enjoy reminiscing about the celebrities we lost in 2014.
The American Annual lends perspective to the events of 2014—the celebrations and the tragedies—as well as the people who changed the world. For these entire stories plus many others, go to AmericanAnnual.com for ordering information.
The book is a bargain at $15.95, and is a terrific keepsake for any 2014 graduate, newlywed or newborn.
The regular season and the playoffs are simply not the same, and in the NBA the difference between the two may be more pronounced than in any major sports league.
The Washington Wizards are showing us this quite clearly today. The Wizards have advanced to the second round of the postseason after making mincemeat of the Toronto Raptors in a sweep. Now, they wait and rest as the Atlanta Hawks and Brooklyn Nets carry on with their 2-2 deadlock of a series for the right to face them.
It’s looking like this won’t be much of a privilege. Point guard John Wall has been arguably the MVP of this year’s second season, averaging 12.5 assists per game as he zips through defenses and makes life easy for Washington bigs and perimeter shooters. Starting center Marcin Gortat is shooting 75 percent from the floor. Paul Pierce is emboldening the whole crew, talking a brand of trash that breaks enemies down on their insides.
Perhaps most important of all, though, is that head coach Randy Wittman seems to have pulled his head out of the mud. After a season spent struggling through frustrating lineups and play calls, he’s suddenly utilizing a five-man set that includes Pierce as a stretch power forward and makes the Wizards look frequently unguardable.
Was Wittman playing possum all along? This is an idea that fans and analysts have recently had fun with, particularly given this seemingly telling moment, in which the supposedly witless leader couldn’t figure out his clipboard:
With the Hawks looking taxed by a team that barely made the playoffs, the Cleveland Cavaliers losing Kevin Love for the postseason and the Chicago Bulls struggling against the Milwaukee Bucks, Washington suddenly almost appears to be the favorite to come out of the Eastern Conference.
— John Wilmes
The first round of the NBA playoffs, days ago, looked to be a chalk fest. Save for the intriguing showdown between the San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Clippers — a pairing talented enough for a conference finals meeting — we looked to be in for a collection of potential sweeps.
Then, things got interesting. The Atlanta Hawks, who have largely not looked like supermen since their dominant winter, started to slip against a resurgent Deron Williams, who led the Brooklyn Nets with 35 points last night, bringing their series to a 2-2 tie after a second-straight home victory.
The Chicago Bulls began to look unsure of themselves in the task of closing out the young Milwaukee Bucks, who have suddenly developed into poised, shrewd killers in elimination games. After falling down 3-0, Jason Kidd’s squad has won two straight and made the Windy City quite nervous as the series heads back to Milwaukee 3-2 on Thursday.
Closing teams out, even if you’re the better group, is hard. Like the Bulls and Hawks, the Houston Rockets and Memphis Grizzlies are seeing that too, dropping sweep opportunities against the the Dallas Mavericks and Portland Trail Blazers, respectively. Veterans and newcomers alike have trouble putting their foot down on the opponent’s neck with finality, and sending their colleagues home for a long, reflective summer.
The Golden State Warriors and Washington Wizards, thus, look all the more impressive for being able to complete their bits of postseason euthanasia swiftly. John Wall and Steph Curry catalyzed their teams to sweeps of the Toronto Raptors and New Orleans, and now both survivors sit pretty as they await the arrival of second-round foes who are still ensconced in early struggles.
Now, to see if rest or momentum holds the greater benefit for our remaining title contenders.
— John Wilmes
The Cleveland Cavaliers are moving on, after completing a first-round sweep of the Boston Celtics. But their victory comes at a grave cost: After a questionable play by Boston big man Kelly Olynyk, Cavs starting forward Kevin Love separated his shoulder, and is now expected to miss significant time:
This could be a death knell for Cleveland, who are likely to face the Chicago Bulls in a second-round series, probably slated for this upcoming weekend. Even with Love, this matchup looked like a tough one for a Cavs team that’s not exactly battle-tested outside of LeBron James.
This bad break is in keeping with Love’s first season in Ohio. He’s been the definitive third option behind James and Kyrie Irving after a stellar few seasons with the Minnesota Timberwolves, where he was starting to build buzz as a top-ten player in the league.
A suspected nagging back injury, plus an inability to find an optimal role in Cleveland’s offense, have plagued Love’s tenure with the Cavs. Rather than operating out of the post and elbow as the dynamic point forward he was with the Wolves, Love has often been relegated to the job of stretching defenses as a spot-up shooter beyond the three-point arc.
Cleveland could, of course, still overcome the Bulls without Love. Having LeBron James on the roster tends to mean that you’ve always got a chance. And Kevin can still come back to play an integral role in the Eastern Conference Finals. But if the Cavs don’t conquer Chicago, huge question marks about his future with the team will grow even larger as we head into the summer.
Perhaps a season of great expectations will feel as if it’s been torn away from Love, and he’ll want to rejoin James and Co. to squash regret in 2015-16. Or maybe he’ll take this difficult ending to be an end point to a pairing that was never meant to be, and bring his talents elsewhere this offseason.
— John Wilmes
The NBA saw its field of fighters lose three more squads this weekend, with the playoffs party whittling down to 13 as the New Orleans Pelicans, Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors said their goodbyes to the season after being swept.
Here’s how each of them should look to change for their 2015-16 campaigns.
The Celtics, from a standpoint of culture, are the shining standouts of these playoff sweep victims. Coach Brad Stevens has turned a glut of so-so role players into all that they could be behind the promising guard trio of Marcus Smart, Isaiah Thomas and Avery Bradley. Boston’s rebuild has been accelerated after a second half that saw them competing with the best of the Eastern Conference, and there’s only one thing clearly missing from their equation: a superstar. Expect them to do everything they can to get meetings with free agents Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge, Kawhi Leonard, Marc Gasol and Khris Middleton this summer — as they should.
New Orleans Pelicans
Unlike the Celtics, the Pels already have the centerpiece to their future in Anthony Davis. Any wise NBA team starting fresh today would take the 21-year-old as their first building block, if they could, so with Davis on board there’s a natural trend towards optimism in New Orleans. Simply keeping this team together wouldn’t be a terrible strategy, as a healthier Jrue Holiday could be the answer to many of their needs; the Pelicans struggled at point guard without his full services through most of the year. In all likelihood, their summer mission will include crossing their fingers for better health, plus “still having the best young player alive.”
The Raptors were a mess after a promising start to the season, sputtering after the All-Star break and showing surprisingly little fight against the Washington Wizards. This motley collection of so-so players misses, like the Celtics do, a true superstar. But their variously talented pieces also haven’t been maximized by coach Dwane Casey, who looks to be on the hot seat after an ugly postseason showing. General manager Masai Ujiri is not known for standing pat by any means, so no move this summer would come as a shock. Who knows how the Raptors will look next autumn?
— John Wilmes
Years before the top picks were eligible for the draft, they were top recruits — or at least most of them — entering the collegiate ranks.
Below is a list of the star rankings, national rankings and position rankings of the top 50 prospects from the Athlon Sports 2015 NFL Draft preview magazine. Many like to argue that recruiting rankings don't matter, however, the data below further proves that rankings are an accurate indicator of future NFL success.
All rankings according to 247Sports.com. Nat'l = national ranking regardless of position, Pos. = national ranking by position. * - junior college prospect
|10||Mario Edwards Jr.||DE||2012||5||2||1||SDE|
** - Quinten Rollins' rankings are actually basketball rankings as he wasn't a football player coming into college.
What we learned:
* Nine of the top 30 prospects were five-star recruits. In any one given class, there are roughly 30 five-stars. Basically, you have a 1-in-3 chance of becoming a top-30 prospect if you are a five-star recruit.
* 15 of the top 30 prospects were ranked in the top 10 nationally at their position coming out of high school.
* 20 of the top 50 prospects were four- or five-star recruits and ranked in the top 300 nationally. This group makes up roughly the top 10 percent (roughly 400 of 4,000) of any given recruiting class, but comprises almost 40 percent of the top 50 NFL prospects.
* Three players were junior college transfers and not a single two-star prospect was ranked as a top 50 NFL prospect.
The third-youngest Defensive Player of the Year in the history of the NBA has been named, and he is Kawhi Leonard of the San Antonio Spurs.
Leonard, of course, won NBA Finals MVP honors less than a year ago, last June. He’s also a restricted free agent this summer, and the 23-year-old has built himself more than enough of a resume to prove that he’s worthy of a maximum contract from San Antonio.
Terrifying, amazing, relentless—choose your superlative. The lengthy wingman is a storm of judicial limbs and hyperkinetic full-court coverage who evokes Hall of Famer Scottie Pippen. Runner-up Draymond Green, of the Golden State Warriors, was hardly even upset by who he lost out to.
“Al Gore won the popular vote and didn’t get elected president, so I’m not gonna sit here and kill myself over not winning Defensive Player of the Year. We’ve got a bigger goal. That’s to win a championship,” Green said. “[Leonard is] a great defender. Phenomenal defender. He impacts the defensive end just as good as anybody in the league. So congratulations to him.”
The Spurs and Warriors, of course, could be on the league’s most compelling collision course, fated for a showdown in the Western Conference Finals.
But first Kawhi and Co. need to dispatch the Los Angeles Clippers in their first-round series, which the Spurs tied at 1-1 Wednesday night after an overtime victory in L.A. Game 3 is tonight in Texas, at 9:30 PM ET on ESPN, and could very well decide the momentum in the most interesting initial matchup of this season’s bracket.
Look for Leonard to continue proving his case as the game’s best defender tonight. Against the Clippers, he’s liable to stick Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, or just about anyone else if the situation calls for it—much to Lob City’s chagrin.
— John Wilmes
The Dallas’ Mavericks midseason trade for Rajon Rondo was a gamble, and their roll of the dice seems to have emptied their pockets this April.
The Mavericks ruled Rondo out indefinitely after their 111-99 loss to the Houston Rockets Tuesday night, which put them down 0-2 in the first round playoff series between the two Texas teams. Rondo played less than a minute in the second half of the contest, and his coach Rick Carlisle later suggested it was because of a back issue that was exacerbated by his falling, after attempting to draw an offensive foul on James Harden.
Carlisle, when asked if he expects Rondo to play in a Dallas uniform next season, said “No, I don’t.”
It would seem that there’s far more below the surface than an achy back. Rondo and Carlisle—like Rondo and all of his coaches—have had visible difficulty getting along for months, and the point guard’s performance on Tuesday left a lot to be desired in the effort department. His turnover for committing an eight-second violation (an almost never seen occurrence in the NBA) after dribbling the ball up court with little-to-no urgency was an especially telling moment.
Many NBA insiders have been projecting Rondo as a future teammate of Kobe Bryant’s, with the Los Angeles Lakers, for some time now. Given Rajon’s lack of cooperation as a Maverick and the unchecked megalomania of Bryant’s L.A. swan song, the prospect of seeing the two together makes one salivate in anticipation of the hubris-laden folly the pair would commit.
Carlisle is a disciplinarian, and strict at what he does. But most players fall quickly in line, because he maximizes their talents and rehabilitates all kinds of careers—but Rondo was too headstrong for his program. If he joins Kobe in Los Angeles, however, he won’t have the problem of needing to negotiate with anyone on the bench; Byron Scott holds much less power within the Lakers organization than his superstars do.
— John Wilmes
Athlon Sports turned loose the Ourlads.com scouting department on two superstar signal callers. Who should go No. 1 in the 2015 NFL Draft: Marcus Mariota or Jameis Winston?
From Athlon Sports 2015 NFL Draft preview magazine:
It’s common knowledge that you win games by avoiding losing them. To help avoid losses, a quarterback must be a student of the game — have football intelligence and exercise split-second judgment. Both Winston and Mariota score highly in this area.
Winston and Mariota were asked to complete multiple on-the-field tasks in their respective and very different offensive schemes. They both read defenses, read coverages and reacted to blitzes, etc. Winston played in an NFL-friendly system, so in his evaluation a scout is basically comparing apples to apples. What we saw on Saturday has some carryover to Sunday.
Mariota played in a wide-open, fast-tempo offense that had multiple options on every play. He also processed information quickly by counting defensive numbers and then deciding to give the ball to a back, run it himself or throw to a perimeter receiver at the last second. Mariota excelled in the zone-read option but showed the capability to carry over his cerebral intuitiveness to the NFL.
Winston is an accurate passer in the pocket or when he rolls out, always ready to throw. He has a quick release and delivery. He carries the ball high with no wasted motion and can throw accurately with a defender in his face. He has down-the-field vertical accuracy. He sees the field and understands what he is seeing. He has good anticipation.
Mariota has a high completion percentage of hitting his receivers in stride with few adjustments. He has a natural feel in the passing game to read the play as it develops, instinctively and quickly. He uses his eyes to move the coverage. He spreads the ball around to a variety of receivers, backs and tight ends. Mariota demonstrated his ability to step up in the pocket and drive the ball down the field. He’s accurate on skinny post routes and throws the ball on a line when needed or lofts with touch over linebackers.
Arm strength is somewhat overrated in the NFL, but ball placement is not. Winston and Mariota both have the arm strength to make all the key NFL throws. Both can attack the defense vertically.
Winston has a fastball that touched 95-97 mph as a reliever for the Seminoles’ baseball team, and he’s an MLB prospect as an outfielder. The big righthander has a rocket to throw deep and the ability to throw out routes from the opposite hash mark. He uses his body to throw the NFL’s toughest pass — the deep outside comeback.
Mariota has good arm talent to throw and complete the deep post on a line, go vertical down the middle or gun the outside routes. He gets the ball out quickly with good velocity and has the physical tools to play the position. He can laser the ball between the hashes.
When Winston runs, he is strong and not easy to tackle. He has the ability to get positive yards when he pulls the ball down. He can elude a pass rusher and can throw off balance. He has vision, feel and natural running ability. When he escapes, he can make something happen by extending the play.
Mariota is athletic enough to be a free safety or a wide receiver. He also tops Winston as an extemporaneous runner when a play breaks down. Mariota has explosive movement skills, feet and the ability to avoid and escape a rush. He can make plays on the move to his right or left. He is sudden and quick in his movement. He can beat defenders one-on-one in the open field. He creates plays when out of the pocket with his elusiveness. Mariota is as good as it gets when improvising and extending a play.
Related: 2015 NFL Mock Draft
Poise in the Pocket
Winston’s game is to win from the pocket. His eyes are down the field. He doesn’t see the rush; he feels it. He can laser a ball in a tight window with a defender blitzing the “A” gap up the middle. He shakes defenders off in the pocket and shows good poise when he’s under duress. He has his feet under him with a good base, steps and throws. He played with a veteran offensive line for two years but lost his center for most of 2014, and that was problematic. Winston felt the pressure, stood in the pocket and made the throw while he smelled the blitzer’s breath.
Mariota bested Winston analytically in a study by Pro Football Focus, but he threw close to half the passes Winston threw. Winston had center problems last fall, but Mariota had to deal with eight different offensive line combinations in 2014. Mariota is deadly accurate when he has time to set his feet and read his progressions. He knows where to go with the ball, steps up and throws with timing and surgical accuracy. He slides laterally well in the pocket. Mariota is cool under pressure; he doesn’t get too high or too low and shows patience. He appears to run early at times if his receiver is covered.
Winston is a natural-born leader who can be brash. He has swagger and bravado. He is a Pied Piper whom the team will follow. He is mentally tough and responds well to adversity. He has the ability to manage the team and inspire victory from the start of a game to the finish. Even when he makes mistakes, the team never feels they’re out of the game.
Mariota is cerebral and focused on the job at hand. He takes charge by example and inspires his teammates by his total dedication to football. He had a great command of a high-tempo spread offense and understands defensive tactics and strategy. He works at developing great feel and timing with his individual receivers. He is cool when under the gun and can carry a team on his back.
Clutch Third-Down Player
Winston is a big-game quarterback who consistently delivered in the clutch. He went 7–0 in games decided by seven or fewer points. During his Heisman Trophy-winning season of 2013, he completed 64.0 percent of his third-down attempts, and FSU converted a first down on 44 of his 75 third-down passes.
Mariota had a career 36–5 record and threw at least one touchdown pass in every game he started. For his career, the Hawaii native threw 105 touchdowns and only 14 interceptions.
After doing my due diligence and feeling comfortable with my background research on Winston, I would draft him first because the No. 1 ability is availability. Winston is a bigger-framed player with more muscle mass than Mariota and is more durable. Additionally, Winston played college ball in an NFL-schemed offense. He knows how to climb the pocket while keeping his eyes down the field. He reads full-field route progressions. Winston is a pocket passer first, and that’s where you win in the NFL — in the pocket, not on the perimeter. All indications are that he wants to be great and is willing to pay the price for that greatness.
Winner: Jameis Winston
-by Dan Shonka, Ourlads Scouting Services
The NBA’s postseason may be front and center right now, but for many teams, a momentous offseason has also already begun.
Wednesday afternoon offered a telling reminder of that, when Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports reported that the Oklahoma City Thunder fired head coach Scott Brooks after seven years of service.
In his time leading Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Co., Brooks compiled a very impressive resume. As OKC’s only coach since the franchise immigrated from Seattle (where they were, of course, the SuperSonics), he had a .620 winning percentage in the regular season, and went to the NBA Finals in 2012, where the Thunder lost to LeBron James and the Miami Heat.
He also led his team to two Western Conference Finals appearances in which they came up short, including a loss to the San Antonio Spurs last year — the team who went on to win the title.
Serge Ibaka missed the first two games of that series, and Durant missed more than half of this season. Westbrook missed most of the playoffs in 2013. Injuries, in short, have done a number to this squad that looked like a safe bet to win a championship, or even a few, not too long ago.
According to Wojnarowski, Brooks’ firing was not the result of missing the playoffs this season — the first time the Thunder missed that benchmark since 2009 — but was a decision made more with a long-term view for the team in mind.
As for Brooks? He’s expected to land on his feet soon, as the Orlando Magic and Denver Nuggets are said to be interested in him as the man for their respective openings.
— John Wilmes
Athlon Sports looks at the NBA’s most impressive stars to miss this year’s playoffs—usually for reasons beyond their control.
5. Eric Bledsoe, Phoenix Suns
The Suns’ dynamic point guard was the last man standing after the team underwent a dramatic shift at the trade deadline. A trio of big-time ballhandlers—Bledsoe, Goran Dragic, and Isaiah Thomas—was more than just a folly in the name of novelty; the unusual arrangement actually worked for a while, and had Phoenix improbably in the Western Conference playoff hunt for much of the season. But Dragic’s dissatisfaction with how often he was seeing the ball crescendoed to the point that he demanded a trade in February, and was sent to the Miami Heat. Thomas, too, was shipped off—to the Boston Celtics. Bledsoe remained with Brandon Knight, who Phoenix acquired from the Milwaukee Bucks, but the change in his roster was too significant to acclimate to, and the Suns slowly faded from contention.
4. Andre Drummond, Detroit Pistons
Drummond, like Bledsoe, was a victim of major change of context throughout the 2014-15 season. He had a historically impressive year on the offensive glass, seeming on certain nights as if his dominance as a second-chance creator was built into his team’s playbook. But the Pistons kept reshuffling their roster all season, so Andre’s brilliance was only augmented by a proper system during the more promising streaks of a very inconsistent year. Pistons coach and executive Stan Van Gundy should know by now, though, which player to build around as he moves forward.
3. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
“The Stifle Tower,” as they call him, was the NBA’s breakout player this winter. If the 22-year-old Frenchman isn’t already the best rim-protector in basketball, he’s certainly near the top of the race for that honor, going into next season. His Jazz took a few months to put him into the starting lineup in his second season—it took a trade of Enes Kanter, to the Oklahoma City Thunder, to truly pave the way for his spot. But once he paired with Derrick Favors in the front court, first-year coach Quin Snyder was able to position him as the anchor to a defense that was arguably the best in the league after the All-Star break. Don’t be surprised if you see Utah’s coming-out party rise to the level of playoff contention in 2015-16, with Gobert’s dominance down low as the glue to their success.
2. DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento Kings
Big Boogie is perhaps the most disheartening player in the NBA. An amazing talent who’s also a touchy personality, his situation in Sacramento has been rocky for every season he’s been there. DeMarcus has never been anything less than one of the most tantalizing, powerful forces around, as a center who can either steamroll you or beguile you with footwork and shooting range. But he’s had as many coaches as he has seasons with the Kings—and even more starting point guards—so his game hasn’t been able to blossom at the core of a winner. Culture matters in this league, and Cousins will continue to falter without a better basketball family around him. Is new coach George Karl the answer he’s been waiting for? Next year will tell.
1. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder
Westbrook’s Waterloo will be spoken of in nonplussed tones for years. Russell’s insane season, highlighted by eleven triple-doubles, is only made more legendary by his team missing the playoffs. His ceaseless blitzes down the court were the must-see event in the game for two months or more, and the twinge of dissatisfaction we feel in his postseason absence is fitting for what’s going on with the dramatic, ever-changing Thunder. Once a promising title contender, OKC has turned into a rabbit hole of what-if scenarios after momentous trades and injuries, and increasingly intriguing battles with the media. Westbrook snarling that his 2015 scoring title “doesn’t mean [s—-]“ will go down as the iconic quote from an unforgettable season.
— John Wilmes
All things NBA come to a head in the spring, with playoff basketball coming as award season begins as well. This week, the league handed out the first two of its major trophies.
Lou Williams of the Toronto Raptors was designated Sixth Man of the Year after a renaissance season, during which he averaged 15.5 points, the most of his career, and was often the No. 1 offensive option in crunch time for the four-seeded dinosaurs.
The heartening part of Williams’ victory is that it means he’s made more than a full recovery from a torn ACL suffered in January 2013. Lou struggled to find a larger role with the Atlanta Hawks after that malady, but has a found a new home in Canada.
Williams garnered 78 out of 130 first-place votes, edging Isaiah Thomas of the Boston Celtics and Jamal Crawford of the Los Angeles Clippers—last year’s winner of the award.
The mystery of why this honor has been typecast goes, on though: It almost always goes to a score-first guard:
Being a shooting/scoring guard is helpful in Sixth Man voting. pic.twitter.com/NArcNZlJa0— Bruce Arthur (@bruce_arthur) April 20, 2015
Taj Gibson of the Chicago Bulls was arguably a more deserving winner last season, and the Cleveland Cavaliers’ rebounding hound Tristan Thompson somehow couldn’t crack the top three in 2015. Big men remain largely cursed in this category.
This morning, the league continued its prize-giving by naming the Hawks’ Mike Budenholzer the Coach of the Year recipient. The race had clearly been between him and the Golden State Warriors’ Steve Kerr for months, with Budenholzer edging him out with 67 first-place ballots.
Coach Bud’s Hawks were the best team in the Eastern Conference all season, and their sudden turnaround seemed to have a lot to do with his wisdom and discipline. Their 20-game winning streak in the winter was a blaze of glory that’s not soon to be forgotten, and their leader on the bench is getting his due props for it.
— John Wilmes