Articles By Athlon Sports
Move over, Mike Malone firing. The Detroit Pistons have made the most shocking move of the 2014-15 NBA season by dropping underperforming star forward Josh Smith.
It’s not surprising that Stan Van Gundy (team coach, as well president of basketball operations) doesn’t want Smith around. Since signing a four-year deal worth $54 million in 2013, the former Atlanta Hawks phenom has been lousy. This year, he’s shot just 39 percent from the floor, including a devastatingly bad 24 percent from three, and an almost unbelievable 47 percent mark from the charity stripe.
What does come as news, however, is that Van Gundy had the chutzpah — and owner Tom Gores’ backing — to actually cut Smith loose. NBA contracts are largely made up of guaranteed money, and J Smoove’s is no exception. Despite being excused from his duties as a Piston, he’ll still be getting every penny of what he signed up for. He’ll now be paid, essentially, to simply stop being around anymore.
Detroit will get to use a “stretch provision” on his deal to allow them to spread the payments out over more years, which will free up salary cap space and make their roster more flexible going forward. But the maligned Smith is still, ultimately, owed something close to $40 million. That’s no small pill to swallow.
Rumblings prior to the waiving suggested that the Pistons had daily pursued trades involving Smith, with all 29 other teams in the league, and that zero were interested in making a swap at a reasonable price.
But now that Smith’s available for a much smaller price tag, there’s something like a bidding war for his services among playoff-eligible teams. The Houston Rockets, Dallas Mavericks, Miami Heat and Sacramento Kings are all pursuing a deal with Smith, according to ESPN’s Marc Stein. Stay tuned for details as this story continues to unfold.
— John Wilmes
Why do football players wear crazy colored contact lenses?
Part of it is intimidation. Imagine looking across the line of scrimmage at physical freak Mario Williams; now, throw in a demonic, blood-red pair of contacts, and you've got some real nightmare fuel. “It’s a psyche thing for me,” said Williams. “It’s nothing about my performance. But it’s like wearing a mask without wearing a mask."
Other football players who’ve sported crazy contacts include Clemson’s Kalon Davis, Vanderbilt’s Caleb Azubike, NFL receiver Santonio Holmes, and retired NFL player Kyle Vanden Bosch.
Will anyone ever break Peyton Manning’s career record for TD passes?
It’s possible, although it won’t happen any time soon. Manning has left Brett Favre’s career mark of 508 safely in his rear-view mirror, and no other active player has as many as 400. Manning’s closest active pursuer, 35-year-old Drew Brees, could average 35 TD passes through age 40 and still fall short. But one guy to keep an eye on is Manning’s successor in Indianapolis, Andrew Luck, who has an excellent chance to end his third season with more TD passes than Peyton tossed in his first three campaigns. Luck is young, healthy and in an offense that’s built for him to put up huge numbers.
NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. took to Twitter recently to show off a Jesus-adorned "Birthday Boy" sweater. Not to be outdone, his girlfriend, Amy Reimann, took it once step further, sporting a red and white sweater with, um, reindeer humping.
Marshawn Lynch may be terrible at post-game press conferences, but he more than makes up for it on the field. During Sunday night's game against the Cardinals, Lynch went "Beast Mode" and broke one for a 79-yard TD run, where he went around, through and over the Arizona defense.
On the eve of the one-year anniversary of his new job, NBA commissioner Adam Silver gave an extended interview to ESPN’s Andy Katz. High on the list of topics broached was widespread fan and media speculation that there is a plague of tanking in the NBA, with suspicions being particularly aroused by what the 2-23 Philadelphia 76ers are doing.
Silver thinks the reports of teams losing intentionally are overblown. "I absolutely don't think any team is trying to lose," he said to Katz.
"No player is going out there to lose. In terms of management, I think there's an absolute legitimate rebuilding process that goes on. It's so hard to win in this league, and it's so complex. I think what's happened in the case of Philadelphia — their strategy has been reduced into a tweet. This notion, 'be bad to be good’… when it gets reduced into a headline, I understand the reaction.”
Philadelphia, first of all, is the only team in the league clearly doing this. All the other dragging franchises, upon a close look, seem just to be mismanaged and simply bad.
Silver is right. The complex, lengthy strategy employed by Philly general manager Sam Hinkie is rare, unrepresentative, and a high-stakes gambit to boot. The 76ers are looking to exploit a sort of loophole by constructing a roster too young and untalented to compete at a high level, and climbing up the draft ladder. But the loophole is narrow, and if the Sixers come out of this muddy tunnel as clean winners, it won’t be because they sucked for a while.
Team-building is still done by smart coaching, sharp management, hard-working players and — of course — good luck. There’s a lot more to it than that, though: accurately explaining the difference between NBA teams who thrive, and those who don’t, would require dozens of pages. Organizational aptitude is a big, tricky beast, and Silver smartly reduces the popular “tanking” conversation into the sliver of an argument it is.
— John Wilmes
The Sacramento Kings are a spectacle of franchise upheaval right now. And after eager second-year owner Vivek Ranadive had coach Mike Malone fired last week — despite undeniable improvement from last season, and an extended absence from their best player DeMarcus Cousins — the team looks like it’s not quite done making major moves.
While the hunt for a proper replacement for Malone (to take the seat of interim man Ty Corbin, who’s believed to be short for the job) looks like it will wait for later, Kings general manager Pete D’Alessandro has been making some phone calls about acquiring other players.
The most recent word is that D’Alessandro and Billy King of the Brooklyn Nets have discussed a deal that would land All-Star point guard Deron Williams with the Kings. Brooklyn would get Darren Collison, Derrick Williams and Jason Thompson in return. ESPN’s Mike Mazzeo and Ohm Youngmisuk have the scoop.
Ranadive’s desire to win is immense, so he’s willing to make big moves. His thirst for the home run trade or hire seems to be an extension of some of the tech biz principles that made him a billionaire.
"The NBA has become like the high-tech business," Ranadive recently told ESPN. "Just because you invented the iPhone doesn't mean you can rest on your laurels because somebody else is building a better iPhone. Just because you win 50 games doesn't mean you can be satisfied with the status quo. So we live in a time when good enough isn't, and we need to keep getting better. So while we have a good foundation, we needed to pivot. We needed to go."
Whether Williams is the man to turn Sacramento into a veritable NBA supercomputer is hard to know. He’s a very compromised player after a litany of ankle injuries, and as such his contract — which owes him about $63 million through 2016-17 — makes him less than an ideal asset for any salary cap.
But he’s still a wildly talented, shrewd, skilled player when he’s healthy, and an obvious upgrade over Collison. With Cousins and Rudy Gay, he’d make for a trio that might cause some more heat in the thick of the Western Conference.
— John Wilmes
Friday: Chicago Bulls @ Memphis Grizzlies, 8:00 PM ET
Two of the league’s toughest, biggest teams meet at the FedEx Forum for a slugfest between opposing conference titans as a limping Bulls squad — which has had almost no games with their full starting lineup together — challenge the surging Grizzlies, who picked up big wins over the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs this week to improve to 21–4.
Friday: Portland Trail Blazers @ San Antonio Spurs, 8:00 PM ET
Tune in for a rematch of last year’s Western Conference semi-finals as Damian Lillard looks to shoot the Blazers into a win, on the heels of losing starting center Robin Lopez to a hand injury. Although the Spurs have been less than their amazing best selves this year, they always stand tall for future playoff competition.
Saturday: Atlanta Hawks @ Houston Rockets, 8:00 PM ET
In a surprise turn of NBA fate, this game features one of the best league offenses (Atlanta) trying to penetrate the walls of one of its best defenses in Houston. If the hot Hawks — who crushed LeBron’s Cavs 127-98 on Wednesday — win this one, maybe they’ll get their overdue attention from the rest of the sport.
Saturday: San Antonio Spurs @ Dallas Mavericks, 8:30 PM ET
Rajon Rondo is a Maverick now, and the Texas roundball gridlock just got all the more interesting for it. Don’t miss his debut, in which the best offense in the NBA tries to get even better with a new passing visionary behind the wheel.
Sunday: New Orleans Pelicans @ Oklahoma City Thunder, 7:00 PM ET
The Thunder are on a roll since getting Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook back, but taking down MVP candidate Anthony Davis is never an easy task. Make sure to catch this showcase, featuring three of the game’s finest athletes competing for playoff spots in the brutal Western Conference.
— John Wilmes
Opportunities for big-time non-conference wins are dwindling as the calendar closes on Christmas and league play begins. For Ohio State and North Carolina, with non-conference resumes that are uneven at best, the CBS Sports Classic in Chicago is each team’s final opportunity to put a bow on their non-conference schedule before their respective conference play begins.
Ohio State comes into this meeting with North Carolina not only looking for a highlight win for themselves, but for the Big Ten as a whole.
The less-than-stellar early season performance of the conference has seen losses of probable tournament teams to three directional schools (Eastern Michigan, Eastern Washington, North Florida), a school without a conference (NJIT) and a Division I newcomer (Incarnate Word). Not exactly the power conference we are used to seeing.
Barring disaster, the Buckeyes are tournament-bound. A win over a ranked, ACC opponent, especially after losing to the only team they’ve played in the top 50, Louisville, earlier this month, can only help the Bucks' chances of getting a top three or four seed in the Big Dance.
North Carolina has had a mediocre start to the 2014-15 campaign by Chapel Hill standards. Many pundits saw the Tar Heels as Duke’s biggest challenger in the juggernaut that is the ACC. A loss at home to Iowa after losing to then unranked Butler in the Battle 4 Atlantis, sent the Tar Heels reeling, stunned, looking for answers.
The Heels offense has yet to come together and may be lacking the perimeter attack that Roy Williams’ offense needs. Carolina may have to refocus its offensive strategy to become more inside-out, utilize their front court length, and 6-foot-9 sophomore Kennedy Meeks (13.8 points per game, 9.1 rebounds per game).
Ohio State vs. North Carolina
Site: United Center, Chicago
Time: Saturday, noon
What’s on the line for Ohio State
Ohio State can add something to its resume that's in short supply in the Big Ten, a signature win. The Buckeyes’ early schedule has been anything but noteworthy, having only played two power conference teams (Marquette, Louisville). Ohio State has the 329th toughest schedule in the country according to kenpom.com. The Buckeyes have played only one road non-conference game, losing to No. 5 Louisville 64-55 in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. A win against the Tar Heels on a neutral floor could pay dividends come Selection Sunday.
What’s on the line for North Carolina
Ten games into the season and North Carolina has yet to establish an identity. Roy Williams’ team picked up two November non-conference wins in the Battle 4 Atlantis against UCLA and Florida. While losing to Kentucky at Rupp is hardly shameful, losses to a less talented Iowa squad at home and to an undersized Butler team on a neutral court are worrisome. A win against a top 15 team would work wonders for North Carolina come March, especially after the gauntlet that is the new ACC conference schedule.
You’ll tune into watch: Freshman D’Angelo Russell’s coming out party
No other freshman in the country — heck, maybe no other player in the country — could be as productive as Ohio State’s freshman combo guard D’Angelo Russell. Through his first 10 games, the 6-5 Louisville product is averaging 18 points, 4.4 rebounds, 5.2 assists, and 1.7 steals per game, all while shooting 43 percent from behind the arc. Against Sacred Heart, Russell went off, scoring 32 points with nine rebounds and five assists while connecting on four of his eight three-point attempts. If Russell can catch fire against North Carolina’s stout defense on the national stage, D’Angelo could be a household name come January and Wooden Award candidate in March.
Pivotal player: North Carolina’s Marcus Paige
The Athlon All-American has struggled so far this season. Paige, the ACC Preseason Player of the Year, is more than four points off of last year’s scoring average of 17.5 points per game, shooting a lackluster 35.4 percent from deep and 34.8 percent from the floor as a whole. What’s bugging Marcus Paige? Hard to say. Whatever it is, the Tar Heels will need Paige to find his touch if they want to compete with the likes of the ACC’s elite this winter.
Biggest question: Who has the bigger advantage, the Buckeye’s offense or Tar Heels’ defense?
This Ohio State squad has pure scoring ability, something that Thad Matta’s teams don't normally exhibit outside of one, maybe two, players. The early season Buckeyes boast one of the country’s most efficient offenses, including three players scoring in double figures. Ohio State ranks 10th in scoring (84.2 per game), 13th in assists (17.4 per game), fourth in field goal percentage (53.7 percent) and third in effective field goal rate (60.3 percent). Granted, those offensive numbers largely come from playing lesser teams (with the exception of Louisville), and this North Carolina group is much more stout defensively than the Colgate Raiders. The Tar Heels use their athleticism on the perimeter and collective frontcourt length to keep teams at bay offensively. Thus far, North Carolina is 16th in defensive efficiency (90.0), according to kenpom.com, forcing teams to shoot just 40.4 in field goal efficiency and 25.2 percent from three. If the Tar Heels can force D’Angelo Russell to turn the ball over, like he is prone to do (3.2 turnovers per game), and get out in transition, they’ll be celebrating in Chapel Hill come Saturday night.
-By Jake Rose
David Fox: Ohio State 64-60
Braden Gall: North Carolina 74-67
Mitch Light: Ohio State 75-70
Jake Rose: Ohio State: 76-70
Frank Caliendo recently called into "Mike & Mike," doing several impressions of ESPN personalities reading 'Twas the Night Before Christmas. Our favorite? Lou Holtz.
With two weeks to go there are four division races down and four more to go, and the four remaining are far from sewn up. There are 10 teams involved in the chase for those divisions – which is a problem since there are only eight remaining playoff berths.
The wild-card race this year, in fact, is so strong that it’s possible there’ll be at least one 10-win team in each conference that doesn’t make the playoffs. In the NFC there’s a possibility that an 11-5 team will be left out. That’s why winning the division seems more important than ever.
So here’s a look at those all-important races in the four divisions that are up for grabs:
AFC NORTH: Cincinnati Bengals (9-4-1), Pittsburgh Steelers (9-5), Baltimore Ravens (9-5)
There was a time earlier this season when the flawed Cleveland Browns were sitting atop the standings that this didn’t look like one of the better divisions in football. But these three teams have made a strong, late-season push. And it could all come down to the Bengals game in Pittsburgh in Week 17.
The Bengals play against the Denver Broncos this week, which makes that finale almost a must-win for them, especially since the Steelers warm up for that game by playing host to the Kansas City Chiefs.
It’s the Ravens, though, who might be in the drivers’ seat. Winners of four of the last five, they have a soft, season-ending schedule with a game at Houston and home against the Browns. They haven’t looked great the last few weeks, and it’s worth noting that they lost back-to-back games to the Bengals and Steelers before this streak began.
The Steelers own the tie-breaker over the Ravens, but they might be forced to win both of their last two games.
Forecast: 1. Steelers 11-5, 2. Ravens 11-5, 3. Bengals 9-6-1
NFC EAST: Dallas Cowboys (10-4), Philadelphia Eagles (9-5)
The Cowboys’ Week 15 win over Philly was absolutely huge, because their tie-breaker scenarios meant they were going to be in danger of not only losing the division, but maybe even missing the playoffs had they lost. Instead, they looked terrific, as they have for much of the season. They may be hampered by the broken hand to RB DeMarco Murray, but early indications are that it's not serious, which could be a boost to get them on a roll.
Their only problem, though, is they have a very difficult game against the Indianapolis Colts this weekend, while the Eagles have an incredibly easy season-ending stretch against Washington and the Giants, the two worst teams in the NFC East.
So while it looks like the bubble sure has burst on QB Mark Sanchez, which doesn’t bode well for the playoffs, they still can win the division by winning their final two games and hoping the Cowboys lose once. If the Cowboys beat the Colts on Sunday, though, the division race is all but over.
Forecast: 1. Eagles 11-5, 2. Cowboys 11-5
NFC NORTH: Detroit Lions (10-4), Green Bay Packers (10-4)
Until the Packers’ shocking loss to the Bills last weekend they looked to be on the Polar Express toward Super Bowl XLIX. And they might still be, especially if it’s the flawed Lions standing between them and at least one, maybe two, playoff games in Lambeau Field.
The Lions, though, have a real chance to win the division. It’s game over for the Packers with one Lions win and one Packers loss. If the Packers beat Tampa Bay on Sunday, though, then no matter what it all comes down to the season finale in Green Bay. Since the Lions play at Chicago this weekend, it’s a good bet they’ll both be 11-4 heading into that winner-take-all game.
Forecast: 1. Packers 12-4, Lions 11-5
NFC SOUTH: New Orleans Saints (6-8), Carolina Panthers (5-8-1), Atlanta Falcons (5-9)
The worst division in the NFL doesn’t deserve a winner, but at least it’s only going to get one playoff berth. The Saints have the easiest path and can clinch by beating the Falcons on Sunday if the Panthers lose. They also have the safety net of a game against the Bucs in their finale – as if anything is really “safe” in this miserable division.
The Falcons can win their last two games and do some damage in the division, since they play the Saints and Panthers. A win over the Saints this weekend would be huge, since it would give them a season sweep and the tiebreaker advantage.
None of them have played particularly well lately and all of them have their issues, so really this division is “anything goes”. They’d be lucky to get a team into the playoffs with a .500 record. It’s hard to see whoever represents them being anything but one and done.
Forecast: 1. Saints 8-8, 2. Panthers 7-9-1, 3. Falcons 6-10
The Boston Celtics are in transition. That's why they just made the tough decision not to hold onto their last vestige of past glory. All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo was the only remaining member of their 2008 championship team that featured Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen — until last night. Now he's a Dallas Maverick.
Rondo seemed out of place with the current, rebuilding Celtics, led by Brad Stevens — the youngest coach in the league. He makes a lot more sense fighting for a championship in the intense, competitive Western Conference with Dirk Nowitzki and coach Rick Carlisle.
Basketball fans come out winners with Rondo heading to Texas. While the gap between the Eastern and Western conferences only grows larger with this move, the popcorn bucket for the playoffs only gets bigger and more buttery with another elite competitor in the fray. In past playoffs, Rondo has regularly been one of the most watchable players alive.
To get Rondo, Dallas is giving up backup big man Brandan Wright along with Jae Crowder, Jameer Nelson, and two future draft picks — as reported by ESPN's Marc Stein.
It'll be interesting to see how the blockbuster trade plays out on the floor. Dallas already has the best offense in the league, and adding a new general will change a lot of what they do fundamentally. One is tempted to say it will change for the better — Rondo has better passing vision than just about anyone in the NBA — but how can you improve upon No. 1?
Rondo has been a ferocious defender in the past, but the malaise of a rebuild in Boston seems to have changed that. If his drop in effectiveness is all about motivation, then Dallas should rejoice. Because their team just got one of the biggest primetime gamers in the sport.
— John Wilmes
“Underrated” means a lot of things to a lot of people, but this is a collection of men who simply don’t get mentioned nearly enough. While players like Marc Gasol, John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis aren’t often properly credited on NBA fan radars — small market size will do that — this, here, is a team of ballers who simply can’t even get on that radar, but should be on yours.
7. Robin Lopez
The Portland Trail Blazers were hit hard this week when they learned of starting center Robin Lopez’s broken hand. Next to LaMarcus Aldridge, he provides just about the perfect complement of dirty work. His rim-protection, rebounding and general banging around in the lane free up Aldridge to be the futuristic, deep-shooting big that so often kills defenses.
As far as role players go, it’s hard to find a better one than the affable Lopez. His good humor and attitude are essential to the Blazers’ locker room, too, and Portland (a stealth Western Conference contender) will receive a terrific shot in the arm when he returns later this winter.
6. Andrew Bogut
Open your ears, and you’re sure to hear about Steph Curry and Klay Thompson — better known as the Splash Brothers. The Golden State Warriors hum along with one of the best offenses of the year in large part due to having the league’s best shooting combo. Thompson and Curry are also, for many fans, what makes GSW fun to watch.
But the wins and losses wouldn’t be the same without their linchpin back-line defender, Andrew Bogut, who's also insanely skilled on the perimeter for a 7-footer. The Warriors’ offense truly leaves the stratosphere when Bogut's passing outside the paint enters the playbook. If you like to watch big men behave like guards, Andrew’s your man.
5. Ty Lawson
Ty Lawson hasn’t let his undersized frame stop him from NBA ascension. The tiny dynamo goes unnoticed on a mismatched Denver Nuggets roster in the loaded Western Conference, but he’s secretly one of the very best pick-and-roll players in basketball. Lawson only needs an inch to kill you with his speed, and a screen can usually give him a few.
And when Denver is tight with their opponents down the stretch, there’s no doubt about who they’ll be calling the play for. Ty is high on the moxie rankings and can usually cross you over to get room for a clutch jumper that you’ll not soon forget.
4. Serge Ibaka
It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that last year’s NBA title hung on the tendons of Serge Ibaka’s calf. When Ibaka got injured and missed Games 1 and 2 of the Western Conference Finals against the San Antonio Spurs, his Oklahoma City Thunder struggled to do anything right defensively.
Having Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook is always nice, but you’ve got to perform exquisite team defense to get past the game-planning of the reigning NBA champs. With a healthy Ibaka keeping the restricted area on lockdown, the currently streaking Thunder won’t have to advance too far up the standings to make noise in this year’s playoffs. With home-court advantage or without it, they’ll be able to beat anybody.
3. Trevor Ariza
Going into free agency this past summer, Trevor Ariza was plagued by one season of his career. Because his production dipped in 2009-10 when he signed a new deal, Ariza was widely cited as a “contract-year player,” who wouldn’t play up to standards once money wasn’t on the table.
But after signing a four-year, $32 million sheet with the Houston Rockets in July, Ariza has thoroughly disproved that notion. He’s been an essential piece of the surging Rockets, who look much more fearsome than last year with a defense loaded with real teeth. Ariza’s a premier perimeter stopper who brings conviction and elite 3-point shooting to Houston, too.
2. Jeff Teague
Don’t look now, but the Eastern Conference is growing their own version of the Spurs. Under the direction of former Gregg Popovich assistant Mike Budenholzer, point guard Jeff Teague has become the motor to an offense with an uncanny amount of selfless passers and potent three-point shooters.
The Hawks’ motion-heavy offense is a thrill to watch, even if almost no one sees it. Teague’s penetration into the lane keys defensive breakdowns that often end in the enemy’s nightmare: Kyle Korver draining an open three. But the fifth-year Wake Forest alum can also finish the play himself, as a 47 percent shooter with a fierce finishing touch at the rim.
1. Kyle Lowry
The Toronto Raptors are the No. 1 team in the East, and no one deserves more credit for that than Kyle Lowry. One of the league’s best game managers in crunch time, Lowry is a pugnacious point guard who can kill you with force as much as he can touch.
An excellent, aggressive defender as well, Lowry is the soul at the middle of a Canadian basketball renaissance. Don’t be surprised if you see him smiling this springtime, while his dark horse Toronto squad emerges out of the Eastern Conference and fights in the Finals behind his stellar, steady play.
— John Wilmes
Jabari Parker is the face of the Milwaukee Bucks’ future. He was, also, set to be the Rookie of the Year by almost all accounts — until something very unfortunate happened.
The former Duke standout and Chicago native has an advanced, veteran-like knack for scoring that goes beyond simple skills like shooting, jumping, and running. He’s got that next-level touch for putting points up; that creative gene we evoke when we so emphatically say “buckets.” Jabari’s got a singular way of finding the hole, and he’s still only 19 years old.
That’s why the latest news about him is so heartbreaking. Parker’s knee buckled in Monday night’s road game against the Phoenix Suns, and late last night the worst was confirmed by ESPN and other outlets: Parker has torn his ACL, and he’ll miss the remainder of his rookie season.
The Bucks were just becoming quite the team to watch, too. Next to the incredibly lengthy 20-year-old Giannis “the Greek Freak” Antetokounmpo, Parker had managed to become one of the faces of a new, rising generation of NBA superstardom.
Parker, who was drafted No. 2 overall by Milwaukee in June, still has many bright days ahead of him. Torn ACLs are terrible, but they’re not the end of the world. Chris Paul, a perennial MVP candidate, certainly survived his. But the recovery is rough, as Derrick Rose (who happens to have gone to the same high school as Jabari, Simeon Academy) is proving with his slow climb back to basketball prominence.
Luckily, the man is still young. He still won’t be able to legally drink by the time he hits the floor again, and he’ll have more than a decade of professional balling ahead of him. While Jabari will now definitely miss out on the Rookie of the Year award he was destined for — and we’ll miss the chance to watch him light the screen up for a season — he’ll still have more than ample opportunity to compete for much greater glory.
— John Wilmes
Well, there is nowhere to go but up for Johnny Manziel.
The Cleveland Browns' rookie quarterback made his starting debut in Week 15, and it was certainly forgettable. It was bad enough to lose while still in the playoff hunt and to be shutout 30-0 at home by in-state division rival Cincinnati, but the performance itself left plenty to be desired.
Running just 38 offensive plays, the fewest for Cleveland since its Week 1 return to the league in 1999 (28), the 22-year-old Manziel went 10-of-18 for 80 yards, was sacked three times, intercepted twice, and finished with a quarterback rating of 27.3. He had five carries for 13 yards.
"It’s the first game I’ve ever not scored a point in and been shut out,” he said on Monday. “I’ve played in a lot of games, I feel like, from high school through college and that one and never been shut out until then, so it was definitely tough.”
Cincinnati jumped out to a 20-0 halftime lead as Manziel was 4-of-9 for 22 yards with his two interceptions coming in the first two quarters. Both interceptions came on passes longer than 15 yards, of which Manziel finished 0-for-4 on those attempts.
"I never felt overwhelmed or that it was too much for me," he said.
The No. 22 pick overall in May's NFL Draft, Manziel became the Browns' 21st different starting quarterback since the franchise returned, and the team's fifth to be shut out in his first start. He became the NFL's sixth QB in the last 20 years to be shutout in his first start, the first since 2010.
And while he called the experience "humbling," Manziel certainly was not the first first-round QB to be shutout in his starting debut. But if history is any indicator, bouncing back quickly is a rarity. Four other first-round QBs were shutout in their first starts as rookies. The four combined for zero touchdowns and six interceptions in their debuts. They returned the next week to combine for two TDs and nine interceptions, and all four lost again.
Johnny Football has two more regular-season games to get on track and potentially get his team into the postseason - a feat none of the other four first-round QBs on the shutout list were remotely close to doing as rookies.
FIRST-ROUND QUARTERBACKS SHUTOUT IN FIRST START
TOMMY MADDOX, DENVER, WEEK 12, 1992
Maddox lost 24-0 at the Los Angeles Raiders in his first start as a rookie. He went 11-for-26 for 127 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions. He lost at Seattle the following week, 16-13, throwing for 127 yards, his first TD, and another two interceptions. Maddox, who was out of the NFL from 1996-2000, did not start again until Week 4, 2002, a 32-29 loss at New Orleans. His first win as a starter came the next week when he completed 16-of-25 passes for 216 yards, one TD, and two interceptions to defeat host Cincinnati 34-7.
TIMM ROSENBACH, PHOENIX, WEEK 15, 1989
Rosenbach lost 37-0 against visiting Denver, going 2-for-8 for 14 yards with no TDs and no interceptions. He did no start again until Week 1 of the following season, a 31-0 loss at Washington where he was 20-of-39 for 228 yards with no TDs and four interceptions. It was not until Rosenbach's third career start, Week 2 of the 1990 season, that he scored a win. He went 11-of-19 for 116 yards with no touchdowns and one interception in a 23-21 win at Philadelphia. He went 5-11 as a starter in 1990, started no games in 1991, lost the first two games of 1992 and was out of football by the end of the season.
TROY AIKMAN, DALLAS, WEEK 1, 1989
Aikman started 11 games of the Cowboys' 1-15, 1989 season. His first came in Week 1 when he lost 28-0 at New Orleans, completing 17-of-35 passes for 180 yards with no TDs and two interceptions. He followed that with a 27-21 loss at Altanta, throwing for 241 yards on 13-of-23 passing with one TD and two interceptions. Aikman did not get a win until his 12th career start, which came in Week 1 of the 1990 season. He scored the game-winning touchdown, a 1-yard run, to defeat visiting San Diego 17-14. Aikman was 13-of-29 for 193 yards with the rushing TD, a passing TD, and an interception.
BOB GRIESE, MIAMI, WEEK 2, 1967
Griese lost 24-0 to visiting Kansas City, completing 11-of-22 passes for 101 yards, no touchdowns, and two interceptions. He followed that with a 29-7 loss at the Jets the next week, connecting on 1-of-3 passes for four yards, no scores, and one interception. Griese did not get his first win until his sixth start of the 1967 season. He had the game-winning, 31-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter to defeat visiting Buffalo 17-14, connecting on 17-of-33 attempts for 222 yards, the touchdown, and three interceptions. Griese was the only one of the four first-round QBs shutout in their first start to get a win in his rookie season.
Owings Mills, MD (SportsNetwork.com) - The Baltimore Ravens placed rookie running back Lorenzo Taliaferro, rookie safety Terrence Brooks and cornerback Asa Jackson on season-ending injured reserve Tuesday.
Taliaferro, a fourth-round pick, hurt his foot against the Miami Dolphins on Dec. 7 and didn't play against the Jaguars on Sunday. He carried the ball 68 times for 292 yards and four touchdowns in 13 games this season.
The Ravens now have Bernard Pierce and Fitzgerald Toussaint behind Justin Forsett at running back.
Brooks, a third-round draft pick, and Jackson are dealing with knee injuries.
Baltimore promoted offensive lineman Ryan Jensen from the practice squad to the active roster and signed defensive tackle Casey Walker off the New England Patriots' practice squad.
Houston, TX (SportsNetwork.com) - The Houston Texans placed quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick on injured reserve Tuesday, officially ending his season.
The move came a day after Fitzpatrick had surgery on his broken left leg, an injury he suffered during Sunday's game against Indianapolis.
Backup Tom Savage was also injured on Sunday and will miss this weekend's game against Baltimore, further depleting Houston at the position.
The Texans bolstered their quarterback depth chart by signing Case Keenum to the active roster and inking Ricky Stanzi to the practice squad. Keenum or Thad Lewis figures to get the start Sunday against the Ravens.
Fitzpatrick was benched for Ryan Mallett earlier this season. He returned to a starting role after Mallett went down with a season-ending pectoral injury last month and ended the season with 2,483 yards passing and 17 touchdowns in 12 games.
Keenum started eight games for the Texans last season, going 0-8 with 1,760 yards passing, nine touchdowns and six interceptions.
Stanzi, 27, was a fifth-round draft pick of the Kansas City Chiefs in 2011 out of Iowa. He spent two years on their roster and another on Jacksonville's last season but has never taken an NFL snap.
The Texans placed wide receiver Travis Labhart on the practice squad/injured list.
Kobe Bryant has done it. Now No. 3 all-time in scoring, he’s passed his idol Michael Jordan.
Reggie Miller isn’t impressed, though. “Michael Jordan on his worst day is 10 times better than Kobe Bryant on his best day,” the TNT announcer and three-point shooting legend recently said to Dan Patrick. “That’s not short-changing Kobe at all, because he handed me my lunch pail, too, but I will take that Black Cat (Jordan) all day, any day over Kobe.”
We can’t usually weigh too much into what legends of the past say about their old peers, or current-day players either. They’ve always got a hefty mythological stake in how people perceive their competition in the world of sports rhetoric, where legacy rules all. Every time Miller’s current co-workers Shaquille O’Neal and Charles Barkley aim their crosshairs at men like Blake Griffin, DeMarcus Cousins and Dwight Howard, it’s not hard to see: These guys don’t want their history to be shown up.
But Miller — as he noted — isn’t defending himself or his era. Bryant and Jordan both waxed him and his otherwise-title-bound Indiana Pacers in the postseason, and he accepts that. Both were superior players to him, but one still stood much taller: Jordan.
Of course, only a time machine can really solve this dispute. And while I don’t see any DeLoreans coming around the corner, we do know that Bryant is in his eighteenth season, and has only just now equaled Jordan’s output over fifteen. Kobe, great as he’s been, can’t compare to the efficient dominance that captured basketball’s imagination so thoroughly in the ’80’s and 90’s.
While the Black Mamba is an impressive 45 percent shooter over his career (almost unheard of for a perimeter player of such high usage) Jordan was positively interstellar with his 50 percent mark.
Bryant’s accomplishment shouldn’t be diminished. He has been more committed to the sport than Jordan — who retired from the NBA three times and swung a baseball bat for a while — and that certainly counts for something. But we shouldn’t be handing Kobe the crown without context, either. So while Miller's math may be off (I'm not sure the sport could survive a player with tenfold the talent as Vino) he's surely right that His Airness still reigns supreme.
— John Wilmes
Kendrick Perkins is one of the biggest trash talkers in the NBA. So it comes as no surprise that he’s gotten under the skin of yet another league star.
"He might as well play with his face painted, he's a clown to me," Sacramento Kings forward Rudy Gay told Kings blog Sactown Royalty. "You can quote that. He's a clown to me. He might as well play with his face painted.”
Gay’s choice words were a response to what Perkins was caught saying about the Kings during a November 9 contest between Sacramento and Perkins’ Oklahoma City Thunder. “These m—————— are still the Sacramento Kings,” Perkins said in the game — which OKC eventually won, 101-93 — caught here in Vine form (NSFW):
“I’d rather be a clown than a virus,” Perkins said about Gay’s most recent comments, implying that Gay’s movement around the league (this is his third team in as many seasons) is due to having an unsavory personality.
As has been the case throughout his career, Perk continues to impact the game in ways well beyond the box score. A consistent minus in nearly every statistical category, Perkins’ worth to the surging Thunder is in the scowl department. His mean, aggressive style helps his men feel backed-up, cohesive and confident. That’s what he gets paid for.
Gay, on the other hand, is enjoying the best play of his career, reminding the world of the potential they saw in him years ago. Averaging 21.1 points per game, his performance is now a silver lining for a Kings squad that’s fallen into confusion and controversy with the prolonged sickness of franchise man DeMarcus Cousins, and the sudden firing of head coach Mike Malone.
Just when you thought the Kings might be responsible for some good, competitive basketball again, they jump back into headlines for all the wrong, ridiculous reasons. Let the folly continue.
— John Wilmes
The Miami Heat made some moves this summer, to try making up for the gaping hole in their talent level caused when LeBron James announced he’d be heading back to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The moves haven’t worked, as the injury-riddled Heat are just 11-13 and struggling to stay in the playoff picture — even in the soft Eastern Conference. Things aren’t getting any easier, either: Monday, the team announced that new small forward Josh McRoberts would need surgery to repair a recently torn meniscus. McRoberts, an under-the-radar player with a versatile offensive skill set, could miss the rest of the year.
Perennial All-Star Chris Bosh, simultaneously, is said to be out indefinitely with a strained calf. And Dwyane Wade, as is well known by now, has long been hard to rely on for consistent action on the floor. He’s a factory of pain these days, as he been for some time.
"Injuries are a part of this game; how you respond to adversities, to things that are tough, that's what reveals your collective character as a group,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra told ESPN’s Mike Wallace. "I told the guys there will be brighter days. It always usually evens out at the end. We're being hit pretty strong with the injury bug right now.”
Now that the King is gone from South Beach, it’s easier than ever to see just how heavy of a load he carried for Pat Riley’s squad over four seasons. Even with the additions of McRoberts and two-time All-Star Luol Deng, the basketball presence James took with him is extremely noticeable. A former 50-win team (at worst) is now battling hard just to tread water.
Hope is dim for Heat fans today, but they always have one tantalizing possibility to hold out for: Riley’s masterful touch with big-ticket free agents. Come 2015 or '16, you know he’ll be poised to make another home run signing, to bring Miami back closer to the promised land.
— John Wilmes
The biggest bombshell of the NBA season dropped last night when Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports reported that the Sacramento Kings fired head coach Mike Malone, citing that “Malone didn't meet win-loss expectations of ownership[.]”
This one’s a head-scratcher. Kings owner Vivek Ranadive has been acknowledged by myself and many others as perhaps the league’s worst owner. But the Kings’ surprising improvement is hard to nitpick — especially given that their franchise player, DeMarcus Cousins, has been out of action with viral meningitis for the last nine games. With Cousins in the lineup, the Kings jumped out to an impressive 9-5 start.
Sacramento, this time last year, was 7-15. But with the maturation of Cousins, the renaissance of Rudy Gay and the unexpectedly shrewd replacement of point guard Isaiah Thomas with Darren Collison, they’re now 11-13, treading water in a historically prickly Western Conference behind the defense-first tutelage of Malone.
Now, they’ll be run by head assistant Ty Corbin — last year’s head coach of the fledgling Utah Jazz — who is reportedly filling in on an interim basis. Ranadive and management, Wojnarowski says, expected a faster, more exciting playing pace in addition to a better record. Ranadive even went so far, at one point during the offseason, to suggest that the team play a 4-on-5 defense which leaves one player behind to “cherry-pick.”
You have to feel for Sacramento’s fans at a time like this. While there’s always the possibility that Ranadive is a cutting-edge, innovative basketball mind, it’s more likely that he’s an eccentric, aggressive billionaire who’s out of his depth in running this team and that his frivolous decision-making will only continue to sink the Kings’ hopes at a competitive campaign.
Wojnarowski says the Kings don’t have a replacement strategy in line for the head coaching spot yet, but he also floated George Karl — who previously worked with Kings general manager Pete D’Alessandro, as part of an impressive Denver Nuggets run — as well as Vinny Del Negro as potential candidates. Stay tuned for more as this strange, shocking story develops.
— John Wilmes
After Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant returned to the starting lineup for the Oklahoma City Thunder, everyone knew they could get back into contention for the Western Conference Playoffs. But how many people thought it would happen this quickly?
After a 112-88 victory over the reeling Phoenix Suns (losers of five straight) the Thunder have reached a 6-1 mark since Durant came back to the court, on December 2 against the New Orleans Pelicans.
The Thunder are now just 0.5 games behind Phoenix for the eighth and final playoff spot in their conference. This after a 5-13 start, which had the depleted “Zombie Thunder” sometimes using guys like Kendrick Perkins and Sebastian Telfair as primary offensive options.
Life comes at you fast in the NBA, where the whims of fate can turn famine into feast — and vice versa — at any moment. The Thunder are one of the best teams in the league, but their hopes are only as reliable as their roster’s mortal skeletons.
"They came out right from the start and got after it," Phoenix coach Jeff Hornacek said about OKC after the contest. "At one point in the middle of the first quarter they were 11 for 16, so they missed five shots, but on four of those they got offensive rebounds. You can't beat a team when you come out like that. They took it at us.”
Inspired and determined, the Thunder are now racing back into championship contention.
And, in the shorter term, toward Thursday’s game of the week, when they take on the new juggernaut of the West in Steph Curry’s 21-2 Golden State Warriors, who’ve made Steve Kerr the most successful rookie coach in league history so far.
At 10:30 PM ET on December 18, from the Oracle Arena in Oakland, the old kings of the West will clash with the up-and-coming aces to give us a taste of the delicious playoff competition were due for this Spring.
Info from an AP report was used in this article.
— John Wilmes
In an effort to lessen the wear and tear on pro basketball bodies, league executives have begun discussions aimed toward shortening the NBA preseason.
As reported by Grantland’s Zach Lowe, the measure would allow the regular season (which would still be a full 82 games) to begin about ten days earlier — the postseason, in this scenario would commence at the same time. There would be, logically, fewer back-to-back gauntlets for teams if this possibility takes place, and more opportunities for rest throughout the year.
Per Lowe: “The league is hoping that a few tweaks, including a shortened preseason and an extended All-Star break, will add up to something meaningful. Any change in the number of preseason games would likely not take place until the 2016-17 season at the earliest, sources say. Revenue from preseason games goes into the pool that owners and players split, but the league may not have to negotiate any reduction in the preseason schedule with players; the collective bargaining agreement merely calls for “up to eight” exhibition games ahead of the regular season.
“Teams typically play seven or eight preseason games. Teams put together preseason schedules themselves, while the league governs the 82-game regular-season schedule. That is a minor sore spot for team executives tired of haggling with each other over the dates and locations of preseason games. It is not a popular job.”
The preseason, beyond being valuable for revenue purposes, is also a great time for teams (whether they’re familiar with each other or freshly assembled) to build chemistry, so some coaches might take issue with a truncated version of the warm-up stretch of the year.
But no fan’s guts are lit on fire by the prospect of exhibition games. There’s a certain thrill to watching your favorite roundball heroes take the hardwood again after a long summer layoff, but it wears off quickly when you realize how low the stakes are in preseason contests. The sooner the games that count can start — and the fresher the players can be for them — is ultimately for the better.
— John Wilmes
Kobe Bryant has made quite the career out of impersonating Michael Jordan. Bryant’s studious, obsessive emulation of MJ’s form of isolation basketball has made him the league’s most famous, prized hero-baller since His Airness hung up his ever-famous shoes (for the third and final time) in 2003.
And now, Kobe is mere games away from passing Jordan in a certain page of the record books. Bryant is No. 4 all-time in NBA scoring with 32,262 points; Jordan is No. 3, but just 30 ahead of the Black Mamba with 32,292. That gap is one Kobe should be able to close by the end of the weekend — his Los Angeles Lakers play twice between now and Monday, against the San Antonio Spurs and Minnesota Timberwolves, and Bryant averages 25.5 points per game.
It’s only a short matter of time until Kobe surpasses his idol.
But we don’t have to wait any longer for Bryant to lose his mind. He’s had it up to here with the mediocrity of his current Lakers squad, and the world saw that loudly and clearly with his recent outburst at a team practice. Bryant had these not-safe-for-work words to say when the session let out on Thursday:
It’s almost hard to believe the situation in L.A.
Bryant has always been a difficult personality, but now that he’s surrounded by a platoon of inexperienced, immature players — including the always-vocal Nick Young — it’s bringing out the very worst of his hyper-competitive tendencies. With Kobe at their center, the NBA’s most-storied franchise has become something of a farce for now.
One wonders if the Lakers can bring title competition back to Hollywood before Kobe’s career ends. Perhaps the unlikely prospect of Rajon Rondo coming to the Lakers—with rumors of such sparked by a recent breakfast rendezvous — will make things interesting again. Otherwise, Lakers fans will have to wait out the career of one of their most darling stars in Bryant before they can earnestly root for a championship again.
— John Wilmes
Phil Jackson, Gregg Popovich, Red Auerbach, Pat Riley — these are the four horsemen of NBA leadership. Among them, they own more than half of the league’s championships.
But rookie coach Steve Kerr (who happens to have played for two of those men, in Jackson and Popovich) has all of them beat in one category so far. With his Golden State Warriors’ 19-2 start, he’s off to the best beginning in NBA coaching history.
The Warriors notched the latest inch of their scintillating record belt last night, with a 105-93 home victory over the second-best team in basketball, the Houston Rockets. James Harden tried to will Houston to victory almost single-handedly against the deep Warriors roster in Oakland — racking up 34 points on 14-of-27 shooting, to go with eight rebounds, four assists and four steals — but GSW was simply too much.
Steph Curry and Harrison Barnes both had 20 points in the Warriors’ win — Klay Thompson had 21. The team has now won fourteen straight.
By beating Houston, Kerr’s squad passed phase one of a tough new stretch in their schedule. Up next are the Dallas Mavericks. Then, Anthony Davis and the New Orleans Pelicans, the Memphis Grizzlies, and the rejuvenated Oklahoma City Thunder, who’ll be extra motivated with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook back in action and a bad standings hole to climb out of.
In the Western Conference, gauntlets like this are a dime a dozen. That’s what makes it hard to believe the Warriors can keep up this pace, even if they are the best team in basketball. The competition is simply too stiff.
But if the charmed Kerr’s lifelong streak of success is any indication, the Warriors might just be able to run through the best conference ever with a shining mark. Kerr’s a golden boy; every basketball thing he touches seems to improve. He’s thrived as an NBA role player, a TNT announcer next to the iconic Marv Albert, and now — albeit very early on — he’s unimpeachable as a head coach.
— John Wilmes