Articles By Athlon Sports
There are still eight teams battling for the ultimate prize, and the chance to hold the Lombardi Trophy over their heads at the end of Super Bowl XLIX. It’s what everyone in the NFL is after every season, far more important than any individual awards.
But the individual awards are important too, and while those haven’t been awarded yet, they’ve surely already been decided. Here’s a look at how some of those votes should go.
Nominees: QB Aaron Rodgers, Packers; QB Tom Brady, Patriots; DE J.J. Watt, Texans; QB Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers; QB Tony Romo, Cowboys; RB DeMarco Murray, Cowboys
Winner: QB Aaron Rodgers, Packers
There’s a lot of buzz for Watt to become the first defensive player to win the MVP since Lawrence Taylor in 1986. And the buzz is deserved coming off a brilliant season that included 20.5 sacks, 10 pass deflections, an 80-yard interception return for a touchdown and a few TDs on offense, too. But in this era nobody affects a game like a quarterback does. And Aaron Rodgers was simply brilliant, throwing for 4,381 yards and 38 TDs with only five interceptions. He also r-e-l-a-xed the Packers and their fan base after some early issues. A good case can be made for Brady and Roethlisberger for the same reason, but Rodgers was simply better. As for Romo and Murray, they turned the Cowboys into a true contender, finally, but it’s hard to figure which one of them was the MVP for their own team.
COACH OF THE YEAR
Nominees: Jason Garrett, Cowboys; Bruce Arians, Cardinals; Bill Belichick, Patriots; Bill O’Brien, Texans; Doug Marrone, Bills
Winner: Bruce Arians, Cardinals
In almost any other year, Garrett would be the runaway winner for completely transforming the Cowboys into a power team – both physically and in the standings. He also would win points for enduring all these years and surviving Jerry Jones. But what Arians did in Arizona was remarkable considering the string of injuries his team faced – including early and late injuries to quarterback Carson Palmer. He was unfazed by the adversity and still guided the Cards to a 12-win season and the playoffs (though it ended badly behind his third-string quarterback). Belichick deserves consideration, as always, considering many predicted the demise of the Patriots. And O’Brien and Marrone helped revive struggling franchises despite problems at quarterback. But what Arians did, especially with his quarterback issues, was the best job in the NFL this year.
OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Nominees: QB Aaron Rodgers, Packers; QB Tom Brady, Patriots; QB Andrew Luck, Colts; WR Antonio Brown, Steelers; RB DeMarco Murray, Cowboys
Winner: RB DeMarco Murray, Cowboys
Assuming Rodgers doesn’t win this too – personally I like to have this go to someone other than the MVP – this becomes more of a stat-based award. Murray was brilliant from the get-go, opening the season with eight straight 100-yard rushing games (and 10 of the first 11). In this pass-happy era, that’s remarkable. So were his 1,845 yards, which were about 500 more than any other RB in the field.
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Nominees: DE J.J. Watt, Texans, LB Justin Houston, Chiefs; CB Richard Sherman, Seahawks; DT Ndamukong Suh, Lions; LB Von Miller, Broncos; LB DeAndre Levy, Lions
Winner: DE J.J. Watt, Texans
Watt will win this in a runaway – probably unanimously – and he should. No defensive player was as spectacularly good or as consistent throughout the year, and none had anything close to the impact on games that he did. He has earned MVP consideration, though he likely won’t – and shouldn’t – win that. So this is his consolation prize. Everyone else is a distant runner up, but the only other defender who has a shot to get a vote or two is Chiefs linebacker Justin Houston, who came within a fraction of Michael Strahan’s single-season sack record by finishing with 22 sacks. Still, that’s only 1.5 more than Watt and he doesn’t come to the table with everything else Watt brings. In the NFL, at least on defense, neither does anyone else.
OFFENSIVE ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
Nominees: WR Odell Beckham Jr., Giants; G Zack Martin, Cowboys; WR Mike Evans, Buccaneers; RB Jeremy Hill, Bengals; QB Teddy Bridgewater, Vikings
Winner: WR Odell Beckham Jr., Giants
As good as this rookie class has been – and its been one of the best in years – this really should be unanimous. Beckham had 91 catches for 1,305 yards and 12 touchdowns, which is better than all the other rookie receivers. And he did it in only 12 games and in spectacular fashion, with the highlight-reel catch of the year. Hill and Evans were good, but his numbers don’t compare, and Bridgewater wasn’t able to do what a quarterback is supposed to – lead his team to the playoffs.
The best case for “other” would be Martin, who was brilliant on the Cowboys’ revived offensive line and by at least one measure didn’t allow a sack all season. It’s hard to single out one player on an O-line, though. Also it’s hard to imagine a guard will garner much support considering Beckham’s other-worldly numbers.
DEFENSIVE ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
Nominees: DT Aaron Donald, Rams; LB C.J. Mosley, Ravens; LB Khalil Mack, Raiders; LB Anthony Barr, Vikings; S Ha-Ha Clinton Dix, Packers
Winner: DT Aaron Donald, Rams
This is a hard award to give out, because it will have to be based more on eyes than on stats. None of these rookies put up any kind of spectacular defensive numbers. What they mostly did was become solid players at unheralded positions who improved their team’s defenses. The only exception is Donald, which is why he may run away with this award. His nine sacks stand out among all defensive tackles, especially since most sacks usually come from ends. He provided excellent run-stopping for a good Rams front, while adding a much-needed pass-rushing push.
Despite being only 5'10" and 210 pounds, Daniel Bryan found a home as a WWE Superstar and became the heavyweight champion. His “Yes!” chants ring throughout arenas and just about everywhere he shows up. We spoke with the 33-year-old Washington state native as he recovers from an injury and asked him for a glimpse inside the wild world of wrestling.
Was it hard to get your wrestling career started?
In the old days, you had to find someone to train you. Now, there are wrestling schools all over. I was lucky that I went to The Shawn Michaels Wrestling Academy.
So, what advice would you have for someone who wanted to get started?
One, find a good, reputable school. The second thing I would stress is conditioning. I’ve never been a guy who was jacked up, but I was always in good shape. Number three, never give up. Even when I was on the independent tour and not making a lot of money, I had a lot of fun. I traveled the world. It was a blessing.
How did your “Yes!” chant start?
My favorite cage fighter, Diego Sanchez, says, “Yes!” for motivation. I said to myself, “That would get under so many people’s skins.” All of a sudden, I started doing it, and a couple weeks later, it caught on. It has transcended other sports. I did an opening speech for the San Francisco Giants’ playoff game. It’s surreal.
Who would you consider to be the best athletes in WWE?
I’m impressed with John Cena. We were somewhere at an Olympic lifting place, and there were all these gym records listed on the wall, and he goes out and breaks a bunch of the records in one day. We’re supposed to be taking it easy, and he’s breaking records.
Which wrestler is most different from their ring persona?
Kane. He is literally the nicest guy and he’s super intelligent. I learned a lot about economics from him. I learned a lot of history from Kane. Brie and I saw him in the airport after a show one time, and he was in a coffee shop with his glasses on, reading. Brie laughed and said, “If people had seen what he was doing the night before, they wouldn’t believe it.”
Is there anybody you wish you could have wrestled?
Shawn Michaels. He trained me, but I never got the chance to wrestle him.
What’s the highlight of your career?
The highest point of my career was Wrestlemania XXX, as far as ring accomplishments go. But last December, the “Slammies” were in Seattle, and my dad was able to go. It was special, because my dad was mentioned (during the event). He called my sister and told her how much of a great time he had. He even signed some autographs. He signed them, “Daniel Bryan’s Dad, Buddy Danielson.” (Bryan’s real name is Bryan Danielson.) My dad just passed away in April, so that night was special to me.
How much does it help that you are married to someone (wrestler Brie Bella) who is in the business?
It’s incredibly helpful. Our lives are very hectic. We also just support each other. The frustrations in wrestling are different than those in a regular job.
What does the future hold for you?
Right now, I’m trying to focus on getting better. But I am working on a completely different style of wrestling. I have a chance to do some things that people have never seen before.
When it comes to Ohio State football, few names are more important than Archie Griffin, a two-time Heisman Trophy winner. Here's our quick Q&A with the Buckeyes great as his team prepares for the national championship.
1. If you could describe the team in one word, what would it be?
Well, "awesome" is the word, and I believe that about this team. But probably more appropriate right now is "resilient." We’ve had some adversity this season and bounced back.
2. Do you have a game-day tradition or superstition?
More when I was a player. Back then I would make sure I would eat the same thing that I had eaten the week before, usually a small piece of steak, spaghetti with a very bland sauce, and two pieces of toast with butter and honey on them. Coach (Woody) Hayes always said he wanted us to play hungry and the truth is we actually were hungry (laughs). Now I don’t do much. I’ve always been confident in our team and the way they’re going to perform. But I do pace around during games. That happens.
3. Finish this sentence: If my school wins the national title, I’m going to ...
… be overjoyed. And if you’re asking me what would I do – I’m going to go to Disneyland. Make sure you hold me to that.
4. Where will you be watching the game?
I will definitely be there.
5. Who’s your favorite player on the team? (Why?)
I like Zeke, Ezekiel Elliott. I think he’s a well-rounded back. He does a great of running the football, he blocks well, and he does a good job catching the ball out of the backfield. Jalin Marshall is a fun one to watch as well. But I really like Zeke and really believe he has a tremendous future ahead of him at Ohio State. I think he’s a very special player.
Move over, Jon “Bones” Jones. Toronto Raptors head coach Dwane Casey is looking to take up the fighting mantle — except with other NBA coaches.
Well, maybe he was joking a little. Casey made the suggestion that he’d raise his fists in the name of Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry, and his impending All-Star status. "I hope our fans get out and vote and don't put it in the hands of the coaches,” Casey said to Josh Lewenberg of The Sports Network. “And if the coaches don't do it, I'm probably going to get in a physical fight with those guys.”
Lowry is a legitimate MVP candidate on a Raptors team that has one of the best records in the NBA at 24-10, even without starting shooting guard DeMar DeRozan, who’s missed the last 18 games with a groin injury. Perhaps DeRozan’s return (which could come as soon as Thursday against the Charlotte Hornets) can help Casey and his Canadian fanbase bring the Raptors to a level of attention and appreciation that allows them to put down the veritable boxing gloves.
Getting the world to turn their heads that far north to watch the game’s best new ballers remains a chore, though. This Toronto squad is easily the most competitive, exciting outfit they’ve fielded since the halcyon days of Vince Carter, with a pattern of mediocrity holding for over a decade in between then and now. The frozen nation has a thrilling team today, though, as well as the last two No. 1 overall picks in the NBA Draft in Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett — a duo both drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers, but now both doing business just beneath their home country with the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Basketball is on the rise in Canada, with Toronto as a hyper-loving sports city that deserves every bit of the Raptors’ success. And if their shockingly good attendance for their team’s first-round playoff presence in 2014 is any indication, there’s hope that they can gather the needed votes to promote Lowry beyond fourth place (his current standing regarding votes among Eastern Conference guards) and keep their coach from spilling blood at his next union meeting.
— John Wilmes
The Waiters-Smith-Shumpert trade was not exactly the beginning of swap season, either. That was signaled when Rajon Rondo was traded from the Boston Celtics to the Dallas Mavericks. Then it was continued by Josh Smith’s shocking dismissal from the Detroit Pistons, followed by his sign-up with the potent Houston Rockets.
What else is on the grill? Some have speculated that Phil Jackson isn’t done sending pieces out in New York, and that 33-year-old veteran point guard Jose Calderon could also soon be out the door.
But not only crummy teams like the Knicks are in a place to potentially make moves. Even the Golden State Warriors, basketball’s best team, are under some pressure to tweak their roster and salary cap situation. In order to make room for red-hot power forward Draymond Green, financially, they might look at moving All-Star David Lee, who’s been relegated to a reserve role as Green has a career year. Green is headed for restricted free agency this summer, and his coveted combination of three-point accuracy and stingy interior defense makes him worth a pretty penny.
That’s the nature of the new NBA. The complex, thorny collective bargaining agreement — written and instituted just about three seasons ago — means contracts will jump around the league like hot potatoes, both now and going forward. Continuity and consistency are all too difficult to attain under these movement-favoring rules.
— John Wilmes
Buzz about this winter being a particularly active one on the trade market seems prescient today. The Cleveland Cavaliers, Oklahoma City Thunder and New York Knicks have completed a huge swap.
The Knicks send J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert to the Cavs in the deal, while the Thunder will get much-maligned guard Dion Waiters. The Knicks end up with a collection of waivable, non-guaranteed contracts, including Lance Thomas, Alex Kirk and Lou Amundson.
For Phil Jackson’s Knicks, the move looks like a “reset the tone” maneuver, or a bit of addition by subtraction. The frequently ridiculous Smith was long believed to be on his way out once Jackson took a post with New York, while Shumpert is a useful piece as a perimeter defender — but only on a team that’s going somewhere in the short-term.
For the Thunder, who give up close to nothing in the move, bringing on Waiters seems like a calculated gamble. A frustrating but talented player, Waiters could offer the extra scoring firepower that OKC might need to get through the stacked Western Conference. But reining him in was always a challenge in Cleveland, so a more level version of Waiters still seems like an unlikely prospect. Shipping him in only seems like a good move only if they’re prepared to bury him down their bench if he doesn’t fit into what the Thunder are doing.
And for the Cavs, sending Dion out has a similar effect to what the Knicks do by jettisoning Smith. He wasn’t molding into their program, seemingly worsening their chemistry, not helping it. The question remains, though: How much different will things be with the equally difficult J.R.?
Getting Shumpert in the wine-and-gold, however, is a clear win. LeBron’s squad needs a lot of things, and extra strength on defense is one of them; Iman and his famously towering hairdo can provide that in spades.
— John Wilmes
But lately, it seems unlikely we’ll ever see him play elite ball again. This came out about Sanders yesterday:
Sources tell me that Bucks center Larry Sanders recently told some Bucks officials that he doesn't want to play basketball anymore.— Gery Woelfel (@GeryWoelfel) January 5, 2015
Sanders has missed a string of games this winter due to “personal reasons” as he struggles with whether to continue on in the NBA. Whether or not his absence was also caused by any friction with his team, or coach Jason Kidd, is unclear at this time. But Sanders has said in the recent past that he doesn’t want to be remembered as a basketball player, and is always thinking beyond the game as much as he can.
He’s also coming off a strange 2013-14 season, during which he played only 23 games due to injuries and legal issues. Sanders’ erratic behavior in 2014 further included him stating this past spring, rather publicly, that he supports and smokes marijuana.
If Sanders doesn’t want to play basketball, that’s fine and well. Nobody has to do anything they don’t want to — particularly not occupying the dream job of millions of others, when they’re apathetic to its goals. But the Bucks have $11 million dedicated to Sanders each of the next three seasons. He and his organization will likely have to work a way out of the rest of his contract if he’s truly considering retirement.
Similarly dispirited, would-be stars of Sanders’ generation include Andrew Bynum, Andrew Bynum’s hair, Royce White, and Gilbert Arenas before them. Having all the talent in the world only takes you so far, when you’re not interested in using it. Maybe the Bucks’ new facial coding expert can tell us what it is about these mugs that say “no thanks, basketball glory.”
— John Wilmes
The term “addition by subtraction” has rarely seen brighter days.
The Detroit Pistons are playing their best basketball in years, after cutting so-called star Josh Smith from their roster, eating tens of millions of dollars in the process — just to keep him away. They’ve won five games, and lost none, since they waived the talented forward.
Smith, with his new Houston Rockets squad, hasn’t exactly disproved the notion of himself as a locker room cancer. Since joining the Rockets, the team has achieved a season-worst .500 winning percentage, struggling to incorporate him into a James Harden-led strategy that was taking the stacked Western Conference by storm. A previously clear, effective Rockets pecking order has been clogged by Smith’s presence.
While it’s certainly too early to tell if Josh is a fit with the Rockets, the current trend in Houston is bad. And if it persists, the term “subtraction by addition” might gain as much steam as its foil.
Forward-thinking Rockets general manager Daryl Morey is a smart man, who’s often ahead of the curve. The utter shock that went through the league when he traded for Harden — an MVP candidate who few saw coming — is a long-standing testament to that. As is the continuation of his coup the following summer, when he scooped Dwight Howard, the best defensive center in the game, out of free agency.
For the rest of the NBA, Morey has become a quick celebrity by creating some swift, telling lessons in asset management. Harden and Howard becoming Rockets wasn’t a matter of dumb luck — they came to Houston by way of years and years of Morey counting his dollars in the margins. The complex monster that is the NBA salary cap had clearly found one of its new masters when Morey suddenly turned zero superstars into two of them.
But the acquisition of Smith might represent a miscue. An inefficient player who’s long been one of the most frustrating players around, Josh has a lot to prove if he’s to become more than a sorry specimen for the annals of NBA nostalgia. Unless he soon finds a way to contribute to the Rockets’ title-seeking program — without detracting from it — he risks becoming the straw that broke their championship-bound backs.
— John Wilmes
The much anticipated Baseball Writers Association of America vote for the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown is upon us, with the final vote being announced Tuesday, Jan 6.
2014 saw Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, and Frank Thomas as just the third class in 70 BBWAA elections in which three, first-year candidates were inducted, and just the eighth time overall that three players were inducted in the same year. With a little luck, and some cooperation from the baseball writers, Cooperstown could have three, hopefully four, new inductees this summer.
Getting 75 percent of approximately 700 active baseball scribes to agree on one player is tough enough. Getting 75 percent of many writers to agree on four players is more than exceptional. Not since 1954-55 have three or more BBWAA-elected players been inducted in successive years, and not since 1947 have four players been elected by the BBWAA on the same ballot.
Here, I will break down who I expect the BBWAA to elect for enshrinement in July, not necessarily who I believe should be inducted. That is a whole other column.
Two of the four players who I anticipate to be chosen are absolute locks. Take it to the bank. Pitchers Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez were two of the most dominating and feared pitchers of their era, and are easy first-ballot selections who should earn more than 90 percent of the writer’s votes.
Pitcher John Smoltz and second baseman Craig Biggio, should also receive the call from the Hall of Fame come Tuesday afternoon, but their numbers may need more scrutinizing than those of Johnson and Martinez to warrant first-ballot induction.
The Big Unit, towering at 6’11 may have been the most intimidating pitcher of the past half century. His exploding slider and blinding fastball were as gnarly as the trademark mullet pouring out of his cap, leaving hitters helpless in the batter’s box for 22 Major League seasons.
The 10-time All Star won five Cy Young Awards, including four in a row (1995, 1999-2002) in the National League. Johnson was able to add a World Series ring, Series co-MVP, and Sports Illustrated co-Sportsman of the Year Award to his mantle after leading the fabled 2001 Diamondbacks to the Fall Classic.
Johnson is a four-time ERA champion (1995, ’99, 2001, ’02), nine-time strikeout champion (1992-95, 1999-2002, 2004), and led the league in complete games four times (1994, ’98, 2000, ’08), ERA+ six times (1995, 1999-2002, ’04), FIP six times (1994-95, 1999-2001, ’04), WHIP three times (1995, 2001, ’04), hits per nine innings six times (1992-93, ’95, ’97, 2001, ’04), and strikeouts per nine innings nine times (1992-95, ’97, 1999-2002).
Considering that Johnson pitched in the same era as names like Clemens, Martinez, Glavine, Smoltz, Maddux, Schilling, and Mussina makes his accomplishments all the more fantastic - all while playing in the heart of the Steroid Era when guys like Brady Anderson were hitting 50 home runs a season.
The Big Unit finished his 22-year career first all-time in strikeouts per nine innings (10.6/SO9), second all-time in strikeouts (4,875), and a member of the 300 win club (303).
Randy Johnson is as Hall of Fame as it gets.
What Pedro Martinez lacked in stature (5’11,170 pounds) he made up for with grit, consistency, and a platinum arm. Martinez, an eight-time All Star and three-time Cy Young Award winner (1997, ’99, 2000), is a concrete first ballot Hall of Fame pitcher.
While Martinez is more renown for his success with the Red Sox, he was just as dominant as a member of the Montreal Expos (1994-97), posting a .625 Win-Loss Percentage, 3.06 ERA, 20 complete games, eight complete game shutouts, and a strikeout per nine innings of 9.5/SO9 in four seasons north of the border.
In 1997, Pedro was awarded his first Cy Young Award after finishing one of the greatest pitching seasons since the Dead Ball era in which he lead all of baseball in ERA (1.90), complete games (13), strikeouts (305), ERA+ (219), FIP (2.39), WHIP (0.932), hits per nine innings (5.9/H9), and strikeouts per nine innings (11.4/SO9).
Martinez, miraculously, would best his 1997 showcase in 1999 and 2000, striking out a combined 597 batters, with a combined ERA of 1.90 to go along with 41 wins, 12 complete games, and leading the American League in adjusted ERA, FIP, WHIP, hits, strikeouts, and home runs per nine innings, strikeouts per win, and winning back-to-back Cy Young Awards, putting him in the same breath as the great Sandy Koufax in terms of consistent domination.
Martinez led his league in ERA five times (1997, 1999-2000, 2002-03) and topped the American League in strikeouts three times (1999, 2000, ’02). As a testament of his superior command, Martinez was responsible for striking out 3,154 batters over 18 seasons of work, and ranks third in career strikeouts per nine innings at 10.0/SO9.
Martinez retired in 2009 as the career leader in WHIP (1.054) and adjusted ERA (154 ERA+) for a starting pitcher, sitting second all-time behind Mariano Rivera for all pitchers, making him arguably the best starting pitcher of his era and a certainty to be enshrined in Cooperstown in 2015.
Biggio missed the 2014 class by just two votes, garnering 74.8 percent of the votes needed. Does Biggio missing the Hall buy 0.2 percent make him a sure thing in 2015? I think so, especially considering his percentage of votes has increased each year he’s been on the ballot, growing from 68.2 percent in 2013 to last year’s 74.8.
Biggio is a seven-time All Star, a four-time Gold Glove Award winner (1994-97), with five Silver Slugger Awards (1989, 1994-95, 1997-98) at two different positions (C, 2B). While Biggio is most remembered for his time playing second base (17,154.2 innings), he also spent significant time at catcher (3,493 innings) and center field (2,203.2 innings) making him the most versatile defensive candidate on the 2015 ballot.
Currently, Biggio is the only Hall eligible member of the 3,000 hit club, not banned or suspected of PEDs, not currently enshrined. Amassing 3,000 hits is practically an invitation to Cooperstown. His 3,060 hits rank 21st all-time, and he presently sits fifth all-time with 668 doubles. Biggio’s other career numbers include 1,014 extra base hits, 12,504 plate appearances, 414 stolen bases, 1,844 runs scored, 4,505 times on base, and 4,711 total bases.
With Jack Morris dropping off the ballot after failing to be elected in his final year of eligibility, it would be logical to assume those writers who previously voted for Morris and not Biggio, could do so this year, and put the 20-year Astro in Cooperstown.
In addition to Morris, 14 other names were dropped from last year’s ballot for not earning the required five percent of votes to remain eligible. This year’s ballot outside of Smoltz, Johnson, and Martinez is largely marginal and could see another 10 or so names disappear from consideration. Also, the superstars on the ballot who have been connected to PEDs aren't getting the support they need to remain relevant as 2014 saw fewer votes cast for Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, and Sammy Sosa than in prior elections. Look for these voting trends to continue, and to aid Biggio’s cause.
My gut says the BBWAA puts Craig Biggio and his 285 hits-by-pitch in the Hall of Fame where he belongs.
The third arm in perhaps the greatest pitching rotation ever is looking to join his Braves teammates in Cooperstown. John Smoltz’s resume should make his candidacy an open and shut case for the BBWAA.
Smoltz’s career, while fantastic, is also intriguing because of his relocation to the bullpen after spending the first half of his career as a supreme starter. Following Tommy John surgery, Smoltz was moved into the Braves’ closer role where he continued to thrive. In 2002, Smoltz was named the Rolaids Reliever of the Year after leading the National League with 55 saves. This accomplishment left Smoltz and Hall of Fame pitcher Dennis Eckersley as the only two hurlers in baseball history with a 20-win season and a 50-save season in their respective careers. Smoltz is the only player in the game’s history to earn 200 wins and 150 saves during a career, giving him a unique appeal for a first-ballot enshrinement.
Smoltz is an eight-time All-Star and the 1996 Cy Young Award winner in which he posted a 24-8 record, 2.94 ERA, 276 strikeouts, 9.8 strikeouts per nine innings, in 253.2 innings of work. His career ERA is 3.33 and is the 16th member of the 3,000 strikeout club with 3,084. Smoltz boasts a brilliant career adjusted ERA of 125, a career 1.176 WHIP, and sits 13th all-time for pitchers with 320 putouts.
Look for “Smoltzie” to join Mad Dog and Glavine in Cooperstown this July.
- By Jake Rose
That’s what Cleveland Cavaliers general manager David Griffin told reporters on Sunday, amidst frenzied speculation in the press about first-year coach David Blatt not getting along too well with LeBron James and Co., and reportedly facing a possible firing if the team doesn’t soon turn it around.
"It's a non-story, it's a non-narrative. Coach Blatt is our coach, he's going to remain our coach. Do not write that as a vote of confidence. He never needed one. It was never a question. So don't write it that way.”
And while Griffin may be right that the issue of Blatt, specifically, is largely a fiction invented by the media to drive readership, there’s really no mistaking the larger, underlying issues in northeast Ohio these days.
Griffin’s address came just before another bad Cavs loss, this one at home to Rajon Rondo and the Dallas Mavericks, 109-90. With starting center Anderson Varejao gone for the year with a torn Achilles tendon, and James sitting at last two weeks with a variety of sore body parts, Cleveland looks even more unseasoned and confused than they did before. Losers of five of their last seven, they look far from the championship contention many had them penciled in for this summer.
Griffin also didn’t beat around the bush about looking to make a trade. Even before Varejao’s injury, they needed depth defensively in the front court. Frequently cited transaction targets for the Cavs include Timofey Mozgov of the Denver Nuggets and Kosta Koufos of the Memphis Grizzlies.
Maybe Griffin’s no-nonsense voice will help set a tone of short-term improvement in Cleveland. But in all greater likelihood, this team needs a few huge things that even the King can’t give them with ease, and that only time can truly bring. They’re seeking a roster replete with health, experience, and continuity. And even if things look ugly now, staying the course and doing the hard work, with Blatt and the rest of this crew, is the Cavs’ best way to get there.
— John Wilmes
6. Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies
The Grizzlies are enjoying their best season ever through the holidays, and a lot of their thriving is owed to Marc Gasol’s increased offensive role. Averaging a career-high 14.7 shots per game, Gasol is making mincemeat of other centers with his 23.68 player efficiency rating, and he’s doing it without dropping off on the defensive end. Tennessee’s team is closer to NBA gold than they’ve ever been after Gasol — who slimmed down considerably in the offseason — rededicated himself after a stinging loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder in last year’s playoffs.
5. Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls
Move over, Derrick Rose. The famous Chicago-born point guard is back and healthy this season — but he’s no longer the best player on his team. That honor belongs to Butler, whose shockingly strong production has been the delight of the Windy City. Previously known as a one-way player (Butler gained Second All-Team Defensive honors last season), Jimmy Buckets is now a deadly scorer, averaging a team-high 22.2 points per game while leading the league with 40.1 minutes played per game. Many have mentioned Butler as a candidate for the Most Improved Player platform, but his play thus far suggests a greater goal.
4. Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans
If the Unibrow was on a playoff team, we might cite him as the runaway favorite for this trophy. The fact is, however, that the Pelicans are of a middling sort, on the outside looking into the staggering Western Conference playoff picture. The 21-year-old still has an outside shot at becoming a wunderkind MVP — especially if he keeps putting up numbers that evoke Hakeem Olajuwon — but your money is more safely put in the hands of contender. If you were starting a team from scratch, though? A.D. is the clear No. 1 cornerstone in the game.
3. Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors
If Kyle Lowry keeps this up, he’s going to steal Chris Paul’s mantle as the sport’s most fearsome little man. Lowry’s Toronto Raptors are the surprise top seed in the Eastern Conference, following his ferocious lead to the top. A statement was made — and heard quite clearly — when Kyle took down CP3 this past weekend, tallying 25 points, seven assists and three steals as the Raptors smashed Paul’s Los Angeles Clippers, 110-98, in L.A. Give this 6’0” guy a bit more national TV exposure, and he might become the NBA’s new go-to folk hero.
2. Steph Curry, Golden State Warriors
The Golden State Warriors’ best start in franchise history is about more than just their terrific new coach, Steve Kerr. Freed up and freewheeling in Kerr’s offense is the best shooter in basketball, Steph Curry. Curry is a threat to destroy your defense from deep at the moment he crosses the half-court barrier, demanding constant attention from the opposition and always making you pay for the double team with a sharp, uncanny passing eye. Anyone who can figure out how to guard this guy should probably be drawing up strategies for the military.
1. James Harden, Houston Rockets
The biggest, boldest chip in basketball lies firmly on James Harden’s shoulder. The former Sixth Man of the Year with the Oklahoma City Thunder has taken on more responsibility every year of his career, finally crescendoing into the MVP-worthy present. After improving on his defense this season and consistently taking over games in crunch time (leading the Rockets to an almost unbelievable 21-9 record, despite a litany of costly injuries), there’s really not much left for Harden to add to his game. He’s stronger, smarter, and has more touch than anyone who’s got the foot speed to stay in front of him, and he gets to the charity strike as often as he pleases. He’s the NBA’s leading scorer, and he’s had more impact, on more games, than anyone this season. If you opened the polls today, the Beard would become the Statue.
— John Wilmes
The college football playoff kicks off on Jan. 1 with Florida State and Oregon meeting in the Rose Bowl, and Alabama and Ohio State squaring off in New Orleans in the Sugar Bowl. There’s no shortage of talent among the four teams in the playoff, but some players are more valuable than others.
To help prepare for the first four-team playoff, Athlon projects the 25 most important players for Thursday’s games. This top 25 player list isn't necessarily a ranking of the best or projected by talent but a compilation of how important players will be in the playoff matchups. There’s little surprise among the top four, as quarterbacks Marcus Mariota, Jameis Winston, Cardale Jones and Blake Sims take the first spots. But after the quarterbacks, Ohio State defensive end Joey Bosa, Oregon tackle Jake Fisher, Florida State receiver Rashad Greene and Oregon cornerback Troy Hill rank as the most important players for the playoff matchups.
25 Most Important Players for College Football Playoff
1. Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon, Jr.
It’s rare now for the preseason pick for the Heisman to follow through and win the award. Mariota might not have been the leader every week, but he was darn close. Oregon’s first Heisman winner is exceedingly efficient, throwing a ridiculously low two interceptions this season and four last year. He completed 80 percent of his passes twice this season and fewer than 60 percent just once.
2. Jameis Winston, QB, Florida State, So.
Winston couldn’t contend for a second Heisman trophy thanks to 17 interceptions and the off-field issues that followed him through the season. He was unstoppable in the second half, though. He completed 71.2 percent of his passes in the third quarter and only one of his picks this season came in the fourth quarter.
3. Cardale Jones, QB, Ohio State, So.
The 250-pound backup was efficient and productive against Wisconsin but will have to be nearly perfect against Alabama for Ohio State to have a shot at the upset.
4. Blake Sims, QB, Alabama, Sr.
Lane Kiffin has turned this fifth-year senior into one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the nation. Expect a unique and creative gameplan from the Bama play-caller and it’s up to Sims to execute against an elite defensive front.
5. Joey Bosa, DE, Ohio State, So.
The Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year must play the game of his life against an Alabama offense that can run it as well as it throws it. He is the leader of the D-Line.
6. Jake Fisher, OT, Oregon, Sr.
His value was underscored when the Ducks’ only loss of the season (Arizona) and close call against Washington State occurred with Fisher out of the lineup. The Ducks are undefeated when the senior from Traverse City, Mich., starts, thanks in part to his mean streak.
7. Rashad Greene, WR, Florida State, Sr.
The expert route runner is Winston’s favorite target with 76 catches in 2013 and 93 receptions this season and a total of 2,434 yards and 16 touchdowns. With two more scores, he can tie Peter Warrick’s school record of 29 career TD catches.
8. Troy Hill, CB, Oregon, Sr.
Hill’s position will be magnified with standout cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu out for the playoff due to a torn ACL. Offenses tested him with Ekpre-Olomu in the lineup, as Hill finished the season with 16 pass breakups. That won’t change now that he is the de facto No. 1 corner.
9. Eddie Goldman, DT, Florida State, Jr.
After suffering an ankle injury against Georgia Tech in the ACC title game, Goldman is expected to be ready for Oregon. That’s no small matter, either, as the standout defensive tackle may matchup with center Hroniss Grasu. The All-America selection has four sacks and eight tackles for a loss this season.
10. Jalen Ramsey, S, Florida State, So.
One of the most disruptive players in Florida State’s defense, Ramsey finished the season with two interceptions, 9.5 tackles for a loss and two sacks ... as a safety. His game-clinching performance against Miami was one of the most impressive defensive efforts of the season.
11. Dalvin Cook, RB, Florida State, Fr.
Arguably Florida State’s most clutch performer in the final two months of the season, Cook notched long touchdown runs that sealed games against Louisville and Miami. In the final weeks of the season, Cook has become a workhorse back.
12. Cam Robinson, LT, Alabama, Fr.
After 13 games, Robinson really isn't a freshman. However, the Tide's starting left tackle will face arguably his toughest test of the year against Ohio State. He'll be charged with slowing Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Joey Bosa for most of the evening.
13. A'Shawn Robinson, NG, Alabama, So.
Robinson is the most disruptive defensive lineman Nick Saban has had since Marcell Dareus or Terrence Cody. The sophomore is a load to stop up the middle and could single-handedly destroy OSU's offensive front.
14. Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama, Jr.
It might be shocking that the best wideout in the nation isn't higher on this list but there is a good chance Cooper plays more of a decoy role than anything else. He's impossible to stop and could torch the Buckeyes, so he should expect plenty of safety help and double coverage.
15. Royce Freeman, RB, Oregon, Fr.
Another star freshman running back in a class full of them, Freeman gave Oregon a physical edge in the run game in the second half of the season. Freeman rushed for 953 yards and 11 touchdowns in Oregon’s eight-game winning streak to end the season.
16. Mario Edwards, DE, Florida State, Jr.
Oregon has been susceptible to the pass rush this season, and Edwards is the best edge defender for the Seminoles with 20.5 tackles the last two seasons. Edwards already has been a stud at the Rose Bowl with three tackles for a loss in last year’s BCS title game.
17. Cameron Erving, C, Florida State, Sr.
Florida State offensive line coach Rick Trickett, who has coached two Rimington Award winners for the nation’s best center, raves about Erving at the position. His move from left tackle, where he was an All-ACC performer, enabled FSU to have its best OL group of the year with freshman Rod Johnson at left tackle.
18. Hroniss Grasu, C, Oregon, Sr.
It wouldn’t be Oregon if the Ducks didn’t have a lingering offensive line concern entering the playoff. Grasu is one of the best centers in the country when healthy, but he missed the final three games of the regular season with a leg injury.
19. DeForest Buckner, DE, Oregon, Jr.
Buckner is the bulk for a team that is unfairly labeled as a finesse squad. The 6-7, 290-pound Hawaiian leads the Ducks’ defensive line with 12 tackles for a loss and four sacks.
20. Tre Jackson, OG, Florida State, Sr.
Jackson earned unanimous All-America honors in 2014. He has led a revival of the Florida State run game, highlighted by a 1,000-yard rusher in 2013, FSU’s first since 1996, and potentially a second in 2014.
21. Jalin Marshall, AP, Ohio State, Fr.
Ohio State will need to make big plays out in space and possibly on special teams. Marshall can make things happen from anywhere on the field and must be a big-play threat for OSU. He surged over the final month and needs to continue his excellent play.
22. Vonn Bell, S, Ohio State, So.
The talented big-play defensive back will have his eye on Amari Cooper the entire game. He won't be in many man-to-man situations with No. 9 but Bell will be asked to help early and often.
23. Landon Collins, S, Alabama, Jr.
Collins is likely to be the most explosive defensive player on the field for either team and maybe the best tackler of the bunch. He must intimidate in the passing game and fill holes against the run.
24. P.J. Williams, CB, Florida State, Jr.
Williams returns to Pasadena as the Rose Bowl MVP. The three-year starter at cornerback had the game-sealing interception in last year’s national championship game against Auburn.
25. Nick O’Leary, TE, Florida State, Sr.
The Mackey Award winner is more than a safety valve. He’s a go-to receiver. O’Leary caught four touchdown passes in the final three games of the season. In an era when the tight end is vanishing, O’Leary’s consistency, his 47 receptions and 13 yards per catch is notable.
As Oregon prepares to take on Florida State in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1, we got a chance to throw some questions at one of the Ducks' biggest fans, Modern Family actor Ty Burrell. He did not disappoint.
1. If you could describe the team in one word, what would it be?
2. Do you have a game-day tradition or superstition?
Yes, traditionally I like to get really nervous, even if we’re favored by 35. Then we like to sit down and watch it as a family and scream at the television. My mom is a lovely woman, but in front of a game she has the mouth of a sailor that other sailors find offensive. Then we all enjoy passing out from the exhaustion of the aforementioned nerves and screaming and such.
3. Finish this sentence: If my school wins the national title, I'm going to…
Have a joy seizure.
4. Where will you be watching the playoff?
Hopefully from the sidelines, but if I’m not able to make it, then I’ll be repeating the procedure in answer number 2.
5. Who's your favorite player on the team?
Hard not to say (Marcus) Mariota here. He checks all the boxes, both as a player and a person. That said, Tyler Johnstone is a great kid who’s been fighting through a lot with a great attitude. So, Tyler Johnstone. Oh wait, Pharaoh Brown is a great young man too. Sorry, there’s too many.
Orchard Park, NY (SportsNetwork.com) - Veteran quarterback Kyle Orton announced his retirement from the NFL on Monday.
Orton, 32, started the final 12 games for the Buffalo Bills this season after 2013 first-round pick EJ Manuel was benched. He completed 287-of-447 passes for 3,018 yards with 18 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
Orton had contemplated retirement last offseason, but signed with the Bills and helped them finish 9-7, their first winning season since 2004.
Selected by Chicago in the fourth round of the 2005 draft out of Purdue, Orton threw for 18,037 yards with 101 touchdowns and 69 interceptions in 87 career games for the Bears, Denver Broncos, Kansas City Chiefs, Dallas Cowboys and Bills.
The 2011 NBA Lockout was about a lot of things — money and power, mostly — and one of its sub-missions was to decentralize power in the league. When LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh pooled their talents at the top of their games to make for a mini-dynasty with the Miami Heat (a squad that went to visit the NBA Finals four years in a row), the game’s owners wanted to do something to prevent similar future occurences.
Today, the measures they took seem to have worked. A complex, restricting salary cap structure that heavily taxes teams who color outside the lines has made for extremely fluid player movement. Keeping a ton of great players together is harder than it’s ever been, and the 2015 version of the NBA will enjoy a wide-open landscape, in which several teams are equally likely to win a championship.
Title contenders this season include James’ Cleveland Cavaliers (however much they may be struggling lately), the Chicago Bulls, Golden State Warriors, Memphis Grizzlies, Oklahoma City Thunder, Houston Rockets, Portland Trail Blazers, Washington Wizards, Dallas Mavericks, the defending champion San Antonio Spurs — the list could go on, so don’t feel slighted if your team isn’t on it. They probably belong there.
If any new teams repeat the Heat’s feat, you can color this columnist surprised. Annual free agency madness and the ever-shifting economics of the sport make things less and less predictable in the modern NBA. And, business-wise, this benefits the bottom line. Less fixed results means more fan intrigue, higher Vegas action, and greater growth potential for every franchise. Pro basketball is starting to achieve something like its ideal, dream state of affairs as an exciting, turbulent product, with elite talent in constant motion on the court and off.
— John Wilmes
(SportsNetwork.com) - Despite the club's first double-digit loss campaign since 2004, the New York Giants have apparently decided to retain long-time head coach Tom Coughlin.
Multiple reports on Monday stated that the Giants will have the 68-year-old on the sidelines for one more season. Following a 34-26 home loss to the Eagles on Sunday, New York finished 2014 with a 6-10 record.
Coughlin has a record of 96-80 during his 11-year run with the Giants, a tenure that has been highlighted by a pair of Super Bowl titles. They have not made the playoffs since 2011 and made just one postseason appearance in the past six years.
Coughlin has the second-longest tenure in Giants coaching history, behind only Steve Owen's 24-year stint from 1930-53. His 96 wins trail only Owen's total of 153.
In 19 years as an NFL head coach, including eight with the Jacksonville Jaguars, Coughlin has amassed a record of 164-140. He also has a postseason mark of 12-7.
Florham Park, NJ (SportsNetwork.com) - The New York Jets cleaned house Monday, firing both head coach Rex Ryan and general manager John Idzik after a 4-12 season.
The Jets closed the 2014 campaign with a 37-24 win at Miami on Sunday. It was the worst mark in Ryan's six seasons as head coach.
Idzik was on board for just two years, taking over for the fired Mike Tannenbaum in January 2013. He had served as the vice president of football administration with the Seattle Seahawks for six seasons before taking over the reins for New York.
"After extensive thought and reflection about the current state of our football team, this morning I informed Rex Ryan and John Idzik that they will not be returning for the 2015 season," Jets chairman and CEO Woody Johnson said in a statement. "Both Rex and John made significant contributions to the team, and they have my appreciation and gratitude for their efforts and commitment. Over the years, Rex brought the Jets a bold confidence and a couple of great postseason runs, which all of us will remember."
Ryan compiled a record of 46-50 with the Jets. He took over for the 2009 season and promptly led New York to a pair of AFC Championship Game appearances in his first two seasons.
New York was 9-7 in Ryan's first year, losing to Indianapolis in the AFC title game, then went 11-5 the following season and fell to Pittsburgh in the championship tilt.
The Jets haven't had a winning season since, finishing 8-8 in 2011 and 2013. Last year's .500 finish came in what was expected to be a rebuilding year with rookie quarterback Geno Smith -- selected as part of Idzik's first draft class -- at the helm.
That bought Ryan another season after rumors of his departure during the 2013 campaign. But after a win over Oakland to start this season, it was downhill from there.
The Jets lost eight in a row, the worst skid for the franchise since an eight- game slide to start the 1996 season.
Smith's development, or lack thereof, was a major reason for the Jets' struggles this season. He was benched after a Week 8 loss to Buffalo, then returned to the starter's role a month later in a Dec. 1 loss to Miami.
The Jets played well down the stretch this season, as three of their last four losses came by less than six points.
STORY UPDATE: Suh's appeal was heard by Ted Cottrell, who overturned the one-game suspension and reduced his punishment to a $70,000 fine. Suh will play in Sunday's wild-card game in Dallas.
New York, NY (SportsNetwork.com) - The NFL suspended Detroit Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh one game without pay on Monday for stepping on the leg of Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
Suh twice stepped on Rodgers' left leg on the same play during the fourth quarter of the Packers' NFC North-clinching 30-20 victory over the Lions on Sunday at Lambeau Field.
Rodgers had missed two Green Bay series in the game after aggravating a left calf injury.
"You did not respond in the manner of someone who had lost his balance and accidentally contacted another player who was lying on the ground. This illegal contact, specifically the second step and push off with your left foot, clearly could have been avoided," NFL vice president of football operations Merton Hanks said in a letter to Suh.
"You unnecessarily stepped on your opponent's unprotected leg as he lay on the ground unable to protect himself."
It was the second time Suh was suspended for stepping on a player, following a two-game ban in 2011 for stomping on the arm of Packers lineman Evan Dietrich- Smith. Suh also drew a $30,000 fine for kicking Houston Texans quarterback Matt Schaub in 2010.
Under terms of the current collective bargaining agreement, the suspension may be appealed within three business days. Appeals are heard and decided by either Derrick Brooks or Ted Cottrell, the officers jointly appointed and compensated by the NFL and players union to decide appeals of on-field player discipline.
Suh's absence creates a hole in the Lions' defensive line for their wild-card game against the Dallas Cowboys and leading rusher DeMarco Murray this Sunday.
The biggest name came off the board almost as quickly as the board opened. Jim Harbaugh could’ve had his pick of almost any NFL job he wanted. Instead, when he bolted the San Francisco 49ers, he took a job at the University of Michigan instead.
What he left in his wake are five NFL teams at least, and maybe soon more, scrambling to find qualified candidates to fill their coaching vacancies created on Black Monday (or in some cases, before). But what the 49ers, Jets, Bears, Falcons and Raiders are quickly learning is there isn’t really another Harbaugh out on the market this year.
There are qualified candidates, but no no-brainers. Here are a look at the five current NFL head coaching vacancies, the candidates they might look at, and who makes the most sense to lead their team:
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
No team has a bigger void than the Niners, who lost their finest coach since Bill Walsh. All Harbaugh did in four years was take the team to three NFC championship games and one Super Bowl, before chaos reigned this year. Whatever troubles he caused inside the organization, the man could flat-out coach.
There doesn’t appear to be any big-name replacement waiting in the wings, either. The candidates mentioned most for the Niners are all in the “hot assistant” category – coaches like Seattle defensive coordinator Dan Quinn and Arizona defensive coordinator Todd Bowles (who may turn out to be the hottest of them all). Given the 49ers’ issues on offense, though, it would seem to make more sense for them to go to an offensive coordinator like Denver’s Adam Gase or Cleveland’s Kyle Shanahan.
Here’s a name to watch, though, if the 49ers decide they need or want a big name: Mike Shanahan, Kyle’s father, is still available, and he was the 49ers offensive coordinator once – albeit eons ago in the early '90s.
The Bears seemed to be a logical landing spot for Harbaugh, had he decided to remain in the NFL. And, like the Raiders and Jets, they reportedly reached out to him. But alas, he said no, leaving them to search through the also-rans.
Could they pull the trigger on the most interesting, explosive, and probably best hire of the offseason and bring in ex-Jets coach Rex Ryan, son of former (and beloved) Bears defensive coordinator Buddy? It seems like perfect situation for the brash Rex to coach the team his daddy always wanted to run, and the perfect coach for the Bears to replace the milquetoast Marc Trestman.
If not Ryan, Bowles or Quinn could be on the menu because they do love their defense out in Chicago. But considering their biggest problem is their quarterback, Jay Cutler, and their dysfunctional offense they might want to take a long look at Stanford coach David Shaw.
NEW YORK JETS
Another team that reached out to Harbaugh and would’ve been lucky to land him. Now it seems the new coach will be in the hands of the new GM, whoever that may be. And until the GM is in place, the coaching search is just a guess.
They certainly could go the Shanahan route to make a big splash, though it’s hard to believe there are many GMs eager to work with him. Josh McDaniels, a former Bill Belichick disciple who flopped as a first-team head coach in Denver, could return to the head coaching ranks with something to prove (and with a few of the Patriots’ secrets).
The Jets’ biggest problem, much like the Bears, is their offense, though. And the development of a quarterback – perhaps Geno Smith, but really any quarterback – has to be the priority. It could be that Andrew Luck’s mentor, Colts offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton, will fit that bill.
This has long been rumored to be Ryan’s next stop, assuming he doesn’t take a TV job first. They’ve got a loaded offense – something he never had in New York – and a defense known for it’s underachieving. He could immediately change that, as well as bring an attitude and identity that the Falcons sorely need after years of relatively anonymity under Mike Smith.
They do seem likely to stay on the defensive side of the ball in their search, which could mean they look to Bowles or Quinn. Another name that has surfaced in connection with them is Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin. McDaniels wouldn’t be a terrible choice either, especially if they want someone to fine-tune the offense, which was erratic but in general is pretty good.
Boy did the Raiders want and need Harbaugh. He would’ve been the perfect coach to restore winning and respectability to a franchise that is sadly lacking in both. He would’ve brought discipline and order (two things they again have been lacking). And keeping Harbaugh in his Northern California would’ve been quite the shot at the 49ers, who have long been the bigger ticket in town.
With Harbaugh out of the picture, the Raiders may have trouble landing a coach given their reputation for being a place where players and coaches go to end their careers. That said, if candidates can look past that then Ryan, Bowles and maybe Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, a former head coach with the Jacksonville Jaguars and a Bay Area native, could be in play.
But one name to watch is interim coach Tony Sparano. He’s never distinguished himself in that spot – either with Oakland or with Miami – but he reportedly has a lot of support from the players he led down the stretch.
Amidst the ceaseless hubbub about Derrick Rose’s inner moral core, and other silly debates regarding the former youngest NBA MVP in league history, the Chicago Bulls have become one of the best teams in basketball.
Rose says they’re good enough to win it all. "I think we can," Rose said to reporters Monday. "I don't want to jinx ourselves, but I think we can really make a run for this (championship) this year. But it just takes focus, discipline, and we got to sacrifice a little bit.”
Rose’s two previously battered, operated-upon knees are feeling better these days, he says, and that’s been clear in his recent play. Over his last four contests, he’s averaging 20.8 points per game on 54 percent shooting. Rose and the scintillating Jimmy Butler, his starting backcourt partner, now make for one of the most potent duos in the league. Butler, the Eastern Conference Player of the Week, has emerged as a clear All-Star this season.
And the Bulls are in rarefied air of true contenders on both sides of the ball, consistently ranking in the NBA’s top ten for both offensive efficiency and defensive efficiency. A previously all-D squad is now enjoying some balance, and their hard-charging coach Tom Thibodeau is starting to almost break character, and seem a little pleased during his team’s current six-game winning streak.
"I think we're moving in the right, the last 10 games, we're moving in right direction," Thibodeau said to reporters. "I think (we're) playing strong on both sides of the ball. We're getting a lot of contributions from different people. And it's been good, but we have to be able to sustain it and keep building.”
With the shaky state of LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers, this season looks like the best title window Chicago’s seen since the days of MJ. Bulls fans ought to keep their fingers crossed, and fists knocking on wood — if they stay healthy, it could be a real fun spring in the Windy City.
— John Wilmes
As it turns out, Dallas is a fitting spot for the college football championship game this season.
Not only is that where the first College Football Playoff will be won on the field, it’s not that far from where the four teams will try to win the hearts of football fans.
Twitter issued a nationwide, county-by-county breakdown of where each of the four college football semifinalists have the greatest rate of followers.
The results shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. Ohio State owns the Midwest. Florida State owns the Sunshine State. Alabama owns the South. Oregon owns the West.
Large swaths of the Central and Mountain time zones, though, are up for grabs. See for yourself in this map:
This past spring, the Milwaukee Bucks were purchased by Wesley Edens and Marc Lasry — a billionaire hedge fund duo from New York City. Things in Bucksland have changed considerably since then.
Former old-school owner Herb Kohl gave his team a mandate to stay as competitive as possible, pushing for playoff spots each year regardless of the long view. This led to a holding pattern of mediocrity in Milwaukee, with a lot of first-round exits, middling draft status, and little buzz around the league.
Edens and Lasry have altered that program swiftly. Focusing on the future, they’re content to eschew the acquisition of win-now talent in the name of harvesting a youth culture under coach Jason Kidd. Now they’re an exciting team, and the delight of many basketball nerds with their lengthy lineups, featuring Greek prodigy Giannis Antetokounmpo.
And they’re also using a new, strange form of technology to aid the process of team-building. As reported by Kevin Randall of The New York Times, the team is now enlisting the help of a face expert. “In May,” Randall writes, “the team hired Dan Hill, a facial coding expert who reads the faces of college prospects and N.B.A. players to determine if they have the right emotional attributes to help the Bucks.
“Hill contends that faces betray our true emotions and can predict intentions, decisions and actions. He employs the psychologist Paul Ekman’s widely accepted FACS, or Facial Action Coding System, to decipher which of the 43 muscles in the face are working at any moment. Seven core emotions are identified: happiness, surprise, contempt, disgust, sadness, anger and fear.”
The report also reveals that Australian-born guard Dante Exum (now with the Utah Jazz) fell out of the Bucks’ favor through Hill’s analysis. In last June’s draft, they instead opted for Jabari Parker with the No. 2 overall pick — because, in so many words, he had a more winning face.
— John Wilmes
1. Golden State Warriors (23-3)
The Warriors are 23-3, boasting an insane .885 winning percentage. Until their success rate drops below such historically impressive levels, they’ll hold tight to this top spot. Just imagine if they had a healthy Andrew Bogut in tow.
2. Portland Trail Blazers (22-7)
The knock on last year’s surprising Blazers’ squad is that they never had to endure any injury troubles with their unusually cohesive starting five. But now that center Robin Lopez is out and they’ve still got the second-best record in the league, skeptics are disappearing in droves.
3. Memphis Grizzlies (21-7)
Injuries to Tony Allen and Zach Randolph have seen the Memphis juggernaut slow a bit, but not enough to discredit the spectacular play they’ve put up so far — which includes being one of the only teams to beat Golden State.
4. Chicago Bulls (18-9)
The Bulls are rounding into form offensively as Derrick Rose finds himself again and Jimmy Butler blossoms into a superstar. Their recent 49-point fourth quarter against the Raptors should have the rest of the league in a state of fright.
5. Toronto Raptors (22-7)
Despite losing DeMar DeRozan weeks ago, Toronto’s still got the best record in the Eastern Conference. Canada forcing its way into the primetime of roundball TV looks like something more solid than a blip this Christmas.
6. Houston Rockets (20-7)
The Rockets have cooled down after a crazy, mysterious surge without Dwight Howard or Terrence Jones. Their best basketball is still in front of them, though, provided they can get everyone healthy — and provided they can sign Josh Smith without disrupting their chemistry.
7. Atlanta Hawks (20-7)
The Hawks have been one of the league’s smartest, most efficient teams on both sides of the ball this autumn. The question is whether their hyper-kinetic offense has flaws that can’t be exploited by bigger, tougher teams in the postseason.
8. Dallas Mavericks (20-9)
Rajon Rondo moves the needle in the right direction for Dallas, but not by a whole lot. The arduous process of working his unique skills into their offense is (for now) barely outweighed by the benefits his presence should bring.
9. Washington Wizards (19-7)
John Wall is, somewhat quietly, playing like a top-three NBA point guard. And as he’s buttressed by a scary, deep front court and Paul Pierce’s icy crunch-time veins, the Wiz look like a team no one wants to face.
10. Cleveland Cavaliers (16-10)
LeBron’s Cavaliers, like his Heat before them, have relied heavily upon their on/off switch. But this team hasn’t yet showed enough in their “on” moments to meet the hype about them over the summer. We’re still waiting to see what they’re really made of.
11. Los Angeles Clippers (19-9)
An underwhelming Clippers squad, their fans hope, is simply waiting for the spring to begin their charge into elite play. Chris Paul and Co. must still be salty about their tough loss to the Thunder in last year’s playoffs, waiting not so patiently for their moment of revenge.
12. San Antonio Spurs (18-11)
The Spurs have been sitting their veterans even more than usual, seeming almost disinterested in winning many games before 2015 is upon us. We’ll hold off on judging them properly until they start their push in earnest.
13. Oklahoma City Thunder (13-15)
The Thunder have played well since getting Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook back, but they still face a steep, perilous climb through the Western Conference, with an extremely small margin for error.
14. Milwaukee Bucks (14-14)
Even without Jabari Parker, the Bucks are a dangerous, competitive team despite being so young. They’re likely not ready for playoff prominence yet, but fans in Wisconsin should be incredibly excited for the future.
15. New Orleans Pelicans (14-13)
Without the super-valuable Anthony Davis, the Pelicans might be ten spots lower on this list — or more. The playoffs are a long shot for this squad in the West, and New Orleans’ front office has a tough task ahead of them in convincing Davis they can put together a more fearsome roster around him.
16. Phoenix Suns (15-14)
The Suns are in NBA purgatory, with many believing they need to do something about their three-point-guard experiment, which appears to be failing as last year’s premier Sun, Goran Dragic, languishes without the ball in his hands often enough.
17. Miami Heat (13-15)
The battered Heat aren’t feeling so hot without LeBron James, and their future is in question with the health of Dwyane Wade looming like a stadium-sized question mark.
18. Sacramento Kings (12-16)
The Kings looked like they were on the up this year. Then, they got ahead of themselves and fired coach Mike Malone, putting their fans back into a state of panic, confusion, and malaise as they exposed their internal dysfunction.
19. Brooklyn Nets (11-15)
The Nets have just about all their players on the trade block, and why wouldn’t they? This collection isn’t inspiring anyone, flailing at the bottom of the weak Eastern Conference playoff picture.
20. Denver Nuggets (12-16)
The Nuggets, as much as any team in the sport, are without direction. And their best-case scenario (fringe playoff spoiler team in the West) hit a wall when they lost Danilo Galinari for the year.
21. Boston Celtics (10-15)
Without Rajon Rondo, the Celtics have fully turned the page past their era of Big Three championship contention. But the question still remains: What’s next?
22. Indiana Pacers (9-19)
The Pacers continue to be one of the league’s least watchable teams with a declining David West, no Paul George, no Lance Stephenson, and little prospects at getting any better this winter.
23. Charlotte Hornets (9-19)
The Hornets remain a disappointment as they try to find a trade suitor for Lance Stephenson and struggle to find anyone who can shoot the ball for them outside of the paint.
24. Utah Jazz (9-20)
The young Jazz are still in incubation. Among the NBA’s bottom third, however, they’ve got a lot more than most to be positive about with their exciting nucleus including Dante Exum and Rudy Gobert.
25. Orlando Magic (10-20)
The Magic might be just one season away from making noise in the Eastern Conference playoffs picture. Until then, though, they’ll have to settle for the unique title of “exciting losers” as they build up experience.
26. Detroit Pistons (5-23)
Waiving Josh Smith was the right decision for this team. But they’ve still got a lot more dicey choices to make before they’re impressing anyone.
27. Philadelphia 76ers (3-23)
Despite having the worst record in the league, the tankalicious Sixers are in possession of a rare quality at the NBA’s bottom: some direction.
28. New York Knicks (5-25)
Shutting down Carmelo Anthony is just what the Knicks should do this season. Fixing his body up for a year in which they can actually compete makes more sense than dragging him through this disasterpiece of a season.
29. Minnesota Timberwolves (5-21)
The Wolves might be a more inspiring team, with their bulk of enticing young talent including Andrew Wiggins and Gorgui Dieng, if they weren’t coached and managed by the out-of-touch Flip Saunders.
30. Los Angeles Lakers (8-19)
Kobe Bryant is losing his mind as he rages against the dying of his superstar light, and that’s about the only reason to watch this miserable team.
— John Wilmes
"You know him," Los Angeles Lakers coach Byron Scott said to reporters Monday — and there was no doubt about who he meant by him. "It's real difficult. He's such a competitor. He wants to go out there and play every minute that he can. The mind is willing, but sometimes the body is not.”
Kobe Bryant, according to his coach, is going to be trying out a new concept in the eighteenth year of his storied NBA career: rest. After showing severe signs of fatigue in a 108-101 loss to the Sacramento Kings on December 21 — in which the 36-year-old legend shot 8-for-30 and committed nine turnovers — it’s become clear that Bryant simply can’t play the way he used to.
This isn’t the only time we’ve seen Kobe playing less than spectacular ball, though. For fans of Bryant’s well-deserved spot in the gallery of basketball greatness, any sort of closer look at the Black Mamba’s recent performance has revealed the mustache on the Mona Lisa:
Still lots of noise, but the sample size keeps getting bigger: pic.twitter.com/OLMNbcxcRo— Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) December 22, 2014
"We'll formulate a plan that suits him so when he is on the court, he can go out and play at full strength instead of trying to will his way through these games," Scott went on. "He's such a competitor that he tries to will his way through it no matter how his body feels. I want him to get to the point where his body feels a lot better than it does right now.
"I'm not going to sacrifice his well being for W’s. I have to look out for Kobe to make sure I make it through this season without killing him and playing him too much. There might be some decisions I make that he won't be real happy with. I'll have to live with that. But for me, it's always going to be my players' best interest.”
With or without Bryant, the Lakers are destined to keep losing big in the stacked Western Conference. And as the losses pile up, the games themselves will rarely be in the spotlight — the sideshow of Kobe accepting the dimming of his star has long been the central hooping event in Tinseltown.
— John Wilmes
In a league overflowing with parity and dominated (mostly) by youth, the NFL tends to be an organization of mood swings. One moment a player is on top of the world, heading toward a Pro Bowl season or a lucrative, multi-year contract.
The next, they find themselves on this list, as one of the biggest disappointments of the year.
It happens to a lot of players: Great ones, and ones with great expectations; Pro Bowl players, or ones who were just headed in that direction. As always, there were a lot of things to be disappointed about this season.
Here are 10 who were as disappointing as any in the league:
QB Colin Kaepernick, 49ers
Three straight trips to the NFC championship game and one trip to the Super Bowl seemingly cemented him as being on the verge of greatness, and the things he could do with his arm and his legs made many believe he signaled the arrival of the next generation of quarterback weapons. Then this season he stopped winning and even seemed to slow down when running (until his big game against San Diego last weekend). Mostly, though, the offense wilted under his direction. His stats are middling with one game to go and he may not even reach 20 touchdown passes – not good for the quarterback on what was supposed to be one of the best teams in the league.
RB Reggie Bush, Lions
He had three straight seasons of 1,000 rushing yards (OK, one was 986, but still …) and a year ago he was such a dual threat he had 1,500 total yards, too. Then this year, as his injuries returned, he has 278 rushing yards and 231 receiving yards and he’s no longer much of a threat in either area. He’s also going to be 30 in March and after a brief career revival it looks once again like he’ll never live up to his promise and hype.
QB Andy Dalton, Bengals
He got a six-year, $96 million contract extension in August, and then looked terrific as Cincinnati got off to a 3-0 start. Since then? Not so good. Passer rating isn’t everything, but in that category he ranks behind the likes of Mark Sanchez, Austin Davis, Zach Mettenberger and Mike Glennon. He has thrown 17 touchdown passes in 15 games and 15 interceptions. He doesn’t look like a franchise quarterback anymore, and if the Bengals had waited just two more months he’d never have gotten a deal that size.
TE Vernon Davis, 49ers
There certainly are a lot of disappointing players in San Francisco, in what surely will end up being Jim Harbaugh’s final season. Davis might be one of the biggest and, quite possibly, one of the biggest mysteries. Over the previous five seasons he had established himself as a dangerous weapon. Last year he had 850 receiving yards, an impressive 16.3 yards per catch and 13 touchdowns. Now? He’s an after thought. His 25 catches for 236 yards and two TDs, not to mention a yards-per-catch average of just 9.4, add up to his worst season since his injury shortened rookie year.
RB Doug Martin, Buccaneers
Another injury-plagued season has ruined the value of this former star who memorably had 1,454 yards and 11 touchdowns as a rookie. This season he’ll be lucky to top the 456 he had last season. Granted, after last year’s disaster maybe this should’ve been expected. But he did play 10 games, just not very well. He starts, but he doesn’t do much and has averaged just 3.4 yards per carry, making him a truly awful part of one of the worst teams in the league.
QB Cam Newton, Panthers
Before the accident and the fractured back, Newton had responded since his excellent 2013 season by dipping back to his 2012 levels. His completion percentage is back under 60 and he’s got just 17 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. Yes, he lost his best receiver, Steve Smith, but he replaced him with a superb rookie in Kelvin Benjamin. This was supposed to be Newton’s arrival as an elite quarterback. Instead, he’s led the Panthers to a losing record in the worst division in the NFL.
WR Michael Crabtree, 49ers
He was supposed to be one of the next great receiving super stars when he was drafted 10th overall in 2009. Now, after a couple of good years, he’s clearly not much more than a possession receiver. His 64 catches are OK, especially with a struggling quarterback. But for 657 yards and just a 10.3 yards per catch average? That’s a career low and an indication that he either has no ability to shake a tackler or he’s lost his speed.
WR Rueben Randle, Giants
It was all set up for the former second-round pick, especially after Victor Cruz got hurt. Instead, rookie Odell Beckham breezed past him. Even worse, Randle couldn’t take advantage of defenses leaving him alone and focusing on the Giants’ first-round pick. He has just 65 catches for 780 yards and three touchdowns through 15 games, which are decent numbers, but not for a guy who could’ve been his team’s No. 1. Worse, he’s been benched twice for the first quarter of a game by his coach for unspecified violations of team rules.
DE Jared Allen, Bears
Age has caught up to him at 32 as he’s seen his playing time reduced and he’s on his first single-digit sack season since 2006. He had started to tail off for the Vikings a year ago, but still managed 11.5 sacks. Now he’s down to 5.5 in 14 games.
RB LeSean McCoy, Eagles
It’s not that he’s having a bad season (1,220 rushing yards with a game to go), it’s that he’s not living up to the hype of a star back in what was supposed to be the NFL’s most dangerous offense. And for the first five games of the season he was average, with just 273 yards. He eventually got going, but still had only four 100-yard games and won’t approach the 1,607 yards he had a year earlier. He also will likely be under 200 receiving yards – and he hadn’t finished under 300 once in his entire career.
—by Ralph Vacchiano