Articles By Athlon Sports
(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
Berea, OH (SportsNetwork.com) - Johnny Football's rookie season is over.
Cleveland Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel will miss Sunday's finale against Baltimore with what his coach said Monday is a "pretty significant" hamstring injury.
Manziel was hurt on a scramble in the final minutes of the first half Sunday when he was hit by two Carolina players while going out of bounds.
The first-round draft pick was replaced by Brian Hoyer, whose status for this weekend's game is up in the air after he suffered a shoulder injury against the Panthers.
The injuries have left Browns coach Mike Pettine uncertain of who will start at quarterback against the Ravens.
Undrafted rookie Connor Shaw will see more reps in practice this week but Pettine said on a conference call Monday he hasn't ruled out other options, according to the team's official website.
Manziel struggled after replacing Hoyer to make his first NFL start against Cincinnati last week and didn't fare much better in four series against the Panthers on Sunday.
He completed 13 of 26 passes in the two starts for 112 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions.
The Browns (7-8) have lost four games in a row but will finish with their best record since going 10-6 in 2007.
Allen Park, MI (SportsNetwork.com) - The NFL suspended Detroit Lions center Dominic Raiola one game without pay for stomping on Chicago Bears defensive lineman Ego Ferguson's leg in Sunday's game.
Raiola violated Rule 12, Section 2, Article 12 (b) of the NFL Rule Book prohibiting "kicking or kneeing an opponent." The incident took place in the third quarter of Detroit's 20-14 win.
Raiola said after the game he didn't intentionally step on Ferguson's ankle and apologized to him after the game.
"Obviously, I took a good look at it," Lions coach Jim Caldwell said Monday before any suspension had been levied by the league. "I looked at both the coaches copy and also the television copy as well. I believe what Dom told me, that it was inadvertent, but I could also see why it's obviously being reviewed by the league and everybody is taking a real good look at it."
This is Raiola's sixth safety-related rules violation since 2010. He was fined $10,000 earlier this year for striking a New England player in the back of the helmet in the final minute of a Nov. 23 game.
Raiola must stay away from the team during his suspension. He will be reinstated on Dec. 29.
The suspension may be appealed within three business days. Appeals are heard and decided by either Derrick Brooks or Ted Cottrell. Raiola is expected to appeal the suspension.
The Lions play at the Packers on Sunday in a winner-take-all game for the NFC North title. Rookie Travis Swanson will likely start in Raiola's place.
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