Articles By Athlon Sports
One of the last guardians of the NBA’s fading generation of old superstars, Kobe Bryant, may be seeing the end of his road a little sooner than expected.
The Los Angeles Lakers announced Thursday that their 36-year-old legend has a torn rotator cuff. ESPN’s Baxter Holmes and Ramona Shelburne say that many within the organization fear that Kobe will need season-ending surgery. If that’s the case, Bryant will have played 35 games in a season in which he’s being paid $24 million to lead a 12-31 Lakers squad into the draft lottery.
Things aren’t ending as well as they started for Bryant. The Lakers traded for Bryant after the Charlotte Hornets drafted him, and then for a decade and a half he played almost exclusively in important games, on important teams. He was always near his sport’s competitive zenith. But now, the Black Mamba is more of a mascot than a feared competitor, yukking it up with LeBron on the sideline as L.A. loses and the next wave of top ballers takes things over permanently.
The Lakers are stuck in a strange purgatory until Kobe’s fate is known for good. As long as he’s around, it’s hard to see a new era starting. The franchise will likely proceed as a sort of traveling nostalgia act until they gut the roster and adopt a fresh direction.
Some have speculated that this is happening — that general manager Mitch Kupchak has allowed the team to go on in their current fashion because it’s leading them right where they need to be: atop the NBA Draft.
Whether or not this is the case, it’s certainly a strange time to be a Lakers fan. One of the proudest, most accomplished outfits in all of pro sporting is in a lull, and Bryant is the breathing symbol of their sitting on the fence between gold and whatever’s much worse than bronze.
— John Wilmes
According to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports, the NBA has already decided upon four exciting contestants for their annual All-Star weekend slam dunk contest — to be held on Saturday February 14, at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York. Here are those four advance names:
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
A 6’11” sensation from Greece, Giannis is also a delightful character; a twenty-year-old with wide eyes about fame and America, who the NBA has proudly begun to tailor into one of the upcoming new faces of their game. It certainly doesn’t hurt that he’s capable of doing things like this:
Like many of his fellow All-Star dunkers, Giannis will also be partaking in the Rising Stars challenge. The catch this year? The game won’t pit sophomores and rookies against each other, but will instead draw from the pool of second- and first-year players to pit USA against the Giannis and the rest of his World squad.
Victor Oladipo, Orlando Magic
No one has benefitted more from the Magic’s new uptempo style than Victor Oladipo. It gives him a chance to get up and down the floor and let his athleticism do the talking for him. Like this:
Victor also has a secret weapon in store in the event that the contest still allows for one cooperative dunk with a teammate: savant passer and fellow Magic guard Elfrid Payton.
Mason Plumlee, Brooklyn Nets
You might have a hard time distinguishing Mason from his brother Miles, a center with the Phoenix Suns. The most clear difference between them, though, is Mason’s ability to perform dances like this around the rim:
It’s a down year for the Nets and New York Knicks — the co-host franchises of this year’s midseason celebration. But if Plumlee can win this contest as an underdog contestant, it’ll provide a bright spot for NYC on this glitzy weekend.
Zach LaVine, Minnesota Timberwolves
Next to Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine makes for the most hoptastic young backcourt in the league. Some of the LaVine dunking Vines in circulation are straight-up hard to believe:
This guy, with an open invitation to make music out of basketball with the world’s attention? I won’t be missing it.
— John Wilmes
As Derrick Rose would assert, nobody in their locker room is clicking too well these days. "Everybody has to be on the same page," Rose told reporters after a 108-94 shellacking at the hands of Cleveland. "Until then, we're going to continue to get our ass kicked. It's just the whole team. I think communication is huge. We’re quiet when we're out there, and it's leading to them getting easy baskets. We got to give a better effort. It seems like we're not even competing, and it's f---ing irritating.”
While such pronounced profanity isn’t common for Rose, stern lectures from his coach are. "We got to decide when enough's enough," Thibodeau said after the loss to the Cavs. "The way we're playing is not acceptable, so we have to change it.”
Some familiar vultures have begun to swirl around Thibodeau and his job security. Bulls experts have long speculated that the coach’s intensity is a double-edged sword; despite his fiery approach often turning the Bulls into relentless warriors, it also seems linked to their constant injury troubles.
The latest Bull to hit the hurt list is 2014 Defensive Player of the Year Joakim Noah. After lighting the NBA on fire last season, Noah got knee surgery over the summer and has been hobbled by a collection of maladies throughout 2014-15. In order for the Bulls to play up to championship expectations, they need the elite, volcano version of Noah — who simply hasn’t been existent this year.
My prediction? Just as it did Cleveland, the hysteria in Chicago will die down as soon as the Bulls — a talented, driven team who are simply going through a dog-days slump — put together a few quality victories. Catch Chicago try to get things back on track tonight, as they square off against the San Antonio Spurs at home, at 8:00 PM ET on TNT.
— John Wilmes
6. Orlando Magic
The Magic haven’t whiffed the mainstream’s attention since Dwight Howard left town via trade in 2012. And while the current 15-29 version of the team hasn’t changed that, they’re a steadily improving young squad with a collection of fascinating players who’ve quickly made them a top watch for hardcore NBA followers. Rookie point guard Elfrid Payton is a stormy, aggressive player who can often turn the task of guarding other ball-handlers into a sort of mid-court wrestling match. The monstrous Nikola Vucevic is one of the best post scorers in the game. And sophomore stud Victor Oladipo — the smooth complement to Payton’s rough-and-tumble approach — is blossoming in the Magic’s increasingly uptempo offense. Look for the Magic to enter the Eastern Conference playoff picture next year.
5. Sacramento Kings
Despite hitting a frustrating rough patch after ownership prematurely canned beloved head coach Mike Malone, Kings fans have cause for optimism. It’s hard not to hold hope when you’ve got DeMarcus Cousins on your roster. Cousins, a dominant 24-year-old center, is arguably the best offensive big man beast this side of Shaquille O’Neal. At 6’11” and 270 pounds, he can knock over just about anyone who defends him — but he can also dance around most matchups with ease. Cousins is fleet of foot and has quick hands and an accurate shot to boot. His nickname, “Boogie,” is a result of his uncanny movement for someone his size. Paired with a rejuvenated Rudy Gay, DeMarcus looks to be in position to take the league by storm. As soon as Vivek Ranadive gets out of the way, expect the Kings’ ascension to continue.
4. Utah Jazz
The Jazz have quietly piled up the best assemblage of young big men in the game. The emergence of freakishly long, crazily athletic French rim-protector Rudy Gay has turned Turkish center Enes Kanter into a luxury asset, as has the best season of power forward Derrick Favors’ career. There aren’t a ton of openings coming up in the stacked Western Conference, but the Jazz might grab one with force if they keep building what they’re building with shrewd first-year coach Quin Snyder. And if lightning-quick Australian rookie point guard Dante Exum begins to blossom behind Gordon Hayward on the wing next year, their seizure of a playoff spot might happen sooner than expected.
3. New Orleans Pelicans
Anthony Davis has been heralded as the next big NBA superstar, and for good reason. The Unibrow is as long as anyone in the sport, and also as skilled. But that doesn’t mean the Pelicans should be much above their .500 mark yet — Davis is still 21 years old. As far as 21-year-old centerpieces go, New Orleans couldn’t do better. But they’ve still got a lot of work to do. For now, the Pelicans are about where they should be: still looking for the right complementary pieces to put around Davis he continues to improve year after year. Soon enough, he’ll be so good that whoever’s around him will be better by virtue of his proximity. That’s the greatness Davis is headed toward.
2. Milwaukee Bucks
Through injuries, youth, the enigma of Larry Sanders and a new regime under coach Jason Kidd and fresh ownership, the Bucks have been very impressive. At 21-20, they’re bound for the Eastern Conference postseason, and way ahead of the development curve many analysts had laid out for them. Multi-talented “Greek Freak” Giannis Antetokounmpo has a lot to do with Milwaukee’s success, but so does their undersung leading scorer, Brandon Knight. The rest of it is a strong system, bought into by Kidd’s spry roster. Under his tutelage, they’re the third-most efficient defense in the league. Who said you need lots of experience to defend well as a team?
1. Detroit Pistons
The Pistons remain one of the most curious stories of the NBA season. After struggling out of the gate to a 5-23 record, Detroit amazingly turned things around after sending struggling forward Josh Smith — their highest-paid player — out the door on waivers. Motor City basketball is 11-3 in the exciting post-Smith era, rallying around coach Stan Van Gundy’s vision and the breakout of Brandon Jennings, Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe. As quickly as it happened, the Pistons might have already moved out of the “up-and-coming” category. These days, it looks like they’ve already arrived.
— John Wilmes
Waiters has looked more engaged defensively and more confident with his role and motions in the OKC offense. Reigning MVP Kevin Durant predicted an uptick in Waiters’ productivity, saying "we're going to make him feel wanted. I don't think he's felt that the last few years.”
Six games into his Thunder tenure, Waiters seems to be enjoying the extra affirmation and encouragement his new team offers him. Dion turned in an especially on-point performance in the Thunder’s recent 127-115 victory over the Golden State Warriors — OKC’s biggest win of the season. Waiters dropped 21 points on 8-for-16 shooting in the game, to go with four rebounds and three steals. He helped create a defensive swarm that held MVP frontrunner Steph Curry to one of his worst outings of the year.
After he scored 16 points in a win over the Orlando Magic the following night, he offered a pretty straight-forward as to why he’s a better, happier basketball player in a fresh uniform. Per Darnell Mayberry of the Oklahoman:
“Waiters was asked what he’s learned so far about where his shots will come from and how he fit into the offense.
“‘Listen,’ he said, ‘they give me the ball. Like, I touch the ball. Like, I actually, like, you know, touch the ball.’ [...]
“‘I’m able to feel the game out, knowing when to take the shot, when not to. Like I said, we got a great group of guys on this team who’s very unselfish and they want you to be successful. So I think I came into a great situation.’”
— John Wilmes
Being a future Hall of Famer does not guarantee a trip to the Super Bowl. In fact, many of the game’s greatest players never took the field with the Vince Lombardi Trophy on the line. Here are some of the game’s best to have never made it to Super Sunday.
1. Barry Sanders, RB, DET (1989-98)
Playoff record: 1–5
Best team: 1991 Lions (12–4 record, lost in NFC Championship Game)
Closest call: 1991 (NFC Championship Game, 41–10 loss at Redskins)
After winning his playoff debut 38–6 against the Cowboys, Sanders lost his next five postseason games. Shockingly, one of the most exciting players of all-time was limited to 13 or fewer carries in four of his six playoff contests. The only time No. 20 was given more than 20 carries, he ripped off 169 yards in a 28–24 loss to the Packers. Although Sanders ran wild every year on Thanksgiving Day, he never showed up to the party on Super Bowl Sunday.
2. Deacon Jones, DE (1961-74)
Playoff record: 0–2
Best team: 1967 Rams (11–1–2 record, lost in Divisional Round)
Closest call: 1969 (Divisional Round, 23–20 loss at Vikings)
The “Secretary of Defense” was known for head-slapping opposing offensive linemen, but the two-time Defensive Player of the Year must have been doing some head-scratching after retiring with zero playoff wins on three different teams — and zero Super Bowl appearances — despite an unofficial total of 173.5 sacks during his Hall of Fame career.
3. Dick Butkus, LB (1965-73)
Playoff record: 0–0
Best team: 1965 Bears (9–5 record, missed postseason)
Arguably the greatest middle linebacker in history, Butkus played for George Halas — the legendary coach whose name graces the trophy awarded to the winner of the NFC Championship Game — and on the same team as Hall of Fame triple-threat playmaker Gale Sayers. Despite looking great on paper at the time and even better in historical hindsight, Butkus’ Bears were unable to make the playoffs, which is the first step toward advancing to the Super Bowl.
4. Gale Sayers, RB (1965-71)
Playoff record: 0–0
Best team: 1965 Bears (9–5 record, missed postseason)
Butkus and Sayers were drafted Nos. 3 and 4 overall, respectively, by the Bears in 1965. But the Hall of Fame duo were unable to translate their individual achievements into team success. Sayers notched a record six TDs in a single game — with nine carries for 113 yards and four TDs, two catches for 89 yards and one TD, and five punt returns for 134 yards and one TD as a rookie — but failed to score even a single Super Bowl trip.
5. Earl Campbell, RB (1978-85)
Playoff record: 3–3
Best team: 1979 Oilers (11–5 record, lost in AFC Championship Game)
Closest call: 1979 (AFC Championship Game, 27–13 loss at Steelers)
The “Luv Ya Blue” bulldozer was unable to take down the powerful “Steel Curtain” during back-to-back AFC Championship Game losses. In two painful defeats at Pittsburgh, Campbell had a combined 39 carries for 77 yards (1.97 ypc), two catches for 15 yards, and zero TDs. Campbell’s two scoreless games against the Steelers were the only two playoff games in which he failed to find the end zone.
6. O.J. Simpson, RB (1969-79)
Playoff record: 0–1
Best team: 1974 Bills (9–5 record, lost in Divisional Round)
Closest call: 1974 (Divisional Round, 32–14 loss at Steelers)
Another victim of the mighty Steelers, the Juice had better luck than Campbell — with 18 touches for 86 total yards and one TD — but was unable to lead the Bills to victory in what would be his only postseason appearance. The actor and defendant never basked in the spotlight of the Super Bowl but he was seen by millions during his days as Lt. Nordberg in the "Naked Gun" franchise and his starring role in the Trial of the Century.
7. Eric Dickerson, RB (1983-93)
Playoff record: 2–5
Best team: 1985 Rams (11–5 record, lost in NFC Championship Game)
Closest call: 1985 (NFC Championship Game, 24–0 loss at Bears)
Upon first glance, the single-season rushing yards record holder posted solid playoff numbers. But take off the goggles and you’ll see that Dickerson’s 248-yard, two-TD outburst during a 20–0 win over the Cowboys in 1985 accounted for one-third of his career postseason rushing yards and half of his total TDs.
8. LaDainian Tomlinson, RB (2001-11)
Playoff record: 4–5
Best team: 2006 Chargers (14–2 record, lost in Divisional Round)
Closest call: 2010 (AFC Championship Game, 24–19 loss at Steelers)
Infamously sulking on the sideline, injured and wearing in a Darth Vader facemask and trench coat at New England — after just two carries for five yards — was clearly the low point of L.T.’s playoff career. Staying on the dark side, three of his five playoff losses were by margins of three points, one defeat came by four points and the most lopsided was a nine-pointer.
9. Tony Gonzalez, TE (1997-2013)
Playoff record: 1–6
Best team: 2003 Chiefs (13–3 record, lost in Divisional Round)
Closest call: 2012 (NFC Championship Game, 28–24 loss vs. 49ers)
It took Gonzo 16 seasons to finally earn a playoff win. Then, with the Falcons holding a 17–0 lead over the 49ers in the NFC title game, it looked like the future Hall of Fame tight end would be punching his ticket to the Super Bowl and possibly riding off into the sunset as a champion. The massive comeback by the Niners would be the all-time great’s final playoff game.
10. Warren Moon, QB (1984-2000)
Playoff record: 3–7
Best team: 1993 Oilers (12–4 record, lost in Divisional Round)
Closest call: 1993 (Divisional Round, 28–20 loss vs. Chiefs)
Moon won five consecutive Grey Cups and was twice named Grey Cup MVP in the Canadian Football League. But in these United States south of the border, the former CFL champion was unable to translate his prior success to the NFL Playoffs. Moon’s waning moment came in the worst collapse in postseason history, as his Oilers watched a 35–3 lead evaporate into a 41–38 overtime loss against the Frank Reich-led Bills.
Add another line item to James Harden’s MVP resume. The Houston Rockets star scored 45 points against the Indiana Pacers last night, and did it with extreme efficiency. The Beard was 12-for-18 from the field, and 14-for-15 from the charity strike. Watch him run up his box-score digits:
The Rockets won the game 110-98, to improve to 29-13 on the season, good for fourth place in the loaded Western Conference.
"I think the way we came out, that's the way we should come out every single game," Harden said after the game. "We focused on defense and offensively making it easy for each other. They didn't gain any ground on us because we kept being consistent with what we did.”
It’s refreshing to see Harden take on such a bold, team-leading role in his sixth season as a pro. Last year, he looked emotionally pained as he adjusted to the pressures of being the best player on a title-contending team, when Dwight Howard came to town and elevated the Rockets’ competitive status. Harden’s defense demonstrably suffered as he took on extra heat from the limelight.
But now he’s on the short list of players you’d want to build a team around, and his coach Kevin McHale has noticed the transformation. "He's having a special year," McHale said after the victory over the Pacers. "A couple of those shots he made, there's nothing a defender can do.”
At 26.6 points per game, Harden is currently leading the league in scoring. More importantly, he’s become a member of some of the best defensive lineups in basketball — the Rockets have the second-most efficient defense in the sport, and they’re markedly more scary because of it.
Catch Harden and Houston as they look for revenge against the league-leading Golden State Warriors this Wednesday, at 10:30 PM ET on ESPN. Steph Curry and Co. dismantled the Rockets, 131-106, this past Saturday.
— John Wilmes
That was before James became a coach-killer, Love lost his mojo, and the most hyped team of the decade got buried under a barrage of hysteria and dysfunction caused by unmet expectations.
Good thing for the Cavs: The season is long. Mediocrity in early January means little in a league where the stakes don’t rise until April, and Cleveland has swiftly improved after trading Dion Waiters, Lou Amundson and some draft picks for Timofey Mozgov, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert.
The new-look Cavaliers spanked one of their top conference rivals, the Chicago Bulls, last night. Cleveland point guard Kyrie Irving tallied 18 points and 12 assists as his team prevailed, 108-94. This one was a quick knockout, as the Cavs amassed a 14-point lead in the second quarter and never really looked back.
The Bulls, to their credit, are in a bad way. Losers of six of their last eight contests, they’re without 2014 Defensive Player of the Year Joakim Noah, and starting small forward Mike Dunleavy. But what Cleveland did last night was a statement game nonetheless; they may not put together the perfect season, but they have more than enough talent to scare the rest of the sport.
The Cavs still have a lot of work to do if they’re to be championship contenders this spring. A three-game winning streak is nice (especially if two of the wins are against elite teams) but it doesn’t put you into the rare air of squads like the Golden State Warriors and Atlanta Hawks — who, combined, have less than half of Cleveland’s losses. With LeBron leading the way, though, such company seems inevitable these days.
— John Wilmes
History says the New England Patriots might want to save some of Sunday’s good fortune for the Super Bowl against the Seahawks.
New England’s 45-7 rout of Indianapolis in the AFC Championship Game Sunday was the biggest blowout in a conference title game since the 2000 season and one of the biggest of the last 30 years.
What could that mean for the Super Bowl? Four of the last five teams to win an AFC or NFL championship game in blowout fashion ended up losing in the Super Bowl.
But as great teams from San Francisco and Chicago in the 1980s can vouch, that kind of momentum can carry over into the Super Bowl.
Here’s a look at the biggest AFC/NFC title game blowouts since 1984 and how the winners fared in the Super Bowl.
2014: New England 45, Indianapolis 7
Patriots’ Super Bowl result: TBD
This was New England’s biggest AFC title win by far but not a huge surprise given the opponent; it marked the Pats sixth straight win over the Colts. And the average score of the last four — all since Andrew Luck joined the Colts — is 47-18.
2006: Chicago 39, New Orleans 14
Bears’ Super Bowl result: Lost to Indianapolis, 29-17.
This was actually a two-point game in the third quarter (16-14) before a Bears safety and three fourth-quarter touchdowns. Chicago used a familiar script, wearing down New Orleans (46 rushes for 196 yards) and taking advantage of turnovers (three fumbles, one interception).
In Super Bowl XLI, the script was flipped on the Bears. The Colts ran it 42 times for 191 yards, held the ball for more than 38 minutes and forced five Chicago turnovers to give Peyton Manning his only championship.
2005: Seattle 34, Carolina 14
Seahawks’ Super Bowl result: Lost to Pittsburgh, 21-10.
This one was never in doubt as Seattle was up 17-0 one play into the second quarter and never let the Panthers into the game. The Seahawks rushed 51 times for 190 yards (132 by Shaun Alexander) and held the ball for almost 42 minutes.
The officials became the story of Super Bowl XL as Seattle fans still wonder what could have been if not for a questionable holding call that turned first-and-goal at the Pittsburgh 1 into first-and-20 at the 29 in a 14-10 game.
2000: N.Y. Giants 41, Minnesota 0
Giants’ Super Bowl result: Lost to Baltimore, 34-7.
The Giants scored two touchdowns in the first 2:07 and never looked back in one of the most dominating postseason performances ever. Kerry Collins threw for 381 yards and five TDs as New York outgained Minnesota 518-114. The Vikings had the ball for less than 18 minutes, which will happen when you turn it over five times and pick up only nine first downs.
It all came crashing down for Collins and the Giants in Super Bowl XXXV. They did not score an offensive touchdown against the Ravens’ dominant defense, avoiding a shutout only thanks to a kickoff return score. New York gained just 152 yards and turned the ball over five times in the loss.
1991: Washington 41, Detroit 10
Redskins’ Super Bowl result: Beat Buffalo, 37-24.
Washington forced turnovers on Detroit’s first two possessions but led just 17-10 at halftime. The second half was all Redskins as Mark Rypien threw two touchdowns and Darrell Green returned an interception for another score. Barry Sanders carried just 11 times for 44 yards for the Lions, who have not won a playoff game since.
Despite the smaller margin, Washington’s win over Buffalo in Super Bowl XVI got out of hand much more quickly thanks in part to five Buffalo turnovers. The Redskins led 24-0 and 37-10 before two late touchdowns set the final.
1990: Buffalo 51, L.A. Raiders 3
Bills’ Super Bowl result: Lost to N.Y. Giants, 20-19.
This one was over early as Buffalo led 21-3 after one quarter on its way to an NFL playoff record 41 points in the first half. Jim Kelly threw for 300 yards, and Thurman Thomas racked up 138 of the Bills’ 202 yards rushing. Buffalo forced seven turnovers, including five Jay Schroeder interceptions.
Buffalo’s no-huddle offense watched most of Super Bowl XXV from the sidelines as the Giants rushed for 172 yards and held the ball for more than 40 minutes. Still, thanks in large part to Thomas’ 190 yards from scrimmage, the game wasn’t decided until Scott Norwood missed a 47-yard field goal with less than 10 seconds to play.
1989: San Francisco 30, L.A. Rams 3
49ers’ Super Bowl result: Beat Denver, 55-10.
The 27-point win in the NFC title game was actually the closest contest among the 49ers’ three postseason wins. After routing Minnesota (41-13), San Francisco avenged one of its two regular season losses by reeling off 30 unanswered points after falling behind 3-0 to the Rams. Joe Montana completed 26 of 30 passes for 262 yards, and the defense intercepted Jim Everett three times.
Montana earned MVP honors in Super Bowl XXIV as he threw five touchdowns in a 55-10 rout of Denver. The 49ers led 27-3 and the half and stretched the lead to 41-3 at one point. The defense held John Elway to 10-of-26 passing for 108 yards and two interceptions in handing him his third Super Bowl loss.
1988: San Francisco 28, Chicago 3
49ers’ Super Bowl result: Beat Cincinnati, 20-16.
Chicago got this far on the strength of a top-five defense and a top-five running game. When Joe Montana hit Jerry Rice twice for touchdowns early, the Bears had little hope of digging out of that hole. Rice finished with 133 yards receiving, and he was just warming up.
In Super Bowl XXIII, Rice earned MVP honors with 11 catches for 215 yards and a fourth-quarter touchdown that tied the game at 13. Cincinnati took a 16-13 lead, but Montana hit John Taylor for the winning score with 34 seconds left.
1985: Chicago 24, L.A. Rams 0
Bears’ Super Bowl result: Beat New England, 46-10
The only suspense in this one was whether or not Dieter Brock and the Rams’ 26th-ranked offense could score on the Bears. They couldn’t, and Chicago had its second shutout in as many weeks. Linebacker Wilbur Marshall’s 52-yard interception return TD was the finishing touch.
The Bears actually fell behind New England, 3-0, in Super Bowl XX, but the Pats would not score again until the fourth quarter when it was 44-3. Chicago’s defense forced six turnovers, the sixth time it forced at least five on the season.
1984: San Francisco 23, Chicago 0
49ers’ Super Bowl result: Beat Miami, 38-16.
The 49ers were second in the league in scoring, but the defense held the Bears in check until the offense got going after a 6-0 first half. San Francisco held Chicago to 37 net passing yards on the day as it sacked Steve Fuller nine times, including two each by Fred Dean, Michael Carter and Gary Johnson.
The Niners offense was more than ready for a Super Bowl matchup with the only team that out-scored it in the regular season. Joe Montana threw for 331 yards and three scores, and San Francisco rushed for 211 yards to hand Miami a 38-16 defeat in Dan Marino’s only Super Bowl.
-By John Gworek
Marbury has reached such heights of fame and glory in the Far East that he’s now starred in a musical there about his tumultuous life. He’s also led his Beijing Ducks to two championships. For all the strife and drama of his career at home, Marbury has been an icon of the sport and an unmitigated success abroad.
Not without great trauma behind him, though. Through a recent interview for an upcoming HBO special, Marbury revealed that he was suicidal just before he left the NBA. "I wanted to die," he said. ”I wanted to kill myself some days. I did. ... It wasn't about basketball. It started to become about me. Because I was that depressed and I was that sick.”
The No. 4 overall pick of the 1996 NBA Draft, Marbury bounced around after a promising start alongside Kevin Garnett with the Minnesota Timberwolves, playing for five different teams before departing the league in 2009. While he’s often acted as a parable for how little elite talent accomplishes when accompanied by poor decision-making, perhaps the story on Marbury switches now; in his new confession, we see that he’s a central figure in a tragedy about undue pressure.
Marbury seems comfortable with his new life in China, though, and content to leave his past behind him. "To be told that you're a loser, that you can't win and that you can't do this and you can't do that," Marbury said about looking back at his NBA career. "...then to come some place without speaking the language with the cultural barriers, to be able to accomplish that — that goal was, is beyond anything. ... I left one place where they was basically hating me. And I come to another place where they love me? I'm like, 'Why would I want to go back to a place where they hate me?' I mean, that makes no sense to me."
— John Wilmes
The Pro Football Hall of Fame announced its list of 15 semifinalists last week – a list that will be whittled to 10 on the Saturday morning before the Super Bowl and then to what likely will be the five-member Class of 2015. It is a long, difficult process even to get from the semifinals to enshrinement.
It’s especially tough since a good case can be made for all 15 on the semifinal list.
It should be hard, though. In fact, making it to Canton should be the hardest thing in football, an honor reserved for the best of the best – the truly immortals of the game. It may hurt to finish sixth in this group, but it’s not a dishonor. All 15 are among the greatest of the great, even though only five can get in every year.
This year’s 15 include Morten Andersen, Jerome Bettis, Tim Brown, Don Coryell, Terrell Davis, Tony Dungy, Kevin Greene, Charles Haley, Marvin Harrison, Jimmy Johnson, John Lynch, Orlando Pace, Junior Seau, Will Shields, and Kurt Warner.
Here are the five that would have my vote.
His wait has been among the most excruciating because he always seems to be the “next” guy after the class is announced. He’s in his 11th year of eligibility and sixth year as a finalist. This year the five-time Pro Bowler and five-time Super Bowl champion should be clearly one of the best defenders on the list. His acerbic personality may have cost him votes. So have recent ballots that have included pass-rushing linemen like Warren Sapp and Michael Strahan. But his 100.5 sacks, plus all those championship rings, should be enough.
A seven-time Pro Bowler and five-time All-Pro, he was the dominant left tackle of his era, which included some incredibly high-powered Rams teams. He was nicknamed “The Pancake Man” at Ohio State and left so many defensive linemen on their backs he helped popularize the term “pancake block.” When he went No. 1 overall in the 1997 draft it was the first time an offensive lineman was taken in that spot in 29 years. And he lived up to it for 13 years.
He was a 12-time Pro Bowler and an eight-time first-team All-Pro, which should be more than enough to get him in on his first ballot. For a decade – and really beyond – he was the face of the Chargers’ franchise and as dangerous and active a linebacker as there was in the game. He was 34 when the Chargers traded him away, but he still managed to play parts of seven more seasons and become a key player – and captain – on the New England Patriots’ 2007 Super Bowl team that finished 18-1.
Sacks aren’t everything, but Greene finished with 160 of them, third most al-time. The players who ranked first (Bruce Smith), second (Reggie White) and fourth (Chris Doleman) are all already Hall of Famers. Greene had at least 10 sacks in 10 seasons. He was a five-time Pro Bowler, a three-time All-Pro and a member of the NFL’s Team of the '90s. He’s been blocked in recent years by high-octane pass rushers like Warren Sapp and Michael Strahan, and the feeling that Haley is overdue could block him again this year. But he’s deserving of an eventual nod.
Realistically, he probably won’t make it and just getting into the list of finalists was a triumph. But as you watch the NFL in this era, with all the high-powered passing attacks and all those quarterbacks and receivers racking up ridiculous amounts of yards, it’s hard not to think of where it all started – with the “Air Coryell” offenses of the late '70s and '80s. His Chargers teams, with Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Fouts, were innovative and explosive. They constantly led the league in passing. They never made the Super Bowl, but in both 1980 and '81 they threw their way to the AFC championship game. He influenced a generation of coaches and changed the game into the aerial assault that it is today. That seems to me to be a huge part of the definition of what makes someone worthy of the Hall of Fame.
—By Ralph Vacchiano
A year ago, Duke’s first trip in school history to the Carrier Dome to face Syracuse created an instant classic.
The same may be true of the Blue Devils’ first trip to Louisville in more than 30 years.
On Jan. 2, 1982, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski was 93-77 in his career. He lost No. 78 with a 99-61 defeat to a Denny Crum-led Cardinals team that would finish the season in the Final Four.
Krzyzewski returns to a new arena in Louisville and with 997 career wins. If not for the Blue Devils’ two-game losing streak, this could have been the game when Krzyzewski could hit 1,000 wins.
Although that milestone will have to wait, this is a can’t-miss game.
There is no shortage of star power in this contest, starting with the coaches and the All-Americans on both sides in Jahlil Okafor and Montrezl Harrell. But what this meeting comes down to is Duke’s ability to handle Louisville’s constant pressure defense and balanced scoring attack, all while trying to improve on their own defensive effort. That is quite the handful for Coach K’s young squad that is in the midst of its biggest speed bump of the season.
Duke at Louisville
Site: KFC YUM! Center, Louisville, Ky.
Time: Noon Eastern
[Related: The top 10 games fo the basketball weekend]
What’s on the line for Duke?
After losing back-to-back games to NC State in Raleigh and Miami at Cameron Indoor, the Blue Devils are searching for a defensive identity. In those two losses, Duke surrendered 87 and 90 points, mixed with lackluster offensive performances from the backcourt. The Blue Devils are looking to avoid their first three-game losing streak since 2007 when they dropped four in a row en route to a first round loss to VCU in the NCAA Tournament.
Duke needs a momentum swing in a major way. After Louisville, the Blue Devils face Pittsburgh in Durham (Jan. 19) before heading to New York City to play at St. John’s (Jan. 25), at No.12 Notre Dame (Jan. 28) and at No. 2 Virginia (Jan. 31).
What’s on the line for Louisville?
Louisville’s best win so far is against a streaky Indiana team on a neutral floor that couldn’t match up with the the Cards’ front line. After a crushing loss to North Carolina and Marcus Paige’s beautiful utilization of the backboard, Louisville still needs a signature win.
The Cardinals’ only other loss came on their home floor to Kentucky. Count on Pitino’s team to do what his teams do best — play bully defense, rebound and score in transition.
The Cards aren’t the most suave offensive team, ranking 179th in team field goal percentage (43.5percent), 285th in three-point percentage (30.4%) and 192nd in assists (12.5 per game). What Louisville lacks in terms of scoring efficiency, the Cardinals make up for in balance in their starting five. Four of the five Cardinals starters average double figures in points per game, led by sophomore guard Terry Rozier (17.4 pointers per game) and All-America forward Montrezl Harrell (15.4 points per game).
With the tough loss to UNC still fresh in the Cards’ minds, look for them to protect home court valiantly against a struggling Duke team.
You’ll tune into watch: Montrezl Harrell vs. Jahlil Okafor
Just like their two respective teams as a whole, All-Americas Montrezl Harrell and Jahlil Okafor’s games are stark opposites. Harrell is Louisville’s ignition. At a long 6-foot-8, Harrell isn’t afraid to get in an opponent’s face, but he is much more than flash and talk. Harrell runs the floor like a wing and has even been known to step behind the arc to let one fly from deep.
Generally, Harrell is the most athletic player on the floor, using his athleticism to grab almost nine rebounds a game, and a major reason why the Cardinals are one the best rebounding and shot-blocking teams in the nation.
Even though Okafor is a freshman, his interior footwork and touch around the rim is NBA ready. Shooting well over 60 percent from the field (66.8 percent) as a 19 year old is astounding, but be assured that Harrell will make the youngster work for his shots in the paint, likely bodying the 6-11 Okafor off of the block and into uncomfortable jump shots.
This All-American matchup is worth the price of admission alone.
Pivotal Player: Duke’s Tyus Jones
Recently the freshman point guard has hardly been visible, having failed to score at least 10 points in any the past five games. Luckily for Duke, Jones has saved his best performances for the Blue Devils’ biggest games against Michigan State (17 points, four assists), at Wisconsin (22 points, six rebounds, four assists) and against UConn on a neutral floor (21 points, six rebounds, three assists).
Jones will definitely need to score points for Duke to win, but he could be just as impactful on the glass and by not turning the ball over, giving Louisville easy fast-break chances.
Biggest Question: What gives first…Duke’s offense or Louisville’s defense?
Duke comes into this game strugglingon both sides of the court. KenPom.com has Duke as the seventh-best adjusted offense in the nation. In conference play, Amile Jefferson and Okafor are shooting 63 percent while the rest of the team is shooting just 37 percent from the floor. This is where Jones, Rasheed Sulaimon, Quinn Cook and Justise Winslow are going to be crucial.
While Okafor and Harrell might grab the headlines in the paint, this game will be decided on the perimeter. How will Duke’s backcourt, which can catch fire at any time, get open looks against Louisville’s perimeter protectors of Wayne Blackshear, Terry Rozier and Chris Jones? Or will the Cards want to funnel Duke’s guards into the paint where they can be neutralized by Harrell and the 6-foot-10 Mangok Mathiang.
Duke ranks sixth nationally in points per game offensively (83.2) while Louisville ranks 16th in points allowed (56.9), 12th in blocks (6.1) and 10th in steals (10.2). It will be interesting to see how Duke attacks inside the arc, where they score just 52 percent of their total points.
Duke’s recent offensive instability jumbling with their defensive failures going against Louisville’s shallow offense and killer defense should make for great college basketball theatre come Saturday afternoon on the banks of the Ohio River.
David Fox: Duke 68-65
Mitch Light: Louisville 68-62
Jake Rose: Duke 70-60
-By Jake Rose
Blood is thicker than water — and basketball, too, apparently.
At least Los Angeles Clippers head coach and executive Doc Rivers seems to think so. The second-year man in Lob City traded for his son Austin Thursday. The younger Rivers is a fledgling third-year guard who’s played for the New Orleans Pelicans until this week.
In a flurry of swaps between the Clippers, Celtics, Pelicans, Memphis Grizzlies, Phoenix Suns and Denver Nuggets — a sequence of barters that is frankly hard to keep track of, almost suggesting that front offices across the league are treating the wealth of NBA talent much like a commune does their food — the 22-year-old Rivers ends up on his father’s squad.
The move, rumored to be in the works all week, was reported by ESPN’s Marc Stein. “The trade,” Stein wrote, “will send Rivers to the Clippers, former L.A. first-round pick Reggie Bullock to the Suns and two players to the Celtics: Phoenix big man Shavlik Randolph and L.A. swingman Chris Douglas-Roberts.”
The father-son relationship hasn’t been seen on an NBA bench before. It’s statistically unlikely, for starters, but it also comes loaded with potential perils: Professional locker rooms are complicated enough places without making every day a “take your kid to work” day. While there could be benefits of Austin teaming up with Doc (the junior Rivers being a more effective player than the man he replaces, Jordan Farmer, for instance), there’s also a lot of risk in the move.
What if Austin’s dad begins playing favorites with his kin? Hopefully we don’t have to find out — and there’s a good chance we won’t, as there are more than enough reserve minutes to go around in Clippersland. This was exhibited clearly, in a recent cornerstone Clippers road victory, 100-94, over the excellent Portland Trail Blazers. Rivers didn’t play any of his starters for less than 35 minutes in the game, only going three deep on his bench, including a mere five-minute stint from Glen Davis.
If L.A.’s leading lineup is to stay fresh for the daunting Western Conference playoffs, they’ll need to find relief from any place they can. Rivers is right to take a gamble on his struggling son, who has showed glimpses of improvement this year. Austin just might prove to be a useful stop-gap piece in the lead-up to a postseason run.
— John Wilmes
Flop of the year? Possibly. Hairston’s bad dance is an act of comic brilliance (intentional or not), reaching high into the stratospheres of fraudulence and silliness. Teammate Lance Stephenson might still take the cake for any number of flop jobs, however — especially this bit from November, when he slapped himself in the face against the Golden State Warriors:
Hairston may have a learned a thing or two from his senior Born Ready, but he’s still a ways away from the delirious heights enjoyed by basketball’s reigning clown prince. Keep pushing, P.J.
South in Orlando, sophomore Magic guard Victor Oladipo was enjoying the opposite side of viral memehood. The fresh-singing 22-year-old jumped into the NBA’s heart with a 360 degree dunk. The moment was made all the richer by its context, as Oladipo delivered his hammer late in a 120-113 Magic victory, an upset over the Houston Rockets, featuring former Magic All-Star — and current Orlando pariah — Dwight Howard.
It’s nice to see central Florida turning the page past Howard in such style:
Oladipo had 32 points on 12-for-19 shooting to go with six assists and six rebounds — whoa. This, two nights after he dropped 33 on the Chicago Bulls, in a 121-114 victory — also a sizeable upset. Young Victor has led the charge for some of the best offense the Magic have played in years, embracing an uptempo attack that’s just run amok on two of the league’s best defenses. Keep your eyes peeled for this intoxicating new version of Orlando basketball.
— John Wilmes
Let’s get this out of the way — Tim Raines is not Rickey Henderson.
You know that and I know that. But 45 percent of the Baseball Writer’s Association of America hold “not being Rickey Henderson” against Tim Raines.
This is backwards.
Henderson is unquestionably the best leadoff man in baseball’s history, but that fact should not count against Raines’ career and his case for enshrinement in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Is the BBWAA going to hold it against Trevor Hoffman for not being Mariano Rivera on the 2016 vote? I doubt it.
So allow me to explain why Raines deserves to be in Cooperstown, even as “the second greatest leadoff man.”
The 5-foot-8, 160 pound, switch-hitting Raines became an everyday player with the National League’s Montreal Expos in 1981, turning heads with his basepath dominance and noticeable bat skills for a player just 21 years of age.
Raines spent 13 seasons north of the border as the Expos' offensive impetus and everyday left fielder. Of those 13 seasons, it was in his first full one in Montreal that Raines began to turn heads. In the strike-shortened 1981 season, Raines led the NL with 71 stolen bases, posting a slash line of .304/.391./438, an OPS of .829, 135 OPS+, and piling up 137 total bases in just 88 games.
The first seven years of Raines' career would be nothing short of exemplary. From 1981 to 1987, Raines would post a slash line of .310/.396./448 with an OPS+ of 135, and would average 172 hits, 31 doubles, nine triples, nine home runs, 79 walks, and 72 stolen bases. During that seven-year run, Raines would make the NL All-Star team each year and receive MVP votes in six of those seven seasons.
Raines made his living on the basepaths, leading the NL in stolen bases four years in a row (1981-71SB, ’82-78SB, ’83-90SB, ’84-75SB) and stealing 70 or more bags six times, and 50 or more bags eight times. Raines' seven-year average from 1981-87 of 72 stolen bases is more than seven MLB teams had in all of 2014. Raines' 808 career steals rank fifth all-time, and his 85.1 stolen base percentage is first all-time for players with at least 300 attempts, making him arguably the most efficient base thief ever.
In his 13 seasons as an Expo, Raines amassed 2,355 total bases, 793 walks, 635 stolen bases, 281 doubles, 947 runs, a .829 OPS, an OPS+ of 131 and a slash line of .310/.391/.497.
According to baseball-reference.com, Raines’ career numbers compare closest to Hall of Famers Lou Brock, Max Carey, Enos Slaughter, and Fred Clarke. When compared to Brock, a first-ballot inductee, Raines has more home runs, RBIs, and walks, along with a higher batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage, with 764 fewer strikeouts, a higher OPS+ and WAR rating, and was caught stealing 161 fewer times.
When compared to Carey, Slaughter, and Clarke, Raines’ case is even more concrete. Raines has more doubles, home runs, stolen bases, walks, and a higher WAR rating than all three.
Using the JAWS metric (created by Sports Illustrated’s Jay Jaffe), Raines should have been put in the Hall long ago. JAWS uses career and seven-year peak WAR totals to show the worthiness of a player’s candidacy compared to those players who are of the same position and already in the Hall.
Raines is eighth in JAWS for left fielders, behind the likes of Barry Bonds, Ted Williams, Rickey Henderson, Carl Yastrzemski, Pete Rose, Ed Delahanty, and Al Simmons. Aside from Bonds and Rose, all of those players are in the Hall. Raines’ 55.8 JAWS rating is better than 14 other Hall of Fame left fielders, making his vindication all the more definite.
Raines’ career totals feature a slash line of .294/.385/.425, an .810 OPS, 123 OPS+, 3,771 total bases, 1,571 runs, 1,330 walks, 2,605 hits, and 430 doubles over 23 seasons and six teams.
It’s unfair that Raines’ career is often overlooked in comparison to Rickey Henderson’s. It’s also unfair that many voters withhold their votes for Raines because of his admitted cocaine use. Raines has acknowledged usage prior to and during games, and sliding head first for fear of breaking the packages kept in his back pocket of his baseball pants. Sadly, the use of drugs in the 1980s was not limited to only Raines, as use was rather widespread. Thankfully, Raines was able to ditch his habit early on in his career.
While the admitted drug abuse has seemingly hurt Raines, voters have also been shy about Raines’ lack of any major-season awards, and career milestone achievements aside from stolen bases. Raines lacked any raw power, never hitting more than 20 home runs in a season, and missed the 3,000 hit mark by 395. His resume is simply missing the pretty power numbers that voters crave.
Tim Raines has just two years remaining on the Hall of Fame ballot before his candidacy expires with the BBWAA and is brought before the Veteran’s Committee. Raines' highest vote percentage was in 2013 when he received 56.2 percent, but that declined to 55 percent after this past year’s election due to a loaded ballot.
Votes won’t come much easier for Raines on the 2016 ballot with newcomers Ken Griffey Jr. and Trevor Hoffman garnering votes with growing support for Jeff Bagwell and Mike Piazza. Raines’ best bet might be with the Veteran’s Committee, but that doesn't take away from his fantastic career that is undoubtedly worthy of induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
- By Jake Rose
But the continued escalation of their visible, nearly comic dysfunction keeps bringing the Cavs back to the front pages. Nothing grabs our attention quite like a car crash, and that’s what seems to be happening in Cleveland.
After LeBron James returned from a two-week absence against the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday night, all things Cavs jumped to a whole new level of acrimony. James shoved head coach David Blatt aside during a dispute with a referee, while assistant Tyronn Lue — the man most famous for being stepped over by Allen Iverson, during an iconic NBA Finals performance in 2001 — was caught calling timeouts behind Blatt’s back. Many speculate that if Blatt is about to be fired (a prospect his front office has said is not looming), Lue is next in line.
Lmaoooo pic.twitter.com/NopgVnIVP4— warriorsworld (@warriorsworld) January 14, 2015
While general manager David Griffin has recently called the idea of Blatt being on the hot seat “truly ridiculous,” it’s hard to completely believe him. LeBron’s shove aside, Lue’s presence aside … things are simply combustible between Blatt and his team.
There’s no denying that they’ve played an offensive style well removed from the Princeton playbook Blatt is known for, opting instead for a swath of isolation ball and pick-and-roll action. The roster has also clearly coasted through large portions of the season, including their current 1-9 slide — a mark that’s unacceptable for a team this talented, with or without their best player. The Cavs are adrift, and they’re tuning their coach out.
Some Cleveland players, according to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, are even advocating for Blatt’s removal. “Cavs players [are] openly talking about coaching issues with opposing players and personnel. Not once, not twice, but frequently over the past several months,” Windhorst reports.
In this man’s opinion, the Cavs’ seemingly sinking ship is something of a temporary illusion, and Blatt's job is safe at least until the summer. While the mud is certainly hitting the fan right now, there’s more than enough time and talent to clean it up, even if Cleveland can’t get themselves quite as shiny as the Larry O’Brien championship trophy in year one.
— John Wilmes
A few nights after Pau Gasol dropped 46 points on the Milwaukee Bucks, a far more unsung player has trumped the Spaniard. In a consummate heat-check performance, journeyman Minnesota Timberwolves guard Mo Williams scored 52 points against the Indiana Pacers last night.
"You are just in a zone, you don't really see anybody," Williams told reporters after the game. "You just go back to the places when you are in the gym by yourself with your own trainer. You are just shooting shots and it doesn't matter where the defense is at.”
Williams shot a scintillating 19-for-33 from the field, including 6-of-11 from beyond the arc.
The performance harkened back to when Corey Brewer — another journeyman — poured in 51 for the ‘Wolves last year.
For Minnesota, Williams’ show in a 110-101 road victory stands as a shiny spot in a dim year. Starters Ricky Rubio and Nikola Pekovic have missed a combined 60 games, and Minnesota has been an unanchored mess of young prospects without them. Andrew Wiggins has surged into the lead spot of the Rookie of the Year race with Jabari Parker sidelined, but otherwise the 6-31 Wolves have been hard to watch, looking more like a farm team than anything nearing a playoff contender.
For the Pacers? It’s a speed bump in a long row of them in 2014-15. Losing Paul George for the year was bad enough, but the team has also had Rubio-esque health from the rest of their roster, to go with the rapid decline of power forward David West. Coach Frank Vogel is one of the best in the business, and the Pacers are seriously scrappy; but there just aren't enough talented, functional bodies around Indy these days.
Williams, the star of a Tuesday night on which former teammate LeBron James returned to action against the Phoenix Suns, has just put out a hell of an audition tape for contenders looking to trade for more firepower.
— John Wilmes
A little more than a month ago, Detroit was 3-18, and ranked dead last in Athlon’s power rankings, among others. Now winners of nine of their last 10 games, they’re nipping at the heels of East playoff teams, rapidly digging themselves out of the hole they dug with an improving 14-24 record.
By waiving underperforming forward Josh Smith, head coach and team president Stan Van Gundy did a lot to change the Pistons’ culture; a power move like that will surely garner the troops’ attention.
But sending Smith out the door is ultimately just one facet of Detroit’s turnaround, with the rest of their roster stepping up their games considerably. Point guard Brandon Jennings, more than anyone on his squad, has hit heights many doubted he had in him.
The 6’1” dynamo is playing the best basketball of his life, making true on much of the potential flashed just more than four years ago, when he was 21 years old and scored 55 points in one game while playing for the Milwaukee Bucks. Freed up in the offensive gaps left by the jettisoned Smith, and making the most of Van Gundy’s tutelage, Jennings is on fire.
In January, Brandon’s averaging 22.7 points per game on 47 percent shooting, to go with 7.2 assists. If he keeps numbers like that up — a dubious prospect, to be sure — there won’t be any denying that Jennings has become an elite NBA point guard.
And while such scintillating numbers probably aren’t sustainable, it’s clear that he’s taking a big step up with his game, and deserves more than a little respect in the race for the Most Improved Player trophy.
— John Wilmes
1. Golden State Warriors (29-5)
The Warriors might be due for a slump, but even without starting center Andrew Bogut they’ve been pillaging through the league — right now, they’re on pace to win exactly 70 games. They’ve been the best team of the 2014-15 season by virtually every measure.
2. Atlanta Hawks (29-8)
Can anyone in the Eastern Conference beat the red-hot Hawks? They’re 23-3 since some small struggles at season’s beginning, establishing a sharp, selfless offensive system with perhaps the best passing and off-ball motion in all of basketball.
3. Portland Trail Blazers (30-8)
Robin Lopez is out, but the Blazers just keep winning. Damian Lillard is due for some MVP attention soon, especially if he keeps doing things like this:
4. Chicago Bulls (26-12)
Despite Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah still not looking like themselves with any consistency this season, the Bulls have been rolling. A lot of that has to do with Pau Gasol and Jimmy Butler — two players who, respectively, were seen as done and never capable of playing this well.
5. Houston Rockets (26-11)
James Harden continues to lead the Rockets, bolstering his MVP résume daily as Houston still finds the best role for newcomer Josh Smith. And, outside of everyone’s attention, Dwight Howard has been back to playing elite ball at center.
6. Memphis Grizzlies (26-11)
The Grizzlies trading for Jeff Green gives them some serious scoring depth on the wings, and the return of Zach Randolph from injury should vault them back into the league’s highest echelon.
7. Toronto Raptors (25-11)
DeMar DeRozan’s return came last night against the Detroit Pistons, and it couldn’t have come any sooner. The Raptors have been just 12-8 without him, after starting 13-3 and taking seize of the Eastern Conference to open the season.
8. Dallas Mavericks (26-12)
As Rajon Rondo adjusts to life in coach Rick Carlisle’s offense, one of the league’s new giants begins to take shape. If these Mavs stay healthy, they’re more than capable of coming out of the Western Conference.
9. Washington Wizards (25-12)
The Wizards continue to be an enigma, falling somewhere between playoff fodder and true title contender. John Wall is a breakout superstar, and Paul Pierce’s presence has made for positive change — but something still seems missing in D.C.
10. Los Angeles Clippers (25-13)
The Clippers, more than ever, are facing title-or-bust expectations. Optimists may suggest that’s why they’ve had a rocky 2014-15 season; they’re just waiting until the stakes are raised before they play their best ball. If not’s the case, though, then there’s cause for heightened concern in Lob City.
11. Phoenix Suns (22-18)
The Suns are on the fringe of the loaded Western Conference playoff picture, and they’ve decided to push more chips to the table’s center by trading for big man Brandan Wright. This unusual roster is one of the NBA’s most exciting, for the second year running.
12. San Antonio Spurs (23-15)
The Spurs have seen Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard miss 16 games this season. DNP’s have long been par for the course in San Antonio, but for a 23-year-old? Until Leonard looks right and the Spurs snap out of their championship hangover, we’re hedging on them.
13. Milwaukee Bucks (20-19)
The young Bucks are one of the surprises of the season, forming one of the best defenses in the NBA despite accruing injuries all year. Head coach Jason Kidd is proving himself as an effective culture changer.
14. Cleveland Cavaliers (19-19)
The reeling Cavs have more questions than answers, and the questions grow with every day. LeBron James is due to return soon — but even he can’t solve the litany of issues plaguing Cleveland.
15. Oklahoma City Thunder (18-19)
The Thunder have a lot left to prove. Things haven’t been as smooth and easy as the return of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook might have made them, with OKC playing just .500 ball over their last ten contests. If they don’t put their foot on the pedal soon, they could risk missing the playoffs.
16. New Orleans Pelicans (18-18)
Anthony Davis might be the best player in the league, and Tyreke Evans, Omer Asik, Ryan Anderson and Jrue Holiday round out a solid core of talent around him. But the dropoff after those five is too dramatic for the Pelicans to be a real playoff contender in the West. New Orleans is more than one move away.
17. Miami Heat (16-21)
Hassan Whiteside is a breakout, mid-season star in the vein of Jeremy Lin. Considered a bust or a never-was by most scouts, Whiteside is now making tons of teams slap their foreheads after waiving him. The bright spot of the Heat’s sagging season, Whiteside is a story to keep your eyes on.
18. Detroit Pistons (13-24)
Stan Van Gundy’s squad could easily climb much higher in the next installment of these rankings. Winners of eight of their last nine, the Pistons simply need to get to ground level after digging themselves so deep — then, they’ll be playoff contenders in the thin East.
19. Brooklyn Nets (16-21)
The Nets stink. With a collection of overpaid, unhappy players, general manager Billy King is wondering if he can ship off enough of his roster to avoid more harsh luxury tax penalties, and keep owner Mikhail Prokhorov from giving him some nasty parting words.
20. Denver Nuggets (17-20)
Trading Timofey Mozgov to the Cavaliers could mean the beginning of a Nuggets fire sale — alternately, it could not. Denver is deep down low, so Mozgov (despite being arguably their best big man) was somewhat expendable. Time will tell if he was the first domino in a larger trend.
21. Sacramento Kings (16-21)
The firing of head coach Mike Malone isn’t looking any smarter today. Troublesome-but-mega-talented big man DeMarcus Cousins is still destroying his defenders in the paint, but his attitude has taken a visible turn for the worse, and the future in Sacramento is more foggy than ever.
22. Utah Jazz (13-25)
An injury to starting center Enes Kanter has been a silver lining in Salt Lake City — it’s made way for the arrival of Rudy Gobert, a 7’1”, 22-year-old Frenchman who’s quickly building a reputation as one of the best rim-protectors in basketball. The future is bright in Utah.
23. Indiana Pacers (15-24)
Frank Vogel has proved himself as one of the best coaches in the NBA this year. With a terrible roster and even worse injuries, these Pacers have had no business entering double-digits in the win column. Vogel’s intensity and preparation have taken them there.
24. Charlotte Hornets (15-24)
The Hornets have been playing a better, more team-first game without the injured Lance Stephenson in the lineup. Too bad they’re still struggling to make the playoffs in the East, and making it harder to trade Stephenson away in the process.
25. Boston Celtics (12-23)
Let the rebuild begin in earnest. After sending out Rajon Rondo and Jeff Green, Boston has made it as clear as can be that they’re sellers, looking to collect more and more draft picks as they glance toward tomorrow.
26. Los Angeles Lakers (12-26)
Kobe Bryant’s tempered his game to fit more into what the Lakers are doing — finally. The question is whether winning some extra games is good for their draft prospects and overall future.
27. Orlando Magic (13-27)
The Magic still aren’t expected to crack the playoffs, but this is a year in which more growth should be visible. It’s definitely time to wonder whether Jacque Vaughn is the man for the job at head coach.
28. Minnesota Timberwolves (5-31)
Andrew Wiggins has started to soar and look like a real No. 1 overall pick, providing the only germ of watchability in an awful, injury-plagued season in Minnesota.
29. Philadelphia 76ers (7-29)
The Sixers’ tank rolls on, and until it stops and takes the course toward competition, we’ll just have to keep enjoying their dance moves more than anything they do between the whistles:
30. New York Knicks (5-35)
Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith are out the door, and one wonders if Carmelo Anthony would be too, if not for his no-trade clause and shaky knees. The Knicks are scorching the earth around ‘Melo and seeing what they can do to rebuild around him. How long will it take?
— John Wilmes
The trade market continues to bustle in the NBA. The Memphis Grizzlies, Boston Celtics and New Orleans Pelicans worked on a three-team deal over the weekend, with Celtics leading scorer Jeff Green headed to the Grizzlies in the swap.
Boston, in exchange, will end up with the Pelicans’ Austin Rivers, veteran wingman Tayshaun Prince, and a future first-round pick from Memphis, as reported by ESPN’s Marc Stein.
For shipping Rivers to Massachusetts, the Pelicans get reserve guard Quincy Pondexter from the Grizzlies.
Rivers might not want to get too comfortable with his father’s former team, though. Doc Rivers has expressed an interest in getting involved in the expanding deal to make a trade for his son.
"I would," the Los Angeles Clippers coach and executive said of acquiring the younger Rivers, per ESPN. "I think a year ago I probably wouldn't. I think I would for sure. I think this team could handle that. He's a downhill guard, which is something we need, so I certainly would [be open to coaching him].”
For skeptical Clippers fans, Rivers’ willingness to trade for kin is a bit alarming. Since joining Lob City, the general manger half of Doc hasn’t done a whole lot of good for the Clippers’ roster. Boasting one of the worst benches in the Western Conference, they’re giving serious minutes to the likes of Hedo Turkoglu and Glen “Big Baby” Davis this year—players well past their time, who rarely turn a positive in the box score.
Austin Rivers has shown growth in 2014-15, but he’s still a below-average talent with a lot to prove—is Rivers constructing his roster with more sentiment than good basketball sense?
For the Grizzlies, this is a deeper investment on a team that has a chance to win it all this year. Green will give defenses even more scoring to deal with, coming off the Memphis bench along with Vince Carter and Kosta Koufos. A great team just got better.
Boston, meanwhile, continues to jettison assets, clearly looking to double down on their rebuilding efforts as they clear the deck and accumulate a wealth of draft picks. First Rajon Rondo, now Green … if you like anything you see left on the Celtics’ roster, you might as well give GM Danny Ainge a call about it.
— John Wilmes
Dion Waiters ending up with the Oklahoma City Thunder was tough to see coming. But the Cleveland Cavaliers finally found a way to ship off their oft-troubled reserve guard this week, in a three-team trade involving the New York Knicks.
With the Thunder, Waiters has a new chance. His relations with his old squad had clearly cratered more than a year ago, as new teammate Kevin Durant noted:
Kevin Durant on Dion Waiters: "We're going to make him feel wanted. I don't think he's felt that the last few years."— Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) January 6, 2015
OKC wants Waiters to move past what happened with the Cavs, even making sure he put his first foot forward in the attempt to form a new identity… in an unusual fashion:
You don’t hear a ton about professional athletes and their jersey number selections. Fans are typically left to speculate about the superstition behind these things, and just how seriously teams take them. But this instance from the Thunder shows that the symbolism of your number is often no small matter.
Thunder general manager Sam Presti took a calculated gamble by bringing in Waiters, a talented scorer who can be a huge asset if he’s dialed in, but a terrible distraction if he’s not. Whether or not things work out between Dion and his new team will be largely a matter of personality fit — there’s no question the Thunder can use Waiters’ skill set, though.
They’re four games out of the playoff picture in the staggering Western Conference, struggling to keep up the world-killing pace they need to climb aggressively up the standings. Critics of the team have more fuel than ever regarding the infamous Harden trade, as the Thunder’s former third banana is now an MVP candidate with the rival Houston Rockets.
Waiters probably can’t live up to the standards set by his predecessor, so the Thunder might be right to deny him Harden’s number, and push him down his own unique, beardless path.
— John Wilmes
One of the biggest surprises of the NBA season is the outstanding play we’ve seen from the 27-8 Atlanta Hawks. Georgia’s basketball birds are enjoying a renaissance, swiftly establishing an identity as a pass-first, system-oriented squad that selflessly swings the ball around to their deep array of shooters and always plays with defensive discipline.
Under second-year head coach Mike Budenholzer, a disciple of Gregg Popovich, the Hawks have earned comparisons to this century’s most prolific franchise, the San Antonio Spurs.
All this, after the team looked left for dead months ago, smeared in the media as their owner Bruce Levenson, and general manager Danny Ferry, confessed to using racially insensitive language in company correspondences. Levenson is now selling the team, and Ferry is on indefinite leave — even as his roster moves all come to brilliant fruition on the floor.
It’s a complicated spot between bad marks of the past and a bright view for the future, with these Hawks. But they’ve played well enough to largely obscure that storyline, keeping the league increasingly focused on just how sharply they do this basketball thing as they roll through the cream of the NBA’s playoff crop.
But you still don’t have to peel the onion too far back to find its murky center: The Hawks and Atlanta haven’t historically been much of a fit. ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz pondered the odd pairing in a recent piece:
“As has long been tradition in this transient city, it's an uphill climb to fill Philips Arena night in and night out and, consequently, attract the kind of name superstars who could put the Hawks on the map. LeBron James never considered Atlanta. Pau Gasol turned down a heftier offer than he received in Chicago. And that was before owner Levenson's email buried the franchise even deeper in the consciousness of the league.”
The Hawks, as consequence of their dim legacy, have had trouble bringing in the big talent typically associated with title contention. But if their charge to the NBA Finals continues at this furious pace for much longer, maybe they can be one of those starless outliers, who win big by playing the right way.
— John Wilmes
6. The dominant Atlanta Hawks
It’s not that nobody saw the Hawks coming. They were a tough out last year, pushing the then-heavyweight Indiana Pacers to seven games in an arduous first-round playoff battle — and they did this despite losing arguably their best player, Al Horford, for the season.
But who can say they saw Atlanta coming this fast, and this hard? The Hawks have gone 19-2 after a bumpy start, and are now tied with the Portland Trail Blazers for the league’s second-best record. A rejuvenated Horford is an All-Star candidate, as is frontcourt partner Paul Millsap.
Don’t sleep on their guards, either, though. Jeff Teague is demonically quick at the point, shrewdly beginning their Spurs-like sets as he knifes into the lane. The best possible result of their dynamite passing sequences? A three-pointer from Kyle Korver, who’s shooting an otherworldly 51 percent from beyond the arc.
5. The Detroit Pistons’ turnaround
Dropping Josh Smith has clearly done more than just free up the Pistons’ clogged-up big man rotation. When coach and team president Stan Van Gundy made an example of the sagging star by sending him out the door, it seemed to awaken the fight and focus in his whole roster. After a pitiful 5-23 kickoff to the year, Detroit is now undefeated since exiling Smith seven games ago.
And they’re not just beating patsies, either. The Pistons’ most recent action saw them sweep a dreaded Texas two-step, taking down the defending champion San Antonio Spurs in thrilling fashion, then beating Rajon Rondo and the rolling Dallas Mavericks the very next night. Keep your eyes turned to the ongoing basketball renaissance in Motor City.
4. Increased player movement
Newfound parity in the NBA is about a lot of things, but the largest factor of all is a set of financial rules that makes it hard for teams to keep rosters together, and encourages them to treat contracts and assets fluidly.
In other words: this season’s winter trading market has been piping hot. Dion Waiters, J.R. Smith, Josh Smith, Corey Brewer, Timofey Mozgov, Iman Shumpert, Rajon Rondo, Brandan Wright, Andrei Kirilenko and Jae Crowder have all switched teams, with more than a month to go before the deadline, and with plenty more rumblings out there. Luol Deng and Lance Stephenson, for starters, are both said to be on the block.
3. Cleveland’s shaky beginnings
Just as we didn’t see the Hawks getting so good, so quickly, it’s hard for anyone to convince the world they saw the Cleveland Cavaliers’ monstrous struggles in their crystal ball. LeBron James’ squad was, we knew, full of young talent and led by a rookie NBA head coach in David Blatt. It was never going to be easy.
The level of acrimony and upheaval in Cleveland has been astounding, though. Two mid-season trades (for Shumpert and Mozgov) point to a heightened level of urgency as the organization fights to retain James and Kevin Love this summer, both of whom can walk away. Considered title contenders before the season, the 19-17 Cavs are now working overtime just to get decent playoff positioning, and to make sure they don’t have to break the band up anytime soon.
2. Jimmy Butler’s surge into MVP territory
The Chicago Bulls have been kicking tail. If it weren’t for the Hawks’ unstoppable play, they’d have found their way to Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seed by now. And the top source of their success is coming from an unlikely figure: shooting guard Jimmy Butler has become the Bulls’ best player.
Butler has long been a defensive menace, wearing his opponents’ thin with his brash, ceaseless hustle. But his sudden scoring touch has pushed him into the land of superstars. Most remaining doubters of Butler’s brilliance shut their lips when they saw him corner MVP front-runner James Harden into zero second-half field goals in a Bulls win over the Houston Rockets. Butler straight up made Harden look bad:
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1. The Sacramento Kings firing Mike Malone
Just when you thought the Western Conference was getting that much harder… it got a little bit easier.
The Sacramento Kings had been lost, directionless for years amid questions of ownership and a poor track record in the draft and free agency. Then, they did the unthinkable, and looked like a contender with a 9-5 start, behind the amazing work of big man DeMarcus Cousins and the best version yet of written-off forward Rudy Gay.
But when Cousins missed a string of games with viral meningitis and the Kings dropped eight out of 10 contests, their overzealous owner Vivek Ranadive lost his cool. He fired one of the leaders of his team’s turnaround, head coach Mike Malone. Malone wasn’t the best in the league by any means, but he was doing a damn good job, and had the difficult Cousins on his side.
Under the direction of Ty Corbin, the Kings have been a mediocre 4-6, even with DeMarcus healthy back in the rotation. Basketball optimism will probably have to keep waiting for another day, in California’s capital.
— John Wilmes
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.