Articles By Athlon Sports
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.
When it comes to Ohio State football, few names are more important than Archie Griffin, a two-time Heisman Trophy winner. Here's our quick Q&A with the Buckeyes great as his team prepares for the national championship.
1. If you could describe the team in one word, what would it be?
Well, "awesome" is the word, and I believe that about this team. But probably more appropriate right now is "resilient." We’ve had some adversity this season and bounced back.
2. Do you have a game-day tradition or superstition?
More when I was a player. Back then I would make sure I would eat the same thing that I had eaten the week before, usually a small piece of steak, spaghetti with a very bland sauce, and two pieces of toast with butter and honey on them. Coach (Woody) Hayes always said he wanted us to play hungry and the truth is we actually were hungry (laughs). Now I don’t do much. I’ve always been confident in our team and the way they’re going to perform. But I do pace around during games. That happens.
3. Finish this sentence: If my school wins the national title, I’m going to ...
… be overjoyed. And if you’re asking me what would I do – I’m going to go to Disneyland. Make sure you hold me to that.
4. Where will you be watching the game?
I will definitely be there.
5. Who’s your favorite player on the team? (Why?)
I like Zeke, Ezekiel Elliott. I think he’s a well-rounded back. He does a great of running the football, he blocks well, and he does a good job catching the ball out of the backfield. Jalin Marshall is a fun one to watch as well. But I really like Zeke and really believe he has a tremendous future ahead of him at Ohio State. I think he’s a very special player.
Move over, Jon “Bones” Jones. Toronto Raptors head coach Dwane Casey is looking to take up the fighting mantle — except with other NBA coaches.
Well, maybe he was joking a little. Casey made the suggestion that he’d raise his fists in the name of Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry, and his impending All-Star status. "I hope our fans get out and vote and don't put it in the hands of the coaches,” Casey said to Josh Lewenberg of The Sports Network. “And if the coaches don't do it, I'm probably going to get in a physical fight with those guys.”
Lowry is a legitimate MVP candidate on a Raptors team that has one of the best records in the NBA at 24-10, even without starting shooting guard DeMar DeRozan, who’s missed the last 18 games with a groin injury. Perhaps DeRozan’s return (which could come as soon as Thursday against the Charlotte Hornets) can help Casey and his Canadian fanbase bring the Raptors to a level of attention and appreciation that allows them to put down the veritable boxing gloves.
Getting the world to turn their heads that far north to watch the game’s best new ballers remains a chore, though. This Toronto squad is easily the most competitive, exciting outfit they’ve fielded since the halcyon days of Vince Carter, with a pattern of mediocrity holding for over a decade in between then and now. The frozen nation has a thrilling team today, though, as well as the last two No. 1 overall picks in the NBA Draft in Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett — a duo both drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers, but now both doing business just beneath their home country with the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Basketball is on the rise in Canada, with Toronto as a hyper-loving sports city that deserves every bit of the Raptors’ success. And if their shockingly good attendance for their team’s first-round playoff presence in 2014 is any indication, there’s hope that they can gather the needed votes to promote Lowry beyond fourth place (his current standing regarding votes among Eastern Conference guards) and keep their coach from spilling blood at his next union meeting.
— John Wilmes
The Waiters-Smith-Shumpert trade was not exactly the beginning of swap season, either. That was signaled when Rajon Rondo was traded from the Boston Celtics to the Dallas Mavericks. Then it was continued by Josh Smith’s shocking dismissal from the Detroit Pistons, followed by his sign-up with the potent Houston Rockets.
What else is on the grill? Some have speculated that Phil Jackson isn’t done sending pieces out in New York, and that 33-year-old veteran point guard Jose Calderon could also soon be out the door.
But not only crummy teams like the Knicks are in a place to potentially make moves. Even the Golden State Warriors, basketball’s best team, are under some pressure to tweak their roster and salary cap situation. In order to make room for red-hot power forward Draymond Green, financially, they might look at moving All-Star David Lee, who’s been relegated to a reserve role as Green has a career year. Green is headed for restricted free agency this summer, and his coveted combination of three-point accuracy and stingy interior defense makes him worth a pretty penny.
That’s the nature of the new NBA. The complex, thorny collective bargaining agreement — written and instituted just about three seasons ago — means contracts will jump around the league like hot potatoes, both now and going forward. Continuity and consistency are all too difficult to attain under these movement-favoring rules.
— John Wilmes
Buzz about this winter being a particularly active one on the trade market seems prescient today. The Cleveland Cavaliers, Oklahoma City Thunder and New York Knicks have completed a huge swap.
The Knicks send J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert to the Cavs in the deal, while the Thunder will get much-maligned guard Dion Waiters. The Knicks end up with a collection of waivable, non-guaranteed contracts, including Lance Thomas, Alex Kirk and Lou Amundson.
For Phil Jackson’s Knicks, the move looks like a “reset the tone” maneuver, or a bit of addition by subtraction. The frequently ridiculous Smith was long believed to be on his way out once Jackson took a post with New York, while Shumpert is a useful piece as a perimeter defender — but only on a team that’s going somewhere in the short-term.
For the Thunder, who give up close to nothing in the move, bringing on Waiters seems like a calculated gamble. A frustrating but talented player, Waiters could offer the extra scoring firepower that OKC might need to get through the stacked Western Conference. But reining him in was always a challenge in Cleveland, so a more level version of Waiters still seems like an unlikely prospect. Shipping him in only seems like a good move only if they’re prepared to bury him down their bench if he doesn’t fit into what the Thunder are doing.
And for the Cavs, sending Dion out has a similar effect to what the Knicks do by jettisoning Smith. He wasn’t molding into their program, seemingly worsening their chemistry, not helping it. The question remains, though: How much different will things be with the equally difficult J.R.?
Getting Shumpert in the wine-and-gold, however, is a clear win. LeBron’s squad needs a lot of things, and extra strength on defense is one of them; Iman and his famously towering hairdo can provide that in spades.
— John Wilmes
But lately, it seems unlikely we’ll ever see him play elite ball again. This came out about Sanders yesterday:
Sources tell me that Bucks center Larry Sanders recently told some Bucks officials that he doesn't want to play basketball anymore.— Gery Woelfel (@GeryWoelfel) January 5, 2015
Sanders has missed a string of games this winter due to “personal reasons” as he struggles with whether to continue on in the NBA. Whether or not his absence was also caused by any friction with his team, or coach Jason Kidd, is unclear at this time. But Sanders has said in the recent past that he doesn’t want to be remembered as a basketball player, and is always thinking beyond the game as much as he can.
He’s also coming off a strange 2013-14 season, during which he played only 23 games due to injuries and legal issues. Sanders’ erratic behavior in 2014 further included him stating this past spring, rather publicly, that he supports and smokes marijuana.
If Sanders doesn’t want to play basketball, that’s fine and well. Nobody has to do anything they don’t want to — particularly not occupying the dream job of millions of others, when they’re apathetic to its goals. But the Bucks have $11 million dedicated to Sanders each of the next three seasons. He and his organization will likely have to work a way out of the rest of his contract if he’s truly considering retirement.
Similarly dispirited, would-be stars of Sanders’ generation include Andrew Bynum, Andrew Bynum’s hair, Royce White, and Gilbert Arenas before them. Having all the talent in the world only takes you so far, when you’re not interested in using it. Maybe the Bucks’ new facial coding expert can tell us what it is about these mugs that say “no thanks, basketball glory.”
— John Wilmes
The term “addition by subtraction” has rarely seen brighter days.
The Detroit Pistons are playing their best basketball in years, after cutting so-called star Josh Smith from their roster, eating tens of millions of dollars in the process — just to keep him away. They’ve won five games, and lost none, since they waived the talented forward.
Smith, with his new Houston Rockets squad, hasn’t exactly disproved the notion of himself as a locker room cancer. Since joining the Rockets, the team has achieved a season-worst .500 winning percentage, struggling to incorporate him into a James Harden-led strategy that was taking the stacked Western Conference by storm. A previously clear, effective Rockets pecking order has been clogged by Smith’s presence.
While it’s certainly too early to tell if Josh is a fit with the Rockets, the current trend in Houston is bad. And if it persists, the term “subtraction by addition” might gain as much steam as its foil.
Forward-thinking Rockets general manager Daryl Morey is a smart man, who’s often ahead of the curve. The utter shock that went through the league when he traded for Harden — an MVP candidate who few saw coming — is a long-standing testament to that. As is the continuation of his coup the following summer, when he scooped Dwight Howard, the best defensive center in the game, out of free agency.
For the rest of the NBA, Morey has become a quick celebrity by creating some swift, telling lessons in asset management. Harden and Howard becoming Rockets wasn’t a matter of dumb luck — they came to Houston by way of years and years of Morey counting his dollars in the margins. The complex monster that is the NBA salary cap had clearly found one of its new masters when Morey suddenly turned zero superstars into two of them.
But the acquisition of Smith might represent a miscue. An inefficient player who’s long been one of the most frustrating players around, Josh has a lot to prove if he’s to become more than a sorry specimen for the annals of NBA nostalgia. Unless he soon finds a way to contribute to the Rockets’ title-seeking program — without detracting from it — he risks becoming the straw that broke their championship-bound backs.
— John Wilmes
The much anticipated Baseball Writers Association of America vote for the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown is upon us, with the final vote being announced Tuesday, Jan 6.
2014 saw Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, and Frank Thomas as just the third class in 70 BBWAA elections in which three, first-year candidates were inducted, and just the eighth time overall that three players were inducted in the same year. With a little luck, and some cooperation from the baseball writers, Cooperstown could have three, hopefully four, new inductees this summer.
Getting 75 percent of approximately 700 active baseball scribes to agree on one player is tough enough. Getting 75 percent of many writers to agree on four players is more than exceptional. Not since 1954-55 have three or more BBWAA-elected players been inducted in successive years, and not since 1947 have four players been elected by the BBWAA on the same ballot.
Here, I will break down who I expect the BBWAA to elect for enshrinement in July, not necessarily who I believe should be inducted. That is a whole other column.
Two of the four players who I anticipate to be chosen are absolute locks. Take it to the bank. Pitchers Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez were two of the most dominating and feared pitchers of their era, and are easy first-ballot selections who should earn more than 90 percent of the writer’s votes.
Pitcher John Smoltz and second baseman Craig Biggio, should also receive the call from the Hall of Fame come Tuesday afternoon, but their numbers may need more scrutinizing than those of Johnson and Martinez to warrant first-ballot induction.
The Big Unit, towering at 6’11 may have been the most intimidating pitcher of the past half century. His exploding slider and blinding fastball were as gnarly as the trademark mullet pouring out of his cap, leaving hitters helpless in the batter’s box for 22 Major League seasons.
The 10-time All Star won five Cy Young Awards, including four in a row (1995, 1999-2002) in the National League. Johnson was able to add a World Series ring, Series co-MVP, and Sports Illustrated co-Sportsman of the Year Award to his mantle after leading the fabled 2001 Diamondbacks to the Fall Classic.
Johnson is a four-time ERA champion (1995, ’99, 2001, ’02), nine-time strikeout champion (1992-95, 1999-2002, 2004), and led the league in complete games four times (1994, ’98, 2000, ’08), ERA+ six times (1995, 1999-2002, ’04), FIP six times (1994-95, 1999-2001, ’04), WHIP three times (1995, 2001, ’04), hits per nine innings six times (1992-93, ’95, ’97, 2001, ’04), and strikeouts per nine innings nine times (1992-95, ’97, 1999-2002).
Considering that Johnson pitched in the same era as names like Clemens, Martinez, Glavine, Smoltz, Maddux, Schilling, and Mussina makes his accomplishments all the more fantastic - all while playing in the heart of the Steroid Era when guys like Brady Anderson were hitting 50 home runs a season.
The Big Unit finished his 22-year career first all-time in strikeouts per nine innings (10.6/SO9), second all-time in strikeouts (4,875), and a member of the 300 win club (303).
Randy Johnson is as Hall of Fame as it gets.
What Pedro Martinez lacked in stature (5’11,170 pounds) he made up for with grit, consistency, and a platinum arm. Martinez, an eight-time All Star and three-time Cy Young Award winner (1997, ’99, 2000), is a concrete first ballot Hall of Fame pitcher.
While Martinez is more renown for his success with the Red Sox, he was just as dominant as a member of the Montreal Expos (1994-97), posting a .625 Win-Loss Percentage, 3.06 ERA, 20 complete games, eight complete game shutouts, and a strikeout per nine innings of 9.5/SO9 in four seasons north of the border.
In 1997, Pedro was awarded his first Cy Young Award after finishing one of the greatest pitching seasons since the Dead Ball era in which he lead all of baseball in ERA (1.90), complete games (13), strikeouts (305), ERA+ (219), FIP (2.39), WHIP (0.932), hits per nine innings (5.9/H9), and strikeouts per nine innings (11.4/SO9).
Martinez, miraculously, would best his 1997 showcase in 1999 and 2000, striking out a combined 597 batters, with a combined ERA of 1.90 to go along with 41 wins, 12 complete games, and leading the American League in adjusted ERA, FIP, WHIP, hits, strikeouts, and home runs per nine innings, strikeouts per win, and winning back-to-back Cy Young Awards, putting him in the same breath as the great Sandy Koufax in terms of consistent domination.
Martinez led his league in ERA five times (1997, 1999-2000, 2002-03) and topped the American League in strikeouts three times (1999, 2000, ’02). As a testament of his superior command, Martinez was responsible for striking out 3,154 batters over 18 seasons of work, and ranks third in career strikeouts per nine innings at 10.0/SO9.
Martinez retired in 2009 as the career leader in WHIP (1.054) and adjusted ERA (154 ERA+) for a starting pitcher, sitting second all-time behind Mariano Rivera for all pitchers, making him arguably the best starting pitcher of his era and a certainty to be enshrined in Cooperstown in 2015.
Biggio missed the 2014 class by just two votes, garnering 74.8 percent of the votes needed. Does Biggio missing the Hall buy 0.2 percent make him a sure thing in 2015? I think so, especially considering his percentage of votes has increased each year he’s been on the ballot, growing from 68.2 percent in 2013 to last year’s 74.8.
Biggio is a seven-time All Star, a four-time Gold Glove Award winner (1994-97), with five Silver Slugger Awards (1989, 1994-95, 1997-98) at two different positions (C, 2B). While Biggio is most remembered for his time playing second base (17,154.2 innings), he also spent significant time at catcher (3,493 innings) and center field (2,203.2 innings) making him the most versatile defensive candidate on the 2015 ballot.
Currently, Biggio is the only Hall eligible member of the 3,000 hit club, not banned or suspected of PEDs, not currently enshrined. Amassing 3,000 hits is practically an invitation to Cooperstown. His 3,060 hits rank 21st all-time, and he presently sits fifth all-time with 668 doubles. Biggio’s other career numbers include 1,014 extra base hits, 12,504 plate appearances, 414 stolen bases, 1,844 runs scored, 4,505 times on base, and 4,711 total bases.
With Jack Morris dropping off the ballot after failing to be elected in his final year of eligibility, it would be logical to assume those writers who previously voted for Morris and not Biggio, could do so this year, and put the 20-year Astro in Cooperstown.
In addition to Morris, 14 other names were dropped from last year’s ballot for not earning the required five percent of votes to remain eligible. This year’s ballot outside of Smoltz, Johnson, and Martinez is largely marginal and could see another 10 or so names disappear from consideration. Also, the superstars on the ballot who have been connected to PEDs aren't getting the support they need to remain relevant as 2014 saw fewer votes cast for Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, and Sammy Sosa than in prior elections. Look for these voting trends to continue, and to aid Biggio’s cause.
My gut says the BBWAA puts Craig Biggio and his 285 hits-by-pitch in the Hall of Fame where he belongs.
The third arm in perhaps the greatest pitching rotation ever is looking to join his Braves teammates in Cooperstown. John Smoltz’s resume should make his candidacy an open and shut case for the BBWAA.
Smoltz’s career, while fantastic, is also intriguing because of his relocation to the bullpen after spending the first half of his career as a supreme starter. Following Tommy John surgery, Smoltz was moved into the Braves’ closer role where he continued to thrive. In 2002, Smoltz was named the Rolaids Reliever of the Year after leading the National League with 55 saves. This accomplishment left Smoltz and Hall of Fame pitcher Dennis Eckersley as the only two hurlers in baseball history with a 20-win season and a 50-save season in their respective careers. Smoltz is the only player in the game’s history to earn 200 wins and 150 saves during a career, giving him a unique appeal for a first-ballot enshrinement.
Smoltz is an eight-time All-Star and the 1996 Cy Young Award winner in which he posted a 24-8 record, 2.94 ERA, 276 strikeouts, 9.8 strikeouts per nine innings, in 253.2 innings of work. His career ERA is 3.33 and is the 16th member of the 3,000 strikeout club with 3,084. Smoltz boasts a brilliant career adjusted ERA of 125, a career 1.176 WHIP, and sits 13th all-time for pitchers with 320 putouts.
Look for “Smoltzie” to join Mad Dog and Glavine in Cooperstown this July.
- By Jake Rose
That’s what Cleveland Cavaliers general manager David Griffin told reporters on Sunday, amidst frenzied speculation in the press about first-year coach David Blatt not getting along too well with LeBron James and Co., and reportedly facing a possible firing if the team doesn’t soon turn it around.
"It's a non-story, it's a non-narrative. Coach Blatt is our coach, he's going to remain our coach. Do not write that as a vote of confidence. He never needed one. It was never a question. So don't write it that way.”
And while Griffin may be right that the issue of Blatt, specifically, is largely a fiction invented by the media to drive readership, there’s really no mistaking the larger, underlying issues in northeast Ohio these days.
Griffin’s address came just before another bad Cavs loss, this one at home to Rajon Rondo and the Dallas Mavericks, 109-90. With starting center Anderson Varejao gone for the year with a torn Achilles tendon, and James sitting at last two weeks with a variety of sore body parts, Cleveland looks even more unseasoned and confused than they did before. Losers of five of their last seven, they look far from the championship contention many had them penciled in for this summer.
Griffin also didn’t beat around the bush about looking to make a trade. Even before Varejao’s injury, they needed depth defensively in the front court. Frequently cited transaction targets for the Cavs include Timofey Mozgov of the Denver Nuggets and Kosta Koufos of the Memphis Grizzlies.
Maybe Griffin’s no-nonsense voice will help set a tone of short-term improvement in Cleveland. But in all greater likelihood, this team needs a few huge things that even the King can’t give them with ease, and that only time can truly bring. They’re seeking a roster replete with health, experience, and continuity. And even if things look ugly now, staying the course and doing the hard work, with Blatt and the rest of this crew, is the Cavs’ best way to get there.
— John Wilmes
6. Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies
The Grizzlies are enjoying their best season ever through the holidays, and a lot of their thriving is owed to Marc Gasol’s increased offensive role. Averaging a career-high 14.7 shots per game, Gasol is making mincemeat of other centers with his 23.68 player efficiency rating, and he’s doing it without dropping off on the defensive end. Tennessee’s team is closer to NBA gold than they’ve ever been after Gasol — who slimmed down considerably in the offseason — rededicated himself after a stinging loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder in last year’s playoffs.
5. Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls
Move over, Derrick Rose. The famous Chicago-born point guard is back and healthy this season — but he’s no longer the best player on his team. That honor belongs to Butler, whose shockingly strong production has been the delight of the Windy City. Previously known as a one-way player (Butler gained Second All-Team Defensive honors last season), Jimmy Buckets is now a deadly scorer, averaging a team-high 22.2 points per game while leading the league with 40.1 minutes played per game. Many have mentioned Butler as a candidate for the Most Improved Player platform, but his play thus far suggests a greater goal.
4. Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans
If the Unibrow was on a playoff team, we might cite him as the runaway favorite for this trophy. The fact is, however, that the Pelicans are of a middling sort, on the outside looking into the staggering Western Conference playoff picture. The 21-year-old still has an outside shot at becoming a wunderkind MVP — especially if he keeps putting up numbers that evoke Hakeem Olajuwon — but your money is more safely put in the hands of contender. If you were starting a team from scratch, though? A.D. is the clear No. 1 cornerstone in the game.
3. Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors
If Kyle Lowry keeps this up, he’s going to steal Chris Paul’s mantle as the sport’s most fearsome little man. Lowry’s Toronto Raptors are the surprise top seed in the Eastern Conference, following his ferocious lead to the top. A statement was made — and heard quite clearly — when Kyle took down CP3 this past weekend, tallying 25 points, seven assists and three steals as the Raptors smashed Paul’s Los Angeles Clippers, 110-98, in L.A. Give this 6’0” guy a bit more national TV exposure, and he might become the NBA’s new go-to folk hero.
2. Steph Curry, Golden State Warriors
The Golden State Warriors’ best start in franchise history is about more than just their terrific new coach, Steve Kerr. Freed up and freewheeling in Kerr’s offense is the best shooter in basketball, Steph Curry. Curry is a threat to destroy your defense from deep at the moment he crosses the half-court barrier, demanding constant attention from the opposition and always making you pay for the double team with a sharp, uncanny passing eye. Anyone who can figure out how to guard this guy should probably be drawing up strategies for the military.
1. James Harden, Houston Rockets
The biggest, boldest chip in basketball lies firmly on James Harden’s shoulder. The former Sixth Man of the Year with the Oklahoma City Thunder has taken on more responsibility every year of his career, finally crescendoing into the MVP-worthy present. After improving on his defense this season and consistently taking over games in crunch time (leading the Rockets to an almost unbelievable 21-9 record, despite a litany of costly injuries), there’s really not much left for Harden to add to his game. He’s stronger, smarter, and has more touch than anyone who’s got the foot speed to stay in front of him, and he gets to the charity strike as often as he pleases. He’s the NBA’s leading scorer, and he’s had more impact, on more games, than anyone this season. If you opened the polls today, the Beard would become the Statue.
— John Wilmes
The college football playoff kicks off on Jan. 1 with Florida State and Oregon meeting in the Rose Bowl, and Alabama and Ohio State squaring off in New Orleans in the Sugar Bowl. There’s no shortage of talent among the four teams in the playoff, but some players are more valuable than others.
To help prepare for the first four-team playoff, Athlon projects the 25 most important players for Thursday’s games. This top 25 player list isn't necessarily a ranking of the best or projected by talent but a compilation of how important players will be in the playoff matchups. There’s little surprise among the top four, as quarterbacks Marcus Mariota, Jameis Winston, Cardale Jones and Blake Sims take the first spots. But after the quarterbacks, Ohio State defensive end Joey Bosa, Oregon tackle Jake Fisher, Florida State receiver Rashad Greene and Oregon cornerback Troy Hill rank as the most important players for the playoff matchups.
25 Most Important Players for College Football Playoff
1. Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon, Jr.
It’s rare now for the preseason pick for the Heisman to follow through and win the award. Mariota might not have been the leader every week, but he was darn close. Oregon’s first Heisman winner is exceedingly efficient, throwing a ridiculously low two interceptions this season and four last year. He completed 80 percent of his passes twice this season and fewer than 60 percent just once.
2. Jameis Winston, QB, Florida State, So.
Winston couldn’t contend for a second Heisman trophy thanks to 17 interceptions and the off-field issues that followed him through the season. He was unstoppable in the second half, though. He completed 71.2 percent of his passes in the third quarter and only one of his picks this season came in the fourth quarter.
3. Cardale Jones, QB, Ohio State, So.
The 250-pound backup was efficient and productive against Wisconsin but will have to be nearly perfect against Alabama for Ohio State to have a shot at the upset.
4. Blake Sims, QB, Alabama, Sr.
Lane Kiffin has turned this fifth-year senior into one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the nation. Expect a unique and creative gameplan from the Bama play-caller and it’s up to Sims to execute against an elite defensive front.
5. Joey Bosa, DE, Ohio State, So.
The Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year must play the game of his life against an Alabama offense that can run it as well as it throws it. He is the leader of the D-Line.
6. Jake Fisher, OT, Oregon, Sr.
His value was underscored when the Ducks’ only loss of the season (Arizona) and close call against Washington State occurred with Fisher out of the lineup. The Ducks are undefeated when the senior from Traverse City, Mich., starts, thanks in part to his mean streak.
7. Rashad Greene, WR, Florida State, Sr.
The expert route runner is Winston’s favorite target with 76 catches in 2013 and 93 receptions this season and a total of 2,434 yards and 16 touchdowns. With two more scores, he can tie Peter Warrick’s school record of 29 career TD catches.
8. Troy Hill, CB, Oregon, Sr.
Hill’s position will be magnified with standout cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu out for the playoff due to a torn ACL. Offenses tested him with Ekpre-Olomu in the lineup, as Hill finished the season with 16 pass breakups. That won’t change now that he is the de facto No. 1 corner.
9. Eddie Goldman, DT, Florida State, Jr.
After suffering an ankle injury against Georgia Tech in the ACC title game, Goldman is expected to be ready for Oregon. That’s no small matter, either, as the standout defensive tackle may matchup with center Hroniss Grasu. The All-America selection has four sacks and eight tackles for a loss this season.
10. Jalen Ramsey, S, Florida State, So.
One of the most disruptive players in Florida State’s defense, Ramsey finished the season with two interceptions, 9.5 tackles for a loss and two sacks ... as a safety. His game-clinching performance against Miami was one of the most impressive defensive efforts of the season.
11. Dalvin Cook, RB, Florida State, Fr.
Arguably Florida State’s most clutch performer in the final two months of the season, Cook notched long touchdown runs that sealed games against Louisville and Miami. In the final weeks of the season, Cook has become a workhorse back.
12. Cam Robinson, LT, Alabama, Fr.
After 13 games, Robinson really isn't a freshman. However, the Tide's starting left tackle will face arguably his toughest test of the year against Ohio State. He'll be charged with slowing Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Joey Bosa for most of the evening.
13. A'Shawn Robinson, NG, Alabama, So.
Robinson is the most disruptive defensive lineman Nick Saban has had since Marcell Dareus or Terrence Cody. The sophomore is a load to stop up the middle and could single-handedly destroy OSU's offensive front.
14. Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama, Jr.
It might be shocking that the best wideout in the nation isn't higher on this list but there is a good chance Cooper plays more of a decoy role than anything else. He's impossible to stop and could torch the Buckeyes, so he should expect plenty of safety help and double coverage.
15. Royce Freeman, RB, Oregon, Fr.
Another star freshman running back in a class full of them, Freeman gave Oregon a physical edge in the run game in the second half of the season. Freeman rushed for 953 yards and 11 touchdowns in Oregon’s eight-game winning streak to end the season.
16. Mario Edwards, DE, Florida State, Jr.
Oregon has been susceptible to the pass rush this season, and Edwards is the best edge defender for the Seminoles with 20.5 tackles the last two seasons. Edwards already has been a stud at the Rose Bowl with three tackles for a loss in last year’s BCS title game.
17. Cameron Erving, C, Florida State, Sr.
Florida State offensive line coach Rick Trickett, who has coached two Rimington Award winners for the nation’s best center, raves about Erving at the position. His move from left tackle, where he was an All-ACC performer, enabled FSU to have its best OL group of the year with freshman Rod Johnson at left tackle.
18. Hroniss Grasu, C, Oregon, Sr.
It wouldn’t be Oregon if the Ducks didn’t have a lingering offensive line concern entering the playoff. Grasu is one of the best centers in the country when healthy, but he missed the final three games of the regular season with a leg injury.
19. DeForest Buckner, DE, Oregon, Jr.
Buckner is the bulk for a team that is unfairly labeled as a finesse squad. The 6-7, 290-pound Hawaiian leads the Ducks’ defensive line with 12 tackles for a loss and four sacks.
20. Tre Jackson, OG, Florida State, Sr.
Jackson earned unanimous All-America honors in 2014. He has led a revival of the Florida State run game, highlighted by a 1,000-yard rusher in 2013, FSU’s first since 1996, and potentially a second in 2014.
21. Jalin Marshall, AP, Ohio State, Fr.
Ohio State will need to make big plays out in space and possibly on special teams. Marshall can make things happen from anywhere on the field and must be a big-play threat for OSU. He surged over the final month and needs to continue his excellent play.
22. Vonn Bell, S, Ohio State, So.
The talented big-play defensive back will have his eye on Amari Cooper the entire game. He won't be in many man-to-man situations with No. 9 but Bell will be asked to help early and often.
23. Landon Collins, S, Alabama, Jr.
Collins is likely to be the most explosive defensive player on the field for either team and maybe the best tackler of the bunch. He must intimidate in the passing game and fill holes against the run.
24. P.J. Williams, CB, Florida State, Jr.
Williams returns to Pasadena as the Rose Bowl MVP. The three-year starter at cornerback had the game-sealing interception in last year’s national championship game against Auburn.
25. Nick O’Leary, TE, Florida State, Sr.
The Mackey Award winner is more than a safety valve. He’s a go-to receiver. O’Leary caught four touchdown passes in the final three games of the season. In an era when the tight end is vanishing, O’Leary’s consistency, his 47 receptions and 13 yards per catch is notable.
As Oregon prepares to take on Florida State in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1, we got a chance to throw some questions at one of the Ducks' biggest fans, Modern Family actor Ty Burrell. He did not disappoint.
1. If you could describe the team in one word, what would it be?
2. Do you have a game-day tradition or superstition?
Yes, traditionally I like to get really nervous, even if we’re favored by 35. Then we like to sit down and watch it as a family and scream at the television. My mom is a lovely woman, but in front of a game she has the mouth of a sailor that other sailors find offensive. Then we all enjoy passing out from the exhaustion of the aforementioned nerves and screaming and such.
3. Finish this sentence: If my school wins the national title, I'm going to…
Have a joy seizure.
4. Where will you be watching the playoff?
Hopefully from the sidelines, but if I’m not able to make it, then I’ll be repeating the procedure in answer number 2.
5. Who's your favorite player on the team?
Hard not to say (Marcus) Mariota here. He checks all the boxes, both as a player and a person. That said, Tyler Johnstone is a great kid who’s been fighting through a lot with a great attitude. So, Tyler Johnstone. Oh wait, Pharaoh Brown is a great young man too. Sorry, there’s too many.
Orchard Park, NY (SportsNetwork.com) - Veteran quarterback Kyle Orton announced his retirement from the NFL on Monday.
Orton, 32, started the final 12 games for the Buffalo Bills this season after 2013 first-round pick EJ Manuel was benched. He completed 287-of-447 passes for 3,018 yards with 18 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
Orton had contemplated retirement last offseason, but signed with the Bills and helped them finish 9-7, their first winning season since 2004.
Selected by Chicago in the fourth round of the 2005 draft out of Purdue, Orton threw for 18,037 yards with 101 touchdowns and 69 interceptions in 87 career games for the Bears, Denver Broncos, Kansas City Chiefs, Dallas Cowboys and Bills.
The 2011 NBA Lockout was about a lot of things — money and power, mostly — and one of its sub-missions was to decentralize power in the league. When LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh pooled their talents at the top of their games to make for a mini-dynasty with the Miami Heat (a squad that went to visit the NBA Finals four years in a row), the game’s owners wanted to do something to prevent similar future occurences.
Today, the measures they took seem to have worked. A complex, restricting salary cap structure that heavily taxes teams who color outside the lines has made for extremely fluid player movement. Keeping a ton of great players together is harder than it’s ever been, and the 2015 version of the NBA will enjoy a wide-open landscape, in which several teams are equally likely to win a championship.
Title contenders this season include James’ Cleveland Cavaliers (however much they may be struggling lately), the Chicago Bulls, Golden State Warriors, Memphis Grizzlies, Oklahoma City Thunder, Houston Rockets, Portland Trail Blazers, Washington Wizards, Dallas Mavericks, the defending champion San Antonio Spurs — the list could go on, so don’t feel slighted if your team isn’t on it. They probably belong there.
If any new teams repeat the Heat’s feat, you can color this columnist surprised. Annual free agency madness and the ever-shifting economics of the sport make things less and less predictable in the modern NBA. And, business-wise, this benefits the bottom line. Less fixed results means more fan intrigue, higher Vegas action, and greater growth potential for every franchise. Pro basketball is starting to achieve something like its ideal, dream state of affairs as an exciting, turbulent product, with elite talent in constant motion on the court and off.
— John Wilmes
(SportsNetwork.com) - Despite the club's first double-digit loss campaign since 2004, the New York Giants have apparently decided to retain long-time head coach Tom Coughlin.
Multiple reports on Monday stated that the Giants will have the 68-year-old on the sidelines for one more season. Following a 34-26 home loss to the Eagles on Sunday, New York finished 2014 with a 6-10 record.
Coughlin has a record of 96-80 during his 11-year run with the Giants, a tenure that has been highlighted by a pair of Super Bowl titles. They have not made the playoffs since 2011 and made just one postseason appearance in the past six years.
Coughlin has the second-longest tenure in Giants coaching history, behind only Steve Owen's 24-year stint from 1930-53. His 96 wins trail only Owen's total of 153.
In 19 years as an NFL head coach, including eight with the Jacksonville Jaguars, Coughlin has amassed a record of 164-140. He also has a postseason mark of 12-7.
Florham Park, NJ (SportsNetwork.com) - The New York Jets cleaned house Monday, firing both head coach Rex Ryan and general manager John Idzik after a 4-12 season.
The Jets closed the 2014 campaign with a 37-24 win at Miami on Sunday. It was the worst mark in Ryan's six seasons as head coach.
Idzik was on board for just two years, taking over for the fired Mike Tannenbaum in January 2013. He had served as the vice president of football administration with the Seattle Seahawks for six seasons before taking over the reins for New York.
"After extensive thought and reflection about the current state of our football team, this morning I informed Rex Ryan and John Idzik that they will not be returning for the 2015 season," Jets chairman and CEO Woody Johnson said in a statement. "Both Rex and John made significant contributions to the team, and they have my appreciation and gratitude for their efforts and commitment. Over the years, Rex brought the Jets a bold confidence and a couple of great postseason runs, which all of us will remember."
Ryan compiled a record of 46-50 with the Jets. He took over for the 2009 season and promptly led New York to a pair of AFC Championship Game appearances in his first two seasons.
New York was 9-7 in Ryan's first year, losing to Indianapolis in the AFC title game, then went 11-5 the following season and fell to Pittsburgh in the championship tilt.
The Jets haven't had a winning season since, finishing 8-8 in 2011 and 2013. Last year's .500 finish came in what was expected to be a rebuilding year with rookie quarterback Geno Smith -- selected as part of Idzik's first draft class -- at the helm.
That bought Ryan another season after rumors of his departure during the 2013 campaign. But after a win over Oakland to start this season, it was downhill from there.
The Jets lost eight in a row, the worst skid for the franchise since an eight- game slide to start the 1996 season.
Smith's development, or lack thereof, was a major reason for the Jets' struggles this season. He was benched after a Week 8 loss to Buffalo, then returned to the starter's role a month later in a Dec. 1 loss to Miami.
The Jets played well down the stretch this season, as three of their last four losses came by less than six points.
STORY UPDATE: Suh's appeal was heard by Ted Cottrell, who overturned the one-game suspension and reduced his punishment to a $70,000 fine. Suh will play in Sunday's wild-card game in Dallas.
New York, NY (SportsNetwork.com) - The NFL suspended Detroit Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh one game without pay on Monday for stepping on the leg of Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
Suh twice stepped on Rodgers' left leg on the same play during the fourth quarter of the Packers' NFC North-clinching 30-20 victory over the Lions on Sunday at Lambeau Field.
Rodgers had missed two Green Bay series in the game after aggravating a left calf injury.
"You did not respond in the manner of someone who had lost his balance and accidentally contacted another player who was lying on the ground. This illegal contact, specifically the second step and push off with your left foot, clearly could have been avoided," NFL vice president of football operations Merton Hanks said in a letter to Suh.
"You unnecessarily stepped on your opponent's unprotected leg as he lay on the ground unable to protect himself."
It was the second time Suh was suspended for stepping on a player, following a two-game ban in 2011 for stomping on the arm of Packers lineman Evan Dietrich- Smith. Suh also drew a $30,000 fine for kicking Houston Texans quarterback Matt Schaub in 2010.
Under terms of the current collective bargaining agreement, the suspension may be appealed within three business days. Appeals are heard and decided by either Derrick Brooks or Ted Cottrell, the officers jointly appointed and compensated by the NFL and players union to decide appeals of on-field player discipline.
Suh's absence creates a hole in the Lions' defensive line for their wild-card game against the Dallas Cowboys and leading rusher DeMarco Murray this Sunday.