Articles By Athlon Sports
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.
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