Articles By Athlon Sports
The NBA saw its field of fighters lose three more squads this weekend, with the playoffs party whittling down to 13 as the New Orleans Pelicans, Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors said their goodbyes to the season after being swept.
Here’s how each of them should look to change for their 2015-16 campaigns.
The Celtics, from a standpoint of culture, are the shining standouts of these playoff sweep victims. Coach Brad Stevens has turned a glut of so-so role players into all that they could be behind the promising guard trio of Marcus Smart, Isaiah Thomas and Avery Bradley. Boston’s rebuild has been accelerated after a second half that saw them competing with the best of the Eastern Conference, and there’s only one thing clearly missing from their equation: a superstar. Expect them to do everything they can to get meetings with free agents Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge, Kawhi Leonard, Marc Gasol and Khris Middleton this summer — as they should.
New Orleans Pelicans
Unlike the Celtics, the Pels already have the centerpiece to their future in Anthony Davis. Any wise NBA team starting fresh today would take the 21-year-old as their first building block, if they could, so with Davis on board there’s a natural trend towards optimism in New Orleans. Simply keeping this team together wouldn’t be a terrible strategy, as a healthier Jrue Holiday could be the answer to many of their needs; the Pelicans struggled at point guard without his full services through most of the year. In all likelihood, their summer mission will include crossing their fingers for better health, plus “still having the best young player alive.”
The Raptors were a mess after a promising start to the season, sputtering after the All-Star break and showing surprisingly little fight against the Washington Wizards. This motley collection of so-so players misses, like the Celtics do, a true superstar. But their variously talented pieces also haven’t been maximized by coach Dwane Casey, who looks to be on the hot seat after an ugly postseason showing. General manager Masai Ujiri is not known for standing pat by any means, so no move this summer would come as a shock. Who knows how the Raptors will look next autumn?
— John Wilmes
Years before the top picks were eligible for the draft, they were top recruits — or at least most of them — entering the collegiate ranks.
Below is a list of the star rankings, national rankings and position rankings of the top 50 prospects from the Athlon Sports 2015 NFL Draft preview magazine. Many like to argue that recruiting rankings don't matter, however, the data below further proves that rankings are an accurate indicator of future NFL success.
All rankings according to 247Sports.com. Nat'l = national ranking regardless of position, Pos. = national ranking by position. * - junior college prospect
|10||Mario Edwards Jr.||DE||2012||5||2||1||SDE|
** - Quinten Rollins' rankings are actually basketball rankings as he wasn't a football player coming into college.
What we learned:
* Nine of the top 30 prospects were five-star recruits. In any one given class, there are roughly 30 five-stars. Basically, you have a 1-in-3 chance of becoming a top-30 prospect if you are a five-star recruit.
* 15 of the top 30 prospects were ranked in the top 10 nationally at their position coming out of high school.
* 20 of the top 50 prospects were four- or five-star recruits and ranked in the top 300 nationally. This group makes up roughly the top 10 percent (roughly 400 of 4,000) of any given recruiting class, but comprises almost 40 percent of the top 50 NFL prospects.
* Three players were junior college transfers and not a single two-star prospect was ranked as a top 50 NFL prospect.
The third-youngest Defensive Player of the Year in the history of the NBA has been named, and he is Kawhi Leonard of the San Antonio Spurs.
Leonard, of course, won NBA Finals MVP honors less than a year ago, last June. He’s also a restricted free agent this summer, and the 23-year-old has built himself more than enough of a resume to prove that he’s worthy of a maximum contract from San Antonio.
Terrifying, amazing, relentless—choose your superlative. The lengthy wingman is a storm of judicial limbs and hyperkinetic full-court coverage who evokes Hall of Famer Scottie Pippen. Runner-up Draymond Green, of the Golden State Warriors, was hardly even upset by who he lost out to.
“Al Gore won the popular vote and didn’t get elected president, so I’m not gonna sit here and kill myself over not winning Defensive Player of the Year. We’ve got a bigger goal. That’s to win a championship,” Green said. “[Leonard is] a great defender. Phenomenal defender. He impacts the defensive end just as good as anybody in the league. So congratulations to him.”
The Spurs and Warriors, of course, could be on the league’s most compelling collision course, fated for a showdown in the Western Conference Finals.
But first Kawhi and Co. need to dispatch the Los Angeles Clippers in their first-round series, which the Spurs tied at 1-1 Wednesday night after an overtime victory in L.A. Game 3 is tonight in Texas, at 9:30 PM ET on ESPN, and could very well decide the momentum in the most interesting initial matchup of this season’s bracket.
Look for Leonard to continue proving his case as the game’s best defender tonight. Against the Clippers, he’s liable to stick Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, or just about anyone else if the situation calls for it—much to Lob City’s chagrin.
— John Wilmes
The Dallas’ Mavericks midseason trade for Rajon Rondo was a gamble, and their roll of the dice seems to have emptied their pockets this April.
The Mavericks ruled Rondo out indefinitely after their 111-99 loss to the Houston Rockets Tuesday night, which put them down 0-2 in the first round playoff series between the two Texas teams. Rondo played less than a minute in the second half of the contest, and his coach Rick Carlisle later suggested it was because of a back issue that was exacerbated by his falling, after attempting to draw an offensive foul on James Harden.
Carlisle, when asked if he expects Rondo to play in a Dallas uniform next season, said “No, I don’t.”
It would seem that there’s far more below the surface than an achy back. Rondo and Carlisle—like Rondo and all of his coaches—have had visible difficulty getting along for months, and the point guard’s performance on Tuesday left a lot to be desired in the effort department. His turnover for committing an eight-second violation (an almost never seen occurrence in the NBA) after dribbling the ball up court with little-to-no urgency was an especially telling moment.
Many NBA insiders have been projecting Rondo as a future teammate of Kobe Bryant’s, with the Los Angeles Lakers, for some time now. Given Rajon’s lack of cooperation as a Maverick and the unchecked megalomania of Bryant’s L.A. swan song, the prospect of seeing the two together makes one salivate in anticipation of the hubris-laden folly the pair would commit.
Carlisle is a disciplinarian, and strict at what he does. But most players fall quickly in line, because he maximizes their talents and rehabilitates all kinds of careers—but Rondo was too headstrong for his program. If he joins Kobe in Los Angeles, however, he won’t have the problem of needing to negotiate with anyone on the bench; Byron Scott holds much less power within the Lakers organization than his superstars do.
— John Wilmes
Athlon Sports turned loose the Ourlads.com scouting department on two superstar signal callers. Who should go No. 1 in the 2015 NFL Draft: Marcus Mariota or Jameis Winston?
From Athlon Sports 2015 NFL Draft preview magazine:
It’s common knowledge that you win games by avoiding losing them. To help avoid losses, a quarterback must be a student of the game — have football intelligence and exercise split-second judgment. Both Winston and Mariota score highly in this area.
Winston and Mariota were asked to complete multiple on-the-field tasks in their respective and very different offensive schemes. They both read defenses, read coverages and reacted to blitzes, etc. Winston played in an NFL-friendly system, so in his evaluation a scout is basically comparing apples to apples. What we saw on Saturday has some carryover to Sunday.
Mariota played in a wide-open, fast-tempo offense that had multiple options on every play. He also processed information quickly by counting defensive numbers and then deciding to give the ball to a back, run it himself or throw to a perimeter receiver at the last second. Mariota excelled in the zone-read option but showed the capability to carry over his cerebral intuitiveness to the NFL.
Winston is an accurate passer in the pocket or when he rolls out, always ready to throw. He has a quick release and delivery. He carries the ball high with no wasted motion and can throw accurately with a defender in his face. He has down-the-field vertical accuracy. He sees the field and understands what he is seeing. He has good anticipation.
Mariota has a high completion percentage of hitting his receivers in stride with few adjustments. He has a natural feel in the passing game to read the play as it develops, instinctively and quickly. He uses his eyes to move the coverage. He spreads the ball around to a variety of receivers, backs and tight ends. Mariota demonstrated his ability to step up in the pocket and drive the ball down the field. He’s accurate on skinny post routes and throws the ball on a line when needed or lofts with touch over linebackers.
Arm strength is somewhat overrated in the NFL, but ball placement is not. Winston and Mariota both have the arm strength to make all the key NFL throws. Both can attack the defense vertically.
Winston has a fastball that touched 95-97 mph as a reliever for the Seminoles’ baseball team, and he’s an MLB prospect as an outfielder. The big righthander has a rocket to throw deep and the ability to throw out routes from the opposite hash mark. He uses his body to throw the NFL’s toughest pass — the deep outside comeback.
Mariota has good arm talent to throw and complete the deep post on a line, go vertical down the middle or gun the outside routes. He gets the ball out quickly with good velocity and has the physical tools to play the position. He can laser the ball between the hashes.
When Winston runs, he is strong and not easy to tackle. He has the ability to get positive yards when he pulls the ball down. He can elude a pass rusher and can throw off balance. He has vision, feel and natural running ability. When he escapes, he can make something happen by extending the play.
Mariota is athletic enough to be a free safety or a wide receiver. He also tops Winston as an extemporaneous runner when a play breaks down. Mariota has explosive movement skills, feet and the ability to avoid and escape a rush. He can make plays on the move to his right or left. He is sudden and quick in his movement. He can beat defenders one-on-one in the open field. He creates plays when out of the pocket with his elusiveness. Mariota is as good as it gets when improvising and extending a play.
Related: 2015 NFL Mock Draft
Poise in the Pocket
Winston’s game is to win from the pocket. His eyes are down the field. He doesn’t see the rush; he feels it. He can laser a ball in a tight window with a defender blitzing the “A” gap up the middle. He shakes defenders off in the pocket and shows good poise when he’s under duress. He has his feet under him with a good base, steps and throws. He played with a veteran offensive line for two years but lost his center for most of 2014, and that was problematic. Winston felt the pressure, stood in the pocket and made the throw while he smelled the blitzer’s breath.
Mariota bested Winston analytically in a study by Pro Football Focus, but he threw close to half the passes Winston threw. Winston had center problems last fall, but Mariota had to deal with eight different offensive line combinations in 2014. Mariota is deadly accurate when he has time to set his feet and read his progressions. He knows where to go with the ball, steps up and throws with timing and surgical accuracy. He slides laterally well in the pocket. Mariota is cool under pressure; he doesn’t get too high or too low and shows patience. He appears to run early at times if his receiver is covered.
Winston is a natural-born leader who can be brash. He has swagger and bravado. He is a Pied Piper whom the team will follow. He is mentally tough and responds well to adversity. He has the ability to manage the team and inspire victory from the start of a game to the finish. Even when he makes mistakes, the team never feels they’re out of the game.
Mariota is cerebral and focused on the job at hand. He takes charge by example and inspires his teammates by his total dedication to football. He had a great command of a high-tempo spread offense and understands defensive tactics and strategy. He works at developing great feel and timing with his individual receivers. He is cool when under the gun and can carry a team on his back.
Clutch Third-Down Player
Winston is a big-game quarterback who consistently delivered in the clutch. He went 7–0 in games decided by seven or fewer points. During his Heisman Trophy-winning season of 2013, he completed 64.0 percent of his third-down attempts, and FSU converted a first down on 44 of his 75 third-down passes.
Mariota had a career 36–5 record and threw at least one touchdown pass in every game he started. For his career, the Hawaii native threw 105 touchdowns and only 14 interceptions.
After doing my due diligence and feeling comfortable with my background research on Winston, I would draft him first because the No. 1 ability is availability. Winston is a bigger-framed player with more muscle mass than Mariota and is more durable. Additionally, Winston played college ball in an NFL-schemed offense. He knows how to climb the pocket while keeping his eyes down the field. He reads full-field route progressions. Winston is a pocket passer first, and that’s where you win in the NFL — in the pocket, not on the perimeter. All indications are that he wants to be great and is willing to pay the price for that greatness.
Winner: Jameis Winston
-by Dan Shonka, Ourlads Scouting Services
The NBA’s postseason may be front and center right now, but for many teams, a momentous offseason has also already begun.
Wednesday afternoon offered a telling reminder of that, when Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports reported that the Oklahoma City Thunder fired head coach Scott Brooks after seven years of service.
In his time leading Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Co., Brooks compiled a very impressive resume. As OKC’s only coach since the franchise immigrated from Seattle (where they were, of course, the SuperSonics), he had a .620 winning percentage in the regular season, and went to the NBA Finals in 2012, where the Thunder lost to LeBron James and the Miami Heat.
He also led his team to two Western Conference Finals appearances in which they came up short, including a loss to the San Antonio Spurs last year — the team who went on to win the title.
Serge Ibaka missed the first two games of that series, and Durant missed more than half of this season. Westbrook missed most of the playoffs in 2013. Injuries, in short, have done a number to this squad that looked like a safe bet to win a championship, or even a few, not too long ago.
According to Wojnarowski, Brooks’ firing was not the result of missing the playoffs this season — the first time the Thunder missed that benchmark since 2009 — but was a decision made more with a long-term view for the team in mind.
As for Brooks? He’s expected to land on his feet soon, as the Orlando Magic and Denver Nuggets are said to be interested in him as the man for their respective openings.
— John Wilmes
Athlon Sports looks at the NBA’s most impressive stars to miss this year’s playoffs—usually for reasons beyond their control.
5. Eric Bledsoe, Phoenix Suns
The Suns’ dynamic point guard was the last man standing after the team underwent a dramatic shift at the trade deadline. A trio of big-time ballhandlers—Bledsoe, Goran Dragic, and Isaiah Thomas—was more than just a folly in the name of novelty; the unusual arrangement actually worked for a while, and had Phoenix improbably in the Western Conference playoff hunt for much of the season. But Dragic’s dissatisfaction with how often he was seeing the ball crescendoed to the point that he demanded a trade in February, and was sent to the Miami Heat. Thomas, too, was shipped off—to the Boston Celtics. Bledsoe remained with Brandon Knight, who Phoenix acquired from the Milwaukee Bucks, but the change in his roster was too significant to acclimate to, and the Suns slowly faded from contention.
4. Andre Drummond, Detroit Pistons
Drummond, like Bledsoe, was a victim of major change of context throughout the 2014-15 season. He had a historically impressive year on the offensive glass, seeming on certain nights as if his dominance as a second-chance creator was built into his team’s playbook. But the Pistons kept reshuffling their roster all season, so Andre’s brilliance was only augmented by a proper system during the more promising streaks of a very inconsistent year. Pistons coach and executive Stan Van Gundy should know by now, though, which player to build around as he moves forward.
3. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
“The Stifle Tower,” as they call him, was the NBA’s breakout player this winter. If the 22-year-old Frenchman isn’t already the best rim-protector in basketball, he’s certainly near the top of the race for that honor, going into next season. His Jazz took a few months to put him into the starting lineup in his second season—it took a trade of Enes Kanter, to the Oklahoma City Thunder, to truly pave the way for his spot. But once he paired with Derrick Favors in the front court, first-year coach Quin Snyder was able to position him as the anchor to a defense that was arguably the best in the league after the All-Star break. Don’t be surprised if you see Utah’s coming-out party rise to the level of playoff contention in 2015-16, with Gobert’s dominance down low as the glue to their success.
2. DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento Kings
Big Boogie is perhaps the most disheartening player in the NBA. An amazing talent who’s also a touchy personality, his situation in Sacramento has been rocky for every season he’s been there. DeMarcus has never been anything less than one of the most tantalizing, powerful forces around, as a center who can either steamroll you or beguile you with footwork and shooting range. But he’s had as many coaches as he has seasons with the Kings—and even more starting point guards—so his game hasn’t been able to blossom at the core of a winner. Culture matters in this league, and Cousins will continue to falter without a better basketball family around him. Is new coach George Karl the answer he’s been waiting for? Next year will tell.
1. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder
Westbrook’s Waterloo will be spoken of in nonplussed tones for years. Russell’s insane season, highlighted by eleven triple-doubles, is only made more legendary by his team missing the playoffs. His ceaseless blitzes down the court were the must-see event in the game for two months or more, and the twinge of dissatisfaction we feel in his postseason absence is fitting for what’s going on with the dramatic, ever-changing Thunder. Once a promising title contender, OKC has turned into a rabbit hole of what-if scenarios after momentous trades and injuries, and increasingly intriguing battles with the media. Westbrook snarling that his 2015 scoring title “doesn’t mean [s—-]“ will go down as the iconic quote from an unforgettable season.
— John Wilmes
All things NBA come to a head in the spring, with playoff basketball coming as award season begins as well. This week, the league handed out the first two of its major trophies.
Lou Williams of the Toronto Raptors was designated Sixth Man of the Year after a renaissance season, during which he averaged 15.5 points, the most of his career, and was often the No. 1 offensive option in crunch time for the four-seeded dinosaurs.
The heartening part of Williams’ victory is that it means he’s made more than a full recovery from a torn ACL suffered in January 2013. Lou struggled to find a larger role with the Atlanta Hawks after that malady, but has a found a new home in Canada.
Williams garnered 78 out of 130 first-place votes, edging Isaiah Thomas of the Boston Celtics and Jamal Crawford of the Los Angeles Clippers—last year’s winner of the award.
The mystery of why this honor has been typecast goes, on though: It almost always goes to a score-first guard:
Being a shooting/scoring guard is helpful in Sixth Man voting. pic.twitter.com/NArcNZlJa0— Bruce Arthur (@bruce_arthur) April 20, 2015
Taj Gibson of the Chicago Bulls was arguably a more deserving winner last season, and the Cleveland Cavaliers’ rebounding hound Tristan Thompson somehow couldn’t crack the top three in 2015. Big men remain largely cursed in this category.
This morning, the league continued its prize-giving by naming the Hawks’ Mike Budenholzer the Coach of the Year recipient. The race had clearly been between him and the Golden State Warriors’ Steve Kerr for months, with Budenholzer edging him out with 67 first-place ballots.
Coach Bud’s Hawks were the best team in the Eastern Conference all season, and their sudden turnaround seemed to have a lot to do with his wisdom and discipline. Their 20-game winning streak in the winter was a blaze of glory that’s not soon to be forgotten, and their leader on the bench is getting his due props for it.
— John Wilmes
A new rivalry might be brewing in the NBA’s midwest.
The Chicago Bulls went up 2-0 in their first round playoff series Monday night, defeating the young, underdog Milwaukee Bucks 91-82. Jimmy Butler led the way for Chicago, scoring 31 points, including a 12-point explosion in the fourth quarter. He also displayed his confidence with this moment:
The game got a bit chippy, too. Bucks big man Zaza Pachulia was ejected from the game late in the fourth quarter, after wrestling with Bulls forward Nikola Mirotic and then elbowing him in the head. Mirotic then sat out the rest of the contest with a strained quad, and possibly a concussion.
The skirmish between Pachulia and Mirotic was a culmination of multiple scrums throughout. The Bucks are outmatched by veteran Chicago, but they’re hungry, lengthy at every position, and coached well enough by Jason Kidd to give the Bulls some serious problems. Butler, Derrick Rose and Co. struggled for much of the game through Milwaukee’s forest of strategic limbs, scoring a measly 11 points in the opening quarter.
The Bucks may have stumbled into the postseason on a string of bad growing pains, but they’re showing against the Bulls that they are — at the very least — a nuisance to be taken seriously. Their competitive fire against a team that could be Finals-bound is a surely refreshing sight to fans of the rebuilding franchise, and their ability to at least get under Chicago’s skin a little is an omen of greater things to come.
Game 3 between the sides moves to Milwaukee, on Thursday night. The Bucks’ home court is typically invaded by fans from nearby Chicago when the Bulls visit, but an exciting new squad may start reversing that trend soon.
— John Wilmes
6. D’Angelo Russell, Ohio State
Russell surprised many with his freshman year performance at Ohio State and has emerged only in recent months as a potential lottery selection. Just as Elfrid Payton rose in last year’s draft on the strength of intangible traits, Russell's standing seems to be quickly rising due to qualities that you can’t exactly put your hands on. D’Angelo is confident and creative and has instincts that seem tailor-made for a bold step up into the next level. We might look back and see him as a steal.
5. Kristaps Porzingis, Latvia
The Latvian big man has enjoyed some rising buzz in recent days. Like Dirk Nowizki before him, Porzingis is a lengthy European with a tantalizing skill set. A seven-footer with unusual mobility and shooting range, his upside has scouts drooling. Kristaps can leap like a man much smaller than him, and frequently gets out ahead of the pack on the break, for alley-oop finishes. Players this tall, who run the floor this well, simply don’t come around very often. His wiry frame is a source of concern — can Porzingis beef up enough to avoid the abuse of NBA bullies, and can he keep his unique body healthy while doing so? These are seemingly valid questions, but they may be asked in vain if Porzingis is what he looks like: a singular player.
4. Jahlil Okafor, Duke
Okafor is still regarded as the top man in the upcoming draft by many analysts. But while the dominance he displayed as a post scorer in college does look largely translatable to the professional level, it’s not clear the Chicago-born big man can do much else that will carry over. An average defender, at best, under Krzyzewski, Jahlil’s strong suit of scoring down low is of debatable relevance in the contemporary NBA. Today, professional centers — more than ever — are expected to squash easy attempts at the rim from the opposition. Skeptics believe Okafor might give up, on the other end, as much he gives as a scorer.
3. Justise Winslow, Duke
Winslow appreciators came out in droves during the NCAA tournament, in which Justise became an indispensable piece of a title run, and arguably a more important one than Jahlil Okafor, Duke’s center who’d enjoyed much of the team’s glory throughout the regular season. Winslow’s versatility, mobility, and poise under pressure make him an appealing option at the small forward position, which has been one of the NBA’s weakest for years. And, of course, it never hurts to have gone through a year of the Mike Krzyzewski thresher.
2. Emmanuel Mudiay, China
Mudiay is the best 2015 point prospect for a league that’s increasingly guard-driven. A bit off the radar for his decision to play in China for $1.2 million (as opposed to zero dollars, in the NCAA), Emmanuel is along a path previously only forged by Detroit Pistons guard Brandon Jennings. The same questions that plagued Jennings (a No. 10 overall selection by the Milwaukee Bucks in 2009) and his draft status are likely to threaten Mudiay’s stock. The choice to go abroad will help his wallet in the short term, but it leaves many scouts wondering if his development wouldn’t have been better served domestically. Mudiay is big for a point guard, though, without sacrificing any elite athleticism for his frame, and the right organization could easily turn him into a franchise player over time.
1. Karl-Anthony Towns, Kentucky
The role of big men in the NBA has changed quite bit over the last decade, and Kentucky’s Towns is perhaps better suited to fit into the demands of contemporary league centers than any draft prospect we’ve seen this decade. As a freshman, he showed an all-around knack that bodes well for his future as a pro. He’s not just a post scorer, or a defensive bully — though he’s capable of being both — but is also comfortable operating near the elbow, playing a pass-first style, or chasing stretch bigs out to the perimeter. If his outside shooting can improve, he has the chance to be something like a very bulky wing man. Towns is not only massive — he’s also incredibly skilled.
— John Wilmes
NBA Western Conference Playoffs: Preview and Predictions
(1) Golden State Warriors vs. (8) New Orleans Pelicans
The Pelicans can’t beat the Warriors in a seven-game series. The truer debate lies in deciding whether they can win one game against Golden State. An emboldened, postseason version of Anthony Davis will be a sight to see regardless, though. Davis is the best 21-year-old the league has ever seen, and his late-April debut against Steph Curry’s squad makes for a potentially unforgettable moment of introduction. While this may be the least competitive series in the West’s first round, it could also very well be its most watchable.
Verdict: Warriors in 4
(2) Houston Rockets vs. (7) Dallas Mavericks
With full health, the Rockets would be runaway favorites against discombobulated Dallas. But without Patrick Beverley to help cause Maverick headaches with with his perimeter defense, and without the extra punch Donatas Motiejunas gives them down low, this could be a drawn-out affair for Houston. James Harden and Dwight Howard — along with the armada of relentless Rockets wing defenders—should still be able to lead the way into the second round, but they might tire themselves out quite a bit getting there.
Verdict: Rockets in 7
(3) Los Angeles Clippers vs. (6) San Antonio Spurs
Pour one out for Chris Paul. The Clippers point guard has had a fabulous season, and deserves every bit of MVP consideration he gets. But Los Angeles is undeniably overmatched against the surging defending champion Spurs, and their likely first-round exit is only going to give more fuel to the band of CP3 haters who criticize him for his lack of postseason success. The Spurs look poised to take the NBA throne back again, and it seems like a bit of Greek poetry that Paul has to stand in their way so early along the defense path.
Verdict: Spurs in 6
(4) Portland Trail Blazers vs. (5) Memphis Grizzlies
Both of these teams are somewhat fortunate to have found each other. The Blazers and Grizzlies both limp into the first round, collectors of broken bodies and holders of lowered hopes. Mike Conley Jr. has been far less than his best self for months, playing on a bum foot, Marc Gasol recently sprained his ankle, and Tony Allen and Courtney Lee have been on and off the floor for a long while. At least their injuries aren’t keeping their men out of action, though: the Blazers will do battle without Wesley Matthews, arguably their most important defender. Expect Memphis to come out alive in this war of attrition.
Verdict: Grizzlies in 6
(1) Golden State Warriors vs. (5) Memphis Grizzlies
Barring Memphis finding a miracle curative elixir, the Warriors’ path of relatively little resistance should continue into the second round. If Memphis can walk into the bout with good health, they can cause Golden State trouble—Zach Randolph is a post-player who can most definitely make the Warriors second-guess their decision to start the undersized Draymond Green at power forward. But the Warriors are likely to waltz through their series with the Pelicans, while the Grizzlies face a more punishing climb in their matchup against Portland. Stamina is always key in the playoffs, and the Warriors look set to have far more of the stuff.
Verdict: Warriors in 5
(2) Houston Rockets vs. (6) San Antonio Spurs
The Rockets, again, should find themselves cursing the injury Gods against San Antonio. Every bit of depth is needed against the Spurs, and the Rockets will more than notice their two missing, crucial pieces of it when Gregg Popovich is running them ragged with relentless ten-man rotations. Putting Kawhi Leonard on James Harden, too, should give San Antonio an edge that no other team in the conference could have over the Rockets. Like Paul before him, Harden might start to see a thin playoff resume diminish his reputation in the eyes of casual fans, after another premature playoff exit.
Verdict: Spurs in 6
Western Conference Finals
(1) Golden State Warriors vs. (6) San Antonio Spurs
This series could very well be the NBA Finals — whoever comes out of the East might be ill-suited to contend with either winner. For the Warriors, the sight of San Antonio is certainly scarier than any that could come from the other coast. A late-season Golden State thrashing at the hands of the Spurs put the league on notice, as San Antonio showed it has what it takes to mess up the Warriors’ brilliance on the perimeter. You can’t stop Steph Curry, but if you’ve got Leonard and Danny Green to throw at him, you can come as close as you need to.
Verdict: Spurs in 6
— John Wilmes
NBA Eastern Conference Playoffs: Preview and Predictions
(1) Atlanta Hawks vs. (8) Brooklyn Nets
At 60-22, the Hawks earned the East’s best record. Their reward? A first-round opponent who’s the least inspired of the bunch. Ex-Net Paul Pierce rently ripped into the Brooklyn roster, citing a lack of passion on the team and especially calling out Deron Williams. For an efficient, driven team like Atlanta — who have been playing with a Georgia-sized chip on their shoulder all year — this should make for some fast work.
Verdict: Hawks in 5
(2) Cleveland Cavaliers vs. (7) Boston Celtics
The East’s down-to-the-wire race for its two final playoff spots netted us the feistiest of the pack in the form of the Celtics. Brad Stevens’ young team is one of the conference’s surprise stories this year, consistently finding ways to win in the second half of the season, despite a lot of game-changing action at the trade deadline. But they’re no true rival for LeBron James and the Cavaliers, who have improved in every facet as their first year together has gone along. The Cavs are the favorites to break out of the conference, and Boston isn’t the team to break those odds.
Verdict: Cavaliers in 4
(3) Chicago Bulls vs. (6) Milwaukee Bucks
It’s been a disjointed year for Chicago, who came into the year with title expectations and closed it with uncertainty about whether head coach Tom Thibodeau would still have a job this summer. Make no mistake, though: this is still one of the league’s most talented, potent teams. Their first-round foe from Milwaukee has finished the season with a surprising amount of fight in them, but their unseasoned ways and lack of outside shooting will inevitably do them in against the Bulls, and probably in short order.
Verdict: Bulls in 5
(4) Toronto Raptors vs. (5) Washington Wizards
Now with the Wizards, Pierce has already made his imprint on this series, too. The veteran has said that the Raptors don’t scare him and his squad, and so this bout kicks off with built-in intrigue. And the Raptors shouldn’t scare Washington, who in John Wall has by far the most transcendent figure of either team. What should scare Wizards fans, though, is their coach Randy Wittman, who has hamstrung their efforts with short-sighted strategy for months now. On talent alone, Washington is the clear favorite — but they lose some chips in their stack by often not knowing what they’re doing out there.
Verdict: Wizards in 7
(1) Atlanta Hawks vs. (5) Washington Wizards
Atlanta’s easy times will end abruptly in the second round. Without Thabo Sefolosha (who’s out for the year with a busted leg) and with a potentially compromised Paul Millsap (who’s nursing a shoulder injury), they should have about all they can handle in the Wizards. Washington faltered against the Indiana Pacers in last year’s second round; they had Indiana beat in most games, but coughed up leads in a state of seeming nervousness. Expect them to execute with more confidence in their trip back to this stage of the postseason dance, and make things very interesting. Atlanta, though, should ultimately have just enough to eke by them.
Verdict: Hawks in 7
(2) Cleveland Cavaliers vs. (3) Chicago Bulls
And so begins the Bulls’ fight for their coach’s job, and for the right to continue with their core. Several years with their current nucleus seem to have snowballed into a critical mass of organizational pressure to make something happen this year. The Bulls will be playing for this version of their basketball lives, and in their fear they might make this duel with Cleveland into the most watchable series of the playoffs. Kyrie Irving and Co. will have their way in the end, however, and Chicago will be left with some very strained decisions to make.
Verdict: Cavaliers in 7
Eastern Conference Finals
(1) Atlanta Hawks vs. (2) Cleveland Cavaliers
LeBron will once again flex his biggest — though often unnoticed — muscle in this series: his health. The Hawks have had an impressive run to the top of the conference, but they’ve been beset by injuries minor and major over the season’s closing weeks, and it seems like too much to ask for them to continue their insane winning pace. They’ll still make life difficult for Cleveland, as they’re just about the smartest team in the game. But without the extra body of Sefolosha to put on James and slow him down, the Hawks aren’t in a fair fight anymore.
Verdict: Cavaliers in 6
— John Wilmes
On the heels of one of the most momentous closing nights of an NBA regular season within memory, a rather large rumor bomb dropped on the internet’s doorstep.
The Oklahoma City Thunder missed the postseason for the first time in six years after losing a tiebreaker to Anthony Davis and the New Orleans Pelicans, and are now considering excusing head coach Scott Brooks — this according to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports.
Wojnarowski also mentions a quite titillating replacement possibility: “If a change comes, University of Florida coach Billy Donovan could emerge as a serious candidate to coach Oklahoma City, league sources said. (General manager Sam) Presti has a longstanding friendship with Donovan, a two-time national championship coach who has been open about his interest in moving to the NBA.”
The Thunder’s season was impressive on a lot of levels. Losing defending MVP Kevin Durant for the season (after he played just 27 games) is a blow most teams couldn’t survive, and it doesn’t even scratch the surface of the Thunder’s injury woes this year. Serge Ibaka missed the home stretch, and their campaign started out with such a decimated roster that they crawled to a 3-12 record.
Behind Russell Westbrook’s eye-popping Waterloo of the past few months, though, they finished 45-37. Missing the playoffs by just a fingernail would be an accomplishment in itself for most franchises. But the stakes have raised to title-or-bust in OKC, where they might need to make changes to convince Durant to stick around as he considers his options heading into free agency in 2016.
Brooks has long been the preferred Thunder effigy for NBA analysts everywhere, seen as having an invaluable human touch with his men but lacking in the next-level court strategies his team may need to win their first Larry O’Brien trophy. Stay tuned as this story develops.
— John Wilmes
Former New England Patriots star tight end Aaron Hernandez, 25, was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole today in the deadly shooting of Odin Lloyd, which took place June 17, 2013.
For more on the case, visit ESPN.
The 37-year-old veteran known as The Truth did perhaps more than he ever has to earn his nickname, in a recent interview.
Paul Pierce got very candid with ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan, spilling secret feelings about his time with the Brooklyn Nets. "It was a tough situation last year. Horrible, really,” he said.
"It was just the guys' attitudes there. It wasn't like we were surrounded by a bunch of young guys. They were vets who didn't want to play and didn't want to practice. I was looking around saying, 'What's this?' Kevin [Garnett] and I had to pick them up every day in practice… If me and Kevin weren't there, that team would have folded up. That team would have packed it in. We kept them going each and every day.''
Pierce was especially disparaging of Nets point guard Deron Williams. "Before I got there,” he said, “I looked at Deron as an MVP candidate. But I felt once we got there, that's not what he wanted to be. He just didn't want that… I think a lot of the pressure got to him sometimes. This was his first time in the national spotlight. The media in Utah is not the same as the media in New York, so that can wear on some people. I think it really affected him.’'
Pierce also said that he’s happy to be playing for the Washington Wizards, now — a team that is playoff-bound, potentially unlike the Nets, who are still fighting for a spot on the final day of the season. With the Wizards, he has what he was yearning for in Brooklyn: a young, motivated nucleus to transfer his wealth of knowledge over to. John Wall and Bradley Beal have been eager students in the way Williams wasn’t, and are a fitting duo for him to finish his career with.
— John Wilmes
The Western Conference could’ve been the most impressive pack of title contenders this side of James Naismith, had it not had been for the cruel interjection of fate.
Between the Memphis Grizzlies, Houston Rockets, Portland Trail Blazers and Oklahoma City Thunder, the conference now has four championship-worthy squads almost certainly due for premature exits, because of missing or compromised players.
Memphis is the only team in this bunch with all of its players technically active for the postseason, but in Tony Allen, Marc Gasol, Courtney Lee and Mike Conley they have four of five starters who haven’t been themselves for a while. The Grizzlies have stumbled as they approach the postseason, losing six of their last 10 at time of publication and no longer resembling the scary dark horse they were as recently as February.
Just as soon as Houston saw Dwight Howard return to the lineup to anchor their defense’s back line, they lost two crucial pieces of depth for the season: Donatas Motiejunas and Patrick Beverley. Neither are go-to players, to be sure, but without the services of either, Houston has to rely all the more on the creaky Howard and James Harden, and it’s all but inevitable that they’ll end up losing a battle of inches in a seven-game series because they lack that extra boost.
Wesley Matthews had already suffered a season-ending injury for the Blazers when his replacement, Arron Afflalo, came into a shoulder injury last week that could see him miss action in the first round, and will keep him from playing his best ball in any event.
And the Thunder, of course, continue their course as the most talented team that never was. With Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka out for the playoffs, they run into debilitating springtime injury issues for the third consecutive time since their promising surge into the NBA Finals in 2012.
— John Wilmes
Russell Westbrook’s wildly entertaining marathon of MVP-level madness might have both peaked and ended last night.
The Oklahoma City Thunder’s star point guard went berserk, scoring 54 points on 21-for-43 shooting, to go with nine rebounds and eight assists in a crucial loss to the Indiana Pacers, 116-104. The Thunder remain out of the playoff picture after falling behind Anthony Davis and the New Orleans Pelicans, with just two games to go in the season.
And if they want to beat the Portland Trail Blazers and stay close on New Orleans’ tail Monday night, they’ll likely have to do it without Russ. In addition to his monstrous stat line on the evening, he also gained his sixteenth technical foul of the season, earning him a suspension for the following game. Thunder coach Scott Brooks sounded confident that the penalty would be rescinded, but he may be doing a bit of wishful thinking.
When asked whether he took too many shots in the game, Westbrook said: “Every night I go out and compete harder than anybody else in this league. As long as my teammates don't have a problem with it, I'm good with it.”
With Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka out of the lineup, it’s hard to argue much with Westbrook’s usage rate. He’s the Thunder’s best option on most possessions, and his coach and teammate know their remaining superstar is the unicorn they have to ride or die with.
But in the end, the final result of Westbrook’s indelible streak (which has included eleven triple-doubles) may be a sort of TKO; a Thunder death caused by the no-fun police, enforcing a rule that favors decorum over competitive intrigue.
While Westbrook’s demeanor on the court can be overzealous and downright rude at times…. who really cares? And who wins when one of the year’s most compelling players is pulled out of one of the league’s few remaining playoff races, in the season’s final days?
— John Wilmes
For millions of Americans, lower back pain is a common occurrence. We asked Los Angeles Dodgers strength and conditioning coach Brandon McDaniel for his best advice on keeping the aches and pains at bay.
“The stronger you make your glutes (butt), the better you’ll be at bending over to pick things up without hurting your back,” McDaniel says. “I’ll start a rookie with goblet squats or kettlebell deadlifts.” Once mastered, move up to barbells with heavier weight.
Your core works as a support structure for your lower back. “Planks, side planks and glute bridges are all good for strengthening your core.” Warm up for your workouts with three rounds of one minute each of those exercises to get your core ready to work.
No Heavy Machinery
If your back is sore, don’t attempt to “strengthen” it by using the back extension machine at your gym. “That machine will likely just break it down more.”
If you’re sore from yesterday’s workout, go through a thorough warm-up. “Go through a dynamic movement, hit the foam roller, stretch and warm up thoroughly,” McDaniel says.
“Medicine ball chest passes and med ball slams” both force your core to tighten and adjust to the weight as you catch and throw it.
—By Billy Brown
This year’s NBA MVP race has been as close as they come. Between Russell Westbrook, Anthony Davis, Chris Paul, LeBron James, James Harden and Steph Curry, there are six candidates truly worthy of the award. Curry and Harden, however, have been more deserving than the rest, and the hardest part of calling the competition has been deciding between these two.
For most voters, that choice got a lot easier last night. In a 116-105 win over the Portland Trail Blazers, Curry led his Golden State Warriors with 45 points and 10 assists, shooting an obscene 17-of-23 from the field (74 percent), including 8-of-13 from beyond arc. This, on the same night that he broke the previous record (his own) for most three-pointers by one player in a season.
Those numbers are baffling, but the sight of how Steph got to them was even more so; the ease of his virtuoso was especially startling last night. Against Portland, he was completing sequences that even other elite NBA players can only dream about executing on an empty floor, with nobody guarding them. Steph dribbled through defensive obstacles like they were tissue paper all night — and especially in the fourth quarter — pulling up to drop smooth mortar into the net from any spot on the court of his choosing.
It was the perfect cornerstone game to display what Curry’s done all year, and show why he’s even more impressive than the amazing Harden. Steph is not only an offense unto himself, but he’s one that you have to account for like it’s an atomic bomb, the second he crosses the half-court line. His immaculate handles mean he can quickly get to any spot, and his shooting range (perhaps better than anyone’s, ever) makes him a threat to score from virtually any of those locations.
Nothing like Curry — the indomitable engine to basketball’s best team — has ever been seen before.
— John Wilmes
Getting together with your buddies (or strangers) for a night of poker can be a lot of fun. But it’s considerably more enjoyable when you’re staring down at a huge stack of chips at the end of the night. To elevate your game, we asked World Series of Poker (WSOP) Hall of Famer Phil Hellmuth — winner of 13 WSOP bracelets — to teach us how to dominate at his favorite parlor game, Texas Hold ’em.
Follow the Cardinal Rule
“Texas Hold ’em is patience, patience, patience. If you have to play every hand, don’t play Hold ’em, because you won’t win. The extreme example is to only play my top ten hands, which I introduce in my book Play Poker Like the Pros: sevens, eights, nines, tens, Jacks, Queens, Kings, Aces, Ace/King and Ace/Queen. It’s not the optimal strategy, but you can get into the swing of the game, and that’s great for beginners.”
Big Hands Don’t Guarantee Large Payouts
“I’ve seen a lot of money lost with a hand like a King/Queen because, once the big money starts going in, the opponent usually has a hand that dominates it. When I say, ‘dominate,’ I mean that someone might have an Ace/King or Ace/Queen; therefore, they have one of your cards and a card over your other one.”
Get the Right Value From Your Hand
“There is no specific hand to go ‘all in’ on because, even if you have the most powerful hand possible, you may be more concerned about getting paid off. If you bet too much, you’ll make your opponents fold.”
Review Game Tape
“Reading other people at the table is not easy, but every person out there can improve their reading abilities. I would advise someone to watch videos of players without the sound and try to guess what they have based on the way they are acting. To practice, pull up a YouTube video and do this for 10 minutes at your house.”
Employ Smoke and Mirrors
“If you bet 10 times over five hours of play and nobody calls you, then you have to start adding some bluffs. If you get called, they will see you bluffing, which will get you future action. And, if you can get away with a bluff, you’re winning money.”
Ditch the Hats, Shades and Headphones
“I don’t think that all that stuff helps. People want to go and have a nice social experience. But if people know when you are weak and when you are strong, then go ahead and put sunglasses on.”
Know When to Fold ’em
“Going for broke on every hand is a horrible strategy. A lot of times you’ll have the second- or third-best hand and you’re going to get called by the best hand.”
Skill Trumps Luck
“A bad player will never beat a good player if they play 10 hours, no matter how much luck is involved. In 1986, the Supreme Court ruled that poker players can pay taxes as a business because the game is a game of skill.”
Practice, Practice, Practice
“The more experience you have, the better. Some of the online poker players have played more hands in six months than I have in my lifetime. … You can pick up a lot of experience quickly if you’re playing online poker.”
—By Matt McCue
NCAA’s March Madness is wildly popular — but apparently it’s a dance that’s not for everyone.
You can count Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban among the curmudgeons of the annual tournament. "It's uglier than ugly,” he said Wednesday night, in reference to many low point totals in recent games. “…it’s evidenced by the scoring going down. When the NBA went through that, we changed things.
“If they want to keep kids in school and keep them from being pro players, they're doing it the exact right way by having the 35-second shot clock and having the game look and officiated the way it is.
"You've got three kids passing on the perimeter. With 10 seconds on the shot clock, they try to make something happen and two other kids stand around. They don't look for anything and then run back on defense, so there's no transition game because two out of five or three out of five or in some cases four out of five kids aren't involved in the play.
"It's horrible. It's ridiculous, it's worse than high school. You've got 20 to 25 seconds of passing on the perimeter and then somebody goes and tries to make a play and do something stupid, and scoring's gone down.”
While Cuban certainly has a point, he seems to be missing the larger one. NCAA hoops are not about the pursuit of an aesthetic basketball purity; they appeal to many, instead, for their raw, emotional qualities. Single-elimination games make for a frequently more exciting product, as does a game played by men too young to all have their feelings in order.
College ball is not as advanced of a product as what the NBA offers. But to many, it is a more fun one.
— John Wilmes
Golf's greatest tournament is finally here. Picking a winner in golf is tricky business, but we wanted to know who the experts thought would be donning the Green Jacket come Sunday evening.
Jay Coffin, Editorial Director, Golf Channel, @JayCoffinGC
Jason Deegan, Senior Staff Writer and Golf Advisor with The Golf Channel online, @WorldGolfer
Steve DiMeglio, USA Today, @Steve_DiMeglio
Bob Harig, ESPN, @BobHarig
Dan Jenkins, Author, Golf Digest Contributor, @danjenkinsgd
Garrett Johnston, Golf journalist, @JohnstonGarrett
Dave Kindred, Golf Digest, Sports on Earth Contributor, @DaveKindred
Alex Miceli, Senior Writer, Golfweek, @alexmiceli
Dan O’Neill, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Dave Shedloski, Golf World, @DaveShedloski
Art Spander, Global Golf Post, @artspander
Who will win the 2015 Masters?
Comments from our panel"
• "Jason Day is due."
• "I always pick Rory these days."
• "Bubba Watson. It's his course."
• "This isn't Patriots vs. Seahawks. This is 90 people against each other and a course, but I'll give you several possibilities: Jordan Spieth, Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy, Patrick Reed."
• "Jason Day. He's been close a bunch of times, he's won this year, and he appears healthy going in."
Men’s magazines are loaded with recommendations for supplements aimed at hard-core athletes. But are any of them actually effective? And what about the average guy who’s not competing at a high level? We asked Leslie Bonci, MPH, RD, CSSD, LDN, Director of Sports Nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and a nutritional consultant to the Pittsburgh Steelers, Pittsburgh Pirates and Washington Nationals, among others. Here’s Bonci’s best advice on what to use, and what to avoid.
Omega 3 Fat: “The antiinflammatory benefit and heart healthy benefits will have an impact,” Bonci says. “And it’s really hard to get that much in your daily diet.” If fish oil doesn’t work for you, algae-based Omega 3’s are a good alternative.
Protein Isolate: Bonci favors powdered protein isolates for their versatility. “A protein in powder form will be more versatile,” she says. “You can mix it into oatmeal or in a shake.” You can also choose from different types of protein — whey, casein, etc. “Also, premixed shakes can be loaded with unnecessary calories.”
The Recovery Trifecta: “Ginger, turmeric and boswellia all have really big anti-inflammatory effects,” Bonci says. She recommends ginger and turmeric for combatting delayed-onset muscle soreness after hard workouts, while boswellia is more effective for alleviating muscle tweaks, like a strained hamstring. “Take a mix of the three before bed,” she says, recommending 500mg of ginger, 400mg of boswellia and 1200mg of turmeric. “The effects are faster than glucosamine/chondroitin and it works on a larger population.”
What to Avoid
Energy Shooters: “The name ‘5-hour Energy’ is really very misleading,” she says. “It’s not calories, it’s a stimulant, so you’ll get a boost for about half an hour and that’s it.” Also, the high concentration of caffeine can raise a heart rate that’s already elevated when you exercise.
The Cleanses: “I’ve confiscated many of them from my athletes,” Bonci says. “It’s so counterproductive to performance.” Her aversion to the trendy cleanses is due to their diuretic (and diarrheal) properties. “It can totally dehydrate and lead to electrolyte imbalance.”
Growth Stacks: “Avoid anything you see like animal pack or growth or anabolic on the label,” she says. “It probably won’t do what it says, and it’ll be adding a hormone to the body,” which affects its ability to make its own hormones. “Protein isolate will do a lot more and it’ll cost you a lot less.”
—by Billy Brown
Everyone likes bacon, right? Well, here’s a new way to ingest it and make you look much fancier than you actually are. These can be served as hors d’oeuvres for a romantic dinner at home or on a paper plate to be devoured in sweatpants alone on the couch. (Probably the latter.) Add BBQ sauce and jalapeño peppers to taste and enjoy the fruits of your labor — which should take about 20 minutes from start to finish. Here’s the recipe for BBQ bacon-wrapped jumbo shrimp:
Step One | Pregame Prep
1. Preheat oven to 400°F
2. Place rack over large foil-lined baking sheet
Step Two | Makin’ Bacon
1. Arrange uncooked bacon on rack
2. Bake bacon about 8 minutes, until partially cooked but still pliable
3. Drain bacon on paper towel-lined plate
Step Three | BBQ Time
1. Combine barbecue sauce and olive oil in medium bowl
2. Add jumbo shrimp to bowl
3. Coat jumbo shrimp in barbecue sauce
Step Four | Wrapper’s Delight
1. Wrap each jumbo shrimp with a half-piece of bacon
2. Arrange bacon-wrapped shrimp on rack
3. Bake 10 minutes — until shrimp are cooked and bacon is crisp
Step Five | Overtime Options
1. Run toothpick through shrimp
2. Slather in barbecue sauce
3. Add fresh jalapeño
24 Jumbo shrimp — peeled and deveined, tails on
12 Bacon slices — cut into halves crosswise
6 Tablespoons barbecue sauce
2 Tablespoons olive oil
1 Jalapeño — sliced to garnish (optional)
Baking sheet, Baking rack, Medium bowl, Toothpicks
—Recipe by Laraine Perri
Did “Back to the Future Part II” successfully predict anything in the world of sports?
—Biff T., Las Vegas, Nev.
Good question, Biff — if that is your real name. When Marty McFly and “Doc” Brown time travel in the 1989 cult classic "Back to the Future Part II," they go all the way to the year 2015. So, the future is now. In the movie, the Chicago Cubs win the World Series over a Florida team with an alligator mascot. Since the release of the film, the Sunshine State has landed two MLB teams — the Miami Marlins (1993) and Tampa Bay Rays (1998). But the Cubs have not won the World Series. Maybe this year? Nike will also sell the self-tying sci-fi shoes worn by Michael J. Fox in the film. And the infamous “Left Shark” from Katy Perry’s Super Bowl XLIX halftime show looks suspiciously like the hologram billboard shark from the movie. But still no functional hover boards… even in 2015.