Articles By Athlon Sports
Owings Mills, MD (SportsNetwork.com) - The Baltimore Ravens placed rookie running back Lorenzo Taliaferro, rookie safety Terrence Brooks and cornerback Asa Jackson on season-ending injured reserve Tuesday.
Taliaferro, a fourth-round pick, hurt his foot against the Miami Dolphins on Dec. 7 and didn't play against the Jaguars on Sunday. He carried the ball 68 times for 292 yards and four touchdowns in 13 games this season.
The Ravens now have Bernard Pierce and Fitzgerald Toussaint behind Justin Forsett at running back.
Brooks, a third-round draft pick, and Jackson are dealing with knee injuries.
Baltimore promoted offensive lineman Ryan Jensen from the practice squad to the active roster and signed defensive tackle Casey Walker off the New England Patriots' practice squad.
Houston, TX (SportsNetwork.com) - The Houston Texans placed quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick on injured reserve Tuesday, officially ending his season.
The move came a day after Fitzpatrick had surgery on his broken left leg, an injury he suffered during Sunday's game against Indianapolis.
Backup Tom Savage was also injured on Sunday and will miss this weekend's game against Baltimore, further depleting Houston at the position.
The Texans bolstered their quarterback depth chart by signing Case Keenum to the active roster and inking Ricky Stanzi to the practice squad. Keenum or Thad Lewis figures to get the start Sunday against the Ravens.
Fitzpatrick was benched for Ryan Mallett earlier this season. He returned to a starting role after Mallett went down with a season-ending pectoral injury last month and ended the season with 2,483 yards passing and 17 touchdowns in 12 games.
Keenum started eight games for the Texans last season, going 0-8 with 1,760 yards passing, nine touchdowns and six interceptions.
Stanzi, 27, was a fifth-round draft pick of the Kansas City Chiefs in 2011 out of Iowa. He spent two years on their roster and another on Jacksonville's last season but has never taken an NFL snap.
The Texans placed wide receiver Travis Labhart on the practice squad/injured list.
Kobe Bryant has done it. Now No. 3 all-time in scoring, he’s passed his idol Michael Jordan.
Reggie Miller isn’t impressed, though. “Michael Jordan on his worst day is 10 times better than Kobe Bryant on his best day,” the TNT announcer and three-point shooting legend recently said to Dan Patrick. “That’s not short-changing Kobe at all, because he handed me my lunch pail, too, but I will take that Black Cat (Jordan) all day, any day over Kobe.”
We can’t usually weigh too much into what legends of the past say about their old peers, or current-day players either. They’ve always got a hefty mythological stake in how people perceive their competition in the world of sports rhetoric, where legacy rules all. Every time Miller’s current co-workers Shaquille O’Neal and Charles Barkley aim their crosshairs at men like Blake Griffin, DeMarcus Cousins and Dwight Howard, it’s not hard to see: These guys don’t want their history to be shown up.
But Miller — as he noted — isn’t defending himself or his era. Bryant and Jordan both waxed him and his otherwise-title-bound Indiana Pacers in the postseason, and he accepts that. Both were superior players to him, but one still stood much taller: Jordan.
Of course, only a time machine can really solve this dispute. And while I don’t see any DeLoreans coming around the corner, we do know that Bryant is in his eighteenth season, and has only just now equaled Jordan’s output over fifteen. Kobe, great as he’s been, can’t compare to the efficient dominance that captured basketball’s imagination so thoroughly in the ’80’s and 90’s.
While the Black Mamba is an impressive 45 percent shooter over his career (almost unheard of for a perimeter player of such high usage) Jordan was positively interstellar with his 50 percent mark.
Bryant’s accomplishment shouldn’t be diminished. He has been more committed to the sport than Jordan — who retired from the NBA three times and swung a baseball bat for a while — and that certainly counts for something. But we shouldn’t be handing Kobe the crown without context, either. So while Miller's math may be off (I'm not sure the sport could survive a player with tenfold the talent as Vino) he's surely right that His Airness still reigns supreme.
— John Wilmes
Kendrick Perkins is one of the biggest trash talkers in the NBA. So it comes as no surprise that he’s gotten under the skin of yet another league star.
"He might as well play with his face painted, he's a clown to me," Sacramento Kings forward Rudy Gay told Kings blog Sactown Royalty. "You can quote that. He's a clown to me. He might as well play with his face painted.”
Gay’s choice words were a response to what Perkins was caught saying about the Kings during a November 9 contest between Sacramento and Perkins’ Oklahoma City Thunder. “These m—————— are still the Sacramento Kings,” Perkins said in the game — which OKC eventually won, 101-93 — caught here in Vine form (NSFW):
“I’d rather be a clown than a virus,” Perkins said about Gay’s most recent comments, implying that Gay’s movement around the league (this is his third team in as many seasons) is due to having an unsavory personality.
As has been the case throughout his career, Perk continues to impact the game in ways well beyond the box score. A consistent minus in nearly every statistical category, Perkins’ worth to the surging Thunder is in the scowl department. His mean, aggressive style helps his men feel backed-up, cohesive and confident. That’s what he gets paid for.
Gay, on the other hand, is enjoying the best play of his career, reminding the world of the potential they saw in him years ago. Averaging 21.1 points per game, his performance is now a silver lining for a Kings squad that’s fallen into confusion and controversy with the prolonged sickness of franchise man DeMarcus Cousins, and the sudden firing of head coach Mike Malone.
Just when you thought the Kings might be responsible for some good, competitive basketball again, they jump back into headlines for all the wrong, ridiculous reasons. Let the folly continue.
— John Wilmes
The Miami Heat made some moves this summer, to try making up for the gaping hole in their talent level caused when LeBron James announced he’d be heading back to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The moves haven’t worked, as the injury-riddled Heat are just 11-13 and struggling to stay in the playoff picture — even in the soft Eastern Conference. Things aren’t getting any easier, either: Monday, the team announced that new small forward Josh McRoberts would need surgery to repair a recently torn meniscus. McRoberts, an under-the-radar player with a versatile offensive skill set, could miss the rest of the year.
Perennial All-Star Chris Bosh, simultaneously, is said to be out indefinitely with a strained calf. And Dwyane Wade, as is well known by now, has long been hard to rely on for consistent action on the floor. He’s a factory of pain these days, as he been for some time.
"Injuries are a part of this game; how you respond to adversities, to things that are tough, that's what reveals your collective character as a group,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra told ESPN’s Mike Wallace. "I told the guys there will be brighter days. It always usually evens out at the end. We're being hit pretty strong with the injury bug right now.”
Now that the King is gone from South Beach, it’s easier than ever to see just how heavy of a load he carried for Pat Riley’s squad over four seasons. Even with the additions of McRoberts and two-time All-Star Luol Deng, the basketball presence James took with him is extremely noticeable. A former 50-win team (at worst) is now battling hard just to tread water.
Hope is dim for Heat fans today, but they always have one tantalizing possibility to hold out for: Riley’s masterful touch with big-ticket free agents. Come 2015 or '16, you know he’ll be poised to make another home run signing, to bring Miami back closer to the promised land.
— John Wilmes
The biggest bombshell of the NBA season dropped last night when Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports reported that the Sacramento Kings fired head coach Mike Malone, citing that “Malone didn't meet win-loss expectations of ownership[.]”
This one’s a head-scratcher. Kings owner Vivek Ranadive has been acknowledged by myself and many others as perhaps the league’s worst owner. But the Kings’ surprising improvement is hard to nitpick — especially given that their franchise player, DeMarcus Cousins, has been out of action with viral meningitis for the last nine games. With Cousins in the lineup, the Kings jumped out to an impressive 9-5 start.
Sacramento, this time last year, was 7-15. But with the maturation of Cousins, the renaissance of Rudy Gay and the unexpectedly shrewd replacement of point guard Isaiah Thomas with Darren Collison, they’re now 11-13, treading water in a historically prickly Western Conference behind the defense-first tutelage of Malone.
Now, they’ll be run by head assistant Ty Corbin — last year’s head coach of the fledgling Utah Jazz — who is reportedly filling in on an interim basis. Ranadive and management, Wojnarowski says, expected a faster, more exciting playing pace in addition to a better record. Ranadive even went so far, at one point during the offseason, to suggest that the team play a 4-on-5 defense which leaves one player behind to “cherry-pick.”
You have to feel for Sacramento’s fans at a time like this. While there’s always the possibility that Ranadive is a cutting-edge, innovative basketball mind, it’s more likely that he’s an eccentric, aggressive billionaire who’s out of his depth in running this team and that his frivolous decision-making will only continue to sink the Kings’ hopes at a competitive campaign.
Wojnarowski says the Kings don’t have a replacement strategy in line for the head coaching spot yet, but he also floated George Karl — who previously worked with Kings general manager Pete D’Alessandro, as part of an impressive Denver Nuggets run — as well as Vinny Del Negro as potential candidates. Stay tuned for more as this strange, shocking story develops.
— John Wilmes
After Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant returned to the starting lineup for the Oklahoma City Thunder, everyone knew they could get back into contention for the Western Conference Playoffs. But how many people thought it would happen this quickly?
After a 112-88 victory over the reeling Phoenix Suns (losers of five straight) the Thunder have reached a 6-1 mark since Durant came back to the court, on December 2 against the New Orleans Pelicans.
The Thunder are now just 0.5 games behind Phoenix for the eighth and final playoff spot in their conference. This after a 5-13 start, which had the depleted “Zombie Thunder” sometimes using guys like Kendrick Perkins and Sebastian Telfair as primary offensive options.
Life comes at you fast in the NBA, where the whims of fate can turn famine into feast — and vice versa — at any moment. The Thunder are one of the best teams in the league, but their hopes are only as reliable as their roster’s mortal skeletons.
"They came out right from the start and got after it," Phoenix coach Jeff Hornacek said about OKC after the contest. "At one point in the middle of the first quarter they were 11 for 16, so they missed five shots, but on four of those they got offensive rebounds. You can't beat a team when you come out like that. They took it at us.”
Inspired and determined, the Thunder are now racing back into championship contention.
And, in the shorter term, toward Thursday’s game of the week, when they take on the new juggernaut of the West in Steph Curry’s 21-2 Golden State Warriors, who’ve made Steve Kerr the most successful rookie coach in league history so far.
At 10:30 PM ET on December 18, from the Oracle Arena in Oakland, the old kings of the West will clash with the up-and-coming aces to give us a taste of the delicious playoff competition were due for this Spring.
Info from an AP report was used in this article.
— John Wilmes
In an effort to lessen the wear and tear on pro basketball bodies, league executives have begun discussions aimed toward shortening the NBA preseason.
As reported by Grantland’s Zach Lowe, the measure would allow the regular season (which would still be a full 82 games) to begin about ten days earlier — the postseason, in this scenario would commence at the same time. There would be, logically, fewer back-to-back gauntlets for teams if this possibility takes place, and more opportunities for rest throughout the year.
Per Lowe: “The league is hoping that a few tweaks, including a shortened preseason and an extended All-Star break, will add up to something meaningful. Any change in the number of preseason games would likely not take place until the 2016-17 season at the earliest, sources say. Revenue from preseason games goes into the pool that owners and players split, but the league may not have to negotiate any reduction in the preseason schedule with players; the collective bargaining agreement merely calls for “up to eight” exhibition games ahead of the regular season.
“Teams typically play seven or eight preseason games. Teams put together preseason schedules themselves, while the league governs the 82-game regular-season schedule. That is a minor sore spot for team executives tired of haggling with each other over the dates and locations of preseason games. It is not a popular job.”
The preseason, beyond being valuable for revenue purposes, is also a great time for teams (whether they’re familiar with each other or freshly assembled) to build chemistry, so some coaches might take issue with a truncated version of the warm-up stretch of the year.
But no fan’s guts are lit on fire by the prospect of exhibition games. There’s a certain thrill to watching your favorite roundball heroes take the hardwood again after a long summer layoff, but it wears off quickly when you realize how low the stakes are in preseason contests. The sooner the games that count can start — and the fresher the players can be for them — is ultimately for the better.
— John Wilmes
Kobe Bryant has made quite the career out of impersonating Michael Jordan. Bryant’s studious, obsessive emulation of MJ’s form of isolation basketball has made him the league’s most famous, prized hero-baller since His Airness hung up his ever-famous shoes (for the third and final time) in 2003.
And now, Kobe is mere games away from passing Jordan in a certain page of the record books. Bryant is No. 4 all-time in NBA scoring with 32,262 points; Jordan is No. 3, but just 30 ahead of the Black Mamba with 32,292. That gap is one Kobe should be able to close by the end of the weekend — his Los Angeles Lakers play twice between now and Monday, against the San Antonio Spurs and Minnesota Timberwolves, and Bryant averages 25.5 points per game.
It’s only a short matter of time until Kobe surpasses his idol.
But we don’t have to wait any longer for Bryant to lose his mind. He’s had it up to here with the mediocrity of his current Lakers squad, and the world saw that loudly and clearly with his recent outburst at a team practice. Bryant had these not-safe-for-work words to say when the session let out on Thursday:
It’s almost hard to believe the situation in L.A.
Bryant has always been a difficult personality, but now that he’s surrounded by a platoon of inexperienced, immature players — including the always-vocal Nick Young — it’s bringing out the very worst of his hyper-competitive tendencies. With Kobe at their center, the NBA’s most-storied franchise has become something of a farce for now.
One wonders if the Lakers can bring title competition back to Hollywood before Kobe’s career ends. Perhaps the unlikely prospect of Rajon Rondo coming to the Lakers—with rumors of such sparked by a recent breakfast rendezvous — will make things interesting again. Otherwise, Lakers fans will have to wait out the career of one of their most darling stars in Bryant before they can earnestly root for a championship again.
— John Wilmes
Phil Jackson, Gregg Popovich, Red Auerbach, Pat Riley — these are the four horsemen of NBA leadership. Among them, they own more than half of the league’s championships.
But rookie coach Steve Kerr (who happens to have played for two of those men, in Jackson and Popovich) has all of them beat in one category so far. With his Golden State Warriors’ 19-2 start, he’s off to the best beginning in NBA coaching history.
The Warriors notched the latest inch of their scintillating record belt last night, with a 105-93 home victory over the second-best team in basketball, the Houston Rockets. James Harden tried to will Houston to victory almost single-handedly against the deep Warriors roster in Oakland — racking up 34 points on 14-of-27 shooting, to go with eight rebounds, four assists and four steals — but GSW was simply too much.
Steph Curry and Harrison Barnes both had 20 points in the Warriors’ win — Klay Thompson had 21. The team has now won fourteen straight.
By beating Houston, Kerr’s squad passed phase one of a tough new stretch in their schedule. Up next are the Dallas Mavericks. Then, Anthony Davis and the New Orleans Pelicans, the Memphis Grizzlies, and the rejuvenated Oklahoma City Thunder, who’ll be extra motivated with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook back in action and a bad standings hole to climb out of.
In the Western Conference, gauntlets like this are a dime a dozen. That’s what makes it hard to believe the Warriors can keep up this pace, even if they are the best team in basketball. The competition is simply too stiff.
But if the charmed Kerr’s lifelong streak of success is any indication, the Warriors might just be able to run through the best conference ever with a shining mark. Kerr’s a golden boy; every basketball thing he touches seems to improve. He’s thrived as an NBA role player, a TNT announcer next to the iconic Marv Albert, and now — albeit very early on — he’s unimpeachable as a head coach.
— John Wilmes
Being a New York Knicks fan typically requires a great tolerance for failure, and a deep, reliable sense of humor. Sincere hope for winning basketball is only going to hurt you in this arena.
That continues to be the case in the early stages of new team president Phil Jackson. Despite his tremendous record as a coach with the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers (eleven championships), he hasn’t had a touch magical enough to turn the Knicks around just yet. In fact, they may be digging even deeper into the depths of failure.
The latest Knicks folly comes in a report from ESPN’s Chris Broussard. According to Broussard, Carmelo Anthony and Tim Hardaway, Jr. are at odds and have nearly come to blows on more than one occasion. One instance happened on the court, when the Knicks were losing to the Brooklyn Nets last week.
“Anthony approached Hardaway,” writes Broussard, “and used an expletive to ask Hardaway who in the world he thought he was talking to. Anthony, according to sources, used another expletive in telling Hardaway he was going to beat him up when they got into the locker room after the game.”
Melo has subsequently downplayed that drama, for whatever that's worth:
Melo said no rift. Said there were words with hardaway on the court but he and Tim are great. And said players only meeting Saturday— Steve Popper (@StevePopper) December 10, 2014
Broussard also reports that the team is not fond of Jackson’s storied triangle offense: “One thing Anthony and his teammates do agree on is their disdain for the triangle offense, sources said. For weeks, if not longer, the players have been ready to ditch the triangle and move on to another system. They feel like other teams know what they are going to run and where they are going to go on the court, which makes it easier to stop them.”
This report comes on the heels of Jackson saying New York has a “loser’s mentality” and that the team is more “worried about not losing a basketball game, rather than figuring it out, and figuring out how to win basketball games.”
Nobody thought a Knicks makeover would be easy. But did we think it would get this ugly, this early into Jackson’s tenure? New York never sleeps, and neither does the presence around their media teams, so all kerfuffles around the Knicks are at least a little bit overblown. But the more the Knicks lose and look pitiful doing it, the easier this sort of strife is to believe.
— John Wilmes
Berea, OH (SportsNetwork.com) - Johnny Manziel will make his first NFL start when the Cleveland Browns host the Cincinnati Bengals this Sunday, head coach Mike Pettine announced Tuesday.
Manziel, one of Cleveland's two first-round picks in the 2014 draft, takes over for struggling veteran Brian Hoyer with the Browns trying to stay alive in the AFC playoff race at 7-6.
Hoyer has started each of the Browns' first 13 games, but has been ineffective in the team's past four outings. He has thrown eight interceptions and just one touchdown pass over that stretch, during which Cleveland has gone 1-3.
Manziel saw his first real action in a relief role two weeks ago in a loss to Buffalo and guided the Browns to their lone touchdown in a 26-10 setback, though Pettine decided to stay with Hoyer for another week. Hoyer completed only 14-of-31 passes for 140 yards and was intercepted twice against Indianapolis on Sunday, however, with Cleveland dealt a potentially costly 25-24 home loss.
"This decision is really not about Brian Hoyer or Johnny Manziel, it is about the Cleveland Browns," Pettine said. "We are always going to make decisions that we feel are in the best interest of the team."
Over 13 games this season, Hoyer has thrown for 3,196 yards with 11 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.
"Brian has done everything that has been asked of him and he has done so as a true professional," Pettine said. "It's never just any one position when a unit is not functioning at the level you'd like. We are trying to get the offense to perform at a higher level. Johnny has worked very hard to earn this opportunity and it will be very important for every member of the offense to elevate their play for us to obtain our desired result."
Manziel was 5-of-8 for 63 yards passing and ran for a touchdown against the Bills. He also fumbled.
Charlotte, NC (SportsNetwork.com) - Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton is in fair condition at a Charlotte hospital after being involved in a two-car accident on Tuesday afternoon.
The Panthers later announced that Newton suffered two transverse process fractures in his lower back during the crash but no other internal injuries. The 2011 No. 1 overall pick will remain at Carolinas Medical Center overnight for further observation.
According to the Charlotte Observer, the accident occurred at about 12:50 p.m. ET near Bank of America Stadium. The paper said one of the vehicles involved in the accident overturned.
A picture from the Observer's Twitter page showed Newton conscious and smiling while being examined by medical personnel.
Newton's status for Sunday's contest against Tampa Bay is uncertain. Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo missed one game earlier this season after sustaining a similar injury to his back against Washington on Oct. 27.
Cincinnati, OH (SportsNetwork.com) - The season is officially over for Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict, as the club placed him on injured reserve Tuesday.
The 24-year-old has been sidelined since undergoing knee surgery on Oct. 29 to have loose cartilage removed, after suffering an injury during a game against the Baltimore Ravens three days prior.
At the time, head coach Marvin Lewis said Burfict was likely to return for a Nov. 16 game against New Orleans, but that did not come to pass.
Burfict, who signed a new four-year contract this summer after leading the team in tackles each of his first two seasons, missed two games earlier this year because of concussions and also hurt his neck in a game against Indianapolis one week prior to his knee issue.
The Arizona State product ends 2014 with 29 tackles in five appearances.
In a corresponding roster move, Cincy activated quarterback A.J. McCarron from the reserve/non-football injury list. The Alabama product and rookie suffered a shoulder injury prior to the start of training camp which precluded his return to the field until now. He had been practicing with the club since it was granted a roster exception on Nov. 18.
McCarron threw for 3,063 yards and 28 touchdowns against seven interceptions during his senior season for the Crimson Tide.
Nashville, TN (SportsNetwork.com) - The Tennessee Titans signed veteran offensive lineman Jamon Meredith and placed cornerback Blidi Wreh-Wilson on season-ending injured reserve on Tuesday.
Wreh-Wilson suffered a dislocated shoulder in Tennessee's 36-7 loss to the Giants on Sunday. The 25-year-old compiled 57 tackles, 10 passes defensed and an interception over 11 starts this season.
Meredith, 28, played in four games for Indianapolis this season after appearing in 30 games (20 starts) with Tampa Bay over the previous two seasons.
The six-year veteran has played in 51 games with the Bills, Giants, Steelers, Buccaneers and Colts.
1. Golden State Warriors (18-2)
The Warriors have been too much to handle for anyone in the league. Their endless array of 3-point shooting, led by Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, has advanced into the realm of unguardable under new coach Steve Kerr, and their defense is consistently one of the league’s five most efficient, too.
2. Houston Rockets (16-4)
The Rockets’ record is almost as impressive as how they’ve gotten it. Largely without three starters in Terrence Jones, Dwight Howard and Patrick Beverley, they’ve ridden a shockingly effective defense (featuring the much-improved James Harden) to the most head-turning streak of the young season.
3. Toronto Raptors (16-5)
The Raptors are often cited as less dangerous than they appear because they play in the soft Eastern Conference. But if we’re not respecting their record, then what sort of sense remains in the world? Plus, they’ve got notable wins against the Wizards, Grizzlies, Cavaliers and Suns.
4. Memphis Grizzlies (16-4)
Marc Gasol has gone from great to extra-great this season, and the Grizzlies are better than they’ve ever been. A consummate postseason spoiler, this Memphis squad is facing its best championship odds in franchise history.
5. San Antonio Spurs (15-5)
The Spurs are the Spurs. If they’re not higher on this list by season’s end, you can color me surprised.
6. Portland Trail Blazers (16-4)
Despite the skepticism of many — who thought the Blazers’ 2013-14 surge to be the stuff of one-hit wonders — Portland just keeps winning. It certainly doesn’t hurt that Wesley Matthews is having the season of a lifetime.
7. Cleveland Cavaliers (12-7)
Winners of seven straight, the Cavaliers are slowly turning into the blistering battleship of superstar talent that everyone feared this summer. Expect them to keep climbing these rankings.
8. Los Angeles Clippers (15-5)
Blake Griffin showed the world his improved shooting touch — including one extremely lucky bounce — in his team’s exhilarating overtime victory against the Suns. The more versatile Griffin becomes, the closer his team gets to title-contending status.
9. Washington Wizards (14-6)
If John Wall isn’t in your top-five point guard category, he should be. The Wizards’ improvement is about a lot of things, but none of them are more important than Wall’s continued superstar strides.
10. Atlanta Hawks (14-6)
Unbeknownst to almost everyone, Atlanta has built an offense that should be the delight of basketball nerds everywhere. Their deep array of 3-point shooting and selfless, quick passing around the perimeter has been positively Spurs-ian.
11. Dallas Mavericks (16-6)
Even without great play from newcomer Chandler Parsons, the Mavericks have stepped up considerably in 2014-15. If they weren’t in one of the best conferences in league history, we’d have them higher.
12. Chicago Bulls (12-8)
The Bulls are one of the league’s greatest enigmas. Their question marks exceed well beyond Derrick Rose, too — there are mysterious injuries up and down this roster, including a worrisome issue with Joakim Noah’s knee.
13. Phoenix Suns (12-10)
The Suns, like the Mavericks, are guilty of a crime they never agreed to commit: playing out west. Their thrilling speed and athleticism will be a treat to watch regardless of where they end up in the standings, though.
14. Oklahoma City Thunder (7-13)
The Thunder stand out as an anomaly here — they haven’t much of anything this season. But with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook back, it’s only a matter of time before everyone starts sweating about OKC.
15. Sacramento Kings (11-10)
DeMarcus Cousins is out indefinitely with viral meningitis. Until he gets right, the Kings will have a hard time treading water.
16. Milwaukee Bucks (11-11)
The exciting young Bucks are a great watch with their endless row of long-armed defenders and springy athletes. Maybe coach Jason Kidd can make them a true contender, once he gets them off their training wheels.
17. New Orleans Pelicans (9-10)
Anthony Davis is the best player in the NBA this season, and that’s the only thing saving the Pelicans from the basement. This is a mismatched, oblong roster with serious basketball problems.
18. Miami Heat (9-11)
Dwyane Wade’s health has continued to be a serious problem for Miami — who could still turn into a contender yet again in the East, if their franchise player could simply stay on the floor next to a still-magnificent Chris Bosh.
19. Denver Nuggets (9-12)
After a horrible 1-6 start, the Nuggets were left for dead. They’ve improved since then, but not enough to make any noise in their killer conference.
20. Brooklyn Nets (8-11)
The whirlpool of Nets trade rumors is spinning at faster rates daily, and the team looks dispirited enough on the court to show us that they know it. What will this squad look like at year’s end?
21. Indiana Pacers (7-14)
The Pacers could make gigantic, powerful strides by the end of the year and be beasts of the East yet again, if they get a healthy Paul George back on the wings — a rumored possibility. But until then, there’s not much to see here.
22. Orlando Magic (9-14)
The Magic are fun to watch — unless you really care about them winning. Elfrid Payton, Victor Oladipo, Nikola Vucevic and Co. might be fierce Eastern foes in the coming years. For now? They’re still learning.
23. Boston Celtics (7-12)
The Celtics usually lose, but they never go down easy. If this was a morale ranking and not a power ranking, we could slot them higher. But wins matter in this league, and Boston will continue not to get many until they fill their gaping hole down low.
24. Utah Jazz (5-16)
The Jazz, like the Magic, are a veritable farm system of watchable-but-unseasoned talent. Keep your eyes on them going forward; if any vacancies open up in the West, Dante Exum, Trey Burke, Enes Kanter, Rudy Gobert and Gordon Hayward will be eager and able to grab one.
25. Philadelphia 76ers (2-18)
The Sixers’ record is worse than anyone’s in basketball, but, hey: at least their franchise has a sense of purpose. And promising players, to boot — K.J. McDaniels and Nerlens Noel look like two rookie keepers.
26. New York Knicks (4-18)
Phil Jackson says he’s not happy with his Knicks’ “loser’s mentality,” and who can blame him? Basketball in New York has continued to be more of a comedy than a conquest in 2014-15.
27. Minnesota Timberwolves (4-16)
The Timberwolves are very bad, but at least they have hope on their side — Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, Anthony Bennett and Gorgui Dieng make for a core that a lot of teams would love to build around.
28. Charlotte Hornets (5-15)
The Hornets are, by far, the most disappointing team of the season. Acquiring Lance Stephenson seems to have brought them more problems than answers, and you shouldn’t be surprised if he’s shipped out soon.
29. Los Angeles Lakers (5-16)
All the Lakers have left is intrigue and history. An entertaining stew of personalities — with Kobe at the center — won’t win you anything, though. Here’s to hoping the lure of playing for the purple-and-gold still matters to big free agents this summer, and those after it.
30. Detroit Pistons (3-18)
There’s almost nothing good to say about the Pistons, who haven’t done anything right under new coach and team president Stan Van Gundy. Like the Hornets and Nets, they’re strong candidates to make some trades this winter.
— John Wilmes
With the conference challenges and Thanksgiving tournaments and showcases behind us, most teams have assembled their non-conference resumes, for better or worse.
Thanks to the holidays and finals, the December schedule lets up for many teams around the country, but a handful of squads are facing must-win situations during the next three weeks as they build NCAA Tournament resumes.
Here are 10 teams that need big-time Ws before the calendar flips and conference games begin in January…or be forced to win their conference outright in order to make a run in March.
After the tournament selection committee snubbed SMU last season for lack of quality non-conference opponents, Larry Brown scheduled back-to-back road games against No. 9 Gonzaga and Indiana and played Arkansas at home. Rather than a weak non-conference schedule, SMU has non-conference losses. SMU lost all three contests. The pressure is on as SMU heads to Ann Arbor on the Dec. 20 to play Michigan. The Wolverines would certainly qualify as a quality win, which is more necessary as the Mustangs won’t get much help with the AAC schedule. To pile on, SMU is without big man Markus Kennedy for the rest of the semester. The Mustangs, ranked in the preseason AP top 25, have been without top point guard prospect Emmanuel Mudiay, who bypassed NCAA questions to play professionally in China.
The Tigers’ big non-conference games have come and gone, and they were disastrous. While losing to No. 11 Wichita State is nothing to fuss about, losing to Baylor by 24 and Stephen F. Austin at home are black eyes. Josh Pastner and Co. have an opportunity to improve their resume slightly with a win over Oklahoma State on the Dec. 13. But with one of the country’s worst offenses, ranking 270th in points per game (62.8), 277th in assists per game (10.8), 228th in field goal percentage (.421), and 125th in KenPom’s offensive efficiency rating, and the Tigers could be another reason that the AAC becomes a one-bid league come March.
NC State will face Tennessee, No. 22 West Virginia, Louisiana Tech and Cincinnati in a row, with three of those games being played in Raleigh. That stretch of games provides the Wolfpack ample opportunity to improve their resume and avenge a loss to Purdue in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge before taking on the depth and refined offenses of the ACC once January rolls around. Mark Gottfried must be creative to get looks for players other than junior guard Trevor Lacey, who is carrying the offensive load thus far.
The reigning national champions are reeling after a shocking 45-44 loss to Yale last weekend in Storrs. The AAC won’t be doing the Huskies any favors in terms potential quality wins in conference. UConn has two more chances for solid non-AAC wins when they play No. 2 Duke in the Meadowlands and travel to Florida. Outside of Ryan Boatright, UConn’s offense is struggling, ranking 279th in points per game (62.0), 302nd in assists per game (10.2), and 217th in field goal percentage (42.6).
K-State’s best chances for a significant non-conference victory are long gone. Two of the Wildcats early losses are to .500 teams who won’t make the tournament (Long Beach State, Tennessee), and another by 23 to an average Pitt squad. Luckily for K-State, the Big 12 is flush with adequate teams that could beat up one another in January and February, giving a tournament bid to the Wildcats in March. Wins against Texas A&M (Dec. 20) in Kansas City, and Georgia (Dec. 31) in the Octagon will lightly polish a rusty non-conference performance thus far for K-State.
Things won't get much easier for the Orange after losing two in a row to Michigan and No. 24 St. John’s when they host Louisiana Tech (Dec. 14) and travel to Philly to play old Big East rival No. 7 Villanova (Dec. 20). By the time ACC conference play starts, Jim Boeheim’s team could have five losses on its resume already. Boeheim will have to work his magic to kick start his lackluster offense that boasts just two players scoring in doubles figures. With the addition of Louisville, the new ACC will be unforgiving this season. A win against Jay Wright’s Wildcats could be just the spark the Orange need.
The 83.9 points per game Illinois is scoring thus far is deceiving. According to KenPom, Illinois has the 279th worst non-conference schedule, which stings considering they lost to the only ranked team on their schedule thus far (Miami). The Illini's biggest challenge comes tonight in Madison Square Garden when they play No. 7 Villanova, followed by two “neutral” court games in Chicago against Oregon (Dec. 13) and in Kansas City against Missouri (Dec. 20). The two games on the back end are winnable for the Illini, but if they want to go dancing in March, Illinois will have to do some damage in the Big Ten.
The Bruins lost three players to the NBA in June and return just three players that provided any significant minutes last season. So far, that inexperience has hurt UCLA as the Bruins have lost their only two games against Power Five conference teams (Oklahoma, North Carolina). Things get tougher when No. 9 Gonzaga comes to Pauley Pavilion (Dec. 13) and when the Bruins travel to Chicago to play No. 1 Kentucky. UCLA is likely to make the Big Dance, but wins against top ranked non-conference teams could make a noticeable difference in seeding, especially since the Pac-12 will be tougher to navigate than in recent years.
It’s still too early to say the Havoc hasn’t lived up to the hype, but VCU finds itself in an interesting position. Losing to No. 7 Villanova on a neutral court and No. 6 Virginia aren’t bad losses, but losing to Old Dominion is. Going forward, the ball is in VCU’s court as they host No. 23 Northern Iowa (Dec. 13), and Belmont (Dec. 16), before traveling to Cincinnati (Dec. 20). These are all winnable games for the Rams. If VCU can’t capitalize, it could spell trouble if they don’t win the Atlantic 10 outright. How would the committee view a VCU team with no major out of conference wins, with six or more losses, and didn’t win the A-10? Probably not too favorably. It’s a long shot but still capable of coming to fruition. Shaka Smart had better have his team on point for the next couple of weeks.
The Athlon preseason No. 10 Gators were talked about as a possible challenger to Kentucky. That seems like crazy talk at this point as Florida hovers at .500. After losing to Miami, Georgetown, North Carolina and Kansas, Florida could be entering conference play without a significant non-conference win. As of now, Florida isn’t scheduled to play a ranked team until they host No. 1 Kentucky on Feb. 7. Billy Donovan’s Gators play Wake Forest (Dec. 20) in Sunrise, Fla., then travel to Tallahassee for a meeting with Florida State (Dec. 30) and then back home to host UConn (Jan. 3). None of which would be a true signature win, but the Gators may need to sweep those games to salvage the non-conference schedule.
-By Jacob Rose
Where to start? This one had it all. The Los Angeles Clippers’ breathless 121-120 overtime victory over the Phoenix Suns was the most fun game of the year, at least if the look on Clippers owner Steve Ballmer's face afterwards is any indication.
It included an outstanding performance from Suns point guard Eric Bledsoe, a former Clipper who worked closely with Chris Paul and looked like he had revenge on his mind, as he tallied his first career triple double with 27 points, 16 assists and 11 rebounds, making several key plays down the stretch, including an emphatic block of Paul’s potential game-winning shot at the buzzer to send the game to an extra session.
There was this, too, from Clippers reserve Glen “Big Baby” Davis, who said it all with his face:
Blake Griffin was not about to be outdone by Davis’ gesturing or Bledsoe’s excellence, though. He led all scorers with 45 points on 14-of-24 shooting and deftly baited Suns forward P.J. Tucker (with whom Griffin has a history) into poor decisions in overtime. He also sealed the win with this incredible, unlikely buzzer beater:
The shot of the year, for the game of the year.
Clippers-Suns also proved to be yet another testament to how great the Western Conference is this year. Watching the two teams upstage each other with great offensive movement and execution, over and over again, was dizzying, and it seemed almost unfair that either team could lose the game after such incredible performances.
And Bledsoe showing up Chris Paul was the stuff of instant NBA classics. It was the consummate Padawan-meets-Jedi showdown, and now we know not to miss another instant of any of their future standoffs. A seven-game series between these teams might be too fun to survive — keep your fingers crossed.
— John Wilmes
It takes a lot to impress the King, but the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge can do the job. Prince William and Kate Middleton traveled to Brooklyn Monday, meeting both commissioner Adam Silver and LeBron James as they took in the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 110-88 victory over the Brooklyn Nets.
“They brought luck to us," James said. "It was their first time watching a basketball game, so it was an honor that I would be that guy they decided they wanted to watch.”
Teammate Kevin Love said the royals’ presence took him out of his game somewhat — at least for a moment. He was at the free-throw line when the pair arrived through the Barclays Arena tunnel during the third quarter. "It was a little bit more of a distraction than people waving towels or waving whatever it is that they do," Love said. "Yes, it was big distraction. I just tried to make the second shot and it ended up being about a foot short."
Somehow, Will and Kate were a bigger story than the presence of Brooklyn’s resident power couple:
Lionel Hollins called the meeting of Jay-Z/Beyonce/Duke/Dutchess “American royalty, British royalty.”— devin kharpertian (@uuords) December 9, 2014
After the game, James and his new British friends shared some gifts:
As far as basketball is concerned, the Cavs looked good playing it — which is becoming a trend these days, after the team’s rocky 5-7 start. Behind 18 points from James, 19 from Love and surprise 26-point outing from the mercurial Dion Waiters, Cleveland ran their current winning streak up to seven games and moved into first place in the Central Division.
Despite a historically powerful Western Conference, Cleveland lately seems well on its way to being the team who could pull the Larry O’Brien championship trophy east of the Mississippi.
— John Wilmes
Ohio State slammed the door shut on the Wisconsin Badgers 59-0 to take the title in this year’s Big Ten Conference Championship. The Buckeyes were led by sophomore quarterback Cardale Jones filling in for injured starter J.T. Barrett.
OSU will play against No. 1 Alabama on New Year’s day in the Sugar Bowl as the No. 4 team in the Legends Poll.
Alabama took care of business and beat Missouri 42-17 in the SEC Conference Championship game in Atlanta. They received 12 first place votes and maintained the top spot in the Legends Poll.
Out West Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota dismantled Arizona 51-13 to win the Pac-12 Conference Championship and avenge the only loss suffered earlier this season. The Ducks held steady at No. 2.
Florida State nipped Georgia Tech 37-35 to win the ACC Conference Championship. The Seminoles were the only undefeated team this year at 13-0 and received the only other first place vote. They kept their No. 3 ranking and will play against Oregon on New Year’s Day in the other semifinal game at the Rose Bowl. The National Championship game will feature the winner of the Sugar Bowl against the winner of the Rose Bowl to be played on January 12, 2015 in Arlington, Texas at the AT&T Stadium.
TCU, Baylor, Mississippi State and Michigan State filled out the fifth through the eighth spots in the Legends Poll Top 8.
|3||Florida State (1)||13-0||79||3|
To see the individual votes by coach, visit the Legends Poll.
Marcus Mariota, quarterback for the University of Oregon, has won the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award, presented annually to the nation’s top quarterback who best exemplifies character, scholastic and athletic achievement.
After 14 weeks of play, Mariota completed 229 of 334 passes for 3,470 yards (69-percent completion rate), throwing for 48 touchdowns with just two interceptions and a QB rating of 190.2. The Honolulu-native led the Pac-12 QBs in rushing yards with 636. Mariota ranks fifth in the nation in total offense, averaging 342.2 yards per game and he has been selected as the Pac-12 offensive player of the year.
“Marcus is as humble and gracious off the field as he is poised and electrifying on it,” said Andy McNamara, Assistant Athletic Director for the University of Oregon. “He is an exceptional ambassador for not just the football program, but the University of Oregon as a whole.”
Candidates for the Golden Arm Award – which has been presented at the end of each college football season since 1987 – must be college seniors or fourth-year juniors on schedule to graduate with their class. In addition to the accomplishments on the field, candidates are judged on their character, citizenship, scholastic achievement, and leadership qualities.
Mariota’s achievements will be honored Dec. 12 during the 2014 Golden Arm Award ceremony, held at The Embassy Suites Baltimore (Maryland) Inner Harbor Hotel and Grand Historic Venue. NFL Hall of Famer, former Baltimore Colt, and the great Johnny Unitas’ favorite target – Raymond Berry – will deliver the keynote remarks at this year’s event.
Past Golden Arm Award winners include: Peyton Manning (Tennessee, 1997); Carson Palmer (USC, 2002); Eli Manning (Ole Miss, 2003); Matt Ryan (Boston College, 2007); Colt McCoy (Texas, 2009); and Andrew Luck (Stanford, 2011).
Proceeds from the event help support the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Educational Foundation, Inc. The Foundation provides financial assistance to underprivileged and deserving young scholar-athletes throughout Maryland and Kentucky.
“Strained right knee” is a mysterious term even for medical experts, and certainly so for the average, Houston Rockets-loving person. But that’s about all Dwight Howard’s franchise has revealed about his extended absence, which has now reached nine games.
When asked about the All-Star’s status, coach Kevin McHale shed at least a little light when he said D12’s return was still a long ways off. Here’s Houston Chronicle beat writer Jonathan Feigen with the word:
“While discussing Pat Beverley’s return from a strained left hamstring, Rockets coach Kevin McHale said ‘It would be nice to get everybody else back, but that won’t be happening any time soon.’
"McHale had previously said he hoped that Howard, who has been out since Nov. 19, might be ready to return in time to play on the Rockets’ road trip Wednesday and Thursday to play Golden State and Sacramento. Asked if he had a better feel for Howard’s timetable, he said again, ‘He won’t be back anytime soon.’
"‘He will not be coming back any time soon, either,’ McHale said. ‘You might as well ask me about the weather next week. I have no idea. Partly cloudy, baby.’”
The Rockets have performed admirably without Howard, going 7-2 since he’s been gone. When we consider that Beverley’s also been out of action for much of the year — and Terrence Jones, too — the Rockets’ recent run becomes almost unbelievable. They’re the No. 2 team in a historically difficult Western Conference, and they’re doing it largely without three starters.
It’s high time James Harden — once beloved, now an elite NBA heel — gets a tip of the hat, along with McHale. Those two have led a crew of forgotten, overlooked talent (including Donatas Motiejunas, Jason Terry, Trevor Ariza, Isaiah Canaan and rookie Tarik Black) into one of the best records in the league at 16-4, and they should be getting more attention for MVP and Coach of the Year considerations, respectively.
— John Wilmes
Kobe Bryant and Rajon Rondo got caught having breakfast in Boston together last week. Pancakes, before a 113-96 victory by Rondo’s Celtics, then led to speculation about why the two were meeting. But Bryant insists the meal was not a recruiting pitch to the four-time All-Star.
"No, we get along extremely well," Bryant said Friday, as reported by ESPN’s Baxter Holmes. ”We see the game in a similar fashion in terms of our aggressiveness and mindset. It was good to get together with him.” Bryant also referred to the sitdown as “a basketball geek conversation.”
And the notion of Rondo going to L.A. doesn’t seem too likely anyway.
Although the Celtics’ starting point guard is on the last year of his contract, and (like Bryant) doesn’t seem to enjoy losing a lot of games with a young, rebuilding team all that much — and although trade rumors about Rondo have persisted since last season — it’s hard to believe one of the game’s most obsessively competitive players is going to jump from one loser to another.
The Lakers aren’t in any better shape than the Celtics, of course. In fact, their standing is much worse, given that they're at the bottom of the suffocating Western Conference:
Fascinating as the Bryant-Rondo combo may be, it’s not one we should anticipate. The Lakers could try selling Rondo on the Hollywood brand, the future, post-Kobe keys to the superstar cockpit of what’s still Tinseltown’s team — as they did to Carmelo Anthony — but how much will it mean without the right roster?
Where Rondo does eventually end up is a mystery. But if he chooses glamour, money, or Kobe over some good old-fashioned title contention, it’ll be out of character for him.
— John Wilmes
Things are going okay for Kyrie Irving this week. Not only did his inaugural signature Nike shoe just debut, but his Cleveland Cavaliers have now won five straight after defeating the New York Knicks last night, 90-87. Irving played no small part in the contest, leading all scorers with 37 on a hyper-efficient 12-of-18 from the field.
This isn’t the first time Irving’s been a shining bullet on Broadway. About two years ago, Kyrie donned a sinister-looking black face mask after returning from injury and wowed the Madison Square Garden crowd with a 41-point performance, rife with clutch shots down the stretch. The Cavs lost that one, 103-102, but Irving’s message of superstar potential was sent loudly and clearly.
Today, Irving struggles with the heightened responsibilities his new super squad and max contract bring. The caveat to his most recent Big Apple bonanza is that he only tallied two assists in the game — he had zero until the fourth quarter, when he caught LeBron James all alone down the court for a pivotal breakaway dunk.
Kyrie has to learn not to over-indulge his appetite for show-stopping isolation basketball, even if he plays with such efficiency, and even if he’s the very best in the game at the art of hero ball — and even if it’s breathtaking to observe. As Cleveland’s starting point guard and primary ball-handler, Irving spins the wheel of one of the most impressive offensive vehicles in modern NBA memory, and he has yet to figure out how to maximize it.
The Cavs should not be eking games out against the pitiful Knicks, and Kevin Love — a power forward who enjoyed historically rich productivity with the Minnesota Timberwolves last year — shouldn’t look confused about his role on so many nights. The next challenge in Kyrie’s progression is next-level stuff; he's got to learn to use his potent teammates as extensions of himself.
— John Wilmes