Articles By Athlon Sports
This past January, the Atlanta Hawks looked to be leaders of an NBA revolution. Without a superstar or even many years together, they were working from a blueprint of selflessness and intelligence that was all but unbeatable. They put together a 19-game winning streak to go lossless in the month, and rode their mid-season dominance to 60 wins, the most in the Eastern Conference.
Today, many fans may be forgetting all that. The Hawks are merely LeBron James’ latest victim, after he and his Cavaliers swept them out of the conference finals and sent them home for the summer.
Even before Cleveland snuffed out their flame, though, Atlanta had looked like a shadow of their regular-season selves this spring. Injuries piled up for them quickly in the postseason. Some of them were bad enough to take players out for the year (Kyle Korver, Thabo Sefolosha), while the rest of them were just making their active players worse (DeMarre Carroll, Paul Millsap, Al Horford, Mike Scott).
Some may take the Hawks’ swift exit as a referendum on their formula. In at least one way, this is probably true: If nothing else, Atlanta peaked far too early. Had that brilliant team in January been up against LeBron, we would have been watching a terrific version of playoff basketball. But the Hawks didn’t have the resolve or stamina to keep up the blistering pace they’d set.
What this loss doesn’t do is prove that you need a superstar to go to the Finals. Had the Hawks played well, there’d be an argument there — but the performance they put in was an iteration of team basketball that lands well below the standard they’d set for themselves. Now, they face an uncertain future together.
Carroll and Millsap are both free agents this summer. Many have assumed both will be back to keep the Hawks’ front five together, because of the friendliness and cohesion thats visible among this cast. But neither player has ever made the kind of money that multiple suitors will show them this July, so we’ll have to wait and see how they react when that happens.
— John Wilmes
The 2015 college football season is still a few months away, but it’s never too early to project how the upcoming year will play out on the field. Athlon Sports has released its top 25 for this season and continues the countdown to September with a look at the teams ranked No. 26-128.
In the 26-40 range, there’s no shortage of intriguing teams or programs that could push for a spot among the top 25 by the end of 2015. Florida, Michigan and Nebraska are three programs to watch with first-year coaches, while Missouri just missed the top 25 after winning back-to-back SEC East titles. Oklahoma State is due for a rebound year after finishing 7-6 last year.
Note: Ranking is where team is projected to finish at the end of the 2015 season
College Football 2015 Projected Rankings: 26-40
Will Muschamp’s failure to identify an offensive coordinator or quarterback doomed him, leaving new coach Jim McElwain with a program that won just 11 games the past two seasons. The 53-year-old immediately set out to upgrade Florida’s offensive talent and address lagging facilities. Faced with a massive rebuild, McElwain will need time to field an SEC East contender at a school where championships were once the standard.
The Tigers boast solid experience at a majority of units on offense and defense, but they are young at defensive end and ultra-young at receiver, where they must replace all three starters for the second straight year. That seems like a lot to overcome in the battle for a third straight SEC East crown, but suddenly you don’t make much money betting against Pinkel.
28. Oklahoma State
With the loss of 28 seniors leaving an inexperienced cast to try and contend in the Big 12, the 2014 season always figured to be a rebuilding effort. And it played out as such, turning worse when injuries and a lack of depth left the Cowboys exposed.
But quarterback Mason Rudolph’s arrival, both to the lineup and as a key piece to the future, reversed course and momentum. Now there’s talk that Oklahoma State, like TCU a year ago, could rise from seventh place to the top of the Big 12 in 2015.
Nebraska won nine or more games in each of Bo Pelini’s seven seasons as coach. His overall record was 67–27. So Riley can expect to be held to a high standard. But he is considerably more engaging than his predecessor, which probably means there will be some degree of patience during the transition.
The non-conference schedule could be challenging, with an opener at home against BYU and a trip to Miami (Fla.) two weeks later. But the conference schedule is such that nine wins, even in transition, should be possible. Nebraska hasn’t won a conference championship since 1999. Winning one this year would be a stretch, though the Huskers should contend in the Big Ten West if the defense improves.
Arizona has won 26 games in coach Rich Rodriguez’s first three seasons, the most of any three-year period in school history. “I’m not saying we’re ahead of expectations,” says Rodriguez, “because we need to get deeper and tougher.” This is Rodriguez’s top group at Arizona, but it must play 12 weeks in succession without a bye.
Utah is getting closer. In their fourth season of Pac-12 membership, the Utes posted their first winning record (5–4) in conference play and competed favorably against nearly every opponent. Coach Kyle Whittingham likes the program’s trajectory entering its fifth season in the Pac-12. “We’ve taken a step forward every year with our depth and talent on the roster, one through 85,” he says. “It’s still a work in progress … but we feel like last year we made a lot of headway.”
In 2015, the Utes hope to overcome a lack of experience at receiver and in the secondary while counting on their senior quarterback to play more consistently as he completes an adventurous career.
32. Penn State
The Lions have addressed their glaring weakness, building depth and experience along a patchwork offensive line. They’ll still be young up front, with only one senior on the projected two-deep (two if you count incoming graduate transfer Kevin Reihner), but the line probably won’t be as big of a liability. On the opposite side of the ball, they return seven starters from what was, statistically, the Big Ten’s best defense last season.
Of Penn State’s six losses last fall, only two were by more than a touchdown. If the defense holds strong and Hackenberg gets a chance to show what he can do, it’s not hard to imagine the Lions turning a few of those close losses into close wins in 2015.
Charlie Strong is still rebuilding in many ways after replacing his offense as well as two assistant coaches (Strong fired receivers coach Les Koenning and tight ends coach Bruce Chambers) after one season. Strong brought in former Oklahoma co-OC Jay Norvell as receivers coach, and Traylor replaced Chambers.
The defense will undoubtedly be the strength again this year. Special teams must improve. But it will be the direction of an offense that averaged an anemic 21.4 points per game in 2014 that will determine the fate of the Longhorns this season.
With a schedule that includes road games against potential top-10 teams Notre Dame, TCU and Baylor, the quarterback play has to lead a turnaround in 2015 or the results could be very similar to last year’s 6–7.
If new coach Jim Harbaugh can keep Michigan’s offense from stepping on land mines while showing improvement week to week, the defense is good enough to push the Wolverines to at least eight victories. But if Michigan doesn’t find a quarterback who can protect the football, or get a serious push from its offensive line, the team may struggle to make a huge leap in Year 1 of the Harbaugh era.
35. Virginia Tech
Virginia Tech is 22–17 overall and a .500 team in the league since 2012, prompting the uncomfortable conversation about how much longer revered coach Frank Beamer will walk the sideline in Blacksburg. A return to prominence would quash that talk, and with 16 returning starters, including a promising group of up-and-coming playmakers on offense and Foster’s usual great defense, Virginia Tech has a chance to challenge in the Coastal Division again. Another middling season, however, will only intensify the chatter that perhaps it’s time for Beamer to pass the torch.
36. West Virginia
With the exception of what seems to be a quirky 2013 campaign, coach Dana Holgorsen continues to crank out fine offenses. Pair that with what should be a solid defense — especially if you believe Tony Gibson, the unit’s coordinator — and the Mountaineers look like a solid a bowl team that isn’t quite good enough to contend for a conference title.
37. South Carolina
“Sometimes after you go 11–2 three years in a row, some people just assume, ‘We’re going to keep on winning,’ but it didn’t quite happen that way,” Spurrier says. “We were not a real strong team. We are by a long way not a finished product, but we’ve got time.”
The Gamecocks will be breaking in a new quarterback and rebuilding a defense that lost its morale along with a lot of games last year, so the time had better be well spent.
Louisville has lost considerable talent and undergone a coaching staff change over the last two seasons. Those are warning signs the program could take a step back in 2015, especially with a schedule that includes Auburn and Clemson in two of the first three games. The Cardinals need a quarterback to emerge, receivers to step forward, three new offensive linemen to step up and a rebuilt secondary to deliver to keep winning big. That’s a lot to ask.
39. NC State
NC State improved its win total by five games from 2013 to ’14. The Wolfpack hope to make another jump in 2015 with a veteran quarterback and seven starters back on defense. Another five-game improvement might be asking too much, but coach Dave Doeren won’t put a ceiling on the program’s progress.
The key to moving the momentum forward again will be replacing main parts up front on both sides of the ball. But with the return of quarterback Jacoby Brissett and a host of new talented recruits supplementing an already deep backfield, the Wolfpack have an opportunity to at least push Atlantic Division powers Florida State and Clemson.
After two consecutive 9–4 seasons and two bowl losses under Tuberville, some believe UC is running in place. The Bearcats did share the AAC title last year, but they lack a signature win in Tuberville’s brief tenure. Tuberville turns 61 in September, and he has not had a team finish in the final AP top 25 since 2007 (Auburn). The 2014 Bearcats don’t look like a top 25 team, either, but they should be considered the favorite in the East Division of the expanded American Athletic Conference. There are some issues on defense, but the offense, led by Kiel, will put UC in position to win eight or nine games once again.
The NBA’s head coach carousel looked like it might wait for Tom Thibodeau’s fate to be known, before it started turning. Now, not so much — suitor teams like the Orlando Magic and New Orleans Pelicans appear to be moving on in their searches, all but refusing to give the Chicago Bulls draft compensation for the right to Thibodeau’s contract.
The Magic seem to be on the verge of locking down the beta version of Thibodeau, in Scott Skiles. Skiles, who also coached the Bulls in addition to the Milwaukee Bucks, is known for a defense-first philosophy and an intense vision that’s suited for a young, eager roster like Orlando’s. In Elfrid Payton and Victor Oladipo, they have a backcourt that’s a good coach away from providing some of the best first-line defense in the league.
Many Magic fans will groan at the hiring, if it becomes official — Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports reports that Skiles “has clearly separated himself in the process.” There’s a rightful skepticism about Skiles, as his exits from Milwaukee and Chicago were both ugly, and his style has proven to wear on rosters over time. The ideal scenario for the long-term may be to only keep Skiles on board for two or three seasons, and find the more appropriate man once the Magic are ready to take the next step.
Regardless of what could happen in 2017 or 2018, though, the Magic are in an exciting place right now. Skiles doesn’t inspire the kind of galvanizing feel as Thibodeau might, but he has a history of success and will likely help this exciting young roster compete for postseason berths, and perhaps as soon as next season. If the Eastern Conference playoffs have taught us anything, it’s that things on the Atlantic half of the bracket are more than open for a new contender.
— John Wilmes
Ohio State linebacker Chris Spielman was one of the most feared linebackers of his day, winning the 1987 Lombardi Award and earning consensus All-America honors in 1986-87. The decorated recruit made an immediate impression as a freshman in 1984, with a style described as “brutality” after his debut against Oregon State.
Athlon Sports spoke with Spielman before his sophomore season in this piece from our archives — two seasons before he was an All-American.
Originally published in Athlon’s Big Ten 1985 Annual
By Dick Fenlon
It bothers Ohio State linebacker Chris Spielman to be called a sadist. But not enough to change his mind about football.
“At this level, it’s a game of survival,” says Spielman. “You hit your hardest, or you take a chance of getting hurt. I hit to put somebody out of the game, and I would expect the same thing from him. It’s clean, but when you hit somebody you try to knock him so he doesn’t get up. I don’t care what anybody says, it’s part of the game.”
Speaking to reporters in the locker room after the first game of his college career, Spielman put it even more bluntly. “When I hit somebody,” he told them, “and I see him hurting, just grimacing, it sends something through me that’s hard to explain. A bolt. A charge. You play to hurt somebody.”
Thoughts like those — frank, unfettered, uncensored — can get a guy in trouble. Talk about putting somebody out of the game, of hurting him, and a lot of minds turn immediately to players who have been put out of the game permanently. Chris Spielman says that’s not at all what he means, but when he volunteered his football philosophy after Ohio State’s opener with Oregon State last season, a general columnist in a Columbus newspaper concluded that there was something decidedly wrong with his approach to the game.
“Is This Youth Or Brutality?” the headline on Mike Harden’s column in The Columbus Dispatch asked. “It may be folly to seek reason and compassion from a game which is comprised, as Roy Blount once said, of grown men flying through the air in plastic hats,” wrote Harden. “That fact notwithstanding, Spielman’s words still had a distinctly ruthless, if not sadistic, ring to them.”
“It bothered me a little bit because I think I am a religious person,” says Spielman. “But that’s his opinion. Freedom of the press, I guess.”
And how, you may wonder, did Spielman come by his football philosophy. “I grew up with it,” he says. “I never had any kids my own age to play football with. They were all my brother’s age. When we played ball, I used to get the heck beat out of me. After a while, I didn’t like it. But if I wanted to keep on playing with older kids, I knew I had to be as tough as they were. So I just kept hitting as hard as could, and I wouldn’t back down for nothing. I’ve always been that way. It’s something you’re born with and grow up with.”
Spielman is the son of a football coach who is now a junior high school principal. He’s the younger brother of Rick Spielman, a junior linebacker at Southern Illinois. Chris grew up in Canton, Ohio, and played high school football in Massillon, where the sport itself takes on overtones of a quasi-religious nature.
When Spielman arrived at Ohio State, he was accompanied by a reputation uncommon even for Massillon blue chippers. Coach Earle Bruce said he was the best high school player he had ever seen. And everybody knew he was tough as iron.
Spielman had started every game at Massillon High and played both ways — as fullback and linebacker. Parade magazine named him the top high school linebacker in the country in 1983. Selected as the All-American Boy football player and pictured on the side of a zillion boxes of Wheaties, he stared at America from the shelves of every supermarket across the land.
When Spielman turned 17 on Oct. 11, 1983, he received more than 400 birthday cards from coaches and schools. That astounded even the football-hip Spielman. “Guys who didn’t know me from Adam were saying, ‘How are you doing?’” he says.
He visited five schools — Penn State, UCLA, Miami of Florida, Michigan and Ohio State. It came down to the last two. Some schools said he might be able to make it as a fullback, if that’s what he wanted, but he had no delusions about that.
“I think I was just an average back,” Spielman says. “If we needed a couple of yards, I’d say, ‘Give me the ball,’ and I’d put my head down and go.” But he know that average wouldn’t be good enough in college. “And I’d rather be the hitter than the hittee. It’s less painful.”
Naturally, Bruce was ecstatic when Spielman signed on. Then, in the Ohio High School North-South All-Star game after graduation, he suffered the first injury he could remember, an inversion sprain of his left ankle. He reinjured it in preseason practice. When Ohio State trainer Billy Hill handed Spielman the yellow slip-on that players not sound enough to take part in full practice wear and insisted he wear it for the day, he literally threw it back at him. Only grudgingly did he finally tuck it into his waist.
Even with no particular connotation, yellow is hardly Spielman’s favorite hue. “I’m glad to see you back,” Bruce wisecracked the next day. “I thought we changed our colors.”
By this time, Spielman had gained something of a reputation among older teammates. He wasn’t just the freshman linebacker with the big reputation and his mug on a cereal box. He was the gung-ho, flaky kid who just wouldn’t ease up, even in practice.
“They think I’m a little weird,” admitted Spielman at the time. “When I’m on the field, I’m weird. When I’m not, I’m just a normal 18-year-old freshman.”
When the Oregon State opener arrived, Spielman was beside himself. Not starting the first game of his life was bad enough. Getting in for only two plays in the first half was worse.
Finally, with Ohio State trailing, Spielman was inserted to blitz Oregon State quarterback Ricky Greene. In less than a half, Spielman had five tackles, five assists, two tackles for a loss, one sack, one forced fumble — and one victory put on ice. He was voted Ohio State’s Defensive Player of the Game. His career was on fast-start.
It didn’t stay in that gear for long. Spielman started the next two games, against Washington State and Iowa, but in the first quarter of a 45-26 rout of Iowa, he tore ligaments in his right ankle.
“It was a nightmare,” says Spielman. “I thought I had the strongest ankles in the world, and I never even taped them in high school. I was crushed. I didn’t know what to do. I sat out three weeks, and I told myself that if I had to crawl, I was going to play the next game against Michigan State.”
One of the student managers taped his ankles. Tight. If the tape had been around his neck it would have strangled him. Spielman figured that if the tape was tight enough, it would numb the pain, but by the time the game started, he could hardly walk. “Like a dumb, silly kid, I didn’t tell anybody.” he says. “I told them I was feeling great. Pretty dumb, huh?”
Pretty dumb. Three plays into the game, a Michigan State tackle landed on the sore ankle and he was out again. When the regular season ended a month later, Spielman was a part-time player, and with 12 tackles and 18 assists, ranked no better than 13th on the Ohio State hit list.
When the Rose Bowl game against Southern California began, he was still a substitute, but by this time, both of his ankles had had time to heal. He was also mentally ready.
“I wanted to play so bad, and I was determined to play the best game of my life,” Spielman says. “I don’t know if I did, and I hated losing, but my consolation was that I was satisfied with my performance.”
He had 12 unassisted tackles and three assists, and the 103,000 fans in the Pasadena gulch and a nationwide TV audience got an eyeful of just how good he can be when healthy.
Offensively for Ohio State this season, all eyes will be on senior tailback Keith Byars as he goes for the Heisman Trophy. Many of them will be on the 6-2, 225-pound linebacker Chris Spielman in his sophomore season.
“I set my goals high, both for me and the team,” he says. “For the team, I want to go back to the Rose Bowl and win, go 12-0 and be No. 1. For me, I’d like to be All-Big Ten.”
What about shooting for All-American?
Obviously Spielman is a first-things-first kind of guy. “In my junior year,” says Spielman. “I’d like to be an All-American. I think with a lot of hard work and experience I can be.”
After the 1995 season, Ohio State tackle Orlando Pace had only scratched the surface of his potential — and at that point he was already a Lombardi Award winner and blocker for a Heisman Trophy recipient. Pace would finish his career as a two-time unanimous All-American, a Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, a top-four finisher for the Heisman Trophy and a likely Pro Football Hall of Famer.
Athlon Sports featured Pace prior to his 1996 season when he first grew into his reputation as “The Pancake Man.”
Originally published in Athlon’s 1996 Big Ten Annual
By Dick Fenlon
When asked to imagine himself on the other side of the ball, as a defensive lineman looking into the eyes of the renowned Pancake Man, Ohio State offensive tackle Orlando Pace wonders what ploy, what diversion, what marvelous feat of athleticism would be needed to avoid being flattened by the best interior offensive lineman in the country.
“If I’m across from me,” he says, “I’m thinking, do I want to bull rush? Or maybe I’ll fake him? It’s hard to analyze. Lining up against me? That would be a challenge, definitely.”
Pace, a 6-6, 330-pounder who looks as big without shoulder pads as he does with them (maybe they came with the body, installed at the factory, right off the assembly line), speaks so softly you have to lean close to hear him.
“Off the field I am calm,” the very large man whispers. “On the field, I have a little different demeanor. When I go out and play, I try and kill them (opposing defenders). It’s the aggression you have to take with you when you play big-time football.”
Pace plays football so well that the selectors for the Lombardi Award (presented to the outstanding college lineman) passed over worthy upperclassmen to give the award to an offensive tackle just two years off the high school field in Sandusky, Ohio. That move surprised the first sophomore to win the Lombardi in its 26-year history that he had to revise his own tentative awards schedule.
“Just before they awarded the Lombardi, they announced Outland (outstanding interior lineman),” says Pace, “and I didn’t win that one (it went to UCLA senior offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden). So I’m sitting at the awards banquet real relaxed. And I’m thinking, ‘Well, if (Ogden wins the Lombardi, too) I can win it next year, and the year after that.’ When they called my name, it really shocked me. It means a lot to me. It shows me where I stand among linemen. It tells me I did something in history.”
So maybe there’ll be a repeat, or even a three-peat, although, one certainly wouldn’t want to bet on that, not with the scouts from the NFL lusting after him the way a pack of dogs might hunger for 330 pounds of fresh liver.
Or maybe he’ll make a run at the Heisman Trophy, which no interior offensive lineman, being perforce faceless, has ever won.
OK, so the odds on that off the board. So what? As Pace says, “I can say I’ve got a piece of Eddie George’s.”
Believe it. Because without Pace’s pancaking, there would have been no Heisman for Ohio State’s senior tailback last season. George ran past the opposition, both on and off the field and in the balloting, but he wasn’t alone. Much of the time, it was Pace opening the way. or setting the pace. In a 41-3 win over Illinois, George rushed for a school-record 314 yards. Not coincidentally, in that game Pace had 10 pancake blocks.
But ask Joe Hollis, Ohio State’s offensive coordinator, if he can come up with the definitive Pace play or series or game, and he can’t do it. He doesn't point to anything that happened in the Illinois game or any other game in Pace’s two seasons as a starter. Instead, he shakes his head.
“If you ask me about Orlando Pace, I wouldn’t say, for instance, let’s have a look at the Notre Dame game. I’d tell you to go in and pick out a game. You wouldn’t be in there very long. The other day, the coaches from Eastern Kentucky came to visit, and we were looking at the Iowa film. There’s (backup tailback) Pepe Pearson going 50 or 60 yards to the 2. But what catches your eye when you see this 5-11, 195 pound tailback going up the hash is this huge tackle matching him stride for stride.”
What did the visiting coaches have to say about that? “They were amazed,” according to Hollis.
Ohio State’s staff has been amazed ever since watching its first film of Pace as a high school junior. That season (1992), 6-5, 315-pound Korey Stringer was making his own mark as a Buckeye offensive tackle, starting in six straight games and earning Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors. The next two years, Stringer was an All-American. After his junior season, he opted for the NFL and was a first-round selection, 24th overall, by the Minnesota Vikings. The chances of finding another talent like him seemed impossible.
And yet, says Hollis, “I thought immediately that he looks like another Korey Stringer. By the time Stringer was a high school senior, there was a unanimous thought among the OSU staff: ‘If we can get him to come to Ohio State, we project him as a starter in his first year.’”
Pace, athletic enough despite his girth to start and average 18 points for a Sandusky High basketball team that went to the regional semifinals before losing in Ohio’s high school final, played the usual games in keeping football recruiters out of his hair.
“I’d answer the phone and tell them I wasn’t home,” he says. “It was difficult. I’d be talking to one coach and I’d have a call waiting, and I’d have to make a choice right there.”
But the most important choice was fairly easy.
“I had it narrowed down to Ohio State or Michigan pretty early,” he says, “and one reason I came to Ohio State was Korey. I came in the summer and he kind of took me under his wing. What better thing for a young player to do but play under a great player the first year? I learned a lot from him. It was a great thing for me.”
But Pace didn’t play under him, he played on the same starting unit with him. He became the first freshman to start an entire season for Ohio State, 13 games and 322 minutes, third-highest among offensive players.
“We started with Fresno State (in the Kickoff Classic),” says Pace, “and once I got myself relaxed, it was just like an ordinary game, except that the guys were bigger and stronger. What you’ve got to do, I found, is uplift your level to their level.”
It’s been a totally uplifting experience. Pace followed in Stringer’s footsteps in 1994, becoming the Big Ten’s Freshman of the Year, and again last year he was named a unanimous All-American.
Another Buckeye offensive tackle blazed an even greater trail in 1973. That year, John Hicks won both the Lombardi and Outland trophies and finished second to Penn State’s John Cappelletti in the run for the Heisman.
As far as Pace is concerned, as the old saying goes, here’s a man who was big when was still little. By the time he was in junior high school, Pace stood 6-4 and weight 275 pounds. Back then, he though he’d grow up to be a basketball player. But by the time he was starting on the line for Sandusky as a high school sophomore, he knew that football would be his route to fame. And while some might equate working in the trenches with hard labor, he has a refreshing outlook.
“Football is fun,” he says. “Right now it’s to a point that it’s extremely fun. During camp you might say to yourself, ‘Boy, I hate football.’ But once the game starts and you’re out in front of 90,000-plus people doing something you like, it’s one of the greatest feelings in the world.”
Maybe it’s that exuberance, his passing for what he does, that distinguishes this potentially biggest of all big Buckeyes.
“All of the things keep falling in place for Orlando,” says Hollis. “It’s just like a flower that grows and grows and grows. It’s hard for anybody to handle him because he plays so much on the edge of formations and it’s difficult to put people in front of him. He is a dominating player. More than that, he’s a recognized dominating player. It’s easy to go to a game and recognize that in a tailback. But to have gained that much respect and recognition in just two seasons playing where he does, that’s just phenomenal.”
Ohio State’s return to year-in and year-out dominance in the early 2000s was led by the most unlikely of quarterbacks. After a brief audition in 2001, Craig Krenzel became the starting quarterback in 2002. Despite modest numbers, Krenzel led Ohio State to a BCS championship and Fiesta Bowl MVP honors for the Buckeyes’ first national championship in more than 30 years.
After earning instant hero status in Columbus, Krenzel was still the humble Academic All-American when he returned for his senior season in 2003.
Originally published in Athlon Sports’ 2003 Big Ten Preview
By Jeff Rapp
The morning after Ohio State’s stunning victory in the Fiesta Bowl, Ohio State coach Jim Tressel admitted one player got left behind in the excitement. The story would have been funny enough if it were a third-string lineman — “Hey, man, you’re missing the party” — but was downright ironic considering it was Craig Krenzel. After all, the Buckcyes never would have been in position to play for a national title without his heroics.
“We had to send a police car back to get him,” Tressel said of his starting quarterback. “I hope it wasn’t a violation.”
It turns out Tressel either embellished the story or wasn’t aware that Krenzel was able to get a lift back to the team hotel without help from Arizona’s finest.
“I don’t know where he hard that but I got a ride back with my parents,” Krenzel says. “It was a long walk back to the car.”
Apparently nothing makes you more late for the bus than being the centerpiece on a national championship team. Krenzel was part of the on-field celebration, granting interviews and hugging coaches and teammates. He then addressed the media and was ambushed by a well-wisher who lied to a security guard and said he was in the Krenzel family. That fan was none other than Rex Kern, the beloved quarterback of the 1968 Buckeyes, the last Ohio State team to win the title.
As Kern embraced and beamed at Krenzel, the two looked like father and son. It was a moment that harkened back to the glory days. After all, Krenzel had done it the same way as Kern — with poise beyond his years, toughness, smarts and the uncanny ability to make the big play when absolutely necessary.
After the very symbolic passing of the torch with Kern, Krenzel did a national radio show and changed in an empty locker room.
Outside, the Sun Devil Stadium parking lot was still mostly full. That’s because the 60,000 or so Ohio State fans in attendance din’t know what to do after a four-hour double-overtime thriller other than head directly to Mill Avenue for a desert-sized celebration.
The title game compliments of more outstanding defense, clutch play and the gritty performance of No. 16, who outgained teammate Maurice Clarett and the Hurricanes’ Willis McGahee as the game’s leading rusher.
Krenzel was named the game’s Offensive MVP, despite completing just 7-of-21 passes and throwing a pair of interceptions. That’s because he took hit after hit en route to 81 rushing yards and two crucial touchdowns, including the tying score in overtime. Earlier in that session he converted a fourth-and-14 — make that fourth and championship — with a sideline strike to Mike Jenkins. Moments later he threw the infamous pass to Chris Gamble in the end zone on another fourth down that was flagged as defensive interference. Many writers and critics said that the late penalty stole the game from Miami and ruined a great contest.
“It doesn’t matter to me,” Krenzel says. “We ended up with a victory and a national championship. And people around the country that are saying we shouldn’t have won the game because of that call, that’s probably the same people that were saying before the game that we had no chance.”
Krenzel was a main reason there were so many doubters. How in the world could Ohio State beat a superpower like Miami if it couldn’t throw the ball? Krenzel was among the most efficient quarterbacks in the country, but his season stats were rather ordinary. Starting all 14 games in 2002, he completed just 148 passes and managed a little more than 2,000 yards passing. Yet as the wins kept mounting, no one doubted he was the man for the job.
Krenzel had paid his dues to be the starting quarterback, and he wasn’t about to risk losing that privilege by demanding more throws. He had seen firsthand how the kamikaze style of his predecessor and roommate Steve Bellisari had turned Bellisari into a feast-or-famine quarterback that often received the blame during the lean years of 1999-2001.
While Krenzel liked his friend Bellisari, he endured a few sleepless nights wondering if he was ever going to get the chance to try to lead the team. Certainly he didn’t come from Sterling Heights, Mich., and turn down offers from other major programs to be a career backup.
Craig’s brother Brian, who played safety at Duke, says the two spent “many, many nights on the phone” early in Craig’s career. Brian, who won fewer games (13) in four years with the Blue Devils than Craig did last season, often repeated the same advice to his baby brother: Keep your mouth shut, keep working, and believe it will all work out.
“It’s just a motto that my parents instilled in us: Good things happen to good people, but maybe not on the timetable that you want them to happen,” says Brian, a Louisville medical school graduate who is embarking on a career as an orthopedic surgeon.
As a backup to Bellisari, Krenzel played sparingly in seven games in 2000 for head coach John Cooper and spent the 2001 season signaling in plays for Tressel until Bellisari was suspended from the team late in the year. Krenzel played well enough in a home loss to Illinois to earn the start at Michigan, then endeared himself to the Buckeye Nation by calmly directing OSU to its first win in Ann Arbor in 14 years.
Last year, Krenzel clearly earned the job over classmate Scott McMullen and freshman phenoms Justin Zwick and Troy Smith. Then the magic began. Eleven straight completions vs. Kent State. A game-winning, twisting touchdown run at Cincinnati. A pair of backbreaking touchdown passes at Wisconsin. A perfectly tossed, season-saving 37-yard touchdown lob to Jenkins on fourth down in the final minutes at Purdue. A had-to-have scoring march in the final minutes against Michigan.
Things went so well for Krenzel that he told his brother shortly after the Fiesta Bowl: “I think I’m just going to retire. How do you top this?”
Now that very question will gnaw at Krenzel this fall as he tries to lead the Buckeyes back to the promised land in his senior season. If he can pull it off, he will be in very elite company. In fact, since 1980, only one quarterback has led his team to back-to-back national championships — Nebraska’s Tommie Frazier. Many before him have tried and come up short, most recently Miami’s Ken Dorsey.
Yet everywhere Krenzel went during his whirlwind offseason of magazine covers and impromptu autograph sessions, he was asked, “Can you repeat?” The question even came up in Detroit, of all places, as Krenzel was feted in his home state in March as the winner of the Socrates Award for the most outstanding college football player on and off the field. A molecular genetics major with a 3.71 GPA, Krenzel showed up to spring practice a little weary after trying to keep up with his studies and his newfound fame.
“It kind of went fast,” he says of the three-month break. “It seemed like just yesterday that we played. For those of us who have been here for a while, it seems like we’re getting old.”
Krenzel’s roommate, OSU center and fellow senior Alex Stepanovich, said the two talk about their aspirations for 2003. That is when Craig is actually in their apartment. “He’s not around very much. You guys usually have him doing some things or he’s picking up awards and stuff like that,” Stepanovich says. “But we’ve talked about being in more of a leadership role than we were last year at this point. A lot of times the younger guys don’t understand what it takes to do what we did.”
But that doesn’t mean Krenzel plans to boss around his underlings like a Hollywood star. In fact, his teammates see absolutely no change in him.
“He’ll be the same old guy — cool, calm and collected,” Jenkins says. “That’s just the way he is.”
“Craig is a great guy,” adds Stepanovich. “People talk about how smart he is, but I think the great thing about him is that maybe things around him have changed by he stayed the same guy. He stayed Craig and he stayed with what made Craig who he is. He’s the same guy he was before anyone knew he could do what he did.”
Krenzel is getting more respect than ever for his on-the-field exploits, but don’t expect to see a different quarterback on the field in 2003. It should be more of the same, even if it is a little boring.
“If I proved anything, it’s what it takes to win football games,” says Krenzel, who completed 59.4 percent of his passes and was intercepted just seven times last season. “You don’t need the big, flashy numbers. You have to take care of the football, make good decisions and get the team into the right play.
“Personally I just want to get more consistent, more fluid in my mechanics, and just relax a bit and be more comfortable. I also want to improve my decision-making and my reads. We’d like to have more balance this season. It’s going to be fun. There are some guys that can go out and make big plays for us. It’s going to be up to myself to distribute the ball to them and put it where it needs to be.”
Krenzel wore a visor on his helmet in the spring as precaution after having Lasik surgery on his right eye, which is naturally weaker than the left. He hopes the procedure helps him dial in on receivers better this season.
But whether he is asked to run the option like Kern or carve up defenses like Joe Germaine, he always expects one result — victory. A 15-1 record as a starter will do that for you.
“He’s a confident kid,” OSU quarterbacks coach Joe Daniels says. “He had no question he could lead this team. But now he has proven it. That’s the difference for him.”
Tressel adds: “I think he’s obviously carrying himself with more confidence. I think he always believed in himself, but he also felt like he needed to establish that over a period of time. As he looks at things now, he can say, ‘I’ve seen that before.’ When you watch film, I think you see a much more mature, more experienced guy.
“I’ve been really pleased with the way he’s paid special attention to the little things — his footwork and ball placement. A completion isn’t satisfactory to him. He wants the ball put in the right spot.”
Krenzel admits he likes proving detractors wrong as much as anyone else, but that’s not his driving force.
“I don’t think there’s anyone who is a bigger critic of me than myself,” he says. “I’ll go through and watch film and I’m extremely critical of myself in what I do technique-wise, decision-making-wise, just knowing that there are a lot of little things I need to do to get better.
“I guess in that respect I am driven by criticism but it’s more stuff I put on myself.”
Krenzel watches so much film of himself and his upcoming opponent that the OSU video staff makes sure he is the first to receive tapes each week.
“The video people know he’ll probably spend more time than the coaches on it,” Tressel said.
“He’s just an extraordinary kid that’s competitive and wants the ball in his hands. I can’t say enough about Craig Krenzel. He’s a winner.”
He’s also fearless. At 6-4, 225, Krenzel is a big target for oncoming linebackers when he takes off with the ball. Yet he always pops up no matter how vicious the hit, including what looked like a near decapitation by Miami hit man Jonathan Vilma in the Fiesta Bowl.
“He’s tough,” Stepanovich says. “He’s run for a lot of first downs for us and sometimes he stands back there and takes a shot. It’s great to play with a guy like that.”
Krenzel intends to take medical school entrance exams in August. He is as serious about his future as he is about winning games. Off the field and away from the cameras, however, he’s not as serious as you’d think.
“He’s pretty much a clown,” says Ben Hartsock, OSU’s starting tight end and Krenzel’s best friend. “I know you guys don’t see much of that but trust me, he has his silly moments. I’ve seen some interesting dives into the whirlpool.”
Hartsock and Krenzel thought it would be fun to run out and imprint the snow on the White House lawn moments after the team was honored by President Bush. Fun, that is, until a Secret Service man cut them off at the pass by showing them his gun.
Oh well, no harm in trying.
“That’s always been Craig’s personality,” his brother says. “He has a way of not taking things too seriously and putting them in the proper perspective. Studies are important, but your test score doesn’t necessarily dictate how well you now the material. A performance on the field statistically doesn’t necessarily dictate how well you performed in game management or something like that.
“He keeps all that in view and has an incredible perspective for someone his age.”
30-year-old LeBron James is in his twelfth NBA season. This winter, he sat for multiple weeks of action, resting his increasingly human body; James missed 13 games in 2014-15, the most of his career. He hasn’t been a consistently fearsome defender for years, and has developed a very noticeable on/off switch in general.
None of that matters at this time of year. LeBron is still the best in the game, and he is proving it as loudly as anybody can in his latest run at an NBA title with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Without Kevin Love or a healthy Kyrie Irving, James has simply ratcheted his own game up to a level so high that everyone around him can’t help but take his lead and thrive.
Role players like Tristan Thompson, Timofey Mozgov, J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert and Matthew Dellavedova are all perfecting their bit pieces around LeBron. That’s probably not a coincidence: From Mario Chalmers to Donyell Marshall, there’s a long lineage of secondary characters who have been emboldened to do surprising things next to the King.
For all the guffawing about James’ bickering and passive-aggressive power plays with David Blatt, he and the Cavs’ head coach clearly have a relationship that functions well enough to produce wins. Cleveland hasn’t missed a beat despite tough health breaks to two of their best players, embodying a next-man-up ethos unwincingly. Blatt deserves a lot of credit for that, but James is who the roster truly takes their cues from.
Building something new is exactly what James came back home to do. Few doubted he could do it — especially with Irving and Love set to be next to him — but probably even fewer thought he could bring Cleveland back to prominence so swiftly, and through this much bad injury luck. The throne appears to be on lockdown this spring.
— John Wilmes
Without further ado, here are the players that achieved top honors for the 2014-15 season:
All-NBA, first team
Steph Curry, Golden State Warriors
James Harden, Houston Rockets
LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers
Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans
Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies
All-NBA, second team
Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers
Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder
LaMarcus Aldridge, Portland Trail Blazers
Pau Gasol, Chicago Bulls
DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento Kings
All-NBA, third team
Kyrie Irving, Cleveland Cavaliers
Klay Thompson, Golden State Warriors
Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers
Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs
DeAndre Jordan, Los Angeles Clippers
The most notable snubs here are Kawhi Leonard and John Wall.
This list of 15 also has one major mystery. Pau Gasol had a terrific season in terms of comebacks, but to say he was one of the five best bigs in the game? That’s a bit generous.
The biggest surprise here is Cousins’ inclusion—not that he doesn’t belong. An elite, singular talent, he’s been overdue for this kind of recognition for a while. It just comes as unexpected that the media, long his enemy, gave it to him with the votes needed.
Here’s the defensive version of things:
All-Defense, first team
Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers
Tony Allen, Memphis Grizzlies
Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs
Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors
DeAndre Jordan, Los Angeles Clippers
All-Defense, second team
John Wall, Washington Wizards
Jimmy Butler, Chicago Buls
Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans
Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs
Andrew Bogut, Golden State Warriors
Tony Allen’s “First team, All-Defense” chant proved, of course, to be prophetic here. It’s hard to pick too many bones with this collection, though; 10 is a small number for how many great defenders there are in this league, and there will always be a bushel of them left out of the party.
— John Wilmes
6. Patrick Beverley, Houston Rockets
Had you told any close NBA follower that the Rockets got past the Los Angeles Clippers in the playoffs, without Beverley, a month ago… they wouldn’t have believed you. The 37-year-old Jason Terry did a shockingly good job slowing Chris Paul down during Houston’s historical comeback series win, and the Rockets are now in the Western Conference finals. Without Beverley’s maniacal defensive pressure to apply to MVP Steph Curry, though, things could end quickly for Houston. Terry is bound to show his age soon, and when the Rockets have to switch wingmen onto Steph, it should open up the offense for his passing genius.
5. John Wall, Washington Wizards
John Wall is one of the best players in the NBA, and he missed three games of a playoff series. After he fell on his hand in Game 1 (a dominant, 18-point, 13-assist performance from him, in which he led the Wizards to a 104-98 victory) he then missed the next three contests with a wrist injury. Paul Pierce’s heroics were enough to propel the Wiz to one more win—and nearly to two—but Wall’s absence was ultimately the weakness that Atlanta capitalized on. Wall came back in Game 6 and played another great game, but the Hawks had already taken control while he was gone.
4. Kevin Love, Cleveland Cavaliers
Love’s separated shoulder hasn’t had a terrible impact on the Cavaliers—not yet, anyway. They’ve been lucky enough with one big, generous baseline reality: They play in the Eastern Conference. Even without Love, LeBron James and Co. have had enough to get within three games of the Finals. An emboldened Tristan Thompson, conveniently enough, has filled in for Love and done a lot of tough tasks that Cleveland arguably needs more than their missing All-Star’s shooting and playmaking. Thompson has been a voracious rebounder and a relentless defender, looking like just about the best custodian James has ever had. The smart money, however, is on Cleveland missing Love’s modern versatility dearly if they land in the Finals.
3. Wes Matthews, Portland Trail Blazers
The Portland Trail Blazers were in rare air for much of the season. Their offensive efficiency and defensive efficiency were both consistently in the league’s top ten, putting them in company with only two other squads who could claim that status: the Warriors and the Hawks. That had a ton to do with Matthews, their best defender and the NBA’s overall leader in made three-pointers at the time of his injury. Without Wes against the Memphis Grizzlies, point guard Damian Lillard struggled as Mike Conley, Courtney Lee and Tony Allen took turns wearing him out. And without Matthews playing defense, Portland’s perimeter stronghold was downright porous.
2. Thabo Sefolosha and DeMarre Carroll, Atlanta Hawks
The severity of Carroll’s injury is yet unknown. His MRI concluded that no structural damage has been done to the knee he landed awkwardly on in Game 1 against the Cleveland Cavaliers, but we don’t know how effective he can be on a quick turnaround. The thing is, he needs to be extremely effective, as he has the hardest job on the Hawks’ roster for this matchup—and potentially the hardest job in the entire sport—in guarding LeBron. Without Sefolosha either, who’s out for the year with a broken fibula, Atlanta is suddenly looking almost optionless in the face of the King’s warpath toward a fifth straight Finals appearance.
1. Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka, Oklahoma City Thunder
The most important injuries in the playoffs are to men who didn’t play a minute in them. In fact, they don't even work for an organization that made the field. But the Thunder’s absence from this bracket has to be the biggest, most bothersome “what’s missing” feeling that’s making this spring feel somehow incomplete. When healthy, this is probably the most talented squad in the league. Now the franchise is undergoing a bit of change, with Billy Donovan hired as their new head coach in place of the outgoing Scott Brooks. Perhaps Donovan can manage the roster’s bodies well enough to help us avoid this sad lacking, a year from now.
— John Wilmes
Opportunities like this don’t come around too often. The Los Angeles Lakers, perhaps the most storied franchise in all of sports, are usually riding high in the championship picture. Winners of 16 titles and 31 NBA Finals appearances, they’re pretty unseasoned with where they are now: the draft lottery.
The last time L.A. had a top-five selection? 1982. That’s when they scooped up James Worthy, who went on to be an integral part of the most famous iteration of the team, next to Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
It should come as no surprise that this year’s crop of draft prospects—and their agents—understand the rarity of this occasion. The money, notoriety and probably even the winning potential is far greater with the Lakers than it is with any other 2015 lottery team. Bad as they were this past season, the allure of playing for the purple-and-gold is massive.
Becoming a Lakers star, even when they’re terrible, means global appeal. Just ask Nick Young. Plus, things in the competition department can turn on a dime for them because of their ability to attract elite talent on the free agency market.
That might be why Karl-Anthony Towns and Jahlil Okafor are both making gestures that aren’t hard to read as meaning “I’d rather be the No. 2 overall pick, not the No. 1, and play for the Lakers instead of the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Exhibit #1 is this tweet sent out shortly after the draft order was determined, by never-wrong league insider Adrian Wojnarowski, of Yahoo! Sports:
If Karl-Anthony Towns is determined to get to Lakers, it'll be interesting to see how agreeable his camp will be to meeting with Minnesota.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojYahooNBA) May 20, 2015
Woj is not a speculator, or much of an opinionist. If he posts something like that, it’s likely a sort of subtle message being delivered through complex, trusted channels of the NBA power network.
Okafor, for his part, said this to Sports Ilustrated after the lottery: “I don't know that I should go No. 1… I don't care. I just want to go to the right environment for me and the right team. I think the hype about No. 1 is more for the fans.”
This could all be an incorrect reading of the tea leaves. But if clues like these continue to drop, don’t be surprised if you see this story expand quite a bit.
— John Wilmes
It wasn’t a terrific night for the New York Knicks. The NBA’s saddest big-market franchise lost 65 games last season, and the light at the end of their tunnel of failure was always the chance at a No. 1 overall selection in the 2015 NBA Draft.
The Knicks, instead, landed at fourth overall during last night’s lottery. In a draft class that’s better than okay, this is still a strong position. Jahlil Okafor and Karl-Anthony Towns are likely to go first and second, so New York will have—at the very least—a choice between two elite point guard prospects in D’Angelo Russell and Emmanuel Mudiay, or March Madness standout Justise Winslow, a skilled and powerful wingman.
But what the Knicks fanbase wanted is what many fanbases yearn for on lottery night: A pick so good that even their questionable front office can’t mess it up. That’s what the Minnesota Timberwolves got, with the ping pong balls taking them to the top selection, where it would shock the league if they didn’t choose between Okafor and Towns. The Los Angeles Lakers, at No. 2, will probably take whichever of the two fantastic young big men Minnesota passes on.
In the third slot are the Philadelphia 76ers. For all the moralizing soreness over Philly’s tanking ways, their war chest of assets and young talent is starting to look incredibly impressive, and the dawn of a winning day is starting to seem more imminent for the Sixers.
Behind the top four is a collections of teams who are either, like the Knicks, in need of nothing short of a Godsend with their shaky decision-makers up top (the Sacramento Kings at No. 6, the Denver Nuggets at No. 7, the Charlotte Hornets at No. 9) or who are on the verge of contending again, in need of nothing more than more internal improvement and extra piece of talent (the Orlando Magic at No. 5, the Detroit Pistons at No. 8, the Miami Heat at No. 10).
Here’s the full lottery board:
1. Minnesota Timberwolves
2. Los Angeles Lakers
3. Philadelphia 76ers
4. New York Knicks
5. Orlando Magic
6. Sacramento Kings
7. Denver Nuggets
8. Detroit Pistons
9. Charlotte Hornets
10. Miami Heat
11. Indiana Pacers
12. Utah Jazz
13. Phoenix Suns
14. Oklahoma City Thunder
— John Wilmes
LeBron James is still the king of the NBA. Right?
His Cleveland Cavaliers took down the Chicago Bulls 4-2 in their last playoff series, despite Kevin Love being out for the season and Kyrie Irving’s injuries turning him into a hobbled, almost ineffectual version of himself. Derrick Rose and Co. were meant to be the biggest threat to James’ throne, but he ultimately looked fairly comfortable pushing them off of it.
Up next in LeBron’s challenge to prove he’s still the world’s alpha baller is the Atlanta Hawks, a team who made mutton of the Cavs all season and lit up the league with 60 wins and four All-Star appearances. Atlanta needed six games to thwart the malaise-struck Brooklyn Nets in the first round, however, and six more to beat the Washington Wizards despite a serious injury to John Wall.
While the Hawks are not facing any injury issues as damning as losing Love for the year, they have been slowed by body hurts and fatigue. None of their starters have operated with close to the same kind of efficiency as they did in the regular season, with point guard Jeff Teague having some especially noticeable struggles. There’s a lengthy debate to be had about whether the Hawks expelled too much of their batteries in the regular season, and don’t have enough left to prove themselves when it really matters.
Atlanta also comes into the series without Thabo Sefolosha, who’s out for the year with a broken fibula. Sefolosha is a seldom noticed reserve, but he happens to have guarded LeBron on the biggest stage possible before—in the NBA Finals, as a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2012—and to have done it fairly well. That task will fall largely on DeMarre Carroll’s shoulders with Thabo out.
In order to beat the Cavs, who should be riding a formidable emotional train after their surprisingly authoritative putdown of the Bulls, Atlanta has to be a team they haven’t been in several weeks. Maybe they can be, but it’ll come as a surprise that you might not want to put your money on.
Prediction: Cavaliers in 6
— John Wilmes
Here's a look at the NBA teams that need the most out of this year's draft:
6. Detroit Pistons
In Stan Van Gundy, the Pistons have a promising man to build their future. But wise as their head coach and team president is, their circumstance is still thorny. Detroit already has a number of young pieces they’ll need to pay big money this summer or next, with Andre Drummond, Greg Monroe and Reggie Jackson at the top of the list. They’ve also been a poor destination for quality free agents for the better part of this century, and have a glaring hole at the wing spot. If they find the right small forward in this draft, the Pistons will have every bit of the core they want for the coming years, with youth across the lineup, so long as they can secure what they’ve already got.
Best fits: Justise Winslow, Stanley Johnson
5. Sacramento Kings
The Kings have the one major piece that most other stalled teams would kill for: A bonafide superstar, in the mercurial character of DeMarcus Cousins. A slew of poor decisions aside from drafting and re-signing the hyper-talented big man, however, has left Sacramento in a bad way. The team is saddled with culture problems after giving Cousins as many coaches as he’s had seasons—and even more point guards—plus a number of weighty salaries owed to middling players. The only way that an organization as dysfunctional and clueless as this one can find their way out of so deep a hole is by getting lucky with the ping pong balls.
Best fits: Emmanuel Mudiay, D’Angelo Russell
4. Charlotte Hornets
The schadenfreude parade has long waltzed all over Michael Jordan’s post-Chicago Bulls career. The Hornets’ owner has made a number of questionable draft selections, including high picks spent on Adam Morrison and Sean May. Jordan’s greatness on the court was so staggering that you just knew the audience would turn around and satirize him for any failures he had off of it. But the hard truth, more recently, is that Charlotte has simply had rotten luck in the draft. Missing out on Anthony Davis after a historically bad season especially stands out as an instance of the basketball Gods seeming not to favor M.J.’s franchise. Jordan and Co. have had a better record in free agency in recent years, but what they really need to turn things around is a superman.
Best fits: Mario Hezonja, Kristaps Porzingis
3. Los Angeles Lakers
Who ever thought it could get this bad for the Lakers? It would often seem that Kobe Bryant’s squad exists just as a reason for him to keep his celebrity alive, these days, and that the organization’s front office has all but given up on the now, and staked their claim in a post-Kobe future made up of fertile draft prospects and big-name pickups in free agency. The former part of that equation involves the further development of Jordan Clarkson, and a hopefully resilient recovery from Julius Randle, who had a season-ending injury early on in his rookie season. Things can always turn around quickly when you’re the most storied team in the sport, but more steps toward a brighter tomorrow must start occurring today.
Best fits: Karl-Anthony Towns, Justise Winslow
2. New York Knicks
Tire fire, rubbish yard, pity party… choose your bit of negative hyperbole. The Knicks have been a mockery of themselves for the past two seasons, and Phil Jackson has a lot of work to do in repairing their creaky state. New York City will always be a draw for certain free agents, because it’s New York City, but the Knicks haven’t actually been able to land any top birds for some time. Jackson may be able to change that (he was able to convince Carmelo Anthony to stay, after all) but what he does in the draft is arguably more important. The team’s new, aging president needs to prove he has the vision everyone talks so much about by seeing something special in someone.
Best fits: D’Angelo Russell, Karl-Anthony Towns
1. Denver Nuggets
The Nuggets weren’t even a bottom-five team last season, in terms of wins and losses. When measured with a longer view in mind, though, it’s not hard to say that they’re in a perhaps worse position than anyone. A mismatched roster full of questionable contracts and personalities plus no superstar-level talent, Denver is as unanchored as they come. A new head coach may be able to complete the incredibly complex equation that is shaping this crew into one that could fight for the final playoff spot in the staggering Western Conference, but that’s the absolute ceiling here. A team this lacking in direction needs a godsend to change course for the better.
Best fits: Willie Cauley-Stein, Justise Winslow
— John Wilmes
The Houston Rockets are riding one of the craziest emotional highs you’ll see in the NBA. Looking dead and done in their series against the Los Angeles Clippers last Thursday night, down three games to two on the road and losing big in the second half, they began a nutty comeback that the league is still wrapping their heads around.
How did we get here? This is the most appropriate question after a whirlwind finish to a series that was about as predictable as divine intervention. The Golden State Warriors, Houston’s new opponent in the Western Conference Finals, are undoubtedly the favorites in the series. But, just as the Clippers’ surge of adrenaline after slaying the San Antonio Spurs turned them into a combustible element, capable of unusual things, the Rockets’ shocking conquest brings more than a dose of volatility into this series.
The Warriors killed the Rockets in the regular season, winning each of their four games by an average of 14.8 points. A 131-106 victory at Houston in January seemed especially damning at the time. But Houston is, in many ways, a new team now. Their historic comeback is the kind of experience that can galvanize a franchise for multiple seasons, and it came with emboldened performances from relatively new pieces like Josh Smith, Trevor Ariza, Corey Brewer and Pablo Prigioni.
The Rockets’ best weapon against Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Co. is not James Harden or Dwight Howard, the pivotal superstar duo whose faces always appear next to the headlines. It’s their depth, particularly with their bevy of lengthy wingmen, who catalyzed their revival against L.A. and who may be asked to take turns guarding Golden State’s world-class backcourt.
The Warriors, however, looked mighty impressive in their closeout of the Memphis Grizzlies, operating as close as they have to their 67-win excellence as they have in the whole playoffs. If they’re hitting top gear at just the right time, it’s likely that no amount of Houston momentum will be enough. Barring the improbable—a busy force these days—Golden State takes this series.
Prediction: Warriors in 6
— John Wilmes
Mike Conley’s “broken face game” will serve as a defining highlight of the 2015 postseason. So will Tony Allen’s “first-team, all defense” brilliance as a stopper and a lovable character, before injuries forced him out of the Memphis Grizzlies’ 4-2 second-round loss to the Golden State Warriors.
But after that, the NBA’s Tennessee franchise has a lot of question marks. The biggest, most pressing one is whether they can bring back All-Star center and 2013 Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol, who’s a free agent this July.
Gasol is the most important piece of what the Grizzlies do. Next to Zach Randolph, he makes up a front court that is big, plodding and skilled enough to usually force teams into a grinding style that goes against every trend of the modern NBA. Memphis had Golden State locked into such a battle, but MVP Steph Curry’s dynamism and Allen’s absence eventually led to the Warriors winning the series and finishing it with an exclamation point, claiming their final two victories by 20 and 13 points.
Which leads to the more philosophical question of whether Memphis needs to change their strategy. The 2015 “pace and space” version NBA is no coincidence; it’s the result of years of aggregated rule changes and systemic coaching reactions. Steve Nash and Mike D’Antoni’s “seven seconds or less” era with the Phoenix Suns was merely the germ of a revolution that sees its most recent torch-bearer in Curry and Co.
Continuing to play foil to the direction of the rest of the league is quite the undertaking, with or without Gasol. Memphis, in all likelihood, needs to supplement their thunder down low with some lightning on the wings. Having Conley, an elite point guard, is a good start. But what the Grizzlies should be seeking this offseason is versatile guards, who can shoot from deep without giving up much where Memphis butters their bread: defense.
— John Wilmes
A week ago, the Los Angeles Clippers looked like bonafide title favorites. On the heels of their shocking, impressive first-round slaying of the defending champion San Antonio Spurs in seven games, they carried that momentum into a 3-1 series lead over the Houston Rockets, including a 128-95 dismantling in Game 4.
Today, the Clippers are done. The Rockets came back and crawled out of their hole, becoming just the ninth team to ever overcome such a deficit. Sizzling as their first unit was all season—it was probably the best in the league—their short bench inevitably did them in.
L.A. had the series all but won in Game 6, as they were up by 20 for much of the second half. But Houston’s super subs Corey Brewer and Josh Smith ran amok on them as Dwight Howard protected the rim, and a 40-15 fourth-quarter scoring edge for Houston turned the series.
The usual ghosts are certain to follow the Clippers this offseason. People will claim that Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, who have still never been to a conference finals, aren’t winners. DeAndre Jordan’s issues shooting free throws will be cited.
Make no mistake, though: This historical loss is a condemnation of Doc Rivers as a general manager. While Rivers is an excellent coach who gains the love and fire of his players like perhaps none other (and while he’s vastly overlooked as a tactician) his moonlighting duties as the roster’s transactional caretaker have been a problem for Lob City.
Rivers inherited all of his best players and has only managed to augment them with the likes of Glen Davis, Hedo Turkoglu, Lester Hudson, Spencer Hawes and, of course, his son Austin. All have had redemptive moments, but none of these pieces have given the Clips anything like consistent depth, and the wear on Paul, Griffin and Jordan has been more noticeable.
What can Rivers the GM do to help Rivers the coach this summer? Rivers doesn't have a lot of financial flexibility if he re-signs Jordan, a free agent, to the maximum contract he'll demand this summer, and finding bench help on the market will be a struggle. For better or worse, these are likely the same Clippers you'll be seeing for a while.
— John Wilmes
Officially, there are three coaching vacancies in the NBA. The New Orleans Pelicans, Orlando Magic and Denver Nuggets are all on the lookout for new leaders after hitting the reset button.
Less officially, we’re headed for four. The Chicago Bulls are expected to part ways with head man Tom Thibodeau this offseason, and his availability is likely to beget a chain reaction in what’s been largely a holding pattern. With both Orlando and New Orleans waiting for Thibodeau to officially hit the market before they make a move, Denver is stuck with a field of wait-and-see candidates.
Mike D’Antoni, Scott Brooks, Scott Skiles, Vinny Del Negro and Alvin Gentry are all potential winners for any of these four slots. Thibodeau, the lead horse in the race for seemingly all coaching jobs, has also long been connected to the Los Angeles Lakers, where head coach Byron Scott is considered by many to be an honorary lame duck.
Many believe Thibodeau will end up in New Orleans, where he can build a new, elite defense around Anthony Davis (the most appealing young player the game has seen in some time) who he coached with Team USA last summer.
If this speculation becomes fact, the Magic would likely turn to Skiles or Brooks, both coaches who have had success with younger rosters. While Orlando is interested in Thibodeau, it seems more probable that he’d join a team looking to take the next step in their playoff contention, as opposed to an upstart roster.
Wresting Thibodeau from Chicago may take some sacrifice. His acrimonious relationship with the Bulls’ front office comes while he’s still under contract, and Chicago is a notoriously frugal franchise that wouldn’t want to pay multiple more years of his deal and not get anything back. We could see the rare—but perhaps increasingly frequent—instance of a coach trade this summer.
— John Wilmes
The Chicago Bulls had their best chance of the century, this year, to get through the Eastern Conference and fight for a title in the NBA Finals. But after an incredibly dispiriting 94-73 loss to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, it would appear this iteration of the Bulls is all but done, and facing a ton of change this summer. The Bulls lost their series to Cleveland 4-2.
A year of rumors backed up by every major league insider says that head coach Tom Thibodeau came into the postseason with the likely impossible task of doing well enough to save his job. Not even making to the conference finals surely marks his death knell, as he and his front office have far too much bad blood to proceed with anything less than a championship as their olive branch.
Center Joakim Noah, long considered a cornerstone, never looked like the same player in 2014-15 after arthroscopic knee surgery last summer. It’s healthy to wonder whether he ever will. Noah is now 30, and having spent five seasons gutting out every hurt he could under Thibodeau, his body could be facing an early breakdown.
Jimmy Butler, the Bulls’ breakout star of the year, is heading into restricted free agency. Keeping him around will cost a pretty penny, with many teams believed to be in the running to woo Butler with a maximum offer. If Chicago wants the breathing room to keep him and stay under the cap limit, they may need to trade someone off. All eyes point to veteran forward Taj Gibson, whose future was murky from the second the team brought rookie Nikola Mirotic over from Spain.
The one piece of good, solid news? Derrick Rose finally started to look like an elite impact player again in the playoffs. Building around him, Butler and an improving Mirotic going forward is a path that inspires some optimism.
— John Wilmes
Everybody’s got bad vibes with a former loved one. We’ve all come to blows with an old friend over how nostalgically, or not, we choose to reimagine the past. We’ve all lost a buddy or two as life takes us down different pathways.
Rarely, though, has the splitting of a bond been as public as that between Jalen Rose and Chris Webber. During a recent appearance on Dan Patrick’s radio show, Webber went on to make some disparaging remarks regarding the ESPN “30 for 30” documentary about the Fab Five squad Rose and Webber played on together, at the University of Michigan. Webber kept saying he wasn’t referring to anyone specifically, but he was clearly referring to Rose, who works for ESPN and Grantland and played a large hand in the film’s production.
“I was disheartened by … whatever someone is trying to create our legacy,” Webber said on Patrick’s show. “Because that’s not the legacy. Don’t try to go back and act like you were smart and a martyr and all this. Don’t do that. Just tell the story and let people have fun and be like us.”
Rose fired back, shortly after, by way of Larry Brown Sports:
“One dude traveled then called timeout. One dude lied to grand jury and hasn’t apologized. One dude tried to circumvent the documentary to HBO. One dude ignored multiple requests from everyone involved after agreeing to participate. One dude played like (President) Obama and sat in a suite during Michigan’s recent title game. One dude slandered Ed Martin after all he did for him and his family. One dude is not in contact with the other four (which is all good). One dude has been doing a rebuttal doc for four years. One dude clearly is delusional and still in denial.”
Harsh, harsh, harsh. Here’s to hoping these two can find a more private way to rebuild the bridge between them… if that’s even possible anymore.
John Wall, Kevin Love, Tony Allen, Pau Gasol, Kyire Irving, LeBron James, Joakim Noah, Mike Conley, Chris Paul, Patrick Beverley, Paul Millsap — this is but a partial list of injury-afflicted players on the eight remaining teams in the NBA Playoffs. Some are gone for the year, while some are missing games and returning, and others yet are just playing on compromised bodies.
In total, though, this big snowball of hurt has made for a strange postseason product, often made up more by victories of attrition and off-court health than by the kinds of basketball conquest we like to romance over. The long-awaited series between the Chicago Bulls and Cleveland Cavaliers, especially, seems like a dogfight defined by which side can better deal with their own maladies.
The situation begs a lot of questions, and a lot of analysis regarding current NBA trends in bodily maintenance. Many squads have gotten more strategic with the health of their superstars, opting to rest their best men for stretches throughout the regular season. In the case of someone like the Houston Rockets’ Dwight Howard, the benefits of that method are clear. Howard has been a revelation this spring, flying around to complete improbable alley-oops and impact shots like he did years ago with the Orlando Magic.
In most other cases, though, no amount of rest can stave off lightning bolts of bad luck from above. And, to boot, the parade of injuries leads to questions about whether long bouts of relaxation throughout the year are making players less accustomed to the intense play of the postseason. Queries like these are often posed by ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy.
What it all amounts to is a gut check on progressive methodology. As close as we often seem to figuring out the optimal balance of healthy players who are also ready play as hard as they can, we seem as far as ever from that ideal today.
— John Wilmes
Who wants to watch DeAndre Jordan — or anyone, for that matter — shoot 34 free throws in one game?
That’s what happened Sunday night, in Game 4 of Jordan’s Los Angeles Clippers’ series against the Houston Rockets. DeAndre made 14 of his tries, giving him a measly 41 percent mark from the line for the night. The Rockets’ best defense in this game (a 128-95 Clippers blowout) was fouling Jordan away from the ball before possessions got underway, forcing Los Angeles into their worst possible scoring option.
Surely, you’ve heard this one before. Since the days of Shaquille O’Neal, teams have been using the “hack-a” strategy against offenses they otherwise can’t stop — especially in playoff games. The technique seems to be gaining more steam than ever lately, though, and discussion about the prospect of banning the method altogether has also picked up considerably.
Currently, the league penalizes teams who deploy the tactic with less than two minutes remaining on the clock, by way of technical foul. The question, now, is why that tax shouldn’t exist for the rest of the game.
Not only is the hack-a lifestyle an unsportsmanlike one, but it’s also hard and boring to watch. Nobody tunes into basketball for intentional off-ball fouls, or for a slowed-down version of the game that involves more standing around than pick-and-roll.
It’s easy to say that the fix for this issue lies in a few select players, like Jordan and Houston’s Dwight Howard, simply getting better at free throws, and thus taking the strategy away from the opposition. But some things, no matter how much work is put in, are bound for that kind of change. The game will always have more big men who can’t shoot than those who can, just like it will always have point guards who don’t lead the league in blocked shots.
Hack-a is a strange glitch in the rulebook, and closing the loophole that allows its exploitation would be a service to the game.
— John Wilmes
One of the most appealing NBA head coaching jobs is now open. The New Orleans Pelicans have parted ways with head man Monty Williams after five years, leaving the chair on Anthony Davis’ bench unoccupied.
Pelicans ownership had created a mandate within the organization: If the team didn’t make the playoffs this past season, it was known that Williams and general manager Dell Demps would both be out of a job. Apparently, meeting that requirement was still not enough to save Monty.
The Pelicans didn’t win any games in their first-round series with the Golden State Warriors, but getting there alone turned some heads after they won a season-long battle with the Oklahoma City Thunder for the final spot in Western Conference bracket. The Pelicans finished the year with a 45-37 record, an 11-game improvement from the previous season.
"My focus today is to appreciate the great journey over the last few years," Williams said, in a written statement given to the AP. "I need to thank my coaches and players because we take pride in our accomplishments as a group in progressing in the right direction and making the playoffs through the challenges of a long season.”
As for who’s up next for the Pelicans, one name stands out among the crowd of possible candidates: Tom Thibodeau. The Chicago Bulls coach is still dealing with the Cleveland Cavaliers in the playoffs, but rumors about his inevitable dismissal have only grown in recent days.
The prospect of Thibodeau, one of the top defensive minds of the game, going to work with Davis is a tantalizing one. But since he’s still under contract with Chicago, who would be wise not to simply fire him and let him go for nothing, it may take a trade for New Orleans to land him.
We’re still weeks from any of this speculation taking life, but this storyline deserves monitoring as the coaching carousel gains steam.
— John Wilmes
6. Kevin Love’s season-ending injury
The Cleveland Cavaliers could still win the championship. They do, after all, have LeBron James on their roster. The best athlete in the game can win you games in ways you didn’t know existed before, as he demonstrated with his clock-beating shot to tie Cleveland’s series with the Chicago Bulls, 2-2, this past Sunday. But the Cavs are now in a dogfight they didn’t see coming, battling against their own health and depth issues without Kevin Love, whose suddenly separated shoulder could be the turning point for a franchise. Whether the perennial All-Star uses the injury as a source of emotional solidarity with his team, or takes it as an omen that things were never meant to be, remains to be seen.
5. A vulnerable version of the Golden State Warriors
A 67-win season was one of the best campaigns within recent NBA memory. MVP Steph Curry led an offense that had too much shooting, creativity and cohesion for anyone to handle all year, and Draymond Green was the anchor to a hyper-intelligent defense that was just as good. But the Warriors, despite their most recent 101-84 blowout at the Grindhouse, are in a tooth-and-nail 2-2 battle with the Memphis Grizzlies. Mike Conley, Courtney Lee and — of course — Tony Allen have taken away the space and timing Curry and Klay Thompson are used to. Marc Gasol has made Andrew Bogut look out of his depth. The NBA’s juggernaut squad of the season has been tested, and perhaps sooner than we thought they would be.
4. Blake Griffin, point guard edition
Without Chris Paul for the first two contests of their second-round series with the Houston Rockets, many suspected the Los Angeles Clippers were quite screwed. What most of us failed to recognize is that even without Paul, the Clippers have one of the game’s most skilled playmakers: Blake Griffin. Collecting 13 assists as part of a stunning triple-double in Game 1, Griffin led the Chris-less Clippers to a 1-0 series lead. They haven’t looked back, now leading the series 3-1 after an impressive 128-95 smashing in Game 4.
3. Randy Wittman having tricks up his sleeve
Maligned by the media all season long for his unimaginative sets, Washington Wizards coach Randy Wittman has made full use of his roster this postseason. Implementing a small ball lineup with Paul Pierce at power forward and a surging Otto Porter Jr. at the three spot, he’s given point guard John Wall his best position to thrive in. And even without Wall, who recently fell and suffered a very untimely wrist injury, Wittman has dug deep into his bench to find what he needs — forgotten man Will Bynum played crucial minutes down the stretch of Saturday’s thrilling 103-101 victory over the Atlanta Hawks. Now we’ll see if Wittman has enough left in his toolbox to get the Wizards through this 2-2 struggle.
2. Austin Rivers’ sensational play
Son to coach Doc Rivers, Austin has been the subject of mockery for months. Nobody likes nepotism, and the young Rivers looked like he was out of the league before Los Angeles signed him, and like the only way he still had a job was through family favors. Skeptics are eating feasts of their words these days, though, as the reserve guard has proved to be an invaluable piece of depth for his team. Shooting 49 percent from the field, including a red-hot 48 from beyond the arc, he’s made it possible for the Clips to preserve Chris Paul for future rounds.
1. Rajon Rondo’s epic fail
There just isn’t any precedent for what happened with Rajon Rondo and the Dallas Mavericks. Once lauded as one of the game’s most ferocious competitors, Rondo dialed in his time in Texas, looking demonstrably bored and upset as his difficult side rose beyond boiling point. Coach Rick Carlisle and team management were so beguiled and disappointed by his performance through two playoff games that they benched him for the rest of the year, citing a bogus back injury as the reason. Rondo’s heading into free agency this summer, and Dallas wants no part of a future with him. Whoever does sign him will be hoping for a time machine; Rondo in 2015 hasn’t shown us anything worth the money.
— John Wilmes
The best basketball going on right now is between the Golden State Warriors and Memphis Grizzlies. A seeming culmination of a year of excellent play in the Western Conference, the teams’ opposing styles have sparked a lot of debate about the state of the game.
The Warriors’ 67-win campaign has pointed the way for the frontier of the league, taking a “pace-and-space” philosophy to its natural endpoint. It’s not so hard to do that when you’ve got Steph Curry and Klay Thompson; the Splash Brothers are, perhaps, the best shooting backcourt in the history of the sport. Both players’ ability to shoot their team to victory from beyond the arc has taken the Warriors offense to staggering heights. Curry’s creativity with the ball, to boot, has made them downright historical.
They mostly didn’t rack up their wowing efficiency marks against defenses as good as that of the Grizzlies, though. Memphis’ relentless, hyper-smart defense on Golden State has taken away both the pace and the space from the Warriors. Tony Allen, Mike Conley and Courtney Lee have hassled Curry and Thompson all series long, frazzling the duo to an uncharacteristic 14-of-46 mark from deep, or just 30 percent.
Golden State trails 2-1 in the series, and in the eyes of many analysts, they’re fighting for more than just a berth in the Western Conference Finals. Their offense, while amazing all season long, looks challenged as it faces the task of winning playoff games without a go-to option in the post. Reviving David Lee off the end of the bench might be an option for variety inside, and a less predictable perimeter attack. Or, Steph and Klay might just snap out of their slump, and start draining shots under greater duress than what they’re used to.
Either way it turns out, the winner of this series will carry the flag for their style, and potentially point the way toward lasting strategic trends. It’s pace and space versus grit and grind.
— John Wilmes