Sam Smith’s 2014 NBA Mock Draft

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The NBA draft is tomorrow so here is my take on the first 14 picks plus the two Bulls picks for my fellow Chicago audience. All of these picks are made with the assumption that no trades will be made, though several are likely to happen before the night is done. To be clear, this is what I think will happen, not necessarily what should happen. Starting with number one:

1. Jabari Parker, Forward, Duke – Cleveland Cavaliers

Two weeks ago, this spot was going to be Embiid’s, but now with injury questions abound, Parker is the safest pick. Good, not exceptional athlete, good, not great shooter, surprisingly good post game for a 19 year old, mature beyond his years, Parker is basically a guaranteed All Star caliber player. Not the upside of some of the other player but definitely the safe pick, and after drafting Anthony Bennett last year, Cleveland needs to hit on this one.

2. Andrew Wiggins, Guard/Forward, Kansas – Milwaukee Bucks

If I had to make a pick today who is going to be the best player from this class my money would conservatively be on Wiggins. The comparison I hear most often is to Tracy McGrady, which would mean a Hall of Fame career. His athleticism and defensive tenacity are well documented, but his scoring was very hit and miss this year at Kansas, so there is much more risk associated here than with Parker. But I absolutely love his upside and he played very well his last month or so in Lawrence.

3. Dante Exum, Guard, Australia – 76ers

I could see Exum or Embiid going to Philly. There are pros and cons to both obviously, but the Sixers may be a little worried about putting an injured seven footer next to another injured seven footer in Nerlens Noel, so Exum will be the pick. The interesting thing there is that Exum would be placed next to promising future star Michael Carter-Williams, who like Exum is a tall point guard that is only an average shooter, so by placing them next to each other, Philly may struggle to shoot from three. That being said, a two man combo like that growing up together may be exactly what the Sixers need for future success.

4. Joel Embiid, Center, Kansas – Magic

We could be seeing the impossible–a reincarnation of Hakeem Olajuwon. Everything is set up for Embiid to become a dominant center except for his foot. In my opinion, that should not matter and he should be taken either first or second but each of the three teams seem to be in a position of fear to the point that they want to see immediate results, so Embiid will fall to the Magic at four. And Orlando may even let Embiid slide for more immediate help for Nikola Vucevic. Some say they will go Noah Vonleh here but in my mind there is no reason to pass up on such center talent. Worst case scenario, he is Greg Oden. And that is pretty bad. But best case he could be The Dream. Worth it.

5. Aaron Gordon, Forward, Arizona – Jazz

Utah has two youngish big men that they have put their small hopes on in Favors and Kanter, but those are not exactly the best guys upon whom to pin hope. The Jazz need guards to put alongside Trey Burke, especially since Gordon Hayward may be gone, but the guard talent is not as high here as forward talent and I think Vonleh is the best talent here. He is the most versatile big man in the draft with his huge length, great athleticism, and three point shooting and is the rare stretch four that can be a rim protector and rebounder. He has the Anthony Davis physique right now and needs to bulk up, but Davis has done it very quickly so I would expect Vonleh to do the same.

6. Noah Vonleh, Forward, Indiana – Celtics

Kelly Olynyk and Jared Sullinger. They are both young, somewhat talented big men but by no means are they Boston’s future down there. Rondo and Avery Bradley make up a decent back court so Boston needs bigs, and Gordon is the best available. During the season, there were comparisons to Blake Griffin, which I think is a little lofty, but I heard Bill Simmons say Shawn Marion once he learns to shoot just a little, and that seems appropriate. Gordon is a great athlete, rebounder, shot blocker, who just needs to add some semblance of a jump shot and he can be a real good player.

7. Julius Randle, Forward, Kentucky – Lakers

Foot concerns are quite prevalent here like they are with Embiid and that has caused Randle to drop below the likes of Vonleh and Gordon the last couple of months. And that is good for the Lakers because they are getting a potential top five talent here. For the first time in forever the Lakers are in pure rebuilding mode and Randle is a good place to start, a nice two way presence in the paint that can rebound, put the ball on the floor, and shoot the mid range jumper. I’m not saying he is the future of the Lakers, but he certainly can be part of it.

8. Elfrid Payton, Guard, Louisiana-Lafayette – Kings

This pick is going to be traded so everything is a little mixed up but the Kings could use a guard and for me Payton is the choice here over Marcus Smart. Payton strikes me as a great leader at the point, a solid passer, a defensive stopper, and a finisher at the rim. He seems to me more fit to be a role player immediately and eventually a real good point guard on a rebuilt Kings team. This pick would certainly be a surprise but given some thought he looks like a better fit than Marcus Smart.

9. Gary Harris, Guard, Michigan State – Hornets

Assuming the Hornets give up on Kidd-Gilchrest as a scorer, Charlotte could really use a shooter. That means Harris, McDermott, and Stauskas are all in play and while Harris may be the third best shooter, he is a better all-around talent offensively and he also brings a stronger defensive presence. He would be a nice piece to place alongside Kemba in a rebuilt Charlotte squad.

10. Dario Saric, Forward, Croatia – Sixers

Toni Kukoc. With Noel protecting the rim and Exum and MCW handling the ball, Toni Kukoc returns to be the big, versatile stretch four and complete a young, ultra-talented roster. The problem is that, like Kukoc, it will be a few years before Saric is coming to the NBA, but keep him on retainer, make Philly a playoff roster in the awful East, bring Saric over and the Sixers may be competitive.

11. Nik Stauskas, Guard, Michigan – Nuggets

Danilo Gallinari is Mr. Glass so Denver needs shooters. Stauskas and McDermott are in play but Stauskas is better without the ball so he gets taken here. Now Ty Lawson just needs to get healthy and maybe Denver can go longer than two years without firing a good coach.

12. Marcus Smart, Guard, Oklahoma State – Magic

Aaron Afflalo is probably gone so Orlando needs another guard to handle the ball and allow Oladipo to go off-guard more often. Smart is the best point guard available. I would buy Smart going eighth as well and Elfrid Payton here, but I think Smart may fall a little into his college propensity to try and take over games and that cannot be a part of his NBA style, as he is only a decent athlete and shooter. That being said, he is a competitive freak, incredibly tough, and will bring considerable size and strength to Orlando’s backcourt.

13. Doug McDermott, Forward, Creighton – Timberwolves

You know, Larry Bird was an average athlete and great shooter in college. Just Saying.

Ok, Larry was not this average. McDermott is a lights out shooter, but the Kyle Korver comparisons only match up because he is white and went to Creighton. Realistically he is more like Ryan Anderson. If Minnesota manages to get Klay Thompson in the Love deal then you have two great jump shooters, but McDermott will not be a huge difference maker right away.

14. James Young, Guard/Forward, Kentucky – Suns

Assuming no trades take place, the Suns seem pretty set at both guards with Bledsoe and Dragic, but another jump shooter to put on the wing who can also defend and score off the dribble can add nicely to Phoenix’s already competitive core. Young may not be a huge splash but he is a safe pick that can bring value immediately.

BULLS PICKS

16. Adreian Payne, Forward, Michigan State

The Bulls are looking for shooters first and foremost, and Payne is a good stretch four that he will be especially valuable if the Bulls lose Taj Gibson and Nikola Mirotic. He is a very good athlete that can compete inside and out. The Bulls have done very well drafting late in the first, landing the likes of Gibson and Jimmy Butler, and Payne would fit nicely into that same group.

19. Tyler Ennis

If either Rodney Hood or Shabazz Napier is here, then for God’s sakes, the Bulls need to take them. I believe one of them will be still available but the Bulls will be intrigued by the more Derrick Rose-y Ennis, someone who scores in the paint and is unselfish and smart. Ennis is not a great athlete but he was one of the top freshman in the country this past year so he should be a solid back up to Derrick for a few years.

The NBA’s answer to Pete Rozelle

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So David Stern is retiring this week. Some say “good riddance.” Some say “thank you, Mr. Commissioner.” Some say he is the best thing to happen to American sports since Pete Rozelle. I tend to agree with that last group.

Pete Rozelle was a genius. Every decision he made towards making the NFL marketable and profitable turned out positively. Everything from the Super Bowl to merging the NFL and AFL to broadcasting  has made the NFL what it is today. It is the most popular sport in America by a long shot–a recent Harris Poll revealed that 35 percent of sports fan identify the NFL as their favorite sport, with baseball coming in a distant second at 14 percent–and really no matter what current commissioner Roger Goodell does in the future, the league will remain extremely profitable. This is all because Pete Rozelle set the ground work.

David Stern is to the NBA as Pete Rozelle is to the NFL.

I will even go a step further: David Stern is the most significant non-athlete sports figure of the past 50 years.

Stern took over as commissioner of the National Basketball Association in 1984 at the age of 41. As fortune would have it, he took over the job four months before the greatest draft class in NBA history, setting the stage for him to bring the league into the stratosphere. Maybe you remember the short, Jewish John Holmes shaking hands with (H)Akeem Olajuwon, who had decided he wanted to look like a conductor for a day. Or perhaps you remember his giddy, quivering voice as he introduced the new superstar going number three to Chicago: someone named Michael Jordan. Regardless of what you remember, the fact is that Stern welcomed four of the greatest 25 players of all time into the league on the same day, as Charles Barkley went number five and John Stockton went 16th.

Stern’s first brilliant move? The draft lottery for the 1985 NBA draft. In the past, the two worst teams would flip a coin for the top pick. In 1979, the Bulls lost the coin toss and therefore lost the chance to land Magic Johnson. (Of course, this event ended up being fortuitous for both sides, as the Lakers won five titles in the eighties, and the Bulls won six in the nineties after drafting Jordan in 1984). Stern’s idea had the teams put into a pot and then having the top pick drawn. This was to counter accusations that teams would lose on purpose in order to get the top pick, as was apparently the case with Houston the year before. The problem with the system was that there were no weighted odds, so every team that missed the playoffs had equal chances of getting the pick. Ultimately, the New York Knicks got the first pick and ultimately the most coveted college player since Kareem in Patrick Ewing. After a few years with this system, the technique of weighted odds came in 1990, which gave teams with worse records the higher chance of getting the top pick.

Of course, the draft lottery led to accusations of tampering from both the fans and the teams themselves. You’re telling me that by SOME MIRACLE, the NEW YORK KNICKS landed this generation’s Kareem? (Fortunately for the league’s rep, Ewing ultimately had a Hall of Fame career, but nowhere near Kareem level. Oh, and he never won a championship.) In 2003, it was a COINCIDENCE that LeBron James, the greatest high school player of all time went number one to his hometown Cavaliers? And in 2008, the next great point guard Derrick Rose went to Chicago, the city where he made himself a high school legend, the city that had a 1.9 percent chance of getting the number one pick, by ACCIDENT?

Maybe the league rigged the deck to enhance viewership. It is possible, but not provable. And regardless, the idea that maybe Stern did this to build the brand shows what kind of marketing genius Stern was viewed to be.

This was his greatest achievement. The NBA in the past had some level of popularity. Russell and Wilt was interesting, the 1976 triple overtime Finals game between Boston and Phoenix captivated, but the NBA could never compete with baseball and football. Until Stern came along.

When Stern took over, the 1984 season was coming down to its final two months. Ultimately, the season ended with a thrilling seven game series between the Celtics and Lakers, with the Celtics coming out on top and star Larry Bird taking MVP. Though Bird and Lakers’ star Magic Johnson had been in the league five years, this was the first time that the two really went head-to-head in a big way. So, what did Stern do? He realized that he had two immortal superstars who had a budding rivalry and marketing the crap out of them. Their rivalry, their friendship, their association came to define the early years of NBA’s Golden Age. Bird and Magic were the first athletes who were considerably marketed, and as a result, the league itself got extra advertising and air time. And Stern picked out the rivalry as it started and was rewarded by seeing the two do battle twice more in the Finals during the decade. By the time they retired, Bird and Magic could not be talked about without mentioning the other. That was the result of Stern’s ability to sense the moneymakers in his league.

However, these two could not even touch what Stern did with the league’s biggest star. Michael Jordan signed with Nike after he was drafted and they put all their money into making him as big as Magic and Bird. The details are fascinating but time-consuming so long story short, Michael Jordan became the most marketable athlete who ever lived. He took the role of league’s best player around 1988 and held the title until 1998, and during that span, he was in virtually every commercial: Gatorade, Nike, McDonalds, you name it. Michael Jordan was the most recognizable collection of syllable around the world. Kids in destitute villages in Africa could be seen in tattered Bulls 23 jerseys. The marketing project that was Michael Jordan took the NBA international.

This could be seen best in 1992. Sick of the lackluster play from amateurs at the past Olympic Games, Stern mandated that professionals would be used instead. And thus the Dream Team was born. Everyone knows the story: it was the greatest team ever assembled, they stomped everyone who tried to play them, opponents stopped playing to ask for their autograph and pictures. The point is that it was the manifestation of everything David Stern had done in his short eight year tenure as league commissioner: Everyone everywhere knew the stars of the NBA.

David Stern realized early on that the NBA was a league dependent on its superstars, and thus NBA stars became more marketable than any other athletes. And it has lasted into the present. Can you even remember the last time you went through a commercial break without seeing an athlete endorsement? Stern changed the way of athlete promotion and advertising in general. That is why he is so significant.

It has not been all unicorns and butterflies under Stern. He has done a few things to harm the league. He extended the already excruciatingly long postseason by adding a few more games to the first round of the playoffs. He instituted hand check rules to make it almost impossible to stop anyone from driving into the paint. The league has gotten considerably softer over the years.

However, in terms of making their league relevant, no one has accomplished what David Stern has. Not even Pete Rozelle. He is the greatest commissioner who ever lived.

Adam Silver has some small, unathletic shoes to fill.

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The Bears’ “QB Controversy” that could make or break the next three years

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Josh McCown is playing out of his mind. He and the Eagles’ Nick Foles have turned into Pro Bowl caliber quarterbacks essentially out of nowhere, just because the starter got hurt. The difference is Nick Foles is clearly the starter in Philly, and is probably going to the Pro Bowl this year. McCown has been almost as effective, but chances are he is not the guy in Chicago.

The Bears have a decision to make on their starter Jay Cutler this off-season. He has been good, but not great in his time in Chicago. True, he brought the team to the NFC Championship Game in 2010, and had he not gotten hurt the Bears may have gone to the Super Bowl. But he has driven fans crazy with his gunslinger mentality and his propensity to get hurt at the exact time he is playing his best football. But he is only thirty years old, and could be a good quarterback on a Super Bowl caliber offense for the next three to five years. And do not fool yourself; the Bears do have a Super Bowl caliber offense.

The problem is that Jay could go somewhere like Tennessee or Houston and make Joe Flacco-type money. He probably won’t make that in Chicago, especially now that the Bears may have another option.

Let’s evaluate that other option. Josh McCown is thirty-four, a career backup who just happens to be playing the best football of his life. Is he the answer for the next five years? It is really hard for someone to say he is because of his history. But one needs only to look at a former MVP to see that it is possible that McCown is the answer.

In 2002, Raiders offensive coordinator Marc Trestman turned a career backup by the name of Rich Gannon into the best quarterback in the NFL. Gannon not only won the MVP but also brought the Raiders to the Super Bowl. Aside from his own development under Trestman’s toutelage, Gannon was aided by a stellar receiving corps in Jerry Rice and Tim Brown and a dynamic running back who was also an effective receiver in Charlie Garner.

Eleven years later, Trestman has taken a career backup in Josh McCown and made him play at a star level, aided by the league’s top receiving duo in Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery and one of the NFL’s top dual threat backs in Matt Forte. The similarities between the situations are a little eerie.

The receivers in Chicago are both younger and better than the receivers were in Oakland in 2002, and Forte has more career in front of him than Garner did at the time. The Bears offense could be one of the league’s elite going forward, as Marshall likely has at least three more years as one of the top five or ten receivers in the NFL, and Jeffery has joined that group in only his second season. Trestman, game-management issues aside, has proved that he is one of the league’s top play-callers when he keeps the foot on the gas pedal. The weapons and the coach has given the Bears an offense that can go to a Super Bowl. The thing that has held them back is the fact that the defense cannot stop anyone, but if the defense is brought from god-awful to average, the Bears are winning the NFC North easily. After that, the question is only the quarterback.

If the Bears choose to pay Cutler, they will be a little handcuffed in terms of adding talented youth to the aged defense. They will need a ton of fast development from rookie linebackers Jon Bostic and Kaseem Greene, and need Corey Wootton and Shea McClellin to be effective pass rushers. They will also need to add a lot in the draft to improve a mediocre secondary, front-lined by two safeties who have a knack for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. If they sign Cutler to big money, they will have to sit on their unproven youth and aged veterans and hope that they do enough to make the defense average.

If they choose not to sign Cutler and decide to either move forward with McCown or draft a quarterback–Johnny Manziel could theoretically fall to the Bears at around the twentieth pick if they feel desperate for a QB–they could add more defensively and possibly catch enough lightning in a bottle to take advantage of the best offense the Bears have had since Payton. Or they could waste the remaining years of Marshall and Forte’s prime and waste a few years of Jeffery’s youth.

Either way, you have a ton of ifs. A lot of “the Bears hope that…”

The most likely result is going to be a franchise tag for Jay and then signing McCown to about twice of what he makes now, which would bring him up to around $2 million. They will then give Cutler one more year to prove he is the guy in Chicago and move forward from there. ESPN Chicago’s Carmen DeFalco has stated he believes the Bears have already decided that Jay is the guy moving forward, and I tend to agree with that. There is precedence for McCown bringing a team to a Super Bowl, but Cutler can do a lot of things with these weapons and this coach, things McCown cannot do. He may not make Matt Ryan level money in Chicago, but he will see a big paycheck a little over a year from now. Mark it down.

Photo Credit: (http://www.rantsports.com/nfl/files/2013/11/Josh-McCown-Jay-Cutler-Chicago-Bears-.jpg)

Is the head or the knees more important to the NFL player?

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I wrote a piece for Millennial Influx about the problem the NFL has with head injuries and knee injuries and how the different viewpoints between the players and the league is causing friction. You can read the full article here:

http://www.millennialinflux.com/the-knees-or-the-head-the-nfls-injury-dichotomy/

Here is a snippet:

Before the season started, Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez was quoted as saying “I’d rather have a guy hit me in the head than knife at my knee.” A knee injury is sometimes career threatening and always leads to extended recovery time on the bench.

A concussion, on the other hand, usually only leads to missing one game or two. Of course, multiple head injuries leads to far greater problems down the road, as we saw as recently as last year when former star linebacker Junior Seau committed suicide, a death that was believed to have been caused by Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative disease that is believed to be caused by repeated blows to the head over a long period of time. However, most players do not consider the lasting impact of multiple concussions, and will even lie about concussions in order to get back on the field.

But they will always be protective of their knees.

2013-14 NBA Season Preview Part 2

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I’ve already done the Eastern Conference, you can check that out here: https://samuelchristophersmith.wordpress.com/2013/10/24/2013-2014-nba-season-preview/

Now it is time to check out the other side of the league. Here are my Western Conference picks for 2013-14. Once again, I will be counting down.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

8. New Orleans Pelicans

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The loss of Greivis Vasquez is significant, as he was one of their playmakers the last couple of years. But the additions of Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans should more than make up for it. They are both combo guards that can score in bunches and facilitate, and with Eric Gordon, they have a nice three way back court. Whether or not Gordon will stay in New Orleans for the stretch run is a big question, as he has been trade bait for a while now. The development of Anthony Davis into one of the league’s premier big men will be an interesting follow all year, and their playoff hopes count on it. The big question with the Hornets is at the center position, since Jason Smith is a solid scorer but a poor rebounder. Also expect very little production out of Al-Farouq Aminu. Even so, they have the potential to be an exciting young team.

7. Portland Trail Blazers

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All five of their expected starters averaged in double figures a year ago. Lillard has the potential to be an elite scorer after being unanimous rookie of the year last season. Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum can score a lot, and should benefit from a longer leash for their second year phenom. Same goes for their star, LeMarcus Aldridge. Robin Lopez may not be able to score at the clip his brother Brook can, but Portland is in need of a rim protector, and Lopez fills that role very well. He is high energy and a good rebounder, and gives Portland a complete starting five. With young guys like Meyers Leonard and Thomas Robinson have not produced much yet, but they will likely see more playing time with Portland’s shallow bench. As a whole, Portland could surprise and be a top six team, but their lack of depth is a possible problem.

6. Memphis Grizzlies

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Last May, everyone looked at Memphis as the team to dethrone the Heat. They had the twin towers that would bang the inside and make Chris Bosh play big. Of course, they could not even take a game against San Antonio in the conference finals, so now no one is quite as high on them. They are still a playoff team in my book since they have the second best center in the game in Marc Gasol, a dominant rebounder in Zach Randolph, and a good point guard in Mike Conley. Tayshaun Prince is getting old and Tony Allen does not contribute much offensively, but defensively, this team is probably the best in the Western Conference. This will be a key since they do not really have one dynamic scorer, more like scoring by committee. Mike Miller off the bench will be essential because outside of him, they have no real shooters, except maybe Conley. Assuming their defense remains dominant, they are a playoff team.

5. Houston Rockets

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I believe that as it stands now, this team is overrated. Their star is, in my humble opinion, the most overrated player in the NBA today. James Harden can score, no doubt about it. He cannot score like Kevin Durant and his scoring rarely allows his teammates to benefit. He is not a great defender or rebounder or passer, so he is one-dimensional. To say he is a top-five player in the league right now is foolish. I believe that he is top ten, but number nine or ten, no higher. Their big acquisition, Dwight Howard, is a dominant defensive player and a dominant rebounder. He is far from a dominant scorer. He should be Shaquille O’Neal, but his offensive game has not developed at all in the last five years. With that in mind, his strength inside still gets him fifteen to twenty a night, so I have to say he is a top ten player in the NBA. That gives them two top ten players on their team, and a supporting cast that does not get enough credit. Jeremy Lin is not Linsanity anymore, but he has showed that he is a nice compliment to a great scorer. Chandler Parsons is, in my mind, the most underrated player in the game. He can jump, he can shoot, he can score, he can defend, I love everything about him. Houston’s question is at the power forward spot, where they are more than likely going to start second year man Terrence Jones, who was in the D-League most of the season. As a whole, I like the Rockets, but I feel like I know what they are going to be. I see the four teams ahead of them as potential Finals contenders, and I am not totally convinced that Houston will be that this year.

4. Golden State Warriors

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Steph Curry is one of the league’s hottest stars right now, and for good reason. He may be the best pure shooter in the league’s history, and as much as anyone, he has the ability to explode for fifty or sixty. His fellow Splash Brother, Klay Thompson, is almost equally as explosive a shooter. They have a very strong front court in David Lee, Andrew Bogut, and new acquisition Andre Iguodala, so top to bottom I love this starting five. Losing Jarrett Jack will have a large impact, but I believe Harrison Barnes will more than fill the sixth man scoring role and is a superstar in the making. Overall, I love this team and think they are absolutely a title contender, but since they do rely on shooting much of the time, they will have their off nights and that makes them a four seed.

3. San Antonio Spurs

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Defending Western Conference champs, this team will never surprise us. They have a top five point guard, a top five center, one of the league’s rising young stars in Kawhi Leonard, and a solid supporting cast. The only potentially significant change they made was adding Marco Bellinelli, who proved to be a versatile scorer for the Bulls a year ago. They are a three seed because eventually age has to be a factor I figure, but they also have Pop as their coach and Parker and Duncan as their stars, so they are contenders for like the twentieth straight year.

2. Los Angeles Clippers

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This team shows what a great point guard can do for a team. Overall, I think Blake Griffin is overrated. He can score in traffic better than anyone not named LeBron and is a pretty damn efficient rebounder, but defensively he is nothing special and he has yet to add a jump shot to his repertoire. But this team is a top contender because of Chris Paul. He is the best point guard in the game and a top three player overall. He facilitates like no one else, he is a lights-out shooter, can score in the paint, is an outstanding on ball defender, and all while being undersized at six feet tall. He makes Blake a dominant player, Deandre Jordan a highlight reel, and will probably allow JJ Redick and Jamal Crawford to have great seasons shooting the ball. The addition of Jared Dudley from Phoenix gives the Clips a solid starter at the three spot which they did not really have a year ago with a broken down Caron Butler. Oh yeah. Doc Rivers is also their coach now. That being said, this is a team that I view as a contender for sure, but I see them as more of a regular season great team than a postseason great team. I believe the Spurs and the Thunder are greater threats in the West.

1. Oklahoma City Thunder

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This is the only team in the league with two of the league’s top five players. Yes, Westbrook is hurt right now, but once he returns, I expect to see a similar situation to Derrick Rose’s where he proves from the gate that he is back to being a dominant player. Outside of their stars, the team does not look great. They are solid up front with Ibaka and Perkins, and Sefolosha is a lock down defender, but their offense will almost always come from Kevin Durant and Westbrook. Jeremy Lamb is young, but looks to be a strong contributor this year, and will be essential to OKC’s run to another top seed. The issue for this team will be getting over the hump of the Westbrook injury, which looks like it will last four to six weeks, but beyond that, I think the Thunder are the top team in the West. They are not the most complete team, but as we always see, biology always wins over chemistry. Star power beats out all in the NBA, and no other team in the West has it quite like OKC.

Western Conference Finals

Oklahoma City vs. San Antonio

Oklahoma City wins in six games

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AWARD PICKS

Rookie of the Year: Victor Oladipo

Obvious pick for now since no other rookie is being given the opportunities Oladipo is getting, since Orlando kind of stinks. I also see him as the most NBA ready rookie right now, a potential Dwyane Wade clone without quite the explosiveness and a little better defensively.

Sixth Man of the Year: Tyreke Evans

There is a possibility that Eric Gordon will be traded and push Evans into a starting role, but Evans is probably the best player in the NBA right now who does not start. I think he will get the edge over Harrison Barnes because he is right now a more versatile scorer, but it is close between the two.

Defensive Player of the Year: LeBron James

People keep finding ways to not give him this award, just like they did every year with Michael Jordan post-1988. He can guard every position well and is the league’s top athlete, so please, writers. I don’t like it any more than you do (see previous post about my Bulls loyalty. I need Joakim Noah to win this award some day), but just suck it up and give it to him.

Coach of the Year: Mike Brown

Back where he belongs: with a Cleveland team that has a big name star and not a ton else. He will win coach of the year because Cleveland should be a playoff team, but since they stunk last year, he will get attention. Really, the best coach will be Doc Rivers, but the Clippers have been good for a few years now.

MVP: Derrick Rose

This will happen for the exact same reason it happened three years ago. The Bulls will have the league’s best record, Derrick will go 26 and 8, and people will not want to give LeBron number five just yet, since that will tie him with Michael. Will Rose be the league’s best player this year? Of course not. I’m not even saying he will be the most valuable. But he will win the award.

Oh, I realized I forgot to tell you who I have winning it all this year. In a seven game series between the Chicago Bulls and the Oklahoma City Thunder, I believe the Bulls will win in seven games.

NBA Champion: Chicago Bulls

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Let’s get psyched for another great NBA season! Should be a good one.

I swear I did this objectively.

Photo credits:

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Jereme Richmond’s Tragic Story

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This is a piece I wrote for Millennial Influx on the career and post-career of former Illinois basketball star Jereme Richmond. As a Chicago-area high school athlete myself, I was very aware of Richmond’s rise and fall, and I found his post-Illini career to be fascinating.

Here is a little snippet:

Much of the stock that Richmond was counting on was based on his high school résumé . As a Chicago-area athlete, he had a high profile from day one. He was a McDonald’s All-American. His Waukegan high school team made it to the Illinois state championship his junior year. They finished third his senior year, a season in which he was named Illinois Mr. Basketball, as well. His high school days were also marked with no small amount of issues. During his sophomore year, he was kicked off the team for constant altercations with players and coaches. He returned later that season, but the remainder of his prep career was characterized by controversy.

You can read the rest of the article at this link:

http://www.millennialinflux.com/the-tragedy-of-jereme-richmond-so-far/

2013-14 NBA Season Preview Part 1

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My favorite season of all is almost upon us. In five long days, the NBA season kicks off with the defending champ Miami Heat taking on the try-hard Chicago Bulls, but this time with a theoretically healthy Derrick Rose. Should be a good one to start the season.

With the tip-off in sight, it seems like a good time to present my picks for the upcoming season.

Now, just a little disclaimer. I try to be as unbiased in my picks and analysis as possible, but I am, in fact, a die-hard Bulls fan. And I am excited about this season’s prospects, and my preview will likely reflect that. But I do earnestly believe and respect my own picks as an objective observer.

I will be counting down the eight teams in each conference that I believe will be playoff teams, I will give my picks to win each conference, the league awards, and most importantly, the NBA champion.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

8. Washington Wizards

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Let me preface this by saying that the eastern conference looks to once again be very top heavy. I do not really consider any of the bottom four teams to really compete for an NBA title. That being said, I suppose once a team makes the playoffs, anything can happen. I believe that Washington will have a losing record, as every Eastern Conference eight seed seems to do nowadays, but I also believe that the Wizards have a couple potential all-stars in John Wall and Bradley Beal. They have a fine rookie prospect in Otto Porter. Their veteran front court can bang the boards a little bit. I am not saying they will set the world on fire, but the Wizards should have enough to be a playoff team.

7. Detroit Pistons

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The Pistons made the splashy moves in the offseason, getting Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings. They also brought back a legendary figure in Detroit in Chauncey Billups, though that figures to not impact the team that much. The big factor in Detroit’s season will be the development of their two young big men, Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond. All signs point to them being a quality set of twin towers, but for now, there is still a lot of raw to their game, especially Drummond. I would not be shocked if Detroit jumped ahead a few years in development and grabbed a four or five seed, but I think the project is still another year or two down the road, and I think Josh Smith is more than likely going to cost the Pistons as many games as he wins them, like he did in Atlanta.

6. Cleveland Cavaliers

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This pick is 100% dependent on two things: Dion Waiters and Anthony Bennett. More specifically, their development. I have not been terribly impressed with Anthony Bennett in the number one pick sense, but he has a lot of potential, especially on the boards. Waiters as a rookie had a lot of flash, so I expect to see a little more offense out of him. We know what we will see out of the two big names, Kyrie Irving and Andrew Bynum. Irving will be one of the league’s top players and Bynum will continue his downward spiral into obscurity. The energy and rebounding of Anderson Varejao represent a poor-man’s Joakim Noah, so you know I love that. The big pick up for the Cavs was Jarrett Jack, who had the best season of his career last year in Golden State. He can score in bunches on occasion, he can facilitate, he is a great guy to have coming off of your bench. A lot of my faith in Cleveland is based on big questions, but I believe that they can get it done.

5. New York Knicks

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In terms of style of play, there is no team I hate watching more than the Knicks. It is a ton of isolation and one-on-one by their three main scorers, Carmelo, JR Smith, and Raymond Felton. The addition of Andrea Bargnani will open up the lanes a little for Melo, since he is a big man who plays almost exclusively away from the hoop, but I know what I will see offensively from this team. Defensively, they have three really nice players in Tyson Chandler, Iman Shumpert, and Metta World Peace, but they do not contribute a ton offensively. I think the best way to describe the Knicks is like a football team: they have a squad to score points and a squad to play defense, but neither squad can do what the other does. They have the star power to win forty-five games, but don’t expect serious contention from the Knickerbockers.

4. Brooklyn Nets

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Last year, this was a team of underachieving superstars and all-stars. This year, with the addition of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Jason Kidd pacing the sideline, they will not be allowed to underachieve. The problem is their big pickups are no longer major difference-makers. They will be difference makers, but they do not push the Nets over the edge. What could do the trick is Deron Williams limiting his three-point shooting and Brook Lopez getting just a little bit of clue of how to play defense. Also, for a seven-footer, Lopez is not much of a rebounder. Theoretically, KG will help fix this. The Nets have a deep bench with Jason Terry, Andray Blatche, and Andrei Kirilenko, and Joe Johnson still sometimes is the Atlanta Joe Johnson, so I cannot rule the Nets out as a major contender in the Eastern Conference. But I do not see a huge improvement from last year’s Nets team that lost to a depleted Bulls roster in round one of the playoffs.

3. Indiana Pacers

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There are two differences of significance between this year’s Pacers team and last year’s. One, Danny Granger returns, which should only help their offense, since Lance Stephenson offensive game could be described as erratic at best last year. The only negative effect it could is if Granger wants to immediately return to being the guy in Indiana, which he clearly is not anymore. This is now Paul George’s team, and if Granger’s on board, he will be dangerous. The other difference is Roy Hibbert’s unending confidence from the Miami series. Look at his regular season stats from a year ago and nothing really stands out. But those who saw the playoffs suddenly say Hibbert is the third best center in the NBA (looking at you, ESPN). Though I do not agree with that assessment, I do think Hibbert will be more consistent and make Indiana a powerhouse. They are a pesky team with only one real all-star for the time being, but they always give good teams fits.

2. Miami Heat

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They will be the two seed regardless of Dwyane Wade’s health. I will explain why in the next section. However, as long as they have the best player in the world and a supporting cast that at least played ball in high school, Miami will be the favorite in the East. They did not make any huge acquisitions,–the biggest one probably was probably Michael Beasley–but that is because they have won two straight titles with this group. I think it may be the last hurrah for the Big Three, but they still got this season, even though I believe that Wade’s gimp will make them more of a Big Two and a Half.

1. Chicago Bulls

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Here is why they will be the one seed: As long as Thibodeau is in the NBA, he will do everything he can to win every single game. And as long as Derrick Rose is healthy, Thibs will succeed more often than not. With a healthy Rose, the Bulls now have both the top defensive team in the league and an offense that no longer looks pathetic. Though it is only the preseason, the Bulls have yet to lose in the warm-up contests and Rose has looked fantastic. They added a shooter in Mike Dunleavy, they drafted some shooters who probably will barely sniff the floor, and they still have Luol Deng and Joakim Noah as the backbone of the team. The Bulls top seed is also going to be pretty reliant on Jimmy Butler’s continued emergence as both one of the league’s premier defensive stoppers and a guy who can contribute ten to fifteen points a game. Taj Gibson also needs to be more like his 2011-2012 pre-contract self. All that falls into place, even with Thibs resting Rose five to ten games this year, the Bulls could and should win sixty games.

Eastern Conference Finals

Chicago vs. Miami

Chicago wins in seven games.

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So there are my Eastern Conference picks and previews, as impartial as I possibly could.

Check in soon for my Western Conference preview and Award picks.

Photo Credits:

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http://thelincolnianonline.files.wordpress.com/2012/02/cavs_kyrie_irving_1.jpg

http://www.madduxsports.com/blog/nba-betting-odds-and-predictions-dallas-mavericks-vs-new-york-knicks-26038

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The art of resting players vs. the thrill of victory. Can Tom Thibodeau learn?

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In the wake of Derrick Rose’s preseason return to action, many eyes will be on how Tom Thibodeau handles his minutes, as well as the minutes of his other stars, the oft-hurt Luol Deng and Joakim Noah, and those of his younger defensive stars, Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson. Thibodeau insistence on winning every game has chapped a few Bulls fans over his three year tenure, so the experts are going to be keeping a close eye on the health of the players.

Below is a link and and excerpt from an article I wrote detailing the past, present, and future of Thibs’ coaching philosophy:

http://www.millennialinflux.com/can-tom-thibodeau-look-down-the-road/

Tom Thibodeau is widely regarded as the best defensive mind in the NBA. When he was an assistant in Boston under Doc Rivers, the Celtics were always among the league’s best in points allowed. After the Bulls fired Vinny del Negro in 2010, Thibs, as he is affectionately referred to, was the front-runner for the job from the beginning. And his defensive reputation followed him, as the Bulls were atop the NBA defensively in each of his first two seasons as head coach. His record reflected this, as well, because the Bulls were the NBA’s top team in those two years.

However, players often dealt with nagging injuries that they would always choose to play through. Joakim Noah had plantar fasciitis. Luol Deng had bone chips in his wrist. Carlos Boozer had a calf. Derrick Rose had an ankle. But they would always play through it. Whether it was the players’ own personal prerogative or the culture pressed on them by Tom Thibodeau is not clear, but one thing is perfectly clear: Thibs wants, and needs, to win every single game, regular season, postseason, preseason.

This is often the only criticism that befalls the brilliant coach.

As a journalist and a die-hard Bulls fan, this will be the most fascinating story from what hopes to be a very promising Bulls season.

This is it: The Breaking Bad finale and where we go from here

****SPOILERS****

breaking-bad-season-5-finale-640x327Breaking Bad is a television show in the sense that it is a drama that airs on TV station AMC. But anyone who watches the show will tell you that it is far wider reaching than any ordinary television program. This was evidenced by yesterday’s finale and the reaction to it. As soon as it ended, I went online to read reviews and within the hour every single entertainment web site had released a review. No program since The Sopranos has had that kind of a following, that necessity to immediately tell the world what experts thought of it. Even Time.com promptly put their review online.

Like every other review, Time critic James Poniewozik addressed the questions answered, (will Walt die, yes; will Jesse die, no; will Walt kill Uncle Jack and co., yes; etc.) and those left unanswered (wiill Walter Jr get the money? What happens to Jesse and Brock now? Lydia’s daughter). It addressed how the series’ shining moment was two episodes prior, in “Ozymandias,” but the finale was as effective a way to end the series as possible. It addressed the issue of Walter’s redemption and the ambiguity of it. Yes, everything in his patchwork plan happened as well as he could have hoped, but everyone he has made contact with over the last year or so of his life is either dead or infinitely worse off. Poniewozik makes a fascinating reference to Gollum to describe Walter’s death: He dies alone with his “precious,” that being a meth lab. It is a fascinating way to look at Walt and all his actions. Walt does not gaze on his family in a hospital room as the cancer takes him. No, he dies where he was most happy. It reflects Walt’s final words to Skyler. “I did it for me. I did it because I liked it. I was good at it.”

I took to writing here about Breaking Bad because I loved it. I loved the show. I loved the characters, however ego-maniacal they may be. There was not a second of the show over the last three years of devoted watching that I wished had been done differently. Last night, as I sawthe camera pan up from Walter White’s lifeless body, I teared up. And when Walter confessed to Skyler his true, unadulterated reason for his actions, the tears flowed relentlessly. I lived Breaking Bad, got absorbed in it, felt every single pang of defeat and victory and heartbreak. And now it’s over.

Why do we get absorbed in such a way? It is perfectly normal for a TV show, or a movie, or a book to suck us in and make us live it, if only for a short while. But even so, I feel strange now, being without Walter White for the rest of my life. It feels almost like when my dog died. Is it good that we dissolve into an imaginary universe? Or is it potentially harmful to get so wrapped up that it kills us when it ends? I don’t know if I have the answer to that, all I know is it has been fifteen hours since Walt’s death and I still feel awful.

With such a rush to get ideas on the finale online, it seems pretty clear that a lot of other people felt the same thing, seeing Walt that way, the last way we will ever see him. To be honest, I don’t know where we as a television society go from here. Maybe we just sit back and reflect on the fun. Because after all, we don’t watch shows to please other people or make the world a better place.

We do it for ourselves.

Image courtesy of :

http://static.hypable.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/breaking-bad-season-5-finale-640×327.jpg

Pope Francis takes a modern perspective on homosexuality

Pope FrancisIn an interview with a Rome-based Jesuit journal, Pope Francis stated that he believes the church has become “obsessed” with it’s take on homosexuality, abortion, an contraception, at the cost of what he believes should be the true goals of the church, being a “home for all”. Though he did not come out in full support of gay marriage, he stated his feelings of church “interference.”

“The church can share its views on homosexuality, abortion and other issues, but should not “interfere spiritually” with the lives of gays and lesbians”

These new quotes from the pope continue on what has become a sixth papacy marked by new, far more modern ideas on some of the church’s more fundamental beliefs. The church has at times used traditional doctrine as a reason for condemnation, and for many non-Christians, this has been one of the biggest turn-offs. 

As an advocate of “good gay treatment” as opposed to full-on gay rights, Pope Francis has established himself as a visionary within the context of the church. Though his statements on the church’s purpose may seem like an obvious one to an outsider, it is a decidedly modern view on a group that has been obsessed with doctrine and how these issues of homosexuality and abortion fit in or do not fit in to their doctrine. Pope Francis states that the church has become “locked up…in small minded rules” and “putting dogma before love.”

Since gay marriage has become such a polarizing topic in the world today, naturally the church has taken as many opportunities as possible to work in the their views on the subject. Francis vehemently states that “it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.”

“We have to find a new balance, otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel”

Whether or not someone supports gay marriage, the pope’s modern take on church as an advocate of love over doctrine is a refreshing take on one of the world’s most controversial subjects.

Quotes courtesy of:

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/20/world/europe/pope-bluntly-faults-churchs-focus-on-gays-and-abortion.html

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/09/19/pope-francis-gay_n_3954776.html

http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/chi-pope-francis-gays-20130919,0,6719110.story

http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2013/09/19/pope-francis-abortion-gays-interview/2837495/

http://www.latimes.com/opinion/opinion-la/la-ol-pope-catholic-conservatives-20130919,0,5087717.story

Photo courtesty of:

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