Friday, May 22, 2015

Winston Looks Like a Winner

By Travis Stahl

Some athletes are born leaders.  We see Derek Jeter and we know he is Mr. Yankee, it all goes through him.  The same can be said about Kobe Bryant in LA, the Lakers are his team and we all know it.  There are just some guys who, without saying a word, can lead a team with their actions and teammates follow.  Those are the guys who we view as great players.  As surprising as it sounds, Jameis Winston is looking like that kind of player already in Tampa Bay.

When the Buccaneers started their rookie mini-camp last week Winston was the first guy there.  He arrived a couple of hours early so he could be sure to greet every other player that arrived.  When the first-year players got out on the field to start running through the playbook there were some guys who were a little lost.  Not Jameis, he already knew the whole playbook.  He knew it so well according to reports that he was changing protections and blocking schemes to plays the other rookies didn't know existed in the Bucs offense.  The coaches had to slow Winston down.

That is exactly what a team wants from the face of it's franchise.  As the No. 1 pick Winston is expected to lead and set an example for the rest of the players.  That's who he was at Florida State.  And there in lies the rub as they say.  Those three words are what makes a difference when we talk about Winston.  "At Florida State."  When the uniform is on Winston is the greatest leader any coach could put before his team.  When the uniform comes off, will Tampa Bay see the Winston who was "at Florida State."  They hope not.

Just maybe Winston has grown up.  We don't know.  We have access to the things he does on the field and in the locker room.  We don't see what he does at home at night or when he is out with the boys at Denny's.  FYI, I'm sure Winston and his crew aren't hanging at the local Denny's, I was trying to be funny.  All Tampa hopes for is that he keeps his name out of the papers and off Sports Center unless it is for things he does on the field.  That could happen, maybe we have seen the last of Winston's dumb decisions.  The Bucs were convinced that would be the case when they made him the top pick in the draft earlier this month.

We're all critics.  There's a little part in all of us that wants to see this guy fail because of what he did in college.  But what if he doesn't?  What if it turns out he just made some bad decisions and now that is all behind him?  I know it's early but the guy already is behaving like a quarterback who is going to take control of the franchise and carry it to the playoffs in a very weak division.  While there is always going to be a little part of me just waiting for Winston to steal pop at Burger King again there is another part that wants to see him do well.  The NFL is severely void right now of quality quarterbacks, it would be nice to see one step in and take control of a team like Tampa.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Miami Spent Smart Money

By Travis Stahl

None of us would turn down millions of dollars if it was sitting on the table staring at us.  We would all gladly accept that money and run laughing all the way to the bank.  Let's be honest, even if didn't feel like we totally deserved all that cash we would still take it because it would change our lives forever.  And that my friends is why Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill was so quick to sign an extension this week.  The Dolphins extended Tannehill's stay with the team to the tune of $96 million with $21 million guaranteed.

I know that seems like a lot of money for a guy who has never been in the playoffs.  But Miami had no choice.  The NFL is a quarterback league and you either have one or you don't.  The Dolphins feel like they have a good one in Tannehill who can continue to develop and take this team to the postseason.  Right now he is not an elite quarterback, there is no arguing that.  But if you look at total QBR from last season the top 11 quarterbacks in the league were all over 30 years old.  The three highest rated quarterbacks under the age of 30 are Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson and Tannehill.  Becoming a great quarterback in this league takes time.

All the Dolphins did was ensure that time happens with them and not with another team.  Miami feels like it has all the tools in place now to help Tannehill succeed.  The running game is pretty stable with Knowshon Morano and Lamar Miller.  The passing game has improved significantly with the signing of tight-end Jordan Cameron and the trade for receiver Kenny Stills.  Then the Dolphins went out and drafted Davante Parker from Louisville who gives Tannehill a big target who goes up and gets the ball at its highest point.  Plus the team still has receiver Jarvis Landry who was outstanding last season as a rookie.  If the offensive line holds together (and that's a big if) then Miami should bein the thick of the playoff race.

Tannehill is a great leader and we have to keep in mind the guy is still learning to play the position.  Having said that, it could be now or never in Miami.  Head coach Joe Philbin has been given enough time now to put the Dolphins in a position where they can make the playoffs.  If they don't it could be curtains for Philbin which would also set back Tannehill to have to learn another new offensive system.  It won't be easy for the team to make the playoffs as much as the Jets and Bills have improved just within their own division.  Of course all three of those teams are still looking up at the Patriots who aren't going to take too much of a step back.

Miami extending Tannehill's deal now was completely justified.  If the team waited until after Luck and Wilson signed their extensions it was just going to cost them more money to extend Tannehill.  Why take that chance?  It was smart money to make the first move and get Tannehill's deal done before the market determined he was worth more than the Dolphins wanted to give him.  Now Miami just needs to see the payoff from the deal on the field in the postseason.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Projecting the Lottery Picks

By Travis Stahl

See, I told you this yesterday.  We all win with the NBA draft lottery.  You want to know how hard I laughed when the New York Knicks got bumped down to pick No. 4?  Uncontrollable laughter.  It was almost as much fun to see the Philadelphia Sixers get kicked in the sixes for the second year in a row after major tanking efforts failed to pay off.  Philly could have walked away with three lottery picks.  Instead they only get their own at No. 3.  The Los Angeles Lakers were the beneficiary of the ping-pong ball bonanza as their envelope was pulled at pick No. 2 right behind the Minnesota Timberwolves with the first pick in the draft.  Just hilarious.  Here is a first look at how the draft might play out among the lottery teams.

1. Minnesota Timberwolves - Karl Anthony-Towns, Power Forward, Kentucky - Towns is the most talented player in the draft at both ends of the court.  And he can shoot free throws.
2. Los Angeles Lakers - Jalil Okafur, Center, Duke - A true center in every sense of the word.  Offense is great but defense is still a bit awful at times.
3. Philadelphia 76ers - DeAngelo Russell, Point Guard, Ohio State - Philly still needs a point guard after shipping out Michael Carter-Williams and Russell could be a star.
4. New Knicks York - Emmanual Mudiay, Point Guard, China - The ultimate unknown player.  Mudiay is a 6'5 true point guard who is still learning how to be an offensive star.
5. Orlando Magic - Justise Winslow, Small Forward, Duke - Some are saying Winslow is the best player in the draft.
6. Sacramento Kings - Stanley Johnson, Small Forward, Arizona - The Kings have been looking for somebody who can score on the wings for years.
7. Denver Nuggets - Kristaps Porzingis, Center, Latvia - Doesn't this just feel like a pick the Nuggets would make?
8. Detroit Pistons - Kelly Oubre, Shooting Guard, Kansas - Anybody else on Detroit have the ability to score from the perimeter?  Didn't think so.
9. Charlotte Hornets - Frank Kaminsky, Power Forward, Wisconsin - The Hornets are on the verge of making the playoffs.  Kaminsky makes sense as a guy who can help right now.
10. Miami Heat - Willie Cauly-Stein, Center, Kentucky - Time to start building for the future.
11. Indiana Pacers - Sam Decker, Small Forward, Wisconsin - Mr. Versatility and Effort seems like the perfect fit for the Pacers.
12. Utah Jazz - Mario Hezonja, Small Forward, Croatia - Utah has been trying to add some scoring punch for years to go along with Gordon Haywood.
13. Phoenix Suns - Myles Turner, Center, Texas - Somebody has to play defense for the Suns.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

We All Win the Lottery

By Travis Stahl

We root for the underdog, right?  We want to see the laughable loser or the team nobody thinks can win pull out a victory over the teams that appear to be far superior.  That is the spirit of sports, that the loser has a chance to rise up and knock off the better team.  That's why we watch the games, because anything can happen so we cheer our little hearts out for the underdog.  Not in the NBA draft lottery.  When it comes lottery time we always end up watching with anticipation to see the team with the worst record get screwed over.

Isn't that hilarious?  The New York Knicks and Minnesota Timberwolves enter tonight's draft lottery as the two teams with the worst records in the NBA.  As a result, the Knicks and Wolves have the best odds of earning the No. 1 pick tonight when the ping-pong balls are pulled from the hopper.  If you aren't familiar with the way the NBA declares it's draft order for non-playoff teams I'm not making any of this up, this is really how the NBA does it.  Even though the Knicks and Wolves have the best odds of getting the top pick we sit and wait and root for another team to jump them in the draft order.  It's the only situation I can think of when we as fans don't want the underdog to win.

Maybe we don't want the team's with the worst records rewarded at lottery time because we know how much tanking goes on at the end of the season.  And yes, teams do try to lose as many games at the end of the season as they can to increase their odds of earning a higher pick.  We would rather see a team that tried to win all season like Phoenix or Utah have their ping-pong ball pulled out for the No. 1 pick ahead of New York or Minnesota.  That happens all the time.  Remember, the Cleveland Cavaliers jumped up to the No. 1 pick twice just in the last four years without having the worst record in the league.  The possibility of having some team leap to the front of the line is what makes the lottery interesting.  It's our chance to see a team's future change while at the same time seeing some team punished for their wrong doings.

To be honest, I wouldn't be upset if Minnesota wins the first pick.  I like what the Timberwolves are doing and they have a good core of young players.  Adding Karl Anthony-Towns to play along side Zach Lavine and Andrew Wiggins is exciting.  I hate the Knicks.  I hate their stupid uniforms.  I hate Carmelo Anthony.  I hate owner James Dolan.  The one thing I don't want out of the lottery tonight is for the Knicks to earn the top pick.  I will be watching tonight not only rooting for a team to jump up to the front but also to see that team jump over the Knicks in the draft order.  That would be perfection.

For the record, I don't like the idea of the draft lottery.  But in the NBA where you have so many teams racing to the bottom I understand they have to do something.  I personally am in favor of having a one-and-done playoff with the teams who are in the lottery when the regular season ends.  Whichever team wins the tournament gets the No. 1 pick.  That would encourage teams to keep playing hard and trying to win at the end of the season.  It's not a perfect plan but it's got to work better than the lottery and it would certainly eliminate tanking.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Clipped

By Travis Stahl

Building a successful NBA team is no easy task.  Maintaining a successful team and taking it from competitive to title worthy is even more difficult.  It requires the right mix of young and old players as well as a championship caliber coach who is capable to bringing the team together and knowing what buttons to push and when to push them.  For years the Los Angeles Clippers were the laughing stock of the NBA but now they are competitive.  Just not competitive enough and now they are stuck.  After getting eliminated from the playoffs yesterday by the Houston Rockets the Clippers are now in a difficult spot of trying to figure out how to take the next step.

The Clippers have a good foundation with Chris Paul and Blake Griffin.  But that's it.  DeAndre Jordan is a rebounding and defensive machine.  Jordan has no offensive game though and although he has been instrumental in getting the Clippers to this point he isn't the kind of guy you can throw max money at.  LA could sign three effective players for the money Jordan is going to get offered from other teams.  The team has a title-worthy coach in place in Doc Rivers so it isn't like the cupboard is bare.  Once the trio of Paul, Griffin and Rivers were brought together the team's plan derailed.  LA wanted to win and it wanted to win now so it did what other very good teams do, it got desperate.

Instead of actually using the draft as a way to add talent to the roster the Clippers started trading away picks.  In the last two years the team hasn't made ANY significant selections in the NBA draft.  That's zero.  The last time LA made a first round pick it actually played was in 2010 when it selected Al-Farouq Amini at No. 8.  Other than that pick the team has two gone with two first rounders in Reggie Bullocks and C.J. Watson that it hasn't allowed to sniff the floor and a handful of second rounders no longer with the team. The Clippers opted for the "LeBron James/Cleveland Cavaliers get really good now scheme" which doesn't work in the NBA.

LA thought it was good enough to win a title right now with the core of Paul and Griffin.  The team didn't want to invest the time in young players to develop along side it's superstars so it started handing out contracts to hired guns.  Jamal Crawford, Matt Barnes, J.J. Redick, Spencer Hawes and even Austin Rivers are not the kind of guys you can pin title hopes on.  Those guys are role players who are only capable of holding down the fort while starters catch their breath.  But LA brought them in anyway because they were veterans who the team hoped would just fill in around Paul and Griffin.  This plan didn't work when LeBron was in his first stint in Cleveland, it barely worked in Miami and it was a disaster when the Bulls tried to put a roster together around Derrick Rose when it added Carlos Boozer and other dead weight.

The Clippers saw their title window and open and thought they needed to jump through it right now.  They are wrong.  You know what happens to old guys in the playoffs?  They get tired.  You have to have two or three young guys in the line-up who can go out and play at 100 MPH every night to keep dogging the opponent.  LA doesn't have players like that and now it is going to be difficult to get them.  Maybe Austin Rivers develops, he is still young, but the team almost has to jettison the rest of the bench and try to bring in some guys who aren't going to die when the playoffs start.  And, for the love of God, the Clippers need to make some draft picks.  You never know when a later selection in the draft will develop into a guy like Draymond Green.  Take a chance on young players.

LA will still be in the playoffs as long as Griffin and Paul are on the roster, those two guys are good enough to get a team there.  But to win a title you need three guys and a solid bench and the Clippers don't have either of those things.  If they can get that Doc is more than capable of coaching this team to a ring.  There are likely big changes on the horizon for the Clippers and there should be.  LA got tricked, as other teams do, into chasing the title right now instead of being patient.

Friday, May 15, 2015

How Did We Underestimate Cleveland?

By Travis Stahl

You know those games where the final buzzer sounds and you think to yourself, "how did that happen."  That was last night's Cleveland Cavaliers/Chicago Bulls game.  Wasn't Chicago supposed to seriously challenge Cleveland?  Weren't the Cavs supposed to fall apart with Kevin Love done for the year?  As odd as it sounds, we have somehow overlooked the Cavaliers?  It took 82 regular season games and two rounds of the playoffs but Cleveland might be clicking on all cylinders now.

We knew all year the Cavs were going to be exceptional offensively.  But defensively they were a mess.  That has changed as Cleveland held the Bulls to only 73 points last night.  Only 73 points to the team we all thought was here to change the playoff landscape and knock the LeBrons out of the playoffs.  Even more impressive was that last night's win for Cleveland came because Matthew Delavadova and J.R. Smith had big games and not LeBron James and Kyrie Irving.  That has to be more scary to the rest of the league than anything else.

If Delavadova and Smith continue to play as they did last night the Hawks or Wizards will have nothing for Cleveland in the Eastern Conference finals.  All those two guys have to do is play average basketball and odds are James and Irving will do the rest.  Especially if the defense keeps swarming lock a pack of angry dogs.  When Love was lost with a separated shoulder nobody thought we would ever be at this point.  The Bulls were immediately tabbed as the team that would send the Cavs home.  That didn't happen and it seems all that chatter dismissing Cleveland's chances just woke up a sleeping giant.  As long as everybody else does their part LeBron knows how to carry a team in the playoffs.

Is it possible Cleveland is a better team without Love on the floor?  The power forward opens up driving lines for LeBron and Irving with his three point shooting and he is a solid rebounder.  But Love isn't going to win any defensive player of the year awards.  Inserting Tristin Thompson in at power forward has allowed Cleveland to lock down on opponents defensive.  Sure, the Cavs aren't as good on offense but they don't need to be when the defense is holding opponents in check the way it was last night.  Defense goes a long way to winning a title in the NBA, that's what made Miami so good when it was winning rings.  Now Cleveland is turning it up at the right time.

Cleveland is surely going to be favored to win the East now.  But when the Cavs reach the finals they may be quickly dismissed again.  I think that would be a mistake.  I know what you're thinking, how can we possibly overlook a team with LeBron James?  I don't have the answer to that but we just did it so it could happen again.  We won't be fooled again.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Beating the Buzzer

By Travis Stahl

Playoffs are supposed to be exciting, that is what we expect of them.  It's win or go home.  We usually get to see the kind of fortitude an NBA team has late in games when the outcome hangs in the balance.  Who will step up?  Will the shot fall?  In these NBA playoffs so far every team has the guts to pull out a win late and the answer to that second question is a resounding yes, the shot will fall.  Last night was the latest of edition of beat the buzzer in these wild NBA playoffs.

The No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, the Atlanta Hawks, were on the ropes last night.  Then, it happened again.  Hawks forward Al Horford tipped in a put back as time ran off the clock to give Atlanta the victory.  So far this year we have now seen Horford, LeBron James, Derrick Rose, Paul Pierce and Steph Curry hit shots as the clock hit zero to give their team a win.  That is a lot of late-game drama and definitely something we have never seen before in the NBA playoffs.  Hitting those shots late says a lot about the players involved and also gives us to some insight as to just how wide open the playoffs are this season.

Think about it like this, how do we get to the point where those shots are necessary?  It's because two teams have played each other so close right down to the wire that it takes a miracle shot at the buzzer to grab victory.  Teams this year so far are so evenly matched that there have been very few instances in which one team has pulled away and delivered a knock out punch early.  Instead we see teams trading shots back and forth all the way to the end of the game.  That's good for us as fans.  We want excitement and drama in the playoffs.  This is where legends are made.

People are going to be talking about the shot Pierce made for Washington against Atlanta for years.  When Pierce was asked if he called "bank" on his shot off the backboard he declared "I called game."  Bam!  Sometimes a shot that big will knock out an opponent for good.  It didn't as the Hawks bounced back and got their own miracle from Horford.  The same thing happened in the Chicago/Cleveland series.  Rose saves the Bulls with a huge shot at the buzzer only to see LeBron come back and hit that shot in the corner falling out of bounds.  If the score is close late don't go to bed, the best is yet to come.

In 10 years when we are talking about great players and their legacies we will likely be reflecting back on these playoffs.  Pierce and James already have rings so if they go on to win another title their shots are another jewel in the crown.  For everyone else though these shots could be the defining moment of their career if their team goes on to win a title.  And, at the rate these buzzer beaters are going in we are probably going to see more.  Maybe in the finals?  That would be magical.