Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Love for D-Wade

I have a feeling Tommy Heinsohn would not approve of this post because he thinks Dwayne Wade never gets fouled. As ardent of a Celtics fan as I am, I am willing to admit the man knows how to take the ball to the hole. I'm surprised he didn't drive even more due to the black hole that was the Celtics' paint defense last night.

Watching him put a dagger in the Celtics in the fourth quarter with a long 3-pointer gave us some indication as to how much his range has improved. Not only is he doubling his career average for attempted treys (3.3) but he is shooting his highest percentage (.314) as well. Wade has always been devastating with short jumpers and bank-shots but being a threat from down town has taken his game to a whole new level.

Such improvement to an already stellar set of tools brings us to the obvious question: Since when is the leading scorer in the NBA such a dark-horse candidate for the MVP? Wade is averaging 29.7 points per game with 7.7 dimes and 5.1 rebounds and somehow is seen as a distant third runner in the race for hardware in May.

The argument that Lebron James and Kobe Bryant are more deserving because of their teams' records doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me. If Wade replaced either Kobe or Lebron in their respective lineups I doubt there would be any sort of drop off. Why am I so confident in that opinion? Wade has been playing with rookie Mario Chalmers and Chris Quinn as his point guards this year, neither of which are exactly John Stockton when it comes to court vision and passing ability. Lebron can feel D-Wade's pain and I gave him the same type of love last year when he was forced to initiate offense by himself. Now he has an elite point guard in Mo Williams to get him the ball and take some of the scoring pressure off of him. Kobe has Derek Fisher to get the ball to him in spots where he can score, which seems more simplistic than it really is but Fisher is a veteran, pass-first guard who is a huge upgrade over either of the Miami point guards.

If you read any of my summer postings, I said it wouldn't be a shock to see the Heat back in the playoffs this year as a five or six seed. Wade served notice during the Redeem Team's dominant run that he was indeed back to being the same player who had the greatest finals ever back in 2006. He had to have been in the subconscious of any basketball fan who watched the Olympics when they were predicting awards in the pre-season. My point here is that it's not as if he's coming out of nowhere or that anyone had forgotten about him.

It's nonsensical to say this is "Lebron's year" because he hasn't won the MVP before in the same way it was "Kobe's year" last year. Chris Paul was the MVP last year but because Bryant hadn't received his lifetime achievement award he was snubbed. Dwayne Wade is the NBA MVP.

Oh yeah and my answer to last night's ESPN poll that broached the question of who among James, Wade and Bryant would you want to take the last shot of a game? My answer would be reigning Finals MVP Paul Pierce.

-Clay Buchholz's road back to dominance is a bigger deal than most people are making it out to be. Much in the same way the Blue Jays did with current ace Roy Halladay, the Red Sox started from square one with Buchholz. As I said the other day, I'm not sure where or when his delivery problems arose but the Sox should have caught them sooner. I've only seen him in limited action thus far so I'm not able to go into too much depth but he does seem to be far more consistent with his motion.

Another knock against Buchholz last year while he was struggling was his tendency to not trust his fastball at times and at others give in too easily in hitter's counts. For someone so outwardly confident, it's ironic that he lost his bravado with such ease. Even if he doesn't make the rotation to begin the year, there will be a place for him eventually. And, no, I do not want them to use him as a chip to acquire Jarrod Saltalamacchia. If Joe Mauer is on the other end, I'd include him in a heart beat but Salty is a future first baseman whose ceiling isn't as high as some scouts seem to think.

-I can't believe I'm saying this but the Patriot secondary should be viewed as a strength for the first time since 2003. Not only are Shawn Springs and Leigh Bodden two solid starting cornerbacks but Ellis Hobbs is where he should be, which is placed as a number two or a nickel back. The presence of Deltha O'Neal as insurance with far less pressure on Terrence Wheatley and Jonathan Wilhite to perform well make this secondary deep. Bill Belichick knew he would need to address corner back situation with his defense suddenly unable to consistently create a pass-rush. Do we look at Bodden signing as Vrabel's replacement with a guy like Jason Taylor waiting in the wings (move to linebacker?) Give Bill credit; he is on his way to revamping this team. This wasn't an easy thing to do considering it went 18-1 two years ago and nearly made the playoffs last year without Tom Terrific behind center.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Once Again Coach Bill Confuses the Masses

Patriots fans, we've been down this road before.

The Pats said good-bye to Ben Coates and Bruce Armstrong back in 2000 when Bill Belichick took the reigns in Foxboro. Lawyer Milloy, the undisputed heart and soul of the 2001 Super Bowl champs was giving his walking papers after a 2002 season in which he didn't force a turnover. At this point it was starting to become clear there the Patriot brass was not going to be known for its sentimentality.

In the cases of Deion Branch, Adam Vinetieri, Roosevelt Colvin (the first time) and others, the reasoning for their departure was clear: value. Either they weren't worth their salary or the Patriots simply thought they were done. In each of those cases there seemed to be some sort of explanation where we could see the line of thought for letting go of key members of title teams. That's why trade the Patriots made yesterday in trading Matt Cassel and Mike Vrabel for a second round pick (34th overall) is hard to make sense of even from an objective standpoint.

For all the talk of comparing the situation that Patriots were in with Cassel to what the Packers received for Matt Hasselbeck, the Falcons received for Matt Shaub or the Vikings received for Duante Culpepper, I'm not upset about the compensation they got for Cassel. Mike Reiss put it well in today's Globe when he said this situation was different in that the Pats really had no leverage. It's either trade Cassel or take on close to $30 million for two quarterbacks next season on a team that needs to shore up a defense that was porous at times last year. This could be a valuable pick and it gives the team four picks in the opening two rounds.

The way they included Mike Vrabel as a throw-in is what stunned me and is leaving me with questions. Why trade a player who only accounts for $4 million against the salary cap who can incontrovertibly still play? Sure, he went from 12 1/2 sacks in 2007 to 4 last year but I chalk a great deal of that up to injuries (none of which he talked about) and injuries to the defensive line that limited opportunities. Vrabel has been an absolute rock for this team since coming here in 2001 and could be considered a borderline Hall-of-Fame candidate. I just can't fathom why he would be cast to the side when you consider Teddy Bruschi was on the field enough to make 75 tackles last year and will be returning for 2009. This is the same Teddy Bruschi who has forced 2 turnovers since 2004. I'm not trying to dig into Bruschi; I just can't believe this move was due to on-field performance nor was it due to monetary concerns.

I was not of the belief that the Chiefs were the sole bidder for Cassel and the reports of the squashed three way deal from Friday night between the Buccaneers, Broncos and Pats that didn't involve Vrabel lead me to believe this didn't need to happen. Acquiring the Vrabel would not have been a deal-breaker for other teams and it's unfortunate the Pats jumped the gun too early.

This is the time where we wait for the other proverbial shoe to drop and see what Belichick has up his sleeve. There have been times where he had a plan (Rodney Harrison waiting in the wings for Milloy) and times where he had clearly made a mistake (Fernando Bryant for Asante Samuel).

I'm not going to speculate on trying to acquire Ray Lewis or Derrick Brooks because I really don't see that happening. The Patriots are going to have to replace Vrabel from within and, to be frank, the well is pretty dry. The idea of Pierre Woods or Tully Banta-Cain starting on opening day scares the hell out of me. Other than Adalius Thomas and Richard Seymour who can create a consistent pass rush?

For a team who was 26th in NFL in third down defense, problems at linebacker are the last thing it needs when you consider its deficiency at both corner back and safety.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

For the 3534576457th time, Fire Bud Selig

The other day I was watching Randy Johnson's 19-strikeout game on MLB Network and the timing of the game was interesting. During the commercial breaks Bob Costas and others on the network were analyzing the Alex Rodriguez situation. While Arod didn't play in this game, he was a key component to that 1997 Mariners' parade of sluggers. As the game's greatest player is being ridiculed and lambasted on every radio and TV show as well as every type of periodical, the idea that we don't know whether Ken Griffey Jr. took steroids started to creep into our minds.

This one really hit me hard because I was a certified Griffey die-hard in the '90s (who wasn't?). There is every indication that he and other superstars were clean but we can't really be sure because of the information flow that is surging in from players. After learning Arod was on steroids we shouldn't be shocked to hear which of the other 103 players that will be named.

I don't think we can form a complete opinion on the steroids issue as a whole because we simply don't have the facts needed. Do we know definitively how long they have been around? Which players were tipped off before taking a urine sample test? What are the specific effects for each kind of drug taken?

For example, Barry Bonds was a great, Hall of Fame player prior to steroid use. Brady Anderson was a 10-15 home run lead-off hitter before his 1996 50-homer season that we all know was steroid induced. How can we quantify which steroids turned good players into great ones and decent players into all-stars?

I've had over a week since the Sports Illustrated article came out to read up on the information Arod has given us as well as look over some of the names from the Mitchell report from over a year ago. There are no consistencies when comparing the names and the eras in which players used these drugs. We know Jose Canseco was taking steroids in his MVP season of 1988, that Lenny Dykstra was taking them with the Phillies in the early 1990s, Jason Grimsley was juicing in the late '90s and a scrub like Manny Alexander somehow still batted .200 while pumping his butt full of steroids in the early 2000s. MANNY FREAKIN ALEXANDER. You know, the guy whose acne was one of the best jokes to make back in 2000.

Those names give us the full spectrum of players who have taken steroids. From an MVP to a player who was the butt of jokes in Boston for a summer. The more information that comes out, the more we should start to realize it's going to be a while before we really can define the "steroid era" and exactly who was involved.

I suppose the current question is "what now?". While we do know the game has been tarnished, it's not as if we'll stop watching. Just like my argument against the BCS, start at the top. I could go on and on about conspiracy theories that link former Brewers owner Selig and the current owners regarding who kept a blind eye toward steroids but I'll just choose to say this: fire Bud Selig.

Not only is he the worst commissioner in professional sports, he embodies everything that is wrong with baseball. Other than bringing in the wild card in 1995 he has done nothing to inspire confidence among baseball fans. Instead of declaring that the player whom he knew was taking steroids disgraced the game of baseball, Bud should have stepped down. We're going to find out how much he had to do with ushering in this now-tarnished era and he will have to pay for his decisions sooner rather than later. It will be difficult because he has the support of the owners but there will be a time where the evidence and public outcry against him are strong enough to get him out of office.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

January Thoughts

The last time I wrote about the Celtics they were heading into a Christmas day match up against the Lakers. I said they would crush the Lakers and Sasha would cry like the baby he is. Didn't happen, obviously, and the Celts dove into a tailspin in which they lost 7 of 9 while only beating the Wizards and Kings.

Since then the C's have won 7 straight and seem to be back on track but what happened during that 9-game stretch? Obviously their defense wasn't playing as well as expected and takes a portion of the blame but the offense was the real culprit here. There was no flow at all and it seemed as though everyone was just standing around and waiting for some one else to shoot it. When the ball isn't passed around in search of the best shot it leads to bad possessions that create fast-breaks for the opposition.
One of the reasons the Celtics' defense wasn't able to make the big stops it usually comes up with at the end of games was it was worn down at times. It thrives on the half-court style and having to cover a fast break more than you're used to tends wear on you after a while. This pressure put on the defense could be compared to an NFL defense having to run back on the field after a series of three-and-outs for its offense.
Simply put, when the Celtics offense plays well, they are going to win. They've only lost 1 game this year while scoring over 100 points. During the rough stretch they averaged just over 92 points per game while the win streak Boston has averaged over 103 points. OK, obviously it makes sense that while a team was struggling it was scoring less and the numbers go up during a good run.
The correlation? The fact that the Celtics gave up 92 points per game during the 9-game period and is giving up 88 during their current 7-game winning streak. I don't think it was a coincidence that Boston having a much more efficient offense has led to the defense letting up 4 points less per game.

-When I'm wrong, I have no problem admitting it. I predicted the Ravens would be able to score on the Steelers' defense last week. It's a really good thing I didn't put any money on this game because once Pittsburgh shut down Baltimore's running attack they made Joe Flacco wish he was back in Delaware. That was the first thing I was wrong about.
Secondly, I assumed the Ravens' defense would have a better showing. After making that point last week about the Steelers' defense not showing up at playoff time and being overrated, I need to seriously amend that statement. Other than 2000, how many times has the Ravens' D lived up to its reputation?

I still hate the Steelers but you have to give credit where credit is due. I'll have a full Super Bowl preview this week but I obviously don't think Arizona has a chance.

-I really am enjoying what is happening with Manny Ramirez. He is going to get his money. Probably over $20 million a year. But the way the league has reacted to Scott Boras's demands in terms of the length of the contract has been great to watch. Seeing his demands incrementally decrease shouldn't be a shocker considering there have been a few general managers who have been anonymously quoted as saying his second-half tear with the Dodgers made them even more skeptical about signing him. A player who has proven he has the propensity to "turn it on and off" can not and should not receive a long-term deal. Manny will get his 2 or 3-year deal and no one will bat an eye but if you remember, back in November Boras wouldn't accept anything less than a 6-year deal.

-If you haven't watched the MLB network, you should. It puts the NBA network to shame and is in the same league as the NFL network.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

NFL Conference Title Games

Nope. No Patriots game today. Strange huh? While we don't have a team to root for today, we certainly have a team to root against: the Steelers.

Before I go out and shovel I would like to remind Pats fans why we should be rooting for the Ravens today. Granted, it is hard to root for Ray Lewis but remember...we HATE the Steelers. Despite knocking them off at home twice in 4 years for the AFC title and again in the regular season in '05 and '07, the likes of Lee Flowers or Joey Porter always claim the Steelers are the better team. It was also Porter who wanted his "three rings back" when asked about Spygate. What a joke.

The two I just mentioned are no longer in Pittsburgh but they do epitomize the Steeler mentality. Rarely has the vaunted Steeler defenses of this era come up big in January:

-The Steelers let Drew Bledsoe top them in '01 (with some special teams lapses included).
-In 2002 they gave the Browns a 24-7 lead but won 36-33 even after allowing 429 passing yards from the great Kelly Holcomb. They lost the next week 34-31 to the Titans. That's 67 points in 2 weeks.
-In 2004 the Patriots destroyed their zone coverage with Deion Branch.
-When Pittsburgh won the Superbowl in '05 it was aided by the cheap shot given to Carson Palmer by Keith Von Oelhoffen.
-David Garrard ran for 32 yards on fourth-and-2 against this "Steel Curtain" last year with the game on the line to beat the Steelers.

The Steelers will once again lose a conference championship today at home. Ike Taylor and Deshea Townsend haven't been exposed because of the great Pitt pass rush in James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley but the Ravens offensive line has been playing well and I expect Joe Flacco to continue making throws when he has to. Flacco has gotten better and better at throwing out patterns as the playoffs have progressed. The Ravens backfield of McGahee/McClain will also be a problem for Pittsburgh.

I don't see Ben Roethlisberger being able to do much against this Ravens defense. I know it was "ranked" behind the Steelers but this is the kind of game where Ed Reed and Ray Lewis show why they're going to Canton some day.

Say it with me, New Englanders: Go Ravens.

Prediction: Ravens, 20-14

Out west in Arizona we have a truly bizarre NFC title game on our hands. The 9-7 Cardinals are facing the 9-6-1 Eagles. The Cards lost 3 of their last 5 and laid down to the Pats in Foxboro (much to Dan Shaughnessy's chagrin). The Eagles tied the Bengals and needed a perfect week 17 to grab the eight spot. Now the two are playing for a Super Bowl appearance.

Based on the way the two teams have played thus far, I'm going with Arizona today. Its offense has never been in question but their suddenly turnover-creating defense has vaulted them to their current position. Formerly a weakness, the secondary has been a true strength in these playoffs. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie has been great and will be a stud for years to come. He has received help from Roderick Hood as well as safties Antrel Rolle and Adrian Wilson.

As great as Larry Fitzgerald was last week, the addition of Anquan Boldin would be huge for the Cardinals since the Eagles will be using zone coverages against the Arizona receivers. A key factor will be to see how much Edgerrin James can give both in terms of production and pass protection, an aspect of football he doesn't seem to be too fond of anymore.

If Brian Westbrook were completely healthy, I'd most likely be picking the Eagles but I can't see the Eagles winning two straight weeks with their best player having less than 25 touches. Donovan McNabb has been just good enough so far and he's going to need to play better in order to get to Tampa.

Prediction: Arizona, 24-17.

Some Red Sox Notes:
-After talking to a few people over the past day or so, it could be interpreted that me championing Jice Rice's candidacy for the Hall stems from me being a Red Sox fan. Not the case. Ask me about Carl Yastrzemski. I consider him to be in the Cal Ripken category of being a "compiler". Outside of his Triple Crown season in '67, Yaz lacked the year-to-year numbers of the other revered hitters of his tine. He spent 23 seasons with the Sox and had 100+ RBI in only five of them. No, I don't subscribe to the theory that he was a victim of a pitchers era. In fact, '67 was the height of that era and he had the last Triple Crown we've seen. After a batting title in '68 (with a .301 average) back-to-back 40-home run seasons in 1969-70 Yaz was an ordinary player who was a good fielder with 20-25 HR power. Overrated.

-The Kevin Youkilis deal is an absolute steal for the Sox. We should feel extremely comfortable about the future of this team with Youk and Pedroia in the infield for at least the next 4 years.
-If he hadn't already redacted his trade request the Red Sox would have been smart to inquire about the availability of Michael Young. Young has asked for a trade after being asked to move to third in order to make room for hot prospect Elvis Andrus at short. Young is 33, is owed $62 million over the next five seasons, had his worst year since 2002 and had an injured finger for most of the second half of 2008. All that being said, I would have loved for the Sox to deal a package of Jed Lowrie or a raw third base prospect like Michael Almanzar, a low-A pitcher along with the seemingly immovable object known as Julio Lugo. Oh well.

-The Sox have quickly built the best and deepest bullpen in baseball. Hideki Okajima, Takashi Saito, Manny Delcarmen, Ramon Ramirez, Javier Lopez leading up to Jonathan Papelbon is going to be very dependable. Keep in mind the Sox also have Justin Masterson once John Smoltz comes back as well as Clay Buchholz and Michael Bowden waiting in the wings.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Congrats, Jim

Congrats, Jim. It was about time, huh?

Jim Rice finally has a space in Cooperstown. Rice was undeservedly in that group of borderline players for years; the good-but-not-great players (Andre Dawson ect...). Based on the criteria voters have used for years when deciding who gets in, it's ridiculous that it took until the 15th and final time for him to get in with 76.4 percent.

You could say Rice was the anti-Cal Ripken. Ripken was known for his ability to crank out 20 home run, 80 RBI seasons (with a great glove at short). Rice, on the other hand, had about a 10-year span where he was the most productive hitter in the AL. He didn't have the endurance Ripken had but, man, were those seasons great.

In order to really understand how dominant Rice really was you need to examine how much better he was than the rest of the AL during his run of dominance from 1977-79 and again from 1982-86. This was back when hitting over 30 home runs meant something and over a .900 OPS was rare.

Let's take a look at his run in the late '70s.

-In 1977 Rice hit .320 with 39 homers and 114 RBI. He could have won MVP that year had Rod Carew not hit an astounding .388 with 239 hits but it was a travesty he finished fourth in the vote. Ahead of him were the Orioles' Ken Singleton and a guy from Kansas City named Al Cowhens, niether of whom had a higher average, home run total, RBI or OPS than Rice. Another case of robbery in Rice's career.

The league average was .266 and Boston was the only team over 200 home runs.

-In 1978 Rice had one of the premiere seasons in Red Sox history. He was on par with some of the years Ted Williams put up, Yaz's 1967 Triple Crown season and Pedro's transcendent 1999. He hit .315 with 46 HR and 139 RBI while totaling 406 total bases, a feat not matched until Larry Walker had 409 in 1997. From that point on having 400+ total bases was not as big of an accomplishment. Sammy Sosa (425) had the seventh-best total in history in 2001 and there have been five other instances in which it happened, included Todd Helton twice.

I won't get started on why there was the sudden surge from 1997-2001 because it's been discussed over and over but the fact remains it was a special number until the late '90s.

Rice won the MVP while the league average dropped to .261 and the highest AL home run total was 173. Another indicator how great Rice was that year was he topped Rod Guidry 252-191 in the balloting. Why is this significant you ask? Because Guidry had a season that Pedro or Sandy Koufax would be proud to put on their resume. Wouldn't a 25-3, 1.74 ERA, 0.95 WHIP and 248 strikeout season create a close vote most seasons? Not in 1978, Jim Rice's most prolific season.

-Expecting a drop-off in 1979? Nope. Rice finished fifth in the MVP with a .325, 39 HR, 130 RBI. Either he, George Brett or Fred Lynn should have been MVP that year and it doesn't make much sense that Don Baylor won it or that Ken Singleton was again ahead of Rice at second.

The league average bumped up to .270 but still no teams over the 200 home run mark. Rice's stats, along with the aforementioned players, were a lot better than the rest of the league.

Anyway, Rice was eight points from a batting title, six away from the home run lead and nine RBI from the top spot in RBI. My point here is he was a top-three player in the AL for the third successive year. There were names like Bobby Bonds, Don Baylor, Lynn and others popping up but Rice was the most dominant over that period.

After injuries limited him to 24 HR and 86 RBI in 1980 and the strike held him to 17 HR and 62 and RBI in 1981, Rice was once again a top player between 1982 and 1986. He averaged .302, 28 home runs and 112 RBI in that period. No player averaged more RBI. Not Dale Murphy, who averaged averaged 105, Eddie Murray (averaged 108 but had an injury-plagued 1986 that brought his stats down), George Brett (who had more than 112 RBI only once in his career or any other of the best players of the 1980s.

Rice, simply put, was unrivaled from a production standpoint from 1977 to 1986. Three home run titles, a pair of RBI championships and four 200-hit seasons say it all. I'm glad voters finally recognized just how good he was and how good he could have been had his eyes not gone on him after his last MVP-type year in 1986.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Thanks for the kind words on Christmas, Sasha

Merry Christmas!

It's funny how even the most emotion-filled of quotes can have more meaning than initially intended. All I've heard from Sasha Vujacic is how much he hates the Celtics and he refuses to wear green. On the other side of the spectrum, Kobe Bryant talks about how the Lakers need to improve and learn from last year.

Kobe has won 3 rings and has proven he is a mentally tough player. I personally don't like him but there's not much I can pick on basketball-wise. The problem for L.A. is he's the only player who scares me. The rest of the players are soft and Vujacic's recent comments only lend credence to the perception that last year's Finals scarred the Lakers.

If I'm Phil Jackson, I tell Vujacic to shut his mouth. If he has enough time on his hands to explain his contempt for the color green, surely he can watch tape of Ray Allen blowing past him twice to seal the Celtics' 24-point comeback win in Game 4 of the Finals. In telling us his real feelings on the events of last summer, he's letting the Celtics know they are indeed in he and his teammates' heads.

Alright, enough Sasha Vujacic talk. Let's talk about today's Celtics-Lakers game. Let me start with this. Since the "Big Three" as we currently know it came into existence, when was the last time this team has had a letdown in a game like this? Other than getting blown out of the Garden by the Jazz last year and losing on a pair of Chauncey Billups free-throws last year the Celtics have shown up for these contests.

All of the "upstart" teams such as the Rockets, Jazz, Trailblazers or Magic as well as the normal stalwarts like the Spurs, Suns, Pistons, Mavericks, Cavs and of course the Lakers have fallen to the Celtics in prime time games. Kevin Garnett and the Celtics' smothering defense simply refuses to suffer a defeat in an important game. You'll never hear it from the players but these really are statement games. Playing on the company line from the Patriots a few years ago, the word respect is on the minds of these players.

"If the Lakers had Andrew Bynum in the Finals, they would've won with ease"

I'm sorry, but no chance. He's back and that soft defense hasn't suddenly gotten tougher. After watching him against the Heat recently, he hasn't proven he can handle pick-and-rolls and still gets called for dumb fouls. Kendrick Perkins will reduce him to a spectator. Watch.

The Celtics will show the whole country how and why they are a better team than a year ago. There are still experts picking the Lakers to win the championship, which is fine. Hopefully they'll get a glimpse into what we see nightly the Mecca of the Hoops Universe known as the Garden when Rajon Rondo blows by Derek Fisher (no, Jordan Farmar wouldn't have made a difference) time after time or Kevin Garnett swats a Pau Gasol hook into the stands.

I'm looking forward to hearing what you have to say after the game, Sasha.