Tuesday, October 30, 2007

NBA Preview: Pacific Division

(Teams listed in order of projected finish)

Phoenix Suns: There were concerns coming into last year about how the lineup would mesh, with Amare Stoudemire returning to play a full season for the first time since 2004-05. By the end of the year, the only ones who were concerned were the Suns' opponents. Stoudemire averaged 20.4 PPG and 9.6 RPG and was named to the All-NBA First Team. Steve Nash was unable to claim a third straight MVP, but joined Stoudemire on the First Team and posted excellent numbers. Shawn Marion's numbers were slightly down, but that was likely due to Stoudemire's return. The biggest surprise was Leandro Barbosa, who had his best season yet, scoring 18.1 PPG. All this, plus contributions from Raja Bell, Boris Diaw, and Kurt Thomas landed the Suns the #2 seed in the West. Many thought this would be the year the Suns finally win it all, but those hopes were dashed when the league suspended Stoudemire and Diaw for Game 6 of the second round series against San Antonio. The Suns lost the game and the series and many still claim that the suspensions cost Phoenix the title.

Fair or not, the Suns had failed yet again to bring home a title and as a result the Suns made a few moves to bolster their chances for this year. Phoenix increased its depth when they signed Grant Hill, who will likely start at small forward, pushing Diaw out of the lineup. Hill, for once, is coming off a healthy season, in which he scored 14.4 PPG for the Magic, but his injury history has to be very concerning, especially considering the rapid pace of the Suns' offense. Even if he is healthy, it's debatable whether or not he's a good fit for the Suns. Hill will help on defense, but whatever he provides will, at best, off-set the loss of Kurt Thomas, who was dealt to Seattle to keep Phoenix from going over the salary cap. Replacing Thomas will be Brian Skinner, who is a decent defender, but won't figure much into the team's plans, save as an injury replacement. The Suns also added Alando Tucker and D.J. Strawberry through the draft.

The Suns bring back most of their core, which should be as good as ever. Nash, Marion, and Stoudemire will lead Phoenix to another division title, but that's not good enough anymore. The Suns have to at least reach the Finals for the season to be considered a success. Can Hill put them over the top? His poor outside shooting seems less than ideal for the Suns' offense and he is clearly not the playmaker he used to me. As I've written in a previous article, it's hard to see Hill improving the Suns. Same goes for Tucker and Strawberry. Both are capable defenders, but neither is a good shooter. Also notable is the fact that the Suns still lack a reliable back-up point guard. They added Marcus Banks last season hoping he could play 10-15 minutes a game to spell Nash, but he played so poorly that he fell out of the rotation entirely. Once again, Nash will be forced to play about 35 minutes a game at a very fast pace. One has to wonder whether he'll wear down by the end of the year, as he's now 33. The loss of Thomas could also prove costly, as he was far and away their best post defender. If Skinner can't hold his own against the likes of Tim Duncan and Yao Ming, the Suns will be also-rans yet again.

Golden State Warriors: After a mediocre start to the year, a mid-season trade sparked the Warriors to a late-season run culminating in the 8 seed and an upset of the regular season champion Dallas Mavericks. The Warriors made this run behind the stellar play of Baron Davis, who led the team in scoring (20.1 PPG) and assists (8.1 APG). Davis was aided by Jason Richardson and second-year guard Monta Ellis, who enjoyed a breakout season. As mentioned, the mid-season trade that acquired Stephen Jackson and Al Harrington (among others) served as a catalyst, completing Don Nelson's small-ball lineup. All these players are both very athletic and effective from three-point range, making the Warriors very tough to guard, while giving them perhaps the most exciting brand of basketball in the league. This, plus a long absence from the playoffs, gave Golden State an intense home crowd, which proved to be a big advantage, particularly in the playoffs.

In the off-season, the Warriors surprised many fans by dealing Richardson to Charlotte in a draft day trade for Brandan Wright. Wright is an excellent athlete, but he is very raw and may not contribute right away. There was speculation that they acquired Wright with hopes of trading him to Milwaukee for Yi, but such a deal never came to fruition. Golden State also came away from the draft with Marco Belinelli and Stephane Lasme. Lasme is undersized, but was one of the best shot-blockers in college basketball last year, so there's a chance he'll be useful.

Belinelli is very intriguing and may be expected to make up for a lot of Richardson's production. Some are down on Belinelli because of his poor shooting percentage from last year, but his percentages dropped because he was trying to score from a lot of different angles, instead of settling for jump shots. In other words, he was diversifying his game. In the NBA, where he won't be expected to be a star right off the bat, he should settle back into his old ways and give the Warriors another outside threat. Of course, it will take more than Belinelli for the Warriors to repeat last year's success. More than anything else, they will be counting on Davis to stay healthy. He's their best player and their leader and the team will go only as far as he can take them. Expect a low playoff seed if he's healthy.

Los Angeles Lakers: Once again Kobe Bryant put up excellent numbers for the Lakers, but they had very little to show for it. Bryant's statistics (31.6 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 5.4 APG) were outstanding, but the Lakers only finished with 42 wins on the year, giving them the 7 seed in the West. In the playoffs, they were unable to match the thrilling series of the 2006 playoffs in which they took Phoenix to seven games. Rather, the Suns handled them in five games without much trouble. It's hard to fault Kobe for this because of how little talent he had around him. Lamar Odom had a fine year, but missed a lot of time to injuries. After that, Luke Walton (who also missed 20+ games) and Smush Parker were the only scorers to average double figures. The Lakers got little production from their big men, as Kwame Brown struggled and Andrew Bynum was clearly not ready for the spotlight.

It was another confusing off-season for the Lakers. There was (and still is) a great deal of talk regarding Kobe's future with the team. Through all that GM Mitch Kupchak tried to improve Kobe's supporting cast. In the draft, he selected Javaris Crittenton, Sun Yue, and Marc Gasol. Crittenton should develop into a good point guard, but he's only had one year at college and probably won't be ready for major minutes as a rookie. Plus, the Lakers took a point guard in the first round last year, in Jordan Farmar. As for Yue and Gasol, neither will play in the NBA this year. These moves make it seem as if Kupchak is building a team for the future, rather than try to take advantage of Kobe's best years and go for a title. And yet, Kupchak also added Derek Fisher, who should step in as the starting point guard, replacing the departed Parker.

Fisher should help the Lakers with his defense and shooting, as well as his familiarity with Phil Jackson's triangle offense. That said, it's hard to see how he makes the Lakers any better than the 7 seed they were last year. The only way for the Lakers to get significantly better is for Bynum to take a huge step forward. If he can develop into one of the league's better centers, the Lakers might be able to achieve a 5 or 6 seed, but that's a lot to ask of a 20 year old and it's far more likely that the Lakers will be on the cusp of a playoff spot and quite possibly on the outside looking in.

Sacramento Kings: Last season was a frustrating one for Sacramento, as they witnessed a struggle for control of the team between Mike Bibby and Ron Artest that eclipsed an outstanding season from the up-and-coming Kevin Martin. The 24-year old Martin averaged 20.2 PPG in his 3rd season and has the look of a future All-Star. Unfortunately, no one else on the Kings played near his level. Artest and Bibby both had solid scoring numbers, but Bibby's assists were down as he had a career-low 4.7 APG. Of course, the biggest problems came from the frontcourt. None of the Kings big men were able to score with any consistency. Corliss Williamson was the only King who played in the majority of the team's games and shot over 50% from the field. Defense was also an issue for the Kings frontcourt, which included Williamson, Brad Miller, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, and Kenny Thomas.

Attempting to shore up their frontcourt woes, the Kings drafted Spencer Hawes and then signed Mikki Moore. Hawes was the most offensively-skilled center in the draft, but he is already injured and is not much of an athlete. The player he's most often compared to is Brad Miller, so it's hard to see him helping Sacramento much even if he is healthy. Meanwhile, Moore had a nice season in New Jersey, but his season is a direct result of playing alongside Jason Kidd. Not to mention, Moore is skinny and won't do much in the way of low-post defense. Sacramento made yet another questionable move in hiring Reggie Theus as their new head coach. Theus is popular in Sacramento, but he's had little coaching experience and has never been a head coach at the NBA level.

Unfortunately for Theus, he's in for a rude awakening. This Kings team has the same flaws as last year and may actually be worse. Bibby figured to decline further this season, but we won't know how much for a while because he's already injured. Artest is still a good player, when his head's on straight and Martin is outstanding, but defenses will be able to focus on him with Bibby out. The Kings will be one of the bottomfeeders of the West unless their big men actually play like big men.

Los Angeles Clippers: The Clippers failed to make the playoffs for a second consecutive season, as locker room turmoil and Sam Cassell's age caught up to them. Elton Brand had another fine season, but he lacked the support he had received in the Clippers' playoff run of 2005-06. Corey Maggette was effective, despite constant efforts to trade him, but the rest of the team was unremarkable. Cassell's scoring dropped off significantly and Tim Thomas (predictably) failed to live up to the high expectations set by his 2006 playoff performance with the Suns. Chris Kaman actually played worse than the year before and Shaun Livingston made Clippers fans question whether he'll ever be healthy.

Amazingly, Corey Maggette remains on the roster. They've been shopping him for years, but to no effect. As for the moves they DID make, the Clippers signed Ruben Patterson and drafted Al Thornton. Patterson is unlikely to repeat his impressive work in Milwaukee, but the Clippers got him fairly cheap, so there's little risk involved. Thornton had an excellent senior season and should be able to provide an immediate impact, but there are serious questions about his upside because of his age (23).

The Clippers will have to hope Thornton lives up to the hype because they will be without Brand for the beginning of the season. Much like last year's Grizzlies (barring major improvement from Livingston and Kaman), this should effectively end the Clippers season before it begins.

Monday, October 29, 2007

NBA Preview: Southwest Division

(Teams listed in order of projected finish)

Houston Rockets: The Rockets managed to stay healthy for a change last year and made the playoffs after a one-year absence. Yao Ming missed 34 games, but was outstanding when healthy, and Tracy McGrady had another strong season. Shane Battier provided good defense and stellar three-point shooting, giving the Rockets some stability on the wing alongside McGrady. Luther Head and, to a lesser degree, Rafer Alston chipped in with their outside shooting, which strained opposing defenses that tried double-teaming McGrady and Yao. While Battier quickly found a niche, the team's two other significant additions were ineffective or absent. Bonzi Wells never fell in line with Jeff Van Gundy and only played in 28 games, while Greek import Vassilis Spanoulis struggled early and never cracked the rotation. The Rockets certainly could have used Wells' rebounding in the playoffs, when they were out-muscled by Carlos Boozer and the Jazz, who defeated Houston in seven games.

That spelled the end for Van Gundy, who was replaced by former Kings coach Rick Adelman. While Adelman has never been known for his playoff success, he is known as a far better offensive coach than Van Gundy. Adelman should be able to infuse some life into Houston's offense and he should benefit from the defense instilled in the team by Van Gundy. Meanwhile, the Rockets made some additions to their roster that should vastly improve their depth. After suffering through another season with Juwan Howard as their power forward, the Rockets dealt the disappointing Spanoulis to the Spurs for Luis Scola, who was generally considered to be the best basketball player not in the NBA. They also got Jackie Butler in the deal; a young big man with some upside. As for Howard, he was dealt to Minnesota for Mike James, who ought to benefit from a limited role following a down year in 2006-07. As if that wasn't enough, the Rockets also signed Steve Francis and drafted Aaron Brooks. They also added to their depth at power forward by taking Carl Landry in the second round.

The Rockets were a dangerous team last year and now, with all their additions, they should be among the league's elite. There are serious concerns about whether McGrady and Yao can stay healthy, but it should be easier as there should be less pressure on them to carry the scoring load. Adelman should make the offense play at a faster pace, which, if nothing else, should be more pleasant to watch. The coaching change will also help in that it should get Wells on the same page as the rest of the team. Wells had a nice season (and a great playoff series) in 2005-06, playing for Adelman's Kings and he should give the Rockets some more rebounding and inside scoring. Scola is a strong rebounder and has a decent mid-range jump shot, which should play very well alongside Yao. Even if he doesn't live up to his hype, he can't be much worse than Howard. Meanwhile, Adelman will have a ton of options at guard, where he'll now have McGrady, Alston, Head, James, Francis, and Brooks at his disposal. That may turn out to be a bit too many options, as it's hard to see how Adelman can get all these players consistent minutes (likely leaving Brooks the odd man out). Still, the Rockets have excellent depth and versatility, which is a recipe for success. They have never been better suited to handle injuries to their two superstars. As a result, the Rockets should make a run for the West's top seed in the playoffs, though playing 3 games apiece against Dallas and San Antonio might drop them to #2 in the conference.

Dallas Mavericks: After blowing a 2-0 lead in the 2006 Finals to the Miami Heat, the Mavs resisted temptation to blow the team up, and with good reason. They already had a very solid core, with a good mixture of youth and veteran talent. It certainly looked like the right decision in the regular season, when Dallas won 67 games, giving them the best record in the league. Dirk Nowitski and Josh Howard had All-Star seasons and Dirk wound up winning the MVP. Yet it all fell apart in the playoffs when they were defeated by the upstart Golden State Warriors. The Warriors had plagued the Mavs all season, thanks to favorable matchups and Don Nelson's knowledge of the Mavs, his former team. The Warriors were able to win because Dallas lacked consistent low-post scoring, which allowed the smaller, faster Warriors to force Dallas into settling for contested jumpers, while Golden State bombed away from outside on offense.

Once again, there was talk that owner Mark Cuban would tear the team apart after the frustrating defeat, but again he refrained. While Dallas didn't make any major moves in the off-season, they made a few minor ones that should pay dividends. Dallas signed Eddie Jones, who should find his way into the rotation. While he's not the player he used to be, he still has a decent shot and is a capable defender. Dallas also dealt Greg Buckner to Minnesota for Trenton Hassell, who should be the defensive stopper they had once hoped Buckner would be. In the draft, the Mavs selected Nick Fazekas, whose shooting should get him some playing time. Other than that, it's the same team that won 67 games last year. There's little reason to think Dallas will be any worse, except that they will be under pressure to perform. Cuban stood by this off-season, but if Dallas doesn't reach the Finals (or maybe the Conference Finals) there will almost certainly be major changes.

San Antonio Spurs: In a typical Spurs season, Tim Duncan and Co. chugged along, putting up a great record under the radar, as analysts focused on Phoenix's run-and-gun offense and Dallas' run at 70 wins. The Spurs finished with 58 wins, which was good for a #3 seed. Tim Duncan was superb, again, but the attention went to Tony Parker who averaged a career-high 18.6 PPG (plus made wedding plans with Eva Longoria). The Spurs were much healthier than they had been in recent years, likely aided by the fact that neither Duncan nor Manu Ginobili took part in international competition in the off-season. San Antonio had as much depth as any team in the league and was also extremely versatile. This paid off in the playoffs as they were able to beat teams with different styles of play, whether it was Phoenix's speed, Utah's size, or Cleveland's...well, never mind. The Cavaliers couldn't put up much resistance, as the Spurs swept the Finals and won their third title in five years.

No one can blame the Spurs for standing pat in the off-season, after winning the title, but the Spurs did make a few minor moves that could pay off. The most significant was the signing of Ime Udoka, who played for Portland last year. Udoka won't get much attention, but he is an excellent perimeter defender who can hit corner 3s. Sound familiar? True, Udoka is basically a Bruce Bowen clone, but Bowen is now 37 and the Spurs did well to find someone who can spell him or take over in the event of an injury. Through the draft, San Antonio added Tiago Splitter and Marcus Williams. Splitter will spend some more time overseas, but should be a big help when he makes the jump to the NBA. Williams probably won't get much playing time, but he's only 20 and might develop into a role player in the next few years.

It may seem a bit odd to pick the defending champs to finish third in the division, but A) the Southwest is no ordinary division, and B) the Spurs don't play for the regular season. Not to say San Antonio is going to go the Shaq route and slack off until the playoffs, but Popovich is smart enough to know that it's not worth exhausting his players for a few extra regular season wins when the Spurs are a lock for the playoffs anyway. The Spurs are still the team to beat when the playoffs arrive. Once again, Duncan and Ginobili should be well-rested, which was a key to last season's success. Age is a moderate concern, as all the Spurs' best players, save Tony Parker, are 30 or older, but the Spurs are so deep that it shouldn't be a major issue. Even with all the other storylines out there, don't sleep on the Spurs. This could be the year they repeat.

New Orleans Hornets: A phenomenal rookie season from Chris Paul combined with the off-sesaon additions of Peja Stojakovic and Tyson Chandler had many picking the Hornets to reach the playoffs, even in the loaded Southwest Division. Paul had another fine season, with 17 PPG and 8.8 APG, but missed 17 games due to injury. This was a common theme for the Hornets, as David West and Bobby Jackson also missed considerable time, not to mention Stojakovic who only played in 13 games. The Hornets still finished with 39 wins, which is respectable considering their poor health. Part of this success was due to Chandler, who had a breakout year, averaging 12.4 RPG. That said, it was hardly the progress the team had hoped for.

In a fairly uneventful off-season, New Orleans biggest move was replacing Desmond Mason with Morris Peterson. While Mason's high-flying act was entertaining alongside Paul, his poor shooting only made the Stojakovic injury more painful. Peterson is a stellar three-point shooter and he and Stojakovic will really stretch opposing defenses. Through the draft, the Hornets added Julian Wright and Adam Haluska. Wright is a good ball-handler who can score around the basket, but his shooting might actually be worse than that of Mason. Of course, he won't play as many minutes as Mason did, so it should be less of an issue. Haluska is unlikely to see the court much, though if he does he should knock down a few jumpers.

The Hornets might have found a way into the playoffs last year, were it not for all the injuries, so it's very reasonable to expect a low seed this year. That said, these injuries may not have been flukes. Stojakovic is now 30 and has only had one season when he played more than 75 games in his career (though he had never missed such a large part of a season before), so this could be an emerging trend for him. Paul is another likely candidate to suffer from injuries consistently because of his size and style of play. It's very difficult for small guards
to stay healthy, especially those who rely on scoring in the paint and at the free throw line, and one has to wonder how the 6'0" 175 lb. Paul will hold up, not just this year, but in his career. And don't bring up Allen Iverson. He's the exception that proves the rule. If they can stay healthy, the Hornets could reach as high as a 7 seed, but expect them to just miss again.

Memphis Grizzlies: Memphis' 2006-07 season was doomed from the start, as Pau Gasol missed the beginning of the year due to an off-season injury. By the time he got back, the team was in the dumps and Gasol was leading the league in trade rumors. Adding to the frustration was an injury to Kyle Lowry, leaving the Grizzlies with a combination of Chucky Atkins and Damon Stoudamire at point guard. While Atkins had a decent year, this would have been a great chance to get Lowry some action and see what they really had. They were able to get a good look at another rookie, Rudy Gay, who averaged 10.8 PPG and showed flashes of his excellent potential. Mike Miller and Hakim Warrick also had productive seasons, but they didn't mean much in the win column, as Memphis finished with the worst record in the league.

Bad luck in the lottery landed them the fourth overall pick, which they used to select Mike Conley Jr. While it may spell the end for Lowry, the Grizzlies got the best point guard in the draft in Conley. Memphis also acquired Juan Carlos Navarro, after letting Atkins depart via free agency. Navarro was one of the best guards in Europe and, more importantly, he is a good friend of Gasol's, who was questioning the team's direction and had expressed the desire to leave before this move. Another key addition was that of Darko Milicic to a three-year deal, who, despite his disappointing career thus far, still has a great deal of upside. If Darko has a breakout season during the three-year period, he'll give the Grizzlies a very formidable frontcourt. If not, they can let him go and won't have suffered much, as these are rebuilding seasons anyway.

While Memphis won't be as bad as last season, they'll still be a lottery team, barring a monster season from Gasol. Adding Conley and Navarro, plus having a healthy Lowry, will improve their guard play, and Gay can be expected to improve in his sophomore year. Other than that, it's hard to see anyone on the Grizzlies take a major step forward (unless Darko finally lives up to his supposed potential). One also has to wonder if Gasol will finally be traded. Even with Navarro on board, he's 27 and may want to play for a contender, rather than wait for his young teammates to develop. Memphis might want to consider such a move, as it would give them more assets for the future, plus would likely result in other top five draft pick.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

NBA Preview: Northwest Division

(Teams listed in order of projected finish)

Utah Jazz:
The Jazz were a bit of a surprise last year, as they went 51-31 and won their division for the first time since the days of John Stockton and Karl Malone. Carlos Boozer led the way, averaging 20.9 PPG and 11.7 RPG and managing to stay healthy for the most part. He played in 74 games; only 10 less than he played in his last two seasons combined. Boozer's inside presence made scoring easier for the rest of the team. Mehmet Okur shot a career high 38.4% from three-point range, while pouring in 17.6 PPG, and Deron Williams had an outstanding sophomore season, with 16.2 PPG and 9.3 APG. Derek Fisher provided some scoring and very good defense and he and Matt Harpring averaged double digits in scoring. Second round pick Paul Millsap provided a spark off the bench with his energy and rebounding. All these factors made up for poor play from Andrei Kirilenko, whose numbers were down across the board. First round pick Ronnie Brewer also struggled and left the Jazz with few options at shooting guard. Still, the Jazz were able to get to the Conference Finals, where they were defeated handily by the San Antonio Spurs. It should be noted that they had an easy road to the Conference Finals. They played a tough seven game series against Houston, which hasn't won a playoff series since Hakeem Olajuwon was their center, then they faced the upstart Warriors, who were over-matched by Utah's size.

Despite countless rumors about Kirilenko's future with the team, the Jazz didn't make any major moves in the off-season. The biggest change was the departure of Fisher, who was replaced by Ronnie Price and Jason Hart. Price and Hart will fight for the chance to back up Williams, as many of Fisher's minutes will likely go to Brewer and this year's first round pick, Morris Almond. Almond, a shooting guard out of Rice, was drafted primarily for his shooting ability; an area where the Jazz were sorely lacking last year.

This year's Jazz should be very similar to last year's edition. They will miss Fisher's defense and veteran leadership, but Brewer and Almond should be able to fill the void and provide better scoring. Williams can only be expected to improve, as he develops into one of the league's top point guards. Boozer and Okur should post similar numbers to last year's, though one has to wonder whether Boozer can stay healthy again. The X-factor on this team is Kirilenko, who supposedly has worked out his issues with Sloan. The problem with Kirilenko is not his mood, rather it's the way Sloan has been using him. Kirilenko has had his strongest seasons when he's been utilized in the paint on offense. It helps him on defense because he can roam and block shots, but it's particularly important on offense. Boozer's presence turns Kirilenko into a perimeter player, which takes him out of the game as a scorer and leads to his frustration. If Sloan can find ways to work Kirilenko back into the offense, and thus energize him on defense, the Jazz could take a step forward, but if not, they're not going to be able to match up with the West's elite teams.

Denver Nuggets: Already one of the fastest teams in the league last year, the Nuggets made a bid to get even faster, sending Andre Miller and others to Philadelphia for Allen Iverson. The Nuggets hoped that Iverson, combined with Carmelo Anthony, would give them enough star-power to break into the top tier of Western Conference teams. However, the team played worse after the trade and were ousted by the Spurs in the first round of the playoffs after securing the 6th seed. The loss of Miller left Denver without a pure point guard until they dealt for Steve Blake, but even then the team struggled to find a winning formula. Iverson should not receive all the blame, as he was on his own for the first several games after the trade, as Anthony served a suspension for involvement in a fight at Madison Square Garden. Even when the two superstars did get to play together, they didn't have much time to develop chemistry before the playoffs. Outside of their two scorers, Denver's most valuable asset was their size. Marcus Camby and Nene gave them one of the top frontcourts in the league. Their biggest weakness was their three-point shooting, or lack thereof. J.R. Smith was their best shooter, but it was difficult to work him into the lineup, with Iverson and Blake as the starting guards and Anthony at small forward.

Rather than overpay for Blake, the Nuggets opted to let him go and replaced him with Chucky Atkins. While Atkins lacks Blake's passing ability, he is a better shooter and should benefit from the open looks generated by Iverson and Anthony. The only other move of note was the trade that sent Reggie Evans to Philadelphia for Steven Hunter and Bobby Jones. Evans is an outstanding rebounder, but with Camby and Nene, plus Kenyon Martin coming back, Evans was expendable. Hunter is a solid backup center who excelled in Phoenix's fast-paced offense. He'll block a shot here and there and get a few dunks, but he probably won't log more than 10 minutes a game. At least, not until Camby, Nene, or Martin suffers an injury.

It's hard to know just how good the Nuggets can be, and clearly they don't know, based on their quiet off-season. Their defense will be a liability, as Nene is the only good defender in the starting lineup. (Yes, I know Camby won Defensive Player of the Year, but all that award signifies is he got a lot of rebounds and blocked shots. His man-to-man defense is average at best. That's why he didn't guard Tim Duncan in the playoffs.) For Denver, the best defense is a good offense, as they'll have to do their best to run their opposition out of the gym. Anthony is one of the best pure scorers in the league and Iverson is still one of the better ones (though one has to wonder when he'll finally break down), but the team would have done well to add more shooting. If Iverson and Anthony can figure out how to work off of each other and exploit defenses, then the Nuggets could take the division from Utah. More likely they will be a 6 or 7 seed once again.

Seattle Supersonics: The Sonics hoped they could shake off a disappointing 2005-06 season and revert to their form of three years ago, when they won 52 games and the division. Poor defense, rebounding, and several key injuries made sure that this would not occur. Both Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis averaged over 20 PPG, but neither was able to play more than 60 games. This left Seattle with relatively little on offense, relying on Chris Wilcox and Luke Ridnour. Even when Allen and Lewis were healthy, their scoring was offset by their lackluster defense. Meanwhile, Seattle's centers did not develop as they had hoped. Robert Swift showed signs in the pre-season, but suffered a season-ending injury before the regular season began, and Johan Petro and Mouhamed Sene were ineffective.

A 51-loss season, plus securing the second overall draft pick caused the Sonics to overhaul their roster, starting on draft night when the Sonics selected Kevin Durant, then turned around and dealt Allen to Boston for the fifth overall pick (Jeff Green), Delonte West, and Wally Szczerbiak. The drafting of Durant led to Lewis' departure, which is not a major loss considering Lewis' absurdly large contract and the fact that the Sonics had already resigned themselves to rebuilding. Seattle also traded for veteran Kurt Thomas, who will provide some rebounding and defense in the paint, which Seattle has lacked in recent years. More important is Thomas' expiring contract, which will give the Sonics more cap room at the end of the year, or a valuable trading chip as the trade deadline approaches. Seattle also made a coaching change, hiring P.J. Carlesimo who had served as an assistant with the Spurs for the last several years.

While this team is a few years away from being competitive, Seattle has an interesting group of young players. Durant is by far the most intriguing and all eyes will be on him to see how he develops. He is by far the most likely candidate to win Rookie of the Year (especially after Greg Oden's season-ending injury) and should be able to step right in and put up impressive scoring numbers. Green is another interesting prospect, whose game should translate better to the NBA than it did at Georgetown. West will get the chance to prove he can start every day at shooting guard, and he could be another key youngster for the Sonics. Don't expect many wins from this team, but they (or at least Durant) should be fun to watch.

Portland Trailblazers: Coming off a dismal 21-win season, the Blazers struggled, but appeared to have a bright future. Zach Randolph emerged as one of the best low-post scorers in the league, averaging 23.6 PPG and 10.1 RPG, Brandon Roy won Rookie of the Year, and LaMarcus Aldridge also had a promising rookie campaign. Even with those performances, the Blazers were too young and lacked the talent to be competitive and they landed in the lottery yet again. Their fortunes were transformed when they won the lottery and prepared to draft their next great big man.

The Blazers took Greg Oden with their first pick, then promptly traded Randolph to the Knicks for Channing Frye and Steve Francis. Francis was immediately bought out, but Frye has a little upside and would have been a good fit next to Oden. That said, the Blazers gave up a great talent in Randolph and got very little in return. Oden and Randolph might have had trouble playing together, but it's hard to believe that the Blazers couldn't get more for him (say, from Chicago). Portland added four players in the draft after Oden: Rudy Fernandez, Josh McRoberts, Petteri Koponen, and Taurean Green. Fernandez will remain in Europe for another year, but should help the Blazers upon arrival. Koponen will also stay abroad for now. McRoberts was a nice pick in the second round, but Green isn't likely to get much playing time, as the Blazers already have a lot of young guards. Portland also added Steve Blake to a now-crowded backcourt, and they acquired James Jones from Phoenix.

While there was talk of the playoffs in Portland after they won the draft lottery, these hopes were dashed when Oden was forced to undergo microfracture surgery. There's no telling whether he'll ever be the same, but the Blazers will have to carry on this season and hope for the best. They can still count on improvement from last year's rookies and they can use this season to get a sense of what the rest of their young players are worth. That said, Portland doesn't have much hope of contention this year and they are likely looking at another top 5 draft pick. The one potential silver lining to the Oden injury is that it could land Portland another future All-Star to play alongside their already impressive nucleus, but the franchise's future hinges on Oden's recovery.

Minnesota Timberwolves: Minnesota missed the playoffs for the second straight year, which ultimately spelled the end of the Kevin Garnett era. Garnett had a good season, though not one of his best, likely due to frustration. Randy Foye had an impressive rookie season once he began to get regular playing time and another rookie, Craig Smith proved to be a good energy player. Ricky Davis and Mark Blount were decent on offense, but lackadaisical on defense. Their biggest off-season addition, Mike James, turned out to be a bust. All in all it was a disappointing effort for the Timberwolves and it was clear that they were making the transition into rebuilding mode.

At 31, Garnett wanted no part of rebuilding and he was subsequently dealt to Boston for Al Jefferson, Ryan Gomes, Gerald Green, Sebastian Telfair, Theo Ratliff, and two first round draft picks. Minnesota also added Corey Brewer and Chris Richard through the draft. Later in the off-season, they traded Davis and Blount to Miami for Antonio Walker, Michael Doleac, and Wayne Simien. None of the players from that deal figure to play a prominent role in Minnesota's rebuilding efforts, but clearing the roster of Davis and Blount will give Minnesota's young players more minutes.

It's hard to know who will win the Garnett trade in the long run, but it does leave Minnesota with a number of intriguing young players. Foye should continue to develop into a good all-around combo guard, Jefferson is already one of the best young post players in the league, Gomes and Smith are both good energy players with some versatility, Green is a superb athlete with a great three-point shot, and Brewer is a defensive stopper with the potential to be a good scorer. If all, or at least a few, of these players develop as expected, the Timberwolves should have a very formidable core in a few years, especially considering they should have another top 5 draft pick this year. It's going to be a long season in Minnesota, but down the road they could be much better off without Garnett. Kevin McHale better hope that's the case or he'll be out of a job.

NBA Preview: Southeast Division

(Teams listed in order of projected finish)

Orlando Magic:
There were high expectations in Orlando coming into last season. In some ways they were met, as the Magic made the playoffs. That said, they did so by claiming the 8th seed and wound up getting swept in the first round by Detroit. Dwight Howard had an excellent season, averaging 17.6 PPG and 12.3 RPG, proving himself to be the East's best big man. Howard had a great year, but he had very little help. Grant Hill played well and was surprisingly healthy and Trevor Ariza had a decent season, but no one else performed to expectations. Jameer Nelson and Carlos Arroyo were an erratic tandem at point guard, Darko Milicic, even with consistent playing time, proved unable to justify his draft position, Hedo Turkoglu put up good scoring numbers, but was terrible on defense and rebounding, and J.J. Redick was unable to crack the rotation until late in the season. Of the players that were effective and healthy, very few of them are capable three-point shooters, and as a result opposing defenses were able to collapse on Howard, which no doubt contributed to his league-high 317 turnovers.

To improve their three-point shooting woes, the Magic made one of the biggest, and most controversial, moves of the summer, signing and trading for former Seattle swingman Rashard Lewis. Lewis is an outstanding shooter and a very good all-around scorer, but the Magic likely overpaid for him when they signed a contract for $118 million over 6 years. To make room for Lewis, Orlando let Grant Hill go. Hill's defense will be missed, but Lewis is a major upgrade offensively because of how his three-point shooting will help Howard. Also leaving Orlando were Darko and Travis Diener, neither of whom should be greatly missed. The Magic picked up Adonal Foyle, who isn't a great player, but he's a big step up from backup Tony Battie. Orlando also has a new head coach in Stan Van Gundy. Van Gundy was pretty successful in Miami before Pat Riley decided to take over, and besides he can't be much worse than Brian Hill. It would've been interesting to see Billy Donovan actually honor the contract he signed, but Van Gundy is probably a better option anyway, as college coaches rarely make a good transition to the pros.

This year's Magic will have a very different look than the 2006-07 team did. With Lewis in the fold and Redick likely getting a lot more playing time, Howard should have a lot more room to operate down low. His turnovers should go down and his assists should go up, as the Magic can effectively dare teams to double team him. At the same time, Howard can be expected to improve, as he is only 21. While the Magic will be much better on offense, they'll likely take a step backward defensively. Grant Hill played very good defense for Orlando and replacing him with Lewis will make them considerably worse on that front. The Magic will likely play Howard with Lewis, Turkoglu, and Redick at times, which, aside from Howard and whoever plays point guard, is a terrible defensive group. Howard may see his blocked shots total increase, as opposing players will drive past this trio with relative ease. Of course, it will also land him in a lot more foul trouble. Orlando's offense should be improved enough that they should be a considerably better team, and while their defense is a legitimate concern, they should be able to get away with it in the Southeast and win the division.

Washington Wizards: While the Wizards were a lot of fun to watch last year, they were something of a disappointment. They lit up the scoreboard thanks to Gilbert Arenas, Caron Butler, and Antawn Jamison, but poor defense combined with injuries to key players led to a .500 season and a first round playoff defeat by the Cavaliers. Had all their stars been healthy, Washington could have put up more of a fight against Cleveland, but Arenas missed the series and as a result the Wizards got swept. Butler and Jamison also missed a number of games due to injury, which likely cost Washington the division. Even had they all been healthy, the Wizards were not as good as Cleveland, Chicago, or Detroit, but they would have been far more competitive down the stretch and into the playoffs.

Washington brought back most of last year's team in a fairly uneventful off-season. Jarvis Hayes was cut loose and he will effectively be replaced by first round draft pick Nick Young, out of USC. Young is a very good athlete and a great shooter, but it's hard to say how much he'll help Washington even if he lives up to his hype, as they are already loaded with perimeter players. Young could give DeShawn Stevenson a run for his starting spot, but Stevenson is Washington's best, and perhaps only, perimeter defender, so they will think twice before relegating him to the bench.

These Wizards should be about the same as last year's team, as no major moves were made. One has to wonder how Arenas' knee will hold up, coming off surgery. Another concern is the loss of Etan Thomas, who recently had open-heart surgery and will be out for several months. Thomas had split time with Brendan Haywood at center and the two had formed a pretty effective tandem, at least defensively. The bottom line is that the Wizards will win by out-gunning teams, not with defense, and to put up the points they'll need to win, they will need all their stars to stay healthy. If that happens, they could win the division, but any serious injuries could land them in the lottery.

Atlanta Hawks: The Hawks had another poor season last year, making yet another appearance in the lottery. The team had a great deal of injuries, in fact Shelden Williams was the only one to stay relatively healthy, but good health would not have been enough to save this squad. Joe Johnson led the team in scoring with 25 PPG, while shooting 47%. Josh Smith continued to improve and scored 16.4 PPG, while collecting 8.6 RPG and leading the team with 207 blocked shots. Marvin Williams and Josh Childress had respectable seasons as well. The problem? All of these players are 6'7" or taller and play shooting guard or small forward. The Hawks suffered, once again from poor point guard play and little size in the middle. Tyronn Lue, Speedy Claxton, and late-season addition Anthony Johnson, simply won't cut it at point and, other than Smith, no one on the Hawks averaged 7+ rebounds a game (though Shelden Williams had a very good rebound rate).

The Hawks addressed both their needs in the off-season through the draft. They lucked out in the lottery, securing the third pick. Their pick would have gone to Phoenix, but it was top 3 protected. They used this pick to select Al Horford, who is a very promising young big man. He should improve their rebounding and also give them some low-post scoring, which they haven't had in recent years. There was some speculation they should have used the pick to take Mike Conley, the top point guard prospect in the draft, particularly after the debacle that was the 2005 draft, when the Hawks passed up on both Deron Williams and Chris Paul to select Marvin Williams. The Hawks made the right choice in this case, as Horford is a better player and much safer pick than Marvin Williams was, while Conley lacks the upside of Deron Williams or Paul. Atlanta addressed its needs at point guard by taking Acie Law with the 11th pick. Law had a phenomenal senior season at Texas A&M, but there are some questions about him as a pro. He is very good at a lot of different things, but he doesn't have any one skill that stands out. Best-case scenario, he projects to a Sam Cassell-type player. Even if he does turn out well, he is not a pure point guard and will not be a particularly good fit for this team, but at least he gives them one more option.

Aside from their draft picks, the Hawks bring back the same team as last year. While they are still lacking at point guard, the addition of Horford and the continued development of their young players puts Atlanta in good position to take a big step forward this year. If the Hawks ownership could get it together and make a trade for a pass-first point guard, this team could finish over .500. As it is, barring the plague of injuries that hit them last year, the Hawks should be slightly below .500, which is enough to fight for a 7 or 8 seed in the East.

Miami Heat: While Miami won the division in 2006-07, they didn't do it very convincingly, struggling out of the gate and taking it by a mere 3 games. Had Gilbert Arenas not suffered his season-ending injury, in all likelihood the Wizards would have held on and won the Southeast. In the playoffs, Miami's title defense was short-lived, as they fell to the Bulls in the first round. Injuries, age, and a championship hangover led to their downfall. Dwyane Wade only suited up for 51 games, while Shaquille O'Neal only managed 40. Udonis Haslem and Alonso Mourning were fairly productive in the middle, and had to be to make up for Shaq's absence. Jason Kapono was the biggest surprise, averaging a career-high 10.9 PPG and shooting over 50% from three-point range. Eddie Jones was added halfway through the season and actually played respectably, scoring 9.5 PPG. These players, plus Shaq and Wade (when healthy) kept the Heat afloat, there were many problems. Antoine Walker had his worst season as a pro, as did Gary Payton. James Posey played poorly and Dorrell Wright show no real signs of improvement.

In the off-season, Miami replaced a lot of their role players. Kapono, Posey, Walker, and Jones are all out. While the Heat will miss the three-point shooting of these players (except for Walker), Kapono is the biggest loss and he was overpaid to go to Toronto, so it's difficult to fault the Heat for not bringing him back. Walker was dealt to the Timberwolves in a trade that netted Ricky Davis and Mark Blount. Davis is a head case and had worn out his welcome in Minnesota, but he should provide the Heat with some much needed scoring, especially early in the season, when Wade will be out due to injury. Blount played well opposite Kevin Garnett last year, averaging 12.3 PPG, but he is a very poor rebounder and defender and is unlikely to get as many open looks in Miami as he did with the Timberwolves. The biggest free agent acquisition Miami made was that of Smush Parker, who could start at point guard. This says more about how far Jason Williams has fallen than it does for the Heat's faith in Parker. Penny Hardaway was also added, but there's no guarantee he makes the team. In the draft, the Heat selected Daequan Cook, who will improve the team's shooting, but is a very raw talent and is unlikely to have a major impact this year.

If there was any chance the Heat would have a healthy team, they would be the favorite to win the Southeast again, but Wade is already hurt and Shaq will surprise a lot of people if he plays in more than 50 games this year. Even if Shaq is healthy, he's clearly on his last legs. After their superstars, the best players are Ricky Davis and Udonis Haslem. That's not enough to make the playoffs, especially when one considers Davis' production will likely take a nose-dive once Wade returns.

Charlotte Bobcats: While the Bobcats improved their record from their two previous seasons, it was still a pretty dismal season. Emeka Okafor played well, averaging a double-double, but missed several games and played hurt throughout much of the season. Gerald Wallace was Charlotte's best player, averaging 18.1 PPG and 7.2 RPG, Raymond Felton had his best season yet, with 7 APG, and Matt Carroll emerged as a gunner from outside, shooting 41.6% on threes. While there were these bright spots, the team badly struggled on defense and was erratic on offense. Adam Morrison was a problem on both fronts. While he averaged double digits in scoring, he shot a very poor percentage (37.6%) and he was perhaps the worst defender in the NBA. In the end, while they showed a glimmer of hope, the Bobcats finished with only 33 wins.

Despite some improvement, Charlotte replaced head coach Bernie Bickerstaff, replacing him with Sam Vincent, who was handpicked by Michael Jordan. This was a surprising move considering Vincent has never been a head coach in the NBA before, but with such a young team it may not be a problem. The Bobcats added a proven scorer when they dealt Brandan Wright to the Warriors for Jason Richardson. Richardson should fit in nicely alongside Wallace, but it's hard to know what this means for Carroll and Morrison, who now stand to lose a lot of minutes. The team also selected Jared Dudley and Jermareo Davidson. Dudley doesn't fit the prototype of a typical NBA player, but his hustle and basketball IQ lead many to believe he'll find a niche. Still, for a guy who projects as a role player, at best, it seemed a bit odd that the Bobcats would take him as high as 22nd. They probably could have waited on him.

Charlotte was a popular pick to take a big step forward and perhaps even make a playoff run, but the news that Sean May will undergo knee surgery put a major damper on their expectations. This leaves Charlotte very thin in the frontcourt, with Ryan Hollins likely starting at center. They should still be better than last year, thanks to the addition of Richardson and the fact that Morrison can only improve on his rookie season. If he and other young players, such as Felton, develop well, then the Bobcats could make a run at the 8th seed, but odds are they're in for another lottery season.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

NBA Preview: Central Division

(Teams listed in order of projected finish)

Chicago Bulls:
The Bulls continued to improve last season, winning 49 games and reaching the second round of the playoffs. Kirk Hinrich and Ben Gordon had very good seasons, but the real story was Luol Deng, who was the Bulls' best player and enjoyed a breakout season, putting up 18.8 PPG and 7.1 RPG. The addition of Ben Wallace helped the Bulls, although it remains a questionable move. Wallace is now 33 and last year was his worst rebounding and shot-blocking season since 1999-2000, the year before he came to Detroit. Meanwhile, his predecessor, Tyson Chandler, had a considerably better season in New Orleans. That aside, Wallace is still a good team leader and remained a strong defensive presence for the young Bulls. Other standouts included sixth man Andres Nocioni, and rookies Tyrus Thomas and Thabo Sefolosha. Thomas struggled early, but showed signs late in the season, while Sefolosha was successful at times as a defensive stopper.

By the time the playoffs rolled around, there was more talk about what the Bulls didn't do than what they had accomplished. They were heavily criticized for not pulling the trigger on a trade for Pau Gasol, a move which many thought would've put the Bulls over the edge. If nothing else, they would have done well to trade P.J. Brown's expiring contract. Despite being mentioned in Kobe Bryant trade talk, it was an uneventful off-season for Chicago. They drafted Joakim Noah, Aaron Gray, and JamesOn Curry. Noah is basically a Ben Wallace clone, at this point anyway, and will do little to help their inside-scoring woes. Gray is big enough to help in that department, but it's hard to imagine he'll play much and if he does, he may have a hard time keeping up with the rest of the team. Curry is a decent scorer, but the Bulls' backcourt is already pretty full. The only free agent signing the Bulls made was that of Joe Smith. Smith played fairly well for the Sixers last year, once he got regular playing time, but he's an injury risk and it's unlikely he'll give them much more than Brown did.

The Bulls should be an elite team in the Eastern Conference, but it's hard to see them getting to the NBA Finals. Chicago still lacks low-post scoring, which has plagued them ever since they traded Eddy Curry. They have excellent perimeter players, but teams can focus almost entirely on perimeter defense because none of the Bulls' big men are a threat to score down low. As a result, their entire offense relies on driving and kicking. This can work against a slow team that can't guard the perimeter (i.e. Miami), but against more athletic teams it makes the Bulls strictly a jump-shooting team. When the Bulls are hot, they'll be able to beat anyone, but they'll have nights when the shots aren't falling and they can lose to almost anyone. One thing the Bulls have in their favor is their rebounding, as offensive rebounds are critical to their success. Noah and Smith should help in that department. The Bulls should finish with the best record in the East, but look for another second round playoff exit.

Detroit Pistons: Many wondered how the Pistons would fare without Ben Wallace, but they silenced their critics in the regular season and finished with the best record in the East. Removing Wallace from the equation improved Detroit's offense, particularly when Chris Webber was added to the mix. Webber's passing, in particular, was a perfect fit in the Pistons offense. The area where Detroit missed Wallace the most was, predictably, shot-blocking. This came back to haunt them in the playoffs, when LeBron James led the Cavaliers, practically by himself, past the Pistons. James was able to drive to the lane at will, and as a result defeated the Pistons in the Conference Finals.

Detroit didn't make any headlines in the off-season, but they made some good moves nonetheless. The first, and most important, was re-signing Chauncey Billups. Billups' numbers were down a bit from 2005-06, but he still had a very strong season, with 17 PPG and 7.2 APG. The Pistons also gave Antonio McDyess an extension, which was a little risky considering his injury history, but they needed to do it, as McDyess will have to play a larger role this season, as Webber was let go. In the draft, Detroit took Rodney Stuckey and Arron Afflalo. Stuckey has looked outstanding so far, but he will miss 6 weeks with a hand injury. Stuckey, a combo guard with good range on his jumper, will be a major upgrade over Flip Murray. Afflalo may not get many minutes, but could find a niche as a poor man's Raja Bell.

While the Pistons are getting older, they are still one of the top teams in the East. The key to the season will likely by Rasheed Wallace, who supposedly lost 25 lbs in the off-season, which should improve his mobility and make him a more dangerous scorer. Detroit can still expect good production out of Billups and Richard Hamilton, and Tayshaun Prince could improve a bit. Detroit's biggest advantage is its size, where 'Sheed, McDyess, Jason Maxiell, and newly signed Amir Johnson should give the Pistons one of the league's better frontcourts. Detroit may have lost a step, but they'll be right in the mix for the East's best record.

Cleveland Cavaliers: The Cavaliers capped off a 50 win season with an impressive playoff run and a trip to the NBA Finals. Unfortunately LeBron James was in for a rude awakening there, as his team was swept convincingly by the San Antonio Spurs. While the Cavs were perceived as a one-man show, LeBron had a considerable amount of help. Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Drew Gooden, Anderson Varejao, and Donyell Marshall combined to give Cleveland one of the league's better frontcourts, while Daniel Gibson and Sasha Pavlovic emerged as scoring options in the backcourt. That said, a number of Cavs players took a step backward, most notably Larry Hughes. Hughes struggled to stay healthy and was relatively ineffective even when he was. Damon Jones had a down year and saw his playing time drop dramatically. Meanwhile, Eric Snow got a lot of minutes, despite his non-existent shooting skills and declining defense.

The Cavs had a quiet off-season, which probably frustrated James. The only significant addition was that of Devin Brown, who is a very mediocre shooting guard. Still, he is a good three-point shooter and can play a little point guard, so he should be an upgrade over Snow and Jones. However, the Cavs may have lost more than they gained. Varejao and Pavlovic remain unsigned as of yet and the two will be greatly missed in Cleveland if they do not return.

With the lack of major additions, LeBron will be very heavily depended on once again. Ilguaskas, Gooden, and Marshall remain in the frontcourt, Varejao's energy, offensive rebounding, and shot-blocking will be greatly missed. Pavlovic's three-point shooting would have been a great help as well, though Brown may be able to make up for some of it. Barring a monster season from James, the key to the Cavaliers season will be their guard play. Gibson will have to prove his playoff performance was not a fluke and Hughes will have to stay healthy and give Cleveland a reliable second scoring option.

Milwaukee Bucks: On paper, this looks like a pretty dangerous team. Michael Redd is one of the league's better scorers, Mo Williams had a breakout season last year, Andrew Bogut is a former first overall pick, and Charlie Villanueva had a strong rookie campaign. Too bad the game isn't played on paper. The Bucks struggled with injuries and inconsistency, then seemed to give up at the end of the season. While the Bucks could shoot, they were one of the worst defensive teams in the league. In the end, they finished with the third worst record in the NBA, but only had the sixth overall pick to show for it.

They used that pick on Yi Jianlian, which was nearly a disaster. Yi had not worked out for Milwaukee and had little interest in playing there, as the city does not have a large Chinese-American population and because the Bucks seemed to already have a crowded frontcourt. Eventually he was convinced to sign with the team, but only after he was promised major minutes. Yi is a very promising prospect with almost unlimited potential, but it's very difficult to know how effectively he can adjust to the NBA. Milwaukee also added Desmond Mason, who should help their defense, but provides very little on the other end. The Bucks almost lost Charlie Bell to Miami after he signed an offer sheet and asked the Bucks to let him go, but they opted to match the offer and keep him. Key losses included Ruben Patterson, who provided great energy and rebounding last season, and Earl Boykins.

The Bucks are a young and intriguing team, but they've got a ways to go. Bogut has yet to prove he was deserving of being draft first overall, Villanueva has been very inconsistent, and no one knows what to expect from Yi. One has to wonder if chemistry will be an issue, as Yi takes some of Villanueva's minutes. If the entire team can mesh and stay healthy, the Bucks might be able to fight for a low seed in the playoffs, but odds are they'll be making another trip to the lottery.

Indiana Pacers:
The Pacers struggled mightily last season, particularly after an eight player trade with Golden State that sent Al Harrington and Stephen Jackson to Oakland for Mike Dunleavy, Troy Murphy, and Ike Diogu. While Diogu is still very young and could develop, Dunleavy and Murphy played terribly and it's unlikely they'll be any better this year. Jermaine O'Neal was by far the Pacers best player, particularly on the defensive end where he was among the best in the league, but he had a down year on offense. Danny Granger had a decent season and Darrell Armstrong was surprisingly productive, but Indiana had very little going for them.

In the off-season, O'Neal was discussed in many potential trades, including a popular scenario where he paired with Kobe Bryant in LA, but nothing came of it and he'll be back with the Pacers this season. The biggest move the Pacers actually made was firing Rick Carlisle and replacing him with Jim O'Brien. O'Brien is a capable coach and he ought to improve Indiana's offense, simply because it can't get much worse. The only other additions of note were Travis Diener and Kareem Rush. Both are good shooters and should help the Pacers at guard, but neither is good enough to play major minutes.

One has to wonder how long it will be before O'Neal is traded, as his value is only going to decline at this point and the Pacers are far from contention. Whether or not O'Neal is dealt will be the difference between finishing 4th in the division or last in the conference. Either way, this is going to be an ugly season for Indiana unless they get major improvement out of Granger and a few other young players.

NBA Preview: Atlantic Division

(Teams listed in order of projected finish)

Boston Celtics
: It was a tough season to be a Celtics fan last year. Many thought this would be the year the Celtics' young players broke though and made the team competitive again. This occurred in the case of Al Jefferson, who emerged as one of league's better low-post scorers, but the rest of the team struggled. Paul Pierce was often injured and only played in 47 games and as a result the Celtics finished with the worst record in the East. Frustration increased when the draft lottery left Boston with the fifth overall pick, putting an end to the dreams of Greg Oden or Kevin Durant in Celtics green.

In contrast, Celtics fans could not be more optimistic about this season thanks to the additions of Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett. Garnett is a future Hall of Famer and is one of the best all-around players in the game. Allen can shoot the lights out and should get a lot of open looks with Pierce and Garnett drawing double teams. Boston's new Big Three will be incredibly difficult to defend and they should make the Celtics one of the East's top teams. The one downside to the trade is the resulting lack of depth. The starting lineup will be rounded out by Rajon Rondo and Kendrick Perkins. Perkins shouldn't have to do much except play solid defense and rebound. Rondo's poor shooting could be a liability, as it will allow defenses to sag off him and double team Pierce, Allen, or Garnett, but he may be able to make up for it with his defense and passing. Other significant additions were James Posey and Eddie House. Posey is valuable as a fourth scoring option and as a lock-down defender, plus his playoff experience could prove useful, as he is the only current Celtic with a ring. House is listed as a point guard, but he is really a shooter. He should be able to knock down some open threes and keep defenses honest.

The Celtics should be one of the top teams in the East, but it's hard to see them finishing with the best record because of the lack of depth. This will likely cost them several games throughout the year and it's unrealistic to predict much more than 50 wins. That said, 50 wins should be enough to win the Atlantic. While this team should be fearsome in the playoffs, one has to wonder if the Big Three will be worn down from the regular season. There are also major questions about Doc Rivers ability to effectively run this team. Talent should prevail in the regular season, but in the playoffs, coaching has a much bigger impact. Meanwhile, there will be a lot of pressure on Boston to produce this year. The Big Three are all over 30 and it's hard to know how much they have left in the tank. They'll all be good this year, but if the Celtics are going to win a title with this group, it's going to have to be in the next 2-3 years.

Toronto Raptors: After securing the first overall pick and using it on Andrea Bargnani, the Raptors surprised many by winning the Atlantic. Despite getting ousted in the first round by New Jersey, it was a very successful season. Chris Bosh improved and made the All-Star team for the first time, T.J. Ford and Jose Calderon were a potent tandem at point guard, and Jorge Garbajosa and Anthony Parker proved effective in their limited roles. Sam Mitchell won Coach of the Year, though there were questions about his job security in the off-season.

The Raptors return with most of last year's team intact. The biggest moves were the departure of Morris Peterson and the subsequent addition of Jason Kapono. Mitchell had clearly lost faith in Peterson, who had career lows in games started (12) and minutes per game (21.4), but replacing him with Kapono is very questionable. Kapono is coming off an excellent season in Miami, where he shot above 50% from downtown, but it's hard to see him maintaining that percentage in Toronto. He was able to shoot so well because of the open looks he got that come with playing alongside Shaquille O'Neal and Dwyane Wade. It's unlikely that Bosh can find him as many good shots, plus we've seen this from Miami shooters before (see: Jones, Damon). Kapono can still stretch the defense, as he is a fine shooter, but Toronto almost certainly overpaid for him.

Despite Boston's improvement, Toronto has a real shot at winning the Atlantic. While they didn't make any big moves, their best chance at improvement comes from within. Bosh is still young and getting better and he could take a big step forward this year. Bargnani has a lot of room to improve and he should benefit from more consistent playing time. The Atlantic will not come as easily as it did last year, but moderate improvement from their young players should be enough for Toronto to put up a fight for the division.

New Jersey Nets: Despite high expectations, the Nets barely made the playoffs last year, thanks to a late-season hot streak. Injuries played a large role, as Richard Jefferson only played in only 55 games and Nenad Krstic managed only 26 before he required knee surgery. The Krstic injury left New Jersey with Jason Collins, Clifford Robinson, Mikkie Moore, and Josh Boone as their big men. Collins played excellent defense, but did nothing else, while Robinson and Boone did little of note. Moore played fairly well and became the latest big man to get a substantial contract purely because of Jason Kidd. In the backcourt, Kidd and Vince Carter had strong seasons, but the lack of depth and a weak frontcourt left the Nets a .500 team.

There was a great deal of talk about blowing this team up when the Nets were struggling, but making the playoffs seems to have convinced them that the Kidd-Carter-Jefferson trio can get them past the second round. As a result, Vince Carter was re-signed and the team made a few other minor additions. Jamaal Magloire was added to shore up the frontcourt, which sounds good on paper, but "on paper" is the only place Magloire has been good in the last several years. The team also drafted Sean Williams, who should give the Nets good shot-blocking and defense and ought to catch some lobs from Kidd for alley-oops. Moore left for Sacramento in the off-season, but he shouldn't be missed too much. Eddie House also departed and the Nets will likely miss his offense.

With their off-season moves, the Nets have more options in their frontcourt, but it's hard to say how much better it makes them. Krstic was looking like a very good talent before he went down last season, but none of the other big men offer much. Magloire is very slow and doesn't seem to fit the Nets' offense, and Collins, Boone, and Williams are all defensive-minded players who are liabilities on offense. For this team to make the playoffs again, it will rely on Kidd, Carter, and Jefferson to all stay healthy and carry the scoring load. Another key could be Marcus Williams, who will need to fill in at times for an aging Kidd. If they all stay healthy, the Nets could have a shot at the division, but they are likely looking at another .500 season.

New York Knicks: Last season's Knicks had a great deal of talent on paper, but was unable to produce. Oh wait, that could describe any Knicks team under Isiah Thomas. While they stayed competitive for a while, apparently enough so for Thomas to receive an extension, injuries led the Knicks to a terrible stretch run and they finished with only 33 wins. One of the few bright spots was David Lee, who averaged a double-double in points and rebounds despite primarily coming off the bench. The rest of the team struggled to mesh on offense and staggered on defense.

Arguably the biggest move on draft day was the Knicks' acquisition of Zach Randolph from Portland for Channing Frye and Steve Francis. Based on talent, this appears to be a coup for the Knicks, but then what Isiah Thomas trade didn't seem to favor them on paper? Frye and Francis is very little to give up for a young low-post scorer who averaged 23.6 PPG and 10.1 RPG last season, but it does very little to improve the Knicks' season outlook (and one has to wonder why Portland was willing to make the deal without getting back more talent). This would be a great move, were it not for the fact that the Knicks already have a great low-post scorer in Eddy Curry. If both play to their strengths, they will get in each other's way, and neither has the mid-range game or the passing ability to complement the other. Both are liabilities defensively, which will lead to easy points for opposing big men, as well as foul trouble for the Knicks. It's very hard to call this a bad deal because the Knicks gave up so little, but unless they turn around and trade Curry for someone who's a better fit, it's hard to see this trade making the Knicks any better.

Like last year's Knicks, this year's version will lack a pure point guard, play poor defense, and take painfully bad shots. There is enough talent there that they will be capable of getting hot and beating almost anyone on a given night, but most of the team, their best bet will be to outgun teams, which is difficult when every guard on the roster would rather hoist a contested 40-foot jumper than pound the ball inside to one of the Knicks' big men. This team's only chance is for Isiah instill some kind of brilliant gameplan which utilizes all their talent (unlikely) and get all his players to buy into it (extremely unlikely). Sound realistic? Didn't think so.

Philadelphia 76ers: Coming into last season, the Sixers were determined to make a return to the playoffs with Allen Iverson and Chris Webber. It quickly became clear that this wasn't meant to be and the team decided to bail on the season. GM Billy King has been unable to figure out how to build a successful team around Iverson, despite the fact that they had that blueprint laid out for them in 2001, when Iverson was surrounded with good defenders and rebounders, who let Iverson do the bulk of the scoring and did all the dirty work for him. Instead the team tried to add scorers, such as Keith Van Horn, Glenn Robinson, and Webber. As a result, the Sixers were left with a frustrated Iverson, an overpaid and immobile Webber, several overpaid role players, and a few young players with upside. Trading Iverson was the only way to salvage the franchise, and so Iverson was dealt to Denver for Andre Miller, Joe Smith, and two first round draft picks. Miller, Smith, and the breakout performance of Andre Iguodala helped the Sixers to a strong finish...maybe too strong. The Sixers finished with 35 wins and the 12th overall draft pick, instead of the high lottery pick Sixers fans had hoped for.

The off-season was very quiet for the Sixers. King intended to trade some of his draft picks, but nothing ever materialized and the Sixers wound up keeping them all. The draft netted them Thaddeus Young, Jason Smith, Derrick Byars, and Herbert Hill. Young is extremely athletic, a capable shooter, and has a ton of upside, though he seems awfully similar to last year's first round pick, Rodney Carney, who had a very poor rookie season. Smith has the chance to be a good scoring power forward down the road, but he would not crack the rotation of most teams as a rookie. Byars and Hill have the chance to be solid role players, and Hill should be particularly interesting to watch, as he had a very strong senior season at Providence. Other than the draft, the only significant move was the trade that sent Steven Hunter and Bobby Jones to Denver for Reggie Evans and Ricky Sanchez. Evans is an elite rebounder, but does nothing else. He'll compliment Samuel Dalembert well and shore up the Sixers' rebounding woes, but he has no business starting on an NBA team.

The Sixers are in rebuilding mode and could well make a run for the worst record in the league, but they could at least be fun to watch. Miller does a very good job running the fastbreak and the Sixers have great athletes to put around him, in Iguodala, Carney, and Young. Iguodala's development will be key, as he will try to prove he can be the team's primary scorer. Another player to watch is Louis Williams, a lightning-quick, Iverson wannabe who showed some signs last year and dominated Summer League play. For the Sixers to succeed this year, it would take a monster season from Iguodala and just about every Sixers prospect taking a major step forward. Don't count on it.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Do the Rockies Have a Shot?

That's been the question that the Colorado Rockies, despite winning 21 of their last 22 games, have had to face ever since they finished off the Arizona Diamondbacks. Before we even knew who was coming out of the AL, the Rockies were being written off. Normally I can't root for teams with that perennial underdog complex, but it's well-justified in Colorado's case.

Yes, I know the American League has been a lot better this year and that the Rockies barely made the playoffs in the weak National League. The Rockies still get to take the field and have a legitimate shot at beating the Red Sox. The problem is that for the Rockies to win, a lot of things need to go right. The Red Sox have more talent, especially in their pitching, and thus more margin for error.

It would seem that some intangibles are in the Rockies' favor. First, their hot streak should give them a ton of momentum. At the same time, they've had eight days off and will be very well-rested. These both sound like great advantages, but they don't go together...at all. The rest is nice, but it will kill all of Colorado's momentum. In other sports, the rest would be a considerable advantage, but this is baseball. There's no effective way to practice that equates to playing a real game, and the key elements are so based on rhythm that the time off can be devastating. Some would argue that the Red Sox will be fatigued coming in, but why would they be? They played a seven game series over nine days. Teams regularly play nine games in nine days in the regular season and they don't complain about it.

So you can scratch those advantages out. The rest actually serves as a disadvantage and momentum is overrated anyway. Even if momentum was a legitimate factor (and I'll admit it plays a small role. There is a psychological element in baseball), the Red Sox have more of it after rallying from a 3-1 deficit and by doing so more recently.

The Red Sox pitching is far superior to the Rockies, both their starters and in the bullpen. Jeff Francis has pitched very well, but he's no Josh Beckett. Curt Schilling isn't as good as he used to be, but he's still a reliable playoff pitcher, and Daisuke Matsuzaka has been mediocre in October, but he should be just as good as anyone Colorado can muster for Game 3. In the 'pen, Jonathan Papelbon and Hideki Okajima can effectively end a game in the 7th inning, whereas Colorado can send out Brian Fuentes and Manny Corpas. Both have been effective, but neither can compare to Boston's relievers.

If the Rockies are going to win, it will be with their offense (and their fielding, to a degree). Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz are excellent, and Kevin Youkilis was phenomenal in the ALCS, but after that the Red Sox offense is a little shaky. The main reason they were down 3-1 in the first place is because their other players weren't getting hits and driving in Manny, Ortiz, and Youkilis.

Colorado's offense is much more balanced. Matt Holliday is the favorite to win the MVP after a monster season. Todd Helton is still a very good hitter, even if he doesn't have the home run power that he used to. Garrett Atkins and Brad Hawpe are both very dangerous, and Kaz Matsui has been excellent at the plate in the post-season. The Red Sox have superior pitching, but the Rockies make up for it, partially, with a more dangerous lineup.

The real determining factor in this series will be the ballparks. It is well-known that Fenway provides a major homefield advantage for the Red Sox. The Green Monster has been known to fool many opposing left fielders, while at the same time it gives Manny relatively little ground to cover. Boston's homefield advantage is well-established, but what could be more important is how the Red Sox handle Coors Field.

It's true that Coors Field is no longer the home run haven it used to be, now that the humidor has been implemented, but it is still a very spacious park which could play into the hands of the Rockies. While Colorado's outfielders all have very good range, this could be a problem for Boston. Manny doesn't cover a lot of ground and has been known to misplay balls and J.D. Drew is also a mediocre fielder. One option would be to start both Jacoby Ellsbury and Coco Crisp, which would probably give the Red Sox enough speed in the outfield to mask Manny's poor fielding, but this would be risky. While Drew has not hit especially well, save his grand slam in Game 6, his bat would be a welcome addition to the lineup considering that the Red Sox will have to sit either Mike Lowell or Kevin Youkilis, as Ortiz is forced to play first base due to National League rules. The Red Sox infield defense will also be lackluster, with Ortiz at first, Julio Lugo at shortstop, and possibly Youkilis at third base. These defensive struggles and the offensive drain could well be enough for the Rockies to take two games in Denver.

All that said, the Red Sox are the better all-around team, with much better pitching, and they have homefield advantage in the series, which should be enough for them to win. Don't count the Rockies out, but I'm taking the Red Sox in 6.

Thoughts From Week 7

Colts 29, Jaguars 7: This game had great upset potential right up until David Garrard went down in the first half. Poor Jaguars fans. Just when they thought they were done watching terrible quarterback play, Garrard goes down and leaves them with Quinn Gray. This would've been a shutout if not for Maurice Jones-Drew's 65 yard kickoff return. The Jaguars are still a very good team, but they're clearly not as good as the Colts or Patriots, not that anyone else is.

Meanwhile, the Colts did a good job of limiting Jacksonville's running game, at least in the early going. The Jaguars actually averaged a very respectable 4.3 yards per carry, but they only ran the ball 27 times because the Colts got ahead early. Basically, the Colts are really good, which we already knew.

What I really want to know is, what was Tony Dungy thinking challenging that Jones-Drew TD? I can understand how he would want to challenge whether Jones-Drew fumbled, but it was pretty clear that the Jaguars came up with the ball after it came loose. There was never a moment when the Colts were even close to having possession. I know Dungy couldn't see that from the sideline, but don't they pay people to look at the replay and tell him whether or not to challenge it?

Broncos 31, Steelers 28: Pretty impressive win for the Broncos, knocking off the Steelers in dramatic fashion, which appears to be the only way they can win games. It's very hard to know what to make of Denver. They beat Pittsburgh, barely, but they beat Buffalo the same way. They're just a strange team. As for the Steelers, I'm still not convinced they're as good as many people seem to think. Sure, they're 4-2, but their only impressive win came at home against the Seahawks, who went on to lose to the Saints a week later. Other than that they've beaten Cleveland, Buffalo, and San Francisco. Plus, they've lost 2 of 3 on the road. Baltimore in Week 9 could be a good test, but other than that they don't face a tough team until Week 14, when they go to New England.

Bears 19, Eagles 16: What exactly compelled the Eagles to throw the ball 34 times and run it only 25 times? They averaged 4.9 yards per carry and Donovan McNabb was having a so-so game and, more importantly, they were leading for all but about five minutes. As an Eagles fan, I've already started planning for next year when Bill Cowher is coaching Kevin Kolb, and Brian Westbrook is splitting carries with Michael Turner. Here's hoping anyway.

As for the Bears, they look like the are on the rise. Brian Griese has been just what the doctor ordered. He's been efficient and hasn't turned the ball over (or at least not at Grossman levels). He's actually carried that offense to a degree, and he's had to, with Cedric Benson struggling. The Bears have a great shot to make the playoffs and maybe even take the division.

Cowboys 24, Vikings 14: This game wasn't as close as the score. The Vikings were lucky to be leading, as they only had one legitimate drive, capped off by (who else) Adrian Peterson running in a TD. The other touchdown came on a fumble recovery. (Two fumbles, if you count the one Griffin made on his own, then recovered.) Dallas may have some defensive deficiencies, but they can stop the run and are a far better team than the Vikings, and they showed it in the second half (as usual).

Titans 38, Texans 36: Rob Bironas for MVP? ...Yeah, I didn't think so either. I'm just in shock that Kerry Collins managed to win a game and only turn the ball over once.

Redskins 21, Cardinals 19: Ken Whisenhunt is my new favorite NFL coach. Even when his schemes don't work, they're always entertaining. Normally losing on a failed two-point conversion would be pretty unremarkable, but when Anquan Boldin is throwing an incomplete pass in the process? That's good TV. Granted, that play only would've worked in college, but I'm giving Whisenhunt points for creativity.

Giants 33, 49ers 15: The Giants have a pretty good defense. There I said it. They're beating bad teams the way they should. That said, I still think they'll get abused when they finally play someone worthwhile. They'll probably be a playoff team, but with nine wins, tops.

Patriots 49, Dolphins 28: I know I wasn't the only one who thought the Patriots would keep demolishing the Dolphins in the second half. I was expecting a 70 point game. Nice work Belichick, that'll teach the NFL to...enforce its rules? Something like that.

I feel really bad for the Dolphins, who have a great shot to go winless. They weren't a good team to begin with, but the Ronnie Brown injury is just unfair. They didn't deserve that. Now the fate of the season (which is already over anyway) depends on Cleo Lemon and Jesse Chatman. Good luck...

Lions 23, Buccaneers 16: Who would've thought when Jon Kitna faced Jeff Garcia, turnovers would be the difference...and Kitna would win? Good thing they were fumbles. Garcia's interception-less streak remains!

Bills 19, Ravens 14: Willis McGahee had a pretty good game against his former team (114 yards on 19 carries), but it wasn't enough. Not with Kyle Boller at the helm. Of course if you take out McGahee's 46 yard touchdown run, his performance was pretty average in terms of yards per carry. The real difference in this game was penalties, which cost the Ravens 91 yards compared to 25 for the Bills. Also notable is that Lee Evans FINALLY had a good game. Still no TDs, but 98 yards on five receptions is definitely a good sign. Look for a breakout game against the Jets next week.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Thoughts From Week 6

Giants 31, Falcons 10: Before everyone jumps on the Giants bandwagon, let's stop to consider who they beat in their four game winning streak. They get credit for edging Washington on the road, as they've been a solid team this year, but other than that they've beaten Philly, the Jets, and Atlanta A.V. (after Vick). The Eagles were missing Westbrook and most of their secondary, and yet were in it for most of the game. The Jets are just bad and Leon Washington has probably been their best player. The Falcons...two words: Joey Harrington.

The fact is, the Giants have lost to the only legitimate teams they've played. They'll probably extend their streak to six straight, with Trent Dilfer's 49ers and Cleo Lemon's Dolphins coming up, followed by the inevitable "Eli Manning is finally living up to his hype" talk. After that, the schedule gets a lot tougher. It reads as follows: Dallas, at Detroit, Minnesota, at Chicago, at Philadelphia, Washington, at Buffalo, New England. Would anyone be shocked if they lost six of those eight games?

On another note, during the game an ESPN analyst pointed out that one of Eli's strengths is his "amnesia," or his ability to forget bad plays and move on. First off, I could already tell that Eli doesn't care when he messes up. He always has the same blank stare on his face at all times. Second, isn't a quarterback with "amnesia" just another way of saying that a quarterback is bad? I'd rather have a quarterback remember his interceptions and fumbles so he can, oh I don't know, learn from them! I hope Eli forgot about last season's second half collapse, or he's going to have a severe case of deja vu this year. Finally, if I want a quarterback with amnesia, the first guy I'm calling is Trent Green.

Saints 28, Seahawks 17: I know I'm not the only one who did a double take when Reggie Bush ran up the middle for 22 yards in the first quarter. This game really seemed to sum up Bush as an NFL player. When he's running intelligently, he can be a force. He's a lot like Brian Westbrook, with his elusiveness and speed. Yet he insists on dancing around in the backfield, as if he's back at USC. That doesn't work in the NFL.

On the other side, Shaun Alexander was abysmal, with 35 yards on 14 carries. It was one thing when he struggled against Pittsburgh, but the Saints? Pathetic. I'll give the Saints special teams some credit for jump-starting the team with that botched punt TD, and to Drew Brees who had his first productive game of the season, but this looked more like Seattle stumbling than anything else.

Patriots 48, Cowboys 27: I have to give the Patriots credit for this one. They beat a legitimate team on the road, really for the first time all year. I was never sold on Dallas, who also hadn't played a tough schedule in the first five weeks, but they are by far the toughest team the Patriots have faced. The true test will be when they play Indianapolis, but blowing out the Cowboys at home is pretty impressive.

Meanwhile, the Cowboys weak pass defense was once again exposed. To be fair, can a team starting Roy Williams be expected to effective cover anyone? His strategy on every play seems to be torpedoing himself at the nearest opposing player. Sometimes he connects and does some damage, but most of the time he whiffs or just grazes the guy. He's like a power hitter who swings as hard as he can on every pitch. For every 500 foot bomb, there are 50 strikeouts. So there you have it, Williams is the Wily Mo Pena of the NFL.

Chargers 28, Raiders 14: Looks like the Chargers are back. There's nothing particularly impressive about beating the Raiders (although they were leading the AFC West coming into the game), but Tomlinson reverted to his MVP form. Even more important was that LT had more carries than Philip Rivers had passing attempts. Could Norv Turner be learning, or was this just a random sequence of events that led to this play-calling? They say a bunch of monkeys with typewriters would eventually write Shakespeare, so I'm willing to believe that Turner could get lucky for two weeks in a row.

Jaguars 37, Texans 17: Jacksonville has very quietly achieved a 4-1 record and they have a great shot at beating the Colts in two weeks. That could potentially be a more difficult game than the Colts game against the Patriots, just because Jacksonville's running game is so strong. I'll admit I was overambitious when I picked the Jaguars to win the AFC South, but they are a legitimately good team nonetheless.

Eagles 16, Jets 9: The difference in the game was a 75 yard bomb to Kevin Curtis, which is great, but doesn't exactly inspire a ton of confidence in the Eagles offense. If this team is going anywhere they should be able to put up more than 16 points against the Jets. At this point I'd say the Eagles are looking at a 7-9 season, unless something drastically changes.

Buccaneers 13, Titans 10: The Madden Curse finally got to Vince Young. But really, who could've foreseen a young scrambling quarterback without much talent around him succumbing to injury?

Packers 17, Redskins 14: How about Santana Moss taking himself out of the game? I guess I can't blame him after he dropped several passes and had more rushing attempts than receptions (1-0), though his rushing and receiving yards were the same (0). Even Sean Taylor made a few catches, though he dropped two easy interceptions. Meanwhile, Brett Favre had a pretty lousy game (19-37, 0 TDs, 2 INTs) and yet the ESPN headline reads that he "led" the Packers to victory. I must've stepped out for that part of the game. Moss did more to help the Packers than Favre did.

Chiefs 27, Bengals 20: Maybe Kansas City really isn't that bad...oh wait, Cincinnati has no linebackers (no, they're not in jail...yet). Meanwhile, Tony Gonzalez should enjoy his TD record while he can because Antonio Gates is closing fast.

Vikings 34, Bears 31: Adrian Peterson is just ridiculous. The Bears defense isn't as good as it was last year, but no one should be able to run all over them just like that. It was like a team full of Adam Archuleta's out there.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Thoughts From Week 5

Cowboys-Bills: Doesn't this game just about sum up the Bills franchise? They nearly pulled off an incredible upset of an undefeated team, picking off four Tony Romo passes in the first half alone (plus one in the second half), only to blow a lead after a successful Dallas onside kick and two 53-yard field goals (only one counted, since Dick Jauron joined the kicker-icing fun that seems to have dominated the season). This game should raise some serious concerns for Dallas, as they clearly played down to an inferior opponent and Romo looked like he did in the second half of last season. My favorite moment had to be after the game ended, when the sideline reporter was interviewing Romo. The reporter asked what was going through his head when Nick Folk was lining up for the game-winning kick. Romo said something cliche, but we all know he was thinking "I am SO glad I'm not holding this one."

Bears-Packers: The Chicago offense finally showed signs of life, but more significantly, Brett Favre was back to his old gunslinging ways. Favre threw two interceptions and only one touchdown in his worst game of the season. Throwing INTs to the Bears isn't the worst thing in the world, but it was the way he threw them that was striking. The one caught by Brian Urlacher was just a terrible decision and it had no chance of working in the Packers' favor. Of course, as much as Favre struggled, the goat for the Packers has to be James Jones, who fumbled, not once, but twice in Chicago territory, keeping the Bears in the game and allowing Brian Griese to get in a rhythm. The Packers are still 4-1, but they have to be wary. Their defense shouldn't be allowing the Bears to score 27 points. They'll face a stiff test against Washington this week.

Ravens-49ers: I'll give Brian Billick a little credit, as Willis McGahee got 22 carries this week. Of course, Steve McNair threw the ball 43 times. Why throw so much in a close game when Baltimore had the lead from the 2nd quarter on? Granted, McGahee didn't have his best game, but McNair was far from dominant. Once again Matt Stover looked like the best player on the Ravens offense.

Chargers-Broncos: The Chargers were due for a game like this. Even Norv Turner couldn't make them terrible all season...right? Well they finally broke through in this one and the poor Broncos were the victims. It took four games for him to figure it out, but Norv finally did the smart thing and ran the ball down the throats of his opponent. Tomlinson and Michael Turner ran a combined 31 times, while Philip Rivers only threw 18 passes. That's a recipe for success for this team. Meanwhile, with the Raiders leading the division right now at 2-2 (I can't believe it either), the Chargers are now in great position to take the AFC West.

Buccaneers-Colts: No Marvin Harrison, no Joseph Addai? No problem for Peyton Manning and the Colts. Manning and backup running back Kenton Keith led the Colts to a 33-14 win over Tampa Bay. The Colts are 5-0 and are the only team that deserves to be mentioned in the same sentence as the Patriots. This win should prove, however, that Manning is a better quarterback than Brady. Brady's had a great year, but it's because he (finally) has good talent around him. Manning showed that he doesn't need elite receivers or running backs to be great, although a lot of the credit has to go to the offensive line as well.

Lions-Redskins: Is Washington's offense that good or is the Lions defense just awful? It's the Lions. Jason Campbell is an up-and-coming quarterback, but a banged-up receiving corps should not have been able to light up anyone to the tun of 34 points. The Lions, meanwhile, have to find a way to protect Jon Kitna, who may be wearing down from all the sacks he's taken lately.

Seahawks-Steelers: This was a statement game for the Steelers, coming off a loss to Arizona. They look like a great team, especially at home, and flat-out dominated the Seahawks, shutting them out. Meanwhile, the Seahawks may have been exposed as an overrated team. They could still win the NFC West (someone has to), but after that performance I like Arizona's chances.

Cardinals-Rams: At least the Rams figured out how to score, especially without Marc Bulger and Steven Jackson. Don't expect it to last. Especially not against Baltimore next week. What's more interesting is that Kurt Warner is now the starting quarterback in Arizona now that Matt Leinart is done for the year. Warner had been more successful anyway and that success should continue as long as the offensive line continues to be effective.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Thoughts From Week 4

Patriots-Bengals: Who would've thought the Patriots would have their lowest scoring game against that vaunted Bengals defense? Not that it mattered as the game was pretty much a joke. So are the Patriots the best team in the league? It's hard to make a case why they wouldn't be. The Colts, Packers, and Cowboys are still undefeated, but the Patriots have been far more dominant than all those teams. The one knock on the Patriots is that they haven't played anyone good yet. Yes, they've played the Chargers and Bengals, but both those teams are 1-3. In fact the Patriots have only played 1-3 teams thus far. If I were ranking teams, I'd have to put the Patriots #1 for now, but let's see how they play Dallas on the road in two weeks before we start the 16-0 talk.

Eagles-Giants: This was one of the worst-coached games I've ever seen at the professional level. What is wrong with Andy Reid? I can't blame McNabb or the receivers for this game (though I'm sure plenty of people will). It's pretty hard to throw from your back. I can't even give Osi Umenyiora that much credit for his six sacks. It was an impressive individual effort, but any properly coached team would have double teamed him after the first sack or two. I was screaming for someone to give Winston Justice some help in the first quarter. Umenyiora was still racking up sacks in the fourth quarter. This is the first time I truly questioned whether Andy Reid should still be the Eagles head coach. Of course, this game also proved that Brian Westbrook is the Eagles most valuable player, if there was any doubt.

Chiefs-Chargers: Just when it looked like Tomlinson was back, the Chargers self-destructed and were outscored 24-0 in the second half...at home...against the CHIEFS! There is no excuse for any of that. Norv Turner has ruined a very talented team, pretty much single-handedly. Fire him now!

Steelers-Cardinals: This game should shut up everyone who counted the Steelers among the NFL's elite after they went 3-0 against bad teams. Nice revenge game for Ken Whisenhunt, as his two-quarterback gameplan and some solid defense gave the Steelers their first loss of the season. Maybe this game was a fluke for Pittsburgh and had a lot to do with Whisenhunt's knowledge of his former team. Next week against Seattle should give us a much better sense of just how good this team is.

Colts-Broncos: Just goes to show that it doesn't matter who you put around Peyton Manning as long as the offensive line is intact. Both Marvin Harrison and Joseph Addai left the game and Manning still lit up the Broncos defense. Can't wait to see the Colts play the Patriots.

Seahawks-49ers: Trent Dilfer. (That's all the punchline I need.)

Packers-Vikings: Did you hear?! Brett Favre broke the touchdown record! Thanks to ESPN for ingraining that unspectacular play in my head by showing it every five seconds. Good for Favre, it's an impressive milestone, but did anyone else notice that the amazing reborn Packers only beat Minnesota by a touchdown?

Bears-Lions: Well, the Brian Griese experiment hasn't helped much. Still, he's no worse than Grossman. None of this would be happening if they had kept Thomas Jones. The real disappointment has been Cedric Benson.

Raiders-Dolphins: Daunte Culpepper made the Dolphins look pretty stupid. You mean it takes two years to recover from a torn ACL? Ohhhhh! Enjoy Trent Green. Also, Justin Fargas is this week's Knee-Jerk Fantasy Pickup of the Week.

Rams-Cowboys: Every member of the Rams defense should be sentenced to a week in Arena Football after that Tony Romo fumble-recovery-first down. Pathetic.

Ravens-Browns: Willis McGahee had 14 carries. McNair had 53 passing attempts. That pretty much sums it up.

Texans-Falcons: If anyone was left on the Texans bandwagon after they lost to the Colts, they're gone now.