Monday, December 31, 2007

2008 NBA All-Stars -- West

Though the Eastern Conference continues to close the gap in talent-level with the Western Conference, the West remains superior -- for now.

West starters

Steve Nash, PG, Suns -- Nash earns this spot by averaging 16.8 points and 12.4 assists per game for the Suns. Nash paces the Suns up-tempo offense and has Phoenix right behind the Spurs for the West’s second-best record. Not really a surprising choice here, but Nash does have some company now from other top point guards in the West -- more on that later.

Kobe Bryant, SG, Lakers -- Bryant finally realized that not only would a trade to Chicago be a really bad idea, but that he also had some pretty good players already on his team. Bryant is averaging 27.1 points, 6.2 rebounds, 4.9 assists, and 2 steals per game, and he’s helped to lead the Lakers to a strong 19-11 record.

Shawn Marion, F, Suns -- Although Marion shoots like he’s heaving a medicine ball towards the rim, he continues to be one of the most reliable and versatile players in the entire league -- 16.3 points, 10 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 2.1 steals, and 1.7 blocks per game. Carmelo Anthony may be voted in by fans, but Marion is the better choice because he plays hard-nosed defense. Marion, playing an undersized power forward for the Suns at 6’7, routinely matches up against bigger players and shuts them down. He very rarely creates his own shot, but he plays with Steve Nash, so why would he have to?

Carlos Boozer, PF, Jazz -- The Utah Jazz (16-16) have definitely underachieved so far, but don’t blame Boozer, who’s averaging 24.2 points, 11.5 rebounds, 3.1 assists, and 1.4 steals per game. Boozer and Deron Williams have formed one of the NBA’s best 1-2 scoring punches. Boozer was selected to the All-Star Game last year but was unable to play. This year he should definitely see plenty of time on the court.

Marcus Camby, C, Nuggets -- Plenty of other centers could start in this spot, such as Yao Ming or Amare Stoudemire, but none of them plays defense like Camby has this season. Camby is averaging just 9 points a game, but he’s also grabbing 14.2 rebounds and blocking 3.7 shots a game as well. He seems like a strong possibility to win the Defensive Player of the Year award. (Just to note, I fully believe Camby will get left off the team. These things happen.)

West reserves

Carmelo Anthony, SF, Nuggets -- 25.7 points, 6.7 rebounds, 3.6 assists -- No surprise here -- Anthony is an outstanding player and can score points in bunches. It’s very hard to believe that he’s only 23 years old.

Chris Paul, PG, Hornets -- 21.4 points, 3.9 rebounds, 10.0 assists, 3.0 steals -- Paul is one of the best point guards in the league, and also one of the fastest. He leads the NBA in steals per game by more than a half a steal, and he also commits less than 3 turnovers per game -- almost one less per game than Nash.

Baron Davis, PG, Warriors -- 22.3 points, 4.9 rebounds, 8.1 assists, 2.5 steals -- Finally healthy for an extended period of time, Davis is showing that he’s one of the elite guards in the league. Just ask the Mavericks about how good Davis is.

Dirk Nowitzki, PF, Mavericks -- 21.7 points, 8.7 rebounds, 3.9 assists -- Nowitzki is averaging almost three points less per game than he did last year, and he seems a little more timid this year. He has still played solid basketball, but if the Mavericks are ever going to overtake some of the elite powers in the West, Nowitzki will have to be the reason why.

Amare Stoudemire, C, Suns -- 21.8 points, 9.0 rebounds, 2.1 blocks -- Stoudemire has been much more efficient so far this year. He’s averaging 1.4 more points per game, fewer turnovers, and slightly more assists. But if the Suns are ever going to win the West, he’ll have to improve his defense against Tim Duncan, which is easier said than done.

Allen Iverson, G, Nuggets -- 26.3 points, 3.0 rebounds, 7.1 assists, 2.4 steals -- This is the hardest pick because Iverson’s addition means that Deron Williams gets left off the team. Williams is averaging 19.4 points and 8.8 assists per game, but Iverson can play both the one and the two guard and is simply a more dynamic scorer. With all of the talent in the Western Conference at point guard, it’s not that hard to believe that someone as good as Williams doesn’t get to play in the All-Star Game.

Tim Duncan, PF/C, Spurs -- 18.3 points, 10.2 rebounds, 3 assists, 1.8 blocks -- Duncan is arguably the best player in the NBA, and even though he’s been hurt and he’s scoring a couple less points per game this year, he has still led the Spurs to a strong 21-8 record. As long as Duncan is healthy, he’ll always deserve a spot on the All-Star roster.

The West is so talented that these are some of the names that I had to leave off of the roster:

Yao Ming
Chris Kaman (seriously, he's been great this year)
Josh Howard
Tracy McGrady
Deron Williams
Tony Parker

But, again, that’s what happens with only 12 spots available on each team. There are more than 24 elite players in the NBA, so plenty of talent will get left off of each roster.

Let the debate begin nationwide -- and by debate, I mean countless NBA analysts getting way too angry about which players aren’t invited to New Orleans. Be prepared for Stephen A. Smith and some guy named Bill Walton. You’ve been warned.

2008 NBA All-Stars -- East

The NBA All-Star Game, which is being played in New Orleans this year, is still more than a month and a half away (Feb. 17). Fan voting for the game is already well under way, with Kevin Garnett currently leading LeBron James and Kobe Bryant in total votes.

Every year, some players who are less deserving than others end up in the starting lineups or on the bench, but that’s just the way it is. The starters are selected by fans, the reserves are selected by the coaches, and other players are selected by the commissioner, David Stern, to replace injured choices. With only 12 spots on each team, every worthy player can’t make the team.

Not counting fan or coach voting, here’s what my East and West All-Star Teams would look like:

East starters

Chauncey Billups, PG, Pistons -- Jason Kidd will probably get the starting role in the East, but Billups should be recognized for being the best player on a solid team. Billups is averaging 17.5 points, 2.9 rebounds, and 7.6 assists per game while leading the Pistons to a 23-7 mark, which is good enough for second-place in the East. Even though the Celtics have the NBA’s best record, the Pistons beat them the first time the two teams met, with Billups playing a huge role.

Michael Redd, SG, Bucks -- Normally Dwyane Wade would be the pick here, but he’s not completely healthy and the Heat have been a huge disappointment. Redd, though, continues to shine on a bad team by averaging 24.1 points, 2 threes, 5 rebounds, and almost 4 assists per game. Selected in the second round of the NBA Draft by Milwaukee in 2000, Redd, similarly to Gilbert Arenas, keeps improving every year and proving that he shouldn’t have been a second-round choice. Redd’s point totals are slightly below his averages from the past two seasons, but he’s improved his all-around game by grabbing more rebounds and compiling more assists.

Caron Butler, SF, Wizards -- The easy pick here is LeBron James; the right pick is Butler. Leading the short-handed Wizards to a 15-14 record, Butler has filled out the stat-sheet night-in and night-out while playing huge minutes -- over 40 a game. He’s averaging 22.1 points, 1.1 threes, 6.9 rebounds, 4.4 assists, and 2.2 steals so far this season while shooting just under 50% from the field. Without Butler’s career performance this season to help replace the injured Gilbert Arenas, the Wizards would surely be well under .500 and no where near 5th place in the East.

Kevin Garnett, PF, Celtics -- Garnett has helped to lead the Celtics to a remarkable 26-3 record by putting up 18.8 points, 10.5 rebounds, and 3.6 assists per game. Teaming up with Ray Allen and Paul Pierce and several other overachieving role players (Rondo, House, Perkins), Garnett has helped to completely turn the Celtics around and has transformed them into a championship contender this season.

Dwight Howard, C, Magic -- Perhaps no other player deserves to start in the All-Star Game for the East more than Howard. Despite recently only turning 22, Howard is averaging huge numbers -- 23.1 points, 15.3 rebounds, and 2.7 blocks. Howard is the best young center in the NBA, and it’s hard to imagine how he has gotten this good in such a short period of time. Howard's strong play in the paint allows the rest of the Magic to get open looks from the perimeter. (See Hedo Turkoglu, who is having a career season.)

East reserves

Jason Kidd, PG, Nets -- 11.5 points, 8.6 rebounds, 10.6 assists -- Excellent all-around numbers, but the Nets (as a team) have struggled so far. Kidd is also shooting only 37% from the field.

LeBron James, SF, Cavaliers -- 28.8 points, 7.2 rebounds, 7.6 assists -- James has awesome numbers, but the Cavs should be better than 14-17. They pretty much have their whole team back, the team that somehow went to the NBA Finals last year, and they’ve been average at best. At this moment, Butler just deserves it a bit more.

Dwyane Wade, SG, Heat -- 24.8 points, 4.2 rebounds, 6.9 assists -- Wade has been great when he actually has played, and he’s not the reason why the Heat have been awful. Somehow Ricky Davis wasn’t the solution to improving the team? Wow, who knew? By the way, Wade also has the unique ability to announce his own name, which is helpful, annoying, and hilarious at the same time.

Joe Johnson, G, Hawks -- 22.1 points, 3.9 rebounds, 5.6 assists -- Johnson has been the best player on a much-improved (15-13) Atlanta Hawks team. Someone from the Hawks deserves to go to New Orleans, and that player is Johnson.

Antawn Jamison, F, Wizards -- 21.8 points, 10.8 rebounds, 1.6 assists -- Jamison has helped steady the Wizards frontcourt by averaging a double-double even though he’s an undersized power forward.

Chris Bosh, PF/C, Raptors -- 19.9 points, 9.3 rebounds, 2.2 assists -- I’ve been trying to figure who the second best center in the Eastern Conference is for the past 15 minutes and Bosh wins. (Sorry Zaza Pachulia fans.) The Raptors (16-15) have been pretty good this season when Bosh plays strong in the paint. Fun Fact: Did you know Rasho Nesterovic makes $7.8 million this year?

Paul Pierce, G/F, Celtics -- 21.6 points, 5.4 rebounds, 4.9 assists -- Tough choice for the last spot, but Pierce has been better than other possible All-Stars such as Richard Jefferson, Andre Iguodala, and Ray Allen, at least in my opinion. Pierce has better all-around numbers than all of them, and he also happens to play for the team with the best record in the NBA.

Next post -- Western Conference selections…

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Redskins look to take Madden '08 title

The Redskins look to do the unthinkable tomorrow against the hated Dallas Cowboys and finish the regular season a perfect 16-0. There's just one catch -- the season is on Madden 2008 for PlayStation2.

"Look, the imaginary media was really tough on us before the season," said virtual Clinton Portis, who leads the NFL with 3,454 rushing yards and 75 touchdowns. "Basically, they hated on us. Nobody thought we'd be this good."

After reaching the 15-0 mark with an impressive 73-6 win over the Minnesota Vikings, the Redskins definitely have the look of a team ready to make history.

"We really got tired of hearing all the negative crap from the same stupid analysts on TV," said London Fletcher. "Tiki Barber said we couldn't win because our teeth aren't as white as his. Shannon Sharpe said we didn't possess any 'stallion-like' qualities. Even Bill Cowher, when asked for his thoughts, would just stick out his enormous chin -- and then that's it. He wouldn't even give our team the dignity of an answer or opinion or anything. What a bunch of jerks."

The team has followed in Portis's and Fletcher's footsteps to destroy the competition and break many records along the way. Quarterback Jason Campbell managed to break Peyton Manning's record of 49 touchdown passes -- in Week 12. He currently has thrown for 62 of them. Portis has broken seemingly every record for a running back, and Santana Moss somehow caught 20 passes in the first half of last week's blowout win after the Redskins ran the same play 20 times in a row.

The defense has also been remarkable, led by standout rookie LaRon Landry, who has recorded a league record 63 user big-hits. "Even though we're breaking all these records, a few haters are still out there," said Landry. "They're saying we're not as impressive because we're doing all this on the All-Pro level instead of All-Madden. Well, you know what? Let them come and try to hit me then. We'll see what happens when we turn the injuries option back on."

No matter what is actually said, though, no one has been able to stop the Redskins on either side of the ball. Portis already knows the team is ready for their last game against Dallas and star receiver Terrell Owens: "Virtual T.O. is just as annoying as the real one. We're going to beat him and the rest of the Cowboys and give the imaginary city of Washington something to cheer about for once."

Saturday, December 15, 2007

To sign or not to sign

For the past few weeks, the Wizards (13-10) have played terrific basketball. Since Gilbert Arenas re-injured his knee on Nov. 16 against Minnesota, the Wizards are 10-5. The most recent win came tonight at home against Sacramento with DeShawn Stevenson leading the way with 19 points.

The end of their bench, though, is starting to get thin. After Antonio Daniels sprained his medial collateral ligament in his right knee during Thursday's win over Miami, only nine players remain on the roster healthy enough to play: Caron Butler, Antawn Jamison, Stevenson, Brendan Haywood, Roger Mason, Nick Young, Dominic McGuire, Andray Blatche, and Darius Songaila.

Daniels is expected to miss 2-4 weeks with his injury, which leaves Mason, Stevenson, and Young to shoulder the workload at point guard. But besides the temporary hole at PG that Daniels was already filling for Arenas, the Wizards have other concerns. With all of the untimely injuries and the uncertainty of when Daniels and rookie Oleksiy Pecherov (broken right ankle) will play, GM Ernie Grunfeld has to decide whether or not to sign another player, probably a guard.

Two main concerns come attached to that already difficult choice: the luxury tax and heavy minutes. The Wizards are very close to the $67.86 million luxury tax, and owner Abe Pollin would like to stay under that amount if possible. Teams that stay under the luxury tax get to share the tax money after the season from teams that go over the amount and must therefore pay the dollar-for-dollar tax.

Also, fewer healthy players on the bench means an increased amount of minutes for everyone else, especially star players such as Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler. Butler is currently tied for first in the league in minutes played per game at 40.7. Jamison is ninth with 39.5. Both players are in great shape and can take the pounding for most of the season, but they may start to wear down as the postseason looms. Arenas is supposed to return in three months, but even if he does, the Wizards will need Butler and Jamison at full strength to make any noise in the playoffs.

But no matter who goes down on the team, the Wizards continue to win, leading to more confusion in the front office. If the Wizards choose to wait and see how quickly Daniels recovers, they could force him to come back too early and have him risk a possible long-term injury. And if they choose to go ahead and sign a player now, they might be risking the chance to stay under the luxury tax for a player who may not really make any kind of impact on the team at all.

Either way, they're stuck in a Catch-22 scenario. It would be unfortunate if they exceeded the luxury tax limit, but building a winning team, especially with this solid group of players, is more important than trying to save a couple million dollars for an already extremely wealthy owner.

Why exactly? Because the Wizards have the talent to win now. With a completely healthy roster, they're arguably as talented as the Orlando Magic and the Detroit Pistons and probably only trail the Boston Celtics in the East.

They have a solid mix of young and veteran players, and they've done very well so far with all of the adversity that's been thrown their way. Butler and Jamison should both be All-Stars. Haywood seems to have turned into a real center who can hold down the paint and grab tough rebounds. Stevenson, Songaila, and Mason have been shooting well and are important role players. Blatche, Young, and McGuire are all young and seem to improve every game by bringing something different to the table. And of course, the return of some guy named Gilbert Arenas is looming in the near future.

Though the season is still young, the Wizards continue to pass every test with flying colors.

Signing a player briefly surely won't make or break the season, but by doing so the front office can still show that they're supporting this team the best they can and are fully committed to this season.

Who knows -- maybe Grunfeld can somehow land another Butler or Mason.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Trying to figure out college football

(Posted for Frostburg's The Bottom Line this week)

For several years now, the discussion of whether or not NCAA Football (Bowl Subdivision) needs a playoff has been ongoing. Many fans are dissatisfied with the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) and the confusion of whether or not the best teams are meeting at the end of the season.

Some people have expressed their desire for a simple playoff where the top four teams would have the chance to square off and ease the pain of identifying the two best teams. Other people would like to see eight or even 16 teams given a shot in a playoff system to give more teams the chance to show they belong among the elite programs in the nation.

Many coaches, college officials, and analysts, though, have been rejecting any such system for years. They frequently use the same excuses: it would be too time consuming, too difficult to figure out, not fair to the players, it would make the regular season less important, etc.

A playoff wouldn’t take up a significant portion of the season if strong teams were forced to schedule fewer games against overwhelmed opponents. Previously #2 ranked Kansas’s schedule serves as a perfect example. Surely the Jayhawks (11-1) didn’t expect to have such a successful season, but their first four games this year included wins over Central Michigan, Southeastern Louisiana, Toledo, and Florida International. Those four teams have a combined record of 15-31. Football teams that want to have their programs taken seriously shouldn’t schedule as many terrible opponents. A game like Michigan vs. Appalachian State can still happen where a stunning upset can occur, but the opportunities just won't be as often.

Teams may be forced to play a tougher game or two, but then again, several teams already play uneven schedules. If Ohio State played in the SEC, they probably wouldn’t come out of conference play with only one loss. Ohio State is definitely one of the nation’s top five teams, but it's too confusing to try and weigh schedule strengths while certain teams continue to play soft schedules and still get into BCS games. A team like Hawaii may have a smooth ride through its regular season this year and in the future, but if there's a playoff, fans would get to see them matched up against an LSU or USC and see how they'd really fare.

Complaining that a playoff system would too be confusing is also overlooking the currently baffling BCS system, which has been in place since 1998. Some of the matchups fans have seen over the years have been terrible, and the BCS hasn’t consistently enabled the right teams to face each other.

Much of the confusion began in 2003 when USC and LSU shared the #1 ranking at the end of the season. LSU defeated Oklahoma in the BCS National Championship Game and ended the season 13-1, and USC beat Michigan in the Rose Bowl to finish with a 12-1 record. Even though LSU had won the official BCS Championship, USC held onto the #1 AP poll ranking, sparking debate around the country. A similar dispute took place the very next season when Auburn won the SEC, beat Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl, and finished with a 13-0 record. USC, though, defeated Oklahoma 55-19 in the BCS National Championship Game and were declared the champions. Both teams finished undefeated, yet they couldn’t play each other.

Instead of worrying about who plays who in certain BCS Bowl games, teams should have the chance to play each other and determine their own fates. Other teams that have relatively successful seasons can still participate in other Bowl games -- just not the playoff. At the very least, Bowl games should reward teams who played well during the season. But when determining a national champion, the best teams in the country need to play each other in a playoff format.

Another knock against adding a playoff is the belief that it would negate much of the importance of the regular season. Every other major sport at the collegiate and professional level has both a regular season and a postseason, and the entire sequence is important. Teams want to do well in the regular season so they can get a better seed and more of an advantage if possible. If they don't play well to begin with during the regular season, then they don't participate in the postseason anyway.

Though these are just some of the reasons people have used to argue against having a playoff, they only get in the way of what's really important -- that millions of fans want to see a playoff system, and many fans are intrigued to see what would happen. Sure, it would force the NCAA to change the way it arranges Bowl games, but there definitely wouldn't be any money lost since that's usually the main concern for those in charge.

Even if current feel-good story teams like Hawaii and Kansas were to get blown out in a playoff game, many people would pay to see those games just to see what would happen. Even though some Bowl games in the past turned out to be outstanding battles, there still has to be some limited motivation when teams know they can't be number one, just number four or five.

In the end, the dilemma basically boils down to one main issue -- many fans would rather see a system where several teams meet to earn the right to be in the championship game by actually beating other top teams. The current Bowl system occasionally prevents the best two teams from meeting in the championship game, and the other Bowl games only serve to prove where teams rank after those two.

In this case, the NCAA should get rid of the BCS and organize a playoff system. Fans should get what they want; they're usually right anyway.