Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The NBA at Midseason

The NBA trading deadline was pretty sobering to those who really enjoy parody: there are a handful of teams really gunning for a championship this year, while the rest are willing to wallow in their mediocrity or even sell off good players for cap space to look ahead for next year (see Knicks, Clippers, Wizards). If you’re a fan of one of those elite teams this is fun for you or if you have a young core that is exciting to watch (only Oklahoma City, Sacramento and Chicago qualify) you can have fun too, while fans of the rest of the teams that have no shot of doing anything get an introductory course of Crappy Basketball 101 on a nightly basis (like me and my beloved Sixers).

But the economic realities make this possible and definitely unsustainable in the future if the NBA wants to continue to be successful. It’s no fun knowing that two-thirds of the league doesn’t have a chance at sniffing the second round and watching teams just giving good players away for 10 cents on the dollar. What’s worse is that you get angry at your team for not engaging in auctioning off players for expiring contracts (like I am with the less beloved GM of the Sixers, Ed Stefanski). But, you can’t win when you’re paying two non-franchise guys, franchise money, in today’s NBA where that takes up so much of your cap. I’d be fine with Andre Iguodala being the 3rd guy on a championship team, running the wing for a team like Portland with an established crunch-time guy/alpha dog in Brandon Roy, legit big guy in LaMarcus Aldridge, and steady point guard like Andre Miller. But Iggy as my number one guy making $80 million over 5 years, I’ll have to pass (Which, by the way, makes Stefanski’s decision to stand pat even more infuriating. He knows he can’t go anywhere with this team as presently constructed, there was interest in people taking our terrible contracts off our hands, yet he wanted to continue with this group. But when you can be a fringe lottery team for the next few years and barely fill half the seats in your arena, you have to do it).

This is the NBA today. Take on one or two really bad contracts for non-franchise guys, and you’ll be forced to either be terrible, or make terrible trades for expiring contracts, so you can do it again. Something’s gotta change: either we get better GMs, change the way the cap works (higher figure, hard cap, like the NFL), or shake up the contract structure.

Enough with the morbid stuff (and crappy Sixers talk), let’s get to the action on the court.

What I like:
· Depending on how things continue to develop after the Butler/Haywood trade, the Mavericks could create problems. I was watching them play Orlando and they went on an impressive run where they played some fantastic defense on Dwight Howard and Jason Kidd really controlled the tempo offensively and got them any shot they wanted and I thought. They now have a guy who can defend the Kobe/Carmelo types in Butler, a point guard who is playing at a high level (I’m actually really shocked that he’s actually shooting a solid percentage and not getting torched on defense the way he used to. His renaissance was about as likely as curling becoming entertaining, so applaud his accomplishment), plus they have one of the best crunch-time scorers in the league (Dirk), and a nice bench. If they went on a mini-run and challenged for the two seed, I wouldn’t be surprised.
· If you are Facebook friends with me or in one of my fantasy leagues, you already know about my man-love for Kevin Durant. But even I did not see this coming. He should be no lower than second on any MVP ballot and you won’t convince me otherwise. He’s carried the Thunder from a dreadful season last year (23 wins), to potentially a home-court advantage in the first round. He’s been as consistent as anyone in the league, evidence being his 29 straight games of 25+ points. He’s efficient offensively, doesn’t bog down the offense, and the other guys stay involved. He’s gotten better defensively. He’s become one of the best guys in crunch time. Really, the only thing this team is missing is a low-post presence and they could seriously contend. And I’ve gained all this from the four games of theirs I’ve watched. I don’t care if it’s not a big sample. I know what my eyes saw. The Thunder are legit and Durant is the reason why. Now excuse me while I visit the Durantula shrine in my room.
· Houston and Cleveland pulled off the two best deals at the deadline. Cleveland gave up a first round pick (worth nothing since it’ll be at the end of the first) and Big Z (going to be bought out, expected to return) for Antwan Jamison, a versatile scorer, who’s a solid rebounder and a heady veteran, giving LeBron a solid second guy who’s ready to win. Houston got a bonafide scorer (Kevin Martin), a top-ten pick from last year’s draft (Jordan Hill), and two Knicks first round picks (which could be great picks if their summer of 2010 bonanza turns into the end of the Mayan calendar). I liked Houston’s trade more because it gave them a real two guard, someone who could score late in games (ending the Trevor Ariza experiment as a go-to guy and preventing him from breaking Larry Hughes’ record for most bad shots in the most important situations record set in 05-06), and gives them a good foundation in the future if they want to make trades and such.

What I didn’t like:
· The best team in the West, the Lakers, should have upgraded at point guard. The Lakers have a glaring black hole at the point guard position, with Derek Fisher (my pick for most washed-up/overrated veteran, just ahead of Sheed) and Jordan Farmar routinely sucking. It’s something that the other elite teams take advantage of routinely (Billups, Mo Williams both play well against Lakers) and something that they should have upgraded. It would have off-set the Cavs move for Jamison. A guy like Kirk Hinrich would have been perfect. He one of the better defenders at point guard, shoots the ball well, unselfish, and runs a team well. If they got him, they would be clear-cut favorites for the title, and it wouldn’t be close. They wouldn’t have any holes. They would be scary-good. But since Jerry West wasn’t running the Bulls, Mitch Kupchak couldn’t have stolen him for nothing. Now they are stuck getting abused by solid point guards nightly. Oh well…
· I don’t like the Spurs. They made me look stupid in the off-season for thinking that they would be serious contenders to the Lakers. Richard Jefferson just hasn’t worked. Manu isn’t the same player and probably won’t be. Parker has regressed from last year. And the greatest power forward ever can only carry them but so far, being 33 and all. It’s sad watching the end of their era fall so feebly. They were a great team, as sound defensively as we have ever seen. And that’s what I don’t like more than anything. Not that I’m wrong, but that I can’t watch one of the truly great teams in history at their peak. Queue up Nas and Quan.
· Mike Dunleavy. Just because.
· I’m not so sure how the salary dump strategy will turn out for the Knicks. Because if it works, they could end up with Wade/Joe Johnson/LeBron and Bosh/Stoudemire, and then they will look not bad, if they can find a point guard. If they end up with Donnie Walsh introducing Rudy Gay as the future of the franchise, they are going to be in trouble (and they will celebrate in Houston with those two fantastic picks). Lot of risk there. I hate New York, so I hope they fail.

Now before the season, I had a Cavs-Lakers finals before the season, and there is really no other reason to think otherwise. KG’s knee is keep the Celtics from reaching their potential. Orlando is too flukey for my tastes (they get into those “Dwight is unstoppable right now, but we want to have three straight possessions where Ryan Anderson, Matt Barnes, and Mickael Pietrus jack up contested threes. No wonder Stan Van Gundy is grumpy). I would like the Nuggets, if they didn’t have that head-case factor (I refuse to trust J.R. Smith, Kenyon Martin, Nene or Birdman with anything important in the playoffs. No matter how good they look the regular season, those guys are capable of derailing a series single-handedly. And George Karl is their coach, and I hope he recovers fully from his cancer, but he’s a terrible coach. The only coach in history without a viable inbounds play).

That only leaves the Cavs and Lakers. I have my reservations about both. The Lakers have Ron Artest (who has been a terrible acquisition and you won’t convince me otherwise) and the aforementioned Fisher/Farmar combo. The Cavs have a crunch-time scorer who can’t shoot free throws and falls in love with a jumper in crucial moments, as well as questionable support players who have already disappeared in one playoffs.

I picked the Lakers before the season, but coupled with the Cavs getting Jamison and the way Mo Williams and Delonte both handed Fisher his AARP card, I have to go with them (this is not even mentioning that Ron Artest may be the worst matchup for LeBron. He doesn’t have near the quickness nor the strength to stay with him. At least some people have one or the other. He has neither. Reason #421 why they should have kept Trevor Ariza.)

My Undisputed Finals Pick
Cavs over Lakers in 7. Homecourt will be huge and with the Cavs looking like they will get it, having game 7 at home will make all the difference.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The 4 Things the Eagles Need to Do to Win the Super Bowl

It has been more than a month since the Eagles pulled back to back losses, so I think I am fully recovered and ready to move on and think about next season. I think.

(Seriously though, how do you play one game, get completely manhandled, have your offensive and defensive gameplans turned inside out by a confused schmuck, shredded by Tony Romo, have your “Pro Bowl” left tackle get abused, then in the next game DO THE EXACT SAME THING. In what universe does this make sense? Deep breaths, deep breaths. Excuse me while I launch my body out of my 3rd floor dorm window.)

Now I think I’m over it. But even with all that happened to end the season, the Eagles still managed to roll off a 7 game winning streak to control their own destiny for the 2 seed in the NFC, find a potential superstar in Desean Jackson, develop talented secondary weapons in Jeremy Maclin, Brent Celek, Lesean McCoy who are all under 25 by the way, and learned that Trent Cole is a top 10 defensive player in the league, period.

But we also learned that the other three guys on the defensive line weren’t worth a cup of frothy urine, the linebackers were slower than Tony Soprano walking to get his newspaper and made fewer plays than Matt Forte (this is personal, he was on my fantasy team, and after touting him throughout the offseason as prime for a break-out and backing it up with the 4th pick in my draft, he proceeded to suck at levels that only porn stars have reached), the offensive line was an unmitigated disaster, and Sav Rocca made more crappy punts in more important situations than anyone in recent memory. It also served to reinforce Andy Reid’s utter disregard for calling timeouts at the right times, going for two-point conversions at the right times, challenging at the right time, basically doing anything at the right time, except for eating (that potshot is revenge for that horrendous gameplan at Dallas, therefore I feel I’m justified).

Clearly though, the Eagles are still very good, still on the cusp of being one of those elite teams, ready to win the Super Bowl, just in need of a few tweaks to the roster. But the very complicated labor situation and uncapped year hoopla could conceivably put a monkey wrench in those plans. Even though the Eagles can their New York Yankee on and spend as much money as they want on free agents, based on their finishing outside the top 8 (it’s very strange, explained better by Michael Lombardi at the National Football Post), many of the top free agents who may have been available may not be, based on weird years of experience rules that prevent unrestricted free agency and more franchise and transition tags (explained better here by John Clayton at ESPN), limiting the moves that the Eagles could make.

But before, I get into the 4 things that the Eagles need to get into the whole quarterback controversy, that won’t count as a solution because it’s too important.

The Eagles have three guys (Donovan McNabb, Kevin Kolb, Michael Vick), two are capable (D.Mac, Kolb), one is proven (McNabb). I know I advocated that the Eagles jettison the best quarterback they have ever had, right here, but I am feeling a little bit of buyers remorse on that blog. I wrote it in anger, I have now had the proper time to reflect. Donovan deserves one more chance at finishing what he started and win the good people of Philadelphia what they want most (sorry Phillies): a Super Bowl.

We in Philly are always so quick to blame Donovan for all that that goes wrong, and to a modest extent, he does have some blame to take. But no one ever mentions all the other failings from everyone else around him when the Eagles come up short.

When Peyton Manning comes up short (and that happens more often than you think) its “problems in protection” and Bill Polian rushes to the aid of Manning after he clearly blew the game.

When Dan Marino was playing, it was because he never had enough talent around him.

When McNabb loses a big game, he choked, again.

And yes, McNabb does come up small in some of the biggest of games, but it doesn’t relieve the offensive line from any responsibility (And I don’t see anyone consistently tossing aside very grown men with ease like McNabb does and throwing downfield, especially Kevin Kolb), the receivers who are always blanketed in big games (including in the Dallas games), and a defense that has never made a critical stop ever (In the Super Bowl against the Patriots when Deion Branch made every huge third down catch, the Cardinals last year, the Cowboys this year are the biggies).

I’m not saying that he is as good as either of those guys (he’s not, though is playoff record is better than both. Look it up and you’ll be surprised) you sign McNabb to another hefty extension, allow him to finish his career as an Eagle and try to find some kind of value for Kevin Kolb and Mike Vick this year. I am saying that you need to give Donovan a chance to finish what he started and built here in Philadelphia. If he wins it all this year, he stays: if he doesn’t, usher in the Kolb era. It is as simple as that.

I know the NFL has become so much more of a precision game. Quarterbacks, above all else have to be accurate. This was the biggest lesson from the Super Bowl. Is McNabb that caliber quarterback? Sometimes. When he hits those hot streaks, like in those two Giants games this year, he can be on the money with every throw. Then there can be the games where he's bounce passing and overthrowing everything. If he were to get hot at the right time, I unequivocally believe that he could lead us to a Super Bowl title.

The frustration level with McNabb in Philly has risen to such a high point that it would be hard to keep him beyond next year if the Eagles fall short in the playoffs again. I agree with that. But at least give him one more chance at one last hurrah, an opportunity to complete this mission. With his success and what he’s done for a franchise that hasn’t always done its best for him, he has earned it.

And the best way for the Eagles to do that, is to follow these suggestions (fantastic segue if I say so myself).

Solution #1: End the Andrews Experiment

No one person has decimated an offensive line, quite like the unreliable Shawn Andrews. I understand that he’s had injury problems, both physical and mental, but after a while, the guy has to get on the field and play, or you get cut. That’s how the NFL works. And the plan to bring in his brother, who stinks by the way, didn’t exactly work like a charm. I say cut them both, because we put so much into them being the foundation of our offensive line that it left us with a bunch of backups in important situations: not cool.

What the Eagles need to do is actually build the offensive line around something that they can depend on. The right side is a mess. Winston Justice is eh though he was recently extended so he’s not going anywhere, Max Jean Gilles and Nick Cole also don’t strike fear into opposing defensive lines. And it’s the pressure that comes from that side that really gets there (Anthony Spencer anyone?). Once you get rid of the brothers, than a real reclamation project can being along the offensive line. Herremans and Jackson are solid in the middle at left guard and center. The aforementioned Peters is one of the most overrated in the NFL, can’t pass block for anything though he is a good run blocker, sometimes, when healthy, but he clearly not leaving Philly after the price tag they paid for him. If the Eagles can manage to build some stability along the right side of the line, especially when it comes to pass protection, than they can build off the running success that they had last year, and keep McNabb from running for his life. The most important thing on the offensive line is continuity and reliability. The Andrews bring neither. Find some real guys who you can depend on and ride with them (right guard, right tackle, or preferably, both).

Solution #2: Switch to the 3-4 Defense

The front-seven frankly didn’t make enough plays and the defense seems really predictable on when they were going to blitz, who’s was coming and who was dropping back. There was never any kind of consistent pressure on the quarterback, or consistency in stopping the run, meaning that defense just wasn’t very good. I think the 3-4 helps a little, and I know because I run it in Madden and the old saying goes: “You don’t run on C.West”

And this is not some backhanded way to get Sean McDermott fired, even though he had plenty of struggles last year, things happened last year that were beyond his control (having to ever play Jeremiah Trotter, the underperformance of the defensive line, the midseason decimation of the cornerbacks, and the widespread infection of Mark Simonaeuitis or as it is translated, can’t tackle worth a damn). But I would like to see us bring in a lead assistant to help McDermott make the transition to the 3-4, preferably someone from Pittsburgh, Baltimore, or the Jets (though they can’t be as fat as Rex Ryan, we have met our fat coach quota already).

I just feel like the 4-3 is a little antiquated, most of the good quarterbacks really know how to deal with it (plus the best quarterbacks struggle against the 3-4 the most: Look at Brees against the Cowboys or Manning against the Ravens and Steelers, it gives them fits at times). The 3-4 gives more opportunities to make plays, more freedom for guys to do athletic things and make explosive plays in the offensive backfield. We need some more of that, plus we need to hide our weaknesses up front.

As defensive tackles, Broderick Bunkley and Mike Patterson have too much pressure on them to do what they don’t do well, which is really anything. They don’t really push the pocket on the pass rush and are constantly on skates going backwards in run situations. But you make them 3-4 defensive ends, it lessens their importance to the defense because now all they have to do is hold their ground relatively effective, and don’t get completely manhandled. It takes the pressure off those guys to be something they’re not (good to be exact) and puts it on the most important position in the 3-4, the nose tackle. You can hope that one of the better nose tackles in the league don’t get franchised (Casey Hampton or Vince Wilfork) or you can address it via the draft (below).

With those two guys as defensive ends, you can move Trent Cole to the 3-4 outside linebacker spot, and let him use his athleticism and playmaking ability in more versatile ways. I think he would be OK in coverage, though his main goal still would be to rush the passer.

Stewart Bradley is returning next year to provide stability in the middle at linebacker, and you could keep Will Witherspoon, who I liked last year, and play him inside with Bradley in the new defense, or try to find something early in the draft (linebackers seem to come in and make immediate impacts in the NFL nowadays. A guy like Sean Witherspoon sounds good to me. He killed it in the Senior Bowl). Filling that other outside linebacker spot, you could…

Solution #3: Sign Julius Peppers

When the Eagles really want someone in free agency, they get him, save Randy Moss (Jevon Kearse, Asante Samuel, Terrible, er Terrell Owens). Julius Peppers should be no different. It doesn’t seem like the Panthers will keep him. It almost makes too much sense.
First, he wants to play in a 3-4 defense and clearly (look above) the Eagles now do that.

Second, the only way you are stopping good offenses in today’s NFL, given the rules that say you can’t breathe on receivers and all that other garbage, is by hitting the other teams quarterback, and making it extremely uncomfortable for him to throw in the pocket. You can either blitz, or you can have great pass rushers. Looking at how the Giants won their Super Bowl (excuse me while I bang my head against the wall because Eli Manning has a Super Bowl Ring…OK, I’m done), you have to do it with an excellent pass rush up front and still having enough to cover people on the backend. Peppers gives you that, easy. Imagine Trent Cole and Julius Peppers on opposite ends (Eli is already starting to do his arm failing thing after a sack).

Third, YOU HAVE THE MONEY. THERE IS NO SALARY CAP. You can spend as much as you want. You already have a rabid fan base, who will clearly pay obscene amounts of money to watch Donovan bounce pass it to receivers and crappy halftime bands singing Lady Gaga covers (This really happens. Not exactly the crowd that seems to into Lady Gaga, but that’s just a guess. In an amazing surprise, they were booed, soundly.) Fork up the cash, be the highest bidder, and get a quality player to go along side Trent Cole in the front seven. There is no reason why this should not happen.

Solution #4: Repeat last year’s draft, only do it for the defense

I think that we have sufficiently fixed many of the offensive problems that come with the Eagles (although a little more balance wouldn’t hurt, we can’t be picky). But really, in the first two rounds of this draft, the Eagles have to come away with two impact players who can play immediately in the NFL. My strongest request is that their names not be Taylor Mays (a Roy Willams carbon-copy, except he’s a crappier tackler and just as awful in coverage) and Terrence Cody (because this is just stretching the definition of “athlete").

Excluding the very real possibility of St. Louis trading the first pick for Michael Vick so we can draft Suh (this is still in play when you have management as incompetent as the Rams), the Eagles look like they will be picking at the backend of the first round, though I still think there is some talent there.

The biggest needs are defensive tackle, linebacker, safety, in that order and if they were able to come away with two impact players at defensive tackle and linebacker/safety, it would be just as successful as last year.

I would personally like to see Dan Williams from Tennessee get picked at 24. He has the size (327 pounds) without losing too much quickness to be in the center of our newly formed 3-4. In the second round, I’d like to see a rangy coverage type safety to compliment Quintin Mikell in the secondary, allowing Mikell to maintain his at the line, physical style, or if a guy like Sean Witherspoon falls to the second round, snatch him up in a heartbeat.

I’m no draft expert, but something has to be done to address those areas, whether it’s those guys or someone better.

I think it’s pretty clear that the Eagles have to be in win-this-year mode. The Kolb era is looming. The McNabb era is fading. And I went a whole Eagles blogpost without mentioning Brian Westbrook (My thoughts: it doesn’t really matter what they do with him anyway. Lesean McCoy is better. He doesn’t have the same explosiveness he did and really would be a secondary option to McCoy and Weaver. I’d like to see them keep him because if this is the year, and I always think it is, he deserves to win a Super Bowl with Philly, a team he’s carried offensively for so long. The Eagles should do right by him and keep him one more year.) But I think the pressure has to start to get on the Eagles. The hapless organization that is the New Orleans Saints are the current Super Bowl champions. We were the winningest NFC team in the last decade and didn’t have a Super Bowl to show for it. I’ll gladly take it this year.