Drafting the draft…

At 5:10pm Pacific time, ten minutes into the least anticipated NFL draft of the last five years, Carolina committed franchise suicide.  In case you missed it (and with the other things going on in the sports world, I would not have blamed you) Cam Newton was selected number 1 overall. 

Once again, a franchise has bet the farm on a seemingly talented, one year wonder.  Have they learned nothing from the David Carr’s / Vince Young’s /  Jamarcus Russell’s / Ryan Leaf’s / Akili Smith’s of the world?  Talented guys who are successful for one year rarely pay off in the NFL as franchise players.  Obviously, there are always exceptions to every rule and that is not to say Newton is completely doomed.  He looks good throwing the ball…but the shotgun system at Auburn is a lot different from an NFL pro-style offense. 

Additionally as I previously wrote: Newton has bust written all over him.  When he was drafted, all I thought was “Here we go again”.  In a draft that totally lacked a true number one pick, Newton ascended the charts based on physical gifts alone.  The red flags did not make a dent in the end (the biggest: Not punctual…do you want to bet your future on a guy who is always late?)  I just do not see him sticking.  He appears to lack the drive for success and the NFL lifestyle (for a guy already in trouble multiple times) will, in all liklihood, be too much for him.

Is Newton willing to work hard in order to succeed?  We shall see.

In other draft thoughts: this was the least hyped drafts of the last while.  Not really sure why but it sort of snuck up.  In the past few years the draft has grown into a complete event and yet this year it was lacking.  Perhaps it is the other sports: during the draft I was flipping back and forth between the first game of the Vancouver Canucks vs. the team Carrie Underwood’s husband is on. 

The only reason I knew the draft was even on was that my brother started bombarding me with text messages at 5.  I watched and flipped back and forth to the hockey game (The Sedins were still playing like they are trapped at the bottom of a well).  One thing struck me: the team running the draft – Chris Berman, Jon Gruden and Mel Kiper Jr. (Aka Dr. Draft) were an atrociously bad combo.  They had no chemistry and at one point seemed to completely run out of things to say.  Gruden attempted (somewhere around pick 20) to throw something back to Berman, who fumbled around for ten seconds attempting to find something to say about the pick.  It was as awkward as a first date – have these two men ever been in the same room before? 

Mel Kiper Jr. on the other hand, was wearing weird, rimless glasses and pontificating like he was the Pope of draftology.  At times I completely forgot he was there.  So, apparently, did Gruden.  He rarely “threw it to Mel” for his opinion.  Kiper is, quite possibly, a draft vampire.  In, any event, no one seemed to have any idea what was happening during the draft.  It was that kind of year.  Not one pick was set in stone.  

Jake Locker at#8?  Not one person had it.  Blaine “I used to be number 1” Gabbert fell to #10.  Christian Ponder (I’m pondering who he is too…) rose to the QB desperate Vikings at #12, who may one day wish they had waited for Andy Dalton.  All in all, 4 QB’s went in the top 12.  It got weirder – at one point, Berman reported that in an “old school style” the Baltimore Ravens passed on their pick.  Not true – they had a blown trade.  At the time however, it appeared they had not made the pick in order to get their guy, Jimmy Smith, one pick lower.  It seemed like playground stuff.

We read endless mock drafts and people make endless predictions about where these young men will begin their careers.  Not one was perfect.  This draft seemed talent poor – even Gruden did not know what was happening.  When Cleveland traded up, he remarked to Berman that it seemed someone was making a move to snag a QB, like Dalton.  Berman, thought for a couple moments and then said “Colt McCoy, it is Cleveland trading up.”  There were five seconds of the most awkward pausing I have ever seen on TV.  Then to top it off, it turned out Cleveland traded up to get a guy projected as a late 2nd round pick…for first round money.  Seriously, you cannot make this stuff up.  The unintentional hilarity factor at the draft is incredibly high.

Part of the problem with the draft may stem from the guys running it.  Maybe it is time for some fresh blood.  My suggestions for people to throw into the mix:

1) Bill Simmons – During the draft his tweets were absolutely hilarious.  Sample: “My dad wants to get drunk and pretend that New England had New Orlean’s draft”.  Priceless and perfect for a five hour, graphics laden, snooze-fest.

2) Rick Reilly – Also hilarious, he and Simmons have a strange animosity which would work well.  Perhaps two guys disagreeing about something would be good?  Lets throw some rivalry in there!

3) Jimmy Kimmel – Bring out a real host!  He could do some small skits with the draftees.  Additionally, he could send in his guys (like Adam Carolla or Cousin Sal) into the green room to increase the horrific slaughter heaped upon the players still waiting in there long after they are supposed to be drafted!  You got lucky Clausen!  You got lucky!

Please save the NFL draft – for some reason, like flies to light we are drawn to it.  The newness of watching and hyping it is gone; time to make it entertaining again.

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Miami Thrice Title Quest Diary – April 28, 2010

The real season starts now for the Miami Heat.  The series we wanted is here; the series we have been waiting for is about to begin.  Miami’s season begins now – the entire process, from the Decision all the way through the struggles and triumphs culminates in 7 games with their archrival Boston Celtics.

The Celtics, of course, just finished dispatching the New York Knicks in convincing fashion.  While some have attempted to make (not apt!!!) comparisons with Miami about Carmelo & Co., the two series will be very different. 

The Heat, as I have previously written, are peaking at the right time.  Their last game against Boston culminated in a Miami blowout with the big three playing very well together.  Until that point the Celts had owned the Heat.  Now?  The entire series has the feeling of one big mind game.

Consider the following:

1) The Celtics picked up Cleveland castoff Delonte West in the offseason – This was done for seemingly no reason other than to stick it to Lebron post decision.  West, if you recall, is the player who killed basketball in Cleveland and pushed Lebron to abandon his team during game 5 and throw the entire series.  What role has West (who once stated he would play with a sock if necessary) played for the Celtics this season?  Well, um…lets face it, it was definitely about Lebron.

2) Miami wanted nothing more this season than to beat Boston, and when they had a chance, they beat them badly – The final beatdown of the season on Boston was partly Miami setting the tone for the playoffs.  This series will be nothing less than a war.  LBJ wants it; DWade wants it; KG hates the Heat; Paul Pierce tweets anti-Miami rants any chance he gets…this thing will not end quickly.  In the final showdown the Heat were so amped up they narrowly avoided more technicals than Rasheed Wallace in a season, and there were two near brawls.  We are going seven. 

Of course, there are some lingering questions: Can Miami come together to win 4 games?  Will Shaq play?  Will these teams survive 7 games? 

Get ready for epic. 

The Pick: Miami in 7.

Madness!

I should start this post with a confession: I am Canadian. 

And not, small-town-I-cheer-for-my-junior-B-team Canadian – rather, hockeytown Canadian.  I love my Vancouver Canucks and last night they played one of the biggest hockey games in the history of the franchise.  If you missed it, we nearly gave up a 3-0 series lead after Chicago forced Game 7.  Usually when a team comes back from being down 3-0 (Chicago), Game 7 rarely turns out well for their previously on-top opponent (Vancouver).  For one thing, their spirit is completely broken.  For another, all they had to do was win one game and they simply could not despite 3 chances!

Last night I witnessed one of the most intense hockey games in my life.  The tension in the city was a crazy mix of outrageously excited and completely terrified.  It was almost inevitable that Chicago Captain / Part-time Superman Jonathon Toews would score one of the most ridiculous goals of the season to send the game to overtime.  Could it end any other way? (Editors Note: No.  We had to have overtime.  Number of cardiac arrests last night in Vancouver – 567,896

 The stakes could not have been higher asVancouver had already squandered one overtime game; and Alex Burrows missed a penalty shot in the third period.  Additionally – the refs simply decided to let the teams play regardless of what happened and could not have called fewer penalties if they had been wearing eyeshades.  (Plus!!!! I believe the greatest villain of our time: NHL commish Gary Bettman, phoned in for the refs to do whatever it took to help the Hawks win). 

Then, this happened:

Rogers Arena has never been louder; not when the Grizzlies won their first ever game there in thrilling fashion – maybe when Canada took gold…in OT.  This was crazy, this was what we needed desperately after being knocked out of the playoffs by the Blackhawks three years in a row.  This mattered.  With one goal Alex Burrows joined the pantheon of Vancouver hockey heroes and officially became Jeff Courtnall 2.0.  

The above history lesson illustrates a suddenly great thing about our current Vancouver Canucks: going into Game 7 even the most devout fans were questioning the grit we totally lacked.  The 1994 Team (our last to make the Cup) had it.  Last night, for the first time I believe this team found it too.  Ryan Kesler dug into every corner and fought for every puck while containing Toews (other than his superhuman goal which nothing short of a mack truck could have stopped). 

Why am I so excited?

1) Every great Canucks run begins with an epic 7 game first round series.

2) The Sedins are liked a coiled snake waiting to break out of a basket.

3) Roberto Luongo…

completely redeemed himself last night by being more amped up for that game than I have ever seen him before in his career.  Afterwards he admitted it was bigger to him than the Olympic Gold Medal game. 

Some viewers complain Hockey is not as exciting as other sports.  I disagree: 4 of the first round series are going to game 7!   Playoff fever is sweeping the province (still Canadian) and at three in the morning cars were still honking and people were still cheering in the streets.   

Welcome to Round Two Vancouver, GO CANUCKS GO!

Shocking!

So shocked I had to write something: The Grizzlies are leading a playoff series 3-1 against the #1 seed.

As a former Grizz fan, I feel proud of the franchise for putting the final nail in coffin of the Spurs dynasty.  The team is playing really well and has really shocked the world.  At this point in the series the Spurs appear borderline hopeless.  The Grizzlies have all the momentum and their players are peaking at exactly the right time.  A truly stunning upset in the making…

All the more impressive when you think back to the fact that the Grizzlies essentially called out the Spurs and genuinely wanted to play the #1 seed.   What did the Grizzlies see that the rest of us missed?  Perhaps they saw the weariness and paper-thin team that the Spurs have become.  Maybe they finally realized before the rest of us that Tim Duncan cannot carry another team through a deep run, and that Tony Parker may have peaked already. 

In any event – fantastic!  Adds to the crazy playoff atmosphere – made even more interesting by the Lakers struggles.  If you have not been following that series, here is the 411 – Chris Paul has discovered his inner Magic Johnson and despite being 5’10 is averaging a near triple double in the first three games of the series.  He has already had two outrageous triple doubles (27 points / 13 rebounds / 15 assists last night) and carried a team missing its 2nd best player to a 2-1 lead against the presumptive Champion Lakers.  Has he exposed the Lakers weaknesses or is he just putting on one of those performances for the ages?  

Which is more shocking: the Spurs being manhandled or Chris Paul playing out of his mind and causing the Laker’s fits? 

Just two more reasons why this is the best time of year for sports.

Miami Thrice Title Quest Diary – April 25, 2011

As the NBA Playoffs ramp up and the stakes rise a question lingers: What would be the NBA’s dream finals matchup?

The answer is at once devilishly simple and intriugingly complex – obviously, ratings-wise a Lebron vs. Kobe showdown which has been denied for several years would be the one everyone is hoping for.  Especially since the stakes raised when LBJ defected to the Heat in the offseason. 

One of the first things people thought about in the wake of the Decision was how it was affecting Kobe.  My dad immediately sent me a message not only lambasting Lebron’s choice, but also stating how much Kobe was certain to be increasing his workouts.  We all wanted to believe that this finals showdown was now a forgone conclusion: Kobe was going to have to kill himself and his team to match up with the new talent that the Heat had brought to South Beach. 

And why not?  The Lakers were coming off an epic Finals victory and the Heat had just added two of the top five guys in the league.  That was one of the reasons that the Christmas Day showdown was the most highly anticipated regular season NBA game in history – we truly believed we could be seeing a preview of what may be a great finals.  It seemed like it was going to be the first shot fired in a long rivalry.  The Celtics instantly became an afterthought despite the fact they had completely and totally dominated the Heat in two matchups to that point.  We wanted to believe in Lebron – Kobe because nobody plays Kobe better than LBJ and there is no one Kobe likes to beat more (excluding Shaq) than Lebron.  On some level, Kobe hates that Lebron took his mantle as “greatest player alive” and he wants to prove to himself that he is still able to win and beat his rival.  For Lebron, beating Kobe just shores up his position – but now he has realized that the only important thing is winning titles.  The two have faced off in a variety of hilarious situations, including as puppets; but have never played a meaningful playoff game against one another:

What would that playoff showdown mean to the NBA?  It would be the perfect capstone to the most incredible NBA season of all-time.  David Stern is somewhere in his office, his stomach in knots, praying as hard as he ever has for this to happen – and getting Donaghy on line one to make a comeback.  Yet, in some ways, we are being cheated out of the showdown we deserve for two major reasons. 

1) The Heat handled the Lakers this season.

2) It is not the same Kobe.

No team played the Lakers as well this season as the Heat.  Their tenacious team defense compensated perfectly for the Lakers stronger overall depth.  Additionally, as much as the Lakers believed they had the weapons in place to counter the Heat’s big three: they only have one Kobe to play defense and no one thatmatches up well with Lebron.  Artest should be able to in theory, but Lebron is so much stronger than him that he simply gets pushed aside.  Ron-Ron is great at taking care of guys like Paul Pierce, but he has no chance against bigger, stronger forwards like LBJ.  The Heat also harassed Pau Gasol into one of the most limited performances he gave all season.  In the finals, if the two teams meet, it would obviously be a different story.  However, the season series is a comfort to Heat fans.

As for Kobe: there has been no doubt he has been increasingly limited this season.  His body has an astounding amount of wear and tear on it and the playoffs is only adding to that.  Once again he is falling into his predictable trap of mistrusting his teammates and trying to put the entire team on his shoulders and carry them through.  The one problem: he does not have it anymore.  You can see it against the Hornets – Chris Paul is thoroughly outplaying Kobe and is bluntly stating: “We are taking it to Kobe because he seems tired and cannot stop us”.  In the old days?  No chance!  Kobe would relish the challenge and bring it equally.  Now, he is hobbling to the bus on crutches.  The Lakers have been at their best this season when Kobe makes his teammates better – think back to the start of the season when Pau Gasol was playing like the MVP and the Lakers were dominant.  Kobe trusted his teammates and they looked stronger than ever.  Now?  He wants to win it himself and he will not be able to.  He may not even be able to carry the team past the Hornets who are quite literally playing 5 on 1.  Look at the difference between Paul and Kobe: one makes his teammates infinitely better, the other cannot wait to throw them under the bus.  Will Kobe be able to accept a secondary role as time goes on?  The Lakers will only fall further and further out of contention as he struggles to find his role as a team leader – but not the best player on the team.

The league may want the Kobe – Bron showdown, and to a certain extent I think fans deserve it.  The time has come for the torch to be passed from one player to another just as it was years earlier from Magic to Jordan. 

I cannot see Kobe passing that torch easily, but his comments at the All-Star Game indicated that he is at least willing to acknowledge his declining skills.  Additionally, seeing more Lebron to Wade or Wade to Lebron ridiculous dunks has always helped the league garner viewers.  I would not bet against Stern telling refs to ensure this finals takes place…  Whether or not Kobe accepts his role on the team and learns to make his teammates better goes a long way as to seeing how the playoffs shake out and whether or not we get the dream matchup we all want to see.

(Unless of course you are a Celtics fan).

NBA Playoff Craziness

The first round of the NBA Playoffs is in full swing and the upset craziness that many predicted is already in full swing.  There have been some epic performances…and some surprising collapses.  Here are my first round thoughts thus far:

1) The Grizzlies really, really, really wanted to play the Spurs – For one of the first times all season the #1 seed in the West has looked completely beatable.  Not even the return of the greatest flopper in NBA history (no, they did not pick up Vince Carter) has not allowed them to take control of the series.  Who could possibly have imagined that Zach Randolph would lead the Grizz to two of the biggest wins in franchise history?  Another major contributer – Shane Battier, whose “do-it-all” attitude has been a huge factor in the 2-1 series lead for the 8th seed.  Can they pull off the upset?  Probably not, but by pushing the Spurs to a 6th or 7th game, they have virtually assured that the 2nd round will probably sound the death knell for the Spurs dynasty.

2) Carmelo Anthony and the Celtics are putting on a show – No, the Knicks will not win the series, but Melo has really shown something in the last quarter of the season and the first round.  He seems to care about winning again and he has no problem putting the team on his back.  Game two turned into one of the most epic head to head showdowns in recent memory.  Rajon Rondo was alright, but Melo (46 points) was more ridiculous.  Too bad a plethora of early minutes this season sabatoged any potential contributions frkm Amare Stoudemire (no doubt bristling at the loss of “his team” to Melo).  The end of this series will definitely have a great finish. 

3) Dwight Howard has discovered his inner “Baby Shaq” –  In the regular season, many questioned Howard’s ability to ever reach his astounding, Shaq-like potential.  During the regular season, he again posted good…but not great stats.  Then, he hit the first three games of the playoffs and began absolutely playing out of his mind: 33.3 ppg / 17.6rpg.  Those are Shaq at his best numbers and they seem to have come out of nowhere.  Howard is challenging himself to be better and he has responded.  Truly an impressive transformation, but one he seems content to make only in the playoffs.  In any event: big trouble for the Bulls in round two. 

4) The Heat are cruising – The Miami Heat have continued to work steadily towards their contender status.  Against Philly they have still displayed growing pains, but their ability to come back and push through their struggles is impressive.  Additionally, they throw down the nicest alley-oop in the NBA this year.  Any time you have a Wade to James throwdown, it just makes you stop and take notice.  That said they will not be able to make as many mistakes in round 2, especially with the way the Celtics have pulled together against the Knicks. 

5) The Lakers are in trouble – Can the Lakers do it?  From the way they played in Game 1: absolutely not.  Ask yourself when the Lakers looked at their best this season – it was when Kobe took a step back and allowed Pau Gasol to be the best player on the team.  In Game 1, Kobe tryed to dominate.  The Lakers lost.  Although Chris Paul’s epic performance was the catalyst.  In Gane 2, it was a completely different story.  Kobe scored 11 and the team won.  He can no longer lead them to victory – he has to share in it.  He needs to be a leader on the floor by making his teammates better.  Can he change his mindset as his body breaks down? 

6) OKC looks impressive – The talented young titans could be the ones to come out the West this season.  Their one-two punch with Durant and Westbrook, combined with the interior toughness of new acquistion Kendrick Perkins has solidified their #2 status in the West.  Imagine a full season of this team rising up?  We could have an epic, Miami – OKC title match.

7) The Mavs / Blazers is a dogfight – At first, I thought the Mavs would run the table.  At home they seemed to be in complete control…on the road, in one of the toughest places to play, they were pushed around.  We are in for 7 tough games and the Mavs must be thanking their lucky stars they have homecourt advantage. 

In a word, the first week of the NBA playoffs has been as advertised: epic.

Playoff Atmosphere

Last week an amazing thing happened to me: I experienced playoff atmosphere first hand

I have been to a lot of stadiums, and seen a lot of crowds all over Canada and the US (Lakers, Yankees, Team USA, Angels, Jets-Giants, USC football, UCLA basketball, World Juniors, Olympic Hockey…)

However, nothing I have ever seen prepared me I have never been to a playoff game before…until now.  This was so unique and unexpected that I was blown away.  Easily one of the best experiences I have ever had watching a game live.  

Walking in and seeing the towel on the back of my chair at Roger’s Arena after getting to see the new statue of Roger Nielson outside was invigorating (it says something about your team when your most famous contribution to hockey historyis a man waving the white flag of surrender)

  The crowd was amped, or something beyond amped.  When the Canucks came out, they fed off the energy pumped into the stadium and went through the hated Blackhawks like a kid through a bag of Cheerios.  Why are the Blackhawks hated?  My theory: Any 7 game series breeds hatred between the two teams regardless of history simply because one bad hit etc. can turn the whole thing into a slugfest.  Canucks – Blackhawks obviously have recent history and given the 7-2 result last night, it may just have gotten ugly.  (FYI – The Raffi Torres hit really helped calm things down

Playoff hockey is different: every bone jarring hit matters,  every angry elbow means something and I witnessed one of the most ridiculous “I AM THE MVP” goals by Daniel Sedin.  I have heard loud stadiums before – 94,000 at the Coliseum in LA – but what I heard after Sedin’s goal blew it all away.  Perhaps I should explain a little for non-Vancouverites: we view this team (our 40th) as different.  As I already wrote, they are probably the best team we have ever sent out.  Our depth is ridiculous, our scoring there and we boast three of the top fifteen players in the league.  And:

We have never won a Stanley Cup before.

Many in the city feel without a doubt that this is that team! (Again, we have a statue outside our stadium of a man who surrendered)

We in Vancouver, cannot discuss the cup too much because we are all terrified.  The crowd on Friday night was a mixture of “please let us pull this out…” and “we are the champions!”.  A strange and exhilerating experience had by all.  Yet, when Daniel scored what was to be the winning goal we cheered louder than ever.  The place nearly came down, the roof cracked and multiple people were injured in towel related accidents.  This is where we are letting out all our fears and dreams and hopes.  Within the stadium there is no fear: these are our Canucks and they are going all the way.   It is becoming increasingly clear that this season is a go for broke year.  We come home with the Cup or we do not come home at all. 

Downtown the city was jacked up.  At the conclusion of the game the earlier nervous edge had vanished and the joyus crowd filtered into the bars for a long night of spending their hard earned money.  It was a beautiful thing, and something I will never forget.

Playoff Wifs

The 2011 NBA Playoffs have the opportunity to be among the most exciting in recent memory.  The matchups are set and ready to take off but for the most part, we are already looking to the epic final eight.  We may be looking ahead too quickly – from the outset it could be crazy, especially in the West where the seeding of teams does not tell the whole story

So here, on the eve of the madness, is a Playoff Wif (What if…) in a mad attempt to try and make sense of the madness to come. 

Wif #1) What if the Dallas Mavericks surprise people?

Seems strange right?  Most people seem to have written off the 3rd seed and slotted an epic Portland/ San Antonio series in.  I can see why Portland is the trendy pick: they play tough at home, Lamarcus Aldridge is playing out of his mind, they stole Gerald Wallace from the Bobcats, and their top guys have peaked at the right time. 

Dallas, in comparison, looks old, soft and completely overmatched.  The team is thin behind Dirk Nowitzki and neither Jason Kidd or Jason Terry has provided any kind of spark recently.  Yet…are we underestimating Dallas already?  This is still a team that can get it done, and no one has had more to prove all season.  Maybe this is the year Dirk finally breaks his playoff slump?  Sure, Portland outmatches them, but any team that sends out a healthy Tyson Chandler can be dangerous.  I can honestly see this series going either way. 

Should Dallas get through – they would match up with the Lakers in the second round.  This would seemingly be a good fit for the Lakers…but a horrendus one for San Antonio.  There is no way they can run with OKC for a seven game series.  Should Dallas “pull the upset” the Lakers would have a significantly “easier” second round series than they anticipated.  It would take a borderline miracle for Dirk to be able to pull the team ahead of the Kobe’s.  It could happen, but it would take a miracle.

Wif #2) What if Chris Paul plays out of his mind and upsets the Lakers?

The bigger question here may be – what if the Lakers completely fall apart?  It may not happen in the first round – NO is playing without their second best player and Paul’s knee is suspect at best; but if they have to play OKC in the second round, it could signify the end of the Laker dynasty.  Kobe is starting to slow and there is no way he can carry the team all the way through the Western conference on his achy knees.  Given his current attitude towards his teammates (not happy!  not happy!)  we could be in for a lot of this:

Wif #3) What if the Knicks make noise and beat the Celtics?

No team is going into the playoffs in tougher shape than the Celtics.  The Knicks have virtually nothing to prove as they are a couple of years away from legitimately contending…or are they?   As much as I love to slam Carmelo Anthony, no one has played better offensively in the last month.  When he guaranteed a win against Orlando and then backed it up with 39 points – he showed something.  Is it possible ‘Melo still has that extra gear he showed in leading Syracuse to an NCAA title?  Can he bring it in the playoffs against a weary (and possibly vulnerable) Celtics team? 

Probably not, let’s be serious, as the Celtics vets will be ready to play and already looking forward to matching up with Miami in round 2. 

Wif #4) What if Miami takes Boston down…in a rout?

All season long Miami has struggled to beat Boston.  When they finally did, it was with such intensity that I genuinely feared for the Celtics well-being (even Jermaine O’Neal).  Miami wanted that game and they wanted it bad.  There was no way they were letting the Celtics leave with the season series at 4-0.  DWade, LBJ and Chris Bosh went in with the complete crazy-eyes and they kept them for the whole game.  Now, imagine an entire series like that…

Can Boston – sans KPerk – handle it?  Probably, but can they cannot count on LBJ finding out Delonte West slept with his mother this year.  Lebron is singularly focused on the title and nothing will get in his way.  If Miami destroys Boston and then swaggers into Chicago, could we see one of the great series of all time? 

Wif #5) What if Denver takes OKC? 

For some people, this is a distinct possibility.  Denver has played with a crazed intensity since Carmelo left and DWade Jr. (Raymond Felton) has set out to prove the Knicks made a horrendus mistake by trading him.  He has meshed perfectly with Denver’s high tempo offense.  Were Denver playing the Lakers or Spurs, they would almost certainly be a dark horse upset candidate.  OKC is the worst possible matchup for them because Durant is not losing in the first round and the team is too young to be run around in circles.  Denver does not match up as well with them.  A shame really but the facts. 

Should Denver win?  They could be an upset candidate again in the second round: with Carmelo watching from the sofa in his palatial home. 

Wif #6) If Kobe wins this year…is he in the conversation with Jordan as GOAT?

No.  Let me rephrase that: no way, no chance, never

It does not matter how vehemently Laker fans and young people who never saw Jordan play, argue about it: the facts are simple and Jordan is the GOAT.  Kobe could win 7 and it would not matter.  Jordan won 6 titles as the Alpha Dog.  He three-peated twice, including after a two year break.  He wanted more than anything to win – and he always did.  Kobe has had a much different career: he was the second fiddle on 3 Laker title teams, Alpha Dog on 2 more.  He single-handedly contributed to the team not winning the 8 or 9 titles they could have, by thoroughly destroying their chemistry.  Only now, years after Shaq has been vanquished, does Kobe care about titles.  He always thought he could become the GOAT through stats alone.  He always focused singularly on being better than Jordan, statistically, and in that he lost focus on why Jordan is the best ever: he won and nothing else mattered.  Jordan held ridiculous grudges…but all in the name of winning. 

Kobe, on the other hand, still refuses to make his teammates better and bristles when they get credit (6 for 24, 1 assist = MVP performance).  He throws them under a bus whenever he has a chance (Jordan did too, but with the purpose of winning!).  Kobe played on a series of terrible teams (that he led into the ground) for years and missed the playoffs at times.  Jordan?  No chance. 

We can allow Kobe to join the conversation as one of ten best of all time and he can spoken of in the same breath as Jordan…but only to dismiss him and reaffirm Jordan’s status as the GOAT.

Miami Thrice Title Quest Diary – April 14, 2011

The first round of the playoffs is here, and the second seeded Heat will tangle with the Sixers…here is the preview:

Season Series – Heat 4-0

The above stat pretty much states everything you need to know about this series: Miami dominated from the opening tip and plays Philly as well as they play anyone in the league.  The Sixers have come a long way since the start of the year but they do not have the defensive abilities to contain both Lebron and DWade at the same time (there is only one Andre Iguodala). 

Key Players – Elton Brand, Sixers / Chris Bosh, Heat

Two, at times, wayward stars who need this playoff shot to shore up their reputations.  There remains no full explanation as to why Brand went from a dominant 20-10 guy with the Clippers to an afterthought with the Sixers but he did rebound (ha, ha! – Editor’s Note: Terrible) this season by averaging 15-8.  Not bad for a guy who was drifting into Vince Carter territory, but not exactly stellar.  Brand needs to dominate down low for the Sixers to have any kind of chance and it remains to be seen if he still has it in him.  Against Miami’s suspect inner players this could be a possibility…

Bosh is the key to the Heat’s success and he has never faced playoff pressure like this before.  Yet, no Heat player has held himself as accountable this season like Bosh.  He has stepped up time and again and even called himself out…and then backed up the chatter.  For the Heat to be successful they need to play at least 3.5 vs 5, (with their usual dominant defense) and without Bosh that is impossible.  He will need to continue to play strong defense and score + rebound in bunches (18 – 8 during the season).  Additionally, he will be called upon to dominate at times and when the times comes there will be no excuses – call out or not.

Intangibles – Heat Bench, Lebron James, Sixers D

1) Miami has the shakiest bench in the league but they will have to perform partly competently for the Heat to win the title.  Last night in Toronto, Eddie House dropped 35 points.  Yes, Toronto had checked out and was planning how to spend their summer vacations, but hitting your career high right before the playoffs begin after a horrendus year has to count for something.  If the Heat bench can be confident going into what will probably be a deep, exhausting playoff run – the Heat have a chance.  If the bench gets an overall DNP?  No chance.

2) Lebron James is facing arguably the most important playoffs of his career.  He needs to back up his move to Miami; he needs to make people forget the epic collapse against the Celtics and he needs to win a title.  He has proven his place in the Pantheon…of talent…but to secure his legacy and “greatness”, titles are all that counts.  For most of the season he has been focused on basketball, 90%, the highest in his career.  That seriousness has been evident, as he no longer wants to have fun – just win.  Will it be enough?  You can bet he will not fold until the final whistle.

3) Who guards who?  DWade will probably draw the rotating defenders, none of whom can hope to contain him in the slightest.  He should have a great series and carry the team through to their date with destiny against Boston in round two. 

The Prediction: Heat in 4

The Hockey Wine Cellar Team

In the premise of the Oscar-winningclassic of modern cinema Space Jam, Michael Jordan teams up with the Looney Toons in order to play an intergalactic team of basketball superstars for the fate of the planet. 

In the greatest sports book of all-time, Bill Simmon’s Book of Basketball, the theory continues in the form of a seven game series.  However, he adds time machine abilities so he can select the greatest team at their peak to play for Earth  

In both scenarios the game of choice for Earth’s future has been Basketball, but given the fact that most alien worlds are harsh, unforgiving and frozen – isn’t it  more likely that the game of choice with everything on the line would be hockey?  In that case, we had better begin building our Hockey Wine Cellar Team

The principles will be the same as Bill Simmons – only players I have seen in my lifetime are eligable / the team cannot have duplicates of one player due to the paradoxical problems (so no Gretzky ’83 – ’89 teamed with ’87-’93 Lemieux on every line)/  it will be built around the secret ie. the team will be built on ability to play together, not simply stats / the year players were picked was not always their best statistical year but a combo of great stats + title run / the team has to be built to play a 7 game series. 

Without further ado The Hockey Wine Cellar Team.

Intro –

What will the Aliens look like?  What kind of team will they have?  In my opinion, they will be a perfectly balanced team with depth and speed on offense, a powerful defense and a virtually unbeatable goalie in the mold of Vladislav Tretiak (another precedent for this series: the 1972 Summit Series, arguably the greatest hockey tournament ever).  The Aliens will have size, and a couple of players who are stunningly good.  Obviously, we will be facing their Gretzky / Lemieux combo and they will be formidable.  

The only way to counter?  Our formula for victory =  Gretzky / Lemieux Combo + 4 lines with different purposes that can break down the alien defense while playing at a high energy pace + a solid defense anchored with size and tons of scoring skill to keep the aliens roughed up and off-balance and unable to collapse on our forwards+ a goalie trio that has proven it can win in any scenario.  

 The next issue is the same as the one that Bill Simmons faced with Michael Jordan: Which Wayne Gretzky?  92 goal Gretzky (50 in 39 games!) or ’93 Kings Gretzky who carried a subpar team to the Cup Finals?  Simmons went back and forth on full skill Jordan and full secret Jordan.  With Gretzky it is a little bit different: here is a player who was shockingly traded in his prime.  The Bulls never would have traded Jordan in his prime no matter what – the major difference though, the rest of their team could never have won the title without him (and in fact failed twice).  Without Gretzky the Oilers still won the 1990 Stanley Cup thanks to the leadership of Mark Messier. 

The Gretzky of this team does not have to score a lot of goals due to the caliber of his teammates.  Rather, I want Gretzky at his passing peak – I want ’85/86 Gretzky when he had, objectively, the greatest statistical season of all time.  In 80 games Gretz tallied 52 goals, a record 163 assists, for a record 215 points.   With the quality teammates Gretzky will have on this team, the Aliens do not stand a chance.  Look at how well Gretzky could do with great teammates (like Paul Coffey and Jari Curri)…now imagine him with even better scorers.  The alien team may have a “Gretzky-like” player but, at the end of the day they do not have the “Greatest Hockey Player the Universe has ever seen”.

To combat the Aliens potential size and strength, our forward lines need to be a unique combination of size / speed / skill /checking and boost to keep them off balance.  Imagine facing a pure power line one moment, then having a quick shift to speed, skill and the deadly wrist shot of Joe Sakic?  Unstoppable right?  Additionally, hockey players generally have a good grasp of “the secret” because of the nature of the game – there will be no ego problems here.  This is bigger than the Olympics or anything else.  The four lines will crafted thusly:

Line 1) The SuperDuper Line – When we need a goal, we can go to these guys at any time and they will get it done.

Line 2) The Skills Line – Grittiness and finesse combine in the perfect way, a true scoring line.

Line 3) The Power Line – Need the other team’s defense to be totally worn down?  Throw this line out there.  Virtually impossible to move off the puck and no problems going into the corners to play control games.

Line 4) The Checking / Boost Line – The main job: shut down the opponents top line as well as providing a spark when necessary.  All these players can score but that will not be their primary job. 

The Lines:

SuperDuper Line = ’86 Gretzky – ’93 Lemieux – ’94 Bure

’86 Gretzky makes this line for the reasons discussed above, and he showed in 1987 that despite the fact both players are centres that he can play on the same line as Mario Lemieux!   Therefore, on this team they will play together, on the same line. 

’93 Lemieux makes the cut because he won the Stanley Cup that year; scored 160 points (69 goals) and would fit perfectly with an at-passing-peak Gretzky.  ’94 Bure carried the Canucks to the Cup Finals and had 60 goals during the season.  He also proved he could play big when it mattered most – in triple overtime against Calgary he came through with the game winner.  Bure was also a bit of a power forward at times too, he could bullishly pick and roll his way to the net.  His speed, combined with Gretzky’s laser-like passes and vision, alongside Lemieux’s power and shot makes this line virtually impossible to stop.  They have size, speed, skill and Gretzky: without a doubt the top line Earth could send out. 

The Skills Line = 00/01 Sakic – 09 Crosby – 06/07 Selanne

The Skills Line  features a young playmaker, electric finisher and the best wrist shot in the history of the NHL.  Each player on the line won the Stanley Cup and has proven themselves to be a clutch performer. 

06/07 Selanne (94 points, 48 goals, 46 assists) makes it over 76 goal Selanne because of the performance he put on helping the Ducks capture the Stanley Cup.  While this was not Selanne’s best statistical year he just always seemed to be in the right place at the right time to make a huge play for the team.  He fully understood the secret (and his longevity is astounding, seemingly impervious to any injury); young Selanne just wanted to score goals.  With two elite linemates he would put up huge numbers in the 7 game series. 

08/09 Crosby (33 goals, 70 assists, 103 points) was at his playmaking peak here.  This was before he started scoring 50 goals a year and with his linemates on this team he does not need to.  He will be the primary assist guy on this line – the scrappy, into the corners guy who will do whatever it takes to get it done.  He led the Penguins to the Cup this year and will have no problem shifting over to Left Wing (Editors Note: A lot of players will be playing out of position, but with the Earth on the line can we really afford not to play all these prime time performers?  They can play wing, trust me) and feeding brilliant passes to Sakic in the middle, as well as cross ice to Selanne.  Crosby will not defer to his older teammates, but will instead make them better with his young legs and gritty intensity. 

oo/01 Joe Sakic (54 goals, 64 assists, 118 points) had his best goal scoring year during this Cup Winning season.  Sakic will move around the middle and create chaos amongst defenders.  With his wrist shot (arguably the best in league history) Sakic will be especially deadly when combined with the passing abilities of Crosby.  Backed by a strong defense, this line will be a change of pace to the Super Duper Line – but…not much of one.  They will carry a heavy scoring load and a lot of that will fall to Burnaby Joe, one of the best clutch performers ever.

The Power Line = ’94/95 Lindros – ’90 Messier – ’95/96  Jagr

The thought with this line is pretty simple: beat the crap out of the opponents defense.  Can anyone contend with the size and physicality of this line?  They will be nearly impossible to push off the puck and can play the control game all shift long.  The other team will have no way to match up with them, and after the previous two lines will be completely thrown by the sudden shift to such a physical approach.  In fact – I strong advocate sending this line out right from the outset to intimidate the opponents and hopefully psychologically break them from the start.   

’94/95 Lindros (46 games played due to lockout / 29 goals, 41 assists, 70 points) led the Flyers to the Cup and was at the height of his pre-concussion powers.  His better than a point a game led to him being annointed “the next one” and his size and skill was unmatched in NHL history.  He had no problem delievering a bone rattling hit, scoring or dropping the gloves.   Remember?  When he played like a runaway freight train?  How can we not have that player on our team?  He could change the game in a multitude of ways and lead by example.  Given the short season, he will also be well rested in order to employ his physical style.  His presence will throw off the opponents and with his linemates he should be virtually unstoppable in the middle.  Enjoy this missile coming towards you, Hockey-playing Alien Invaders!

’89/’90 Messier (45 goals, 84 assists, 129 points) – Wayne Gretzky was traded to the Kings in one of the biggest moments in NHL history.  The Oilers, we assumed, were done.  Except, Messier went on to have the best season of his career and lead the team to the Cup while capturing every major award in the process.  That was how good the Oilers were; they lost their best player and still won the cup!   Messier was the main reason for that, and for that reason he makes this team and plays a huge role.  (We could also have gone with New York Rangers Messier but I am still bitter about losing the Cup…)

’95/’96 Jagr (62 goals, 87 assists, 149 points) – In this case, I took one of the best statistical years of Jagr’s career and not a cup winning year.  The reason?  He knew what it took to win and could reach inside and pull it out again.  On this line, we need some scoring punch and the 6’3 240 pound Jagr will be the perfect compliment for 6’4 Lindros and 6’2 Messier.  His scoring touch was ridiculous and he was very difficult to move off the puck.  One of my best hockey memories is the Penguins down 5-4 in the Stanley Cup finals with two minutes left.  I had no doubt they would triumph.  Then I watched them score two goals in rapid succession: when Jagr was on, no one could match up.

The Checking + Boost Line = ’96 Steve Yzerman – ’10 Jonathon Toews – ’89 Esa Tikkanen

The purpose of this line is to shut down the opposing team’s best player.  Yzerman (’96 – 95 points, Cup Winner) on the fourth line?  Yes, but only because two years later he won the Selke Award as the League Top defensive forward and fully realized his potential as an all-around player.  Toews (’10 Playoffs MVP) showed just how versatile he was during the Hawk’s cup run and we may need his youthful energy to change the flow of the game at some point.  Tikkanen (’89 – 78 points, 31 goals)?  He was at his best harassing opponents and forcing them into mistakes.  No player ever got into other people’s heads quite like Esa and his defensive prowess may be needed.  ’89 represents his best stats and a cup win.  This line can score, do not get me wrong, and they will also be able to shut down whoever they need to.

The Defense

2000 Scott Stevens – Remember the hit?  The one that essentially ended Eric Lindros’s career?  That’s why he sets the tone in game one for my Wine Cellar team.

’85/’86 Paul Coffey – The best offensive defensemen ever, Coffey scored 48 goals this season.  When the team needs a boost on both offense and defense, he will be there.  Plus, he plays a great point on the power play. 

2001/2002 Niklas Lidstrom – Never a big scorer, Lidstrom is the best defensemen of the modern era, winning Norris Trophies into his 40’s.  Shuts down anyone’s best player and will be responsible for locking down many great Alien players.  He won a cup, Conn Smyth (playoff MVP) and Norris trophy this year.

’90 Ray Bourque – No defensemen played as hard as Raymond Bourque and 1990 was the year he powered to 94 points and a 2nd place MVP finish.  He also took the Bruins in the Cup where they lost to the Oilers.  He has to be a serious anchor for any defense, even if he is the 2nd best Bruin defensemen ever.

’91 Al MacInnis –   The huge powerful slap shot wielded by Big Al will be invaluable on the power play and could shift the outcome in one of the seven games.  A Cup winner in 1989, in ’91 MacInnis powered to 103 points, most of them thanks to the thunder stick he carried. 

’92 Phil Housley – 97 points for the US born defensemen in 1992.  Pair him with MacInnis or Coffey and you have an incredibly potent offensive tandem that could change the game.  Who would the opponents cover?  The defense can score from anywhere and with the level of play the forwards bring to the table, it will be impossible to cover everyone at all times.  Housley adds to that dimension. 

1999/2000 Chris Pronger – Pick any Chris Pronger season and you will get what you pay for – a big, physical defensemen that can change the fortunes of a team for the better.  He is a difference maker and sometimes that is all you need.  Being a 6’6 human wrecking ball also helps (Pair him with Stevens and the Power Line and this thing will be over quickly, the Aliens leaving barely intact).

2001 Rob Blake – Blake scored 19 points in 23 games during the 2001 playoffs and remained as good as anybody at shutting down opponents.  His season was a wash but he helped the Avalanche to the title and presents another physical presence on the back line. 

1992 Chris Chelios – Led the Blackhawks to the Cup and won the Norris Trophy.  A steady performer who is reliable in the clutch. 

In Goal

1) 1999 Martin Brodeur – Literally carried the Devils to 3 Cups.  At times displayed uncanny ability to step up in the clutch.  Remarkably durable, he rarely missed starts and logged huge minutes.  ’99 was a cup winning season and a Vezina performance from the master.  Opponents never got easy goals on Marty and his steadiness allows for some gambles with his backups…

2) 1993 Patrick Roy – Why young Roy over experienced, shutout king Roy?  Quite simply, with Brodeur taking most of the prime goaltening duties, we can gamble with young, pure-talent Roy.  He led the Canadiens to their last cup in ’93 and was so athletic that he changed goaltending forever.  His style was a breath of fresh air and a change of pace.  If we need to, we can count on him to rob our opponents in spectacular style.

3) 87/88 Grant Fuhr – However…just in case Brodeur gets injured and young Roy proves to be too much of a gamble: we have Grant Fuhr.  The greatest goalie of the ridiculous scoring era, Fuhr was a proven winner and if you need someone to close out a 9-8 game, Fuhr is your man.  He had nerves of steel and won Cup after Cup.  This was the year he swept the Vezina and finished 2nd in MVP voting. 

So, there you have it for the most part – here are the luxary picks and intangible players who round out the team:

2006/ 2007 Rod Brind’amour– Won the Selke Trophy twice…but more importantly is one of the best faceoff men in NHL history (62% career) and when you need someone who can win a faceoff at the end of the game deep in the shadows on your own goalpost: Brind’amour is the best that ever was. 

2002 / 2003 Todd Bertuzzi – Sometimes you need someone to stand in front of the net and screen the goalie (Bert+MacInnis = 50 screened goals combined at least).  Bertuzzi was impossible to move this year and redirected many shots amongst his 46 goals (97 points).  Sometimes you also need someone no questions asked to protect the superstars, Bertuzzi is more than willing to punch someone in the back of the head and lay down the law.

Some Lineup possibilites:

Captain: Wayne Gretzky – really no other choice here.  While Gretzky may not be the best leader of the bunch, he is the alpha dog and as he goes, so does the team.  On a deep, talented team he still stands apart and needs to be the leader.  Think ’98 Nagano – everyone deferred to him.

Alternates: Mark Messier / Mario Lemieux – Either player could wear the C for the team and my friend ADub thought Mario should be the captain.  However, on this team, like the 1987 Canada Cup team: Gretz wears the C. 

Penalty Kill: Toews – Brind’amour – Tikkannen – Pronger – Stevens

Power Play: Gretzky – Lemieux – Jagr – MacInnis – Coffey

Power Play 2: Messier – Lindros – Crosby – Housley – Bure (played the point at times)

Ridiculous Size Lineup: Bertuzzi – Lindros – Lemieux – Pronger – Blake

Ridiculous Scoring Lineup: Bure – Gretzky – Lemieux – Housley – Coffey

Speed Lineup: Bure – Selanne – Sakic – Housley – Blake

There you have it: this team would be our best bet at avoiding this kind of outcome:

Am I crazy?  Who did I miss?  What combos would you like to see?