Saving it for the Champions League?

There is a chance Jose Mourinho is sitting back in his cave, eating a steak and planning to win the Champions League with a pretty thin squad.  I hope that is what is going on because otherwise there is simply no explaining Chelsea and their outright brutal start to the season.  Some of the lowlights include: a 2-1 loss to Crystal Palace a team with freaking cheerleaders; a 3-0 drubbing to Man City who look rejuvenated and ready to win any and all competitions and finally, a 3-1 trouncing at Everton thanks to a remarkable hat trick by Steven Naismith.  If one pauses to throw in the near fist fight between Manager and Beloved team doctor, Lady Physio, the season has not exactly started out looking rosy.

John Terry has been benched, the defence suddenly looks 300 years old and our keeper got a red card and then knee injury in the span of three weeks.  On the bright side – it really cannot get any worse.  Sure we chose to mostly sit out he transfer window, pegging small targets and missing out on big ones (except for the Pedro theft…which seems to be working out for United okay) while allowing other teams to retool at our expense.  City got stronger in nearly every part of the field, as did United, and with all the TV money rolling in the mid level teams and even bottom tier are spending on players and getting results.  Chelsea simply looks tired and is struggling to repeat what went right last year, against all the odds.  We needed a deeper squad for all the competitions and we did not get it.

Another factor seems to be Mourinho and his bizarre habit of giving up on players way too soon.  Take Juan Mata who has become David Silva for United (and of course, previously, Chelsea) – I understand that Eden Hazard needed to grow as a football, but point out any contest where Mata was worse than Oscar.  You can’t: and then there is the letting go of Lukaku for nothing when strikers were desperately needed, and selling the very talented Andre Schurrle when he could have added the depth we so desperately crave.

In short: Jose either plans to win the title or he has crushed the spirit of the team through his draconian ways.  It has been said that there are 2 types of coaches: Doctor coach and Chemo Coach.  The doctor keeps you well but might not make you totally healthy or a champion; the Chemo coach will destroy everything and make you a winner, but then continues giving Chemo…because that is all they know.  Eventually they must move on because they are killing a healthy team.  It is becoming somewhat apparent which coach Mourinho may be and for Chelsea, that may not be what we need right now.

Unless of course this is all a ruse to win the Champions League which is not out of the realm of possibility.  So, well, at least there is that.

Toews, then Crosby

As he hoists his third Cup in six years, Jonathon Toews has cemented his place as one of the best hockey players of all time.  No one doubts his peer, Sidney Crosby also belongs on that list.  However, if you asked even the most casual of NHL fans you might be hard pressed to find someone who would take Captain Canada over Captain Serious.  How can this be?  How could you take Toews over goal scoring machine Crosby?  The answer is pretty clear for three reasons:

1) 3 – 1 – Toews has three rings and seems to be a huge threat to win nearly every single year.  Crosby made back to back cups and won one…then seems to have fallen off the playoff map.  In hockey, the best players almost always win Stanley Cups – even Ray Bourque hoisted one with Colorado – but Crosby, arguably one of the five best players ever only had one.  Gretzky has 4, Lemieuex has 2, Sakic has 2, Mark Messier has 6 for crying out loud!  Amazingly Crosby does not even seem too threatening to return to glory.  Toews and the Blackhawks meanwhile could easily have won last year if they had come out on top in their 7 game war with LA.  Now they have settle for being a dynasty…without back to back titles.  Ho hum.

2) Toews gets better when it matters most – Since 2011 I have hated playing against Toews.  He always and I mean always scores when it matters most.  He is the most dangerous player in the world in a big game and you would want him on your team no matter what.  I would trade my draft pick for a decade and half my team and Chicago hangs up the phone first.  Unreal.  Crosby too gets better when it matters most but in the playoffs he has struggled to get the most out of his guys.  Toews rarely seems to have the same problem.  in fact, like Lemieux or Gretz, Toews has managed to keep alpha dog status despite playing on a team with perennial MVP candidate Patrick Kane and Norris contender Duncan Keith.  Just saying.

3) Crosby is an awesome regular season player but so is Toews – For his career Crosby averages 1.3 ppg, which is an insane 80’s style number.  Like Wilt Chamberlain he has video game stats.  They are mind boggling in an era of defensive hockey and schemes designed to neutralize scoring.  Like Bill Russell, Toews can play two ways, might be the best defensive forward in the league and kills himself to win.  He scores too, just under 1ppg and leads the aforementioned team by holding himself to a ruthless standard and then expecting his teammates to do the same.  Keep in mind that Chicago holds the record for most consecutive wins in a season (from 2012) and has been a Western Conference threat since 2008 in a particularly brutal era of competition.  Again, Chicago and LA have won 5 of the last 6 Cups!  Unreal.

So, like Chamberlain and Russell before them it goes Russell then Wilt and Toews…then Crosby.

The World Cup is Bonkers – And Then Luis Suarez Bit Someone

As the World Cup charges towards the elimination rounds, it is getting more and more outrageous as the stakes grow higher and higher.  The shocks just continue and continue: Italy out, England out, Spain out!?!   Here are some awesome things about the 2014 World Cup:

The supposed Championship teams have looked borderline beatable (Argentina, Brazil, Germany) and upstarts who are shocking people (Chile, Colombia, USA) could potentially win this thing…and then Luis Suarez bit someone.

The World Cup was already going down as one of the best ever, not only did you have ridiculous weather conditions and wire to wire games like the one between the USA and Portugal, or the way that the biggest players in the world are stepping up when it matters most like Neymar or Messi.  You could argue that even Suarez had been stepping up as well, but then, well, you know what happened next.  Suarez always, always downplays the fact that he bites people and there is no denying what he did.  FIFA moved quickly to suspend him for 9 games, but Suarez deserves more, much, much more.  He is one of the most despicable examples of a human being: he is one of the best footballers in the world. 

A quick comparison: during the NFL playoffs, Richard Sherman gave one of the most astoundingly honest interviews ever.  It was an honest and terrifying look at the frame of mind professional athlete who has to transform themselves into a monster in order to play an exceedingly violent game.  Suarez has said his own wife does not recognize him on the pitch, do soccer players have to transform themselves as well?  Some of the best players in the world have done incomprehensible and seemingly reprehensible things when it seems bizarre for them to do so.  Most people struggle to separate French star Zinedene Zidane from his infamous headbutt in the World Cup Final (even though the team won both the World Cup Championship and World Cup with him) even though he was one of the best players of his generation.  Suarez (who has not won anything) is crafting a similar legacy as the good and bad are definitely not balancing any more.  At the outset of the World Cup this was an opportunity for Suarez to banish the bad press.  He was coming off the best season a Premier League striker had ever had, and he was the reason Liverpool was competitive and fighting for the top spot in the league.  Finally he was growing up it seemed and yet, he could not help himself.  This is the third bite in his career and a strong message has to be sent.  One player cannot be bigger than the tournament itself and he deserves to be banned for a very, very long time.  Two incidents is way too much: three is a pattern that is not going to change.  Send a message, across the board.

Another great thing about the World Cup has been the Men in Blazers and their breakout performance as media stars at ESPN.  They are off kilter, hilarious and incredibly insightful.  The Blazers make soccer easy to understand for Americans and are almost singlehandedly increasing the popularity of the sport in the country.  This has been their breakout opportunity and their popularity will likely skyrocket as a result of all the burn they are getting at the World Cup. 

What will happen in the upcoming round of 16 is likely to be totally nuts.  CONCACAAF teams could make a big splash and Brazil could easily lose to Chile!  Unless of course there is some serious match fixing going on, which, given how much Brazil has invested in winning this thing would not be surprising (there first game already looked a little match fixy).  Will the teams who have looked great – think France and Holland – be able to keep it together and actually win some real games? 

This World Cup is awesome: and is only likely to get better with a new team rising to the top and the ongoing question is who will be able to survive the pressure.  A couple of players, Messi and Neymar, are feeling intense pressure to deliver the title.  This may be the last chance for Messi and will be the only time Neymar will play on his home soil.

World Cup = bonkers.  And it will only get better.    

The NBA Mount Rushmore

Earlier this season LeBron James was asked about his NBA Mount Rushmore and if he felt he belonged atop the NBA’s ultimate pinnacle – he was hopeful that one day he would be viewed by many in this context and then he threw out his personal Rushmore and it was very, very flawed. 

Why was it flawed – because it did not accurately reflect the idea of a Mount Rushmore.  What exactly is this?  Mount Rushmore did not just have the four greatest Presidents on it; rather it had the four most impactful on the country. 

Who then, are the four most impactful players in the history of the NBA (remember, not just as players but also on the league as a whole)? 

Michael Jordan

Bill Russell

Larry Bird / Magic Johnson

And…

LeBron James

What?  How can (insert old timer name here) not be on the Mount Rushmore? 

The league has gone through multiple eras and transitions, and each of these should be reflected on Mount Rushmore.  Just because someone is still active does not diminish their impact on the development and expansion of the NBA.  LeBron may not seem like a great choice but hear out the argument for each before passing judgement.

Michael Jordan – the argument for the NBA’s greatest player is pretty straightforward, he is the NBA’s greatest player and without question expanded the league to new heights never before thought possible.  Jordan became known as more than simply a basketball player and he moved the game into the worldwide phenomenon it is.  There is little doubt of the impact he has had, and now as an owner / ridiculous brand billionaire he is poised to continue playing a part in the future of the league.

Bill Russell – was literally responsible, along with Wilt / West / Baylor, for bringing the NBA out of the dark ages and making the game modern.  As an 11 time champion, he also helped break down the racial barriers across the country and successfully integrate the game.  He has continued to serve as the NBA’s ideal champion and one of the classiest men in professional sports. 

Magic / Bird – we are going with a half Magic face and a half Bird face because these two men saved the league when it was in its darkest time.  The rivalry between the two men allowed the league to move on from cocaine troubles, tape delay and a distinct lack of exposure.  They saved the game and began the turn towards becoming one of the biggest sports in the world.  The 80’s is remembered as Bird and Magic’s time and rightly so for all they did to expand the league.

LeBron James – when you think of the post Jordan league who is the first player you think of?  Kobe?  Shaq?  Duncan?  None of those players (great all) have had the same impact of LeBron James.  He has brought the league into modern, twitter-ful times.  The Decision – what other player would have had that kind of spotlight or ability to make a choice that fully altered the landscape of the league?  Everything he does is scrutinized over and above what anyone else in the history of the league has had to withstand.  Time and again he has stepped up (his averages in elimination games / game 7’s are the highest in NBA history) and he has revolutionized the NBA.  From style to worldwide branding, LeBron has changed the game forever.  He deserves a spot on the Mount Rushmore of the NBA…and his career is maybe half over.  What new heights – dizzying heights some may speculate – can he lift the league to?  Already teams are being sold for $2 billion dollars on the strength of TV contracts and players potential.  LeBron is the face of the revolution, like it or not.

Toughest omissions – Kareem (just not as impactful as Bird / Magic), Kobe (nowhere near as impactful as LeBron), Wilt (LeBron before LeBron), Shaq (very popular and well know culturally), Duncan (never cared to be known outside San Antonio), West (literally the logo and built the Lakers of the 2000’s)

There you have the real NBA Mount Rushmore – of guys who shaped the past, present and future of the game as it moved forward into a new era of prosperity.

The Legacy of Tim Duncan

Where does Tim Duncan sit historically and why is this question so difficult to answer?

Tim Duncan is probably one of the five or six best NBA players of all time, and yet, most people struggle to slot him into their top ten.  How can this possibly be?  Can anyone honestly say that a prime Duncan did not give a team one of the best chances to win a title?  This is a man who threw up an ungodly 24 points-15 boards-5 assists-3 blocks in one NBA Playoffs, has two MVP’s, three Finals MVPs and five titles to his name.  Bird (widely considered the best or second best forward ever) has three MVP’s, three Finals MVPs and three rings but he only played nine years.  Magic lost out on the end of his career due to contracting HIV but won five titles and changed the game forever. 

The question is simple: does Tim Duncan in his prime give you a better chance to win a title than Bird or Magic? 

What makes it virtually impossible to accurately measure Duncan’s career (and understand exactly how good he is in a historical context) is the fact that he never cared about anything but winning.  Tim Duncan is the best teammate of all time – and that is not even close to up for debate.  When he was at his best (2 MVP’s and literally unstoppable) he was never considered “better than Kobe or LeBron” simply because the entirety of his impact is unmeasurable.  Here is what we know: his teams never missed the playoffs, he got significantly better when it mattered most (upped his ppg / rpg / minutes) and he pushed his team to their absolute best.  Should he be punished because his coach (Pop one of the two or three best ever) smartly limited his regular season minutes to keep him fresh?  Should he be punished for playing in one of the best systems the league has ever seen?  Or for being quiet when others were loud but not as good? 

Tim Duncan’s peak was never as transcendent as LeBron’s, Kareem, Jordan or even Magic and Bird, but he has been one of the best players in the NBA for more than 19 years – and his five titles attest to his impact on the league.  However, as Bill Simmons points out in his column today; would you take 19 years of Duncan, or 9 of Bird?  It is a diabolical choice for a reason. 

Here is what we know – Tim Duncan does not care how he is viewed historically and he will be the last guy in the world to tell you how great he is.  His game stands for itself.  His record stands for itself.  He allows his five titles to speak for him. 

They speak rather loudly. 

Heat Check – LeBron and the Cavaliers

During game 3 of the NBA finals, the Heat trotted out a lineup of Norris Cole, Birdman, Rashard Lewis, a somewhat dead Ray Allen and LeBron James.  At that point my brother asked the entirely serious question: is this LeBron and the Cavs again?  Watching the game last night one had to agree that the Heat are, in fact, not a very good team.  

I will repeat that the Heat are not a very good team.  Player for player the Spurs are dramatically better and I can prove it: quick name the sixth best player on the Spurs and the Heat!  For the Spurs a lengthy discussion begins, maybe Splitter or Diaw or even Patty Mills.   For the Heat it is probably Juwan Howard and he is now coaching the team.  Seriously, who is it?  Cole or Chalmers or maybe, gasp, Wade?  The point is that one through twelve is not a kind comparison for Miami and the only reason they are anywhere remotely close to into this series is because of LeBron.  He has single handedly revived the career of Rashard “left for dead” Lewis, gives his teammates more open shots than Jon Stewart on the Tea Party and frequently defends multiple players in the same possession.  Could he possibly do any more?  Should Spolestra possibly be tried for attempted murder?  When he cramped up in game 1 the Heat were not worse, they were downright ghastly.  Again and again they brick open looks or pass up shots to swing the ball back to Bron with less than 6 on the shot clock.  The most valuable player debate is over, so too may be that of number 3 player ever, as the fact that James dragged this awful team to the finals itself is an astounding feat.  

Yet, because he is LeBron, we continue to ask him to do more.  Threepeat LeBron! We cry while giving other players a pass.  Imagine this for a second: my dad suggested the idea of switching LeBron with Durant.  Take a moment to ponder this one carefully.  Now you have James, Ibaka and Westbrook as a core, with Adams, Collison and Reggie Jackson.  Does that sound like a Championship team?  Not really, it sounds more like a dynasty.  Meanwhile the Heat are now probably a second round team or Eastern Conference Finalist…at best.  In the NBA it is not even close, there is LeBron and everyone else.  No other player can elevate a Cavaliers like lineup to the heights he has, they simply cannot.  The reason – truly the only reason – the Heat will Threepeat is because of LeBron James dragging them over the line when it matters most.  Bosh will continue to play well, and Wade will hopefully improve, but there is no question how they get there: riding the broad shoulders of the best player in the world, LeBron James. 

Heat Check – A Finals Rematch

After LeBron and the Heat punched their ticket to the finals with a fired up and emphatic performance – Bron was playing end to end D, taking it to the basket and hitting ridiculous falling down jumpers – all that remained to be seen was whether he had to take on Greg Popovich or Kevin Durant for the Title.  The answer was clear after an epic Game 6 as Tim Duncan and the Spurs have the rematch they want for the Championship.  Game 6 haunts the Spurs and they desperately want to have it back.  

Who will take this one?  Will the Spurs get their revenge or will LeBron get his Threepeat?  

In his 5 finals trips, (four straight) LeBron has faced the Spurs 3 times which is simply astounding.  For him, as always, everything is on the line.  Can he join the elite Jordanesque company of MJ, Shaq and others?  Can he lift a truly weak team to the title?  The Spurs are ready and raring to go, but, the Heat have lost only one series as a team and they are playing out of their minds right now (even Rashard “Mike Miller” Lewis has been hitting shots!) and LeBron is a man with his legacy on the line – fairly or not.  

From day one of the season I have believed LeBron and the Heat are destined for a Threepeat, no one is going to beat him 4 games out of 7 period.  The Heat know what it takes to win, and this may be their last run with the current squad, they will pull it off.  The Heat will Threepeat and Bron will win his third straight Finals MVP.  

Gary Smith – An Appreciation

News broke the other week that Sports Illustrated legend, Gary Smith, was going to retire from The magazine.  Smith, if you were not aware, is the best magazine writer of all time.  It is not close.  No one else  has achieved what he has – he won National magazine awards multiple times (the only person to ever do so) and the annual Best Sportswriting of the year was sure to feature a Gary Smith story (more than any other sports writer).  

Smith has had a profound impact on my life – some of his stories are so poignant and touching that they still resonate with me long after I have read, and reread and reread and reread them.  His best articles are miles ahead of any other writer.  His Pantheon level articles: The Ripples From Little Lake Nellie, Higher Education, Shadow of a Nation, Rapture of the Deep, Damned Yankee, As Time Runs Out, and the incomprable Crime and Punishment.  Smith understood his subjects on a deeper level that no one else has ever reached.  He sees inside them and tells their stories in a fluid way that is simply impossible to describe.  He wrote a prophetic article about Tiger Woods and the perils of fame; stunning pieces inside the heads of Mia Hamm and Andre Agassi and Mike Tyson.  

His work is stunning, powerful and his article Higher Education gets me dusty every single time.  Or, take his story about a Cleveland Indians pitcher struggling to come back after a horrendous tragedy, or even his story about the biggest mistake of Ritchie Parker’s young life.  Smith is like his work: incomparable and a level high above any other.  His loss is a massive one, and it got me to reread both of his books: More than a Game and Going Deep.  Order these books online and enjoy them, as I have, again and again and again…

Heat Check – Come at the King and You Best Not Miss

At the outset of the NBA playoffs people jumped all over themselves for a chance to throw dirt on what they presumed was the Miami Heat’s casket.  There was no chance they would win the title – none at all!  Many experts assumed it was OKC and Kevin Durant’s year and for a while it appeared they may be right until the team was promptly slapped around in the first two games of their series by the Spurs.  Now everyone, including @madadub are wondering if the Spurs can possibly be stopped.  Remember they are a year older, but Kwahi Leonard is a year better…

Quietly, Miami has been having an unreal postseason, and the past two games have finally shown just how good the Heat can be.  On defence their pressure was so intense last night that Indiana simply could not get anything going from the second half onwards.  Offensively, Wade and LeBron have been their usual selves and are making everyone around them better.  Just keep hitting those wide open shots guys.  In many ways this sort of feels like ’93 or ’97 when Barkley and Malone stole MVP trophies from Jordan and he proceeded to kick their asses in the finals.  Only, we will likely be denied a LeBron vs Durant showdown due to the Spurs and their otherworldly play.  Here is the thing though: the Pacers are throwing everything they have at the Heat and it just does not matter.  I do not think the Heat care who they have to go through or how tough it is.  As a group the big three have lost one series and it was when LBJ had a complete mental breakdown.  The team is so good and has been for so long that it seems we are almost under rating them.  Who, after all, in their right mind would want to take a chance of playing LeBron in a seven game series?  He is too good, his talent ethereal and he is at his absolute zenith.  The Spurs and Thunder are surely praying that Indy comes through (a thought that haunts the nightmares of Adam Silver like a zombie apocalypse.  No one wants that series….not even people from San Antonio) and then do not have to take the chance of beating LeBron four times.  

Lets face it – not easy to do, as the Pacers are finding out now.  As Omar said so eloquently on The Wire, “come at the king and you best not miss”.  The Heat just keep rolling, gutting out wins and turning it on when they need to and truly, they do not care who they have to play.  They feel they can go through anyone – other teams may not feel the same.  

Heat Check – A Higher Standard

This past week Chris Paul and the LA Clippers made a second round exit from the NBA playoffs, for Paul this matched the farthest he has ever gone in the big dance.  Pretty incredible when you think about it, one of the five best point guards, probably of all time and he cannot even make it to a conference finals?  The Clips seemed like contenders this year before owner Donald Sterling destroyed them again, but the fact remains, even on an incredibly talented team, Paul could not lead them through.  

The NBA has a bit of a golden generation going on right now with guys like Paul, LeBron and Melo hitting their absolute apexes and yet, this has not translated to much success.  Most of these guys have never been in the Finals and only Bron, Wade and Bosh are champions.  Dwight Howard made the Finals once and then fell off the contender roadmap.  Melo made a conference finals with Denver before killing his own team in an insanely selfish bid to get to New York.  The first guy of the generation (other than Shaq aided Wade) to get to the Finals was LeBron who dragged a truly terrible Cavs team there in 07.  

Meanwhile, for the LBJ and co group, the next generation is beginning to make their move: KD and Westbrook have been to 3 conference finals and one finals.  Harden has been to the finals, DRose made the conference finals and even John Wall has equalled CP3’s success by making the second round.  (When you factor in Joe Johnson and Deron Williams you get another group of 2nd rounders) and let’s not even get started on Indiana.  

Yet every playoffs still becomes a legacy defining one for LeBron.  He has had been substantially more successful in the playoffs and MVP ballots than his peers and we still want to make him prove himself over and over again.  Why?  Why do we judge him against a steeper curve than anyone else?  In truth it is because we can only judge James against one other player, ever, and that is MJ.  Is it fair?  Jordan never had an MJ to overcome when he began, but now LeBron does because we have seen what the greatest of all time is capable of and not only do we want that from LeBron but we are intent on demanding it.  There is a double standard for LBJ and fair or not there is only one set of criteria to judge him, and it is the best of the best.  So once again he has to put the creaky Heat on his back and take them as far as he possibly can even though for many, the only acceptable place for him to finish is raising the trophy.  I firmly believe that he will once again.