Friday, October 31, 2014

The Cavs Learn From Nothing

Not Shown: Defense
So tonight in Cleveland, in the closest thing the NBA has to a homecoming game against a Division II opponent, the Cavs played the Knicks in LeBron James' first game back as a Cav. The Knicks had gotten treated like a punching bag the night before in New York, were missing starting point guard Jose Calderon, and are, well, the Knicks. A team that's not likely to make the playoffs in the still pretty bad East. A team that just went max contract for Carmelo Anthony, a me-first scoring forward who has gotten out of the first round once in his whole damned career.

Oh, and the Cavs lost.

How the hell does that happen?

Well, the first and most important thing we have to say here is that This Game Didn't Really Matter. The Heat lost to the Sixers in their opener last year, and it haunted them all of the way to the Finals. But the way in which the Cavs lost this was telling, because it's not going to be the last time they lose like this.

They lost on defense. And they lost pretty badly there.

New York shot 53% from the floor (just 6 of 12 from the arc), with 30 assists on 37 makes. The Cavs stressed their defense with lots of turnovers, and New York's benchies played over their heads, with 41 of the team's 95 points on 16 of 31 shooting... but when you give your bench minutes to the likes of Tristan Thompson, Mike Miller, Matthew Dellavedorva and Shawn Marion, that's three guys who have never played good defense... and the last guy, Marion, is 36 years old, and in his 15th year in the Association. He's not exactly lockdown now, either.

Please note that James *did* play poorly in this game, and will play better soon, and the Cavs are going to be fine. God does not love me, and hate Cleveland, so much as to have the East's New Big Bad to be mediocre or worse, and offense is more important than defense in the NBA.

But there was also this. James said in the aftermath that the Cavs needed to learn from this, but neglected to say anything more than the cliche. But what, really, are they supposed to learn? The man's 30 and isn't going to kill himself to win a regular season game. Kevin Love isn't going to start D'ing up his man and giving up his cheap board stats. Anderson Varejao isn't getting younger, and Dion Waiters isn't getting taller, or more interested in turning into Gary Payton II. Love and James aren't going to shoot 11 for 29 with 10 turnovers against 8 assists very often.

But make no mistake about this: these Cavs are a different club than James' Heat. The Heat had a defensive hammer at shooting guard who had won an NBA Championship before James came to town. They also had a stretch 4/5 who never had to come off the floor, even when other teams went small. They also had a defensive genius as a coach, and a defensive genius as a GM. The bench had stoppers. Hell, the starting five had stoppers.

These Cavs? Should be better at offense, especially once the shooters get used to all of that space. They should be vastly more athletic, even when you compare 26-year-old James to 30-year-old James. (Don't forget the crazy minutes he's played, all of the playoff runs, and the early start to his career, either. 26 might have been his 29, and 30 might be his 34.) There will be nights when Love or Kyrie Irving goes off, and James should be able to not have to rev in the red zone quite so much.

But better?

Not yet.

And maybe not ever.

After all, it's not as if the ownership here didn't screw things up when James was younger, or ever brought in teammates back then who could play defense, either...

Thursday, October 30, 2014

NFL Week 9 Picks: Flippy Flip Flip

So as I was watching the Monday Night enjoyment between Dallas and the Slurs, it struck me, in a way that was made obvious: the NFL doesn't really have that much to do with what teams are good or bad any more. Turnovers, penalties, injuries all enter into the equation, along with matchups, bye weeks, coaching, etc. You can think one team is more talented, and you might even be right... but I'm not sure that really matters very much anymore.

It's a league of coin flips and knife edges, which is how they want it, because that means damn near every fan base is invested. And this week's slate of games is super-heavy on he coin flips, especially in the prestige games; this is going to be a great weekend to just watch. But it's absolutely maddening to try to bet, especially when you're trying to make up from the early hole.

Anyway... with that profundity noted, on to the picks!

* * * * *

NEW ORLEANS (-3) at Carolina

And here's Exhibit A, the freaking Saints, who beat back death with a track meet beatdown of the Packers. They've been terrible on the road, have to travel for the short week, and seem like a bad idea to take... but I'm not sure the Panther defense can stay with them even on a slow track, and their offense isn't strong enough to keep pace. Division game, probably a good one.

Saints 31, Panthers 24

Tampa at CLEVELAND (-6.5)

The Browns complete the Naughty Sailor Home Game Two-Step, which has to be the sweetest schedule the NFL can set up for you outside of a double bye with forfeits. Cleveland's not as good as their record, and will come to a reckoning now that their starting offensive line is no longer intact, but the Bucs don't put up much of a fight in an awful lot of games. This should be one of those.

Browns 27, Bucs 17

ARIZONA (+4) at Dallas

Well, so much for the narrative of Dallas being the new Big Bad. The MNF game showed a blueprint for beating them (control the ball, tempt them into getting away from their running game, hit) that plays right into the strengths of Big Red. In a road game that might not feel like one, they'll make big plays in the passing game, force more turnovers than they create, and put the NFC West into a greater stage of lockdown.

Cardinals 34, Dallas 24

PHILADELPHIA (-2) at Houston

I get why this line isn't bigger. QB Nick Foles has been poor on the road, Houston has a running game and can pressure the QB, and if you didn't look at the actual game, Green's loss to Arizona last week was letting the air out of the balloon. But they actually looked better in defeat than they have in many of their wins, and we're now looking at nearly a month of solid defense to go with the good special teams. With Darren Sproles back, they'll have enough margin to make this about QB Ryan Fitzpatrick... and at that point, the road team wins.

Eagles 27, Texans 20

NY Jets at KANSAS CITY (-9.5)

If Andy Reid knows how to do anything, it's this: beat the teams he's supposed to beat. Against a Jets team that gives up back-breaking plays in the passing game and can't stop from turning the ball over on offense, he's going to do just that. But it'll be a near thing for the cover, because it's not as if QB Mike Vick isn't going to play his best game of the year for old times.

Chiefs 34, Jets 24

JACKSONVILLE (+11) at Cincinnati

And here's my call for the team that's better now then they were before. The Jags have finally gotten their running game online with Denard Robinson, have a possession passing game in Cecil Shorts and TE Clay Harbor, and have resembled a football team for long stretches at a time. They'll cover the number in Cincy, and maybe even threaten the upset.

Bengals 31, Jaguars 27

SAN DIEGO (+1.5) at Miami

A few weeks ago, I'd have really liked Miami in this matchup. The Chargers had a little smoke and mirrors to them, especially on the road, and the Dolphins are a lot better at home. But now with RB Brandon Oliver doing solid work for the Bolts, they are more complete on offense, and also have extra prep time after the TNF loss in Denver. They'll need it to keep QB Philip Rivers clean, but they'll do just enough of that to pull off the win.

Chargers 27, Dolphins 24

Washington at MINNESOTA (-1)

Oh, you wacky Slurs. Owners of one of the more improbable two-game winning streaks in the league, with a MN win in Dallas... and you are going to race back to QB Bob Griffin despite probable injury rust, in a road game against a team with a sneaky good defense? For a team with so much invested in a young QB, this franchise just keeps setting him up to fail.

Vikings 24, Slurs 20

St. Louis at SAN FRANCISCO (-10)

At some point, someone's going to notice that HC Jeff Fisher really isn't all that impressive. The Rams lucked into competence with third-string QB Austin Davis and young buck RB Tre Mason... so they've now gone to bad committee work in the backfield, and also lost quality WR Brian Quick to the crash cart in last week's de-pantsing by the Chiefs. San Fran has a bye week of rest and all kinds of weapons to make this one comfortable.

Niners 34, Rams 20

DENVER (-3) at New England

The marquee matchup of the week and year, and Chapter 800 of Manning v. Brady... but honestly, there's a lot more to this. Denver's offense has been better with RB Ronnie Hillman in, but TE Julian Thomas has fallen off. CB Darrelle Revis can do more than most to make WR DeMaryius Thomas go away. WR Wes Welker has demons to exorcise, and the Pats are clicking on offense with a finally healthy TE Rob Gronkowski, and re-jiggered offensive line. In the end analysis, I'm going with Denver because I think they'll get to the QB, but it's as close to a coin flip as it gets.

Broncos 34, Patriots 30

OAKLAND (-15) at Seattle

Too many points for a Seahawk team that's been in way too much turmoil recently, and having real issues with offenses that can control time of possession. Oakland's not helpless on offense, and so long as this doesn't get into festival of turnovers, they'll cover a very big number. In case you haven't noticed, festival of turnovers hasn't happened much for the Seattle defense this year.

Seahawks 24, Oakland 13

Baltimore at PITTSBURGH (pick 'em)

The annual AFC North steel cage match, a living reminder that football can be brutal and violent and hate-filled, and it's almost always decided by a field goal. So I'll take the home team in the coin flip, and try to make myself feel better about the choice by the fact that their passing game somehow jumped into hyperspace last week against the Colts.

Steelers 24, Ravens 21

INDIANAPOLIS (-3) at NY Giants

Big time coin flip night game, but I'll take the Colts because I'm not really in love with Blue's home field advantage... and I also suspect that they will not be able to really replicate missing WR Victor Cruz, and that RB Rashad Jennings isn't 100% yet. But honestly, this one will come down entirely to interceptions. Blue has the better secondary, and the Colts have the better QB. Strong candidate for game of the week, in a week filled with good ones.

Colts 30, Giants 24

Last week: 8-7

Year to date: 57-61-2

Career: 545-561-41

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Top Ten Takeaways From RomoGate

Back Contusion And Confusion
In Dallas' wildly satisfying home loss to the Washington Slurs, QB Tony Romo returned to a tie game after being injured while trailing. Because it's Dallas, there's more to the story, of course...

10) Owner Jerry Jones is also the team's head trainer and medic, because it's not as if anyone employed by Dallas will tell him he's not a trainer or doctor

9) Bringing back your aging QB with off-season back surgery into a game where he's been hurt due to protection issues always works out

8) Backup QB Brandon Weeden leading the team to 10 points in 2 drives means nothing, I tell you, nothing, since he's not A Star

7) Continuing to just run the damned ball with the best RB in the NFL this year takes away Super Genius points

6) The team might have left Weeden in the game, but it was on prime time tee vee, so, well, no

5) Winning a game in late October in prime time is worth any risk, since, well, this is Dallas

4) Romo's in-game X-rays were negative, so the fact that he wasn't actually playing or moving that well meant nothing

3) It's not as if Jason Garrett has, or gets to have, an opinion on this

2) The narrative of Dallas' unbeatable offensive line kind of took a hit here

1) We are shocked, shocked to discover that Dallas is dysfunctional and prone to short-term over-reaching tactical mistakes

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Your Almost Assuredly Worthless NBA 2014-15 Predictions

Let's Get Stupid
Hoop begins tomorrow, just in time to remind fantasy honks to set their lineup, and everyone else to tune out until at least Christmas. But that's usually a mistake, because the first five to ten games is usually a strong indicator of how the season will go, and it's usually ignored. The 82-game season is routinely dismissed by people who (a) don't see any real drama from division races or playoff seeding, and (b) want to just get to the best stuff in sports, which is the first round of the playoffs. But you can't have dessert without salad and veggies, and the regular season is the roughage. So let's get into it.

Eastern Conference

1) Cleveland
2) Chicago
3) Miami
4) Washington
5) Toronto
6) Brooklyn
7) Charlotte
8) Detroit

9) Indiana
10) New York
11) Atlanta
12) Orlando
13) Boston
14) Milwaukee
15) Philadelphia

Notes: LeBron James is trying so very hard to soften expectations for what he can do with a new roster, but the plain and simple fact is that no one cares about any of that noise. They want a championship, expect it, and know he's not getting any better or younger. Cleveland's time is now... Chicago is better even if PG Derrick Rose isn't 100%, or what he was, because Pau Gasol is a lot better than Carlos Boozer, and the club is still coached like mad. But they need Rose to be special to win it all, and he won't be... Miami is going to be a lot better than people expect, especially C Chris Bosh, who is ready to put up first team All-NBA numbers again. They'll also have tolerable depth with new Fs Luol Deng and Josh McRoberts. The problem is that G Dwyane Wade has be his old self, and he's not... DC is on the rise, but won't defend enough... Toronto's a nice club, but don't have top-tier star talent to win games they should not...  Brooklyn could be a top-4 team if they stay healthy, but won't... Charlotte's going to be a problem, especially on defense, but Lance Stephenson can't stay focused all year long... Detroit is a mild surprise for the final playoff spot. I like their coaching situation now, and didn't last year.

Of the also-rans, Indiana will try like mad but not get there. New York will have some runs, but not nearly enough. Atlanta's lost some bench depth and coherence due to bad off-season PR. Orlando should be better on talent and is not, because they don't defend. Boston can't really figure out this tanking thing, and Milwaukee won't be happy for hiring Jason Kidd. My Sixers will be better than last year, with a worse record. Hard to do, but needs to be done.

Western Conference

1) LA Clippers
2) San Antonio
3) Oklahoma City
4) Houston
5) Golden State
6) Portland
7) Dallas
8) Phoenix

9) Memphis
10) New Orleans
11) LA Lakers
12) Denver
13) Minnesota
14) Utah
15) Sacramento

Why the Clips? Because they care about the regular season and are going to spend the year in Ding Dong The Donald's Dead glee, especially at home, and the other top contenders know enough to pace themselves for the playoffs. The Spurs are deep and forever, and will spread the minutes and do what they need to do. OKC will miss Kevin Durant for a while, but close with a rush, and maybe be better off in the long run, in that they might actually start playing like a team on offense. Houston won't mind Chandler Parsons for Trevor Ariza, so long as Terrence Jones develops and Patrick Beverly takes over at the point. Golden State will rise with actual coaching and better substitutions, but this conference is just murderous. Portland needs to get deeper, but the home court is real, and they'll be good enough. Dallas got better in the off-season, but not dramatically, so this is more of a stasis year for them. Phoenix was the surprise team that failed at the close last year; I like them to stay healthier and get over the finish line this year.

Outside of the playoffs is the constantly difficult Grizz, who are aging in just bad enough ways to make the first round a lot easier for some lucky high seed. I like the Pelicans to really push forward this year, with F Antonio Davis getting real MVP consideration, but the bench is just not good enough to cover any injury or road work. I might have the Lakers too high, in that I really think they could be terrible, but just can't see Kobe Bryant allowing that much suckage, and I also think his comeback will be strong. Denver needs a new coach that will let them run, and a new training regime that might keep them on the floor. Minny's an entertaining mess, but too young to win in this conference. Utah might compete for a playoff spot in the East, and will not suck, but the won-loss record will barely reflect that. Sacramento is going to stink and threaten to move, like, well, nearly every year.

Eastern Playoffs

Cleveland over Detroit, Chicago over Charlotte, Miami over Brooklyn and Washington over Toronto
Cleveland over Washington, Miami over Chicago
Cleveland over Miami

Western Playoffs

LA Clippers over Phoenix, San Antonio over Dallas, OKC over Portland, Golden State over Houston
Golden State over Clippers, San Antonio over OKC
San Antonio over Golden State

Finals - San Antonio over Cleveland

So, yeah, LeBron loses to the Spurs in the Finals. The more things change...

MVP - James
Rookie of the Year - Andrew Wiggins
Coach of the Year - Steve Kerr
Sixth Man - Jamal Crawford
First Team All-NBA - James, Durant, Davis, Stephen Curry, Chris Paul
Second Team All-NBA - Russell Westbrook, John Wall, LaMarcus Aldridge, Carmelo Anthony and Serge Ibaka
Third Team All-NBA - James Harden, Damian Lillard, Kawhi Leonard, Blake Griffin and Chris Bosh

Enjoy the games, everybody.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Eagles - Cardinals Takeaways

Fitz, Eater Of Worlds
> In what counts as fore- shadowing, QB Nick Foles was lucky to avoid a pick on his first third down

> S Malcolm Jenkins with the sweet run blitz and solo tackle

> Arizona ran out of a 4-WR set, proving they've learned from Chip Kelly tape

> QB Carson Palmer's 3rd and 3 conversion to WR John Brown, a perfectly executed fly, was also kind of foreshadowy

> Either both of these 5-1 teams weren't very good, or the refs just went flag-happy in this one

> The teams exchanged offsides for funsies

> The bail out call on S Nate Allen wiped out a strip sack from LB Trent Cole, and had absolutely no impact on the play

> Fifth flag in five minutes is defensive PI on CB Bradley Fletcher, and that one is refreshingly legit

> How CB Bradley Fletcher avoided a PI call in third down end zone shot, I'll never know

> Cards HC Bruce Arians elected to punt, rather than try a 53-yard figgie, and got all of 16 yards of field position from it

> Either the crew was flag happy, or Pro Bowl RT Jason Peters just commits hands to the face all the damned time

> Watching Cardinals DC Todd Bowles dial up blitzes that get picked up brought back memories

> RB Chris Polk had his first carry in forever, and looked fine doing it

> Road Eagle Fan made themselves known during a roughing the passer flag

> Foles throws a ball away for some reason, as Ertz was open on an out

> Foles to WR Jeremy Maclin for the well-run play action screen TD, with T Lane Johnson with the wipeout block

> Scoring from the 21 is a nice way to avoid the historic red zone futility shown by the Eagle offense

> That was the first time Red hadn't scored first in 2014

> When WR Larry Fitzgerald retires, Eagle Fan will not believe it, because he's just that terrifying

> Red converted a 4th and 1 that wasn't a QB sneak, which is the thing that always works

> Honestly, I can't remember an out of division opponent who has done more against my laundry

> Red got in a challenge after the next play was snapped, because rules are just LOL

> McCoy was the victim of the most obvious uncalled horse collar of the year

> Before leaving with a concussion, Red CB Patrick Peterson played as if he had one already

> WR Josh Huff is a rookie, which means that when he fumbles in the red zone and kills his team, it's just awful, rather than a firing offense

> LB Trent Cole got 15 yards for hitting Palmer a hair after he threw the football, in the legal area where you can hit the QB, on a play where he'd have be Keanu Reeves in the Matrix to not hit the QB, because that's the NFL now

> There were 80 combined yards in flags in 20 minutes, en route to 21 for 198 for the game, and yes, these refs sucked complete

> Just to get even and show the world that the refs matter more than the game, Red got dinged for a 15 yard roughing the passer flag that was also nauseating

> Arizona challenged a play where they would have given up a first down for a penalty anyway, and would up out of challenges for the rest of the game, because, um, dumbness

> Foles then underthrew Huff for the second inexcusable red zone turnover in a five minute period, because all bad things happened around Huff in this game

> This offense is going to make me abuse alcohol

> Red tries for killshot, but Palmer misses Floyd on a flea flicker where the WR was open

> Palmer and Ellington don't connect, third and long and defensive hope

> WR Jeremy Maclin got lucky with a hot shot bounce fair catch twice, and we all miss Darren Sproles a lot

> The mutual car crash with Peterson, Maclin and S Deone Buchanan was all kinds of scary

> Green should be leading this game, but when you turn it over twice deep in the red zone, nope

> Cooper back for the fair catch, with Maclin in the locker room with a (yuck) bleeding ear

> DT Calais Campbell had one of the more obvious jumps offsides you'll ever see

> Foles to Ertz had a great and absurd catch on a back shoulder catch around Buchanaon

> Foles being unable to operate against blitz pressure at the end of the first half was also forshadowy

> S Earl Wolff got hurt on K Cody Parkey's touchback, which just seems wrong

> Third and long on the first series of the second half is a slant to Fitz for 80 and the score, and honestly, I'd like to just fast forward to a future where he's only a distant painful memory

> WR Ted Ginn Jr. with the perfectly timed block/pick

> That's the longest catch in Fitz's career, because, um, of course

> McCoy for 5 as Ronde Barber fellates the defense, then Foles throws away on a single option route to Celek

> Foles to Mahel for the first, with possible YAC ruled out without replay, funsies

> Foles on long clock throws away, offense has not been with its usual zip due to, well, turnovers and lack of running game

> Boykin missed an opportunity on P Donnie Jones' 3rd quarter punt; not the STs best game

> Third and long has me cringing for the inevitable Fitz Moment, and that's something of a tell

> Backwards throw screen to McCoy for 2, and I so hate those plays, given how they are live fumbles that can be total disasters

> Parkey's connection from 54 was straight and true and awesome, and he continues to be aces

> Pressure from LB Connor Barwin forces a bailout (grounding?), and that's three and out for two straight series

> Maclin with another terrifying bounce catch, turns it into yardage, and ends things with a Gatorade table dive that Fox set to wackity schmackity music

> Get well very goddamned soon, Darren Sproles

> S Tyrone Mathieu with the great deflect on a try to Matthews, and the Honey Badger is a player

> Boykin touched a punt to down it, which should make it dead, but Red returns it anyway and gets yards, so LOL rules

> LB Brandon Graham nearly caused spinal damage to Ellington on a loss

> Maclin with an honest to God fair catch, and then catches a lightning perfect deep ball for the lead

> Palmer somehow avoids a sack, then somehow avoids a pick, as LB Emmanuel Acho can't make the catch

> Fitz for a first down off a screen, and he makes me go into the fetal position; when he had 6 for 155, he had more than half of Red's total freaking offense for the day

> Allen stripped Ellington on a play in which he got five feet in on the replay

> Green ball on the Red 48 with a chance for margin, 19 straight games for the defense with a takeaway

> Jones drops one inside the five as Red tries the Rams' tricky wrong side return

> This defense is growing on me except for the mind-boggling and crushing mistakes

> 3rd and 11 and loud is confused, then Foles gets picked by Cromartie again on a ball that missed the WR by three yards

> If you want to tell the story of how Green can't win because Foles, this game tape is going to be high on your supporting argument list

> Third Green turnover of the day, all of them murderous

> 1st and goal from the 10 is deflected, Red's lucky for the not pick, as Ryans had read the progression

> Palmer nearly gets Brown in the end zone, but the feet are out

> Third and goal from the 10 is a Carlson drop, aided by Ryans, and phew, amazing save by the LB

> K Chandler Catanzaro hits the chip shot, and it's all tied with 9 minutes left

> Green's answering drive was a lot of running plays that should have happened in the first 51 minutes

> McCoy got the give-back horse collar

> Funny, how effective play action is when you run the damned ball

> Clock running, McCoy for four, then six more on an absurd spin out of head on contact

> Polk to the five as McCoy takes a breath

> Polk to the goal line as the clock keeps burning; somehow it's third down and inches after a terrible spot

> Would love to see a challenge of the spot there

> Third and inches, men split wide, give to McCoy, no dice

> Really bad to not execute on third down, and Red not fooled at all by men out wide from that down and distance

> Two minute warning with both teams holding full time outs

> Parkey on for the field goal, something of a validation for the defense, and connects; Green 20, Red 17

> Given the team's issues in the red zone, and how the defense has played, I agree with the decision, but still hate that they couldn't get it in on third

> Parkey had a touchback when it mattered, like just about every other kickoff

> Fitz for 5, then Carroll with a knock down on a middle try to Brown, nearly picked, two stops for a win with 1:33 left

> Third and 5 is Palmer to Brown, wide open deep, and instant score, and how the hell that happens, I have no idea

> Red's made two plays on offense in a half, and scored two touchdowns on them

> Allen, just blowing it big when it mattered most, and Williams isn't exactly covered in glory there either

> Red 24, Green 20, 1:21 left with two timeouts

> By the way, this is a tie game if Green just freaking scores on third down on the last drive, and not close at all without the two earlier red zone turnovers

> Foles to Cooper, first down and slowed tempo for what wasn't a horse collar tackle while it was

> Foles to Maclin for 8, second Green timeout to set up third and 2 at the 50

> McCoy from his fingers, first down and out of bounds and a bailout of a bad throw

> Foles throws it away, off his back foot, from moderate pressure

> McCoy for 8 off a blitz, Red just trying to force quick throws

> Third and 2 with 30 seconds left from the 38 is Foles to Ertz, pressure and no flag

> Fourth and 2 with 25 seconds left is Red timeout

> Foles keeps for the first and calls timeout, and that was kind of nuts, given that it didn't get a lot of yards and puts the entire game on the line with a slow QB

> Foles to Maclin for 19 and out of bounds, and that's as good of a throw as he's made today

> 13 seconds left from the 16

> Too tall for Matthews in the end zone, seven seconds left

> Foles to Ertz, can't win a jump ball in the end zone, one second left

> Foles to Matthews, can't keep it in bounds, but otherwise had the play... and crap

> For the first time in 2014, my team deserved to win, and didn't

> Green is now 5-2, still very likely to make the playoffs, but home field and the division or a bye is getting quite unlikely

> Red is likely to win a division, but I still can't shake the idea that the Niners and Seahawks might be better, and that the division isn't as good as was expected

> Green goes to Houston next, for what has to be considered a must game, what with Dallas having the home game bye against the Slurs tomorrow night

> All being said, great game that could have easily gone either way