Sunday, July 29, 2012

Training Camp: Things to Watch

     Training Camp is the official start to the new NFL Season. Forget about Kyle Williams' inability to return punts in the NFC Championship, Wes Welkers' "Super Blunder", and Lee Evans' catch that wasn't in the AFC Championship. Each team will start this season with a record of 0-0. However, although this season will be very different from last year's, there will be many similarities as well.

     While the players and coaches were able to get full offseasons, there is still a lockout issue, this time with the referees. There is a young, rising star at quarterback in the NFC South, but it is no longer Josh Freeman of the Buccaneers, it is Cam Newton of the Carolina Panthers. Tim Tebow still comes into the season as the backup QB, but he is playing for the Jets instead of the Broncos.

     Nowadays when people say that Drew Brees runs the Saints' offense they are almost speaking literally, as their head coach is suspended for the entire 2012-13 season, and their offensive coordinator is suspended for half of the season. Peyton Manning is back in the NFL, but he is no longer an Indianapolis Colt.

New Head Coaches
     New Orleans Saints: Joe Vitt
     Oakland Raiders: Dennis Allen
     Jacksonville Jaguars: Mike Mularkey
     Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Greg Schiano
     St. Louis Rams: Jeff Fisher
     Kansas City Chiefs: Romeo Crennel
     Miami Dolphins: Joe Philbin
     Indianapolis Colts: Chuck Pagano

1st Round Picks at QB
     Indianapolis Colts: Andrew Luck
     Washington Redskins: Robert Griffin III
     Miami Dolphins: Ryan Tannehill
     Cleveland Browns: Brandon Weeden

The biggest thing about training camp, however, is the position battles. Competition is the best way to force your players to improve. NFL Head Coaches know this, and therefore do not declare starters for many of their positions until the preseason is over.
Top Position Battles
     Seattle Seahawks Starting QB: Tavaris Jackson vs. Matt Flynn vs. Russell Wilson
            Projected Starter: Matt Flynn, he started one game last year and threw for more TD's than any other QB in Packer history for a single game.
     Tampa Bay Buccaneers Starting RB: LeGarrette Blount vs. Doug Martin
          Projected Starter: Doug Martin, Blount fumbles too much for Coach Schiano's liking, and Martin is reminiscent of Schiano's former player Ray Rice.
    New York Jets Starting QB: Mark Sanchez vs. Tim Tebow
          Projected Starter: Mark Sanchez, this is not much of a battle, but the fans will play it up to be one. In the first couple days of training camp, Tebow has been an embarassment as fans have reportedly been heckling him during practice.
     Cleveland Browns Starting QB: Brandon Weeden vs. Colt Mccoy
         Projected Starter: Brandon Weeden, The Cleveland Browns' organization essentially gave up on McCoy after his father complained about a concussion his son received against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
     Arizona Cardinals Starting QB: John Skelton vs. Kevin Kolb
          Projected Starter: John Skelton, Cardinals' coach Ken Whisenhunt does not have times to play mind games with his team. Kolb might be making alot of money, but Skelton has proven to work better in this offensive system, and this coach needs to win games.

 Taking into account all of these changes around the league this season, my real question is: Who is going to make the biggest splash this season?

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Dream Team vs Redeem Team

     Every 4 years, the US Men's Basketball Olympic Team is compared to the 1992 "Dream Team". Because of some recent comments by USA Basketball Chairman Jerry Colangelo, that debate has new life in the world of sports. All I have heard on ESPN Radio and 106.7 The Fan the past couple days is the idea that nobody will ever be better than the Dream Team. However, this is the exact reason why they are at fault. Claiming that no team will ever rival them in talent tells me that they have neglected to do their research. Implying that things have not gotten better over time in an age of Tweets, iPhones, and Snuggies is utter stupidity.

     For argument's sake, I will take into account the fact that Colangelo was referring to an injury-free 2012 team, known in 2008 as the 'Redeem Team', and I can only detail the matchups between the starting line-ups.

  Dream Team                                Swag Team
Earvin Johnson (6-8, 215)                 LeBron James (6-8, 250)
Michael Jordan (6-6, 195)                 Kobe Bryant (6-6, 200)
Larry Bird (6-9, 220)                         Kevin Durant (6-9, 235)
Charles Barkley (6-6, 252)                Dwyane Wade (6-4, 220)
David Robinson (7-1, 235)                 Dwight Howard (6-11, 265)

     LeBron "King" James vs. Earvin "Magic" Johnson
     Easiest match-up to judge in my opinion, because in 1992 Magic was 32, 1 year removed from the NBA, and had already contracted HIV. Clyde Drexler went as far as to say that people felt sorry for him. LeBron James, on the other hand, is 27, the reigning league MVP, the reigning Finals MVP, and would bring a sort of athleticism and lack of regard for human life that Magic would not be able to handle at this stage in his career. Advantage: Redeem Team, it doesn't get any better than LeBron right now.

Kobe Bryant "The Black Mamba" vs. Michael Jordan "His Airness"
     In a word: Jordan. Kobe has not shown his age as of yet, but I am confident that Michael would find a way to bring it out of him. At this stage, Michael would have had the advantage on Kobe in every way: athletically, fundamentally, and internally. Kobe's best attributes are his heart and determination, but that would make no difference against Jordan. Advantage: Dream Team, 'His Airness' is the greatest there ever was.

Kevin Durant "The Durantula"  vs. Larry Bird "The Hick from French Lick"
     Larry Bird was 35 years old when he played on the Dream Team. There is no way that he could have handled Kevin Durant at that stage of his career based on athletic ability alone. However, Durant has a tendency to be soft on the boards, so he could become a victim at times. Both players have tremendous outside shots, but KD is coming off 3 straight scoring titles. These players are pretty similar in a number of ways, but the old man is no match for the kid. Advantage: Redeem Team, Durantula is a superstar on the rise.

Dwyane Wade "Flash" vs. Charles Barkley "The Round Mound of Rebound"
     It seems unconventional to put Wade up against a power forward, but other than LeBron he is the only player with the versatility to defend a player with Chuck's offensive skill set. Both players are around the same age, and Barkley's overt physicality would look to cancel out Wade's extreme quickness. This would probably be the most intriguing matchup, as both players are known to have quick tempers, and in a 7 game series a fight is bound to happen. Advantage: Dream Team, I firmly believe in Dwyane Wade as the most creative talent in the league. Although he has a disadvantage with his size, he has always found a way to be efficient and effective. However, Sir Charles is simply too strong to allow Wade to get in the paint or be stopped inside the paint.

David Robinson "The Admiral" vs. Dwight Howard "Superman"
      The Admiral is by far the better player in this match-up, but he's also on the lighter side. In 1992, Robinson weighed in at 30 pounds less than Howard despite being 2 inches taller. Superman's super athleticism is enough for most opponents, and despite his lack of basketball skills he would match-up well with Robinson because of his strength and leaping ability. Advantage: None, I truly believe that Howard's 30 pound advantage down low cancels out the 2-inch difference.

The Verdict
     Count that up as 2 wins for the Redeem Team, 2 wins for Dream Team, and 1 tie between the two. Make no mistake, these two starting fives would play each other extremely close, but the bench players of the Dream Team would undoubtedly make the difference. My only point, is to say that complete and utter dismissal of new school vs. old school is foolish. These athletes grew up with athletic trainers, get paid 8 figures per year, and are still changing the game. LeBron is the new age version of Magic: a bigger, stronger, faster guard that cannot be stopped. Kobe is the new version of Jordan: a fearless player with undeniable heart. There are endless other examples of 21st century counterparts. Teams in this day and age do not dominate international competition, because there are so many international players in the NBA. Players like Steve Nash (2-Time MVP), Dirk Nowitski (MVP & Finals MVP), and Tony Parker (Finals MVP) did not exist back in the 90s. Say what you want about the "Golden Age" of the NBA, you can give me LeBron James, D-Wade, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, and Dwight Howard against anybody and I will almost certainly choose them.

Monday, July 2, 2012

LeBron James: All Time Great?

     In any sport, the all-time greats are ultimately measured by their individual success, whether it be in Most Valuable Player Awards, Cy Youngs, World Championships, or Grand Slam titles. With his first NBA Championship, LeBron James moved into a class with some of the greatest players to ever pick up a basketball. From a historical perspective, he has not been as successful as the legends of old, but a modern approach to the subject sheds a much different light.
      LeBron James, in my opinion, is the greatest athlete of all time. Measurements of his size range anywhere from 6-8 250 to 6-9 270, his vertical leap is greater than 40 inches, and his speed is other worldly. He was a 2-time National Player of the Year in High School Basketball, 2 time All-State Wide Receiver in High School Football, and now he is having the same type of success in the NBA. He might not have the size of Bill Russell, the skills of Magic Johnson, or the heart of Michael Jordan, but his athletic ability is undeniable.

     The most fundamental skills in basketball are dribbling, passing, shooting, and defending.As far as dribbling, passing, and defending, LeBron is second to none in the NBA today. However, his shooting ability is what holds him back from dominating scoreboards on a consistent basis. Although James averages over 27 ppg for his career, it pales in comparison to Jordan's 10 scoring titles and career average above 30 ppg. The mid-range jumper, at times, is the most imporant shot, because you simply cannot get to the basket every single time. MJ and Kobe both developed go to moves that allow them to score efficiently. Olajuwan (The Dream Shake) and Jabaar (The Sky-Hook) used their post game to develop such moves as well. The "crab dribble" LeBron does to get to the basket, is an invention of the mind, and quite frankly, should be considered a traveling violation. Until LeBron develops a move he can do consistently to get open shots, his perimeter shooting will continue to struggle, and he will regret that in his later years.

     Intangibles are what define champions. Heart. Hardwork. Determination. The "it" factor. Swag. It has been called many things over the years, but the real question is: "How bad do you want it? " Michael Jordan wanted it so bad that he scored 38 points in the 'flu game' where he had to be carried off the court by Scottie Pippen. Magic Johnson wanted it so bad he played center in place of the injured Kareem in his rookie year in the closeout game of the NBA finals and scored 42 points to go along with 15 rebounds and 7 assists in the Laker victory. LeBron James folded twice in the Finals, but proved his toughness by fighting off cramps to hit the go-ahead 3 pointer in Game 4 of the NBA Finals this year.

     Overall, it is tough to judge players against each other that played in different eras. Russell's 11 Championships, Jordan's 10 scoring titles, and LeBron's 3 MVPs at the mid-point of his career are all outstanding feats, but they never played against one another, so they are tough to compare. The only thing that is universal is hardware, so I tend to use MVPs and Final MVPs as measuring tools. Only 8 players in the history of the NBA have at least 3 MVPs and at least 1 Finals MVP: Jordan, Russell, Wilt, Kareem, Magic, Bird, Moses Malone, and LeBron. In my opinion, that list is as close as there is to the best 8-man rotation of All-Time. The 8 greatest players in NBA History.