December 17, 2013

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The Week in Sports

By: Anson Whaley

Mack Brown Resigns – Crazy week in Texas with football coach Mack Brown stepping down from his post with the Longhorns. Brown’s resignation has been the subject of speculation for a few years now as many fans haven’t been pleased with the team’s record lately. After nine consecutive seasons with at least ten wins, Texas hasn’t achieved that mark in the past four years. Brown hasn’t been terrible, mind you, guiding the Longhorns to three winning seasons in those four years. But the team hasn’t competed for a national championship in some time and the program hasn’t been as good as it was last decade under him. Alabama’s Nick Saban seemed to be a potential replacement for Brown, but he recently announced he’s staying put with the Crimson Tide.

Kobe Bryant Struggles in Return – The Los Angeles Lakers got their star back this week as Kobe Bryant returned from his Achilles injury sustained last season – but things haven’t gone quite as they hoped. The team got off to a 1-3 start since Bryant’s return with their only win a three-point victory over the Charlotte Bobcats under their belts. The Mamba isn’t helping things, either. In the four games he’s played, Bryant is scoring only 13.5 points a game. Helping to fill the point guard role in Steve Nash’s absence, the good news is that he is averaging a career-high seven assists per contest. But Bryant is also averaging a career-worst 6.3 turnovers and is clearly still dealing with a high amount of rust.

Jamaal Charles has Record Day … as a Receiver – Kansas City Chiefs’ running back Jamaal Charles had some kind of day in the team’s 56-31 win over the rival Oakland Raiders on Sunday. Charles is one of the league’s best rushers, but he did his damage on Sunday through the air, racking up 195 receiving yards on eight catches. He added five big touchdowns and had 220 total yards on the day. According to ESPN, he had the third biggest receiving day for a running back since the 1970 merger and his five scores tied a franchise record. Needless to say, Charles surely won leagues for many of his fantasy football owners that reached their league’s championship games.

Roy Halladay Retires – Former All-Star pitcher Roy Halladay retired last week at the age of 36. Halladay, as recently as two seasons ago, was still one of baseball’s best pitchers. In his second season with the Philadelphia Phillies in 2011, the pitcher had perhaps his best season ever with a 19-6 record and career-bests with 220 strikeouts and an ERA of 2.35. The past two seasons for Halladay, though, have been forgettable and last year, he suffered one of his worst professional seasons going 4-5 with a whopping 6.82 ERA. The next question will inevitably be if he will get into the Hall of Fame. His credentials are reasonable with a career 3.38 ERA and more than 2,100 strikeouts, but his relatively low total of 203 wins will hurt him. That’s unfortunate because playing for some pretty bad Toronto Blue Jays teams for the bulk of his career, Halladay would certainly have had more wins with a better franchise. Still, that number will be difficult to overcome since most of the other starters currently in the Hall have more victories.

Snowball Fight Ends with Oregon Player Suspended – The Oregon Ducks’ football team apparently organized a snowball fight with fans and, well, things got out of control. A player was even suspended for the team’s upcoming bowl game. Well, then.

RGIII Benched … Redskins Lose Anyway – The Washington Redskins benched their star quarterback Robert Griffin III after he’s been inconsistent all year long following his recovery from his ACL injury. Kirk Cousins got the start for Washington on Sunday, but the team still lost to the Atlanta Falcons, 27-26. The team was competitive and Cousins did some good things in throwing for 381 yards and three touchdowns, but he also struggled a little with two interceptions and failed to convert a potential game-winning two-point conversion near the end of the contest. Cousins is an interesting quarterback who has a future in this league, but the team is still better off with Griffin if he can return to the form he showed in 2012. Benching him was the right move and if the Skins are wise, they’ll do the same for the rest of the season and allow him to get healthy for next year.

Jameis Winston wins Heisman – In the long and storied history of the Heisman trophy, a freshman didn’t win the award until last season when Johnny Manziel took home the prize. That opened the door for others and for the second consecutive season, a first-year player has won the honor. Freshman quarterback Jameis Winston has been nothing short of spectacular for the Seminoles and he clearly deserved to win it, leading Florida State to an undefeated season as they head into the national championship game next month.

Skiing … Not Just for the MountainsSkiers are taking over Detroit’s abandoned buildings. No, really.

July 9, 2012

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Steve Nash a Perfect Fit for Los Angeles Lakers

By: Anson Whaley

Last week, the first blockbuster of the NBA’s offseason was announced as the Phoenix Suns declared their intention to deal star point guard Steve Nash to the Los Angeles Lakers. Detractors of the deal from the Lakers’ standpoint will be fast to point out that, at 38, Nash is no longer the player he once was. That’s true, but this deal is still an ideal one for L.A.

Kobe Bryant and the Lakers should benefit from the addition of Steve Nash to the roster.

On the surface, it appears the Lakers didn’t give up all that much to get him. In particular, the team traded away none of its current talent. Getting Orlando Magic Center Dwight Howard has been a goal of the franchise, but would presumably come with the price tag of dealing either All-Star forward Pau Gasol or center Andrew Bynum (or even both, as some reports have suggested). Howard is, of course, one of the league’s top centers, but it’s difficult to gauge how much his presence would help when it comes with the absence of a talented big man in return.

Los Angeles did give away a pair of first- and second-round draft picks to get Nash, but assuming they finish near the top of the league’s standings, those picks will be low ones. And here’s the thing – want to know the last time the Lakers drafted a player that contributed as a significant starter for them? Other than Andrew Bynum in 2006, who was a lottery pick, you have to go all the way back to 1996 when they selected Derek Fisher as a late first-rounder. You can never base future draft success based on what a team has done in the past, but the fact is that the Lakers generally don’t do very well in finding talent late in rounds. Guys like Jordan Farmar and Devean George have helped along the way, but Los Angeles hasn’t been able to spot considerable talent where they’ve drafted.

The issue of Nash’s age is sure to come up a lot this offseason, but even though he’s been slowed down a bit, he’s still been incredibly effective. Playing for Phoenix last year, he averaged nearly 13 points per game and his 10.7 assists each contest was still one of the best averages in his career. Even at an advanced age, he still should have a few more seasons ahead of him if he can stay healthy. At one point in his career, Nash was able to score nearly 20 points a game. He’s not doing that now, but the Lakers don’t need that from him with so many stars around.

Nash brings two specific things to the Lakers that should make them a better team right away. He has shot 49% from the field over his career and last season, his 53% was a career high. The Lakers have desperately needed a shooter that can knock down shots and Nash should be that guy. Without him, Kobe Bryant has forced attempts and hasn’t had as much help in the backcourt as he’s needed. But with Nash there, defenses won’t be able to key on him as much and that should only help Bryant’s game.

The other thing that Nash has is the ability to facilitate and simply run offenses. He will almost instantly make those around him better as he can set them up for open shots. In particular, the Lakers’ big men will benefit as Nash has an uncanny knack at delivering the ball at just the right moment. And his ability to get into the lane will draw defenders and leave Los Angeles’ frontcourt players with some easy baskets.

While this all sounds good, though, there are some concerns. Even though Nash has played a relatively healthy career, the age factor shouldn’t be discounted completely. Injuries can always happen and at Nash’s age, he will likely take longer to heal. Then there’s the issue of his defense. While Nash can run a half-court offense with great effectiveness, he’ll have some trouble keeping up with opposing point guards that are younger. The one that immediately comes to mind is Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook, who was nearly impossible for teams to stop in the playoffs this year. If the Lakers find themselves in a matchup with the Thunder again in the postseason, they could find slowing Westbrook down hasn’t gotten any easier with an aging point guard.

Even with those negatives, the Lakers are a significantly better team with Nash aboard. The question is, will they be able to win a title with him running the offense? Time will tell.

May 7, 2012

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Injuries Should Pave Way for Miami Heat to Reach Finals

By: Anson Whaley

Despite assembling a trio of some of the league’s biggest stars last year, the Miami Heat were unable to win the NBA championship, falling to the Dallas Mavericks. They received a bit of a pass since it was their first season together, but that won’t be the case if Miami fails to bring home the franchise’s second title this year.

The Heat may not have been the Eastern Conference’s best team this year, but there’s little doubt they are the favorites to advance to the Finals because of the huge rash of injuries to key players.

Miami’s already on the brink of disposing of the New York Knicks, leading their series 3-1 in the first round. The Knicks might have been in better shape against LeBron & Company if they were a bit healthier. New York was already without rookie sensation Jeremy Lin (knee injury) since late March. But then came Iman Shumpert’s torn ACL and a bizarre hand injury to starter Amare Stoudemire, who somehow thought punching a fire extinguisher case out of frustration after the team’s Game 2 loss was a good idea. After sitting out the third game, Stoudemire returned for Game 4. But missing Lin and Shumpert has definitely hurt the team in this series.

The Chicago Bulls, perhaps the best team in the entire league with a 50-16 record, were dealt a cruel blow in their first round series. With only a little over a minute to play in their first playoff game against the Philadelphia 76ers, star point guard Derrick Rose tore his ACL and, just like that, his season was over. Rose was the team’s leader in scoring and assists and without him, the Bulls have been a shell of their former selves. Chicago won that first game, but has fallen short in the past three without Rose. And as if that weren’t enough of a hurdle to overcome, the Bulls lost center Joakim Noah in Game 4 to an ankle sprain. Even if they can somehow fight back and make it a series against Philly, there’s little chance they could do much more in the playoffs.

The Orlando Magic were another team expected to contend for the title. That all changed, though, once star center Dwight Howard went down with a back injury late in the season. Power forward Glen Davis has stepped up in his absence, scoring 20 points a game in the playoffs and pulling in nearly ten rebounds. But the team clearly misses Howard, who was their regular season leader in points, rebounds, blocks, and steals. Howard’s defensive impact is just as important as the one he makes on offense and the Magic are a weaker team on both ends without him.

There are also the aging Boston Celtics. The Celtics have been relatively healthy, but shooting guard Ray Allen missed the first two games of their opening series against the Atlanta Hawks. He’d been out for the past month with bone spurs in his foot, and even though he’s back, is still trying to get back into game shape.

Miami isn’t a lock to win the East by any stretch of the imagination. The Indiana Pacers are having a strong season and as one of the league’s best rebounding teams, could give the Heat some trouble. And the Atlanta Hawks’ sixth-ranked defense might be able to challenge Miami’s explosive offense as well. The Heat are a combined 6-2 against those two teams in the regular season, but in the playoffs, the intensity will be ratcheted up significantly. Despite all that, though, it’s clear that with all of the injuries to the Eastern Conference this season, Miami has a clear shot at reaching the Finals again.

November 7, 2011

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Who Deserves Veterans Committee Votes for the Baseball Hall of Fame?

By: Anson Whaley

Major League Baseball’s Veterans Committee will again be under the spotlight and decide if any players passed over several times for Hall of Fame induction should be enshrined. Eight former players will get another shot, but the question (as always) is: Who really deserves to be inducted?

Ken Boyer: Boyer spent 15 seasons in the majors, mostly with the St. Louis Cardinals. From 1956 – 1964, he was one of the top third basemen in baseball. He won the Most Valuable Player award in 1964, but other than that, didn’t do quite as much as another candidate, Ron Santo (who I’ll get to in a bit). The reason Boyer hasn’t had more consideration is what he did with the rest of his career. From 1965 – 1969, his offensive production dropped considerably and he retired at 38. In my opinion, Boyer didn’t do quite enough to warrant consideration.

Gil Hodges: Hodges was undoubtedly one of the best power hitters of his era as he slugged 370 home runs, hitting at least 25 on nine separate occasions (including two 40-homer seasons). He was an eight-time All-Star and won three Gold Gloves. Hodges has always had strong consideration for the Hall and in his final year of eligibility in 1983, received 63.4% of the vote. Hodges also won two World Series championships as a member of the Brooklyn / Los Angeles Dodgers. The thing that sets Hodges apart, in my opinion, is the World Series title he won as a manager for the 1969 Amazin’ Mets. That gets him over the top and he deserves to be voted in.

Jim Kaat: When Kaat’s Hall of Fame credentials are brought up, most detractors will point to the fact that his 283 career wins came over a very long career that spanned 25 seasons. What isn’t usually mentioned is that in seven of those seasons (1959 – 1960 and 1979 – 1983), he started less than 15 games. In the 18 years he started more than 15, he averaged nearly 15 wins per season. He topped 20 wins three times and maxed out at 25 in 1966. As if that weren’t enough, Kaat is also considered possibly the greatest fielding pitcher of all-time, winning an amazing 16 Gold Gloves. Sure, that might be the equivalent of being the career leader in blocked shots for a point guard in the NBA, but it’s still impressive. His career ERA of 3.45 was also respectable, so he gets my vote.

Minnie Minoso: A career .298 hitter, Minoso was also one of the best batters of his generation. As a third baseman and outfielder, he never put up big power numbers, though, finishing with less than 200 home runs. Minoso was a nine-time All-Star and won three Gold Gloves, but to me, he falls just short. He epitomizes a very good, but not great, player – so I’d vote against him.

Ron Santo: Santo was a nine-time All-Star and played 15 seasons – mostly with the Chicago Cubs. He finished in the top ten in home runs in seven different seasons and finished with a total of 342. Santo also earned five Gold Glove awards for his defensive play over his career. Despite all of that, he never got all that close to being inducted, receiving only 43.1% of the necessary 75% in votes. Santo may be the toughest player to decide upon, but I’d lean on putting him in.

Fans at Wrigley Field were treated to years of outstanding play from Ron Santo.

Tony Oliva: Oliva played 15 years all with the Minnesota Twins and is another interesting player. Like Boyer, he had a stretch of about eight seasons when he was one of the best players at his position. Oliva, surprisingly, may have had his best season as a rookie in 1964 when he hit 32 home runs, drove in 94 runs, and batted .323. That earned him Rookie of the Year honors and he went on to win three batting titles. Oliva also played well in the postseason, compiling a .314 average over three series. The only problem is that he didn’t do it long enough. He was a career .300 hitter, but never reached even 2,000 hits – far below the 3,000 that is generally seen as the number needed for a guaranteed induction. I’d lean towards voting against Oliva.

Allie Reynolds: You may never have heard of Reynolds, who played for 13 seasons with the Cleveland Indians and New York Yankees. But he was a big-time pitcher in the 1940s and early 1950s and one of the hardest throwers of his era. Reynolds is perhaps best known for being a staple of six New York Yankees World Series championship teams. He wasn’t just along for the ride, though. Reynolds went 7-2 and had an ERA of 2.79 of those series. Amazingly, he batted over .300 in the postseason, compiling eight hits in 26 at bats. Reynolds also tossed a couple of no-hitters and was a six-time All-Star. This is a tough call for me, but ultimately I’d leave him out. Reynolds does have 182 wins in the short span of only 13 seasons, but he played on some excellent Yankee teams that helped his stats a bit.

Luis Tiant: Tiant won 229 games over 19 seasons and was a three-time All-Star. He garnered little consideration over the years and it’s difficult to make a compelling case for him. Tiant had several excellent seasons (most notably, his 21-9 / 1.60 ERA 1968 season), but a few good years does not a Hall of Famer make. I’ve got to say no to Tiant.

July 11, 2011

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Despite Injury-Shortened Career, Yao Lived Up To The Hype

By: Anson Whaley

Way back in 2002, Yao’s detractors stood almost as long as the Great Wall of China. We all remember the pre-NBA Draft video footage, right? Sure, he looked fine against a run-of-the-mill center from Oregon, Chris Christoffersen (not to be confused with Kris Kristofferson), in a one on one matchup in front of a host of NBA scouts. Yes, he could shoot jump shots and block shots as well as advertised, but we’d also been down that road before (see Shawn Bradley circa 1993).

The fact is there were question marks about Yao Ming – and lots of them.

The trendy pick for the No. 1 selection was point guard Jason Williams out of Duke. He was a ‘proven commodity’ shall we say, having played against the best amateur players in the world. Unfortunately, Williams suffered a career-ending motorcycle crash shortly thereafter, ending his brief NBA career and ensuring that the mantra ‘There is no sure thing’ remained firmly intact.

But back to Yao. The Houston Rockets gambled with the No. 1 pick taking the big man. Ming immediately paid dividends on a poor Rockets’ team, averaging more than 13 points and 8 rebounds in his first season. The best news, though, was that there was far more to come. Three seasons later, Yao averaged 20 and 10 and had established himself as one of the NBA’s best big men.

Even though Yao Ming had become an NBA star, his biggest contribution may have been expanding the reach of the league overseas. Ming was an instant hero in China and at many points over his career, was one of the league’s leaders in jersey sales. His influence was apparent when he repeatedly led the NBA in All-Star voting at center, even in seasons in which he was injured.

More importantly than that is that Yao Ming appears to be a genuinely good person. When Shaquille O’Neal mocked him with faux Chinese, Yao was the bigger person choosing to not make it a big deal. Yao Ming has also donated two million dollars and set up a foundation in order to help rebuild schools after the earthquake in Sichuan.

But on the court, the problem was that injuries eventually derailed his career. Yao missed 25 games in his fourth season and was never quite right the rest of his career. The frustrating part was that when he played, it was clear that he had the talent. From 2005 through last season, Yao was heavily injured playing only one full season over that span. But during those years, he averaged more than 20 points and 10 rebounds per game. Now at the young age of 30, Ming’s been reportedly forced to retire.

The announcement hasn’t yet been made official, but if all reports are correct, Yao has decided to call it a career. The good news is that he may be back. At 30, he’s still young enough to even sit out for a year or two and still have several more seasons left. One of his agents is saying the chance exists for him to make a return and that’s encouraging.

So if it’s the end of the line, where does Yao stack up amongst the greats? It’s hard to find a spot for him as a top ten center of all-tme because his career ended so early and he’s not a likely selection for the Basketball Hall of Fame. But Yao Ming was definitely one of the best centers of his era and proved a lot of people wrong on draft day.