FIFA is falling apart

If you are having a bad day, just think about how FIFA’s day has gone. You wake up in your hotel in Switzerland room preparing for a big conference full of board elections and then the FBI comes crashing in to arrest 14 of your members. That’s how FIFA’s day started today.

Yup, the United States made it all the way to Zurich, Switzerland to arrest nine FIFA officials and an additional five board members on counts of corruption, conspiracy and racketeering. The issue calls into question the allocation of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups and business surrounding CONCACAF and CONMEBOL.

Of those arrested is FIFA Vice President Jeffrey Webb, which is definitely not a good sign for the organization. Surprisingly, Sepp Blatter’s name has yet to come up as one of those arrested.

Sepp_BlatterWith how easily athletes seem to get off today for breaking the law and such, you might think this will blow over soon. It doesn’t seem like it though, as US attorney general Loretta Lynch was quoted when speaking about the charges in a statement from the Department of Justice. She explained that the charges indicate “corruption that is rampant, systematic and deep rooted both abroad and here in the United States.”

She went on to add that “it spans at least two generations of soccer officials who, as alleged, have abused their positions of trust to acquire millions of dollars in bribes and kickbacks.” How many millions you might ask? Lynch mentioned $110 million in bribes just surround the 2016 Copa America tournament.

So no, this is not just going to blow over. FIFA has a gun to its head at the moment and is definitely starting to sweat. Reportedly, already two corporations and four individual defendants have pled guilty and more are sure to come.

“Today’s announcement should send a message that enough is enough,” said Acting U.S. Attorney of the Eastern District of New York Kelly T. Currie.  “After decades of what the indictment alleges to be brazen corruption, organized international soccer needs a new start.” It seems like the US government is intent on reworking FIFA.

And Currie has a point. Sepp Blatter’s being up for election as President for the fifth consecutive time, FIFA’s treatment of Brazilian laws in the months leading up to the 2014 World Cup and the rumblings of corruption surrounding the next two World Cups dictate enough cause to start fresh.

World Cup StampAnd you can expect more from this too. Currie added at the end of her statement, “Let me be clear: this indictment is not the final chapter in our investigation.” That is a daunting prospect for FIFA. And the pressure isn’t just coming from the US either. Swiss officials were the ones that made the physical arrests in Zurich on behalf of the FBI. Following that, the Swiss Office of the Attorney General announced that it would conducting a separate investigation of the voting process for both the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.

Two different countries investigating you for corruption. Yikes. Definitely not a good sign. But FIFA continues to go on as if nothing is wrong. FIFA’s Director of Communications and Public Affairs Walter de Gregorio held a press conference earlier today at which he announced FIFA’s plan to proceed with preparations for both World Cups. FIFA also issued a press release, which details the many ways that FIFA is cooperating and reiterated its excitement at energy surrounding the investigation.

The funny thing is that what FIFA has done in response only makes me hate them more. Rather than acknowledge that yeah, this is an issue, it is content to sit back and act as if nothing is wrong. FIFA doesn’t even react to say that it is surprised by the arrests and will do whatever it can to help. It includes a line that indicates that it feels the investigation is redundant. And what organization announces its excitement that it is being investigated for corruption?

The whole situation is insane. It was only a matter of time before FIFA fell. Foreign governments have been on their heels for years and the ugly side of FIFA continues to be revealed. Corruption is part of its DNA at this point. There is no denying it with the number of scandals that have broken into the news that involve one FIFA executive or another. This seems to be the day of reckoning for FIFA but will it be enough?

There is no doubt in my mind that FIFA needs a fresh start. The problem is that it needs to start with the replacement of Sepp Blatter, who is widely expected to win reelection. Here’s to hoping that the Department of Justice comes up with some damning evidence against him in the next 24 hours or that these new allegations are enough to taint Blatter’s name (because somehow it’s not tainted enough) to the point where he would lose the election. Unlikely, but one can dream. Just imagine what FIFA without Sepp Blatter could be. I think it needs to happen as soon as possible. Even if Blatter isn’t behind all of this, holding on to an old regime rampant with it is not a great way to begin moving forward.

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King James turns back the clocks

LeBron JamesIt is always fun to turn back the clocks and reminisce about the days of old. LeBron James is doing that and then some right now in the NBA Playoffs. James has been on fire in the Eastern Conference Finals and is showing shades of his 2007 self. Even beyond that, this current Cavs team is starting to resemble the 2007 versions more and more as the playoffs roll on. It is slowly morphing into the LeBron show with a couple of random sidekicks jumping in every night to make an impact. The comparison is kind of scary.

The 2007 Cavaliers finished the season number two in the conference and entered the playoffs as a true title contender. James led the way and carried a team full of relatively unknown commodities. The starting lineup around LeBron consisted of Larry Hughes, Sasha Pavlović, Drew Gooden and Zydrunas Ilgauskus. None of those guys were superstars by any means, and none of them scored more than 15 points a game in the regular season.

Obviously, this year’s Cavs have some more fire power but the pieces are continuing to fall as more of the burden falls on James. Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love both are nursing injuries that could cost them the rest of the playoffs. The Cavaliers starting lineup now features Matthew Dellavedova, Iman Shumpert, Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov alongside James. None of these guys have average more than 14 points a game since the playoffs began.LeBron_James_Wiz

Once again, the King is forced to prove why he sits on the throne. LeBron has done a very good job of answering the call so far. In three games without Irving or Love on the floor this postseason, James has tallied 27.3 points, 11.7 assists and 12 rebounds per night. Everyone points to that 2007 squad as the team that LeBron single-handedly brought to the finals, but he only average 25 points along with 8 helpers and 8 boards. Despite being 8 years older, James is playing even better now.

LeBron_James_Defensively, James is playing like his younger self as well. After registering 1.6 steals and 0.7 blocks per contest during the regular season, James has turned it up a notch. The King is now posting 1.8 thefts and 1.3 rejections on a nightly basis since he’s entered the playoffs. Those numbers are identical as well to his 2007 playoff numbers.

The amazing thing is the transformation LeBron has undergone in that time. His game is very different now than it was 8 years ago but James is still proving to be productive. James is relying on his three-point shot less than ever and playing a lot more around the hoop. In fact 50.3 of James shots have come within ten feet this postseason. He continues to bang with guys in the paint and slash his way to the basket. What a difference this is now from what we saw when James relied on his jump shot and post fadeaway more often than not.

He does better with opponents around him too. LeBron has attempted 60 percent of his shots with an opponent less than four feet away from him. He has connected on 49 percent of them. Oddly enough, on the other 40 percent of his shots where an opponent is more than four feet away, James has only hit about 33 percent of those shots. This doesn’t take into account where he was on the floor but it is certainly interesting to see that he seems to relish some contact.LeBron_James_vs_Andre_Roberson

This was supposed to be a competitive Cleveland team because of the new Big 3 that was planning to take the league by storm. With only LeBron left standing of those three, they are still as viable a title threat now as they were before. Part of that is because of the three-point shooting from Dellavedova, Shumpert and J.R. Smith. Mozgov and Thompson’s rebounding certainly go a long way as well but without James this team would not have a prayer of beating Atlanta, much less winning a title.

Irving should return soon though and if he does at full strength this Cleveland team could challenge Golden State in the Finals. They would be deep enough at guard to contend with the Warriors backcourt rotation and they can answer with some three-pointers of their own. I am pulling for a Warriors-Cavaliers matchup now just because of the intensity that series could bring. James would likely faced Draymond Green on a night-to-night basis, which would be a great matchup. LeBron is hitting his stride at the right time so even Green might have trouble King James.

2007 might be long behind him but if James continues to play like he’s 23, he might just land himself another title and really turn up the heat on the conversation for greatest player of all time.

Can the Clippers bounce back?

Blake Griffin and DeAndre JordanThe Clippers were pretty much set to move on. They were up three to one over the Rockets needing to win just one of the next three games. They even got one on their home floor with a chance to end the series and advance to the team’s first ever Western Conference Finals. Instead, Doc Rivers is explaining how his team fell apart at press conferences and the front office is gearing up for the offseason. This seemed like the Clippers best shot at a championship unfortunately. There will be some turnover surrounding this team in the coming months. The question that is being floated out there is how much needs to change for LA?

DeAndre_JordanThe answer is not so simple. Let’s start with free agency. The Clippers have six unrestricted free agents set to hit the open market this summer. Most of them are role players but among them is DeAndre Jordan. Jordan will likely demand some pretty big money from the Clippers or another team if Los Angeles cannot get the deal done. The Clippers are slated to have the sixth largest cap number in the NBA heading into next season with very little financial flexibility.

However, with the cap set to skyrocket in 2016, the Clippers could find a way to backload Jordan’s deal and wait until they have more flexibility to start paying him. The only other free agent that scored more than four points a game is Austin Rivers and with his dad coaching the team, I think this will be where he continues to play. The Clippers are not losing anyone significant heading into next season.

The Clippers have a lot of the pieces needed to compete. They have an All-Star point guard and a secondary scorer. They have tons of athleticism. They also have a good deal of chemistry as this unit has been playing together for basically two years. They have elite three point shooting. In fact, the Clippers were the second best shooting team in the league behind only Golden State. There are a couple of things that the Clippers are desperately missing though from really competing.

Despite having the association’s best rebounder on a night-to-night basis in Jordan, the Clippers ranked 20th in the league in total rebounding. They tied with the Lakers for rebounding differential at 16th as well. The Clippers desperately need some rebounding from their bench and on the offensive end. Los Angeles ranked 28th in offensive boards and Spencer Hawes was the top rebounder off the bench with 3.5 per game.

For some comparison, the Rockets, who are another middle of the road rebounding team, had four bench players come up with more rebounds per night than Hawes. On top of all of that, Los Angeles was outrebounded 120-80 in Games 5 and 6. Without a doubt, there needs to be some more depths on this squad in terms of rebounding for them to compete.

Another point of emphasis this offseason has to be finding a replacement for Matt Barnes at small forward. At 36, Barnes is a good player who knows his role but he is really much better suited to come off the bench. He only average 7.8 points per game with 5 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 1.6 steals in the playoffs. He always seemed to be carrying a lot of fouls as well. Not to mention that his shooting percentage tanked to 38 percent from the field. He did have an ankle injury late in the Houston series but he was struggling before that.

Chris PaulIf LA could have Barnes make his effort plays coming off the bench, that would be a huge asset for them. However, him contributing that much as the starting small forward is not enough. If somehow DeMarre Carroll, Tobias Harris, Draymond Green, Jimmy Butler or even Jae Crowder slip away from their current clubs, LA should pounce.

Overall, this team really is not broken. It just needs some tinkering. Doc Rivers has this team headed in the right direction but their championship window is definitely closing. Chris Paul is not getting any younger and his contract, along with Blake Griffin’s and J.J. Reddick’s, is set to expire in 2018. Keeping the band together past that point is not too likely. The Clippers are not out of time but the clock is definitely ticking a little louder now.

Western Conference Finals Preview

This one is going to have a lot of offense involved. Through two rounds of playoff basketball, Golden State and Houston are playing the most exciting brand of basketball. There is non-stop scoring in the variety of a three-point bombing squad from the Warriors and the two-man show of Dwight Howard and James Harden for the Rockets. This series is going to be hotly contested and will go for at least six games in the end. I cannot wait for it to get underway and watch some great basketball. Here are the keys to who will win this series.

Stephen_Curry2All season long, we have heard about how deep the Warriors are at pretty much every position. Against the Clippers, the Rockets demonstrated that they have just as much depth. Pablo Prigioni stepped up big time for Houston in Game 7 and really provided the spark that drove the Rockets to the win. Harden and Howard are great but Josh Smith, Clint Capela, Terrance Jones, Trevor Ariza and Jason Terry all have proven to be integral role players on this squad. Ariza and Smith carry a lot of the scoring load if Harden is ever struggling and Capela and Jones have provided enough defense if Howard finds himself in foul trouble. However, the depth that Houston is displaying does not really compare evenly to what Golden State can roll out if they so choose. When Leandro Barbosa, Shaun Livingston, Andre Igoudala, Marreese Speights and David Lee is your line of backups and you still have Festus Ezeli to rotate in, that depth is scary. That line could probably beat the Knicks or the Lakers on occasion or at least give them a good game. The reason that these games will be so good is that both teams have plenty of talent beyond the starting five. Golden State definitely has the edge though.

Playing at home is always a big deal as well, especially for the Warriors. Golden State has lost only three times this season on their home court. Houston will take some solace in the fact that one of those losses came recently as the Dubs dropped Game 2 against Memphis. Houston was impressive at home this year, having lost just 12 games this season in their part of Texas, including the playoffs. That should mean that this seesaw back and forth for a little while with both teams getting a huge boost from their home crowds. Once again though, this seems to heavily favor the Warriors.

Harden_DurantThere is some hope for the Rockets though. The Warriors have shown their kryptonite in Games 2 and 3 against Memphis, the Warriors shot a combined 42.5 percent from the field, well below their season average, and went ice cold from three-point range, hitting on only 23.6 percent of their attempts. The Grizzlies showed the NBA how to beat the Dubs. You need to make them take some contested threes and force them to keep jacking them up. The Warriors were more than content to sit back and take low percentage looks in those games. Houston should have the paint protection between Howard and Smith to force Golden State to look for points outside of the paint. In those games, Steph Curry and company committed 37 turnovers, compared to Memphis’ 27. If Houston can keep hold of the ball and limit the number of chances that Golden State has to run in transition, the Rockets should keep it close.

The regular season was not kind to the Rockets. They lost players throughout and had to find ways to compensate. Now, mostly healthy, Houston should be even better than their regular season selves. And they better hope so too because this Warriors team blew them out during the season series. The Dubs swept the Rockets 4-0 by an average of 15 points per game. I said the same thing about the Nets though when they matched up against Atlanta in the first round and Brooklyn made a series of it. Houston is a much different team this time around and they know that they can turn to other sources of scoring if Harden and Howard go cold, as they did in Game 6 against Los Angeles.

In the end, I think the Warriors will be moving on in six games. I do not see Houston stealing one from them in Oakland. I also think that they will probably split the two games when the series returns to Houston. That worked fine for the Rockets against the Clippers but the Warriors have not dropped three straight games all season. No way the Houston comes back from a three-game hole again. Golden State will make its long awaited return to the finals on the shoulders of the league MVP. Harden will once again find himself the runner up.

Value picks in the NBA draft

The NBA Draft is still a few weeks away but the fanfare for the draft got underway today with the pre-draft combine. Some major storylines turned some heads, specifically Pat Connaughton’s 44” vertical jump. The draft always features guys projected to be locks at the next level. There will be others that don’t have the same promise of greatness in the pros but could turn out to be a steal if they reach their full potential. Here are the best potential sleepers or value picks in the this year’s draft.

Robert Upshaw, Junior
Center, University of Washington
Robert Upshaw is massive. He had the biggest hands at the draft combine by far and his 7’5.5” wingspan is intimidating. He stands at 6’10” and weighed in at 258 pounds. Upshaw has the build to be an impact player in the paint for a team that selects him. He played a year of college ball at Fresno State before transferring to the University of Washington. In his 19 games as a Husky, Upshaw averaged 11 points, 8 rebounds and 4.5 blocked shots. He also shot an impressive 59.3 percent from the floor. Upshaw is obviously much better on the defensive end but he has the physical tools to develop into a good player.

The things that will hold him back are his free throw percentage (43.4) and his off the court issues. Upshaw has been suspended on multiple occasions and was dismissed from both of the programs he was in. Recent reports have indicated that Upshaw spent time in a treatment program and matured a lot but the red flags are still there. Those alone could push Upshaw to the second round. However, with all of the talent he possess, someone will take a chance on him and if has in fact matured, he could develop into a terrifying defensive anchor. His size and shot blocking ability would already make him an instant impact on defense. In the end, Upshaw could be a very good big man.

Ryan Boatright, Senior
Point Guard, University of Connecticut
In recent years, UConn guards have done pretty well at translating to the NBA. Kemba Walker went on a title run and then jumped to the Association. Shabazz Napier led the Huskies to another championship before making his move to the pros. Neither has been transcendent by any means but both are solid players playing starting caliber basketball. That is likely what Ryan Boatright will bring to the table as well. He is going to best serve as a sixth man in the NBA due to his size (5’11”, 175 pounds).

However, he is a quick, sharp shooter. He shot 41 percent from behind the arc last season and averaged 17 points per game. He was an average facilitator at the college level, tallying about four per game to go along with four rebounds. He is an effort player who will make his fair share of plays. He will never really be a starter in the league without some major development but he can be a very useful bench player. Boatright reminds me a lot of Isaiah Thomas with the Boston Celtics. His energy coming off the bench and shooting ability makes him an asset to his team. Boatright will likely go in the second round but with his overall talent, he could turn in a long career as a sixth man when all is said and done.

Vince Hunter, Sophomore
Power Forward, UTEP
Vince Hunter went to a smaller school but today he showed he can compete with the big boys too. In his combine scrimmage, Hunter accounted for 18 points, 12 rebounds and 3 steals. What is the most impressive thing there is that nine of those boards were on the offensive end. Hunter got his team a lot of second chance points. He also shot 50 percent from the floor, which was actually below his college average. Hunter averaged around 15 points and 9 rebounds a night in college. He is a solid player in the paint and excels at cleaning up after his teammates miss.

There are some obvious concerns with Hunter though. He fouled out of the game today, being the only player in either scrimmage to do so. He also is a 61 percent career free throw shooter. Neither of those things are killers but they are certainly knocks on his game. What concerns me a little more is that Hunter had four of his shots blocked in today’s scrimmage. It might only be one game so we cannot read too much into it but that definitely seems like he was pressing a bit and forcing shots. Hunter is young though at only 20 years old and can develop at the next level. He has good size and decent length. I will be paying close attention to how he tests throughout the rest of the combine to see what I can read about his gameplay.

Rakeem Christmas, Senior
Power Forward, Syracuse University
Syracuse dipped a bit this year in terms of overall play but the man who powered that team showed up to play more often than not. Rakeem Christmas played extremely well this season averaging 17.5 points, 9 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game on 55.2 percent shooting. He also shot well from the free throw line at 71.2 percent. Christmas showed up into today’s combine scrimmage, dropping 20 points on 7 of 10 shooting to go with 6 boards. He already has a very polished post game and has plays great defense on the block. If Rak could add a viable jump shot to his arsenal, he could be a dangerous player.

Christmas played center in college but not even reaching 6’10” with shoes on, meaning he would likely fit better as a power forward in the NBA. He has already dropped his weight from 250 to 242 making the move even more logical. He is grinder who can go to work and spend the whole night wearing down his opponents. He does not possess outstanding athleticism or great dribbling abilities. He is also a candidate to end up in foul trouble on a night-to-night basis. However, Christmas is a scrappy player who will fight for rebounds and force opponents into tough shots. He won’t dazzle you, but Christmas could become a very accountable big man in the NBA.