NBA has some All-Star problems

After harping on some of the issues the NFL is facing with the Pro Bowl yesterday, I figured it was time to turn my attention to another All-Star game with major issues.

The NBA All-Star game is always a fun affair and usually well-attended. Instead, the issues the NBA has with it’s showcase game center more around who is involved and how they are selected.

Stephen_Curry2
Curry leads the NBA in scoring, but not in All-Star votes.

There is nothing wrong with fan voting, as long as the fans actually vote. Kobe Bryant received the most votes, (we will get into why that is an issue in a minute) barely edging out Steph Curry.

According to a NBA press release, Bryant led the way with just under 1.9 million votes. That is flat out pathetic. It is an uptick though from last season where Curry had the most votes while barely topping one million votes.

The Eastern Conference was even worse as LeBron James led the way with 1.1 million votes. Dwyane Wade was the next highest and could not even top the one million vote mark.

The NBA is a global organization. They have fans in time zones across the globe. Roughly 315 million people live in the United States and over seven billion people populate planet Earth. How is it that the NBA has players who cannot even garner two million votes?

Tom_Brady
Brady narrowly edged out Cam Newton for the most votes for any player.

Believe it or not, these numbers are actually really impressive when you compare them to the NFL. Tom Brady led all Pro Bowl vote-getters with a meager 700,000. However, fan voting is not the only thing that decides Pro Bowl rosters. Players and coaches give their input as to who should be playing in Hawaii and the fans players and coaches all pull equal weight.

For the NBA, it is solely decided by fans. Well at least the starters. Coaches determine the rest of the roster. Neither system is perfect, both probably need to be tweak and they definitely need to find a way to increase fan voting if they want to continue to rely on it.

Kobe Bryant
Bryant announced earlier this year that he will retire at the end of the season.

Fan voting also leads to some other issues, such as selecting players who do not deserve to be playing in that game. I mentioned before that we would be getting back to Bryant, who at the age of 39 is making his final All-Star appearance. Bryant will go down as one of the great players in NBA history, but based on his stats he has no business being in this game.

The Lakers’ shooting guard is in the midst of the worst shooting season of his career. He is hitting just 34.6 percent of his shots from the field, which is the worst mark among qualified players in the league, and only 25 percent from three-point range. There are 119 qualified players who shoot the ball better than Bryant and the next lowest one is Wesley Matthews at 38.9 percent. He is also on pace to put up the worst scoring numbers of his career in a season where he started at least 10 games.

What is even more disappointing is that Bryant’s presence prevents someone more deserving, like Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum or Andrew Wiggins, from participating in the game. Those three definitely deserved some All-Star consideration.

In short, Kobe should not be in the All-Star game, much less be starting. However, his inclusion brings about an interesting question. Does the NBA care?

The league is interested in putting on a fun-filled weekend for the fans and the All-Star game is the capstone of it. Including fan favorites like Kobe, who is on his farewell tour, boosts interest in the game. That should increase ticket sales and likely television rankings as well.

Dwyane Wade
Wade is making his 12th All-Star appearance in 13 years.

This applies to Dwyane Wade as well. While he is not as bad of a culprit here as Kobe, I don’t think he deserves to be starting in the Eastern Conference. Wade is more the product of being the most well-known player on a popular team. I think Wade has played well enough this season that he should be part of the game, but the fact that he is starting over Jimmy Butler and DeMar DeRozan is questionable at best. Both Butler and DeRozan have put up better points, rebounds and steals per game than Wade this season.

What the NBA needs to decide is which direction they want to take this in. Are they content with having the game be a spectacle for the fans, regardless of whether or not the most-deserving players are part of it? Or do they really want this to be a reward for players who are having incredible seasons and deserve recognition for their play?

Either way can work, but right now the NBA is promoting the second idea, while practicing the first.

And don’t even get me started on the fact that Tyronn Lue is coaching the Eastern Conference team. Give me a break!

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Why the Pro Bowl will help Odell Beckham Jr.

Everyone seems to be gearing up for another year where we ignore the Pro Bowl and laugh about the fact that it is even being played.

The running joke this year is the number of declined invitations leading to replacements, as we now have 33 new players participating. The quarterback pool includes Tyrod Taylor, who only threw for 20 touchdowns and 3,000 yards, Teddy Bridgewater, who had 14 touchdowns and nine interceptions, Jameis Winston and Derek Carr, who each turned the ball over 21 times this season. Needless to say, these guys wouldn’t make it most other years.

Odell_Beckham_Jr.
Beckham is playing in his second Pro Bowl in just his second season out of LSU.

So yes, the game itself will likely lack a little bit of the proven star-power we usually see. However, there is still a lot of value in this game being played. Most of it this year goes to the New York Giants.

As we saw this season, the Giants’ number one wide receiver, Odell Beckham Jr., continued his meteoric rise to stardom. Beckham has quickly become a fan favorite for Big Blue. He also showed us another example of why becoming a star so quickly can be dangerous.

Beckham earned himself a one-game suspension this season for his actions on the field against the Carolina Panthers. That game was talked up as a huge match up between Beckham and Panther corner Josh Norman.

Beckham let his temper get the best of him and was lucky not to be thrown out of the game. He cost his team valuable yards on multiple occasions for penalties called against him in what ended up being a very close game. His absence in the team’s ensuing trip to Minnesota was also felt in a 49-17 drubbing against the Vikings.

It became clear to everyone that Beckham’s early fame had gone to his head. He had become a prima donna, similar to Randy Moss or Terrell Owens. We saw what happened to those guys, who will always be remembered more for their attitude than their talent. I really think that Beckham would have continued down that path if it was not for the Pro Bowl this weekend.

No, I don’t think Beckham will learn anything physical or show great signs of route running development. I think he is going to get something he desperately needs. And that is a mentor.

Beckham is one of the two team captains for his Pro Bowl squad. That team is being coached by Jerry Rice, who is hands down the greatest receiver to ever play the game of football. In addition to that, Rice is also a great role model. He was never in the media for the wrong meetings. He was certainly a public figure and sometimes flashy, but he kept himself in check. He learned to share the spotlight with Joe Montana and Steve Young as well.

Odell Beckham Jr.
If Beckham straightens out his attitude, we can all enjoy these types of catches a little bit more.

That is exactly what Beckham needs to learn to do and there is no one better in the world for him to learn from. Rice not only handled his fame, he embraced it in a way that made him an icon and a lovable player. I’m not saying that Beckham needs for everyone one to love him, but he needs to get his attitude in check and make sure he is not a distraction to his team. Continuing to garner negative attention, like he did towards the end of the regular season this year, hurts your team, no matter how talented of a player you are. When you happen to be the star of the team, that just compounds the issue.

 

Rice came to practice every day ready to work and had that drive to be the best. So often we see young players rest on their laurels and bask in the glory of early career success, only to have it backfire. I have a good feeling that Rice is working on putting this kid on the right path.

We will have to see if Rice is able to instill these leadership qualities in Beckham. It seems like that he is off to a good start though.

NFL Playoff Preview: Championship Sunday

Welcome to the final four. The conference championships. There is nothing quite like it. The Super Bowl is always a great spectacle, but often these games are even more exciting to watch. Today we will get to witness all three MVP candidates on display, the best rivalry in football over the last 15 years and some of the most dynamic defensive playmakers the game has to offer. And all of it comes with a trip to Santa Clara on the line.

New England vs. Denver

Peyton_Manning
Manning has a career record of 12-13 in the playoffs. 

When you think of NFL MVP, it is hard not to think of Peyton Manning. The Broncos signal caller has won the award more times than anyone else in history, with five such distinctions. However, he is the only quarterback in Sunday’s games that isn’t in contention for this year’s award.

 

Tom Brady on the other hand is right in the thick of anpther MVP-caliber campaign. Even with some of his top weapons missing time this year, Brady managed to steer New England to a first round bye and has them playing some spectacular football yet again.

This game is being billed as yet another class Manning-Brady matchup but in reality, this is more a battle between Brady and the Denver defense. The last time Denver and New England met it was Week 12 at Mile High. The Denver defense did not do much to contain Brady that day, as he threw for 280 yards and three scores. However, the Broncos knocked Brady around a lot, hitting him on nine occasions, three of them being sacks. The Patriots also had no running game to speak of, as LeGarrette Blount led the way in rushing for New England with a measly 27 yards on the ground. Brady also struggled to find the mark in that game, completing only 54.7 percent of his passes.

Tom_Brady
Brady is 11-5 in his career against Manning, but is only 2-6 in career playing in Denver.

Today is guaranteed to be different though as New England has a different cast of characters in place. Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola are back healthy, after not competing in their previous contest with Denver. However, Blount and now middle linebacker Jerrod Mayo will not be suiting up for this one, as both are on season-ending injured reserve.

 

The most interesting wrinkle though is that Manning will be starting this game. In that Week 12 showdown, Brock Osweiler started and defeated the Pats. He had a lot of help from his running game, as Denver amassed 179 yards on the ground at a clip of 5.6 yards per carry, but Osweiler took a beating. If the Pats generate the same amount of pressure on Manning, I think he will either be forced into some mistakes or be knocked out of the contest.

In the end, I don’t think The Sheriff has enough left in the tank to outduel The Golden Boy one last time. I think it will be an extremely close game that goes down to the wire as both defenses win the day. I think even with a depleted arsenal, Brady will work enough magic to eke out a win and earn his first career playoff victory in Denver, 24-21. Sad day as this will also probably mark the end of an era.

Arizona vs. Carolina

Even with the 17th edition of Manning-Brady in store for us, I think this is the game of the weekend to watch. This game is equal parts high-flying offense, dynamic defense and attitude.

Cam_Newton
Newton suffered his last home loss on November 16, 2014. He is 12-0 in Charlotte since.

Enter Cam Newton into his first ever NFC Championship game. He is the front-runner for the MVP award this season with his ability to deceive and out-think defenses. Newton is a supreme athlete and always has been. However, this season saw SuperCam evolve into a much better quarterback. He set a career-high in touchdown passes with 35 and even slightly cut down on his turnovers. He also set new marks for Total QBR and passer rating. All of that culminated in his dominant performance against Seattle last week.

 

He has still kept his athleticism as an often-used weapon. Newton racked up 636 yards on the ground and scored 10 times when he kept it himself. Couple that with Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert; suddenly, this Carolina ground game is very difficult to stop.

The Panthers will need to control the clock as much as possible in this game as well, mainly to keep Carson Palmer off the field. Palmer struggled a little against Green Bay last week, but that should not discount the MVP-like season he had.

Editor’s note: It was really difficult to think of other ways to describe Palmer and Newton as they both have a lot in common. Both are first number one overall picks and both won Heisman trophies in college. 

Carson_Palmer
This will only be Palmer’s fourth career playoff game.

Palmer was downright lethal this year, completing nearly 64 percent of his passes while throwing for a career high in yards. The 36-year old was beyond effective when throwing the ball this season as well, posting a league-high 8.7 yards per attempt average. Palmer tossed the same number of touchdowns as Newton this year too. He also piloted an Arizona offense that led the NFL in yards per game and was second in scoring only to Carolina. In short, we could be in line for a shootout.

 

And we probably would be, if it wasn’t for the defenses lining up across from these quarterbacks. Carolina has four Pro Bowlers on their defense and Arizona has three of their own. These two defenses ranked fifth and sixth in yards per game allowed and sixth and seventh in scoring.

One of the great matchups of the weekend will be Larry Fitzgerald against Josh Norman. Fitzgerald is coming of a worldly performance out in the desert while Norman developed into one of the league’s premier shutdown corners. Past Norman though, this is a Carolina secondary that could be vulnerable to the spread offense Arizona will run. Seattle exploited the Panthers’ lack of depth in the divisional round. I think the Cardinals will do the same, getting the ball to John Brown and Michael Floyd early and often.

Between that and the overall speed of this Cardinal defense, I think Arizona will be heading to Santa Clara. Cardinals upset the Panthers at home, 27-21.

Uncertainty at the top of men’s college basketball

We are in the thick of the NFL playoffs, but it is time to take a short break from football and focus on the odd phenomenon occurring right now in the world of men’s college basketball.

NCAA_logoThis is the eleventh time this season that college basketball has seen a set of top 25 rankings. For the fifth time already this year, there is a new team atop those rankings, this time in the form of Oklahoma.

However, the Sooners just took a major loss to Iowa State on the road and it is likely that we will see Oklahoma drop from the top spot. Looking at how the schedule is shaking out right now, North Carolina will likely vault back into the top spot. That would represent the sixth change at the top of the poll in just the first 12 weeks.

Talk about a lack of continuity. Six changes through 12 weeks is the most we have seen since 1994, when we had seven changes in those first dozen weeks. North Carolina would be returning to the top spot, but it would be for the first time since the second poll of the season.

After last season when Kentucky went wire to wire as the number one team, this switch to parity seems kind of odd.

In addition to the top 25 failing to find a consistent king, the power five conferences have some unfamiliar faces at the top. The ACC seems pretty uniform with North Carolina perched at the top, with an unblemished conference record. Everywhere else, we are seeing the preseason favorites failing to live up to the hype.

In the Big 12, Kansas, who has dominated this conference for the majority of the last decade, sits behind Baylor. It might only be a one game lead, but Baylor jumping out to this spot about halfway through conference play is surprising.

Looking over at the Big 10, Michigan State has a losing record in conference play. Ohio State isn’t at the top either. Indiana leads the conference with a perfect record so far. Right behind them is Iowa. Odds are this one will shake out as we expected with a modern power back at the top, as Iowa and Indiana match up twice before the end of the season. Indiana also has games at the Big House, East Lansing and in College Park. Iowa still has some tough games on the slate too.

The PAC 12 is all over the place. It’s not Arizona, Stanford or UCLA at the top of the conference, but Washington. Washington, who hasn’t won the PAC 12 regular season title since 2011. Only half a game behind Washington is USC, who hasn’t won a regular season conference championship since 1985. Arizona and UCLA, who have won the last three regular season conference titles, file in at third and seventh respectively. Far from out of the picture, but there is definitely a changing of the guard going on here.

However, the conference with the most confusion has to be the SEC. The conference has been dominated by Kentucky, even during down season’s for the Wildcats. If Kentucky did not win, then it was Florida who stole the regular season title. The last time a team that was the Wildcats or the Gators won the SEC regular season crown was 2009, when LSU captured the top spot. This season, the conference is being dominated by Texas A&M and South Carolina. Both schools find themselves in the top 25 and A&M has a nice spot in the top 10.

In an era of one and dones, we should have always expected for the traditional power to break and for others to rise. Yet, somehow we didn’t. We all expected Kentucky to continue its run at the top. Many figured Virginia would be a national power, following their back-to-back ACC titles. Instead, the Cavaliers have lost four games to unranked opponents. Gonzaga also figured to be a consistent top 25 team, but close losses have knocked them from the rankings altogether.

This should not be anything shocking. It is just a friendly reminder why we should all love college basketball. It is also the first signs that college hoops might finally have some parity. The constant rotation of number one teams and the new faces atop the conference indicate that there is some room for turnover. SMU is the only top 25 team who still has a zero in the loss column. Like I said, for some, this is just a reminder. For others, it is an assurance that college basketball is trending in the right direction and should always command your attention.

Oh and this definitely bodes well for March.

Grading each NFL coaching hire

All of the NFL’s vacancy signs now have a glowing no next to them. Tennessee wrapped up the NFL coaching carousel by retaining Mike Mularkey and removing his interim tag. Now that all of the dust has settled, it is time to rank each of these new coaching hires. I am evaluating the hires based on situation, personnel fit and long-term projection.

 

Hue Jackson
Cleveland is the third AFC North that Jackson has coached for.

Cleveland Browns:
Hue Jackson (Previously OC for Cincinnati)
Grade: A-

Cleveland is no stranger to coaching changes, as they make their fifth coaching change since 2010. Hue Jackson arrives from Cincinnati, having helped build one of the best offenses in the NFL. Jackson found a system that worked well for Andy Dalton and made him look like a Pro Bowler before his late-season injury. Even without Dalton, Jackson proved that he could be a creative play caller, making things easy on inexperienced A.J. McCarron.

Some other key points that make Jackson such a high ranking hire is that he leaves a division rival and that he has previous coaching experience. It might only be one year, but Jackson was at the helm during the most successful season the Oakland Raiders put together since 2002. Give Jackson a little bit of time and I am sure that he will at least have the Browns heading in the right direction.

 

Adam Gase
Gase coached Manning during his record breaking 2013 season.

Miami Dolphins:
Adam Gase (Previously OC for Chicago)
Grade: A

This was the best coaching hire in paper by any team this season. Going into the coaching search process, I believed that Adam Gase was the best coaching candidate available. He is young at only 37 years old and worked with a great quarterback (Peyton Manning) and a great mentor (John Fox) before he arrived. Many in the media doubt whether Gase has what it takes and seem to discount the progress he made with the Chicago offense this season. Sure, the Bears still were not good and their rankings were fairly similar, but it was only one year that Gase had his system in place and he made the most of it. Getting Jay Cutler to cut down on his turnovers was huge and managing to keep this team afloat when many weeks they had a rookie running back and Eddie Royal as their primary target shows that Gase can make things work when he has limited options.

He enters the Miami picture with a quarterback in need of some rejuvenation and some other interesting pieces on offense. Ryan Tannehill can be productive enough and I believe Gase will get more out of him. I also think he will continue to find unique ways to utilize playmaker Jarvis Landry. If Lamar Miller returns to South Beach, I think Gase will make him a useful piece of the offense, rather than a sidenote as Joe Philbin did. The Dolphins made the right decision here.

 

Ben McAdoo
McAdoo was Aaron Rodgers’ quarterbacks coach in Green Bay before heading to New York.

New York Giants:
Ben McAdoo (Previous OC for Giants)
Grade: B

The Giants decided it was time to move on from Tom Coughlin and stayed in house while finding his replacement. Ben McAdoo spent the last two seasons as the Giants’ offensive coordinator and helped Eli Manning produce two of the best seasons of his career. That was helped some by the addition of Odell Beckham Jr., but that should not discount the immense progress we have seen this New York offense make over the last two seasons.

This grades out as a B because it keeps the same system in place and sometimes continuity can be a very good thing for a football team. McAdoo also has plenty of potential to turn the Giants into an annual playoff contender, having learned from Mike McCarthy before he arrived in New York. The reason why McAdoo does not rank higher is because of his lack of experience and his offensive background. The Giants need help on defense in the worst way. McAdoo will not bring that. I think it has to do a lot with the lack of talent on the defense, but the coaching plays a part too. It will also be interesting to see how McAdoo plans to revive the Giants’ ground game. Using four running backs this past season clearly did not work as New York finished 18th in rushing as a team, with only five ground scores.

 

Doug-Pederson
Pederson is a former NFL quarterback who played in Philadelphia just before Donovan McNabb took over.

Philadelphia Eagles:
Doug Pederson (Previously OC for Kansas City)
Grade: B

Philly needed a change after Chip Kelly and they went in a very different direction. Doug Pederson contrasts will Kelly greatly from a system standpoint. Pederson like to control the clock and ran something of a heavy running west coast system in Kansas City. This seems to be a good fit because of the depth and talent the Eagles have at running back, with DeMarco Murray, Ryan Mathews and Darren Sproles. Pederson will find a way to get the ball in each of these players’ hands several times a game.

There are some drawbacks to this hire. Pederson has zero previous head coaching experience. The other major thing that holds this hire back from being a slam dunk is where Pederson comes from. Current Kansas City head coach Andy Ried lead the Eagles for more than a dozen years before the Philly brass ran him out of town. Now they return to the Ried coaching tree to fix the fallout from firing Ried in the first place. Pederson is a great hire, but the circumstances surrounding his arrival hurts Philly’s grade.

 

Chip_Kelly
Kelly went 10-6 in his first two seasons with the Eagles before starting 6-9 this year.

San Francisco 49ers:
Chip Kelly (Previously HC for Philadelphia)
Grade: C-

The San Francisco 49ers desperately crave stability, similar to what they had in the early years under Jim Harbaugh. Hiring Chip Kelly does not bring that. The 49ers have had an exodus of talent over the past few years as a result of the franchise not doing well at keeping players happy. Kelly had the same issues in Philly. That does not sound like a winning formula. Kelly also has not shown any ability to build a team. In fact, indications point to the exact opposite, as the Eagles went from a playoff team in Kelly’s first year to a joke this past season.

However, there might be a system fit here with Kelly and quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick fits the prototypical role of a strong-armed mobile quarterback, who can run the read option and use his athleticism to create matchup problems. Kelly will need to fill some holes along the rest of the offense, but the quarterback is a huge piece of it. There are some concerns on defense, but whoever comes in as the defensive coordinator will be left to solve that problem.

 

Dirk Koetter
Koetter arrived in Tampa Bay in 2015 from Atlanta to take over as offensive coordinator.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers:
Dirk Koetter (Previously OC for Tampa Bay)
Grade: B

I have talked about the Buccaneers at great length when it comes to their decision making. I still do not fully understand the firing of Lovie Smith. The team seemed to be heading in the right direction and Koetter was already part of the equation. It did not seem like Koetter was going to leave for elsewhere, but maybe the Bucs just wanted to be sure they did not lose their man.

There are a lot of benefits to hiring Koetter though, most notably being the consistency for franchise quarterback Jameis Winston. These first few years can break a young quarterback’s career. Keeping the same system will go a long way to ensuring that Winston improves on his rookie success. In the next few years, Koetter will have to take this team to the playoffs with consistency. I think he will be up to the task, but if he does not, then this is a huge flop and everyone will wonder what if Lovie had stayed.

 

Mike Mularkey
Mularkey has an 18-39 record as a head coach in the NFL.

Tennessee Titans:
Mike Mularkey (Previously TE coach for Tennessee)
Grade: B+

Finally, someone is giving Mike Mularkey a real chance. He showed signs of promise in Buffalo ten years ago before resigning. He also had one year in Jacksonville before they showed him the door. Now Mularkey takes over in Tennessee after half a season with the interim tag with a shot at building this team. No one should be expecting the Titans to compete right away, as they finished with an abysmal 3-13 record in 2015. This team is in serious rebuild mode, which might make you think that starting fresh would be the right idea.

However, this is a similar situation to Tampa Bay in keeping consistency for a young quarterback. Marcus Mariota showed flashed of being special this season. Making him start over could stunt his growth. By keeping a familiar face in charge Mariota should have every opportunity. Mularkey is not going to have too long before the has to show some signs of progress in Tennessee, but with a completely blank slate (except for quarterback) he will have every opportunity to mold this team.