The Wild Wild West

. Saturday, February 23, 2008

There's nothing more annoying than when older sports fans go on about how the NBA is "nothing like it was in the glory days" or that "things haven't been the same since Michael Jordan retired".

I'd argue that the NBA experienced a return to those "glory days" earlier in this decade with the Los Angeles Lakers battling teams like the Sacramento Kings and Portland Trailblazers in legendary playoff series'.

For NBA fans who still feel disenchanted with the product, the remainder of the 2008 season should provide them with just the roller coaster ride they are looking for.

In the Eastern Conference, the Boston Celtics have loaded up and finally reclaimed a spot atop the NBA totem pole. The Detroit Pistons are still as tough as ever and the Orlando Magic are an exciting and dangerous young team led by emerging-by-day superstar Dwight Howard.

The real action, however, is taking place in the Western Conference. The West has long been the superior conference, but that dominance has been turned up a notch this season. The current 8th seed in the West, the 33-21 Denver Nuggets would currently be the fourth seed, only a game behind the third place Orlando Magic.

Adding to that dominance are the acquisitions that Western Conference teams have made in recent weeks, including the Lakers getting Pau Gasol, the Mavericks getting Jason Kidd and the Suns trading for Shaquille O'Neal.

With all the moves, it's anyone's guess as to who is going to win the Western Conference prize, but we'll attempt to size it up here at the halfway point of the season.

1.) San Antonio Spurs, 36-17: While many people aren't fans of it, I'm a big believer in the "champions are the champions until someone beats them theory". The Spurs 36-17 record, which would be excellent most years, is good enough for only fifth in the West this year. Because of the strength of the teams around them, people seem to be forgetting how good this Spurs team really is. The Spurs have more playoff experience than just about every team they're battling with out West, and despite what their record is or where they ultimately finish in the standings, the path to the NBA Finals still goes through San Antonio. The team recently made a somewhat under the radar move, acquiring power forward Kurt Thomas. Compared to Shaq, Kidd and Gasol he's not a big name, but he's an underrated player for what he brings to the table, and most importantly is a big body inside that can defend players like Shaquille O'Neal, Yao Ming and Andrew Bynum come playoff time.

2.) Los Angeles Lakers, 37-17: What seemed to be a sinking ship at the beginning of the season has now become a well-oiled machine. Kobe Bryant has to be pleased that he now has the kind of team around him that he's been looking for. The acquisition of Pau Gasol for virtually nothing has to go down as one of the all-time great coups in NBA history. It can be argued that they're the best team in the West right now WITHOUT Andrew Bynum, who is scheduled to return from his knee injury next month. And don't forget defensive ace Trevor Ariza is on his way back soon from a similar knee injury. The big advantage the Lakers have over almost every other Western Conference team is their versatile lineup. They have the size to slow it down against a team like the Spurs, and the speed and quickness off the bench with guys like Sasha Vujacic and Jordan Farmar to play an up tempo game with teams like Phoenix and Dallas.

3.) New Orleans Hornets, 38-17

Hold On To That Cheating Label

. Monday, February 11, 2008

In the words of a wise old man who once scored four touchdowns in one game while playing football for Polk High, "it's only cheating if you get caught."

Okay, so what if Al Bundy is a fictional character? Those words hold truer than what any self-righteous hypocrite would spout off.

Remember Rafael Palmeiro and his finger-pointing testimony at a Congressional hearing about steroids in baseball a few years ago?

Five months after his Oscar-worthy performance in front of the congress, Palmeiro was suspended for ten days after "unintentionaly" testing positive for steroids, and his career has taken a nose dive since then.

Who can forget Barry Bonds? He is the biggest reason that the black cloud of steroid abuse allegations hangs over Major League baseball.

No one wanted Bonds to pass Hank Aaron as the all-time home run king, but he did last August, ending the season with 762 career home runs.

Now, with Spring Training getting set to start, Bonds, a free agent, is waiting, hoping that any team will pick him up, but no one wants to touch a cheater even if he is the best at what he does.

What Bonds and Palmeiro had to learn the hard way was that there is a heavy price to pay for cheating and lying, and they got caught.

Fast forward to the present, and say hello to the next big name in baseball who has been accused of using performance-enhancing drugs.

Thanks to his former trainer, Brian McNamee, future Hall-of-Fame pitcher Roger Clemens has been linked to using steroids.

However, before the public rushes to judgment and crucify him, let's give Clemens a chance to defend himself.

Unlike Bonds and Palmeiro, Clemens has been very vocal in his denial to the allegations.

While most people might think Clemens is stupid for even responding to his accusers, especially through the media, I'm probably in the minority of supporters who applaud Clemens for his candor.

While Bonds, Mark Mcguire and Sammy Sosa continue to linger in silence about their ties to steroids, Clemens has chosen to fight to keep his name unassociated with baseball's biggest scandal to date.

Watching him speak at a news conference just days after his name had been mentioned in the Mitchell Report, a report investigating steroid abuse among baseball players, my first thought was that Clemens was an innocent man.

More than a month after he appeared on 60 Minutes to give an interview to Mike Wallace, I feel more strongly about his innocence than ever.

He even has people starting to speak out in support of him like Jose Canseco, the former baseball player turned whistleblower whose book "Juiced" brought attention the rampant use of steroids in the Major Leagues.

Keep in mind that Canseco ratted out Mcguire and several other baseball players, but he recently told Congress in a sworn affidavit that he had neither seen nor heard about Clemens using steroids.

The speculation about Clemens using steroids is baseless other than what former US Senator George Mitchell alleges in his report and from what McNamee has told people about Clemens.

Clemens has not been the most upstanding player during his long career in baseball: He has been accused of pitching at batters' heads intentionally, and his infamous broken bat incident where he threw a broken bat at the feet of Mike Piazza during the 2000 World Series earned him the reputation of being a dirty player.

With all of that said, Clemens may have played the game by his rules at times, but he hasn't shown a propensity for lying or being secretive about taking steroids.

Not yet, at least.

Suns set? Not really.

. Wednesday, February 6, 2008

It's done. Shaquille O'Neal is headed to Phoenix.

The disgruntled and oft-injured 14-time all-star managed to beg his way out of Miami just two seasons after Dwayne Wade helped him win his fourth NBA title and, more importantly, his first without embittered battery mate Kobe Bryant.

In exchange for O'Neal, the Heat get a versatile backcourt player in Marcus Banks and fantasy hoops darling Shawn Marion, whose real-life game isn't too bad, either.

To the casual NBA fan, the move looks like a no-brainer. Even some of the league's more experienced pundits have openly said that such a transaction vaults Phoenix toward, if not to the top of the Western Conference.

After all, it gives Phoenix something this generation's Suns have never had. It gives Phoenix the one thing that many believe has held them back from reaching the NBA finals. It gives them something that all of the other Western Conference team who have bested them have had - a bruising presence in the paint.

Or does it?

Let's not kid ourselves. Shaq isn't the type of dominant center he used to be. To say that old age has not been kind to him would be an understatement.

Every Superman has his Kryptonite. In Shaq's case that amber-colored rock is better visualized through x-rays and MRIs that have revealed the toll his 350-pound frame has taken on his knees, ankles and feet. As a result, he's played in only 72 of 129 games since he last hoisted the Larry O'Brien Trophy.

Even when he is healthy enough to suit up, his contributions have been marginal at best. He's rebounding at a 7.8 per-game average and his 14.2 points per contest have made Diesel look more like a Hundai running on Arco unleaded.

Suns' GM Steve Kerr has said that the aquisition of O'Neal would allow Amare Stoudemire to play at his more natural position, power forward. Kerr also said that even when Shaq is not healthy enough to play, Boris Diaw will be more than a servieable substitute.

As for Banks, he was wasting away at the back end of an already deep Phoenix rotation, making him extremely expendable.

Those are the things the Phoenix front office will point to in order to make the deal seem like a steal.

But it wasn't. Those truths don't outweigh the most glaring on of all - that the Suns are less suited for a run at the title now than they were before.

Marion was Phoenix's best rebounder while also being one of the one of the league's most versatile and effective defenders. And above all else, Marion was a perfect fit for coach Mike D'Antoni's up-tempo offense.

Shaq, needless to say, is not. He's a plodder, an over-bearing one, but a plodder nonetheless. Even in his most energetic and limber years, he was still more of a lumbering bull than an agile gazelle.

Marion was the gazelle. He was Amare Stoudemire with a jumpshot. He was Steve Nash's go-to guy on the break. He fit in with the herd.

Shaq doesn't. He is the bull in Phoenix's fine china shop. He is an oversized, ill-fitting, warn-down cog clogging up the middle of an otherwise well-oiled machine.

His presence in the Phoenix frontcourt is not a step closer to a Western Conference crown. It is an testament to the short-term success, but long-term failure of the Suns' offensive system. Nothing more.

And All That Could Have Been

. Tuesday, February 5, 2008

The New England Patriots were supposed to finish the season as the undefeated, 19-0 Superbowl Champions. They were supposed to roll into Superbowl XLII and demolish an over-matched and under-experienced New York Giants football team. They were supposed to claim the throne as the "Greatest Team Ever".

Wait a minute, wasn't someone supposed to tell the Giants?

Because apparently, they didn't get the memo that they were supposed to just roll over and die. The Giants once again rallied together against a team that, on paper at least, they had no business beating, to pull off one of the most shocking upsets in sports history, defeating the Patriots, 17-14.

It was the crowning achievement for a Giants team that has overcome so much adversity from members of the media and even former teammates questioning whether coach Tom Coughlin or quarterback Eli Manning had what it took to take the team to the next level.

Coughlin proved that he was not the same hard-nosed, drill seargant that nearly got ran out of town by his own players two years ago, and Eli proved that his mistake filled past may finally be behind him.

Neither have any intention of going anywhere, and with the young nucleus the team has, it's a safe bet that this team will be contenders for quite sometime. It's too early to, as Dennis Green would say, "crown" Eli Manning.

One play from that final drive that will likely go overlooked is an overthrown ball intended for Amani Toomer that fell in and out of the hands of Patriots cornerback Asante Samuel. So, you can't say he's completely out of the woods yet, but the Eli Manning we saw in the postseason is drastically different from the Eli Manning we've seen since he came into the NFL.

While it's clear that the Giants have a bright future, what is a little less clear is what is going to become of this Patriots team.

This team had everything. The mastermind head coach, the record-breaking quarterback, the record-breaking wide receiver and a veteran-laden defense with plenty of Superbowl and playoff experience. They were labeled the "best team ever" halfway through the regular season and it was certainly hard to argue against that given the accolades they were gobbling up.

Getting so far and falling short has to be a bitter pill to swallow. The Miami Dolphins were the laughing stock of the NFL this season after finishing 1-15. All things considered though, the sorrow, regret and "what if's?" that ran through the mind of the players of that 1-15 team were probably nothing compared to the same questions and emotions that ran through the heads of the 18-1 Patriots as their 2008 season came to an end.

The Patriots had a chance to stake their claim as the greatest team, dynasty, coach, quarterback, receiver, waterboy, trainer, etc. of all-time and with the loss, are now at risk of being just a footnote in history.

It's tough to get back to the Superbowl and it's even tougher to get back after losing in the big game the year before. Making things tougher is the fact that the Patriots will be faced with a number of key personnel questions in the off-season. Linebackers Tedy Bruschi and Junior Seau are both free agents and even if the money is there to sign them, the true question will be do they have enough left in the tank that it would be worth re-upping their contracts, or is it time to cut bait and bring in younger players?

Randy Moss is also a free agent and while I'm sure he'd love to return to New England, he's not going to come at the bargain basement price he did this season. Early reports say he's looking for at least $9 million a year to re-sign with the Patriots.

Cornerback Asante Samuel is a free agent after being given the team's franchise tag this season. The Patriots likely will have to make a choice between keeping Samuel and Moss.

Then again, if the team can somehow finagle a way under the salary cap to re-sign all these players, will it even matter? Bringing all of them back would leave no money to make other acquisitions to the team. It would, however, give the Patriots a chance to make one more run with the same squad that flirted with perfection, but if they couldn't close the deal this year with literally everything in their favor, why would they be able to in 2009?

You can never count out a team with Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, but it's hard to figure out how a team, even with the mental makeup the Patriots have, can rebound and put such a disappointing season behind them and move ahead without thinking about how close they were to perfection and what could have been.

Kupchak Comes Through In The Clutch

. Friday, February 1, 2008

After the heart-breaking last minute loss to the Detroit Pistons Thursday night, Los Angeles Laker fans were sitting on pins and needles, wondering if the team was on the verge of another mid-season collaspe like the one that sent them into a tailspin a year ago.

Injuries had decimated a strong contender for the Western Conference championship that had gone 2-5 since Andrew Bynum went down.

Kwame Brown had shown no signs of stepping up in the absence of the young phenom, Lamar Odom continued to prove that he lacks the intelligence and skills that will transform him into an All-Star player, and even though he didn't want to admit it, Kobe Bryant was once again growing increasingly frustrated with the underachieving performance of his team.

It seems that just a few weeks ago, the talk of the NBA was about the Lakers and how they looked to be serious threats to dethrone the San Antonio Spurs as league champions, but that talk seemed to fade when Bynum dislocated his knee against the Memphis Grizzlies.

My, my, how funny it is that the Lakers' championship hopes seems to rest on a Grizzlies' team that has been a perennial lottery team, except for a few playoff seasons.

Now, with the addition of Pau Gasol via a trade for Kwame Brown and Javaris Crittenton, the Lakers' season is saved from the impending doom in which it was headed.

In his biggest play of his life, Mitch Kupchak his come through in the clutch in a major way, and despite the moniker that he was given after trading players such as Shaq and Caron Butler away for what seemed to be peanuts, Kupchak is no longer considered to be a "Kupcake."

Getting an All-Star player in Gasol for basically nothing makes Kupchak look like Jerry West, the man known as "Mr. Clutch."

Laker fans could now look forward to their team playing well into May for years to come.

Not only have the Lakers gotten a solid big man who can score and rebound on a consistent basis, they have gotten themselves a virtually unstoppable two-headed monster in the front court when Bynum gets healthy.

Most teams are fortunate to have one good center on the roster, but the Lakers now have two potential All-Star big men playing on the same team.

Although Boston may have the best record in the NBA, the Lakers have served notice to the rest of the league that they are going to be a major force to reckon with late in the season.