Tip Drill: Another bye-week buying opportunity arrives

19 Oct
by in General

As we've mentioned before, more than once, the ideal time to acquire elite players via trade is when they're headed into bye weeks.

In fact, depending on the player in question, this might be the only moment when they can be added at reasonable cost. Any owner in your league with a 2-4 record (or worse) should be willing to flip anyone on their roster who can't contribute in Week 7. Sure, mathematically it may still be possible to make the playoffs following a 2-5 start, but it isn't the most likely outcome.

Thus, if your team happens to be well-positioned right now — let's say your record is 4-2 or 5-1 — then you should shop for buying opportunities. Go browse the rosters of your league's bottom-dwellers, identify trade targets, offer short-term relief in exchange for blue-chip fantasy assets. That's how it's done, vultures.

Not only do we have six teams on bye this week, but all six appear to have friendly second-half schedules (an each has at least one desirable fantasy commodity). Below, you'll find a snapshot of the Week 8-Week 16 match-ups for the Falcons, Broncos, Chiefs, Dolphins, Eagles and Chargers, with their opponents' ranks against both the run and pass. I've color-coded this thing like an electoral map, in keeping with the season.

When you see this...

at NO

...it means that New Orleans is the opponent, and the Saints rank No. 31 at defending the run and No. 26 against the pass, in terms of yards-allowed.

Make sense? Let's hope so. Here we go...


Yeah, I know, it's kind of a big mess. Basically, when you see red, it represents a tough defense, an unappealing fantasy match-up. (Note: It is not a political statement. Shut up). When you see blue — especially dark blue — it's a friendly match-up.

And there's a lot of blue on the grid above.

Check out the cakewalk schedule that Peyton Manning & Co. will face after the bye. Denver doesn't seem to have a single degree-of-difficulty opponent the rest of the way, at least from our current vantage point. Peyton will almost certainly binge against New Orleans in Week 8, then again at Cincinnati and Carolina. And tell me you don't like the end-of-year slate for Jamaal Charles, beginning in Week 11. Or the fantasy playoff schedule for Reggie Bush (JAC, BUF). Or Michael Vick (CIN, WAS). Or Ryan Mathews (CAR, at NYJ). Or Willis McGahee (at BAL, CLE).

These players aren't exactly unattainable right now. If you're planning for the end-game, get to work.

All the usual schedule-strength caveats apply here, of course. Making plans eight weeks ahead in the NFL is no easy thing, arguably a fool's errand. Plenty of teams will redefine themselves — some for the better, some for the worse — before December arrives. We'll see injuries, acquisitions and scheme changes; everybody's power rankings will be rearranged by Week 16.

Still, we're all trying to build the best possible starting rosters for the most important stretch of the fantasy season, and we have six weeks of data to help us make decisions. Today, the data is telling me to go make a viciously low-ball perfectly reasonable win-win pitch for Peyton and/or Eric Decker in a league that shall not be named. So I gotta go. Please entertain yourselves in comments...

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Ball Don’t Lie’s 2012-13 NBA Season Previews: The New York Knicks

17 Oct

For the first time in two years we'll have an orthodox, full-length NBA season to look forward to. No lockout nonsense, and precious little obsession as to whether or not LeBron James will ever win the big one. He's won it, already, and our sanity as NBA followers is probably better off as a result. However big that shred of sanity is remains to be seen, following yet another offseason that once again proved that the NBA is full of Crazy McCrazytons that appear to take great delight in messing with us continually.

As a result of that offseason, and the impending regular season, why not mess with Ball Don't Lie's triptych of Kelly Dwyer, Dan Devine and Eric Freeman as they preview the 2012-13 season with alacrity, good cheer, and bad jokes.

We continue with the always reliable New York Knicks.

Kelly Dwyer's Kilt-Straightener

The New York Knicks, for the 37th offseason in a row, have set themselves up for all manner of ridicule with both their moves and non-moves. Jettisoning Jeremy Lin for the seeming failure of character of setting his own price in the open market (after the Knicks had encouraged him to do so) was a needless move, as was adding a third (or second; or, depending how he looks by Christmas, first) guaranteed year on Jason Kidd's contract. J.R. Smith was retained, his brother Chris was brought to camp briefly "just 'cuz," and the team appeared to go out of its way to sign on the most hilarious trending topics (fattest, oldest) of the League Pass set to round it its roster.

Also, Rasheed Wallace.

[Fantasy Basketball '12: Play the official game of NBA.com]

Also, parts. Lots and lots of parts to take advantage of that 82-game schedule that will see team after team alternating bouts of indifference and injury alongside the approximation of "go get 'em!" as 30 teams try to make it to spring. This is why the wins could, if not necessarily "should," stack up.

Famously, the stack will have to work from a foundation that would place Carmelo Anthony almost exclusively at the power forward position he worked so expertly from late last season. With Amar'e Stoudemire hurt towards the end of the 2011-12 turn, the Knicks turned into a dynamite defensive club with Anthony's quick-hit scoring bursts (because the position placed him and his spins and finishes closer to the basket) helping give the team's often-iffy offense just enough to survive. Of course, Stoudemire returned for most of the playoffs, and the team faltered in the first round. Again it was Anthony, 25 feet from the hoop, trying to make it happen.

Of course Stoudemire — truly one of our favorite players at his best, and someone who has grown into a gem of a guy — worked all summer to try and better his low post game. Of course, he's already hurt. Of course, Anthony (who will do whatever it takes) won't do that — he doesn't want to play power forward. Of course, coach Mike Woodson (who has already sold out in one significant way) is going to attempt to kowtow to his star (a star that isn't even his team's best player; that would be Tyson Chandler) in order to stay on at MSG.

And, of course, I don't think it matters.

If Woodson is slow and subversive with the switch, he can make a power forward out of Anthony yet. Those 82games.com numbers could have Carmelo playing way more minutes at the big forward spot if Woodson eases him into things. And for as much as we rip on Anthony for his skittish play at times, the guy is a competitor. He's not going to walk to the bench in protest the first time Woodson sits either Stoudemire (or Chandler, with foul trouble) a few minutes into a half to go small. He's not going to walk to the bench in protest the 30th time, either. Especially when he eases, again, into a power forward role that doesn't have to include much banging. Especially when Jason Kidd, trending as "old," fires him that two-handed lob.

The problem is that New York doesn't do "slow and subversive." New York is full of showy sittings — Sanchez for Tebow, we hear, and A-Rod for Ibanez — and back page blowouts. Mike Woodson knew all of this when he came on last year as Mike D'Antoni's obvious eventual replacement, and he knew all this when he pined for the full time gig after D'Antoni and the Knicks parted ways. He can't complain that things aren't what they were in front of 15,000 fans in Atlanta. He asked for the challenge of taming the Apple, and now he has to follow through on it.

In the meantime, the Knicks will throw out parts. Famous parts, well-compensated parts, productive parts, and day-to-day parts. Packaged properly, this season could turn out to be interesting in ways that have nothing to do with soap opera nonsense. It could just be cold, hard, winning basketball with a lot of nice numbers where big headlines used to be.

You asked for it, men. Time to execute as your city expects.

Projected record: 45-37

Fear Itself with Dan Devine

It is tonally appropriate that the NBA season tips off just before Halloween -- because on any given night, each and every one of the league's 30 teams can look downright frightening. Sometimes, that means your favorite team will act as their opposition's personal Freddy Krueger; sometimes, you will be the one suffering through the living nightmare. In preparation for Opening Night, BDL's Dan Devine considers what makes your team scary and what should make you scared.

What Makes You Scary: An elite defense that might be even better this year. In our '11-12 Knicks preview, I wrote that if Tyson Chandler could lift New York out of the bottom-third of the league in defensive efficiency for the first time since 2003-04 -- Mike D'Antoni's team ranked 22nd in the NBA in points allowed per 100 possessions in '10-11 -- "they ought to throw Tyson a parade." Last year, the Knicks skyrocketed out of that lower tier, improving their defense by a whopping 8.5 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com's stat tool, and finishing the year as the league's fifth-ranked unit. Instead of a parade, Chandler had to settle for the NBA's 2011-12 Defensive Player of the Year Award; reasonable folks can argue that he wasn't the trophy's most deserving recipient, but there's no denying his impact.

Some credit, too, belongs to coach Mike Woodson, imported before the season to serve as D'Antoni's "defensive coordinator" and later elevated to interim coach after D'Antoni's resignation. Woodson didn't really earn the defensive reputation he held following his tenure with the Atlanta Hawks, but after he took over, the team got even better on D, allowing just 97.4 points-per-100 over their final 24 games and going 18-6 to finish the regular season. Woodson's primary achievement seemed to be convincing Carmelo Anthony to compete on defense, which, as D'Antoni and George Karl will tell you, is no simple task. But even if the Knicks' defensive improvement was attributable primarily to Chandler being brilliant, Iman Shumpert emerging as a strong wing defender and, later, Anthony flipping the effort switch, the guy overseeing all of it should still get some praise.

The Knicks will miss Shumpert's defense to start the season, as rehab on his surgically repaired torn left anterior cruciate ligament will keep him out until at least December. But offseason signee Ronnie Brewer returned to practice Wednesday morning after missing more than a month with a tear to the medial meniscus in his right knee, opening up the possibility that the former Chicago Bulls defensive ace could be ready to step in for Shumpert come the start of the regular season. When Shumpert returns, the tandem will allow Woodson to keep a long, quick, tough, versatile perimeter defender on the floor at virtually all times; in a league with a lot of wing firepower, athletic import James White and noted bargain J.R. Smith (who will never stop wandering and freelancing, but was often engaged and attentive last season) could help, too.

The same presence-at-all-times idea informed the offseason re-acquisition of Marcus Camby, who, even at 38, represents an improvement on the glass and on D over any reserve big New York employed last season, theoretically enabling Woodson to give Chandler more frequent breathers without worrying that the Knicks' defense will collapse in his absence. (Interestingly enough, the numbers suggest that it didn't necessarily go to hell in a hand basket when Chandler sat last season -- NBA.com's stat tool and 82games.com both have the Knicks' D at around one point-per-100 worse with Tyson sitting, and BasketballValue.com's lineup data suggest they were actually 1.5-per-100 better when he rested.) Many Knicks fans would probably rather have seen Jared Jeffries' frontcourt versatility return to the roster than ancient Kurt Thomas brought back into the fold, but Thomas was still a tough, strong defender in Portland last season; similarly, fellow elder Jason Kidd posted a better defensive rating than both Mike Bibby and Baron Davis, who saw more than 1,100 combined minutes at the point for New York last year.

Increased wing depth and even slight improvements in the weaker reserve spots, combined with Chandler's continued ability to erase teammates' mistakes and single up any big in the league, give New York's defense a chance to nudge even higher than last year's elite finish ... especially if Anthony's final-month buy-in wasn't just a limited time offer.

What Should Make You Scared: Duh. As we laud Woodson's impact on the Knicks' defense, it's worth noting that their sputtering offense -- 19th in the league in offensive efficiency at season's end, according to NBA.com's stat tool, a dramatic drop from their No. 5 finish in '10-11 -- also improved dramatically under him. In his 24-game stint, the Knicks averaged 106.1 points-per-100; over the course of the regular season, that would have made them the fourth most potent offense in the league, and the best in the East.

There's a caveat, though: During that stretch, both Amar'e Stoudemire and Jeremy Lin were out of the lineup, which both removed any doubt that Anthony would be the team's top option (which had existed since Lin's emergence) and pushed him to the power forward slot, where he was far more effective (as he was the season before). The Carmelo/Amar'e problem didn't get solved; it just got tabled. Now, it's back.

After Anthony came over to the Knicks at the '10-11 trade deadline, he and Stoudemire often seemed awkward sharing the floor in the 24 games they played together, looking uncomfortable as they tried to make their volume-scoring, ball-dominating, space-occupying games mesh. Still, though, the Knicks continued to score, with lineups featuring the two stars producing an average of 110.7 points per 100 possessions in 672 shared minutes, per NBA.com's lineup data. Unfortunately for Knicks fans, they couldn't stop anybody, giving up 110.9-per-100. Chandler was brought in last year to fix the defense, and he did ... but the offense went in the tank. Lineups featuring the Anthony-Stoudemire duo (99.1-per-100 in 976 regular-season minutes, which would've been the league's eighth worst efficiency over a full season) and the Anthony-Stoudemire-Chandler trio (98.5-per-100 in 794 minutes, which would've tied for sixth-worst) struggled mightily.

It's pretty simple: If Woodson can't figure a means of improving the Knicks' offensive production when his three highly paid frontcourt All-Stars share the floor, and especially when his top two guns play together, New York will again fail to make any real postseason noise.

Stoudemire's summer Dream discipleship could help, provided STAT finds early success in the low post; Anthony meaning it when he says he'd "rather play off [his point guards] and do what I do best," which (as we saw in London) is catch, shoot and score quickly, would help, too. While I believe the Knicks' front office was wrong to evaluate Jeremy Lin as a less attractive option at the point than Kidd, the re-acquired Raymond Felton or Argentine import Pablo Prigioni, I tend to agree with Howard Megdal's assessment that the team, on the whole, enters this season better at the one.

Better, more stable point play, the addition of Camby to help create extra possessions on the offensive glass, a full season of Steve Novak doing what he does best, and Amar'e and 'Melo doing what they say they're going to do could push New York's offense into the top half of the league. If that happens and the defense holds, the Knicks could wind up with home-court advantage in the first round for the first time since 2000-01.


The fear -- and, frankly, more likely outcome -- is that Stoudemire's post experiment is jettisoned at the first sign of failure in favor of a reversion to his familiar elbow face-up game, which looked creaky and fail-filled last season. That even if using 'Melo at the four alongside space-creator Novak at the three is the team's best bet for generating quality looks, 'Melo will refuse it. That even if Amar'e is ineffective, Woodson won't send him to the bench because it would mean ruffling both STAT and 'Melo. That, in a shocking revelation, Felton/Kidd/Prigioni ain't exactly the Holy Trinity. And that come the All-Star break, we'll still be wondering how the Knicks can mesh.

Sweet dreams, Knickerbocker fans.

Eric Freeman's Identity Crisis

There is no more important asset for a basketball team than talent, and yet the more loaded squad does not always win. What we've seen in recent seasons isn't only that the best team wins, but that the group with the clearest sense of self, from management down through the players, prevails. A team must not only be talented, but sure of its goals, present and future, and the best methods of obtaining them. Most NBA teams have trouble with their identity. Eric Freeman's Identity Crisis is a window into those struggles, the accomplishment of realizing a coherent identity, and the pitfalls of believing these issues to be solved.

After several bumps in the road — a long and winding trade saga, a coaching change, a media sensation, and a refusal to commit to said sensation as a real player — the Knicks most assuredly belong to Carmelo Anthony. In most opinions, that's not a good thing. At best, the Knicks have sacrificed their long-term flexibility for a middling East playoff team — at worst, they've hitched their wagon to an overrated star with few elite skills. With so much money tied up in Anthony and his frontcourt partners Amar'e Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler, the Knicks are who they are. Enjoy it if you can, I guess.

For the most part, their image is not a positive one. The Knicks are by turns old, offensively stagnant, and not always committed to the cause, prone to lapses in judgment and ability alike. This is a good team, but not a particularly imposing one. When Linsanity hit last winter, the joy was in large part the idea that the Knicks could surprise, that they could deploy an X-factor and receive unexpected rewards. The current team is relatively ossified, no matter how many aging role players they added over the summer.

If this situation sounds a little depressing and a lot disappointing, that's because it is. When Donnie Walsh remade the Knicks following the Isiah Thomas-orchestrated dark ages, there was hope that the franchise could return to relatively sane relevance for a prolonged period. That era lasted all of a few months, giving way to the same impatience and lack of vision that typified the previous term. That the Knicks look like a playoff team is immaterial. The problem, and the quality that defines them, is a general dysfunction that casts any single positive move as an aberration in the context of institutional rot.

And yet, given that mess, they do remain the Knicks, a team that will always look moderately attractive simply because of the tradition and aura associated with playing in a basketball-mad city that doubles as the cultural capital of the biggest city in North America. Even when the team looks screwed up beyond repair, there's still hope that they can become a major NBA franchise once again. Unfortunately, the same belief (of fans, analysts, observers, laymen, etc.) that sustains them also makes them increasingly prone to mismanagement.

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Bob Knight will call two Kentucky games next season? Get your popcorn ready!

15 Oct

Thanks to a controversial decision by ESPN this week, two of the most mundane games on Kentucky's SEC schedule suddenly have far more anticipation.

ESPN removed legendary former Indiana coach Bob Knight from his role as analyst for Big 12 games on Big Monday, paired him with veteran play-by-play man Rece Davis and reassigned him to Thursday night SEC games, USA Today reported. That means for the first time, Knight will call a pair of Kentucky games, Jan. 10 at rebuilding Vanderbilt and March 7 at middling Georgia.

Both those otherwise innocuous games suddenly become must-see TV because of Knight's thinly veiled distaste for Kentucky coach John Calipari and his reliance on one-and-done prospects.

Knight famously refused to utter the word "Kentucky" on the air at ESPN last season, leaving the Wildcats off his list of the nation's elite teams. He also called one-and-dones "a disgrace" last spring and had to apologize for erroneously saying Kentucky's 2009-10 Elite Eight team "started five players in the NCAA tournament games that had not been to class that semester."

[Also: Hoosiers aim for first national basketball title since '87]

Of course, Calipari has done his part to fan the flames of the feud. He included a headline-grabbing jab at Knight in a press release announcing the Wildcats amassed a 3.12 team GPA last spring, noting "all this stuff bitter old men say that they don't go to class, it's not true."

An ESPN spokesman sent the following statement Tuesday afternoon in response to an email the previous day seeking an explanation for why the network would have Knight call SEC games.

"We had an opening to pair an analyst with Rece Davis on our Thursday night SEC package after Hubert Davis took a position with North Carolina," the statement read. "Rece and Bob have formed a good partnership after working together over the years on games and in the studio. We felt this would be a good opportunity to pair them together on a regular basis."

Whether or not the Kentucky controversy played any role in Knight's new position, it will probably be advantageous for ESPN.  At the very least, two routine games on the SEC schedule will draw more viewers than they otherwise would have.

You can argue the downside is that the spectacle of Knight calling a Kentucky game will overshadow anything that happens on the court. You can argue that it's an unnecessary distraction that will detract from the games themselves.

But to me, viewers will benefit. Nothing that happens on the floor those two nights will be anywhere near as entertaining to watch as Knight giving grudging respect to Calipari, finding new reasons to rip him or dancing around the controversy altogether.

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Ball Don’t Lie’s 2012-13 NBA Season Previews: The Miami Heat

15 Oct
by Yahoo! Sports Staff in Fantasy Basketball, General

For the first time in two years we'll have an orthodox, full-length NBA season to look forward to. No lockout nonsense, and precious little obsession as to whether or not LeBron James will ever win the big one. He's won it, already, and our sanity as NBA followers is probably better off as a result. However big that shred of sanity is remains to be seen, following yet another offseason that once again proved that the NBA is full of Crazy McCrazytons that appear to take great delight in messing with us continually.

As a result of that offseason, and the impending regular season, why not mess with Ball Don't Lie's triptych of Kelly Dwyer, Dan Devine and Eric Freeman as they preview the 2012-13 season with alacrity, good cheer, and bad jokes.

We continue with everyone's favorite, the Miami Heat.

Kelly Dwyer's Kilt-Straightener

Six games. That's what kills me about the Miami Heat.

The team made it to the Finals in 2011 and played very good basketball for most of the 2011-12 regular season, but we're basing nearly eight months of expected NBA basketball between now and late June (when, presumably, the Heat will repeat as NBA champions) on six games of ball from last summer.

Six scary, dominant, frightening displays of brilliant basketball. Six games worth fearing, if you're a fan of the other 29. Six games warming to fans of great basketball, fans that don't care if the Heat win or lose it all but still want to see legendary players work at peak efficiency.

Six games — starting with Game 6 of the Eastern conference finals, and moving along toward to the end of Miami's championship season while excluding Game 1 of the NBA Finals. Six games that saw LeBron James act as a dominant scorer first, unashamed and not embarrassed by how quickly and seemingly effortlessly he turned opposing defenses into a junior varsity-resembling mess. The same immediacy, worked through with economy and precision in ways we'd been begging for since his Cleveland Cavaliers squandered a 3-2 series lead against the Detroit Pistons in 2006 because he predictably tried to attack the defense from the great beyond.

That championship stretch, paired with his all-around brilliance during last summer's Olympics, have most of us assuming that the Heat will dominate the NBA once more; especially now that LeBron understands that the low post is something to warm to, instead of shy away from. The Bulls are battered, the Celtics and Spurs too old, the Lakers can't defend and the Thunder  couldn't even take a second game from the Heat last June. Why can't Miami romp, again?

Frankly, there only thing standing in the way of a romp through the 2012-13 regular season and postseason is the same thing that got in the team's way in 2011, and for parts of the squad's 2011-12 run. It's on James, again leading this top-heavy team with some of the more lacking rotation role players in the game (much less amongst championship contenders), spinning quickly and working from the inside-out. Scoring, and only passing when it becomes apparent that he has no other option but to dish; as was the case when James racked up 25 total assists in the fourth and fifth game of last season's Finals.

Stuck with a payroll that nearly hands the entire soft salary cap to Mssrs. James, Wade and Bosh, the Heat more or less stood pat over the offseason outside of adding Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis to that mix. Attempts at securing a passable center were ignored. The search for a typical pass-first point guard was called off. Even Allen and Lewis — legendary and at worst lights-out shooters in their primes — have to be considered an afterthought. Wade may limp all season. Bosh is a well-meaning afterthought, fighting for scraps.

James? As it was in Cleveland, with those lesser lights, he'll be the focus. The name recognition and all-NBA talents of Wade and Bosh hardly matter — it is James that is going to have dominate in a scoring sense, forcing defenses to collapse and calling his own number amongst a phalanx of flailing arms, knowing that an interior look from eight feet away over a double-team may often be preferable to an elbow-extended three-pointer from an NBA-famous name (Lewis, Shane Battier, James Jones, Bosh, Mike Miller, even Ray Allen at times).

LeBron doesn't have to treat every winter Wednesday like it's late May, but he does have to do it often enough to keep the touch and timing down in preparation for what again will be a hellacious postseason title defense. The East has weakened, there should be no doubt, but even an improving Heat squad will have a devil of a time getting out of its local bracket if James isn't getting to the line and losing the 1-against-5-from-25-feet-away sets that made his playoff failures from 2006 to 2011 so easy to predict.

Apologies for making this into a star turn, focusing on the biggest name above all, but even as a part of a famous triptych James is the influence that keeps this top-heavy experiment afloat. That quickness, and that attention to detail, has to sustain. He can't be embarrassed by his own strength.

Clearly, we don't think he will be.

Projected record: 62-20

Fear Itself with Dan Devine

It is tonally appropriate that the NBA season tips off just before Halloween -- because on any given night, each and every one of the league's 30 teams can look downright frightening. Sometimes, that means your favorite team will act as their opposition's personal Freddy Krueger; sometimes, you will be the one suffering through the living nightmare. In preparation for Opening Night, BDL's Dan Devine considers what makes your team scary and what should make you scared.

What Makes You Scary: Prime LeBron James and the (pretty good) chance that this year's team will be better than last year's. The Heat weren't overwhelming last year, but still had an excellent season. (Given the title run, this might seem like an understatement, but bear with me.) They turned in the league's fourth-stingiest defense and one of its eight most efficient offenses -- both Hoopdata and NBA.com's stat tool put Miami at No. 6, while Basketball-Reference.com pegs them at No. 8 -- and lost more than two consecutive games just twice in 89 total regular- and postseason contests. They stumbled at times, trailing in three of their four postseason series, but came back each time. They weren't the league's most dominant offense (either OKC or the San Antonio Spurs) or its most suffocating defense (either Boston or the Chicago Bulls). But all told, they were its best, most balanced team, and its champions.

And this year's model will probably be even better. To wit:

-- They return the trio of All-Stars who have made them elite these past two seasons, as well the excellent young coach who took great leaps forward in the postseason and the core of role players who stepped up big-time come the title round;

-- They welcome one of the game's elite shooters (plus another who has been elite in the past, but might be done), who will be deployed to make defenses pay for devoting too much attention to the three main threats;

-- They enter the season with a clearer picture of their true nature, revealed in the success of their late- and postseason small(ish)ball turn, than they have in years past; and

-- They will again feature the league's most dominant force, only this time he's coming off the greatest year of his life, has shed any "never won the big one" pressure and, at age 27, is likely entering the peak of his prime.

("What doesn't make you scary" might be a better question.)

The Heat have won 70 percent of their games, two Eastern Conference titles and one NBA title over the past two years, all while mostly just sort of figuring things out. Now, they know what they are: A high-octane offense that generates mismatches and openings through spacing, forces you to respond, targets its talent down low when you do and strokes open 3-pointers in the corners if you don't. That's how they finished last year, and with LeBron James preparing to spend a lot of time down low, Chris Bosh making the full-time move to the five and Shane Battier reportedly slotting into the starting frontcourt alongside them, that's how they're starting this one.

This is a good idea, because the five-man unit that logged the most playoff minutes for Miami -- Bosh, James, Battier, Dwyane Wade and Mario Chalmers -- blew away the competition, outscoring their opponents by an average of 10.5 points per 100 possessions in 160 minutes of floor time, according to NBA.com's stat tool. And I do mean "outscored" -- despite facing four teams that finished among the top 10 in the league in defensive efficiency during the regular season, those five rang up 112.3 points-per-100 in the playoffs, a mark that far outstripped the team's regular-season averages and would have in fact led the NBA in offensive efficiency. Swap in reserve bigs Udonis Haslem (111.8-per-100) and Joel Anthony (111.2-per-100) and the offensive numbers stay awesome without a precipitous slide on D, supporting the theory that one big who can rebound and defend, three wings who can shoot, and one LeBron who can do anything equals a pretty solid recipe for success.

There is some conflicting data -- swap in the since-departed Ronny Turiaf and the offensive efficiency dropped to sub-Bobcats level (89.6-per-100 in 66 minutes), lineups in which other wings replace Wade are less appealing and the standard "small sample size alert" caveats apply -- but on balance, this looks like a recipe for creating potent, versatile, offensively dominant and defensively sound lineups. And Miami's offseason acquisitions -- all-time 3-point king Ray Allen, stretch four Rashard Lewis, floor-spacing five Josh Harrellson -- fit the scheme perfectly.

Miami attempted 15.6 3-pointers per game during last regular season, eighth-fewest in the NBA; that went up to 19.7 per game in the playoffs, fourth highest among playoff teams (second once you weed out teams that didn't last a round). That number will go up this year, as Miami's weapons create and exploit all those too-open looks, and with all that shooting around all those stars, that's got to have opposing coaches losing sleep. They'll leave the 73-9 predictions to others, but make no mistake: the Heat are the favorite to take this year's title, too.

What Should Make You Scared: Injury, overreliance and a rising tide. As was the case in each of the last two seasons, the Heat enter the season with relatively little depth behind their stars, especially up front behind Bosh and James, where both Haslem and Anthony looked highly shaky much of last season and Lewis has looked cooked for nearly two years.

If injuries again rear their ugly head -- Bosh with his rehabbed abdominal muscle, Wade with his surgically repaired left knee, Allen with his surgically cleaned-up right ankle, Mike Miller with his not-surgically-repaired back -- the burden on James will grow exponentially. Of course, given Miami's likely plan to run him at something approximating point-power-forward in that mutant small-ball lineup, as it did throughout his epic postseason run, that burden will already be pretty massive.

During the playoffs, when LeBron became the do-everything game-dominator for whom fans have long fiended, he averaged nearly 43 minutes a night, saw time playing all five positions on both ends of the floor, routinely checked the opposition's best scorer and led the Heat in points, rebounds, assists and steals. Even with James at the peak of his powers, can Miami ask him to be that all-encompassing guy again, for a full 82-game season plus the playoffs (after last year's title run, plus summer duty with Team USA), without some slippage or breakdown? If he does drop off, even a bit, that could be enough for the handful of teams likely to provide their stiffest competition for this year's title -- many of whom have reloaded or revamped their rosters in an effort to compete with Miami's small-spread look, as Grantland's Zach Lowe notes -- to catch up and cut short the Heat's run at a repeat.

Eric Freeman's Identity Crisis

There is no more important asset for a basketball team than talent, and yet the more loaded squad does not always win. What we've seen in recent seasons isn't only that the best team wins, but that the group with the clearest sense of self, from management down through the players, prevails. A team must not only be talented, but sure of its goals, present and future, and the best methods of obtaining them. Most NBA teams have trouble with their identity. Eric Freeman's Identity Crisis is a window into those struggles, the accomplishment of realizing a coherent identity, and the pitfalls of believing these issues to be solved.

For a season and change, the Heat's biggest problem was that they didn't quite know what they were, whether in terms of a superstar hierarchy or the basics of figuring out an ideal offensive scheme (related issues, of course). After June's championship, their identity is set: it's LeBron's team, clearly, with Dwyane Wade playing the role of gracefully aging second option and Chris Bosh acting as a sort of star role player. They know what they are, and that makes them dangerous.

The Heat's biggest issue, then, isn't necessarily keeping pace with reloading challengers, but making sure that they avoid stagnation. In the offseason, Pat Riley saw that there would be some new blood, albeit in the form of reserves well past their points of peak effectiveness. The Heat are scarier — it'd be difficult for a team with a shooter as good as Ray Allen not to be, no matter his age — but they are also, for the first time in the Heatles era, relatively comfortable.

Over time, that could become a problem — complacency tends to be a bad look in a profession dependent on competitive drive. For now, though, the Heat can be forgiven if they relax a bit during the regular season. As ever, they are the hunted. But they're also the kings, and more often than not the ruler of the land can hang back until he deems it necessary to fight.

[Fantasy Basketball '12: Play the official game of NBA.com]

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Giants remind everyone that they’re always a contender

14 Oct

Somehow, the Giants were significant underdogs at San Francisco. We all should have known better.

The Giants are masterful at this. Just when it looks like the Giants are slipping into mediocrity and everyone falls in love with the new hot team, they rise up and remind everyone that they are one of the elite teams in the NFL whenever they want to be.

[Also: Undefeated Falcons find way to pull off another win]

The Giants were plodding along at 3-2, not bad but not looking like a favorite to repeat as Super Bowl Champions. San Francisco on the other hand looked like the best team in the NFC. The 49ers had beat their last two opponents 79-3. And they were looking for revenge from last year's NFC championship game.

Of course the Giants won. That's what they do.

The Giants forced Alex Smith into three interceptions. Smith didn't even have two interceptions in a game all of last season or the first five weeks of this season. He had thrown one interception all season before Sunday.

[Also: Is this the wildest touchdown in NFL history?]

The 49ers seemed overmatched the whole game. The Giants trailed 3-0 in the first quarter and then scored 26 unanswered points to finish the game. Victor Cruz gave them the lead with a touchdown and a salsa dance early on. Ahmad Bradshaw had 116 yards, and his 1-yard touchdown early in the third quarter gave New York a 17-3 lead, which was more than enough.

And we should probably prepare for what happens next. The Giants will look ugly a few weeks, particularly at home, lose a few games, and other teams will get all the bandwagon buzz throughout the second half of the season. Then the playoffs will come, and the Giants will be just as good as they want to be.

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Tags: , , , , NFC Championship game, , , , ,
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Carlos Boozer is working with his kids’ trainer

12 Oct

Professional athletes typically do whatever necessary to keep themselves in great shape, and they're willing to pay top dollar to do it. In many cases, that means spending time in hyperbaric chambers, or eating very healthy diets, or taking multi-hour naps. At bare minimum, they hire excellent trainers to design intense workouts and keep them at an elite level of fitness. (OK, in truth, the bare minimum is taking naps.)

These players usually don't like to take a chance with their bodies, or to hire trainers who don't have sterling reputations working with their peers. Chicago Bulls forward Carlos Boozer has taken that chance. And he's doing so with an unlikely partner: his kids' trainer. From Scott Powers for ESPNChicago.com (via Blog a Bull):

During the summer, Boozer sought out a new basketball trainer to help him develop him into a more all-around player and touch up on his fundamentals. While the Miami-based trainer, Devel King, was an unlikely choice for Boozer as King had no previous experience with NBA players, Boozer believes this season will turn out differently because of his work with King.

"I felt like the trainer I had before, things I was doing before wasn't getting me to be where I wanted to be at," Boozer said. "I wanted to switch it up a little bit. Ran into coach King. He was actually training my kids at the time. I loved what he was doing with them, a lot of fundamental work, which is great, a lot of footwork, jabbing, different things I thought that I need for my game.

"Sometimes when you play so long in the NBA, sometimes you forget some of the basic stuff, and he was able to re-teach me some of the basic stuff that helps my game a lot. It's simple, but it's super effective. ... I was in the gym a lot, in the lab a lot working on everything, man. Defense, offense, ball handing, shooting, rebounding, going to be a complete player."

King said he nearly crashed his truck when he received the call from Boozer to work him out. But as much as King was shocked, he never treated Boozer differently than any of his other clients, who range from kindergartners to college players. King was critical of Boozer when he needed to be.

You may remember Boozer's kids as the awesome little guys who rooted against their father during a Bulls/Heat game last January. Truth be told, if King could get them to listen, then he can probably do good work with Boozer, as well.

Plus, although it might seem weird for a highly paid professional athlete to train with someone who'd previously worked with children, it's not as if King spends all day having his athletes jump around on trampolines and play Around the World while he checks his Facebook account. King is a serious trainer, and I'm sure he understands the value of the opportunity that Boozer has given him. They'll do real work.

Still, for the sake of jokes, I'm probably going to pretend that King and Boozer spend all day practicing free-throws on eight-foot baskets. Maybe, if he's lucky, Boozer will get to buy a soda from the vending machine when they're all done.

Tags: , , minimum, , , shape,
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Ten intriguing questions leading up to Midnight Madness festivities

12 Oct

Unlike last year when Kentucky and North Carolina towered over the rest of the nation as the season began, there's no prohibitive favorite this winter.

As Midnight Madness approaches Friday night, Indiana, Louisville, Kentucky, Michigan and Kansas are just a few of the dozens of teams who believe they have legitimate national championship aspirations.

In what promises to be a wide-open season in college hoops, there are plenty of storylines worth following. Here are 10 of the biggest:

1. Is this the year NC State unseats Duke and North Carolina atop the ACC?

The last time neither Duke nor North Carolina won or shared the regular season ACC crown was ten years ago when Wake Forest captured the 2002-03 title. NC State has the chance to break that streak exactly thirty years after Jim Valvano led the Wolfpack to the most unlikely of national titles in 1983.

Thanks to the return of Lorenzo Brown, C.J. Leslie and Scott Wood from last year's Sweet 16 team and the addition of a top-five recruiting class, NC State is suddenly the trendy pick to win the ACC. It also helps that defending champ North Carolina has to replace four first-round picks and that Duke isn't quite as talented as usual with no big-time point guard and Mason Plumlee, Ryan Kelly and Seth Curry playing starring roles.

A word of caution to the Wolfpack faithful, however: Let's not forget that last year's NC State team lost 12 games and snuck into the NCAA tournament as one of the final at-large teams. There's no question NC State will be better, but an outright ACC title and Tobacco Road bragging rights is a huge leap. 

2. Are these Kentucky freshmen as good as those Kentucky freshmen?

Those Kentucky freshmen, of course, are Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marcus Teague and the rest of the group that led the Wildcats to the national championship last spring. And these Kentucky freshmen are the group that will team with NC State transfer Ryan Harrow and returner Kyle Wiltjer to attempt to replicate that feat this season.

The headliner from Kentucky's fourth straight No. 1 recruiting class is Nerlens Noel, a shot blocking specialist who could provide some of the defensive presence Davis did last season despite John Calipari's refusal to entertain such comparisons. Shooting guard Archie Goodwin is a big-time scorer, versatile small forward Alex Poythress defends, rebounds and gets to the rim and 7-foot Willie Cauley-Stein was the most pleasant surprise of summer workouts.

This group of Kentucky freshmen will certainly be good enough once again to propel the Wildcats into SEC title and Final Four contention. But to expect them to propel Kentucky to another national title and produce the two top picks in next year's NBA Draft? That's probably asking a bit much.

3. Can embattled UCLA coach Ben Howland save his job?

It's amazing that Howland's job security is a legitimate question only four years removed from his third consecutive Final Four appearance at UCLA, but that's how rocky the past few years have been for the Bruins. In the last four years, they have missed the NCAA tournament twice and failed to win more than one game in either of their two trips.

To jumpstart the program this season, Howland landed one of the best recruiting classes in the nation featuring high-scoring wing Shabazz Muhammad, pass-first forward Kyle Anderson, skilled big man Tony Parker and sweet-shooting Jordan Adams. The problem is neither Muhammad nor Anderson have been cleared to play this season by the NCAA even though practice is set to begin.

If UCLA has Muhammad and Anderson for most of the season, it can overcome its defensive deficiencies, challenge for the Pac-12 championship and play into the second week of the NCAA tournament at the very least. If one or both were unable to play, suddenly the Bruins look very unproven again on the perimeter and probably have to rely on the Wear twins and Joshua Smith to try to eke out an NCAA bid.

4. Can a player from a non-power conference win national player of the year?

In the past decade, BYU's Jimmer Fredette and Utah's Andrew Bogut are the only two Wooden Award winners to hail from outside the six BCS leagues. That suggests it's a long shot for a player from another conference to make a run, but there are definitely some more intriguing candidates than usual this year.

Creighton's Doug McDermott, the nation's leading returning scorer, is a fixture on most preseason All-American teams. Murray State guard Isaiah Canaan, the centerpiece of last year's final remaining unbeaten team, has also received some early All-American buzz. And guys like UNLV's Mike Moser, Lehigh's C.J. McCollum, San Diego State's Jamaal Franklin and North Texas' Tony Mitchell also have the talent to play their way into consideration.

The key for any of them to have a realistic chance is they have to put up huge numbers and their teams have to be nationally relevant in February and March. Of the above group, McDermott, Moser and Franklin have the best chance to make that happen, though the rest should not be counted out.

5. Can new UConn coach Kevin Ollie do enough to keep his job?

No first-year coach finds himself in a more difficult spot this season than Jim Calhoun's hand-picked successor.

Since UConn would only commit to giving Ollie a one-year contract that expires days after the Final Four, the former Huskies guard will have a mere six months to prove he's worthy of keeping the job in the long run. Worse yet, the Huskies are ineligible for the postseason because of poor APR scores and they're nowhere near as talented as usual as a result of a mass exodus of transfers and NBA defections.

The strength of the Huskies is the backcourt trio of Shabazz Napier, Ryan Boatright and freshman Omar Calhoun. If UConn is going to finish above .500 in Big East play and give Ollie some ammunition with which to push for a longterm contract, the Huskies need the three guards to excel, enigmatic forward DeAndre Daniels to tap into his potential and center Tyler Olander to exceed his limited potential.

6. Will the West Coast enjoy a hoops revival this winter?

The inability of schools West of the Rocky Mountains to produce a single Sweet 16 team last March was an embarrassing feat for the conferences in the region. Neither the WCC nor the Mountain West had strong NCAA tournaments after solid regular seasons, while the Pac-12 simply did not have a single elite team last season.

If the West Coast is going to emerge from this down period, it needs to start with the Pac-12, which looks to be improved this season thanks to an influx of promising freshmen. Arizona has top 10 potential if Xavier transfer Mark Lyons and elite recruiting class mesh with a handful of key returners. UCLA could also return to the elite if Shabazz Muhammad and Kyle Anderson get eligible. And Stanford, Cal, Colorado, Washington and USC each appear capable of making the NCAA tournament, though many of these teams might be a year away from doing real damage.

Beyond the Pac-12, the Mountain West and WCC have a few teams that could have a Sweet 16 run or better in them. UNLV has its most talented team since the Jerry Tarkanian era, Gonzaga boasts a deep frontcourt and a promising sophomore guard duo and San Diego State adds a handful of promising newcomers in the frontcourt to complement Xavier Thames, Chase Tapley and Jamaal Franklin on the perimeter.

7. Which small-conference school will make it big?

One of the best parts of following college basketball each winter is the emergence of a formidable mid-major program from a league outside the top 10.

Last year, Murray State became a national darling after it started 23-0, Harvard cracked the top 25 and made its first NCAA tournament in decades and Ohio took North Carolina to overtime in the Sweet 16. It's always challenging to project which schools will make that leap into the spotlight prior to the season, but here are a few that are definitely worth watching.

Creighton boasts a preseason All-American in McDermott, good size and outside shooting among its supporting cast and a renewed emphasis on correcting the issues on defense that sometimes cost them a year ago. Drexel has CAA player of the year candidates Frantz Massenat and Damion Lee and ample motivation after being one of last year's final teams left out of the NCAA tournament. And don't sleep on Davidson, which is definitely deeper and maybe even better than the team Stephen Curry led to the Elite Eight in 2008.

8. Can Syracuse or Pittsburgh win the Big East in their final seasons there?

Take a good look at the Big East this winter. It won't be the same the following year. Flagship programs Syracuse and Pittsburgh are playing their final seasons in the Big East this year, as perhaps is Notre Dame, which will also leave for the ACC as soon as it can buy its way out of its contract.

The departing team with the best chance of challenging preseason favorite Louisville is probably Syracuse despite the departure of first-round draft picks Dion Waiters and Fab Melo and senior standouts Kris Joseph and Scoop Jardine. Expect the Orange to rely on their trademark defense early in the season as they wait for a backcourt of versatile senior Brandon Triche, athletic sophomore Michael Carter-Williams and redshirt-freshman Trevor Cooney to jell.

Pittsburgh endured a rare down season last year because the transfer of Khem Birch and the injuries to Tray Woodall forced other players to play out of position and made their defense uncharacteristically weak. With Woodall healthy, transfer Trey Zeigler eligible immediately and top recruit Steven Adams bolstering the frontcourt, the Panthers have a great chance for a bounce-back season and a top four Big East finish.

9. Can Indiana hang its first Final Four banner since 2002?

Last year, Indiana emerged from a lengthy rebuilding process by upsetting Kentucky in December, contending in the Big Ten and advancing to the Sweet 16. Thanks to the return of future lottery pick Cody Zeller and the arrival of a decorated recruiting class, Indiana appears ready to take another step.

The strength of the Hoosiers is a versatile frontcourt featuring Zeller, skilled forward Christian Watford and bruising freshmen Hanner Mosquera-Perea and Peter Jurkin off the bench. Promising freshman Yogi Ferrell, sweet-shooting Jordan Hulls and defensive standout Victor Oladipo are the likely perimeter starters, though Will Sheehey will see playing time and oft-injured Maurice Creek may yet make an impact as a senior if he can stay healthy.

Indiana will be a formidable offensive team with its array of shooters and interior scorers, but there are three big questions about the Hoosiers: Can Ferrell thrive at point guard as a freshman? Can Tom Crean keep everyone happy despite a limited amount of minutes to go around? And can the team improve defensively? If the answer to those is yes, this may be the national title favorite. If not, the Hoosiers may not quite live up to expectations.

10. Which freshmen can make the biggest impact this season?

There are some obvious answers here. Kentucky will go as its freshman class develops. UCLA and Arizona cannot make big leaps without their freshmen making immediate contributions. But there are other freshmen who also will have to play well right away for their teams to meet expectations.

The only way Oklahoma State goes from the middle of the Big 12 to league title contention is if freshman point guard Marcus Smart provides the immediate scoring and leadership the Cowboys have lacked at that position. Pittsburgh also is counting on New Zealand native Steven Adams to solidify its frontcourt and help propel the Panthers back into the Big East's top tier.

Further down the recruiting rankings, a brilliant freshman season from Semaj Christian is probably undermanned Xavier's best hope of a surprising top six finish in the Atlantic 10. The Musketeers lost the core of last year's team and fellow freshmen Jalen Reynolds and Myles Davis, but Christian is a capable heir apparent to Tu Holloway.

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Memphis invades Big East country to land Kuran Iverson, Allen Iverson’s highly touted cousin

25 Sep

The most significant aspect of Kuran Iverson's decision to attend Memphis on Tuesday isn't that he's the Tigers' fourth elite commitment for the class of 2013 or even that he's former NBA all-star Allen Iverson's cousin.

What matters most is where he's from.

Iverson is a native of Hartford, Conn., not exactly a traditional recruiting hotbed for a program like Memphis. Now that the Tigers are a year away from making their Big East debut, however, it has enabled coach Josh Pastner to recruit the Northeast in a way he couldn't before.

Landing Iverson is a coup for Memphis even though his game hardly resembles his famous cousin's.

Iverson is a gifted 6-foot-8 forward who creates matchup problems for opponents with his ability to handle the ball on the perimeter and make plays for his teammates. He has yo-yoed up and down recruiting rankings, starting as a top 10 prospect because of his talent, plummeting when analysts questioned his effort and attitude and now rising again back to No. 24 in the Rivals 150 after an improved performance this past summer.

Memphis out-dueled the likes of Florida and Connecticut to land Iverson, who will spend his final year of high school at Fishburne Military Academy (Va.). Iverson joins three other top 100 prospects in the Tigers' Class of 2013: Nick King (No. 37), Markel Crawford (No. 50) and Rashawn Powell (No. 98).

There's no question Memphis will have plenty of talent when it joins the Big East next fall. And while the Tigers' recruiting hotbed will remain the city of Memphis, it looks like they'll be able to raid Big East country for players once in a while too.

Fantasy Football video from Yahoo! Sports:

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Tags: , cousin, , , Kuran, , talent
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The Morning After: Charles Back In Charge

24 Sep
Jamaal Charles joins some elite historical company, but which other players have stood out for better or worse? Chet Gresham recaps the Week 3 action.
Tags: , Charles Back In Charge Jamaal Charles, Chet Gresham recaps, , , ,
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INTERVIEW-Golf-Snedeker set for big week in Atlanta, and at Ryder Cup (Reuters)

19 Sep
ATLANTA, Sept 19 (Reuters) - Golfers often talk about pacing themselves for big events and Brandt Snedeker says that will be his top priority at this week's elite Tour Championship before making his Ryder Cup debut for the United States next week. The fast-talking American is one of only 30 players competing in the PGA Tour's playoff finale starting on Thursday, and is one of just five who would be guaranteed the season-long FedExCup title and its lucrative bonus with victory on Sunday. ...
Tags: , , Brandt Snedeker, , INTERVIEW-Golf-Snedeker, , , , , , top priority,
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