NBA 2015 Title Odds: Cavs emerge as favorites

A few weeks removed from the entertaining chaos that was the initial wave of the NBA’s free agency period, it’s an ideal time to look at the odds for the 2015 championship and dissect them for value.

If you were sage enough to jump on the Cleveland Cavaliers before LeBron James decided to return back to the team he spurned in 2010, you very easily could be sitting with them at 50-1.  For everyone else though the Cavs are now sitting around 7-2, the favorites to take home the Larry O’Brien trophy next season.  I realize Cleveland plays in the East and that LeBron easily makes them a 50 win squad, but it still seems like a bit of stretch considering what the Spurs did to the Heat last month.  Vegas might be banking on Kevin Love arriving to the team via trade.

San Antonio (9-2) retained all of their players, essentially running back the team that just won the title.  Getting out of the brutal Western Conference for a third consecutive year will be quite a challenge, especially with another year on the books for Duncan/Parker/Manu.  Coach Pop remains the best in the business however, and no team will be as deep as the Spurs.

I think the Bulls (13-2) will challenge the Cavs for supremacy in the Eastern Conference, but it once again depends on the health of D-Rose.  Rose has been snake bitten of late, and I truly hope he can remain healthy and get back to being the player he was just a few short years ago.  The addition of Pau Gasol to the frontline of Noah and Gibson provides the Bulls with arguably the deepest trio of “bigs” in the entire NBA.  If Coach Thibs can get this crew to the playoffs in once piece, they should be able to power their way to at least the Eastern Conference Finals.

Despite losing Omer Asik, Jeremy Lin, and Chandler Parsons, and failing to land Chris Bosh or Carmelo Anthony, the Rockets (10-1) are still being considered one of the favorites.  Howard and Harden are great players, but overall this team might take a step back this season.  They seem primed for another first round exit unless they are able to make a move during the season to upgrade their roster.  Stay away.

The LeBron-less Heat might be a sneaky pickup at 25-1.  They brought back Bosh and Wade and have added Luol Deng and Josh McRoberts to a squad that will be motivated to prove they can win without LBJ.  I know everyone points to Wade and his health, but seeing if Bosh can perform as a max level player this year will be interesting to watch.  Can they get 20/10 out of him?  If so, I wouldn’t count Miami out in what is being called a wide open Eastern Conference.

My prime pick at the moment is the Thunder (13-2).  Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka are gradually approaching the prime of their respective careers, and I have to believe that one of these years they will all be healthy in June and take that much anticipated next step.  Two years ago it was Westbrook going down, and this year Ibaka wasn’t 100%.  If players such as Jeremy Lamb and Percy Jones can continue develop into serviceable role players, I don’t see even the Spurs stopping OKC this year.

Rory McIlroy wins 2014 Open Championship

Rory McIlroy finds himself in some elite company following his dazzling wire-to-wire victory at the Open Championship.

Only 25,  McIlroy became the third youngest-player in the Masters era to win three majors and the third-youngest to win three legs of the career Grand Slam, behind only Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods.

It was amazing to watch Rors tear apart Royal Liverpool, employing his crazy length to decimate the par-5 holes and leave the rest of the field playing catch-up.
He led the field with an average driving distance of 328 yards, reaching seven par-5s in two shots and creating numerous eagle/birdie opportunities.  For the week Rory shot 12-under on the par-5 holes, reminding us all of what Tiger Woods used to look like before age and inaccuracy started to take hold.

With a six-shot lead heading into the final round, it was going to take a monumental effort for someone to be able to track down McIlroy.  Rickie Fowler and Sergio Garcia each played a final 18 that exceeded what the leader put up, but Rory’s cushion was large enough that he closed with a workmanlike 1-under 71 and still won by two strokes.

Though appreciative of the dominant performance by Rory, it would have been intriguing to see what would have happened if Dustin Johnson could’ve put his own length to use and cleaned up on the par-5s this week, or if Fowler didn’t get sloppy on the back-nine on Saturday, or if Garcia didn’t have the mishap in the bunker on 15.  The margin for error is so small when Rory is locked on, and each of these players gave away just enough shots for this tournament to end relatively free of drama.

Now, all that stands between McIlroy  and the career Grand Slam is a win at the Masters.  With his skill set it is only a matter of time, and he certainly seems intent on winning at Augusta sooner rather than later.

Golf’s latest transcendent superstar has managed to make the greatest players in the world seem mortal over the course of a few weekends in recent years, beginning at the 2011 U.S. Open at Congressional and later at the 2012 PGA Championship. It’s still a little early to compare Rory to the Tiger of the early 2000s, but in some tournaments he does give off that impression that he is in complete control and can flat out overpower both the course and the rest of the field.  His confidence might rub some the wrong way, but you have to admire someone who plays with such ferocity and fearlessness.

After an up and down 2013, it’s clear that Rory is back in form and will be the favorite to once again hoist the Wanamaker Trophy at Valhalla next month.  Though he has Augusta in his sights, his next test is to win consecutive majors and continue building on his impressive resume.

 

In Pursuit of Melo

With today being the start of the NBA’s free agency period, Carmelo Anthony can officially begin visiting the bevy of teams clamoring for his unique set of skills. The market for Melo is competitive, filled with organizations looking to add a player capable of helping them be part of the championship mix for the next four or five years.

Depending on who you believe, the informal recruitment of Melo started many months ago, with an off the record pitch being delivered by a certain member of the Chicago Bulls during All-Star weekend. Since that time there has been a lot of speculation about whether he wants to stay in New York, and with meetings set for this week and next we should know very soon where Melo intends to write the next chapter of his career.

Unless a mystery team emerges out of left field, the favorites for Melo remain (in no particular order) the Bulls, Knicks, Dallas Mavericks, Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Lakers. Betfair Sportsbook even recently released odds on which team he will land with:

  • Chicago Bulls – 5/4
  • NY Knicks – 9/4
  • Houston Rockets – 7/2
  • Dallas Mavericks – 8/1
  • Miami Heat – 12/1
  • LA Lakers – 14/1
  • LA Clippers – 20/1
  • Cleveland Cavaliers – 33/1
  • The Field – 4/1

Carmelo has stated that at this point in his career it is all about winning, and if that is truly the case I would advise him to stay out of the Western Conference by any means necessary. Though the Heat have had a stranglehold on the East for the last four years, getting past one team as opposed to the eight or nine strong contenders who routinely beat each other up out West seems like the better way to go.

Pairing Melo with Dwight Howard and James Harden on the Rockets would make for an appealing threesome, but acquiring him would likely come at the expense of losing some of their essential role players. You need depth to escape out West (as the Spurs just proved), and having one of the best centers in the NBA and two dynamic scorers might not be enough to beat the OKC’s  and San Antonio’s of the world.

His former frontline mate Tyson Chandler was just traded back to the Mavericks, reuniting the valued rim protector with Dirk Nowitzki. Chandler played a major role in the Mavs winning the title back in 2010, and Mark Cuban is banking on him again being a major asset for a team that took the Spurs to seven games in the first round of the playoffs. Dallas will try to sell this to Melo as a sign that they are close to getting over the hump, but does he really want to risk his future on a joining the 36 year-old Dirk and soon to be 32 year-old Chandler on a brittle frontline? Seems like a very small window of opportunity. I do think that Rick Carlisle is one of the top coaches in the entire NBA, but even that wouldn’t be enough to sell me on the Mavs if I were Melo.

The Lakers? I know Carmelo and Kobe are tight, but that can only carry so much weight. Besides, can we be certain how much Kobe has left in the tank at this point? Probably more than D-Wade but certainly not enough to be a top ten player on a nightly basis. With no coach and only a few players currently under contract, this is a franchise and roster that is in a state of flux at the moment. Outside of the far-fetched rumor of LeBron/Carmelo possibly joining forces in Los Angeles, I don’t see this the Lakers getting very far in their pursuit.

The Clippers on the other hand would be very interesting. Out of all the teams in the Western Conference, from a basketball standpoint this makes the most sense to me. You have a great coach in Doc Rivers, an explosive power forward in Blake Griffin, and arguably the best point in the NBA in Chris Paul. How great would it be for Melo if he actually had a point guard capable of creating easy looks for him, or a big man down low that actually commands the occasional double team? This scenario would likely extend his career for several additional years. Unfortunately, given the monetary demands of Melo and the current contract commitments that the Clippers have, the chances of this occurring are probably close to the 20/1 listed above.

Chicago has been the pseudo favorite for Carmelo right off the rip. They are many pros to this arrangement, such as:

  • Remaining in the Eastern Conference.
  • Playing for a highly respected coach in Tom Thibodeau.
  • Playing with two of the NBA’s better interior players in Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson (assuming they don’t have to give up Gibson to acquire Melo), and a fierce wing defender in Jimmy Butler.
  • Playing alongside a former league MVP in Derek Rose.
  • Suiting up with a team presumably ready to win now.

Sounds good right? But Melo has to be at least aware of the negatives of playing in Chicago for a coach like Thibs, for he is notorious for wearing out players with his relentless style. The demands Thibs puts on his players (along with the insane minutes he plays his starters) might wear out his new star before the team even begins the playoffs. And then there is Derek Rose, his injury history, and questions regarding whether or not he will ever be the same player again. Melo would be going to Chicago in theory to play with another superstar, and if Rose can’t be that guy anymore it could be a repeat of the Amar’e Stoudemire situation all over again for him.

Selfishly, I hope Carmelo stays with the Knicks. He is someone I have rooted for since his year in upstate New York back in 2002-2003, and watching him play these last few years in New York with the Knicks has renewed my interest in my favorite team. I realize he doesn’t want to waste another prime year of his career and that it would be a gamble banking on Phil Jackson to make the decisions necessary to improve the roster and attract free agents. I certainly wouldn’t begrudge Melo if he left, but with the competitive nature of the Western Conference and degree of  uncertainty in Chicago, building something sustainable in New York might not be out of the realm of possibility just yet.

Mickelson at the U.S. Open

Every year when the U.S. Open rolls around, the talk of this grueling tournament inevitably turns to the trial and tribulations of Phil Mickelson.  Even when Tiger Woods is in the field, one of the main storylines followed typically revolves around Lefty and his never-ending quest to win the only major that has eluded him.

Following his near-miss at Merion in 2013 and his history at Pinehurst with Payne Stewart in 1999, the “now or never” talk surrounding Phil and the U.S. Open has been ratcheted up to a few notches.  Combine that with his advancing age, his name being mentioned in a recent insider trading probe, and the power vacuum on tour created by the absence of Tiger, and the sport of golf is increasingly Lefty-centric these days.    

Ever the crowd favorite, a large portion of fans would welcome the site of Phil getting over the hump and winning the tourney that in some ways has come to define him.  Though he has now won five major championships (including an out of left field weekend performance that led him to capturing the 2013 Open Championship), part of which makes Phil such a likeable guy is all of the heartbreak he has endured throughout the years at this event.  The second best golfer of his generation and arguably one of the top ten golfers of all-time, he is such a talented performer that it’s hard to discuss Phil without lamenting the fact that he left left two or three majors on the table.  Personally, I can’t think of Lefty’s storied career without flashing back to the putt made by Payne in 1999, his decision to pull out the driver on the 72nd hole at Winged Foot, and him flying the green on the 13th a year ago at Merion. 

Phil’s 2014 PGA season has been uneven thus far, filled with zero wins, no top ten finishes, and a handful of missed cuts.  He even missed the weekend at the Masters in April, an event he traditionally fairs well at.  His lack of success of late has done little to dim his optimism on the eve of the start at Pinehurst, as he feels his game is right where it needs to be and that he can work his way into contention once again.  The ability he has around the greens and along with his propensity to successfully pull off a wide array of shots will definitely serve him well as he attempts to navigate around the treacherous No. 2 course.      

A few months ago, Phil expressed his belief that when it’s all said and done he will have won a couple of U.S. Opens.  A bold statement perhaps, but you have to appreciate the man’s perpetual enthusiasm. As a fan of Lefty’s, the history of the game, and those who ultimately grind their way to redemption, I hope he makes his mark this weekend and finishes the deal, reminding us all that it is never too late capitalize on opportunities.

 

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2014 NBA Finals Preview: Heat and Spurs to meet again

A rematch a year in the making, the NBA Finals commence this Thursday night with the San Antonio Spurs looking to make amends for the title they let slip away.  On the other side of the coin, LeBron James and the Miami Heat will attempt to make a serious dent in the history books by securing their third consecutive championship. 

Looking back at the 2013 Finals, like most I still have a hard time reconciling what went down in those last 28 seconds of Game 6.  The Spurs had seemingly vanquished Miami only to see some lucky bounces, missed free throws, and bizarre rotational decisions by Coach Pop transpire against them all at once.  Five or six different things had to all break the Heat’s way for them to win the title, and due to a myriad of explainable and unexplainable reasons they did.  They won Game 6 and survived a grind it out Game 7, leaving the aging Spurs to ponder how it all went sideways and if they would ever make it back to that point again. 

Most San Antonio fans I know believe they gave that title away last June, and that if Game 6 turned out differently today’s narrative would be quite different.  LeBron would have seen his overall record in the Finals drop to an abysmal 1-3 (instead of a respectable 2-2), Duncan would have joined Kobe Bryant in winning his fifth title, and the future viability of the Miami experiment would be psychoanalyzed relentlessly.  Instead, the Heat has enjoyed the spoils that come with being back-to-back champs while the Spurs have had to fight through the emotional baggage that comes with such a jarring defeat. 

To the delight of a good portion of NBA fans and even casual observers, both the Heat and Spurs took care of business in their respective conferences in order to provide us with the rematch we were clamoring for.  One team gets a quick chance at redemption, while the other can prove once for and for all that 2013 wasn’t a fluke.  Below are a few keys to this matchup:

Home-court advantage:  Unlike a year ago, the Spurs will have the luxury of playing an extra game in their own building if the series goes that far.  This should help them from an offensive standpoint, as so far in the postseason they scoring more points (116.5 vs. 104.8), shooting a higher field goal percentage (50.6% vs. 45.4%), and making more three-pointers per game (9.6 vs. 7.4) per 100 possessions at home versus on the road (per nba.com).  Additionally, it isn’t uncommon for role players (see Danny Green) to feel more comfortable and play much better in front of the home fans.  Conversely, during the playoffs the Heat have been shooting a few percentage points lower on the road and scoring about eight points less per 100 possessions.  Overall though, Miami is a battle tested, veteran laden squad that doesn’t mind playing on the road.  They know everything can change in an instant and the pressure will shift real quickly if they can steal one of the first two games.         

More balance:  San Antonio did a great job this season of getting production from its bench and creating the depth necessary to give their older starters a breather while also allowing Pop the flexibility to experiment with a variety of different lineups.  After looking like a washed-up fighter in last year’s Finals, Manu Ginobili is back to being an offensive force, driving to the rim with reckless abandon in route to scoring over 15 ppg in the last round against OKC.  Kawhi Leonard, Tiago Splitter, Patti Mills, Danny Green, and Boris Diaw have all either improved as players in 2014 or are contributing more to the cause due to familiarity with the Spurs’ system.  The Heat are a tad creakier when it comes to its bench and role players.  Can Miami get four to five good games out of Ray Allen, Norris Cole, Shane Battier and/or Rashard Lewis?  With Mike Miller gone from last year’s squad, Miami needs a few of these shooters to get hot and stretch the floor for LeBron and D-Wade.         

Tony Parker:  Surprise surprise, another playoff run by the Spurs, another Tony Parker injury.  San Antonio’s star point guard is becoming increasingly brittle, and after going in the tank in Games 6 & 7 last year while playing through a bum hamstring, he is now dealing with an ankle injury.  This latest malady, which follows the strained left hamstring he suffered in Game 5 of the West semifinals against Portland, was serious enough to have kept him on the bench for the second half of the series clinching win against OKC.  The Spurs need Parker to be close to his best in this series due to his ability to score (averaging 17.2 PPG in the playoffs) and wreak havoc in the paint.  Despite the prowess of San Antonio’s bench, without Parker closing games it’s hard to envision San Antonio getting to the finish line and winning four times versus LeBron. 

LeBron factor:  This guy is still a freak of nature, terrifying for the opposition to have to deal with.  Going into the fourth quarter you hope your team has a solid cushion, but honestly no lead few than fifteen points feels safe when LeBron is on the floor.  He can still ratchet it up like no other on both ends, so you have to be prepared to meet force with force and hope for the best.  James leads all playoff participants in win shares and PER, a testament to his greatness while also a reflection of the workload he has to carry to get the Heat their W’s.  San Antonio (and Leonard in particular) has to make sure they make him work for everything he gets, take contested jump shots, and not allow him to feast on layups at the rim or fast-break dunks. 

Tougher road:  Miami was able to coast to the Finals, winning fairly easily and getting plenty of rest along the way as they capitalized on a historically pathetic Eastern Conference.  This was extremely beneficial with LeBron, who has played a ton of minutes since arriving in South Beach, and also D-Wade and his suspect knees.  San Antonio had to trudge its way through a brutal Western Conference, battling Dallas for seven games in the first round and playing three more games overall than the Heat did in route to the Finals.  Will those extra minutes played come back to haunt the Spurs?  Or will the minutes restriction Pop placed on all his guys this year (no player logging more than 30 minutes per game) ultimately be their saving grace?

Misc:  Pretty evenly matched series according to those setting the odds, with Miami sitting at -110 on the money line while the Spurs are -135.

Prediction:  While no team has beaten Miami in the playoffs since the Mavericks back in 2011, San Antonio appears to have all the components necessary to get the job done.  They are deep and talented enough to counteract everything that the Heat will throw at them, employ one of the better coaches in the league in Pop, and will have the benefit of the home-court.  There is also the revenge/motivation factor – they have waited a year to get back to this point and are determined to finish the job.  LeBron will make this a closer series than it should be, but if everyone holds up physically (primarily Parker and Wade), I like the Spurs to take it in 7.   

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2 Things Jon Jones Needs to Do Differently in Rematch with Alexander Gustafsson

In one of the most epic battles in UFC history, at 165, Jon Jones fought to retain his light heavyweight title against No. 1 contender Alexander Gustafsson. Although the champion successfully defended his title, he was badly beaten and hospitalized immediately following the bout. If Jones wishes to not just win in a rematch with Gustafsson, but to do so unscathed, it would serve him well to minimize damage and maximize his talents.

Click here for full article.


Clinton Bullock is a Brazilian
jiu-jitsu practitioner and has studied mixed martial arts for many
years. He has been published in Yahoo News, Bleacher Report,
Philadelphia Sunday Sun Newspaper, and Next Step Magazine. Follow him on
MMAUnchained.net, Facebook & Twitter @clintonbullock.

Nets Fall Short Against The Heat In Game Four

If Brooklyn’s season comes to end Wednesday night in South Beach, they will look back on the final minutes of Monday’s 102-96 loss to the Miami Heat and lament the fact that they let a golden opportunity pass them by.

The game was right there for them to take. Despite all of the heroics of LeBron James, be it the step back jumpers, the deep bombs, or the rim-rattling dunks,with less than two minutes to go the Nets had the ball with a chance to break a 94-94 tie.

For much of the contest, Brooklyn had done a masterful job of keeping the ball moving and working for a clean look, often passing up good shots for even better ones. However, at the end of Game 4, they elected to dump the ball down to Joe Johnson, their designated “closer”, and let him go right at King James. Johnson did his best to initiate contact and draw a sixth foul on James, but eventually had to settle for a contested 14-foot turnaround jumper with 1:16 left. After that miss, on the ensuing possession James drew a small crowd and moved the ball until it found its way to Chris Bosh for an open 3-point dagger that gave Miami a 97-94 lead.

The Nets still had plenty of time to close the gap and extend the game, but on the next possession they once again had Johnson go against LeBron in isolation. This time, James appeared to fall on his back (or flop) after Johnson drove into him, and the end result was a 11-foot runner that came up short.

It was without a doubt an impressive all-around performance by LeBron, scoring 49 points while going 16-24 from the field, yet Brooklyn still could have escaped with the victory had they only executed better down the stretch. The Nets managed to score just two field goals in the final 7:24 of the game, a demoralizing statistic when you consider the amount of play makers they have on their team and that their season was basically on the line. Though he played better, a lot of the blame will still fall on Deron Williams. D-Will attacked the paint and competed with great energy, but still was a mediocre 5-for-14 from the field. The usually reliable Joe Johnson did manage to finish with 18 points, but his two late misses soured his outing and didn’t help his 5-for-15 shooting line.

Down 3-1 in the series, the Nets must forget this loss quickly and focus on winning one game. They can take solace in the fact that they are veteran squad not opposed to playing on the road, that they won twice in Miami during the regular season and already escaped a do-or-die Game 7 in Toronto during these playoffs. It also took a superhuman effort out of LeBron for the Heat to emerge victorious last night, playing 43 minutes and exerting a great deal of effort.  I know he wants to close out the Nets as soon as possible, but let’s see if Brooklyn can once again limit the effectiveness of Miami’s role players and make James do it on his own. This will be a challenge, as his running mates will likely get a shot of life playing in front of the home crowd.

Despite the throttling from his primary rival, Paul Pierce managed to retain his swagger afterwards, proclaiming “the series is far from over”. To make good on this promise, Brooklyn could use a Deron Williams circa 2009 performance. I know it seems like a lifetime ago, but for a short period of time D-Will was right up there with Chris Paul in regards to being talked about as the best point guard in the league. Injuries have zapped him of some of his powers, but on the right night for brief stretches he can still look like the best player on the floor.

With their collective age and difficulty closing games in the fourth quarter, the Nets desperately needs this version of Williams to take control in the last twelve minutes on Wednesday night if they have any hope of bringing this series back to Brooklyn.

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