Saturday, July 27, 2013

Indoctrination

So we're going up to Ruston tomorrow because one of my nephews is getting baptized, and quite frankly, I haven't made too many trips to visit with family members and it's just time to do so.

We're supposed to go to the 9 a.m. service to see my eldest nephew, who recently turned 9, get baptized at Temple Baptist Church (Temple peeps, if you're reading this, holla at ya boy). A family lunch is planned afterward, and then soon we'll have to hit the road for the long drive south, stopping in Pineville along the way to pick up the pups (who get a free morning and afternoon at Granny's sans parents and grandparents -- PARTAY!).

There's only one issue with this schedule. The USMNT (that's U.S. Men's National [Soccer] Team for you soccer novices) plays in the Gold Cup final at 3 p.m. As most of you folks know, I'm a huge sports nut (hence the blog title), with soccer being one of the top three (along with football and basketball, with the order changing by the season). However, there isn't a team that I follow more closely than the USMNT.

I figure with a couple of impressionable 9-year-olds and a nearly 7-year-old, what better time to introduce them to the beautiful game than tomorrow, right? Now, I've just to get the kiddos on board with the plan. Let the brainwashing -- I mean, indoctrination -- begin!

Friday, July 26, 2013

So I have a little announcement ...

I wanted to let you guys in on a little good news ...

Elizabeth and I are moving back to Alexandria! I have accepted a job as sports editor of The Town Talk, and I am extremely excited to be headed back into the sports realm.

I've spent the past 13 months as a reporter for The Advocate in Baton Rouge, and three years prior to that as the city government reporter for The Town Talk. While I thought I would be able to navigate my way in a metro department, I haven't been able to find the kind of professional happiness that I had when I worked in a sports department.

I am anxious for this new challenge, being in charge of my own department. It's a job I've wanted for quite some time, and I thought it would be a natural progression having previously served as The Town Talk's assistant sports editor. I'm looking forward to stretching myself professionally and immersing myself again in the sports world.

My first day back in Alexandria will be Aug. 19, and I'm arriving back in town right in time for the start of football season. I have some great ideas and am looking forward to pouring my heart and soul into the Cenla sports scene again. I'll have more details once I settle in, and I can't wait to see some old faces again!

Friday, July 05, 2013

And the 'Dwightmare' endeth

Dwight Howard is a Rocket, and thus ends one of the strangest sagas ever for a premier professional basketball player. In case you've been ignoring the NBA for the past two years, the 27-year-old and best big man on the planet has publily twisted and waffled his way through free agency.

Last summer, with the opportunity to hit the open market by opting out of his contract with the Orlando Magic, Howard did the exact opposite, hoping to force a trade to his team of choice, the Brooklyn Nets (who couldn't sign him as a free agent). Instead, he was traded to the Lakers, who assembled what looked to be an championship contender. However, they struggled all season long and found themselves out of the playoffs in the first round.

Howard settled on five possible destinations: Houston, Dallas, Golden State, staying with the Lakers or playing for his hometown Atlanta Hawks. After interviewing with all of the teams this week, he trimmed his list to Houston, L.A. and Golden State before reportedly picking the Rockets

As NBA fans put up with the Dwightmare, Howard's stock dropped in the eyes of the public. He's still the most talented big man in the league, but many people said due to his immaturity and inability to raise his game under the bright lights of Hollywood, that they wouldn't want him on their team. It's crazy to type this, but Howard actually has become somewhat underrated -- nearly impossible for a player of his caliber who is demaning a max contract on the open market.

Despite his struggles in L.A., Howard still logged averages of 17.1 points and an NBA-high 12.4 rebounds. He was still an All-Star and still remained a Defensive Player of the Year candidate with 2.4 blocks per game. He's a three-time Defensive Player of the Year and a seven-time All-Star who instantly turns the Rockets into one of the top contenders in the Western Conference.

But can Houston really compete? It's still too early to tell because the reshaping of the Rockets' roster remains a work in progress. One person who will be playing with Howard is James Harden, the team's breakout star from last year. After being traded before last season from Oklahoma City, Harden proved that he could be the go-to scorer and franchise leader. Howard and Harden should form a dynamic duo. But who will join them?

One possibility is Josh Smith. Smith is a young, athletic power forward who like Howard is from the Atlanta area. The two go way back, and Howard is one of the people pushing to land Smith. Smith's game has some holes, but he could be a No. 3 star on a legitimate contender. Harden-Howard-Smith could be an intriguing "Big 3," though there are questions about Howard's and Smith's maturity level. Smith's game is offensively limited -- he's a terrible spot-up shooter, but despite that, enjoys putting up jumpers -- but he and Howard could form a dominant frontline on defense.

Another possibility is Ryan Anderson. Rumors have started swirling about a possible trade sending Omer Asik, the Rockets' center who is now expendable, to New Orleans for Anderson, a stretch 4 who averaged 16.2 points in his only season in New Orleans. The Pelicans are looking for size after trading last year's center, Robin Lopez, as part of a package to acquire Tyreke Evans, so this trade could be a win-win for both teams.

The Rockets have some other intriguing pieces -- Jeremy Lin, Chandler Parsons, Patrick Beverley, Donatas Montiejunas, Terrance Jones, Isaiah Canaan. They could put some interesting combinations on the floor, but is it enough to compete with the Lakers and Thunder in the West? If Howard becomes the Howard of old -- the 20-point, 14-rebound guy who dominated on both ends of the floor in Orlando; not the guy who struggled with injuries and pressure in L.A. last year -- and Harden continues to develop into one of the top 10 players in the NBA, then that seems like a legitimate contender. Those are big ifs right, but the likelihood is those ifs actually become true.

What's going on in Nola?

So let me catch up real quick on what's going on with the New Orleans Pelicans. The team targeted restricted free agent Tyreke Evans, offering him a four-year, $44-million contract. He accepted. Fans (mostly) rejoiced. Then, they found out, no, it's actually a sign-and-trade bringing Evans to the Big Easy in return for last year's starting point guard, Greivis Vasquez, and starting center, Robin Lopez. OK ...

Of course, this came a week after the team traded not one but two first-round draft picks (this year's No. 6 pick and next year's first-rounder in a loaded draft [that is top-5 protected]) in return for former 76ers point guard Jrue Holiday. So in come Holiday and Evans, and out go two picks and two starters. I know the Hornets weren't very good last year, but that does seem like a high price to pay.

Vasquez finished third in the NBA last year in assists at 9.0 per game, and at $2.1 million would have been a great value even as a backup combo guard. Lopez was an unspectacular center, but at $5.1 million, he was a pretty cheap option. Now with those salaries out, and with Evans' and Holiday's $11 million salaries coming on the books, the Pelicans have about $58.4 million committed next year to seven players -- Holiday, Evans, Eric Gordon, Anthony Davis, Jason Smith and Austin Rivers -- with team options totaling about $2.5 million on three other players (Terrel Harris, Lance Thomas and Darius Miller). They also have their second-rounder, Baylor guard Pierre Jackson, and the rights to second-rounder Jeff Withey, a center from Kansas, coming over in the Evans trade.

The projected salary cap next year is $58.5 million, meaning that even without picking up the three team options, the Pelicans are over the cap. How do they fill out the roster with so little wiggle room, especially knowing the team is not going to approach the luxury tax level expected to be between $70 million and $71 million.

If they sign Jackson and Withey and pick up all three options, the Pelicans would have 12 players under contract totaling around $62 million. Because they're over the cap, the Pelicans would be able to offer a free agent the full mid-level exception of $5.15 million annually (or split that among multiple free agents).

I still have some major concerns about the way this roster is shaping up. The starting lineup today would likely feature a backcourt of the 6-4 Holiday, 6-3 Gordon and 6-5 Evans. While Holiday brings nice size for a point guard, Gordon and Evans are undersized for their positions. There are also major questions in the post. Davis is locked in as the power forward of the future, but who plays center? Is the Pelicans' brass comfortable with the combination of Jason Smith and Jeff Withey at the 5? That seems like a downgrade from last year. That would also leave Anderson, Rivers, Thomas, Miller, Jackson and Harris as bench options, with likely only Anderson and Rivers (assuming he improves over his ghastly rookie performance) as locks in the rotation.

It's clear that the Pelicans need to target a big man with the full mid-level exception. They're not going to be able to get someone like Paul Millsap or Carl Landry, most likely, for that kind of money. The best candidates likely are someone like Chris "Birdman" Andersen (who played in New Orleans in the past), Cole Aldrich, J.J. Hickson and DeJuan Blair. If they choose to go after a guard, some intriguing options likely would be Jarrett Jack (another former Hornet, though he's probably too expensive), Nate Robinson (again, maybe too pricey), Matt Barnes, Daniel Gibson and Wayne Ellington. All of those guys would immediately step in and contribute to the second unit.

Ultimately, Dell Demps still needs to tweak this roster. If he can flip Gordon for a couple of assets (or better yet, straight up for Indiana's Danny Granger), that would be a good thing to do. The fans aren't buying into Gordon after last summer's free agency fiasco, and he doesn't fit in with this small backcourt. They need to get bigger at small forward with Evans moving to the shooting guard position. I still don't fully understand the big picture, but I'm eagerly watching to find out.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

This just makes too much sense ...

Two days have passed since the 2013 NBA Draft, and with each passing moment I get more of a sinking feeling about the move my New Orleans Pelicans made Thursday night. Just to sum it up: the Pelicans traded the No. 6 pick and their first-rounder next year (as long as it's not in the top 5) to the 76ers for All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday and a second-rounder that turned into Baylor point guard Pierre Jackson.

Let's forget for a second that the pick turned into Nerlens Noel. I don't think Noel and Anthony Davis can play with one another. First of all, they're both skinny power forwards who are offensively limited. If you put them together on a front line, I think you're eventually asking for trouble on both ends of the floor. If the Pelicans kept the pick, I don't think they go with Noel. But I don't understand why they didn't decide to take Kansas guard Ben McLemore, who is most likely to be an All-Star out of this class and went seventh to Sacramento, and then keep next year's likely lottery selection in a loaded draft.

So, while I stew on that decision (Aside: Don't get me wrong; I like Holiday. Not only does he have ties to my hometown [Ruston, La., in the house!], but he's a 23-year-old guard whose best basketball is ahead of him. I like the idea of pairing him with this year's starting point guard, Greivis Vasquez, and have two taller ball handlers on the floor at the same time), I decided to come up with another trade scenario that would go a long way to making the Pelicans playoff contenders (rather than contenders to keep their top-5 pick next summer).

The trade makes so much sense and is so simple that you can just swap one player on each team. The Pelicans should ship shooting guard Eric Gordon to Indiana in return for small forward Danny Granger. Seriously, I can't be the only person who has thought of this. It makes too much sense!

First, let's look at Gordon, who was the centerpiece of the trade the sent CP3 out of the Big Easy. But it's been a disastrous experiment so far. Gordon struggled with a knee injury during his first season in New Orleans, playing only nine games. Then he signed a max contract with the Phoenix Suns as a restricted free agent, telling the New Orleans front office that he didn't want the team to match the contract. Of course, the team couldn't let Gordon walk away because the it wouldn't have gotten anything back for CP3. Gordon again struggled with knee problems this past year, but he was able to play 42 games and average 17 points per game. Still, most Pelican fans don't feel that Gordon is committed to the team, and they were disappointed with his season this past year.

Granger, meanwhile, suddenly finds himself expendable in Indiana, which took the Heat to seven games in the Eastern Conference finals while Granger was on the bench. Granger battled a left knee injury and had two surgeries while playing only five games in 2012-13. While he was out, Paul George emerged as the Pacers' new star. The problem? Both George and Granger play the same position, and since George is seven years younger, it makes sense for the Pacers to look to move Granger.

Why does it make sense for these two teams? It's pretty simple. Gordon doesn't want to be in New Orleans, but he grew up in Indianapolis and played one season of college ball at the University of Indiana. He would certainly be motivated playing for his hometown team as it tries to prevent the Heat three-peat. Granger, meanwhile, played his high school ball in New Orleans, so his would be a homecoming as well. The salary difference is negligible (Granger's contract expires next year, while Gordon's has three years remaining), and ESPN's NBA Trade Machine says the trade would be successful.

But how successful would it really be?

I know the Heat wouldn't be fans of this trade, as it makes the Pacers even more dangerous. Adding Gordon to the roster that took Miami to seven games last year could make Indiana the favorite in the East. You could slide Gordon into the starting lineup with a backcourt of George Hill at the point and Paul George at small forward, along with David West at the 4 and Roy Hibbert at center. That allows Lance Stephenson to move back to a sixth-man role and be the primary scorer with the second unit. Stephenson can spell both Gordon and George at the 2 and the 3, and you could even play a backcourt of Gordon, Stephenson and George at times. This is definitely a move that would improve the Pacers.

As for the Pelicans, Granger would slide into the starting small forward position that is being vacated by Al-Farouq Aminu's pending free agency, and give them a primary scorer that they didn't really have (Gordon struggled to fill that role and is better as a No. 2 or No. 3 player on a contender). Holiday and Vazquez can start next to him in the backcourt with Anthony Davis at the 4 and Robin Lopez at the 5. The Pelicans have plenty of cap room to make a run at a second-tier free agent such as Paul Millsap, another Louisiana native, to add to a second unit of Ryan Anderson and a hopefully much improved Austin Rivers.

Again, it's almost as if this trade makes too much sense, so it's bound not to happen. It would reinvigorate Gordon's career while allowing the Pacers to move an expiring asset that is no longer needed because of Paul George and Lance Stephenson (and to a lesser extent, the drafting of Solomon Hill). There's no doubt it would make both teams better -- Indiana as a major title contender, and New Orleans as a possible playoff contender.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Epic Soccer Blog, Part II

It's been almost two years (minus five days) since I wrote a blog post titled "Epic Soccer Blog" in which I attempted to predict the U.S. men's national soccer team's roster for the 2014 World Cup. A whole lot has changed in the past two years, not the least of which is it has a new manager. When I wrote that post, Bob Bradley was still the boss. Not it's Jurgen Klinsmann. Plenty more has changed. New faces have emerged, especially players who have ties to Klinsmann's home country, Germany. Other faces have basically disappeared. Still, two years after that originally post and about a year away from the World Cup in Brazil, I'd like to take another crack at predicting the squad. I'll evaluate my choices from the summer of 2011 and see what it appears I got right and what I completely whiffed on, then pick an updated roster. (Note: There's still plenty of time for players to jostle for position on the depth chart. Guys will emerge at next month's Gold Cup as well as in the remaining World Cup qualifiers, where the U.S. can wrap up a berth in Brazil in September.)

Goalkeepers
Previous choices: Tim Howard, Brad Guzan, Sean Johnson.
Updated choices: Howard, Guzan, Nick Rimando.

Howard has been the unquestioned No. 1 choice for several years, serving as a backup during the 2006 World Cup and then playing every minute during the 2010 World Cup. The 34-year-old Everton keeper hasn't done anything to lose his job, even as Guzan has made a push for more playing time after a standout season for Aston Villa in the Premier League. Despite Guzan's push, Howard started all three recent World Cup qualifiers and was solid in three U.S. victories. The 27-year-old Guzan provides the U.S. with a very capable backup, while the No. 3 slot is up for grabs. Originally, I chose Johnson, the 24-year-old Chicago Fire keeper. There isn't really any question that Johnson is the future in net for the U.S., and I originally picked him because I don't believe Rimando is anything more than an undersized backup. Johnson, however, hasn't been great for the Fire this year, while the 34-year-old Rimando is one of four MLS keepers to give less than a goal per game and his 77 percent save percentage rate is tied for tops in the league. Simply put, at this point, I think Klinsmann trusts Rimando more than Johnson.

Missing the cut: Johnson, Bill Hamid, Tally Hall. Again, I think Johnson is the frontrunner to push Guzan in 2018, and most likely, two of these three guys will make that roster with Howard and Rimando getting up there in age. We'll likely get a better feel for the pecking order with these guys at the Gold Cup. Rimando, Johnson, Hamid and Hall are the four keepers who will battle for three spots on that roster, and we'll see who emerges when given the opportunity in net.

Defense
Previous choices: Gale Agbossoumonde, Joe Amon, Carlos Bocanegra, Timmy Chandler, Maurice Edu, Omar Gonzalez, Eric Lichaj, Tim Ream.
Updated choices: DaMarcus Beasley, Matt Besler, Bocanegra, Geoff Cameron, Chandler, Steve Cherundolo, Gonzalez, Fabian Johnson.

Obviously, I didn't do quite so well here. Five of the eight are players I didn't have on my roster two years ago. "The Boss" is still a young prospect at 21, trying to find his way in MLS. He hasn't made an appearance for the U.S. national team in three years, though I wouldn't count him out down the road. I took a flyer on Amon, who just finished his freshman year at North Carolina. He has a long way to go to get to this level. Edu, Lichaj and Ream all are guys who seem to have fallen out of favor and weren't put on the 35-man provisional Gold Cup roster.

As for guys who I think will make, it's an eclectic group. Beasley has had a resurgence after moving to left back after spending most of his career as an offensive player. Besler and Gonzales have formed the center-back duo in the past three World Cup qualifiers, and though they don't have a ton of experience (about a dozen caps between them), they seem to be the frontrunners to start in central defense in Brazil. I had counted out Cherundolo, who will be 35 next year, but the experience he and former captain Bocanegra, 34, (who needs a strong Gold Cup showing and to clear up his club situation) could prove invaluable. Cameron's versatility (he can play right back, central defense or defensive midfielder) and strong performance with Stoke City in the Premier League make him a must for this roster. Johnson, meanwhile, has been a standout at both left back and left wing and is a strong contender to start at either position.

As of today, if I had to pick a starting lineup of those eight, it would be Chandler, Besler, Gonzalez and Johnson -- though I wouldn't be surprised if Johnson started at left wing with Beasley at left back and/or Cameron started at defensive midfield.

Missing the cut: Edgar Castillo, Clarence Goodson, Oguchi Onyewu, Michael Orozco, Michael Parkhurst, Ream. Most of these players, particularly Onyewu, a former stalwart in central defense, will get a chance to make a name for themselves at the Gold Cup. The problem for these guys is there aren't many spots available.

Midfielders
Previous choices: Freddy Adu, Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, Mixx Diskerud, Landon Donovan, Benny Feilhaber, Stu Holden, Brek Shea.
Updated choices: Bradley, Dempsey, Donovan, Edu, Holden, Jermaine Jones, Shea, Graham Zusi.

Midfield is clearly the deepest position in the country, and I'd feel comfortable with any of these eight players stepping into the starting lineup. In fact, I'd argue that Klinsmann is going to have some very difficult decisions ahead. Dempsey has developed into a world-class player as a withdrawn striker or central midfielder. His flair and creativity is brilliant, and he's well on his way to passing Donovan as the greatest player to ever wear the stars and stripes. Donovan hasn't worked his way back onto the roster after his self-imposed soccer sabbatical at the beginning of the year, but his form has been fine in recent weeks with the L.A. Galaxy, and he's likely to shine during the Gold Cup.

The U.S. under Klinsmann has typically played a 4-5-1 that sometimes has been defensive-minded and other times looks like a 4-3-3 with two attacking-minded withdrawn forwards in the midfield. Because of the versatility of the midfield (including Fabian Johnson's and Cameron's ability to play in the midfield), there are a number of different options. He can go more defensive-minded with Jones, Edu and/or Cameron and Bradley all in together, or he can really attack with Bradley as a defensive midfielder with Holden, Dempsey and two wingers. It will be interesting to see how it plays out.

My preference would be to play Shea and Zusi (who has been playing so well that Donovan hasn't really been missed) on the wings with a central trio of Bradley, Donovan and Dempsey. But I also know that Klinsmann is a huge fan of Jermaine Jones, and it's going to be likely that he's in the starting XI. There is depth at every position -- Jones, Edu, Bradley and Cameron can play defensive mid; Bradley, Donovan, Dempsey and Holden can play attacking mid; Zusi and Donovan can play on the right wing -- except for left wing. Shea is the only true left winger on the roster, though Beasley and Fabian Johnson can move up from defense if needed.

No matter what, I like our options in the midfield.

Missing the cut: Kyle Beckerman, Alejandro Bedoya, Joe Corona, Brad Davis, Diskerud, Luis Gil, Feilhaber, Sacha Kljestan, Danny Williams. There are a lot of quality players on this list, but just not enough roster spots. I know Klinsmann is a big fan of Beckerman and Williams, so I wouldn't be surprised to see either find his way onto the team. Luis Gil is a future star at 20 years old, but he's not ready to mix it up at this level just yet.

Forwards
Previous choices: Juan Agudelo, Jozy Altidore, Teal Bunbury, Charlie Davies.
Updated choices: Altidore, Herculez Gomez, Eddie Johnson, Jack McInerney.

In my defense, there were tons of questions about the lack of U.S. finishing outside of Dempsey and Donovan in 2011. Altidore has quieted that with his play of late, both on the club level and internationally, where he has scored in four consecutive games. It's tough to believe that he's still only 23, but he's starting to develop into the type of quality finisher every U.S. soccer fan hoped he'd be when he burst onto the scene at age 17. Eddie Johnson has reinvigorated his national career at age 29 since moving back from Europe to MLS, and he looked very dangerous pairing with Altidore during recent qualifiers. Gomez is a strong finisher and heady player, though he's likely not one of your top options. McInerney, 20, is tied for the MLS lead in goals so far this season, and he'll get his chance to prove his worth during the Gold Cup. I'm taking a flyer on him impressing, though it certainly wouldn't shock me to see Klinsman carry Donovan as a forward and take an extra midfielder like Beckerman or Danny Williams.

Missing the cut: Agudelo, Terrance Boyd, Will Bruin, Bunbury, Alan Gordon, Joe Gyau, Chris Wondolowski. The list of names here tells you that there still isn't much depth up front for the U.S. national team. There's not a lot of fear being struck into opposing teams outside of Altidore these days. Agudelo, at 20, is another player similar to Altidore who made his national debut at a very young age and has struggled with the huge expectations thrust upon him. He seems to be finding his form this year, with five goals in 13 games, but it hasn't been enough to get back into the national team mix. Bunbury, meanwhile, just returned this week from an ACL injury he suffered last yar, and Davies is a longshot to ever make it back into the national team mix after a serious car accident in 2009. Bruin, 23, scored 16 goals in his second MLS season last year and has four so far this year. He'll get a chance to show what he can do during the Gold Cup. Gyau and Boyd are impressive young strikers who still need to earn more chances, while Gordon and Wondolowski are two of the better forwards in MLS who are hoping to make the Gold Cup roster.

Overall Outlook
My gut tells me this is going to be one of the most talented U.S. national teams to take the field when the World Cup begins on June 12, 2014. But it also will be old. The average age of the 23 players I've projected to make the team will be 28.9 years old. Nine of the players (including arguably the two best in Dempsey and Donovan) will be 30 or older. Only five players are 25 or younger.  

Something I've struggled with is if my generation (at age 31, I'm the same age as Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley, two national team mainstays, while Clint Dempsey is 364 days younger than me) truly is the golden generation of soccer in this country, or if the next couple of generations just haven't produced the level of talent that's needed. That's a hard question to answer. Bradley, who will be 26 next year and is a captain-in-waiting, is easily one of the top three players on the team. Altidore will just be 24, he's been on the national team since he was 17 and he's the best striker we've had since Brian McBride -- and could be the greatest ever. But you just don't see many of the young players that have come up through the junior national teams developing into major contributors on the senior team. It certainly makes me worry about taking an inexperienced squad to Russia in 2018. Almost assuredly, keepers Howard and Rimando, defenders Beasley, Bocanegra and Cherundolo; and likely Dempsey, Donovan, Jones, Gomez and Eddie Johnson will be too old to contribute then. Who's coming through the ranks to replace those guys? It would be nice if some young players were able to get World Cup experience.  

Let's look back at some prior World Cups where young players were able to get some experience:  

1998 -- Frankie Hejduk, Eddie Pope, Brian McBride and Claudio Reyna all were 25 or younger.

2002 -- Donovan and Beasley were 20, Cherundolo was 23, John O'Brien was 24 and Pablo Mastroeni was 25.

2006 -- Eddie Johnson was 22, Dempsey and Bobby Convey were 23; Donovan, Beasley and Onyewu were 24.

2010 -- (Note: This was a really young squad.) Altidore was 20, Bradley and Jose Torres were 22; Holden, Jon Spector, Edu and Robbe Findlay were 24; Fielhaber, Guzan and Jon Bornstein were 25. (It should be noted that several of those young players aren't even in the mix for making the 2014 team.)  

It would be nice to have a Donovan, Beasley, Eddie Johnson, Dempsey, Bradley or Altidore on this squad. I guess my biggest issue is that while U.S. soccer is growing by leaps and bounds, I don't see that next superstar coming down the pipe. Maybe it's McInerney. Maybe it's Luis Gil, and he's just not ready. Or maybe he -- or some other young stud -- will make his presence known in the next year and earn one of the coveted 23 roster spots.  

I feel good about the talent level and the experience on this squad. There's no doubt this team can compete. It's all about the draw, which will happen in December. With a good draw, I think the U.S. can easily advance out of the group stage and into the knockout rounds, where it would then have a chance to make a run.  

If I were picking my starting XI, I would go with Howard, Chandler, Besler, Gonzalez, Fabian Johnson, Cameron, Bradley, Shea, Donovan, Dempsey, Altidore. However, I know that Klinsmann is a fan of Jermaine Jones, so he's likely to start in the defensive midfield (Cameron would be a good center back option then), and I wouldn't be surprised to see Zusi or Eddie Johnson get a look on the right side ahead of Donovan. No matter which way he chooses to go, Klinsmann seems to have options to play the style of soccer he talked about when he took the job two years ago. There have certainly been bumps along the way, but less than one year out from the World Cup, the team seems to be peaking. And that's certainly what U.S. soccer fans want to see.

Friday, July 13, 2012

'92 vs. '12

If you haven't heard by now, Kobe Bryant made some controversial comments this week about this year's Olympic team vs. the original "Dream Team" from 1992. Long story short: Bryant said his team could be the Dream Team, which for years has been known as the greatest team ever assembled. Bryant's comments drew reaction from all over, including from the Greatest Of All Time, Michael Jordan, who laughed at Bryant.
I wouldn't go as far as His Airness did. Even though this Olympic team isn't at full strength and has some obvious weaknesses, it also has some major strengths, too, and is the prohibitive favorite to win the Olympics. So how does this team stack up with the best of all time?

POINT GUARDS
'92: Magic Johnson (33), John Stockton (30)
'12: Chris Paul (27), Deron Williams (28), Russell Westbrook (23)
Advantage: '12

I know it might sound blasphemous to give the nod to three young point guards who have combined to win zero championships over two Hall of Famers, but it's true. In 1992, Magic was coming off of retirement because of his HIV diagnosis, and though Stockton was a wizard on both ends of the floor, he also didn't have to play against guys who attack the basket as well as this year's point guards. Magic and Stockton were the only two players who didn't play in all eight Olympic games in 1992, and though Magic certainly would create some matchup problems for the '12 team's smaller point guards, '12 also is versatile enough to go big and put someone like Carmelo or LeBron on Magic. I have to give the advantage to the younger, more athletic point guards from the current team.

SHOOTING GUARDS
'92: Michael Jordan (29), Clyde Drexler (30)
'12: Kobe Bryant (33), James Harden (23)
Advantage: '92

This is one of two positions where the CLEAR advantage goes to the original Dream Team. Jordan was in his prime after winning the second of his six championships, and there has never been a better player than Jordan in his prime. Drexler was no slouch either, and the two combined to average 25 points per game during the Olympics. It's highly unlikely that Kobe and Harden will pull off a similar feat. At four years older than Jordan was in '92, Kobe has logged many more minutes than MJ had and is no longer entering his prime. He's still a deadly player, even if he's not quite the same as he was three or four years ago. What he does have going for him is the greatest killer instinct since Jordan. Harden, the NBA's reigning Sixth Man of the Year, is an up-and-coming star, but he's not quite at the level of either Drexler or Jordan. Williams and Westbrook both could log some minutes at the two if needed, but clear advantage to '92.

SMALL FORWARDS
'92: Larry Bird (35), Scottie Pippen (26), Chris Mullin (29)
'12: LeBron James (27), Kevin Durant (23), Andre Iguodala (28)
Advantage: '12

I know it sounds crazy to go against three Hall of Famers, but are you telling me you're willing to bet against LeBron and Durant? The two best players in the world right now? Not me. Larry Legend was limping at the end of his career, and he would never play another NBA game after winning a gold medal in '92. Pippen was a truly great defender, but even he would have a hard time keeping up LeBron and Durant. Mullin was an underrated scorer (his 12.9 points per game in the Olympics were fourth on the team), but both LeBron and Iguodala are elite athletes and defenders who would have given Mullin fits. This position is probably the greatest strength of the '12 team.

POWER FORWARDS
'92: Charles Barkley (29), Karl Malone (29), Christian Laettner (21)
'12: Carmelo Anthony (28), Kevin Love (23)
Advantage: '92

Even with Laettner, who was a token selection and shouldn't have been on the Dream Team, power forward was the team's strongest position. Barkley led the team in scoring with 18 points per game, and Malone was third on the team with 13 points per game. They both were in their prime and are among the top five or six power forwards to ever play the game. Carmelo isn't really a power forward and would have a hard time matching up with those two guys physically, and it actually might be better to switch him and LeBron, who would be a better physical matchup with Barkley and Malone. What Anthony does have is the ability to be one of the best scorers on the international level. He and Durant are a lethal scoring combination, and Anthony's game is tailor-made for the international game. Love, meanwhile, is a double-double machine in the NBA who can match up with some of the bigger power forwards in the game. Is he Barkley or Malone in their prime? No, but in four years, he could be at that level.

CENTERS
'92: Patrick Ewing (29), David Robinson (26)
'12: Tyson Chandler (29), Anthony Davis (19)
Advantage: '92

Center is by far the weakest position for Team USA. With Dwight Howard and Andrew Bynum out with injuries, the country's two best centers won't be at the Olympics. Chris Bosh and Blake Griffin, who are both power forwards, could also have contributed at center but are out with injuries, as well. Ewing and Robinson would have dominated Chandler and Davis. Dominated.

Clearly, the '12 team isn't at full strength, especially in the post. Dwight Howard and Andrew Bynum would be on this team if healthy. LaMarcus Aldridge might have made the team, as well, and Blake Griffin was on the team ahead of Davis until he injured his knee on Wednesday. Dwyane Wade, the leading scorer on the '08 Olympic team, also is out with a knee injury. He would have been on this squad ahead of Harden.

Still, even with that many potential players sitting out, the '12 team would be competitive against the '92 squad. You can't argue what that team did. It averaged 117 points and won all eight games during the Olympics by at least 32 points and an average of 43 points. Simply put, it was total domination. But it was a different time then. Basketball wasn't a global game. The Dream Team helped to drive that, and today, nearly every team in the Olympics has multiple NBA players. Heck, even teams that fail to qualify have NBA stars (see Dirk Nowitzki and Germany). The competition today is much tougher than that '92 team had to face.

The '12 squad also has youth on its side. The average age of the '92 team was 28.8 years old, compared to just 25.9 years old this year. Only two players (33-year-old Kobe Bryant and 29-year-old Tyson Chandler) are older than 28 years old, while the '92 squad had nine players 29 years old or older. So clearly the '12 team has some advantages. But not enough.

If we were talking a gold-medal showdown between these two teams, where I had to shorten my bench and put my best players on the floor, here's what I would do:

'92 starters: Magic, Jordan, Pippen, Barkley, Ewing
'92 bench: Stockton, Drexler, Mullin, Malone, Robinson
'12 starters: Williams, Durant, Carmelo, LeBron, Chandler
'12 bench: Paul, Kobe, Harden, Iguodala, Love

The matchups would be very interesting. I would probably put LeBron on Jordan, Carmelo on Barkley and Durant on Magic. Deron Williams would be giving up a lot of size and length to Pippen, but I'd rather have him on Pippen than Jordan. The depth is where the '92 team can pull away from the '12 team. I'd take Paul over Stockton, and the Kobe/Drexler matchup would be a good one. But the frontcourt advantage goes to '92. For '12 to have any shot, I'd have to ask Chandler, Love, LeBron and Carmelo to play a lot of minutes in the post.

LeBron, Durant, Carmelo and Kobe would keep '12 in the game, but the will of Jordan and the experience of the rest of the original Dream Team would be a bit too much in the end.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The All-Caucasian American NBA Team

My buddy and former co-worker Jeff and I have discussed this topic for several hours: If you formed an NBA team that consisted solely of white American players, would it be the worst team in the league? Yes, these are the types of things that my friends and I discuss. Not like for five minutes. But for hours. At a time.


We've debated the roster on at least three occasions, and for some reason, I got a text from Jeff today about our fictional team. For at least the second time, I sat down and went over every white NBA player to devise my team. For the sake of this argument, I limited the roster to 12 players (like the national teams in the upcoming Olympic Games).

Just to set this up and for background purposes: This isn't an all-time white NBA team. That would be too easy. There are more than 12 white Americans in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. That team would be unbelievable. (As an aside, I'd have to go with the following 12-man team: John Stockton and Bob Cousy at point guard; Pete Maravich and Jerry West at shooting guard; Larry Bird, Rick Barry and Chris Mullin at small forward; Bill Bradley, Kevin McHale and Dave Cowens at power forward; and Bill Walton and George Mikan at center. Championship!)

It also can't include so-called white guys who are foreigners or mixed players who aren't completely Caucasian. Again, talk about a pretty dang good team. Any team that features Dirk, the Gasol brothers, Andrew Bogut and Blake Griffin in the post will be competitive, no matter who the guards are. Throw in a backcourt of Nash, Steph Curry and Rubio, a shooter like Danilo Gallinari, and a couple of role players, and you can compete for an NBA title. But again, none of those guys are eligible.

So, it ain't easy. After much debate and deliberation, I am excited to unveil my 12-man roster for the All-Caucasian American NBA team:

POINT GUARDS
Kirk Hinrich and Luke Ridnour. OK, so we're not starting off all that hot. I actually think Hinrich is an underrated player. He's a nine-year veteran who at 31 years old still has plenty left in the tank. He has good size at 6-4 and isn't a bad defender -- and let's be honest, on a team full of white guys, we're looking for anybody who can defend. He's averaged 12.5 points and 5.4 assists during his career with Chicago, Washington and Atlanta, but he hasn't been a full-time starter in four seasons and hasn't scored more than 11.5 points in five. Ridnour, like Hinrich, is a nine-year veteran who is 31 years old. He's a little smaller at 6-2 and 175 pounds, but he's a crafty player whose career is on the upswing. He's a career 10-point and five-assist per game guy, but he's scored more points each season over the past four and averaged a career 12.1 points last season in Minnesota while sharing point guard duties with Rubio. I could make an argument that he should be this team's starter, though I'd lean toward Hinrich because of his size and defensive abilities. Having two 31-year-old point guards isn't ideal because it means there are no young legs to run with the Russell Westbrooks and Kyrie Irvings of the world, but there aren't weren't many other options. Missing the cut: Steve Nash (I'm still awaiting a ruling on my waiver request for Nash; sure, he's Canadian, but he went to college in California and is basically an American), Jimmer Fredette (The Jimmer would fill the "young legs" quota, but let's be honest -- his defense is even worse than the old guys. A rookie season in which he averaged 7.6 points isn't enough to get him on this team.), Steve Blake (Apparently, the 2003 NBA Draft was good for the white point guard. Hinrich went seventh, Ridnour 14th, and Blake 38th. Blake has been a part-time starter for most of his career, though he did have a good two-year run with Portland from 2007-09 in which he started all but three games and averaged double figures in scoring.). Note: Yes, it's sad there are only four white point guards in the NBA.

SHOOTING GUARDS
J.J. Redick and Kyle Korver. If you were building the ideal dream team, you would want players who strengths complement each other. Unfortunately, there's nothing ideal about this team, and Redick and Korver are essentially the same player. Redick, to his credit, has expanded his game, becoming more than just a spot-up shooter. His scoring average has improved every year, and for the first time in his career last year he started more than 10 games and scored a career-high 11.6 points per game. I honestly believe he's developed into a solid starter in the NBA, maybe not someone who's going to be a game-changer on a title team, but better than I think many people thought he would be. Korver, meanwhile, is an assassin off the bench. He's a career 41 percent 3-point shooter, has good length at 6-7 and adequate skills on defense, and he can make opposing wings work by his ability to move without the basketball. On this team, he'd likely be asked to do the same things he's asked to do on his real team -- play about 20 minutes per game off the bench and knock down threes. Missing the cut: Greivis Vasquez (I filed another waiver for Vasquez, the Venezualan-born shooter who attended high school in North Carolina and played collegiately at Maryland), Matt Carroll (Yes, the pickings are that slim.)

SMALL FORWARDS
Gordon Hayward and Chase Budinger. Finally, we're starting to get a little more athletic. These two young players give us some versatility on the wing and actually could play together and allow us to go big. Hayward, the 6-8, 20-year-old, former Butler star, is an emerging force for the Utah Jazz. He worked his way into the starting lineup during his second year in the league, averaging 11.8 points and showing that he's capable of putting up 20 points any night when he asserts himself. As he continues to get more comfortable and confident, he should emerge as one of the stars of the future for the Jazz. There's a chance he could be the second-best player on our all-Caucasian team. The 6-7 Budinger, who was just traded from Houston to Minnesota, is still trying to live up to his athletic potential and show he's more than just a dunker. He's perhaps the best athlete on this team and will be needed to add energy, defense and scoring off the bench. Missing the cut: Mike Dunleavy (The final cut from the squad. He's a better player than most people realize, averaging double figures for the past nine seasons. He's long and athletic at 6-9 and can shoot the 3, making 40 percent over the past two years. It really pained me not to put him on this team.), Mike Miller (Had this been five years ago, Miller would have been a lock for the starting lineup and probably the second-best player on the team. He was a lethal shooter and a very good player. Now, however, he's on the backside of his career and just doesn't have the talent level to earn a spot.), Robbie Hummel (He's a rookie from Purdue who has no ACLs left after tearing them both during his college career, but the kid has a tremendous work ethic and is going to have a successful career.), Steve Novak (Umm, he can shoot, but that's about it.), Doug McDermott (Jeff and I both agreed that we are eager to use our 2013 first-round pick on McDermott, the smooth scorer sophomore from Creighton. If he'd declared this year, there's no way he's not on this team. At 6-7, 220 pounds, he's a classic small forward who can put the ball in the basket, ranking third in the nation this past year with 23 points per game and being named a first-team All-American.), Adam Morrison (LOL! Sad thing, though, is he'd probably have been on this team had we selected it in six years ago).

POWER FORWARDS
Kevin Love, Ryan Anderson and Kris Humphries. Let's talk about Love, who is our only legitimate franchise-caliber player. He has to basically average a 30-20 every night for us to be competitive, but that's OK because he's used to pulling that kind of duty for a franchise without much talent in Minnesota. It's no exaggeration that Love might be the best U.S. post player, regardless of color, and he'll be a major force during the Olympics. He's slimmed down, gotten in better shape and expanded his game. He's a scoring threat in the post and on the perimeter, and he just eats rebounds for lunch. The two-time All-Star averaged career highs last year with 26 points and 13.3 rebounds, and at just 23 years old, he hasn't even hit his prime yet. Anderson, the 6-10 stretch combo forward who is headed to New Orleans next year, also is coming off a career year in which he averaged 16 points and 7.7 rebounds for Orlando, shooting 39 percent from three and being named the league's Most Improved Player. He can play minutes at both forward positions, again allowing this team to go big and create matchup problems. Humphries, meanwhile, will have one role -- grabbing garbage rebounds, like he has done for the Nets the past two seasons. Believe it or not, power forward is the white man's deepest position, as there is no shortage of stocky, physical guys who are willing to fill a role and collect a paycheck. Missed the cut: Chris "Birdman" Anderson (I thought long and hard about putting Birdman as the 12th man, just to sit on the bench, look weird and hype up his teammates and the crowd. In the end, though, I just didn't think he was suited for what we were trying to do.), Nick Collison (You have to have role players, and Collison is the ultimate one. He's willing to do the dirty work, make his teammates better and isn't at all interested in personal glory. I'm asking Humphries to fill that role and hoping he's up for the task.), Tyler Hansbrough (Every now and then, you need a guy who doesn't mind diving on the floor for loose balls or throwing an "inadvertant" elbow into his opponent's nose. I wish I could clone Hansbrough's work ethic, but his skill level doesn't match up.)

CENTERS
Chris Kaman, David Lee and Spencer Hawes. Kaman might have forfeited his right to play on this team when he acquired dual-citizenship in Germany and played in the 2008 Olympics, but we're just going to pretend that never happened. Although it seems he's been around forever, Kaman is only 30 and still a productive player. He averaged 13.1 points and 7.7 rebounds this past season in New Orleans despite the team trying to trade him. Just two seasons ago, he aveaged 18.5 points and 9.3 rebounds for the Clippers, and we're hoping he has something like that left in him. Playing next to Kevin Love will only help. Lee, meanwhile, really is a power forward masquerading as a center, but power forward clearly is our deepest position, and I felt like he could help us out at center. He's only 6-9 and 240 pounds, so bigger centers will give him problems defensively, but he scores and rebounds so well that he's bound to make an impact. Hawes is an emerging big man who brings plenty of size at 7-1. His production dropped off slightly over the past two seasons in Philadelphia, but he can score some in the paint and will play tough, physical defense. Missed the cut: Brad Miller (The former all-star and U.S. national team player is at the end of his career at 36 years old, and he's not even a productive pro anymore. He deserves an honorable mention, though.), Cole Aldrich (The 6-11 big man hasn't played much during his two seasons with Oklahoma City, but scouts are encouraged that he has a productive future ahead of him.), Meyers Leonard, Tyler Zeller, Miles Plumlee (I'll take the three rookies in globo: The future of this team looks bright. Leonard and Zeller are lanky, skilled players who can score and rebound, while if Plumlee's skills ever catch up with his athleticism, watch out.)